Convicting an intel
After almost three years of proceedings, former head of domestic intelligence at the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Woldeselassie Woldemichael, has finally been convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison just the other week. Doubts linger as to the real motives of the charges. A falling out with colleagues cannot entirely be ruled out. After all, nobody out of the tight-knit band of brothers could have known about the misdeeds. It has all the signs of a domestic affair situation.
For reasons unknown, the stories of the trial for the large part were covered by ruling party owned and affiliated media: Walta Information Center(WIC), Fana Broadcasting Corporate(FBC)and the Reporter. In the good old days Walta was addressing the accused as “senior researcher on peace and security” occasionally quoting his “words of wisdom” in terror related stories.
We’ve heard that before
Woldeselassie, along with two of his siblings (if it rings a bell, you got it!),was charged with grand corruption,namely,using public office for personal gains and accumulating wealth beyond his means. If you think about it, owning expensive properties in the posh suburbs of the capital; hoarding prime lands; opening multiple accounts under various names by officials and the army top brass is a stuff of legend.
One charge brought by the Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission(FEAC) is particularly interesting: misleading a top official(currently minister of state)into printing his work entitled Terrorism in Ethiopian and Horn of Africa. Little did we know the security chief had the calibre to take on such global issues in the absence of information about his academic or professional credentials. To add salt to the wound, he also forced scores of enterprises to buy hundreds and thousands of books taking cash in advance and never delivering the products. In the most anecdotal fashion, Et Fruit, a public enterprise responsible for the most mundane task of distributing fruit and vegetables is among the major sponsors of the publication!
Indications are Beyene Gebremeskel,former director general of Privatization and Public Enterprises Supervising Agency (PPESA), seems to have cowered in the face of the mighty security official. Not only did he give a green light for the production in at least three of the printing houses he oversees, but also according to the charging documents, might have involved in editing the manuscripts. No charges brought against him.
Handle with care
After the court passed a guilty verdict, the consideration of mitigating factors clearly shows how some citizens are handled with special care. The defendant didn’t let the opportunity slip without mentioning his involvement in the “struggle” to topple the Marxist regime gone a quarter of a century ago.The judge bought it! Translation: being a member of Tigray People Liberation Front(TPLF) can help reduce prison terms! Paradoxically, the publication which is at the center of the crime has also helped lessen the gravity of the sentence as the court concurred with the defense the work has created awareness about terrorism in the society.
Publishing books and squeezing companies to buy them has helped some ardent party hacks make quick money. Almost all who wrote the story of Meles had no difficulty disposing of the books to schools, various institutions and local government offices. One most notorious example is a Colonel Eyasu Mengesha who cobbled together a “biography” of the dictator launched in a pompous ceremony at the Sheraton Addis in the presence of the then head of state. A couple of others followed suit making good fortune in the process. The late head of Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD) had a knack for churning out volumes and twisting the arms of government agencies into buying them. In that regard, it is hardly surprising that another TPLF official comes up to claim his share of the pie.
Woldeselassie’s actions are typical instances of abuse of power and lack of accountability at the highest level. The war against corruption is hopelessly lost. FEAC which is in its last legs,happily so, after a series of legislation took their prosecutorial power away from them, may take credit for successfully bringing a criminal to book. However, without risking to sound cynic, it is the squabbling rather than the actions of the dormant government watchdogs that eventually will bring the corrupt officials down.
Around 60 people have been arrested on suspicion of various charges that can be bundled as corruption. The detention of Melaku Fenta, the Director General of the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority (ERCA) with the rank of a minister; his powerful deputy, along with a coterie of others, has caught the public by surprise. Businessmen also made part of the five dozen suspects awaiting trial. Notable among them are Ketema Kebede and Mehreteab Abraha, both of whom familiar to the courts and the detention centers. The last time Mihreteab, brother of Seye Abraha, faced the judges he was in the company of his family.
The swift action of the Federal Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission (FEAC) to detain the suspects exposed their ill preparedness. They are still pleading with the courts to give them more time to investigate cases. The courts also have no problem granting their wishes. Judging by what has transpired so far, it is in the tradition of FEAC to first detain and then investigate, putting the cart before the horse. The Country’s constitution is vague as to how detainees can remain in prison pending investigation. It merely says: “no longer than the time strictly required.” How long that “time” is anybody’s guess. While these details may have been mentioned somewhere in the penal code or in other rules, their current application tramples upon the rights of suspects. Furthermore, the number one suspect’s legal entitlement has already been violated. Melaku Fenta is a member of the Addis Ababa City Administration Council, and as such he had immunity from prosecution. For now nobody seems to care.
Current rulers should have taken a page from the “teachings” of their mentor. It seems the “legacy” has not been inherited in its entirety. In 2001 when the late Prime Minister wanted to lock up his rivals, he asked the rubber stamp Parliament to revoke the immunity of several of his brothers-in-arms. The Parliament acted accordingly in a blink of an eye. Weeks later Seye Abraha was in the dock!
This is the first high level corruption case that came from the controversial anti-corruption watchdog in over a decade. The last time they hit the headlines when Seye Abraha was put in prison that took six years of his life. For many he was the raison d’être of the FEAC itself.
The rhetoric that FEAC is the result of the Civil Service Reform notwithstanding, the Commission was largely an outcome of the power struggle among the hardcore of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It was established just a month after the split within the Party’s leadership. The message couldn’t be clearer when the Commissioner was directly appointed by the Prime Minister himself. In March 2001 TPLF splits; May – FEAC established; July – Seye is arrested. Could all that be coincidence?
The business of the State
One of the reasons the public is not sure of the real motives of the FEAC’s latest moves, there are so many officials, civilians and in uniforms alike, who are said to be making huge fortunes out of their official positions. The Indian Ocean Newsletter mentioned scores of ministers as having various business interests. We don’t know if the businesses are fair game or whether they are registered with the FEAC as the law requires.
The Newsletter report published in 2009 listed the business of top government officials who own fleet of lorries, hotels, factories, rental buildings in the posh area of the Capital, import and export businesses, trading in plots of land which is particularly popular among the army top brass. Ethiopia’s ambassador in China Seyom Mesfin, Minister of Information Bereket Simon, Army Chief of Staff Samora Younis, the Federal Police Chief Workineh Gebeyehu, Addisu Legesse, the widow of the late Prime Minister, Azeb Mesfin are among the officials cited in the business hall of fame.
Some officials are even more blunt:
• The speaker of the Parliament Abadula Gemeda for example handed over one of his villas to his party the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) saying it will “distract” him from the struggle.
• Former Civil Service minister Junedin Sado’s spouse was reported to have been caught taking ETB 50,000 from the Saudi Embassy in Addis Ababa ostensibly to help her build a mosque.
• Long time President of the Benishangul Gumuz Regional State Yaregal Aisheshim and every member of his family, even minors, were owners of plots of lands in various parts of the Country including Addis Ababa. Thirteen years at the helm gave him ample time to accumulate wealth that can outlive him. He was getting kickbacks from most constructions in the State that let him launch several business of his own.
• A government minister can write a book and asks a businessman to pick up the bill, who dares to say no? When Bereket Simon, the de facto number two person at the time, wanted to bash his nemesis Dr Berhanu Nega, he approached the Ethiopian born Saudi tycoon Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi. The billionaire not only paid for the publication of the “memoir” in Kenya, but also threw a lavish party for the launch of the book at the Sheraton Addis.
Does “conflict of interest” have any meaning in Ethiopia or for the anti-corruption crusader?
Is this for real?
The illegal capital flight out of the country is also staggering. According to a report by Global Financial Integrity, Ethiopia lost close to $12 billion since 2000 to illicit financial outflows. The amount is too huge to ignore. What has FEAC done to curb this scourge?
These are some of the reasons why the Commission will be hard pressed to convince the public that it indeed means business this time around. However, they can also turn this opportunity to win the public’s trust by truly looking into the legitimate concerns of citizens. Otherwise, they will only open the door for more speculation with each arrest.