The other day Redwan Hussein was briefed about the activities of Ethiopian Olympic Committee, an office he is expected to oversee in his capacity as the new Minister of Youth and Sports Affairs. And this week he signed some agreement related to sporting events in the Southern Region. Should anyone care to know such trivial matters? And most of all when these are the tasks one is assigned and paid to do?
But these mundane chores are deliberately given coverage on state media just to show how it is business as usual for the ex-spokesperson.The former biology teacher was unexpectedly transferred from his post of director of Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO) which used to put him in the limelight. However it is hardly business as usual.
When the Ethiopian Parliament, alternatively known as the ruling party council for its 100% control of the seats (never mind Susan Rice’s laughter) convened, the first order of business was to rubber stamp the appointment of ministers. Prominent among them: the reshuffling of high-flying head of the GCAO to the less momentous post of leading the Youth and Sports Ministry.
To avoid speculation concerning this sharp twist, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn tried to convince a rather suspicious audience saying the Second Growth and Transformation Plan calls for the full participation of the youth and the appointee has the energy and potential to mobilize that section of the society.
For a little over two odd years, Redwan was the official government spokesperson. During the frequent press conferences he acted out the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi more than any other impersonator. He has been aptly successful in looking and acting everything like his idol. In that he was actually more Catholic than the Pope. He surly passed the dedication part with flying colors.Though some tried to argue in the aftermath of the reshuffle that his successor is more competent, merit has never counted as priority in appointing officials.
It seems the squabble within the parties that make up EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front) got in the way of business. Now it became apparent that the dedication and the blind loyalty has suddenly become irrelevant.
GCAO, which sprang up from the ashes of the Government Spokesperson Office of the Ethio-Eritrean war of the late nineties, has become one of the most potent institutions in the country. Under the tutelage of Bereket Simon, the de facto second in command, that office has become a propaganda juggernaut. Bereket set up clones in every government offices; pushed legislations to muzzle dissent ; they even trained Internet commentators on the social media that counter criticisms of government; made sure that he and two of his deputies control the entire state media by chairing their board. That exercise has become a hitherto established tradition: the minister controlling the radio and television; and the two ministers of state leading the press and news agency. Meaning: an uncontested control of the entire state media.
The soon to be built multi million dollar complex housing GCAO, ironically to be located near the Arat Kilo Palace, is a yet another confirmation of the growing influence of that office. As such, along with defense, security and foreign affairs offices, the control of that parastatal has become detrimental. TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), which lost the prime ministerial position when its leader succumbed, was not going to settle for less. In their effort to make up for the loss, they sought the control of that office, and their wish was Hailemariam’s command.
Now the baton is firmly in Getachew Reda’s hands. The former academician has been climbing up the party’s ladder to be member of the EPRDF council. As a spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs, and later as media and publicity minister of state—whatever that meant—not that he is not new to the position, he was everywhere in recent years that it was difficult to tell the exact differences among Redwan, Shimeles Kemal and himself.
All the three positions at the GCAO, that is, a director with the rank of a minister and two ministers of state have been filled. The appointment was orchestrated along party lines. While much is not known about Workinesh Birru, the minister of state representing Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), she is expected to chair the board of Ethiopian News Agency along with other tasks at her office. Last but not least is Frehiwot Ayalew, a veteran of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). She was a long time editor of the party’s publication and her last position was head of the Addis Ababa Communication Affairs Office. In her new position, she will be heading the government newspapers as a board chair being the heir apparent to Shimeles Kemal. The later, is not yet assigned an official position.
While papers like the pro-government bi-weekly, the Reporter, try to paint a picture of an equal share of the cabinet pie among OPDO, ANDM, and SPDM, that is hardly the case. Crucial cabinet portfolios have always been under the control of TPLF, a reality Ethiopians learned to come to terms with for a quarter of a century. And the last reshuffle once again sealed that undisputed truth with the single act of the appointment of an official.
Barely weeks after Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Aljazeera that his “government has a clear evidence” that the Zone 9 bloggers “are connected with one of the terrorist groups,” words came that five bloggers and journalists: Asmamaw Woldegiorigis, Edom Kassaye, Mahlet Fantahun,Tesfalem Weldyes and Zelalem Kiberet were released abruptly. Along with them, award-winning journalist Reeyot Alemu was also set free. Reeyot, who has been in jail since 2011, was probably months away from fully serving her five years sentence even without the customary parole which she declined to accept as it came with strings attached.
Some media claim that the release is intended to please US President Barack Obama who is scheduled to visit the country over the weekend. The government denies that saying they are simply extending “magnanimity,” to borrow the explanation of Redwan Hussein, the head of communication affaires office.
There were stories some just leaving the prisons with their pajamas on; some not sure as who to call and where to go. After 14 months spent in jails , the Ministry of Justice citing its authority given by some proclamation “decided to withdraw the charges,” according to the government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal. The ill-conceived and haphazard steps of the ministry created sigh as well as confusion. The released told media that they are not fully content as half of their colleagues are still behind bars on the same clueless charges. Their lawyer Ameha Mekonnen has a more professional concern. He told the local Amharic weekly Addis Admass that there was a precedent with the now imprisoned journalist Temesgen Desalegn whereby charges were reinstated after they had been dropped.
Then on July 20, many expected the courts to let the other four go under some pretext. Alas, that was not to be! The 19th bench of the Federal High Court citing technicalities adjourned the case for end of July. As part of the blogging ensemble charged with the same offense have been released, moving forward it is anybody’s guess what legal sense does the whole process make.
The adjournment has just added to the drama; first, Obama — if at all his upcoming visit caused the release — will have left the country by then, easing the pressure on the government; second, the more lengthy the trial, the likelihood of being forgotten looms.
Otherwise the inconsistency of the trial coupled with a judicial system considered an extension of the governing party makes the final outcome utterly unpredictable. Hoping for the best is all we can afford at this time for Abel Wabela, Atnaf Berhane, Befekadu Hailu and Natnael Feleke.
The 2015 edition of the Ethiopian general election — the fifth of its kind since the current rulers took command of state power — is happily over. The results were so predictable and inconsequential that a government leaning private weekly couldn’t hide the apparent. “No other national elections held over the past two decades have a result as obvious as the one held today.” International media had long come out with similar views. The Economist’s latest issue incidentally carried a story about Ethiopia, there the elections were just a side note dubbed “uneventful…with a predetermined outcome.”
The curious case of the professor
But the hoopla surrounding the elections unwittingly showed the true colours of the entire system, some new and some tired. Head of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) famously said the ruling party doesn’t need the support of his institution to win an election, when some raised concern about the Board’s impartiality. Lately he has come out even more strongly, his combative edge getting the better of him. And those who casted doubt about the fairness of the polls should be “ashamed of themselves,” lashed out the former veterinary science professor over the weekend.
The new face of censorship
Censorship has scores of manifestations in the country. In its latest iteration electronics media were given a carte blanche to censor the contents of election campaign materials that representatives of contesting parties were supposed to air. While a number of candidates were eager not to miss their five minutes of fame on the national media, those who took the matter more seriously decided to quit the exercise all together.
Probably one of the most memorable part of the election was the Prime Minister’s interview on the Al Jazeera network. The Premier sat down with the former BBC news anchor Martine Dennis. The event had some intense moments reminiscent of the BBC’s Hard Talk host Stephen Sackur’s face off with Hailemariam’s predecessor two elections ago. Asked whether he wields real power: “Even during PM Meles era and period this country has been deciding collectively in the system.” Seriously? Martine got on Hailemariam’s nerves when she called the judiciary an extension of the government.“This is an insult for an independent judiciary system of Ethiopia,” the PM retorted. In his attempt to paint a rosy picture of the administration, the clichés of “developmental democratic state” and the rhetoric of neoliberalism were in full abundance. Any criticism against the system is a conspiracy of “the neoliberal paradigm and prescription,” whatever that meant. It was also interesting to hear him talk about the Zone 9 bloggers who have been detained since April 2014 on terrorism charges. “My government has a clear evidence that they are connected with one of the terrorist groups I will not tell you now.” Heaven only knows how long will it take till the “clear evidence” makes it to the court.
The ruling party’s complete sweep is creating discomfort within the party’s rank. Now they are in the business of damage control. Some of the party’s stalwarts are coming out in various media to bash the non-existent opposition calling it fragmented and only showing up during election times. Having jailed and driving the better part of the opposition out of the country, TPLF/EPRDF has only itself to blame for the embarrassment of a 100 percent victory. “They who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness.” Hail to the Poet!
Earlier in the month, amid the ongoing 40th anniversary of the founding of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Major General Samora Yenus, the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian defense forces, was expounding on the position of TPLF/EPRDF concerning opposition parties. “If EPRDF hadn’t wanted the existence of opposition parties, it would have closed the door in the first place like the Shabia (i.e.the Eritrean leadership),” he told party affiliated media members and other guests who were invited to hear the story of the insurrection from the horse’s own mouth. “The opposition that we have now is ready to give the country’s core national interests away… it would be happy if the defense forces are disbanded. I wouldn’t call that an opposition,” he kept on lecturing. “Any way I am a service man,” he concluded. Alas that was too late!
One may wonder whether an army chief can publicly attack opposition parties. At least the much talked about constitution in one of its articles claims, “The armed forces shall carry out their functions free of any partisanship to any political organization(s).” By the way, the 20th anniversary of that document and the day of nations and nationalities have just been celebrated with much fanfare.
Threat to the constitution
Ever since the constitution was ratified in November 1994, the preeminent threat to it came from the executive, which for all practical purposes wrote it in the first place. Not only did the government abused its own creations but also kept on making other laws and directives in utter contradiction to the constitution itself. Here are a few instances:
• When former defense minister Seye Abraha fell out with his brother-in-arms, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, he was locked up on corruption charges along with his entire siblings. Bail was out of the question. Again the constitution has a clause that says: “Persons arrested have the right to be released on bail.” To tame the criticism, in a nick of time the government came up with a legislation that denies bail for suspects charged with corruption. To add salt to injury, half a dozen members of parliament who represented the Tigray Regional State were singlehandedly sacked by the Prime Minister who didn’t bother to consult the parliament neither their constituency.
• Freedom of assembly has been trampled upon. In 2005 the then PM publicly announced the banning of all kind of assembly and demonstration under the guise of reducing tension following a controversial election. It would take another eight years before a hodgepodge of opposition activists and religious freedom advocates took to the streets demanding the release of their leaders.
• Freedom of expression has been the most important victim of the government, though. Article 29, which was copy-pasted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been trashed. As a result, according to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) census for 2014, Ethiopia has made it to the list of the top ten jailers of journalists in the world; and when it comes to exile, it is in the fourth position even beating Eritrea.
• Never forget that when Meles passed away, way before the official version of August 2012, it took around two months for the current premier Hailemariam Desalegn to assume his rightful position. There is nothing in the constitution that talks about the replacement of the PM in case of death or incapacitation. Why? Because the author of the constitution was none other than the former head himself who was set to lead till death do him part, in which he succeeded.
Revisiting the past
Having overthrown the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991, TPLF/EPRDF suspended the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) constitution and was leading by the transitional charter. That was supposed to pave the way for a new constitution. So a constitutional drafting commission was established. Most of the members were handpicked by the party in power, some were close confidantes of the man at the helm. Professor Andreas Eshete, the late Kifle Wodajo are among the members to mention but a few.
The Commission’s mandate was to draft a constitution; present it to the public for debate; then submit the final version to the president. The president was to send it to the Constitutional Assembly, the final body entrusted with sealing the fate of the document. Unfortunately, out of the 557 members of the Assembly only 18 were independent politicians or representatives of other smaller parties. Otherwise it was all EPRDF’s show. The constitution which is more or less the country-wide version of the TPLF manifesto of 1974 was approved almost by acclamation. To ward off some unexpected legal glitches in the future, the power of interpreting the constitution was given to the House of Federation, the upper chamber of the parliament whose existence is rarely felt.
The making of a Prime Minister
When TPLF/EPRDF came to power Meles Zenawi was the president of the country. Why did he become prime minister? The ethnic politics that he espoused was to have a boomerang effect on him. If he goes for a presidential system, the chance of him being elected by all the people of the country through a direct vote was next to nothing. So he had to pull the tricks of parliamentary system up his sleeve. The public was never enthusiastic about that exercise, let alone discuss the merits of parliamentary system. As everything was a top down approach, the transitional government leaders — with president Meles at the helm — decided parliamentary system as a means to guarantee their eternal hold on power.
So after the Assembly ratified the new constitution, the then minister of information Dr Negasso Gidada was elected president. His role was largely ceremonial. Meles became the all too powerful PM.That way he guaranteed the continuity of his personal grip on power for decades to come by easily swapping hats overnight from president to prime minister. Members of parliament may change; even the president has got two term limits; but Meles’ tenure was for life.
In the name of constitution
From the four constitutions the country ever had, the last one seems to have been abused the most as it became an instrument to wage all kinds of indoctrination under the pretext of safeguarding it. Village political operatives (locally known as cadres) threaten peasants who fail to pay fertilizer arrears by saying they are trying to “dismantle the constitutional order”; when taxi drivers strike that is “crime against constitution”; if a journalist writes about political issues, it is “outrage against the constitution”.
If history is any indication, no constitution in Ethiopia ever withstood the change of government. As such it is just a matter of time before the current one will be adjusted to the tune of whoever controls the Arat Kilo palace next time around.
Secretary general of the outlawed Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7, Andargachew Tsige, was detained in the Yemeni capital Sana’a on June 24; and if we have to believe the official version, he was extradited to the security officials in Addis the same day.
Yemen, which never misses the top ten spot on the annual failed states index, seemed unable to contain the pressure of holding an opposition leader of a foreign country. They quickly dumped him over to his nemesis who already handed him a couple of death sentences. Worrying about international conventions and treaties is a luxury the Arabian Peninsula nation can hardly afford.
Two weeks after the arrest, Ethiopian officials were confident enough to put Andargachew on national television to prove they got their sworn enemy. One that triggered the government’s disclosure is probably to preempt whatever may come from London, a day earlier British official met the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. While the topic of the discussion was not mentioned, it is clear that Ms Lynne Featherstone didn’t travel 5,000 km to tell Hailemariam “the support of her government would further be consolidated in the future.” Andargachew, who is a naturalized British citizen, might as well be high on the agenda.
ETV showed some images of Andargachew in military fatigue and in villages, the location of which is yet to be disclosed. But a carefully edited grainy video which is more likely taped by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) shows him saying:
“I am at ease with myself. For me It is a blessing in disguise. I am in no rush. I just want to rest.I am really exhausted. I have no resentment, no anger and no despair.I am totally in control and stable.”
Those words barely convey any messages. We don’t know if they are given under duress. Or if the investigators want to cajole the opposition figure into getting him to give more information, if there is anything left by now. We see him shaking hands with his interviewer whose face is unseen, may be an attempt to show he is in good hands.
That puts to rest the weeklong speculation of the media and in some cases top ranking government officials. “I have no idea,” Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse. The government spokesperson Getachew Reda, who is closer to the inner circle of the leadership, was generally dodging the question by retorting to rhetorics.
So last night’s statement sets the government information officials free, at least not to deny what is the obvious.
Originally posted on Jan.7, 2013
Last week Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn informed the nation that the country has about 200 printing houses; and kept on to assure the public that there is no need to worry about issues related to publication of newspapers. He was responding to a concern raised by the sole opposition member of parliament that printing houses were intimidated to take orders from private newspapers. The PM advised that the papers should ask themselves why the printers are not willing to do the job.
Printing houses have become the most efficient instruments in muzzling the Ethiopian private press. The major ones have been given a discreet order not to publish papers that are critical of the government.
Former Ethiopian President and currently an opposition party leader Dr Negasso Gidada explained to VOA Amharic about the challenges they faced trying to publish their party official organ Finote Netsanet: “We tried both the government and the privately owned printing houses. They are afraid to publish our materials. Some even change their mind after receiving part of the payment.”
The top printing houses in the country are either government or ruling party owned. The privately owned do not have the capacity to publish periodicals on regular basis; and when they do, they prefer to play it safe by dealing with those who focus on showbiz, sports or medical issues.
For all the double digit economic growth for the past two decades, it is only one printing press – established close to a century ago – that has the capacity to churn out dailies and other periodicals. As a result,Berhanena Selam Printing Press (BSPP) like all the government media outlets is under strict control of the ruling party. No surprises that the board chair is a top EPRDF hand who used to be vice minister of information.
Rehearsing the script
Using the printing press to stifle the media is not new. In October 2005 after TPLF unleashed its Agazi battalion to massacre close to 200 civilians, it turned to the private press by imprisoning journalists and shutting down the papers. BSPP were instructed to monitor the contents of the papers they print. That censorship made it difficult for the remaining papers to survive.
Couple years after the brutal suppression, the government felt secure and eased the censorship; subsequently other papers started to emerge.
However, when the private media started to report on the health situation of the late PM, the government resorted to its age old tactics of making the private media’s life hard.
Now it has become even more systematic that officials of the Ministry of Justice took it upon themselves to appear in person at the printing house to make their points clear. The government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal, a lawyer by trade, spent a great deal of time explaining Ethiopian commercial law which was supposed to provide legal excuse to the censorship. He told the Associated Press that the printers have a right to refuse publishing “rebellious material and materials that are in violation [of] any written law.”
The manager of BSPP, who has been in the business for decades and by all assumptions was supposed to be the first person to address the issues didn’t even bother to utter a word since the controversy started with the impounding of the last edition of the Amharic weekly Feteh in July 2012.
And to the irony…
While the printing companies turn down the request of private newspapers, officials like the information chief Bereket Simon are not sure of the printers efficiency. The man who talks of the economy growing at “the speed of cheetah” is not confident enough in the ability of the publishers to take on his book. He had to look for printers in Nairobi to publish his “memoir” written in Amharic. The irony doesn’t end there though. The nation’s flagship carrier who takes pride in being all Ethiopian, prints their inflight magazine Selamta in Dubai and Nairobi. No wonder if some people around town seek the service of printing houses in India for their wedding invitation cards. Unfortunately those who are ready to make use of the available resources are loathed by the powers who reign by sheer force. Isn’t the pen mightier that the sword after all.Hail to the pen!
Originally posted on Oct.1, 2012
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s presence in New York for the United Nations General Assembly will rather be remembered for the 40 minutes odd interview with the Voice of America (VOA) than the significance of his speech at the podium.
While there was nothing new in the interview that is groundbreaking or of utmost importance, the mere fact of the interview being held makes it newsworthy. Otherwise, most of the answers were similar to his late predecessor save for the arrogance the later was known for.
The PM’s maiden interview since he took office raised issues ranging from Sudan to China. From concerns of water to stories of hats. He explained at length how Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is democratic and how those who think EPRDF is “biased towards certain ethnic groups…is a false and unwarranted speculation.”
He sounded comfortable expounding on foreign affairs than that of political prisoners as he doesn’t seem to have sufficient information in that regard; or may be he served as minister of foreign affaires for two years before he assumed the current position; could be understood either ways.
His answers concerning freedom of speech is devoid of any details whatsoever except for the archaic metaphors of the “two hats” that he had to repeat dozens of times.
Talking about issues of the media and free speech most of his words were borrowed from Ethiopian information Tsar Bereket Simon, in some cases they sounded a recital of his predecessor’s signature phrases like “the red line.”
To show how there is freedom of the press in the country at one point Hailemariam says: “You know you have been there. You have been operating there,” the You being the interviewer Peter Heinlein. If Hailemariam only knew that Mr Heinlein was detained this last May for covering Ethiopian Muslims protest at the Grand Anwar Mosque in Addis Ababa. He had to spend a night at the notorious Maeklawi prison before the American Embassy in the capital intervened to secure his release. After that Peter never reported from Ethiopia. He quietly left the country to continue his work as head of the Horn of Africa Service of VOA. So much for the operation Mr Prime Minister!
The other irony is that the interview may never reach the intended audience as VOA is blocked in Ethiopia.
Though the PM mentioned he will work with VOA Amharic Service in Addis, he didn’t hide his disdain for the “people in Amharic service” whom he accused of “trying to destabilize this country in terms of instigating certain issues.”
We may not expect a lot from the new PM whose accession to office was shrouded in lots of politicking. The fact that it took him more than two months to take over the position by all earthly logic he was entitled to, tells a lot about the internal wrangling within his party. Shaking off the ghosts of his predecessor is definitely going to take a while. Until then we will be humming “Will the real Hailemariam Desalegn please stand up?”