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.
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.
Former Ethiopian leaders are breaking their silence. Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, who for the last 22 years has been living in exile in Zimbabwe, spoke about his encounters with the late South African President Nelson Mandela.
From that interview we learned: Mengistu handed a $100,000 check to the anti-apartheid icon shortly after his release from prison; the colonel is still mad at former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev for telling him to seek peaceful alternatives to the insurrection; he has a good grasp of the southern Africa political dynamics. The septuagenarian also speculated that the reason Mandela didn’t visit Ethiopia after TPLF/EPRDF assumed power was because he didn’t want to see a divided Ethiopia from which Eritrea separated. Suffice to say evidence was in short supply.
Days earlier, the born-again Christian Tamrat Layne talked at length with the Australian public radio Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) host Kassahun Seboqa.
Both interviewees are thousands of kilometers away from their homeland in the true “spirit” of African leaders who can hardly walk their streets after they are booted out of office. That said, both should be commended for being gracious enough to share their side of the story.
Fall from grace
Tamrat Layne was Prime Minister of Ethiopia when rebel forces unseated the military regime in 1991. Initially the post of the PM didn’t matter at all. Then with the ratification of the 1995 Constitution, Tamrat was pushed to the deputy premiership as the ever shrewd Meles took his position.
After his relegation to irrelevance, the last time we heard from him was when in an emergency session Meles briefed the Parliament about the “repetitive ethical misconduct” his deputy committed while in office. “My Party decided that I am not capable of discharging my duties and responsibilities. In open discussions I held with fellow party comrades, I came to realize the mistakes I made while in leadership was unbecoming of me,” Tamrat told s stunned nation.
“I fully comply with the measures taken and I support the Party’s decisions and I want this House to allow me to resign my position.” The House cheerfully fulfilled his wish. That opened the next chapter of his life which lasted longer than his stint in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. By confessing his sins right there and then, he might have thought of saving some skin. That was never meant to be!
Tamrat is obviously a different person now. Seems to have found solace or a hideout (depending on how you look at it) in religion. Ever since his “redemption”, he devotes his time to the family he missed so much in the dozen years he was away from them. The father of two is currently living in the United States.
Coming back to the hour long interview, it is safe to say there was nothing groundbreaking. The talk of writing books serves to show his importance than the significance of the content of his work. After all, ANDM was a mere pawn in the TPLF politics and as such has no life of their own.
As if we are not tired of the talk of legacy, now Tamrat has his own. One might think the legacy he left behind in the five uninspiring years may be as impressive as that of the last President of the country, Girma Wolde Giorgis.
Nope! He is not ready to settle for less. “For the first time in (Ethiopian) history religious equality was granted under EPRDF rule on my watch. I signed the document,” he declared. When the radio host challenged his assertion, Tamrat reiterated: “Under Dergue there was no religious equality. For example, Protestant religion was outlawed. Protestants used to be persecuted, imprisoned, banished, killed. Everybody knows that.” It is not clear whether he had foreseen his own conversion to that church. Tamrat might have presented himself as the champion of religious freedom in Ethiopia by telling the story to the laity of the U.S. mega churches where he makes occasional appearances.
To give the devil his due, the Dergue regime soon after the overthrow of the Imperial regime, not only declared the separation of Church and State but subsequently made the three Muslim holidays public holidays.
As Mengistu Hailemariam claims not to have killed a single individual to these days in the face of scores of evidences, Tamrat insists that he has not stashed away public money. He wants the public to believe the stories of the millions of dollars he was accused of embezzling were mere fabrications. Tamrat told the interviewer that the Government tried in vain to recover them.This begs the question: what was the “ethical misconduct” for which Tamrat himself confessed in public?
On a positive note, Tamrat deserves respect for apologizing to the former Dergue officials. In the days when he was flying high he said: “These people were not supposed to be alive by now.” Now they are all free. While the apology could have served its purpose if delivered in person, entertaining the idea by itself is no mean feat. He should also consider himself lucky to have made it thus far in the treacherous politics of Ethiopia where he miserably failed to make a mark.
It has been a year since long time Ethiopian ruler Meles Zenawi died of unestablished causes in a Belgian hospital somewhere between June and August of 2012. The Government hasn’t come out clearly about the cause of his death.
During the last several weeks the state run media were preoccupied portraying a person akin to a saint. The praises showered upon him were more than needed to canonize him. 21-gun salute was fired; millions of trees planted; fellow leaders of neighbouring countries were at hand to give pomp to the event; scores of parks renamed after him, and the list goes on and on.
University professors, army generals, cabinet members, and party operatives were paraded to give testimony about the deeds of his excellency. They said he was an intellectual, a military strategist, a farmers’s best friend, and man of the people.
ETV even took a page from North Korean manual on cult of personality. They took us to his office showing the working area displaying a document he allegedly was working on; Koreans already did that telling the story of Kim Il-sung (the senior Kim). If that is any indication, everything Meles touched may be preserved as historical relic.
For those whose thirst about Meles’ myth were not quenched, the Sunday shows came up with the selected speeches that tried to make an entertainer out of the chief priest of “revolutionary democracy.”
Meles had all the answers for every question under the sun; he was talking to the rubber stamp parliament ready to giggle at every phrase uttered; he was addressing the youth, the business men, the revelers at a millennium party, you name it.
While the nation propaganda machine wants to paint a demigod, it is only fair to complete the story. As they say, journalism is “the first rough draft of history.” Here are some of his pronouncements that were willingly left out:
• In April 1990 a year before Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) controlled Addis Ababa, Meles had an interview with the late CIA and National Security specialist Paul B. Henze in the TPLF’s Washington office. “We can no longer have Amhara domination,” Meles told him. While it was no secret that Henze sympathized with TPLF, he still confronted the rebel leader to which Meles tried to soften a bit: “ When we talk about Amhara domination, we mean the Amhara of Shoa, and the habit of Shoan supremacy that became established in Addis Abeba during the last hundred years.”
• In a visit to the Tigray region shorty after his ascendance to power the then Ethiopian President played to the emotions of the public somewhat in the line of Hitler’s rhetoric about the Aryan race: “We are proud to be born out of you…we are proud to be gotten out of you.” ( Enkwae abhatkum tefetirna…enkwae abhatkum terehibna ) That part of the speech is always left out when ETV takes sound bytes from that “historical” speech, not to offend the “nations and nationalities.”
• In August 1994 (some say it was October 1995), Meles Zenawi visits the U.S. and confers with members of Ethiopian community in Washington D.C. Flanked by his yes-men like Seyoum Mesfin, Berhane G.Kristos, Dr Tekeda Alemu and other TPLF top brass, Meles was entertaining questions from the audience. A lady asks him what his vision was for Ethiopia ten years from then. Meles responded his vision was to make sure the people eat three times a day. Decade after the promised era, Ethiopians scavenge for left overs at restaurants or in city waste disposal sites.
• In an interview with Professor Donald Levine – a renowned U.S. sociologist and professor of Ethiopian studies – the late premier retorted: “The Tigreans had Axum, but what could that mean to the Gurague! The Agew had Lalibela, but what could that mean to the Oromo! The Gonderes had castles, but what could that mean to the Wolaita?”
That comment was to haunt him on the eve of the 2005 general elections where he was afraid to face any opposition politician for debate. In his last appearance prior to the vote, Meles explained that gaffe saying it was taken out of context. But he implied that the Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture (then Ambassador to France) Teshome Toga who hails from Wolaita Zone was put in charge to counter the perception his words created. Teshome eventually oversaw the return of the Axum Obelisk in April 2005.
When history is written by historians rather than victors, those speeches and comments hopefully will get their rightful place in the interest of posterity.
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?”
Originally posted on Nov.14, 2011
The Ethiopian Federal High Court was busy this past week looking into the case of scores of terror suspects that were paraded before them. Unfortunately dozens of them are still at large, but nonetheless tried in absentia. Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs will be a little busy over the next couple of days writing letters of extradition – if they are serious about it, that is – to several countries across three continents.
Some of the suspects have been sentenced to death many times that they will be forgiven if they lost track of how many death sentences they have on their head.
Charges against journalists.
Eleven journalists have been charged with terrorism, a record high since 2005 when private press journalists were charged en masse of treason and genocide. From the latest suspects six are under custody, two of them being expatriates. Five are living outside of Ethiopia sprawling across the three continents of Africa, Europe and North America. Some of them already citizens of other states and some even living abroad for almost as long as the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was in power.
Shimeles Kemal who actually writes the charges and doubles as the government spokesperson told TPLF owned Fana Radio Station last Friday that the charges have “nothing to do with freedom of the press. They are terrorists. Terrorists, simply because they work as media practitioners, will not be spared responsibility for their acts.”
Swedish men in Addis
The trial of the two Swedish photographers, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, who are accused of supporting terrorist organization, began days earlier than the others. Their trial has attracted a lot of attention and the court was packed with diplomats and several local and international media representatives. The Swedes had the resources to hire top Ethiopian lawyers who have media experience and connections.
But Make no mistake that they will be released. Not to discount from the ability of the lawyers to effectively defend their clients, the fact is their case is hardly about their collaboration with terrorists. The regime in Addis wants to get to Sweden for criticizing human rights violations in Ethiopia over the years. As a result, last year the Prime Minister announced they were closing the embassy in Stockholm because “There is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden.”
Ethiopia and Sweden had diplomatic relations for over half a century. The same thing happened with Norway earlier when Ethiopia expelled six Norwegian diplomats. After a year the diplomatic relation with Norway was restored. The same will happen with Sweden when the dusts finally settle down. As to the charges, the most important evidence the prosecutor presented to the court was laptop computers, cameras and flash discs and other computer accessories.
The Ethiopian voices
Eight Ethiopian journalists were charged with terrorism. The ninth suspect Sileshi Hagos who has been under custody since early September has not been charged.
A look at the 17 page charges simply reinstates the common held view that the government is out to crush any sign of dissent. Buried under the clichés of terrorism, wrecking havoc, blowing up infrastructure etc, the actual offence that TPLF was irritated with are the following:
Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye have been in custody since June, 2011. Reeyot Alemu was a high school teacher and a contributor to the weekly Feteh. Woubshet Taye was deputy editor- in- chief of another weekly Awramba Times.
The two are accused of taking pictures of graffiti that say Enough (Beka) most notably around the regional bus terminal in Merkato. To prove their points the prosecutors brought to the court homeless street kids and tissue vendors from around the terminal popularly known as Atobis Tera.
Eskinder Nega was arrested days after the Ethiopian New Year in September. He is probably the most experienced journalist of all who are charged. He has been in the media business for two decades. As he has been denied of his right to publish, he was contributing articles to online media, most of which are even blocked in the country.
His well articulated weekly articles written in impeccable English and Amharic were well received. One of his most memorable articles entitled Open letter to PM Meles Zenawi he says: “Ato Meles Zenawi: the people want — no, need — you to leave office… The people are closely watching events in North Africa. Listen to them before it’s too late.” In Mubarak in court: Is Meles next? Eskinder warns: “An African Spring, with Ethiopia, Africa’s largest dictatorship, as its epicenter, is unavoidable.”
Writing about his former prison mate of 17 months, the legendary actor Debebe Eshetu which incidentally was his last article before joining him again in the notorious Maekelawi prison, Eskinder wrote: “How in the world could such a person be involved in terrorism? It simply defies logic.” Eskinder was unabashedly right. Debebe was released over the weekend. In the charge brought against Eskinder it says: “He has called for terror and uprising. Using various means, he disseminated articles with a view to agitate the public.”
Three Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) journalists from Europe and America have also made it the charge list. Some of them are not new to Ethiopian prisons. ESAT is particularly known for the saga with the blockade of its television broadcast to Ethiopia. Their offence according to the charge is “for using the television program to agitate the public.”
Some of ESAT journalists accused of terrorism have a record of writing op-eds in such prestigious dailies as the Wall Street Journal. One of the accused Abebe Gellaw reacted to the charges by saying: “ I would like to thank you (the PM) profusely for including me in the latest roll call of patriots and freedom fighters…I assure you that the honor will inspire me to do even more to accomplish what is expected of me more effectively and efficiently.” But Abebe Belew who is a radio host in the U.S. told the Voice of America that he is taking the matter seriously. He wants to set up a legal team if other co-accused join him to take the matter all the way to US Congress and State Department.
The fourth category is the two journalists at the Addis Neger Online blog. The latest charges simply justifies the journalists fear when they fled the country two years ago, closing their popular weekly. They are accused of giving platforms for Ginbot 7 political party which has lately become TPLF’s worst nightmare.
Both of them have dropped messages on their Facebook pages. “For spending my waking hours thinking and talking about my country, for dreaming to see my country achieve its promise and potential, I am charged of terrorism by Meles Zenawi,” says Abiye Teklemariam. Mesfin Negash on his part posted: “My official Status according to Meles Zenawi’s book is changed to “a wanted terrorist.” It’ll inspire us all; don’t expect us to give up!!! ”
Waiting for the episode
When two week ago the prime minister was roaring like a lion about the evidences his spies gathered, we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. The tradition was they would bring out the usual rifles and bombs from the ammunition at Maekelawi prison and parade the prisoners there. Then announce the news that they were caught red handed trying to topple the “constitutional” government. Nothing like that this time! At least they have known by now that didn’t work for two decades. That’s a progress.
But trust me bringing street kids and toilet tissue vendors as witnesses is not a nice alternative either. Of course we can’t wait to see the docudrama that will be produced by ETV in collaboration with Ethiopia’s anti- terror task force .What part is the latest episode again?
Originally posted on May 5, 2010
In what seems to be a brazen move against a major donor Ethiopian Prime Minister Mr Meles Zenawi decided to jam Voice of America (VOA). A voice that was part of the Ethiopian airwaves for almost three decades. The PM accused VOA of “engaging in destabilizing propaganda.” He even went further as to compare the Washington DC based broadcaster to Radio Mille Collins of Rwanda of the early 1990s fame which is considered to be the voice of génocidaires.
The announcement didn’t come as surprise for the transmission was jammed as of February. But it was a pleasure hearing it from the horses own mouth.
Don’t envy the spokesperson
When VOA audience in Addis first complained about the poor quality of transmission, it was clear the government was interfering. However the spokesperson, Mr Shimeles Kemal, was adamant in denying it. “This is a baseless allegation,” he said first. On another occasion “the Ethiopian government does not support the policy of restricting foreign broadcasting services in the country. Such practices are prohibited in our constitution.” Then days later “Ethiopia has a constitution which outlaws any act by any official organ to restrict the dissemination of broadcast material from abroad.”
His boss need not want to beat around the bush. He never cared for what Mr Shimeles had been insisting all along. He was not only blunt to tell the U.S., which blesses the regime with 1 billion dollar annually, that he was jamming them, he even went as far to explaining about the timetables.
Then the poor spokesperson had no option except to swallow his pride and say VOA “has repeatedly broadcast programs and statements that tend to incite, foment hatred between different ethnic groups.”
The director’s reaction,”VOA deplores jamming and any other form of censorship of the media”, was hardly a deterrent. Mr Danforth Austin was rather angry at the comparison with the Rwandan radio than the actual jamming, since he has almost 50 language services to worry about.
Neither the jamming nor the obsession with everything pre-1994 Rwanda is not new. In 2005 Ethiopian not only jammed the VOA, they even charged five of the journalists of the Station with genocide. In 2008 the broadcaster was jammed again. Authorities also put pressure by threatening to deny accreditation to the Addis based journalists. Some of the correspondents are not new to the security forces. Mr Meleskachew Amha was brutally beaten during the 2005 elections. More recently he was detained on dubious charges.
Ironically, Ethiopian officials still give interviews to the broadcaster. VOA journalists are still accredited and working. It seems the Ethiopian government doesn’t know what it really wants to do.
Voice of America is government funded broadcaster that has been set up during the Second World War to counter anti U.S. propaganda. Its role during the cold war was immense. It has played a significant role in bringing down the Iron Curtain. With an annual budget of around $ 200 million, it broadcasts 1,500 hours of programming in 49 languages. Amharic being one of them.
The Amharic service of the Voice of America was launched in 1982 when the Mengistu regime was decidedly in power, with its ideology oriented towards Marxism and more importantly after it pledged allegiance to the Soviet Union camp. Back then it was one of the few sources of alternative news in otherwise a completely isolated country.
With the ascent of EPRDF/TPLF to power, the VOA’s role seemed to be fading. As private newspapers were mushrooming and a lot of other alternative news sources emerging, many can be forgiven for writing VOA off the radar. But as it turns out, the journey has only begun.
Good bye VOA?
Now the all evident fact on the ground: VOA is disappearing from the Ethiopian airwaves. If the recent email sent to its subscribers is an indication, the Voice seems to have lost the battle, not the war though. In the email dated April 26 VOA confirms “service has been recently interrupted by the Ethiopian government.” It also states: “they have blocked access to our Horn of Africa website for all who live in Ethiopia”. For the moment the calculation as clearly put by the Economist “the Voice of America does more harm inside the country than outside criticism of his censorship” seems to be working.
According to audience researches 11-20 percent of adult Ethiopians tune to the radio station. That is a tremendous amount of audience thrown into the news blackout. Ethiopians in Diaspora still enjoy listening to the broadcaster. VOA is certainly serving as a platform of exchanging views and ideas among the Diaspora also. But the ultimate target is the 80 million strong population who has rarely enjoyed the benefit of free media.
In a desperate bid to outmaneuver Ethiopian jammers, VOA announced the addition of shortwave frequencies, launching of morning shows and the commencement of satellite transmission. It communicated to its audience technical terms and numbers which can rather be understood by the staff at Sululta Satellite Station. Some may as well prefer the blackout than have to decipher those figures. Of course VOA is exploring “other alternatives”.
In an editorial entitled Silence not golden in Ethiopia, VOA insists the United States is “a friend and supporter of Ethiopia”. That diplomatic tone didn’t seem to impress the rulers in Addis. As part of the rhetoric of not repeating the mistakes of May 2005, the regime in Addis will continue to jam the voice until after the elections.
It is clear that the U.S. is currently held hostage of a regime it propped up with massive military and economic aid under the misguided assumption of “an ally on war on terror”. What should be clear is that that money is also being used to jam U.S. radios and web services.
Lessons to draw
VOA cannot continue depending on traditional means of broadcasting
VOA can also expect more sophisticated ways of jamming and filtering from Ethiopia, in large part thanks to the Chinese assistance. Chinese have long become champions of web filtering.
On the positive note though, the regime in Ethiopian cannot continue blocking access to news media. It may create temporary problems like what we are experiencing now. But it will not have the financial and technical abilities to hold on to this kind of behavior for long time.
It is also time for the U.S. to think about upholding its core values of democracy and rule of law, even when it comes to a corner 12 thousand kilometers away.
Originally posted on Nov.5, 2009
Four political parties are said to have agreed upon and signed a “code of conduct” that would make it easier for them to run for the 2010 general elections in Ethiopia. At the moment it is the governing party which is known to the public or to whoever is concerned. The three “opposition parties” who signed the code are Coalition for Unity and Democracy (a creation of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia and awarded to an Ayele Chamiso), the All Ethiopian Unity Organization, and the Ethiopian Democratic Party. The leaders of the latter two are much more known than the parties they supposedly represent. The agreement on the code of conduct was signed by the prime minister wearing his hat of a party leader.
The appearance of the prime is symbolic in view of the rare appearances he makes with opposition politicians. He is normally satisfied with sending his all too powerful lackey who officially is the communications advisor with a minister portfolio.
The TPLF boss didn’t show up there for the Ethiopian public. That was rather an attempt to hoodwink the major donors who from time to time talk of the ever ‘narrowing political space’ in the country. It sells well also with those who think in absence of a “strong opposition”; Meles is the messiah who can lead the horn of African nation to the Promised Land.
In view of the pressure some of the donors exerting on those who didn’t join the charade, particularly the Forum (Medrek), the stunt seems to hit the intended target. Even more so, Forum may succumb to the pressure as they will be threatened with cancellation of their certificates as parties.
Forum (Medrek) which is a motley group of eight parties and individuals have some personalities who can make noise. TPLF has warned from the outset it has learnt a lesson from the 2005 elections and they will not tolerate any similar behaviors. While TPLF wants some of them in the parliament as it had done ever since 1995 following the adoption of the constitution jointly written by Meles and the late Kifle Wodajo, it doesn’t want any more seats for the nominal opposition. As it has been observed recently every result must be in the 99 percent realm.
The last local elections were reminiscent of the Maoist states of the 70s from which TPLF draw its ideology. In the 2008 local elections TPLF got 3.5 million cadres elected for the various local and regional councils (That is about the entire population of Congo Brazzaville). The news was that only three people were elected from other ranks.
Though TPLF would allow Forum to contest the elections under their own terms, what Hailu Shawel gave him was more than they bargained for. It was a God sent moment. So if Forum is forced to boycott the elections, it is the party of Lidetu and Hailu who will be contesting. Is there anyone by now who believes that they will ever win a seat in a fair election? But no surprises if both show up in the parliament next year. TPLF will work hard to get them elected.
Stories of betrayals
During the 2005 elections and aftermath, in addition to the killings, torture, imprisonment and intimidation, there were a fair amount of betrayals and frequent changes of sides that undermined the opposition. Some were monumental. Like that of Lidetu Ayalew, the act of which earned him the nickname Kihdetu Ayalew.
It is almost a fresh memory when Hailu stood as a symbol of defiance just after the election with that famous footage of international media showing him under house arrest in his own compound. The same can be said of Lidetu when his former enemies ransacked his office and put him under house arrest.
While the latest betrayal doesn’t make a difference in the political scene, it was clearly aiming at gaining some short sighted benefits. The Engineer may have been calculating that the eminent release of Birtukan would send him into oblivion. So before she even got released, he wanted to make a statement. One cannot hide the fact that his submission to TPLF is a blow to Forum who at the moment do not know what to do. But whatever calculation the Engineer may have in his mind, it is too late too little to save his skin. For the moment Hailu has at least gained the title he has always wanted. TPLF has ordered all their media to address him as Engineer Hailu Shawel. But at the end of the day, make no mistake he is the biggest loser of all.
Sprinkles in parliament
Since the formation of the parliament, TPLF has deliberately put a couple of opposition politicians with an oratorical skill. That was supposed to give a democratic character to the rubber stamp parliament. In the mid 90s it was Major (Shaleqa) Admasse who never tired condemning the leaders of TPLF and ANDM. When he finally passed away, the government media produced a nice obituary. Then came Professor Beyene Petros, Bedru Adem, Dr Merera Gudina, Lidetu Ayalew and the likes. Each gave the parliament some semblance of democratic institution. Obituaries abound, what they will get in exchange is yet to be seen.
Now it is the members of Forum making the noise. Dr Merera Gudina, Bulcha Demeksa, former president Dr Negasso Gidada and former defense minister Seye Abraha who are being the most outspoken. Again the public is suspicious of some of these politicians for the various roles they had played earlier. Don’t blame the public!
Seye Abraha was known for his battle rhetoric before he fell out with his brothers in arms. Some like Dr Merera were unwilling accomplices of the government for deciding to join the parliament after the carnage of unarmed civilians in 2005. Probably the most notorious of them all is the biology professor turned politician Dr Beyene Petros. He has been chairman of so many political parties that this writer may be forgiven for losing track of which party he is leading at the moment. It is true that he has been the member of the parliament for over a decade. When not in parliament he was vice minister of education when TPLF just took power.
Whatever the agreements or code of conducts, no fundamental change will occur in Ethiopian politics at at least for the foreseeable future. The result of the election has been a fait accompli since long time. The systematic elimination of opposition politicians has left TPLF to be the sole party that calls the shots for many years to come. In the mid 90s some leaders of the party were talking of becoming the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) of Ethiopia, in reference to the Mexican governing party that was in power for over 70 years. But then PRI was defeated and that talk slowly died down.
What this election is good for the ruling party is not about political transformation of the country. They also have an economic incentive. The year is already promising for Trans Ethiopia owned by the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT) which is already amassing fortune out of the transportation of food to the drought affected areas. They will also make more money in the transportation of election materials to the various corners of the country. Party cadres will definitely benefit from the per diem and other perks when they will be assigned to carry out the elections. The party owned publishing houses like Mega will be busy printing the various materials. The list goes on and on. These are the other altruistic reasons for undertaking the elections.