Tag Archives: mengistu hailemariam

Tamrat talks politics again; should we trust him?

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.

tamrat-layneDays 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.

Talking legacy

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.

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Keeping up with the forgotten “guests”

As the new Ethiopian year 2006 dawned, the pres­i­dent of the coun­try – weeks before his final days in office – par­doned about 400 pris­on­ers. Hopes of the release of jour­nal­ists and activists who could use his ges­tures evap­o­rated in to thin air when fam­ily mem­bers told the media that their loved ones will not be join­ing them for the new year. It was not only the jour­nal­ists’ request for par­don that was left unan­swered, there were some two other “guests” who were men­tioned as a foot­note in the clemency story. They were told to sur­ren­der before request­ing forgiveness.

The two for­mer Der­gue offi­cials who are believed to be in their 70s caged in the Ital­ian Embassy in Addis Ababa have long been for­got­ten by local and inter­na­tional com­mu­nity. For those who care to check: Addis Tedla and Berhanu Bayeh might have bro­ken the world record for stay­ing longer than any­body else in an embassy com­pound: 22 years and counting.

You are not alone

The idea of seek­ing pro­tec­tion in diplo­matic mis­sions is not new. Many politi­cians and even ordi­nary peo­ple have tried to use embassies to evade threats to their life.

In 1989 the Pana­man­ian leader Gen­eral Manuel Nor­iega picked a fight with his mighty for­mer spon­sors. When the U.S. invaded his coun­try to arrest him, Nor­iega fled to the Vat­i­can Embassy in Panama City.He only lasted ten days before surrendering.

When the Berlin Wall was torn down and the days of reck­on­ing set in, the East Ger­many leader Erich Honecker flew to Moscow to seek refuge in the Chilean embassy there. He spent about three months before being handed over to Ger­man author­i­ties to have his days in court.

The whis­tle blower web­site Wik­iLeaks founder, who is hold up in the Ecuadorean embassy in Lon­don, is a present day exam­ple. The Aus­tralian born Julian Assange sought for extra­di­tion to Swe­den on sex­ual mis­con­duct charges has been shel­tered in the embassy for over a year now.

The Four Tops

Noth­ing is known about what a typ­i­cal day looks like for the for­mer Ethiopian offi­cials who are shel­tered in the Ital­ian embassy in the Ethiopian cap­i­tal. Ital­ians rarely divulge infor­ma­tion about their ‘‘guests.” If and when they have some­thing to say, it usu­ally cul­mi­nates in recrim­i­na­tion with the Ethiopian for­eign affairs min­istry who accuses Italy of ‘har­bour­ing criminals.’

Ethiopia and Italy had some­times tense rela­tion­ships. For long time the return of the Axum obelisk was a bone of con­tention between the two coun­tries. That prob­lem has since been resolved with the return of the mon­u­ment. Ethiopia has also been accus­ing Italy of sym­pa­thiz­ing with Eritrea when war broke out between the neigh­bor­ing coun­tries in 1998. And of course the case of the four “guests”, who short of being flown out of the coun­try man­aged to secure a save haven, have also been a source of tension.

 The Ital­ians have refused to hand over the sus­pects cit­ing the use of death penalty in the coun­try that con­tra­venes the Ital­ian law which has long abol­ished cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. Italy so far has stood firm on its prin­ci­ples by keep­ing the sus­pects in its embassy with all the ensu­ing burden.

While no solu­tion to the impasse insight, the pos­si­bil­ity of a safe tran­sit out of the coun­try is faint. The fate of their two col­leagues only makes for the worst case sce­nario. From the orig­i­nal four, half have left the com­pound – deceased. The offi­cials who entered the embassy in the last days of May 1991are:

  • Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Tes­faye Gebre Kidan – long time Min­is­ter of Defense in the Der­gue admin­is­tra­tion; he was the country’s Pres­i­dent just for a week. Amid the chaos cre­ated by a flee­ing leader and a desert­ing army, the General’s last resort was the Ital­ian embassy where he spent the rest of his life until he was reported to have been killed in a brawl with his fel­low fugi­tive Berhanu Bayeh in June 2004.
  • Hailu Yemenu – was deputy then act­ing Prime Min­is­ter of the coun­try in the last days of the Marx­ist regime. Unlike the other three, he was not mem­ber of the Der­gue. Hailu Yemenu was a tech­no­crat who served in var­i­ous min­is­te­r­ial posi­tions includ­ing min­is­ter of indus­try and vice min­is­ter of mines. He is said to have com­mit­ted sui­cide days after enter­ing the embassy.
  • Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Addis Tedla – was the army Chief of Staff. He was known to be a soft spo­ken Der­gue mem­ber. Some mem­bers of his fam­ily liv­ing in the U.S. were said to have been allowed to pay him a visit.
  • Berhanu Bayeh – a well edu­cated Der­gue mem­ber, he served as min­is­ter to var­i­ous offices and he rose to the rank of Min­is­ter of For­eign Affaires when his pre­de­ces­sor Goshu Woldie defected to the U.S in the mid 1980s.

While in the com­pound, two of them have been con­victed in absen­tia; one died while the trial was in progress. Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, Hailu Yemenu was not even charged as the Spe­cial Prosecutor’s Office set up to deal with crimes com­mit­ted “under the Der­gue – WPE regime” was not even established.

Friends in high places

former-derg-officials-on-trialWhat is sur­pris­ing is those who were tried and sen­tenced to life in prison were able to get their free­dom through a clemency granted in Octo­ber 2011. Save for the news of the chal­lenges some of them faced find­ing a roof over their heads, as land­lords were reluc­tant to rent them a house, the for­mer offi­cials have largely sank into oblivion.

As to the Red Negus him­self, with the recent reelec­tion of the 89 year-old Zim­bab­wean leader Robert Mugabe for another five-year term his fear of extra­di­tion has gone for now. While nobody expects the octo­ge­nar­ian to live for eter­nity – at least on the planet earth – Mengistu’s night­mares could still be a reality.

It is hard to con­clude whether the incar­cer­a­tion of the for­mer offi­cials helped heal the wounds inflicted in those tur­bu­lent days of the late 70s when killing was almost the only solu­tion to win a rev­o­lu­tion. But some per­pe­tra­tors paid their due in one or the other way. Guilty or not, the mere fact of liv­ing in state of limbo for over two decades is a predica­ment no human being should be sub­jected to.