Tag Archives: shimeles kemal

Redwan Hussein is out; look who’s coming to town

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.

redwan-husseinFor 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.

Talking GCAO

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.

Party talks

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.

Zone 9: keeping the saga alive and well

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.

zone9There 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.

ETV’s latest guest Andargachew Tsige

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.

andargachew-tsigeETV 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. Your move Shimeles Kemal!

Ethiopia: of terrors and journalists

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

journalists-at-workEight 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?

Ethiopian private press journalists and the new song in town

Originally posted on June 27, 2011

At any given time there is an Ethiopian journalist in detention either in the notorious Maekelawi, Kerchele, and Kaliti or at times as far in a place as Assosa or even Gondar.  Since the mid 1990s, scores of Ethiopian media professionals were put behind bars. The first victims of the government’s harsh response were the late Tefera Asmare of Ethiopis newspaper and its publisher Eskinder Nega. Tefera was forced to flee his country and died in exile in the Netherlands in 2003.

ethiopian-media2In its latest report, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed Ethiopia as one of the top most jailers of media practitioners in the world. CPJ says there are six journalists currently imprisoned in Ethiopia. According to a data compiled by the media rights group, since 2001 about 79 journalists fled the country. With that number, Ethiopia leads the pack of the top 12 countries that are hostile to the independent press.

Ethiopian journalists are paying prices for doing what every journalist is supposed to do, write news or express views.  The other week was particularly difficult. In less than a week, two journalists were put behind bars. No official reason has been given.

Pieces of information gathered from different corners lead to terrorism charges. How did an English language teacher and part time columnist find herself to be a terrorist?  How was a family man, who does his job in full public sight as deputy editor-in-chief of a weekly, preparing to create havoc?  At the moment only the guys from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have a clue.

As always the government spokesperson doesn’t know about the arrest. “There are no journalist arrests, incarcerated in Ethiopia,” Shimeles Kemal told CPJ shortly after the detention of Woubshet.

The legal excuse

In August 2009 the Ethiopian rubber stamp Parliament passed an Anti-Terror Proclamation. In short, this law is intended to give blanket authority to NISS to lock any journalist under the pretext of terrorism.  Most of the articles in that legislation are deliberately vague that the government can take anything as an act of terrorism. Article 6 of the legislation says: “Whosoever publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement… is punishable with rigorous imprisonment… ” Of course, the underlined phrases can be interpreted in bazillion ways. The legislation is full of such articles and phrases.

Two years after that legislation, the 99.6 Parliament labeled Ginbot 7, OLF, ONLF, al-Qaeda and al- Shabaab terrorists. That was followed by the detention of Woubshet Taye of the weekly Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu, the columnist for another weekly Feteh.

Nobody can tell how long the journalists will stay in detention. The vague law gives security forces from 28 days up to four months to put them in prison without charges.

Why them?

Woubshet Taye has been editor-in- chief of Awramba Times, the paper established in 2008 shortly after the release of its publisher Dawit Kebede from the Kaliti prison. The last feature Woubshet penned under his name was that of the June 18, 2011 feature entitled “Shimiyaw Yet Yadersenal,” an article about the rampant corruption taking place in the country. Though the article is critical of the government’s lack of commitment to tackle the problem, it is unlikely to touch the nerves of the occupants of the Arat Kilo Palace to overreact in such manner.

Woubshet has been in the radar of the authorities for a while though.  In May 2010 he wrote a feature article entitled “Where did these people go?”  The paper put that bold title against the backdrop of a huge public demonstration that took place five years earlier at Meskel Square.

Following the publication of that article, Woubshet was given a warning by the head of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, Desta Tesfaw, that he would be responsible for any riot in the aftermath of the elections.  Woubshet immediately resigned his job. However, he came back to the paper three months later as co-deputy editor- in- chief. (That position has been a safe bet for Ethiopian private press journalists for legal reasons). In that capacity he wrote commentaries on topical issues. As Ethiopian authorities are famous for retroactive criminal charges, before he knew it Woubshet may find himself charged for an obscure article he may not even remember when it was published.

The weekly Feteh is one of the most critical of the government. The paper has already been charged with dozens of offences.  Some even predicted the paper would fold. But the story of their death seems to be greatly exaggerated. The paper’s columnist Reeyot has been picked by security forces from the school where she teaches English. Her house searched and she was reported to have appeared before a judge in a closed court. But as a member of the faction of Unity for Democracy and Justice (Andinet Party), she is a natural target of government repression.

The way out…

Imprisoning journalists on all kinds of trumped up charges has been a tradition for the regime in Addis. The only thing that keeps changing is the pretext.  In the initial years it used to be defamation, incitement followed soon, and then treason and genocide became the plat du jour. Now the new song in town is terrorism.  The charges are intended to scare sympathizers of the outlawed opposition parties. But locking journalists or forcing them to flee will hardly be a solution to the regime’s perennial fears. The unconditional release of the media practitioners is the only way out.

What next for VOA Amharic?

Originally posted on May 5, 2010

Jammin’

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

voalogoWhen 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.

VOA

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.

“other alternatives”

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.

Election 2010 and the players

Originally posted on March 4, 2010

Say good bye to the Walwas and check out the new guys in town

Election 2010 has already claimed its first victim in the Tigray State. Mr Aregawi Gebre Yohannes who is the candidate of Arena Tigray (one of the members of Medrek) for the House of Peoples Representative (HPR) has been stubbed to death in his own small bar. “He was killed in a personal row outside his constituency,” was the government’s spokesperson answer.

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has not said anything so far it is busy counting the registered voters which it says are around 30 million. But few take NEBE seriously. The Indian Ocean Newsletter says the actual figure is a closely guarded secret.

nebeElection observers have been cautious to get involved. The Carter Center has already declined to participate. The European Union is still assessing its options as if what is going on right now is not part of an election process. The obvious reluctance is an indication what even the major donors think of the exercise.

The players

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) second man and government Communication Affairs Office chief with a minister portfolio Bereket Simon is not contesting for a seat in parliament.

There have been credible reports about the health problem of Mr Bereket. Now his bosses have decided to leave him out. The rumor that he was poised to contest in his birthplace Gondar has finally been put to rest.  Bereket still may hold his ministerial portfolio but not as a member of parliament.

Another person who has long been rumored to be set aside is Tefera Walwa. The minister of Capacity Building, who has been out of the public view for a long time, seems to have fallen out with the guys at Arat Kilo. His one’s gigantic ministry was supervising top offices like Ministry of Education, Science and Technology Commission and a number of others. He was also presiding over the school net project, the status of which is known only to him. Not only will the Ministry of Capacity Building loose the supervision of those ministries but itself is going to be turned into a department within the prime minister’s office.

Tefera has been silent for long. When security forces came to arrest Tefera’s octogenarian father-in-law on coup attempt charge, his wife was there trying to defend her dad.  So she was taken into custody along with her father.  The once favorite son of Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) has never recuperated from those wounds. But to his credit unlike many of his comrades, Tefera has not been implicated in business and recently he advocated for property registration and financial disclosure of all government officials.

Tefera has contested for parliamentary seat in Addis Ababa three times. He lost them all.  Though he has been a mayor of the city in the early 90s he has hardly left a mark. He has also served as minister of defense in a crucial moment when the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea broke out. It is a mystery till this day what he has actually been doing at the time.  Many do not even remember he has ever held that position.

Enter EDP

There is also talk of a deal between EPRDF and Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) of Lidetu Ayalew.  The number and the constituencies where they field candidates look a carefully orchestrated move.  Ironically their campaign symbols are complementary. EPRDF is a bee while EDP chose to be the flower. Coincidence? Anybody’s guess.

Lidetu will be contesting in the Bugna Woreda of North Wollo where his chances of winning a seat are far better than in Addis. He seems to have understood how the city residents think of him, not to mention his other name Kihdetu given to him by his onetime supporters. So the only place he can secure a seat in the House is to go to faraway places out of observers’ eyes where he can easily manipulate results with a little help from friends in high places. But Lidetu downplays such assertions.

In a recent interview he said his home town people have been yearning for their favorite son to be their voice in the HPR. Lidetu is also busy promoting his new book where he is discussing his political views. The book is said to dwells on attacking all the opposition parties and a praising the incumbent for bringing democracy to the country. Some who had read the book say generalization and sweeping statements are the building blocks of the author’s premises.

While former CUD (Coalition for Unity and Democracy) leadership member Engineer Gizachew Shiferaw of Medrek will face off the least known EPRDF candidate Dr Zerihun Kebede, State Minister of Science and Technology, in Woreda 17, EDP’s Sophia Yilma is playing the spoiler role by trying to take some vote from the Engineer. Before joining the leadership of EDP, Sophia was a journalist during the Dergue leadership. She is also the daughter of Yilma Deressa the well known finance minister during Emperor’s Hailesselassie administration.

Same scenario is playing out in Woreda 18 where former president Dr Negasso Gidada faces off Mines and Energy minister Alemayehu Tegenu, where the potential spoiler is Mr Mushe Semu the secretary of EDP. Though the chance of Mushe winning the constituency is slim, he may take some votes from Dr Negasso that might favor the EPRDF candidate.  Mr Alemayehu got some publicity in relation to the Gilgel Gibe hydro electric project. The nation’s sole power provider the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) is under his ministry.

Of codes and engineers

Engineer Hailu Shawel who has become unpredictable in recent months is one of the contestants. The 72 year old was part of an election code that has been signed by EPRDF, EDP and his own All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP). He has been hailed by the powers in Addis for taking the initiative in signing the code and to that effect the government threw two parties in appreciation, one of which in the National Palace. But in a bizarre twist of events, the Engineer has been denouncing the code and even threatened to boycott the elections.  He has refused to participate in the debate of political parties.

Engineer Hailu, however, will face off the former Addis Ababa University (AAU) lecturer Dr Hailu Araya of Medrek in Woreda 23. Five years earlier the Engineer won the constituency by a landslide against an EPRDF candidate. This time around EPRDF is sending the political science graduate of AAU, Ms Aster Mammo.  Aster has been speaker of the Oromia parliament and minister of Youth and Sports.  Aster is normally shy and pleasant. Her youth, gender, confidence, and the normally calm attitude which is highly regarded in the Ethiopian society could have won her the constituency.  But there are lessons to be learned from the fate of former Addis Ababa mayor Arkebe Ekubai who was popular by residents but the party he represented cost him the seat.

New kids on the block

Among the candidates of EPRDF, some who have so far played a passive role have been fielded to the Addis Ababa constituency. One among them is Mr Abdurahim Ahmed, the spokesperson of the Ethopian Telecommunications Corporation. Mr Abdurahim has for three years consistently and flatly denied the government’s suspension of text messaging in the country following the 2005 elections. He was insisting that was a technical glitch.  While he is largely unknown to the ordinary voter, his calmness and reserved character is what he has to sell. Otherwise he is completely devoid of any charisma.

Though his status at the moment is not known, the director general of the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority Mr Melaku Fenta is also among the ones EPRDF wants to put forward. The former minister of Inland Revenue has been silently beaten in Addis Ababa five years earlier. Right now he is riding on a success of the newly structured Customs Authority. He is expected to be among the new blood the incumbent want to capitalize on.

Mr Shimeles Kemal is the one reaping most from the seeds of his political adventures. On top of his state minister post that was awarded to him following his prosecution of the CUD members, now his party is confident enough to field him as a candidate in Addis Ababa.  Even with his first term job as State Minister, he is by far the most visible cabinet members of the government. He managed to write three laws in as much years all of which aimed at curbing human rights of citizens: anti terrorism proclamation, the civil society law and the media law. That devotion earned him so much credibility that at the moment he is the de facto spokesperson of EPRDF eclipsing Bereket Simon.

A graduate of law at the Addis Ababa University, Shimeles also writes articles bullying different news papers and individuals under various pen names. Right now he is busy attacking the owner of Reporter Mr Amare Aregawi. Before joining the government he used to contribute articles to this same paper.

To wrap it up

This election is not about taking over government. The incumbent is already assessing who to reshuffle and replace after the elections. A number of ambassadors have already been called from their overseas posts to base. The election is rather a fight for some opposition politicians just to secure some seats in the rubber stamp parliament. Some want to make their voice heard against all odds. Some might be lured by the ETB 4000 salary and the perks. As the days to polling day approaches expect to see some drama in Tigray where the over confident Seye Abraha made a controversial statement about his chances of winning elections. Otherwise it is business as usual at the Menelik Palace.