Letter from Ethiopia
Ethiopia – Beyene Petros, Professor Mesfin and Election 2010
By Eskinder Nega | April 30, 2010
Many political leaders, big and small, have come and gone over the past two decades. Few have remained a permanent fixture though, firmly placed in public consciousness as embodiments of the post-Derg years.
Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister now for an unprecedented 18 years and still counting; Bereket Simon, the acclaimed Godfather of EPRDF’s malice; Professor Mesfin WeldeMariam, high profile human rights activist-cum-controversial opposition politician; Haile GebreSelassie, an inspiring gold medalist turned successful business man have endured prominently in the spotlight through the years (This list excludes artists, about whom I confess almost complete ignorance; but which is not so with the public.)
But there are two more public personalities whose name recognition looms even higher amongst rural and city folks alike, sustained by their consistent presence on state media over the years: Meles Zenawi, PM and leader of the EPRDF; and Beyene Petros, the only opposition figure who has been a Parliamentarian since the first days of the Transitional Government, established a mere month after the downfall of the Derg almost nineteen years ago.
Beyene was a content scientist in May 1991 when leaders of the EPRDF triumphantly led their army — much of it mobilized in the last 24 months of the conflict — into Addis. He was reluctantly piloted in to the political arena by his ethnic kin, who insisted that he represent them in the national conference scheduled for June 1991, from which the Transitional Government was to emerge. His first year in politics was uneventful by the standard of subsequent years, though perhaps the best in his political career so far, having served in both the legislative and executive branches of government as a Parliamentarian and Vice Minister of Education. The withdrawal of the OLF from the Transitional Government was to end that honeymoon, with an enraged Meles, responding to Beyene in parliament, once blurting “I was not voted for (to be in parliament) because of my good looks,” a sarcastic allusion to the upper class persona of Beyene (he hails from a humble background in actual fact). But not even Meles, who is serene and calm at one moment and explosive and enraged the next, has ever accused him of wavering from the legal framework; Beyene being the one reliable politician, by universal consensus, that sincerely abhors any prospect of violence. “He has been called a wimp for his commitment to non-violence,’ says a pundit.
It is with these particulars in mind that the public and pundits alike received news of his alleged incitement to violence with utter disbelief. “Overthrowing a government that fails to keep its promise to the people is not new, as it happens in different parts of the world. In fact, it won’t last five years,” said Professor Beyene Petros at a public meeting held in Addis last Sunday, thundered a press release from the EPRDF on Monday. “Such statement is against the constitution, and is subtly intended to provoke violence.” But the EPRDF did not stop there, as it would have been expected to do so at this point in the election season. “No party must expect to instigate violence and expect to operate within the legal framework at the same time. We call upon the NBEE to take measures against such anti-peace statements,” summed up the EPRDF. Beyene responded by insisting that all his remarks strictly adhere to the standards set by the constitution. “ I spoke of a public that votes into and votes out of power, all through the ballot box. And that is mandated by the constitution. There was no incitement to violence,” said he to local media.
Since no one else, including the EPRDF, really suspect otherwise, the question that pundits are asking is: Why is the EPRDF rocking the boat when almost all things appear to be going its way? Of course there are still the minor tremors that it handles as a matter of routine. But that is to be expected. Consider, for example, these three minor tremors. The first: a report by Reuters, filed by its Addis-based correspondent, Barry Malone, while on a trip to Nairobi, of an opposition member allegedly killed last week, this time in Oromia. Reuters cited citing Medrek as its source.
Berket Simon responded with indignant fury, temporarily blocking Barry’s return to Addis. “Check with us before you (foreign correspondents) file a story,” instructed Berket’s office after refuting Medrek’s statement. But in the fast-paced world of international news, securing the government’s prompt reply remains as allusive as ever. Both sides expect trouble as the election and its aftermath unfolds, with an expulsion or two in the event of street protests. And second: an IMF report that projected Ethiopia’s growth this year at only 4.6 percent, much lower than the double-digit growth that the EPRDF has packaged its election campaign around. But a media monopoly (Ethiopia’s small private press has so far remained irrelevant) ensures that the majority will not hear from the IMF.
Finally, and more seriously, a bomb blast in Adi Daero, Tigray, killed five people and injured 20 others on Saturday, days after EPRDF-supported rebels attacked a military camp inside Eritrea. “The Eritrean government is clearly behind it,” said an Ethiopian government statement a day later, and now the popular sentiment in Tigray is growing for a military strike against Eritrea. “There is widespread belief that Meles habitually treats Shabiya with kid’s gloves. May be this will be the catalyst that will drive many voters into the arms of Arena (Gebru’s party),” says a pundit. Such calculation on the part of the EPRDF leadership at the height of the election season could endanger the uneasy peace at the Ethio-Eritrean border. “I don’t think there will be war. But an Ethiopian response of some sort is inevitable after the eletions,” said a Western diplomat upon my inquiry.
Thus all three events were of manageable episodes that did not risk to derail the elections from its almost scripted course. But there is an unpublicsized element in EPRDF’s calculation that is clearly troubling it. “Their obsession with street protests borders on paranoia,” says an opposition leader. “But they know that we are in no position to go down that road.” But scores of pundits cite the lessons of history and acknowledge the reason behind EPRDF’s unease. “The street protests of 1992 and 2005 were not instigated by political groups,”says a pundit. “It could happen all over again. And they know that.”
However, with the disarray in the opposition increasingly dominating the news, the prospect of mass street protest is diminishing if not disappearing. Disappointment and anger is rife amidst the public after a faction of UDJ, the party of Birtukan Medeksa, upped its challenge against the legal leadership of the party this week by instigating a brawl at the party’s head office in Addis. “Their timing is terrible. They could have waited until the elections are over,” says a prominent member of the opposition. “At stake is the image of not only UDJ but the entire opposition.” The faction convened what it said was a congress/convention of UDJ two weeks ago and elected Professor Mesfin WeldeMariam to the position of First Deputy President.
A ten-point statement released after the meeting declared the suspension of UDJ’s leadership, which includes Seye Abraha and Negasso Gidada, upheld the party’s original program; and refuted the rational for UDJ’s membership in Medrek. Proceedings of the meeting have already been submitted to the electoral board, which registers political parties, according to sources, raising the prospect of an awkward legal snag for the eight-party coalition, Medrek. “I don’t expect them (the EPRDF) to do anything before the elections,” says a political pundit, “but this will be useful to break the will of Medrek after the elections.” Ten people, including Professor Mesfin, were detained by the police on Thursday after fist fights broke out between the two sides, outraging the public, and, say pundits, damaging the image of the opposition. “What effect this will have on the opposition’s prospect in the elections this year is an open question. But a political backlash against the Professor is easy to predict,” said a pundit as he watched images of bloodied heads and broken car windows on state television.
UDJ has condemned the move by Professor Mesfin WeldeMariam et al, and is insisting that the meeting had nothing to do with it. “We have confirmed that the permit issued for the meeting was not in the name of UDJ,” said Asrat Tasse, an executive committee member, a day after the meeting. “We have seen the permit issued.” Few expect Professor Mesfin’s minority to garner much public support for what has been viewed as a last minute nihilistic spoil-sport effort, but pundits still expect it to forge ahead, blindind by fury against the majority that expelled it – unfairly, it says– from the party. In yet another contentious move, Professor Mesfin accused the American spy agency, CIA, of being one of three principal actors responsible for CUD’s post-election breakup in his recently published book, Aguteni. “He makes the assertion,” says a high school teacher, “but offers no explanation.” Indeed. But that is only because there is no plausible explanation.
BRIEF NEWS FROM ETHIOPIA.
Compromisng National Security?
Two high-flying journalists from state media were imprisoned at the end of last week, allegedly caught while negotiating to sell film footages from the archives of ETV to the Qatari-based Al Jezzera television. HaileYesus Werku and Abdulsemed Mohammed, both of ETV, now face the specter of long prison sentences under a stiff anti-corruption statute.
The case is being handled by the Anti-Corruption Commission, whose oversight was controversially transferred from parliament to the PM; after, according to sources, it pried too aggressively on senior EPRDF members. Since then the PM’s significant action has been to sack and demote its naively independent minded female head, herself a veteran of the armed struggle against the Derg, to head an obscure government housing agency, shattering institutional credibility and morale of employees.
ETV spokesperson Tesfaye Mengiste’s remarks against the journalists, whom he accused of “compromising national security”, has been widely derided as hysterical and symptomatic of the politicization of state media. “The state media now are more than news organization to them now,” says a ETV journalist. “The mere act of independent thought is now actively discouraged and penalized as it is in the EPRDF.”