Jul 302011

By Eskinder Nega

Book pub­lish­ing had its golden age in the 60s and 70s. So did the­ater. The sin­gu­lar genius of Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, whose mag­nif­i­cent adap­ta­tions of Shake­spearean plays are arguably the best of their kind any­where in the­world, inspired and to a large extent sus­tained a rare, lively world of African the­ater. It may still be the best in Africa. Books and lit­er­ary mag­a­zines thrived on mul­ti­tude of tal­ents, Behalu Girma, Seb­hat Gebre-Egzabher, Berhanu Zer­i­hun, and many oth­ers. Good books eas­ily sold tens of thou­sands of copies.

The 80s and 90s were less pleas­ant. Tsegaye was dis­tracted, first, by the nation’s new rulers, whose eth­no­cen­trism he abhorred, and later on, by ill-health. (He died in the US in 2006.) And in the world of book pub­lish­ing, the explo­sion of pri­vate news­pa­pers in the mid-80s lit­er­ally became an exis­ten­tial threat. Good books could barely sale 5000 copies anymore.

But there have been the occa­sional best­sellers. Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s book-formatted inter­views prob­a­bly hold the record in this regard, report­edly sell­ing in the tens of thou­sands. Berhanu Nega’s take on Ethiopia’s pol­i­tics in 2006, writ­ten, smug­gled out and pub­lished while he was still in prison, was unavoid­ably a run­away suc­cess. Seye Abraha’s book was also suc­cess­ful but could have done bet­ter had less space been devoted to court pro­ceed­ings and more to pol­i­tics. (He has promised such a book in the future. A good book from him could set a new record.) And now there is a lat­est entrant to this select league, Negaso Gidada’s book-formatted inter­views. (There were of course many more suc­cess­ful books over the years. But I can’t pos­si­bly detail them all here. Sorry.)

Enti­tled “Negaso’s journey”(Negaso’s menged) and writ­ten by Daniel Tefera, a young jour­nal­ist, the 384 pages book was released in Addis Ababa about two weeks ago. Here is Negaso nar­rat­ing his early life, rem­i­nisc­ing about stu­dent pol­i­tics, reveal­ing new secrets about the EPRDF and expound­ing his vision for the nation verbatim.

Nat­u­rally, at a time when pub­lic dis­ap­proval of EPRDF’s cor­rupt and infla­tion rid­den author­i­tar­i­an­ism has climbed to an all time high, the most allur­ing parts of the book lie in the chap­ters about the rul­ing party.

Here are 5 EPRDF inside sto­ries revealed by Negaso in this book.(There are more but you will have to buy and read the book.)

1. On mur­der and impunity

On page 213 Negaso addresses the issue of per­for­mance reviews in the OPDO, one of four con­stituent mem­bers of the EPRDF coali­tion. Even when appar­ent breach of law by offi­cials was estab­lished, pros­e­cu­tion was not auto­matic, Negaso says. They were merely trans­ferred to dif­fer­ent positions.

In one shock­ing instance, “a stub­born and spite­ful offi­cial, whom I would rather not name pub­licly, was accused of mur­der (but was not pros­e­cuted,)” Negaso discloses.

2. On Major Gen­eral Abadula (now Speaker of the Fed­eral Parliament.)

Abadula Gemeda (nom­i­nal chief of the army in 2000) was in Paris when news of fall­out between TPLF lead­ers broke out, recounts Negasso. But after his return he was quick to throw his lot with Meles. He and two other active-duty Oromo Gen­er­als, Bacha and Alemeshet, who were con­sti­tu­tion­ally com­pelled to stay out of pol­i­tics, were soon lob­by­ing for open sup­port of Meles.

We (Negaso and Kuma, leader of the OPDO) insisted that the mil­i­tary should stay out of pol­i­tics,” says Negaso.

But the Gen­er­als were adamant that with the TPLF weak­ened by inter­nal strife, the ANDM was becom­ing too pow­er­ful in the EPRDF. OPDO must sup­port Meles and but­tress its stand­ing in the EPRDF, they maintained.

We rejected their argu­ment and opted to rec­on­cile TPLF lead­ers,” says Negaso.

But access to palace grounds, where Negaso was housed as the nation’s tit­u­lar Pres­i­dent, was sud­denly pro­hib­ited and peo­ple could see him no more, frus­trat­ing the effort.

When I inquired with secu­rity, I was told the order had come from Tefera Walewa,” explains Negaso. The pres­i­den­tial title notwith­stand­ing, he was unable to over­ride Tefera’s order. He was trans­formed into a vir­tual pris­oner in the grand palace.

Meles clev­erly used the ANDM,” he says.

But ulti­mately, even if unsaid by Negaso, devoid as the ANDM has always been of a capa­ble lead­er­ship, it was never really in a posi­tion to dom­i­nate the EPRDF. Meles’ stand­ing has always been secure, and he most prob­a­bly knew it.

3. On Meles and Seye Abraha et al

And there is Negaso’s grip­ping (and dis­turb­ing) nar­ra­tion of Meles’ account of the fall­out between him and his best friends, Seye Abraha et al.

We took away their jack­ets and threw them out naked,” bragged deranged look­ing Meles at an EPRDF meet­ing days after ille­gally expelling almost half of his party’s senior leadership.

I was flab­ber­gasted,” says Negaso. “I imme­di­ately told him he sounded like Mengistu Hiale-Mariam.”

For a brief moment it seemed as if Meles had gone too far. There was silence in the room. But Genet Zewde, an ANDM mem­ber, sud­denly burst into tears.

How could you com­pare him to Meles?” she implored sobbing.

And abruptly Negaso was on the defensive.

I did not say he was Mengistu Haile-Mariam. I only said he sounded like him,” Negaso had to blurt out.

The tide turned. Meles was saved.

4. On corruption

Wor­ried by increased feed­backs from the pub­lic about the ris­ing tide of cor­rup­tion, Negaso approaches Meles demand­ing action.

There is noth­ing I could do right now,” replied an irate Meles. “Secur­ing con­clu­sive evi­dences in indi­vid­ual cases is eas­ier said than done. The smart move is to con­cen­trate on cul­tur­ally stig­ma­tiz­ing corruption.”

Negaso, how­ever, was unmoved.

My final impres­sion was that he was not seri­ous about fight­ing cor­rup­tion,” charges Negaso.( A UNDP report has recently revealed that Ethiopia has lost up to 3 bil­lion US dol­lar to cor­rup­tion since 1990. Senior gov­ern­ment offi­cials are prime suspects.)

5. On Meles Zenawi

We never had a close per­sonal or work­ing rela­tion­ship,” says Negaso. He has been to his house only a cou­ple of times.

Meles is a heavy smoker. “(Some lead­ers of the EPRDF) are heavy smok­ers, but Meles smoked much more than every­one else.”(Isn’t this a sign of ingrained anx­i­ety?) His favorite drink is red win. He is, no sur­prise here, tem­pera­men­tal, and occa­sion­ally, “his choices of words are not always wise.”

There are also his arbi­trary deci­sions, Negaso reminds read­ers. “Gen­eral Tsad­kan and Gen­eral Abebe were dis­missed from their posi­tions arbi­trar­ily (and ille­gally.) He should have con­sulted the party but did not.”


The writer could be reached at serk27@gmail.com.

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