Encounters With The Good, Bad, And Ugly Faces Of African Power
By Charles Onyango-Obbo - Meles Zenawi; Encounters With The Good, Bad, And Ugly Faces Of African Power
With Meles in his office in Addis Ababa, March 2006: In private he wasn’t the grim Big Man we saw most time in public. He could afford to smile.
When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died on August 20, he took with him not just a secret about himself, but also about other strongmen-cum-reformist African leaders.
That secret – or rather mystery – is why they resort to pulling fingernails and become intolerant of dissident – when they don’t have to and could do much better with a more liberal and democratic approach.
For nearly three weeks before Meles died, the Internet had been abuzz with gleeful claims that he had passed away in a Belgian hospital. And when it was officially announced that he had, there was no shortage of his many enemies celebrating his death. The excitement of it all was shocking.
I met Meles for the first, and last, time in early March of 2006. There had been hotly contested elections in March 2005. The opposition accused Meles and his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition of a massive theft of the vote. There were protests all over the country with the most violent ones being in the capital, Addis Ababa.
Meles cracked down on the protests with a vengeance that shocked his international allies and horrified many Ethiopians. He pulled pages out from the darkest days of Ethiopia’s murderous military junta leaderMengistu Haile Mariam .
Nearly 100 people were killed.
I was part of a delegation picked by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) – together with CPJ Africa Programme Director Julia Crawford, and veteran journalist and CPJ Board memberCharlayne Hunter-Gault – to travel to Ethiopia to plead for the many journalists who had been arrested in the crackdown and charged with treason.
We met Serkalem Fassil, then a 26-year-old beautiful Ethiopian woman. She was, officially, publisher of the Asqual, Menelik and Sanetaw titles. She was five months pregnant, and had been in prison since November 2005.
Eskinder Nega, her fiancé, had been in and out of prison seven times in the past few years. He was the real power behind Asqual, Menelik and Senataw but put Serkalem’s name on the titles as publisher because she was less controversial. (A few weeks ago in July, Eskinder Nega was jailed for 18 years for allegedly writing an article that violated Ethiopia’s controversial anti-terrorism legislation. He was arrested after publishing a column questioning the arrests of some journalists).
Eksinder and Serkalem were both being held at Kaliti Prison on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Kaliti was then a sprawling prison. In the hot season, according to prisoners’ accounts, the cells turned into a sauna. In the cold season they became an ice box.
Until our visit, Eskinder and Serkalem had not been allowed to see each other. That, however, was not their main concern: their biggest fear was whether their child, their first, would be born in prison.
They were among the nearly 27 journalists arrested in a crackdown on the independent media in the wake of the protests.
In addition to the journalists, more than 100 opposition politicians, NGO activists, lawyers and trade union leaders had also been arrested and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional order and to commit genocide and other serious crimes for which punishment ranges from 15 years in prison to death.
Scary place to be a journalist
Serkalem at a recent event in the US where she received the PEN Award on behalf of her imprisoned husband, journalist Eskinder Nega (Photo by Mohamed Ademo/Opride).
Eskinder and Serkalem were likely to spend the rest of their lives behind bars – if they survived the hangman’s noose.
Ethiopia then, as today, was a very scary place to be a journalist. At that point, if you threw in other cases of journalists who had been arrested over cases unrelated to the post-election fallout, Ethiopia had the highest number of scribes in prison in Africa, and the third highest in the world after China and Cuba. Many had fled – and continued to flee – into exile.
It’s a situation that seemed unlikely even in the final days of the campaigns in May 2005. At that time the government gave the opposition unprecedented access to state broadcast media. On weekends they got as many as four hours of airtime.
While up to 2001 the government had been one of the leading jailers of journalists in the world, it improved its record dramatically and opened 2005 with hardly any in prison.
Then hell broke loose.
For example, partly because the opposition used text messaging to deadly effect to organise, the government banned short messaging service (SMS), and the restrictions were still in place when we arrived… and left.
The irony, though, was that despite the crackdown Ethiopia still had the freest press in the Horn of Africa, testimony to how desperate conditions for journalists were and remain in the region.
A lot of the bad stuff seemed odd, given the changes that had taken place under the Meles-led government and indeed continued to his death.
Ethiopia had just pulled off what most African countries outside South Africa struggle to accomplish – it had completed new runways and a world class airport at Bole. Even at that point, the drive to the south-western city of Nazareth would have been a humbling experience for many other Africans from misruled countries.
The government had done, and continued to do, impressive work on rebuilding infrastructure and a credible industrial economy was already taking form, far ahead of other countries where the big industries are the ones that make curry powder and plastic chairs.
The feverish building boom that has today transformed Addis Ababa from a sleepy ramshackled city of past years was one. One Ethiopian observer was so carried away then and claimed that more housing had come up in Ethiopia in the past decade than in the past 100 years.
And Ethiopian ministers weren’t the unremarkable type you tend to find in most countries in Africa; Meles seemed to pick the best and sharpest. In some ways, that was bad news for the independent press and opposition.
It meant they were up against a government side that was quite accomplished at framing its arguments, whether you agreed or disagreed with them.
Even after hearing that Meles was one of the most articulate African leaders, I was still struck by how brilliant he was when we met him.
In recent years, Ethiopia and Rwanda were the only two African countries to meet the target of increasing agricultural production by 6-8 per cent annually.
They also had the continent’s most impressive record in reducing malaria infections.
Yet all those changes failed to produce the natural result in Ethiopia – a long-term expansion of freedom and democratic space. Instead, the opposite happened.
On the third day of visit, our delegation was informed that in addition to meeting Justice minister Assefa Kessito and his minister of State, the sharp-suited and cerebral Dr Hashim Tewfik, and the State prosecutor the next day, we had been granted access to Kaliti Prison to talk to the jailed journalists.
Then the big one: the Prime Minister would meet us later in the evening.
It was only the third visit by foreigners that the Ethiopian government had allowed to the prison to meet the November prisoners, and the only one whose members had been allowed to inspect the living conditions of the female prison.
A protocol officer was on time with a car to drive us to Kaliti. In a striking similarity with Rwanda, everything worked with clockwork efficiency.
Not allowed books
A teary Serkalem (left)…recently in the US with an equally teary PEN director Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who was part of the CPJ delegation to Ethiopia in 2006 to plead for her release and that of several other journalists. (Photo by Mohamed Ademo/Opride).
The prisoners confirmed what we had been told, that they were not being allowed books. Nega was literarily in tears about his pregnant fiancée Fassil, desperately pleading that he would do anything, and accept any condition, for her to be released or granted bail.
Serkalem wasn’t alone. A pregnant internet journalist, Ferezer Negash, was also being held at an Addis Ababa police station, although she hadn’t been formally charged in court. She had been granted bail but the police refused to release her.
We raised the issue with government ministers and were told that if the courts had released Ferezer then the decision should be respected. The next day Ferezer walked free but police continued investigations in her case.
Having been in the dock more than 100 times myself while I was managing editor of The Monitor in Uganda, I felt a little despair. Unlike me, none of the Ethiopian journalists had libel insurance with an international firm or the money to hire the lawyers to do a fair battle against a government that, obviously, did its homework.
Eventually, the hour for the meeting with the Prime Minister arrived. All of us in the delegation had met a few prime ministers and presidents, but we were caught out by Meles.
We drove from Kaliti Prison straight to his office. At the gate, they didn’t ask for our IDs or check our rucksacks that were weighed down by recorders, cameras, notebooks and lots of paper. They just waved us through.
The PM’s protocol officer met us and led us up the red-carpeted stairs. The cameras of the state TV and newspaper were at hand to do the honours.
We entered the reception where we were joined by Fesseha Tesfu, a powerful senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a self-effacing man and staunch ally of Meles. He had served for 14 years.
After about 10 minutes we were ushered into Meles’s lounge, where he was waiting. There had been no identity or security checks, nor was there a bodyguard in sight from the time we were waved through the gate.
Opposition ‘not an existential threat’
Given the political tensions, especially in Addis, I had expected to find a paranoid Meles court feeling under siege. No such thing. Later, Meles gave us a hint about why he felt so confident, saying the opposition-led post-election protests didn’t pose “an existential threat” to the government.
That the government responded with force not because it felt a threat to its control but only to stop the deaths and destruction of property.
Several people warned us to “beware of the charm” of Meles before we went to him; something he had in common with the then so-called “new breed” of African leaders like Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. So we immunised ourselves against being swept off our feet.
We soon confirmed something else that not many people had told us but we had had the wisdom to anticipate: Before you met Meles, you did well to stay up late grasping your subject, and working out a clever strategy for confronting him. Otherwise, he would reduce you to pieces.
Having formed a very negative impression of him from his grim public countenance, I was surprised that Meles had a sense of humour and actually did smile a lot in private. And, unlike other leaders who talk about themselves and “my” government, Meles was scrupulously careful to speak about “we” in cabinet, government or the party.
He also went to great trouble to give the impression that he couldn’t grant you a wish or request using his power as PM.
I was puzzled. There was a Meles who seemed to have everything to create a democracy and leave a great legacy. Yet, for many in Ethiopia, he was nothing more than a vindictive dictator and Tigrayan tribal warlord.
And, in fact, his wife Azeb Mesfin (Ethiopia is one of the few countries in Africa where, by tradition, women don’t change their names on marriage) had become the first African First Lady to be elected to Parliament (Winnie Mandela only made it after her divorce from Nelson Mandela).
Before running for Parliament, Mesfin had rarely been seen in public. But she was believed to wield a lot of power, partly because she was heading Mega, the business arm of TPLF, which is the dominant party in the ruling EPRDF coalition.
Meles avoided humiliating us by sending us away empty-handed from the meeting. He acknowledged that it was wrong for prison authorities to deny the journalists books, and told us it must be because of a small bureaucratic misunderstanding that would be resolved.
He also said it was a mistake to deny Eskinder and Serkalam visiting rights simply because they were prisoners, and that that anomaly too would end. At the end of the meeting, he said we could visit the prison again the next day, Saturday, and deliver books and other supplies.
We split assignments. Mine was to gather the books from well-wishers, buy what I could find, get vitamins, and deliver them to Kaliti.
The genial prison boss, who introduced himself only as Abraham, was waiting. Happily, the prison authorities didn’t censor the books, despite a few of them having edgy titles with subversive words like “dictatorship”. I haven’t had many pleasures like I had that day passing the books.
After our meeting with Meles, Eskinder was allowed to see Serkalem for the first time in prison. Shortly after I arrived, the two of them came walking hand-in-hand, something they hadn’t done in more than four months.
The first time we had been to Kaliti, Serkalem was being escorted away as Eskinder was being brought to meet us because we could only talk with the prisoners one at a time.
They stopped briefly, hugged, kissed, then the prison warders led them away. It was difficult to watch.
There was really one book that they desperately wanted; it was for Serkalem. It was a pregnancy book. Both she and Eskinder were overcome by emotion when they saw it. They walked away, with the book clasped under Serkalam’s armpit.
Still, the day ended in heartbreak. The journalists had seen us on state TV meeting Meles. They were eager to know what “good news” had come out of the meeting with the PM.
Whatever I said, I knew they were hoping for only one simple word from me – freedom. But that was the one item that hadn’t been categorically on offer. Only the amnesty if the courts found them guilty was what Meles had offered.
Serkalem’s and Nega’s son was born in prison. They named him Nakfot (meaning longing for or missing someone).
In early April 2007, nearly a year after our mission, a court found the journalists guilty. Meles kept his word. On April 10, 2007, Serkalem, Nega and the other journalists were granted a presidential pardon.