By Eskinder Nega*
Here is an impossibility for all but the exceptionally wealthy in Addis these days: schooling all your three children at the remarkably expensive Sandford English community school in Addis Ababa, where the landed gentry of Haile Selassie’s era easily schooled their children but which the top officials of the Derg shunned for financial and ideological reasons.
But PM Meles Zenawi, who officially lives on a miserly government salary, and whose father had famously insisted that “he (Meles) does not even know what a 100 birr note looks like,” not only has schooled all his three children there, but is also now sending his eldest daughter to Britain’s most exclusive school, Oxford University. And my first instinct was to pose to the woman sitting in front of me, Aregash Adane, who is contesting for Meles’ parliamentary seat in Adwa, and was briefly his adviser, what I thought would be a witty question: Is Meles Zenawi a multi-millionaire? But most interviews rarely go according to script, particularly the interesting ones; and when we parted, I had not inquired about her thoughts on Meles Zenawi’s whooping deficit between his official income and his children’s astronomical school expenses.
But all is not lost. She had in fact provided me with a crystal clear response, albeit indirectly, when the issue of transparency had come: “We had nothing, and I mean literally nothing, when we captured Addis,” she had said unblinking, sure, and intense. “But it did not take long before some officials started living way way beyond their means. We were on the verge of establishing a committee (in the CC of the TPLF) with broad probing mandate just before we left the party.”
Fast forward almost ten years to 2010, and the committee has yet to see the light of day.
The meeting in Adwa a little over a week ago was summoned in the name of Medrek, a coalition of eight parties that pundits say is the main challenger of the EPRDF this year, so Seye Abraha was legitimately part of the ensemble that faced between 1000 to 1500 residents of Adwa at city hall. I met with Aregash to talk with her about this meeting, her thoughts about Meles Zenawi and her prospect of winning.
The plan in Adwa called for a speech by each member of the ensemble, which consisted of Ambassador Awalom Weldu, Ethiopia’s first and only Ambassador to Eritrea, whose younger brother, Abay Weldu, is slated to take over the presidency of Tigray after the elections; Gebru Asrat; Aregash and Seye; and then time for a question-and-answer session. But the EPRDF (most probably Meles Zenawi himself, since no obscure official in Adwa would risk a scandal in his constituency) had other ideas. “They were about seven or eight of them,” told me Aregash, “quite young, obviously confident and, we were to be told later, overtly backed by the authorities who were standing outside aiding and abating them to break up the meeting.” But at least each of them had time for short introductory speeches, quite liberally interposed by calls for order by the young thugs. “We had to stop the meeting prematurely, much to the consternation of the people who had come to listen to us, to quiz us. But we had no choice. They did not want the questions and answers session to take place. We only had time for short introductory speeches. We were forced to stop.”
Welcome to Ethiopia’s election 2010, the reality behind the rhetoric. But Aregash has not given up. “We will go back again,” she promised me. “The people want their freedom.”
Aregash was a rare university graduate amongst TPLF leaders, with a first degree in social work from what was in 1973 Haile Selassie University, a year before the popular revolution that brought the Derg to power. “I was a member of Abeyot (Revolution),” she said, surprising me. And when I inquired if that was the same Abeyot that merged with the EPRP, she nodded. “Getachew Maru et al decided on the merger. When we objected, we were told that the decision had already been made. Abeyot had a distinct identity, and the question of nations and nationalities was an important part of it; something that the EPRP frowned upon.” This was in the mid ’70s when political activism was at its peak, and Aregash, hearing of the establishment of the TPLF, left Addis for Tigray. But a year was to pass before the organization was ready to accept female fighters. Once in though, she was to rise rapidly, eventually joining the most important decision making body, the Central Committee.
I reminded her how Redwan Hussien, an EPRDF executive member and its star debater, had recently gone on the offensive against Gebru in a nationally televised debate about human rights. “As to Gebru Asrat,” had said Redwan, inducting his punch line, “didn’t you and your friends leave the EPRDF by proclaiming ‘death to imperialism; we should be building Socialism, our democracy is more perfect than Clinton’s,’ who at that time was President of the US?”
She leaned forward when she answered this time, her emotion clearly stirred. “Where in the world was he when we left? Certainly not in the EPRDF. He is merely parroting what he has been told.” And on she went to explain how Eritrea was at the core of the controversy. “We had internally conceded that we had made mistakes about Eritrea. Shabiya (the EPLF) was kidnapping, even assassinating, people all over Ethiopia. It was manipulating the foreign currency market with impunity. The only thing that was left was to go public with our findings.” But the issue of Bonapartism, suddenly introduced by Meles Zenawi, fought for center stage, eventuating in the split.” Bonapartism is a relic of 19th century Europe,” she said, contempt visible on her face. “It has no relevance to our experience.”
So what kind of a person is Meles Zenawi? I asked for her personal impression about her electoral opponent. She took time to respond, taking time to think. “He leads the EPRDF, and the EPRDF insists on winning all the time, no matter what. What the people want seems to have no relevance.” And here suddenly props up a question in mind: “Does the EPRDF love power?” Her answer is prompt, startling me. “All this clamor is for power. What else could it be for? There is nothing wrong with seeking power as long as it’s sought to serve a higher cause, as long as it’s people centered. But it’s a problem when it becomes an end by itself, and I fear that is where the EPRDF is. That is why we are having all these problems.”
But why should voters in Adwa choose you over Meles, I ask her. And suddenly her face relaxes, a woman spoke to me from the heart: “Because people know what I have been through, what I have given up for the truth. They know that power had not corrupted me. These are the values that appeal to people. They have seen that too many have succumbed to the trapping of power, and they are disgusted by it. I could defeat him given a playing field. And though my party is seriously under funded and is allotted a very limited time on state media, we shall prod to the end. We had overcome the impossible before. And we could very well do it once again.”
Read the entire Interview : Welcome to Ethiopia’s Election
* The writer, Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years in the limbo, Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: email@example.com.