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 the world, 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, Baalu 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 sell 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-page 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 soared 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 wine. 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.”