From the middle distance: Ethiopian journalist in exile
2011-07-21, Issue 540
Abiye Teklemariam (b. 1978) is founding editor of ‘Addis Neger’ (‘New Addis’), which, until 2009, was Ethiopia’s leading dissident newspaper. I was introduced to Abiye by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and took the opportunity to interview him first on 25 May 2009 at Ledig House, in Omi, New York, where he was working on a book about the prospects for Ethiopian democracy. A second, follow-up interview took place on 30 September 2010 at a restaurant in New York City.
On 8 December 2009, Abiye shut down ‘Addis Neger’ and fled Ethiopia, fearing government prosecution under a sweeping new libel law. Since the end of his sojourn in the US, he has been in residence at Oxford University. ‘Addis Neger’ now operates as a blog.
Highlights from the first interview include Abiye’s early life and path to journalism; a comparison of the current government of Ethiopia with its predecessor; a sketch of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi; ethnic federalism; government control of the media; literacy and democracy.
NOTE: For several reasons, the second interview was not recorded. Thus, the highlights which follow are a summary with, where remembered, paraphrase or quotation, which is indicated by speech prefixes: ‘ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM’ and ‘RON SINGER’. (The material has been vetted by Abiye.)
Abiye is currently working on three books: One on the possibility of democracy in Ethiopia (‘a huge project’); a second, on the post-Derg press in Ethiopia; and the newest one (for Africa World Press/Red Sea Press), which he is co-authoring with a colleague from ‘Addis Neger’, is a biography of Bertukan Medeksa.
Medeksa was jailed by the Ethiopian government in 2005, then pardoned and released after 19 months, when she struck a deal with the government. But when she returned from visits to the US and Europe, in reaction to infighting among the opposition, Bertukan formed her own party, after which she was rearrested. Because she had thanked the Ethiopian community in Stockholm for applying the pressure that led to her release, the Ethiopian government claimed that she had broken the terms of her pardon (which they said she had asked for, and they had generously agreed to). They demanded an apology for the speech, which she refused, so they rearrested her to complete her sentence – life.
A lawyer, judge, politician, very popular and charismatic, Bertukan was adopted by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. She is 36 now. Her life has been in turmoil, constantly in flux, since her graduation from university.
(In the face of intense international pressure, Bertukan was subsequently re-released, in October 2010.)
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: ETHIOPIA’S RETREAT FROM EVEN TALKING ABOUT DEMOCRACY
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: Since our last interview, the Ethiopian government has decided to do away with the façade that it was ‘transitioning’ to democracy. We had a feeling that this was a stagnating transition. Now it is going backwards.
RON SINGER: Maybe Meles realises the US needs him more than he needs them.
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: I think he needs the US for both international legitimacy and economic support. He knows, however, that there is no serious organised political alternative in Ethiopia. The US has interests, and it is a brute fact of realpolitik that they have to deal with what they have. With no encumbrances from the outside and with hegemonic domination domestically, he can call their bluff. One of the things he learned from the 2005 elections and their aftermath was that, if he opens any space in Ethiopia, his popularity is so low that any quasi-political party can push him out of power. He doesn’t want to take any risks now.
RON SINGER: What are his motives, at this point? It’s not to stay in power that much longer, is it?
[Meles said in a 22 September 2010 speech at Columbia University, in New York City, that he would not run for another term.]
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: He’s young still, he’s 55. He has no incentive to relinquish power at the moment. I am surprised when people believe his words that he will relinquish power. Tell me why he will. This is a question of political economy. He has little pressure from the Opposition. He has a network of supporters with different interests. He knows they support him because he has power.
If he relinquishes power and endangers their interests, they will be the first to turn the gun in his direction. He knows that, if he loses his power, he’s probably going to end up in prison or being killed. He’s a very good student of Ethiopian history. He knows that his only saving grace is his power. He’s experimental, he’s taken risks, he always learns from his mistakes. He’s made EPRDF [the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front], his party, a kind of personal entity.
And, as I said, he learned in 2005 that opening up space would cause an existential threat to his power. His reaction was to close down civil society, muzzle the press, shut down everything. Now everybody is aware of that.
ETHIOPIA AND THE US
Internationally, this [retreat from democracy] is well-known. The American government has gone out of its way to criticise that [retreat from democracy]. Not many sane people think now that this is a government that is transitioning to democracy. Obama talks a good game about democracy, but has done little to help.
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: Obama is very cautious. As far as talk is concerned, like openly criticising, he’s okay. But, action … very cautious, putting [little] pressure on the government, except publicly criticising them. What can he do? Create strong anti-Meles opposition? Is trying to do that his problem?
RON SINGER: Meles may have more leverage on him, our only ally in the region.
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: In terms of the Horn of Africa, if they (the US) have a holistic approach, rather than putting their eggs in one basket, they could probably do better than they are now. Involving Kenya, even Eritrea, to some extent. Instead of considering Ethiopia as the only serious ally in the region, you can make your own allies.
RS: Eritrea? Interesting example. A Marxist dictatorship, isn’t it? But we don’t care about that now?
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: [Laughs] They need a comprehensive approach to solving the region’s problems, pushing for a less militaristic approach: the Eritrea-Ethiopia border problem, Somalia’s problems…
RON SINGER: Can Somalia’s be solved at all?
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: Very hard, but the Ethiopian government is not helping, it is exacerbating it.
RON SINGER: You can hardly help yourselves with them.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT VERSUS HUMAN RIGHTS
So now he is trying to project an image of a very efficient leader, meaning that, even though he’s a dictator, he’s bringing a lot of economic development to Ethiopia. Meles compares Ethiopia to China, a one-party state with fast economic growth. He says, ‘This is not Congo, this is China.’ There is an argument about whether people should give precedence to good government and human rights over economic development. He’s trying to use that conversation to his advantage.
RON SINGER: That’s true all over Africa.
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: All over Africa. Meles claims that GDP growth has been 11.6 per cent. He’s massaging numbers, with the unfortunate nod of the World Bank and IMF. He is massaging numbers on Millennium Development Goals. He has an incentive to do that. His legitimacy in the past was based on his supposed democratic credentials. Now that it is exposed to be a big lie, he has created a new discourse. Serious scholars, like Stefan Dercon of Oxford, dispute his numbers, questioning Ethiopian agricultural productivity claims. The GDP growth percentage is probably about 6 per cent, but population growth is about 3 per cent, and [GDP is] starting from a very low base. So the discourse is a lot about economics, about numbers. For now, for strategic reasons, the World Bank accepts his numbers, gives him loans. But, like the discourse about democracy, he will be exposed soon. People will wake up to the fact that he’s not really bringing prosperity to Ethiopia, he’s just making up numbers, like in the old Soviet Union.
MELES’ FRIENDS & NEIGHBOURS
RON SINGER: So who are his friends among African leaders?
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: I don’t think he has friends, he’s well-respected, because he’s silver-tongued. He has a good relationship, not friendship, with [Ugandan leader] Musaveni and Rwanda’s Kagami. Maybe it is a case of birds of the same feather…
SUDAN AND SOUTH SUDAN
With Bashir, of Sudan, a friendship of convenience. Ethiopia is strong in that region, so Bashir doesn’t want to upset them, because Ethiopia will start helping the southern Sudanese. And the Ethiopian government doesn’t want to create a safe haven for their opponents in Sudan. Meles is hedging his bets on Sudan. If South Sudan splits off, Ethiopian territorymay be claimed by the new country. Even as Meles hedges his bets about what’s going to happen, it’s unclear. Some South Sudanese rebel leaders now in the coalition government are afraid civil war might result in a breakaway state, and they question whether such a state would be viable.
[In late June, 2011, under U.N, auspices, 4200 Ethiopian troops were dispatched as peacekeepers to Abyei, the contentious border region between Sudan and South Sudan. South Sudan became an independent nation on July 9th.]
STABILITY AND THE ETHIOPIAN FEDERATION
RON SINGER: Some people argue that Meles must keep the federation strong or centrifugal forces will pull it apart.
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: Some people argue that. I can see their point, but I think that, considering the last 150 years of Ethiopian history, considering the political upheavals in the 1950s and 60s, the student movement, and considering that some populations in Ethiopia are still restive, want more autonomy, trying to centralise power now is a recipe for disaster. The strains are such, especially in Oromia, where some regional autonomy has already been granted, that trying to reign in the existing autonomy would weaken the country, whereas putting into real practice the already existing regional autonomy could strengthen the federation. I know my proposition troubles a lot of my pan-Ethiopian friends. Our aims and aspirations are the same. Our differences are on the means to achieve it.
BACKGROUND AND EARLY LIFE
RON SINGER: Can you tell me more about your life, continuing from the first interview?
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: Well, nothing out of the ordinary, but … well, my grandpa used to work for the Italians, then the English. My grandmother, my mother’s mom, was the daughter of a very prominent family. Her father was a big man, one of Menelik’s warriors. When Haile Selassie came to power, one of the groups that lost out – there was a rivalry in the court – and my grandmother’s family lost out. Then, in the family feud, my grandma lost. She ended up with nothing, just dirt poor.
She raised my mother in very, very poor conditions in one of the shanty villages in Addis Ababa. My mom married at 13. My dad, who came from western Ethiopia, worked at this and that until he was recruited by the army. He was not a native Amharic speaker (spoken in Addis), and it takes time to adapt, it is difficult. He’s Oromo, she’s Amhara. I discovered very recently while I was doing my research that my father is from the Nono tribe, which fought Menelik’s occupation tooth and nail before Menelik dispatched his feared warrior, an Oromo himself, to beat them. My great grandfather may have been involved in the battles. So I am a descendant of a warrior of Menelik and a warrior who fought Menelik. Ethiopian history is not as black and white as some ideologues make it out to be.
My siblings…There are four of us. My sister, the eldest child, is a medical doctor. My brother is a geophysicist and an environmental engineer, he lives in Atlanta. The last one, my little sister, graduated from college last year.
RON SINGER: How did this happen? It sounds amazing.
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: Even for us, it’s amazing! We grew up in a very poor, rundown neighborhood called Negade Sefer. Many of our friends lost their way. At the age of six or seven, children had to participate in making money, because their parents were very poor. To make money, you had to go out on the street, sell things, and that means anything can happen in your life. So many lost their way, became prostitutes, members of gangs, addicts. For some reason, my mom, even more than my father, emphasised education a lot. It was like a miracle, because her upbringing, her life, didn’t give her any information about the value of education.
RON SINGER: Maybe she thought this was the way to repair her family’s fortunes.
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: Yeah, that was it. I was reading Christopher Hitchens’ ‘Hitch 22’. His mom reminded me of my mom. My mom was poor, but she was conscious of a life of travel, reading, luxury, enjoyment. She used to tell us, if we wanted these things, ‘You have to study hard right now.’ Her whole obsession was with travel. Cosmopolitanism, experience, meeting people, culture. How people liberate themselves. My oldest sister set the example for all of us. She used to come from school, covered with dust, and do most of the home-making, then study hard. She went to medical school when it was very tough to join medical school. My mother was strict, sometimes she did it too much, nearly killing us, stifling us. An iron lady, in that sense. She passed away in 2004, she saw all of us doing well, but not enough to enjoy it, we had just started doing well.
RON SINGER: How did your father feel about this?
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: Well, my mom set the house rules, and he followed that.
RON SINGER: Was that a common pattern?
ABIYE TEKLEMARIAM: No, it was not. She was very enthusiastic about education and made him very enthusiastic about it. He enforced the rules. She was very tough, but he also tried to control us and tell us … to do what our ma wanted us to do. But he was conscious of what education can bring.
Later on, after he left the army, he started working at an international organisation called ICC, International Coordinating Committee. He was working as a driver. His bosses were all very well-educated, and he knew about their salaries, life styles, the way they talked and lived. He now proudly says, ‘My son is in the Number One university in the world.’
He’s retired now. For many Ethiopians, education is a ticket out of poverty, to new cultural experiences.
Dad was thought for some time to have been killed in a battle [the war with Eritrean rebels]. When I was told my dad was dead, I was very young, three or four, so I couldn’t really appreciate what it meant. It was only after … when he returned, getting your father back tells you that you have missed a lot of life when he was away, though you didn’t know it at the time.
Abiye’s account of his life is illuminating. His origins give the lie to the pro-government canard that dissidents are all just disgruntled ethnic Amhara. Psychologists can mull over his mother’s primacy and his father’s return from the dead. His first career in the law, and the status of ‘Addis Neger’ in 2009 as Ethiopia’s leading internal dissident newspaper, offer a justification for the facts that, when the new terrorism law came into effect, he chose to shut the paper down and leave the country, whereas Dawit Kebede, his younger colleague, and not a lawyer, elected to soldier on in Addis by keeping his paper, Awramba Times, in operation.
The government threats which prompted the shutdown of ‘Addis Neger’ in 2009 have by no means ended. Probably in reaction to the wave of democratic revolutions in the region, on 11 February 2011, long-time dissident Eskinder Nega, who had written boldly about these dramatic events, was detained by the police, who issued veiled threats against his life before releasing him. A recent ‘avalanche’ of charges against the Amharic weekly, Fitih, includes libel suits of the kind that prompted the Addis Neger shutdown. Also arrested recently, and charged with terrorism, was Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of Awramba Times. According to editor Dawit Kebede, the harassment of Awramba may be linked to renewed Ethiopian saber-rattling against Eritrea.
(‘Newspapers and journalists face threats and legal pressure’, International Freedom of Expression Exchange: the global network for free expression (IFEX), 23 March 2011).
Among the other highlights of this interview are Abiye’s updating of Meles’ priorities, which, as of 2011, remains accurate. His fleshing out of the first interview’s sketch of the Prime Minister and his additional comments on ethnic federalism and democracy were both born out by my subsequent interviews in Addis during January-February 2011. Abiye’s estimate of US policy in the Horn seems astute and balanced, and, thus far at least, his comments on South Sudan are proving prescient.
I am unqualified to evaluate Abiye’s criticisms of Ethiopian government statistics and projections, other than to point out that, in an Addis interview on 26 January 2011, Tamrat Georgis, editor of the mainstream business weekly, Addis Fortune, made this cautious assessment of the government’s 2010 Five Year National Growth and Transformation plan: ‘What I really think about this plan is that it’s very, very ambitious.’
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* Material from both interviews with Abiye Teklemariam will be used in Chapter Four, ‘Journalism in a Paper Democracy,’ in Ron Singer’s forthcoming book, ‘Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with African Pro-Democracy Leaders’ (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press).
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.
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