Journalist in a paper democracy
Interview with Eskinder Nega
2011-05-12, Issue 530
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Understandably, the democratic risings in the Middle East and North Africa make the rulers of neighbouring countries very nervous. Since all of these rulers have at least a skeleton or two in their own closets, they worry about anything that looks as if it might spark discontent.
Ethiopia, a democracy on paper, is actually under the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF). Recently, riot police briefly detained and threatened long-time dissident journalist Eskinder Nega. According to an email Eskinder sent me on 14 February, here is what happened:
‘Meant to respond earlier but heavily armed riot police picked me up last Friday and took me to their second in command. He accused me of trying to incite an “Egyptian like protest in Ethiopia” and warned me that the government is losing patience with me. “We are tired of imprisoning you,” he told me. “This time it will not be imprisonment." And I just don't know if he is bluffing or not. Since then, they have made it a point to be visibly present wherever I am.’
The content of some of Eskinder’s recent blogs suggests the government’s motives for this threat. First, there was Eskinder’s implied call for the armed forces not to obey government orders to put down hypothetical protests, and for diplomats to defect:
‘The military is all the EPRDF has in Ethiopia … In the unlikely event that it will remain fiercely loyal to the EPRDF in the face of nation-wide mass protests, civilian fatalities that run in the low hundreds, as is officially the case for the 2005 post-election riots, will be too much for the international community. This is not 2005…
‘EPRDF could count on even less officials to stay faithful to it. This will be particularly true of its diplomats …Perhaps the only faithful embassy left will be the one in Beijing. But nothing is certain even there.
‘All in all, the message to the EPRDF from Libya is crystal clear: don’t fight change. You will not win.’ (Addis Voice, 11 February 2011, http://addisvoice.com/2011/02/libyas-gaddafi-and-ethiopias-eprdf/)
Then, there was his open letter to Meles, suggesting that he resign forthwith:
‘You have essentially wasted the two decades with which you were blessed to affect change. In place of pragmatism dogma has prevailed, in place of transparency secrecy has taken root, in place of democracy oppression has intensified, and in place of merit patronage has been rewarded.
‘Ato [Sir] Meles Zenawi: the people want—no, need—you to leave office. The people are closely watching events in North Africa as I write this letter. They are debating the implications for Africa, including Ethiopia. And they have been inspired by the heroism of ordinary Libyans.
‘Listen to them before it’s too late.’ (Addis Voice, 7 March 2011, re-posted on Ayyaantuu Oromiyaa)
In the February post, Eskinder referred to the watershed events of 2005–06, when the press covered peaceful student protests in the aftermath of rigged elections. More than a dozen journalists were arrested, including Eskinder and his wife, publisher Serkalem Fasil. Some wound up spending as long as 18 months in jail, and their newspapers’ licences were revoked. In the aftermath, the independent press in Ethiopia, which had blossomed between 2000 and 2005, all but disappeared.
Eskinder was one of those hardest hit. In the course of two long interviews in Addis Ababa in February, he told me the horrific story of the circumstances attending the birth of his son in prison. This story goes well beyond previous accounts of the same events by Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International. (For those accounts, see, for instance, http://www.ethiomedia.com/above/2050.html.)
Surprisingly, our interviews ended on a very optimistic note. Eskinder, who has suffered ruinous fines and has not been licensed to publish a newspaper since 2005, predicted a peaceful course leading to a democratic future for his country. This prediction gives the lie to the government’s perception of him as a destructive rabble-rouser.
RON SINGER: … And then [2005–06] you’re back in prison, and your son is born. How long were you in prison that time?
ESKINDER NEGA: A year and a half. Both of us. My wife was less than a month pregnant when we went in. We didn’t know she was pregnant.
RON SINGER: When the child was born, did your mother care for him?
ESKINDER NEGA: Born in prison. I’ll tell you why… I struggle with this experience every time my child catches cold. I’ll tell you why. About 15 days after we went into prison, a cellmate of mine who met Serkalem in a police hospital told me that she had tested positive for pregnancy. I was surprised, I was happy, this was our first child. I was 100 per cent sure they would let her go.
RON SINGER: She hadn’t been in prison before, right?
ESKINDER NEGA: No, no, her first time.
RON SINGER: Another reason to let her go.
ESKINDER NEGA: Plus, they were careful about not imprisoning husbands and wives at the same time. Except us. Her brother was there, too.
RON SINGER: A family reunion!
ESKINDER NEGA: They knew the minimum those they arrested would get for the charges were life sentences. So they didn’t want to destroy a family. But they were particularly angry at us. Despite pleas from everyone, including Mary Robinson, [UN High Commissioner for Human Rights], to [Prime Minister] Meles [Zenawi], he specifically refused. So she gave birth in prison. That’s not the worst part: I could understand that…
RON SINGER: Please go on.
ESKINDER NEGA: We’re not complaining about that. If someone is a suspect, pregnancy is not a legal reason, at least, to release them. This is a political case, so the question is if the government should have behaved like this. But, as far as the legal framework is concerned, they are within their rights.
RON SINGER: Okay.
ESKINDER NEGA: But that’s not the point. What they did was, before she gave birth, they denied her a…
RON SINGER: … pre-natal exam?
ESKINDER NEGA: No exam up to the seventh month. Though we insisted several times. Finally, and this is when Meles’s office intervened, her blood pressure was so dangerously high that they insisted she should stay at the hospital. They admitted her and had to do a Caesarean. They took the baby out prematurely because they said it was a choice between his life and hers. About eight months, plus he was underweight, because she wasn’t eating properly, she was under stress. So the baby came out, and she was under anaesthesia. Before she woke up, the doctor decided the baby needed to be put in an incubator. This was a life-saving decision.
RON SINGER: Do you know how much the baby weighed?
ESKINDER NEGA: No. Since there was no incubator at the police hospital, they took the baby to Black Lion Hospital, the largest in the country. Serkalem didn’t wake up. At the hospital, they wanted to know who the parents were. They said, ‘The mother’s in the hospital.’ The Black Lion people said, ‘Okay, someone needs to sign for this baby to be placed in an incubator, either the father or mother. In case something happens to the baby.’ The response of the police officers that were in charge of the baby was, ‘You know, the father is in prison.’ So they said, ‘Let the father sign.’ But they said, ‘No, the father is in prison.’ Then, they wanted to know why the mother and the father were in prison at the same time. And they said, ‘Because of the election.’ Now the Black Lion panicked. They said, “Unless one of them comes here, we’re not going to take the baby. Take back the baby!” Imagine!
RON SINGER: And you didn’t know any of this, you found it all out later?
ESKINDER NEGA: Months later. So they took the baby back to the police hospital. When the doctor asked what happened, they said one of the parents had to come to sign. They couldn’t take Serkalem, she was a prisoner, with three heavily armed guards outside of her room. So the police hospital called the prison and told them, ‘You know, this is an emergency, we need one of the parents to go there and sign, this is a life-saving situation.’ Since Serkalem couldn’t come out of the hospital, it had to be the father. The prison officials said it was a very difficult decision for them, that ‘We have to seek guidance from higher authority.’
RON SINGER: And they didn’t mean get down on their knees and pray.
ESKINDER NEGA: Exactly. We have no idea who they asked. But the permission was denied, and the baby was denied an incubator. They were so frightened about the baby dying in his mother’s embrace that they took the baby and put him in a separate room. Imagine! In a separate room, in a bed, alone. They shut the door and left. When Serkalem woke up, there was no baby. So she got out of bed and tried to walk out of the room. She wanted to know where the baby is. The guards wouldn’t let her out, but they told her, ‘You know, talk to the nurse.’ The nurse was called, and Serkalem said, ‘Where’s my baby?’ The nurse said, ‘It’s in the next room.’ Serkalem said, ‘Why is it in the next room?’ She couldn’t give her an answer. Serkalem wanted to go out to the next room, but the guards said, ‘You can’t go, this is not allowed.’ Serkalem said, ‘Shoot me!’ She opened the door and went to the next room and opened the door. There was our baby, all alone in a bed.
RON SINGER: A little baby.
ESKINDER NEGA: A little baby in there. Can you imagine that? So she took the baby without asking permission of the nurse or the guards, went back into her room, and kept the baby, put it on her chest. She didn’t know about the details.
RON SINGER: About the incubator, the going back and forth…
ESKINDER NEGA: No. It was so tiny she was startled. But her maternal instinct … she kept the baby there, and the baby survived.
RON SINGER: It started to eat. It’s lucky it was strong enough to do that.
ESKINDER NEGA: Yes. And it survived, despite the odds, despite the pessimism of the doctors.
RON SINGER: How much does your child know about this story?
ESKINDER NEGA: He’s only four years old, he wouldn’t understand. But … he’s all right. And … I’ll tell you what happened. About a year and a half ago, one morning he got up, and he had this facial paralysis. We went berserk, there’s no other word for it. We lost it. I blame the government. But, fortunately, he’s a child, he just needed physical therapy, he recovered 100 per cent.
RON SINGER: Did he have to take medicine?
ESKINDER NEGA: No, no medicine.
RON SINGER: Did they have any idea what caused it?
ESKINDER NEGA: No, no idea. Anything happens to him now … this was the most serious health crisis that he had. In other ways, his health is perfect, by the way.
RON SINGER: That’s wonderful.
ESKINDER NEGA: He’s never been sick, he’s the healthiest little boy you could think of.
RON SINGER: He’s a survivor.
ESKINDER NEGA: Yes, but every time he catches cold, we have to struggle with what happened to him. Our only child, by the way.
RON SINGER: You must be tempted to leave the country.
ESKINDER NEGA: The first time I was ever tempted to leave was when he had his facial paralysis. That was the only time I really thought about leaving. But, if anything happens to my child … I believe in forgiving, by the way, that we shouldn’t have any grudge against the EPRDF [the ruling party], despite what it has done. I believe that the best thing for the country is reconciliation. I believe in the South African experience, that model.
RON SINGER: Do you think this party, though, could ever turn to becoming a really good party for the country?
ESKINDER NEGA: That’s the only way. We have to hope against hope.
RON SINGER: You know, I always come back to the fact that Meles is a very pragmatic man. If he were sure enough of his power, his pragmatism might make him realise, ‘I’d better go in that direction.’
ESKINDER NEGA: I hope so. But it wouldn’t be because of his shift of attitudes. There has to be pressure on him from the ground.
RON SINGER: He’s also an authoritarian, he has the combatant’s mentality. [Meles was a leader in the brutal war against the previous regime, the Derg.] But it’s possible his good angel will get the better of the other one.
ESKINDER NEGA: Maybe. But, if you look at the South African example, it wasn’t the architects of apartheid that changed it. It took de Klerk, someone within the system, but who had a different perspective.
RON SINGER: There are others in the system here, too?
ESKINDER NEGA: I hope so. But, ultimately, what I think will make the difference is great pressure from the ground, from the people, as we are witnessing in Egypt now. And then I hope the EPRDF will be pragmatic enough to realise reform would be the better option, even for itself. I hope we’ll be able to avoid a revolution.
RON SINGER: If there was a referendum in the country today…
ESKINDER NEGA: I think there’s a consensus for democracy, even among farmers. People deep in the countryside, people who are not literate, even, are now conscious that the government needs their votes to be legitimate. This is a revolution in thought.
RON SINGER: And it’s very hard for the people, because of the way the kebeles [local administrative units] have been taken over by the government. It’s dangerous for them to think that.
ESKINDER NEGA: Exactly. But the belief that the government, any government, needs the people’s vote to be legitimate, is a new phenomenon. This is what democracy is all about.
RON SINGER: So change is not a matter of whether, but when.
ESKINDER NEGA: Yes. I have to go now.
RON SINGER: Just in case we’re being photographed, I’ll give you a cold handshake, instead of a hug.
ESKINDER NEGA: Very American. It’s been nice talking to you.
RON SINGER: A pleasure. Thank you.
This interview, which took place at the Jerusalem Hotel, Arbegnoch (‘Patriot’) district, Addis Ababa, was recorded by a government spy, presumably a policeman or member of the security services. After we started talking, a very ordinary-looking man sat down at an adjacent table in the nearly empty hotel restaurant and used his cell phone to capture the entire interview, including the patriotic and optimistic conclusion.
Part One of this article ended with Eskinder Nega’s optimistic prediction about Ethiopian democracy. Earlier, he had presented a theory that buttresses this prediction. His thesis: ‘Because of identity, the question of who is an Ethiopian and what my place is in Ethiopia, democracy is very important here.’
RON SINGER: How important is it to the country that it has viable democratic institutions, like a free press? I’ve heard people say that if you develop the country – support the farmers, build roads, build infrastructure – no one will give a damn about a free press or free elections. Except for a small elite and interested parties. The other part of this argument is that we can’t afford to have freedom in this country, because we have such a legacy of instability and violent conflict. And because the opposition is so irresponsible. Paul Henze has been an apologist for that view. [Layers of Time: a history of Ethiopia. New York: Palgrave, 2000.]
ESKINDER NEGA: All politics are the outcomes of history. Ethiopia has a unique history in Africa, much as, say, the Balkans, in Europe, or Japan or Thailand, in Asia, have had a unique history. The content of our politics is different from everywhere else in Africa. At the core of our politics is, as left-wing intellectuals define it, the national question. That’s the bone of contention in our politics.
RON SINGER: What do you mean?
ESKINDER NEGA: We could call it, as the left also does, the ethnic question. But that’s not a good description, either.
RON SINGER: It’s also about federalism, sovereignty, borders?
ESKINDER NEGA: Federalism. It’s about identity. That’s a non-ideological description of it. Elsewhere in Africa, the dominant political class has accepted the nation state, as has the Left. Except for a minority of Somalis, the overwhelming majority of Kenyans accept the idea of Kenya.
RON SINGER: Even though they killed each other over the last elections.
ESKINDER NEGA: But within Kenya: it’s about taking a larger piece of the cake. But not about identity in the way it is in Ethiopia. A similar example would be before the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire or the pre-1917 Russian empire. It’s about Ukrainian, Georgian, and Armenian nationalism. Because of identity, the question of who is an Ethiopian and what my place is in Ethiopia, democracy is very important here. Our state was not created by Europeans. It was created by indigenous forces. It started from the North and expanded to the South.
RON SINGER: And, except for the two Italian wars, the significant conflicts were between elements within Ethiopian society, right? Like the conflict between Yohannes lV and Menelik.
ESKINDER NEGA: Exactly.
RON SINGER: But wasn’t that an ethnic conflict?
ESKINDER NEGA: No.
RON SINGER: But it had to do with [the Amhara king] Menelik’s trying to establish a Greater Ethiopia with himself in charge, opposing Yohannes, who was the reigning Emperor, a Tigrayan.
ESKINDER NEGA: It was about primacy, a power struggle, nothing to do with ethnicity. The basis of Yohannes’ power wasn’t only Tigray.
RON SINGER: And now you have an uneasy ethnic federalism.
ESKINDER NEGA: That’s why democracy is so important to Ethiopia. Because we need it to moderate the differences between civilisation and civilisation, to use [Samuel] Huntington’s term [‘the clash of civilisations’] There are three: the East, which you could call an Islamic civilisation; the south, African; and the North, the Abyssinian.
RON SINGER: And one of the most important functions of democracy is to moderate among them.
ESKINDER NEGA: Yes.
RON SINGER: Well, the government tries to moderate them in some ways, such as giving certain rights and more and more autonomy to the Oromo [as a way of disarming secessionist groups]. But those who don’t like what is going on there –a reporter is not even allowed to speak with them, under the treason law. So you can’t have the development of democracy.
ESKINDER NEGA: They’re trying to dictate the pace of democratisation. The EPRDF acknowledges that Ethiopia needs federalism [i.e. some decentralisation of power]. For all the ethnic groups. Luckily for us.
RON SINGER: But the EPRDF insists on controlling the system. By claiming the country is not ready [a claim supported in Assefa Fisseha’s Federalism and the accommodation of diversity … Nijmegen, the Netherlands: Wolf Legal, 2007]
EESKINDER NEGA: Yes. And, after 2005, there’s been backsliding. Ethiopia is still a highly centralised country.
RON SINGER: In the revised edition of his book, Marcus talks about how the people of this entire region have to get beyond the old divisions: The feudal mentality, defending Abyssinian interests, Eritrean nationalism, and so on. The region will only become peaceful when democratisation occurs and people see their common interests.
[Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia (Berkeley: University of California Press, updated ed, 2002]
ESKINDER NEGA: Exactly.
RON SINGER: He sees the war and separation of Eritrea and Ethiopia as disastrous for the former, not good for the latter. But what’s the likelihood that these changes will occur?
ESKINDER NEGA: The alternative [to democratization] would be the break-up of Ethiopia.
RON SINGER: Nationalisms become virulent if there’s no democratisation.
ESKINDER NEGA: Exactly. That’s what makes our experience unique, the danger that our history creates if democratisation does not occur.
RON SINGER: Without it, you’re stuck with the old model of the country.
ESKINDER NEGA: Yes. The longer this change is delayed, the more likely the country will explode. I think what the EPRDF is doing, willingly or not, I don’t know, is repeating the mistake of the Derg in Eritrea [using force to resist local nationalism].
RON SINGER: I see.
ESKINDER NEGA: There’s no alternative to bringing in the OLF [Oromo Liberation Front, the separatist group] and the ONLF [Ogaden National Liberation Front,a Somali separatist group].
RON SINGER: Are there people in government telling Meles this?
ESKINDER NEGA: Unfortunately, not.
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* These two interviews with Eskinder Nega will be incorporated into a chapter about the press in Ethiopia in Ron Singer’s book, ‘Uhuru Revisited’ (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press).
* Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.
* In a 1999 interview, pro-democracy activist Chief Anthony Enahoro (1923-2010), made a somewhat similar argument about Nigeria, where the British installed the Northerners, who are still trying to keep power in order to control resources, and where democracy would mean more federalism – i.e. decentralised economic and political control. The recent re-election of the Southerner, President Goodluck Jonathan, has been said to signal the end of a half-century of neocolonial Northern hegemony in Nigeria. But, to use Eskinder’s (and Huntington’s) terms, even if the Nigerian clash involves culture and religion, it is not quite a clash of civilizations. And fifty years is not fifteen-hundred. (See Ron Singer, "Champion of Democracy: An Interview with Chief Anthony Enahoro," Friends of Nigeria Newsletter, Spring, 1999 (reprinted in African Link, Vol 9, #2, 2000). [www.friendsofnigeria.org/Newsletter_files/vol3_4.htm – Cached]
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