Letter from Ethiopia - June 14, 2005

Tizibt Mezgebu


Dear Readers:

This year, the Kremt started much earlier in early May and there was a general feeling in the country that good tidings were upon us. And in the weeks preceding the election, even the most skeptic citizens of the city and the country who had never thought that they will ever vote in their lives were walking around proud with their voting registration cards. For some months, a wind of hope and excitement blew in almost all corners of the country. A great sense of newer things coming and a belief that each and every one of us was playing a role prevailed in these short and brief few months.

On Sene 1, 1997 last Wednesday, however, that time felt like almost 50 years ago as I drove like a mad person - like most parents in Addis ababa - down on Africa avenue to pick my two children from school. In the confusion of the day and the breakdown of mobile service, I was not even aware that my husband had managed to pick the children and thought that my world was turned upside down when I could not find them in the premises of the school. It was only later in the evening that things calmed down a little bit with the children and the extended family members around, that we came to learn of the extent of evil that had descended on our city on that fateful day. A family that has lost two young boys to a bullet, a mother shot by a Kalashinkov right on the head, a father shot from a mere 10 or 15 in Merkato as he was selling berbere were just a few of the people among the 26 people killed by TPLF army units. And about the wounded, 'bet yiquTerew' is all what one can say with a sense of exasperation and despair.

On Thursday, Sene 2, 1997, work was the last thing in mine and as well as many parent's mind. Convinced that Meles was - this time - targeting our children, younger brothers and sisters, no parent wanted their children to leave the premises of their houses. The people in Lideta, Merkato, Tekle Haimanot area, and Addis Ketema were the ones who took the brunt of this brutality of a government and most people in the city were asking and checking to see if any near or far relative, a friend or even a distant acquaintance in these neighborhoods was affected. Even with a teaming 3.5 million people, no one in Addis Ababa is without a root - not even the 'balager' person who arrived a few weeks ago - and everyone knows someone in almost all corners of the city. Therefore, the death of these 26 people and the wounding of hundreds, some of them who are still in the hospitals was felt and is being felt by the vast majority of the Addis Ababa residents. Hurling insults at Ethiopians - cheap insults unexpected from people occupying government positions - has always been a trademark of the TPLF era. But to hear Bereket Simon calling these victims - youngsters whose faces, looks, young age, aspirations for a better tomorrow, and impulses are just like the children that I have and many parents in Addis Ababa have - as 'duriyes', 'street gangs' and the like was like witnessing the killing of these 26 people again and again. In the midst of tragedies like this, in a very strange way, some honorable act of the human race shows up. Just like every Ethiopian, I must say, I was a witness that many Tigreans were genuinely shaken to the core. Four days after the event, I am yet to meet any Ethiopian or foreigner who was not disturbed, disgusted, and angered by this brutal act of Meles. As of now, we do not know what God has in store for us but senses of fear, anger, and sadness seem to be plenty. Speaking for myself, however, I think wish to see Meles pay up for his acts is an added sentiment.

So, what actually happened between mid-May when we thought a new Ethiopia seemed a possibility to mid-June when Mengistu Haile Mariam was reincarnated as a bold-headed, Lenin-looking, 'ager'-selling, children killing, arrogant Meles? The attempt to find an answer to this question is what I struggled with the past four days and what eventually sent me to the keyboards of my laptop computer to write a letter to a column that I had not done for long. I am not a trained politician or Historian or any other professional who may have intimate knowledge of these kinds of things. But, I am a parent of young children who - like all young people around the world - are full of dreams for a better opportunity and life. Equally important also is the very fact that I belong to this generation of Ethiopians who still struggle with what and how to make a contribution to this country that will make her lot better.

I think (and I stand to be corrected on this) what happened on Sene 1, 1997 was long coming. Meles came to Addis Ababa on a mission on a platform of the most exclusionary nature - that of 'zer'. When you have a country of 74 million people with more than 75 languages and dialects and hundreds of small and large ethnic groups, attempting to rule it by dominating it with just one ethnic group is a call for unpopularity, when less severe passions are aroused, or outright hatred and disgust in the real world. So much has been written and so much said that this dominance by just one ethnic group is wrong, dangerous and something that had to be stopped immediately. TPLF never listened. Meles made it a fashion to insult people who challenged him with these arguments. It became the state religion for 14 years. And if you talk to any TPLF cadres, they will tell you that their mission is to extend this rule, this interpretation of history, to another 100 years and if possible for a millennium. While the cover for this story and the way it is packaged to Ethiopians as well as foreigners have changed over the years, the core belief and the party line have not changed an iota.

But then history has surprises. In this case, the surprises arise from two factors that Meles has to deal with. I call them the 40% factor and the Meles character factor. The 40% factor refers to the fact that for the past several years, the country's dependence on foreign aid has increased to such an alarming extent that we now have as much as 40% of the country's budget covered by direct donor aid. For the first time in our history, we now get a direct budgetary support of dollars that goes straight to the budget. With this staggering aid that now numbers in billions of US dollars, the donors do of course expect something in return. We are lucky that they are not asking for our souls or conversion to a new religion or abandoning Ethiopian script and adopting Qube! But, these folks are reasonable people; so they just would like to see some sort of 'good governance' that may require an election. An open and fair election will be of course the ideal. But as far as these folks are concerned, even a symbolic one that has some resemblance to traces of openness is good enough. Look at Musharaf of Pakistan and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and you will get an idea about what I am talking about.

Enter the Meles character factor. Like all of us, there are some passions that drive and define Meles; some are inborn, others are acquired. Talk about Eritrea and Assab and see how Meles reacts and you will understand what I am talking about. Relevant to our discussion here, however, is Meles' acquired test for being known abroad as a 'progressive' and 'Renaissance' leader. Meles had relentlessly pursued acceptance and admiration from Western leaders. Nepad and his position on the G8 advisory group are perhaps what PM Meles holds very dear in terms of his accomplishments. These positions demand that Meles acts as a democratic figure to at least the outside world. The PM has obsessively cultivated this perception of his and it now seems that he was determined to make the election of May 2005 as democratic as he can.

But, the esteemed Prime Minister forgot something! That he is hated and resented and blamed for Ethiopia's ills from the loss of Assab to the organized exploitation and fraud of the country's economy by the TPLF and its parastatal organizations never registered in the minds of the PM. His utter disregard and contempt of opposition forces was something he carried till the last few days preceding the election. His now infamous and disturbing 'interhamwe' comment was the only clue that he was eventually entertaining doubt about his popularity and political dominance in the country.

Fast forward to May 13, 2005 when the largest assembly of Ethiopians ever in 3000 years of the country's history came out in full force to express support that Meles eventually saw the possibility that indeed this 'election' exercise may be a bad gamble as far as he is concerned. The news of the loss of all parliamentary seats in Addis Ababa was the last straw that exposed that Meles was out of touch. What he did in declaring an almost a martial state on May 16, 2005 was predictable and what completed the reincarnation of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in the blood and flesh of PM Meles.

As a final note, however, I want to ask and if possible answer the same question of preparedness about the opposition party. Almost two or two and half years ago, I was in South Wello traveling for work. Incidentally, Ato Hailu Shawel's party had arranged a public meeting. Since another two years or so remained before the election, I was perplexed why the Engineer had traveled all this distance to talk to peasants and city dwellers alike on the May 2005 election. Out of curiosity I had attended the meeting. What I remember most was the almost certainty that Ato Hailu and his deputies showed that they will win the majority of the seats. I even talked later to one of the deputies and remember telling him that I expected that Weyane will allow them to win only 40-50 seats which I added will be a great victory. Two years after that event, I now know that I was wrong then. It is now clear that the opposition had indeed known that it will win the election as long as it was fair. Were they, however, ready to what awaited them and the country on May 16th and beyond? My next letter (if I get around to writing it when time permits) will deal with that. But till then, like all Addis Ababa parents, I have children to worry about and many weeks of anxiety and fear for this country.

Becher Yigtemen.

Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa)

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