Politics and the Press in Ethiopia: An Interview with Journalist Abiye Teklemariam

DECEMBER 8, 2009: ADDIS NEGER ANNOUNCES ITS IMMEDIATE CLOSURE, CITING PERSECUTION OF ITS EDITORS.

Abiye Teklemariam (b. 1978) is a founding editor of Addis Neger (“New Addis”), Ethiopia’s leading dissident newspaper. I was introduced to Abiye by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and took the opportunity to interview him on May 25, 2009 at Ledig House in Omi, New York, where he was in residence working on a book about the prospects for Ethiopian democracy. Currently, he is doing a media and democracy project as a researcher at the University of Oxford. A follow-up interview is anticipated for early 2011 in Addis. These interviews will form the basis for a chapter in my book, Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with African Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press). -Ron Singer

[Note: all material in square brackets has been added by the author -RS]

RS: Tell me about your early life and motives for becoming a dissident journalist. [Abiye was raised in Addis, where he was educated and got his first degree, in Law.]

AT: I formed a lot of my opinions in later years, in university. The poverty, etc. a lot of things that were happening, led me to sympathize with the fate of others. I did not think at that time that my path was journalism. I turned to journalism in 1999, eight years after the Derg left power. [The Derg, a Marxist dictatorship mostly under Mengistu Halle Mariam, b. 1937, ruled Ethiopia from 1974-1991.] When I was working on my Masters, it gave me time for reflection. I realized we can’t practice law without the context of society-culture, the political regime, and so on. I decided I could best serve my country by working in either politics or political aspects of my country. [In 1999, still a lawyer, he started writing for newspapers about human rights and the law.]

RS: What is the relationship between Ethiopia’s two most recent governments?

AT: The Zenawi government [Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, b.1955, head of the Ethiopian People's Democratic Revolutionary Front, in power since 1995] is not like the Derg, which tortured and terrorized people. The Zenawi government sees itself as modern, democratic … but there is a gap between what it says it is and what it really is. It uses very systematic ways of harassing people. Despite the dramatic differences in style, both are, yes, dictatorships. Zenawi is one of the most educated guys in Ethiopia, has the best intellect and best understanding of the world even among the new breed of African leaders. He got his Ph.D. from Columbia -after seventeen years of leading the war against the Derg. There is none of that cult business, with pictures in public. He’s now fifty-four, knows how to trick the West. For example, he characterizes the press as “extremists,” but also cites the press as evidence that Ethiopia is a democratic country. Like all our leaders recently, he is very short! But no Napoleon complex, more of a self-effacing, thoughtful, measured manner that he assumes internationally, when he speaks English. He claims at conferences, and so forth, to be a mere spokesman for his party and people, and doesn’t go out of his way to demonize the opposition. But at home he is crude, a menacing bully and dictator. All the so-called independent elements in the Ethiopian government do what he says. He sounds a lot different in Amharic, arrogant and snarky. In Parliament, he demonizes the opposition. His command of language is excellent.

[I mentioned a panel discussion which I had attended at the 92nd Street Y, in New York, where Abebe Zegeye, an academic who studies human rights, was outspoken until asked a question by someone who identified himself as representing the Ethiopian Consulate. After that, Zegeye visibly clammed up. Abiye said that, yes, Zegeye, who works out of South Africa, would want to be able to get back into Ethiopia. He must have realized the man from the Consulate had been sent to spy on him.]

RS: What about the roles of well-known pro-democratic activists, Mesfin Wolde-Marriam [b.1930] and Adam Melaku [b.?]?

AT: They’re both teachers. Wolde-Marriam is a very principled man, he’s stood up for rights for years. I don’t consider him as a person who can forge a democratic way for Ethiopia. But his ideas have influenced a lot of the younger generation.

RS: What of the changes the Derg made: to redress long-standing ethnic and gender inequalities? Can’t those be characterized as “progressive”?

AT: The Derg was kind of a pseudo-Marxist organization, emulating eastern Europe and Russia. Some of their courses of action do make them appear “progressive,” but I don’t think they were, not at all. Women’s rights were pushed by the Derg, yes, but they had already been pushed by Haile Selassie [1892-1975]. “Equality” under the Derg was Robespierrean equality -everyone was poor, equal opportunity killing, equal opportunity torture. So, no, they were not progressive. The Derg was a reaction to Haile Selassie and to feudal systems. In their first few years, they redressed ethnic imbalances of power

RS: Isn’t that a good thing?

AT: Well, yes. But ethnic politics brought other problems, problems of national identity. The ethnic politics genie left the bottle and destroyed the raison d’etre of the state. Now the government is a weak confederation [although, on paper, a Federation], but also a dictatorship. In practice, it is a unitary government with Zenawi exercising all real power through his personal brilliance, brutality and tactics. As the years passed after the 2005 election, they became like all groups that stay in power too long. After seventeen years, a quagmire of corruption. And after all their sacrifices before that … . Even Mugabe [Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, b.1924] once had a vision for his country. What happened after he got in power was completely contrary to what he was before. The new Ethiopian government also had a vision, and they tried hard, at first. Now they’re interested in staying in power -that’s all.

RS: What type of journalist are you? Do you cover events?

AT: I’m a political analyst. Others on my paper cover; I analyze, afterward.

RS: How is the press in Ethiopia controlled?

AT: A predecessor paper to Addis Neger, called Meznagna, was shut down just after the 2005 election. Now they don’t shut you down, they harass and harangue and use trick tactics to scare you. You don’t know when they act, and when they don’t act. You write something very critical and important, expecting the worst. Nothing happens. But a month later, you write this innocuous, silly article, and suddenly you’re arrested and thrown in jail for ten days, released just before the CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists] can get involved. That has a chilling effect. You try to be as cautious as possible. They are very careful, very systematic.

RS: Has the diaspora played a role?

AT: Yes, the internet has enabled the diaspora to play a role in Ethiopian affairs. In 2005, at their long-distance urging, when it became apparent the election had been rigged, elected opposition legislators decided not to take their seats. This triggered an anomalous reaction by the President, who put the protesters, as well as their vocal press supporters and lawyers, in jail for eighteen to twenty-four months. In effect, this spelled the end of the Ethiopian opposition, at least until today.

RS: What role does ethnicity play in Ethiopian politics today?

AT: Zenawi’s base is very narrow, his own ethnic group, the Tigray [6.2% of the population], at the northern tip of Ethiopia. The Derg tried to eradicate this group and to give power to groups from the traditionally oppressed south. Haile Selassie’s dynasty was Amharic. The Tigray and Amhara are similar, two historically dominant groups, not numerically, but in terms of power. They also have had a serious, long-term power rivalry. In recent times, the Amaharic had ruled for a hundred years, then the Derg, so Tigreans had been out of power a long time before Zenawi.

RS: Can’t he expand his power base, get beyond ethnic support.

AT: Once ethnicity is injected into politics, as it has been, it is very difficult to get away from it. Even if you deliver important services to a region, they’ll still vote for their own. The same thing happened after the recent Kenyan elections [2007]. Once ethnic politics is out of the bottle, there is great trouble putting it back. Meles understands that, always tries to rally his base.

RS: What has Addis Neger said about Somalia?

AT: We think Ethiopia has exacerbated Somalia’s problems, which are very serious and complex. Our intervention there was mistimed, mismanaged, and there was a lot of bad calculation. They went in again last week [May 21, 2009], just after Susan Rice [Obama appointee as Permanent Representative to the U.N.] visited Ethiopia. Most Ethiopians have been in favor of the policy of weakening Somalia, continuously since the Derg, because of territorial issues raised since the independence of Somalia in 1960, with the subsequent attempt to unify all ethnic Somalis -including Ogaden [Ethiopian province]-into “greater Somalia.” Ethiopian governments have wanted to destabilize, to fragment, Somalia. In 2005, the Islamists looked like unifying and controlling Somalia, so Ethiopia stepped up interference. Neither did the U.S. want Islamist rule, but Ethiopia feared it more. The Ethiopian government has also used the Somalian scare to divert people’s attention from their own domestic failings.

RS: What approach does Addis Neger take to the Federation issue?

AT: We certainly don’t go out of our way to say we are ruled by a majority regime! There are groups in Ethiopia who say that the country is one nation, and there are groups in Ethiopia who say that it is not one nation. So what we say to them all is, okay, but we have to agree on a system, we have to come up with a solution in-between. Some think the second camp [those who say Ethiopia isn't one nation] is just a fake creation of the elite of some groups. But the hegemonic government is also the creation of an elite. Ethiopian politics is elite politics. No mass participation at all. The claim by elite groups that “the people want this or that” is just a claim. Nobody knows what the Ethiopian people really want, as Ethiopia has never had a grain of democracy. All these ideas are created by the elite, so the elite have to sit down and come up with a solution.

RS: So you favor more federalism and more democracy?

AT: Yes, we favor that., some kind of stronger federalism which incorporates the ideas of both groups and much more democracy, much more individual freedom and equality.

RS: Who is your paper’s audience? your readers? Are you elitists?

AT: We are criticized for this. Given literacy, education, and the structure of Ethiopian society, yes, we write for the elite. Even the figure 39% given for literacy is not for the kind of literacy needed for these arguments, for which functional literacy is more like 14%. The educated have a lot of influence, get a lot of respect, in a country like ours. If I go to my father and tell him to vote for an opposition candidate, he will do it. So we write for those who have this influence. Our paper is very analytic, like The Guardian.

RS: Tell me about your book.

AT: I’m dealing with the possibility of democracy in Ethiopia. Not the approach of looking for broad elements of Ethiopian history and culture as beacons for the future. But looking at how the progressive movements in Ethiopian history, where national identity was forged, like those in the history of Europe, can be seen as bases for future democracy.

RS: Are there any questions you’d like to ask me?

AT (laughs): No.

RS: Then we should stop. Thank you so much. What will you do now?

AT: Wait for my dinner.

Ron Singer’s writings on Africa have appeared in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, democracy now, The Georgia Review, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He also writes poetry, pro ...read more

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