Title: A Tale of Two Elections: A national journey that averted calamity
Page: 314 (two parts & 10 chapters)
Price: Birr 90
Printing Press: Mega Enterprise
Having been in charge of the public relations affairs of the government and the ruling party(EPRDF) for a decade, Minister Bereket Simon’s intimacy with the national politics is rivaled by few. That is part of the reason for the high public interest in his book, ‘A Tale of Two Elections: A national journey that averted calamity’ (in Amharic language), released last December. According to unofficial sources, the first edition has already sold-out.
Indeed, the book revealed several previously unheard events.
The Book’s main objective is stated in the foreword of the book as:
‘the first [election 2005] started peacefully and ended in violence, the other[election 2010] started and ended peacefully. In the first election the opposition progressed from 12 to 170 [parliament] seats, while in the second they regressed from 170 seats to one. While the ruling party greatly suffered in 2005 and it has thrived in 2010’.
Following the outcome of [the 2010 election], a widely raised question was that what are the reasons for such highly unparalleled results between the two elections held in five year period? To this question, opposition parties and EPRDF forward different explanations. However, the right answer can only be found out by a rational, as opposed to emotional, assessment of the process. That is what I attempted to do in this book. ’
Yet, the book is not a mere chronological narration of events that unfolded in the course of the two elections. Though it is organized in two parts and ten chapters arranged sequentially, it attempts to provide to the reader the political setting by going forward and backward, whenever necessary.
In a bid to provide a backdrop, Bereket Simon begins the book with a prologue chapter briefly discussing the 1999-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war, the 2001 intra-party dispute in EPRDF and the consequent reform of the ruling party: indicating that following the reform EPRDF underlined poverty is an existential threat and the development endeavor should outpace the gathering storm on the country.
By the time election 2005 arrived, Bereket recounts, the ‘race to avert calamity’ was just kicking off. Though the rural/agricultural sector embarked on the growth track as of 2003/04 fiscal year, the urban governance reform was in full throttle only by 2004.
Thus, Bereket claims, it was a time of uncertainty, similar to that described by the famous English novelist Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) in the opening words of his book A Tale of Two Cities. Dicken’s description, quoted by Bereket (in p. 45), reads:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The quote from Charles Dickens represents Berket’s central argument to explain ‘the reasons for such highly unparalleled results between the two elections’. One such instance is the paradoxical turn out for the rallies held by the ruling party and the opposition coalition, CUD, in Addis Ababa in the weekend preceding the polling day of election 2005.
It is to be recalled that, according to media estimates, some 800,000 to 1 million attended EPRDF’s rally on May 6, while 1 to 1.2 million turned out for CUD’s rally the next day. Given that the city had a population of 2.7 million (of which 250,000 under age 10), many observer agree that a significant number of the residents attended both rallies.
Different hypotheses are forwarded to explain the phenomena, including doubts on the accuracy of the estimates of the turn-out and the population size of the city.
Bereket Simon, however, considers the phenomenon natural, as it was ‘a time of transition’. He wrote:
“In a time of transition, where a firm consensus on major issues is lacking, it is not unusual to be seen alternating between optimism and pessimism, between support and opposition, between joy and despair.
A time of transition is an erratic one, where the public warmly acclaims positive developments only to recoil into opposition at the sight of discouraging signs. A time where the two aspects are displayed now and then, until the forces of brighter tomorrow eventually prevails.
This appears to be the reason that the attendee of EPRDF rally took part in the opposition rally the next day.” (p. 88)
A notable aspect of the May 7 rally was the infamous speech made by Bedru Adem, one of the leaders of CUD, who shouted a slogan: ‘we will send Woyane to where it came from.’
Bereket Simon chose to tone down the statement replacing the word EPRDF for Woyane and indicating that Bedru Adem apologized a few days later. (p.88-89)
However, if memory serves me well, Bedru Adem hardly apologized for statement, rather tried to justify it by claiming he meant to refer to EPRDF. Yet, the two terms are hardly synonym. It is a common knowledge Bedru Adem et al use the word Woyane as a pejorative term to refer to TPLF (one of the four parties that make up EPRDF), though it actually means ‘revolutionary’ in Tigray language.
As far as the extreme opposition is concerned TPLF and Tigray are perceived as one and the same. In fact, a few months earlier, another leader of CUD, Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam, scolded attendees of a public meeting held in Mekele, Tigray, by asking them why Tigrayans think alike as if products of a soap factory.
That is why on the second week of June 2005, when the first violence that left about 30 people dead took place, the now-defunct Addis-Zena newspaper run a front page news claiming Tigrayan women are brought to town to poison opposition leaders.(p._) The newspaper was owned by CUD leaders, including Berhanu Nega(PhD) and Eng. Hailu Shawel (later, his son). Even worse, the VOA (Voice of America) and Duetchwelle radios parroted the news in their local language broadcasts.
It is against this backdrop that CUD made the call for social ostracization in its statement that precipitated the Nov. 2005 violence, which cost more than 150 lives. The fourth point of the ‘Call for Civil Disobedience’, as quoted by Bereket Simon, states:
“4/ Measures of Social Ostracization: These measures are to protest against the blatant injustice and suppression. It is a means to demonstrate that the unacceptability of the inhumane acts of EPRDF, especially since the election, to warn those who are living amongst us and serving as its instruments and to stop their support to the government. This measure in general concern social ostracization of this kind of persons. It includes excluding them from social occasions of rejoice and mourning; banning them from neighborhood coffee ceremonies; in rural areas in particular, refusing to share them fire; and banning them from Edir and Iqub.” (p.174)
[Note:Edir and Iqub are neighborhood social organization that facilitate mourning and financial saving functions, respectively, in urban and rural Ethiopia.]
Of course, all the afore-mentioned and several other explosive public utterances are well-known to all including Human Rights Watch et al, who conveniently ignore them in their reports. While the opposition section of the Ethiopian public refuses to consider this as a major feature of the 2005 opposition movement, others argue that ignoring that aspect of the story is in the interest of national unity.
One of these reasons may explain why Bereket’s book didn’t dwell much on this feature of election 2005.
Westerner diplomats’ interference in Ethiopian politics is a recurrent topic in Bereket’s narration of the two elections.
An interesting revelation in this regard is a major an exchange between European Ambassadors and Berket Simon concerning a newspaper column written by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in May/June 2005.
Meles Zenawi’s three-part article, published in consecutive issues of the Ethiopian-Herald, a state-owned English language newspaper, was a stern criticism of the preliminary report of the then EU election observatory mission for misrepresenting the election process and for lack of objectivity. The last part of the article quotes Tina Terner’s song ‘What’s Love got to do with it’, while criticizing the report’s bias towards the opposition. The punch line reminded readers of an earlier statement by Ana Gomez, chief of the EU observers, that she hid opposition leader Berhanu Nega for a night in her hotel room when he claimed to be running away from the police.
Bereket Simon recalls, in the book, that he had a good laugh upon reading that line in Meles Zenawi’s article.
But the article was not funny for the then EU Ambassador Tim Clarke, UK Ambassador Bob Diwar and Austrian Ambassador Mrs. Briget. In fact, they marched to Bereket Simon office the day after the publication of the first part of the article to demand an immediate cessation the publishing of the article.
According to Bereket, the UK Ambassador expressed his displeasure with Meles Zenawi’s response to the EU observers, that Ethiopia is aggravating the situation. The Ambassador added, if the government doesn’t change course, it will pay a high price for it.
The EU Ambassador Tim Clarke, on the other hand, told Bereket that:
“Meles Zenawi has already gone to far. The [publication of] article shall be halted immediately.” (p.152)
In response, Bereket Simon reminded Tim Clarke’s previous refusal to address concerns regarding the nature of the election observers’ report, claiming that it is out of his domain. Then he said:
“I told you then that if the report lacks objectivity and becomes Ana Gomez’s political weapon, it will be considered as an act of war. In that case, we will fight back with all we got. That is what’s happening right now. You started the war. We are defending ourselves. The defensive war will continue until the end. And, Meles Zenawi’s article will continue to be published as planned. It won’t be halted!!” (p.152-153)
The Ambassadors went on to warn that the matter will affect aid, which Bereket snubbed telling them that they can take their aid where they please.
Even more interesting part of the story is that of the US Ambassador Aurelia Brazil who was present at the meeting. She stayed behind to inquire if Bereket’s strong remarks includes United States. Bereket told her it doesn’t and asked in return why she joined the Europeans.
Ambassador Brazil told him that she had not prior awareness of the agenda. The Europeans left her a message to meet them at Bereket’s office, where they told her that they wanted her “to witness the Ethiopian government washing its dirty laundry in public”.
In another part of the book, Bereket hints that Ambassador Tim Clarke was later demoted, same as the then Netherlands Ambassador, whom Bereket accuse of having hostile attitude towards the Ethiopian government and providing assistance intended to trigger a color revolution in Ethiopia.
The opposition parties and the private press is another area where Western diplomats meddle, Bereket’s book claims.
Bereket claims that western diplomats boss around opposition party leaders, who hope to grab power via foreign help, in addition to current financial needs.
Noting the level of condensation the opposition leaders put up with, Bereket poses a rhetorical question:
“how could the opposition leaders, who couldn’t guard their personal dignity [in their dealings with the western diplomats], can have the spine to protect the dignity of this proud nation and its people?” (p.142-143)
This is a nationalist tone typical of a man from Gondar, the seat of Emperor Tewodros in the 1860s. But, Bereket backs up his criticism by presenting an instance where the opposition leaders shifted their position after a scolding by the then EU Ambassador Tim Clarke during the negotiations following the June 2005 violence. That was not an isolated incident, as the book indicates several comparable instances.
For instance, during the 2008 local elections, UEDF, an opposition coalition led by Prof. Beyene Petros, boycotted the lection two days before the polling. Bereket claims in the Book:
“As we learnt later, it was a diplomat in UK Embassy who instructed UEDF to boycott the election at the eleventh hour.” (p.242)
The Book also indicates that the US Embassy had a major role in the now-defunct newspaper Addis Neger. Conceding the newspaper had a sizable readership; Bereket Simon indicates it could be a result of its attempt to present analyses, as opposed to the private press’s practice of printing sensational headlines with no substance, of which the public apparently got tired of.
‘The [newspaper’s] approach indicates that the editors recognized of the ideological bankruptcy of the opposition and the need to fill the void and that they are getting good professional advice concerning marketing. As the US Embassy, which helped the founding of the newspaper, has both the expertise in media matters and able to provide financial assistance, the it should be no surprise that the newspaper could performed well.” (p.249)
Citing unnamed members of the private press, Bereket indicates that then US Ambassador Donald Yamamoto suggested for the founding of this kind of newspaper. When Addis Neger was launched, the US Embassy provided the start-up capital and office furniture. Bereket reiterates that:
“Considering that Addis Neger used to spend upto Birr 40,000 per week, pays high salaries to its editors and run few ads, it is indisputable that it was subsidized by foreigners as it had no way of covering its huge expense from it revenue. But this was not consistent with Ethiopian laws.” (p.250)
Bereket indicates that the newspaper’s sales got a hit after the editors made positive remarks regarding the nation’s democratization in a TV program. That made them decide to leave the country immediately alleging political persecution to maintain their opposition credential.
Discussing election 2010, Bereket once again reiterates his central thesis. He claimed:
“[when election 2010 arrived], Ethiopians were already aware of their country was on the track of progress. It was clearly noted that EPRDF is the engineer of the national transformation which was taking place at a breakneck pace. Thus, by the time the election campaign began, few other than the opposition parties doubted that the initiator of this development marathon would come as a winner.
In a nutshell, the economic circumstance that gave EPRDF a 99% win can be described as a time when the glimmer of the reform was getting stronger, brighter and warmer. Indeed, the 7-years old Ethiopian renaissance had already been shortening the Winter of despair and lengthening to Spring of hope.” (p.213)
But EPRDF’s landslide win was also aided by a series of public relations disaster the opposition parties suffered, including their stance on the military offensive against UIC militants in Somalia.
The opposition coalition, Mederek, (which consists UEDF and hardliners from the 2005 coalition CUD), stands out in its attempt to recycle the failed strategies of 2005. In this regard, an election campaign rally Medrek held in Gondar city shortly before the election 2010 polling day would be demonstrative.
Bereket Simon, who was in the city for the inauguration of development projects observed:
“While traveling from the inauguration of one project to the next, we came across a Medrek party rally led by Andualem arage and Dr. Hailu Araya……We could not believe our ears when we heard Andualem and their entourage shouting “a Hero’s home is prison”……
We were amazed to hear this slogan from a rally in south Gonder, where the people considers Kimir dengay, Guna, debre tabor, etc, [the lowland areas], not prison, a hero’s home.
One of the comrades, who was embarrassed by the “Hero’s home is prison” slogan, said, “I bet Andualem and co. left their blanket at prison like Fasil G/yesus…”. Fasil G/yesus was a notorious offender in Gondar in the 1960’s. He was said to leave behind his blanket upon release from prison, anticipating his eventual return. …..
If Medrek leaders intentionally picked this slogan , it tell us a lot about the opposition and their leaders’ mindset. Since prison is not a place for law-abiding citizens, the slogan shows the opposition is not interested in respecting the law.” (p.294-295)
Bereket also described at length how EPRDF tried to engage Medrek in the inter-party negotiation, preceding election 2010, on electoral code of conduct.
Medrek’s unwillingness was not only a PR disaster, but forced its rotating chairman Proff. Beyen Petros to comment, during a telephone conversation with Hailemariam Desalegn (now Dep. Prime Minister), that:
“I am finding it embarrassing to represent this unruly organization”. (p.269)
Berhanu Nega made comparable remarks to Bereket Simon in 2005, as the book reveals.
Seye Abraha, who left the ruling party during the 2001 intra-party dispute, is another Mederek leader whose self-aggrandizement dismayed Bereket Simon.
Seye Abraha attempted to portray Meles Zenawi et al as sympathizers of the Eritrean ruling party claiming that they thwarted his initiative to prepare for and the Eritrean aggression that took place in 1999. However, Bereket claims, Seye Abraha was in fact acting as ‘sales officer of the Eritrean government’ in the period preceding the war. Bereket recalls:
“Since 1997, Seye made several trips to Asmara to lobby [president] Isaias to invest in Ethiopia. After securing President Isaias’s agreement for this proposal, which was Seye’s own initiative, he launched a major campaign to sell the idea to us [EPRDF leaders]. Though, he failed to convince us.
Not only did Seye tried to partner Isaias with EFFORT company in Tigray, but also tried to lobby [Amhara region leaders] to partner Isaias in TIRET company’s investments in Amhara region. Seye Abraha was advancing this kind of proposal while Eritrea was preparing for a war”. (p.289-291)
Speaking of self-aggrandizement, Berhanu Nega, now leader of the terrorist group Ginbot 7, comes to mind.
Bereket reveals what Berhanu Nega used to say to him when they privately meet in the run up to election 2005. Berket wrote in his book:
“whenever we met Berhanu Nega used to say: ‘Listen Bereket, it is only you and Kinfe [the late chief of the National Intelligence and Security Service] that I know in this organization[EPRDF]. Kinfe is no longer around, it is only you that I have left. If things turn out bad, I will take refuge in your home’……
I knew that Berhanu had no close relation with Kinfe. Berhanu, who deems himself clever than others, was hoping to trick me into helping him evade legal accountability by the mention of a martyr [Kinfe].” (p.91)
Bereket’s discussion with Eng. Hailu Shawel (chair CUD in 2005, now chair of AEUP) concerning Berhanu was another interesting revelation in the book.
It was in a dinner program, following an inter-party negotiation for the 2010 election, that:
“[Hailu asked] ‘what did you [EPRDF] confided to Berhanu Nega that made him avoid the May 7,2005 rally?’. I understood that Hailu was asking me believing that Berhanu was an EPRDF man. After responding that ‘no, we didn’t tell him anything’, I went to inquire ‘didn’t he attend the rally?’.
Hailu responded: ‘[Berhanu] claimed a day before the rally that he had to visit a sick relative in his home town [hundreds kilometers away]. And, he didn’t return until several days later.’” (p.90)
Bereket Simon speculates that Berhanu Nega chose to watch from distance.
I shall note that this is not all the book got to say about the topics and political actors mentioned above. And, there are several interesting issues that I didn’t raise here, including discussions of NGOs attitude during election 2005, the unofficial report by the EU-commissioned law firm which observed the CUD trial, several exchanges between Bereket and Berhanu Nega and also with Ana Gomez, the proceedings of the inter-party negotiations in 2005 and 2010, the US Embassy’s attitude during election 2010, on the source of western media bias, among others.
A major flaw of the book, in my opinion, is that it presumes a background knowledge on the part of the reader. Footnotes describing abbreviations, names and some events would have helped a reader 10 years from now.
There are several stories on which readers wish to hear Bereket’s version. Perhaps, he saved them for his next book.
* all the quotes above, except that of Charles Dickens, are my translations.
* the book doesn’t state the name of the printing press, but a news by Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) indicated it is by Mega Enterprise.
*See: Book: Bereket Simon delivers ‘A Tale of Two Elections‘ – for background of Bereket Simon and the official release of the book.
*You may visit www.ataleoftwoelections.com and www.yehuletmirchawochwog.com