'Yenegasso Menged' - Ethiopia's Former President Regrets Key Decisions He Made in Office
Addis Ababa, July 29, 2011 (Ezega.com) - As far as the Ethiopian politics go in the last 40 years, one way or another, Dr Negasso Gidada, Former Ethiopian President, have witnessed and participated in one of the major changes that took place. During this period, Negasso remained active in politics and became part of the inside circles of politics.
The news book titled “Yenegasso Menged” or “Negasso’s Way” revisits the ups and downs of the Ethiopian politics in the last forty years through the experience of Negasso Gidada. The writer Daniel Teffera interviewed the former president from his childhood times and his university life, to his life in Germany and his engagement with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). He also questions his active membership in the EPDRF, his life as the president of the country and his decision to remove himself from the ruling party. Negasso explained the mistakes he said he made as a president, and his decisions to initiate a coalition for opposition parties in the country named Medrek and his choice to compete for the parliament independently, and finally his pronouncement to join an opposition party, Hebret.
Negassos’s long and puzzling political life began when he was a high school student. Fortunately, the high school he attended was in the compound of Addis Ababa University, which gave him the opportunity to discuss and share views on politics with university students. The time was the 1950s when there was a wide range of activities by the students against the feudal system. Negasso was in the right place to understand the ideologies and the prevailing views against imperialism.
While this served him to know about the political problems, especially the claims of the Oromo people, Negasso joined the university’s history department. Studying Ethiopian history, especially the history of the Oromo people, Negasso became more sensitive and active in the student movement that took place at the end of 1950s and the beginning of 1960s.
After Negasso went to Germany to work on his master’s degree, he continued his active participation in Ethiopian politics. He said he joined OLF in the late 1970s EC when he willingly wrote a letter to OLF requesting to be an active member and work for the organization. From then on, Negasso has been a lively member of almost all political parties established in Europe. Especially in those working or claiming to be working for the Oromo people, Negasso either established them or took part in some of the most important decisions.
After all this, Negasso came back to Ethiopia and joined the Oromo People Democratic Organization (OPDO), which is a member party of the ruling EPDRF. After that, Negasso has served as the executive member of the party and he has been in many important positions, including Labour and Social Affairs Minister, Communication Minister and finally the President of the country. He took active part in Eritrean referendum and served as member of the constitutional making committee and many other critical decisions that shaped the overall existence of the present Ethiopia.
The sad reality is Negasso regrets most decision he made in those positions. For example, Negasso says that the constitutional committee that was responsible for the making of it did not guarantee every stakeholder participated in the discussion. “Even the people did not get proper opportunity to accept, comment or decline the draft of the constitution. The discussion was just a formality with limited participants most of them from the ruling party. Members parties of the transitional government and those who fought and supported TPLF itself were not invited to participate in the making of it. I think that is why the constitution is called the EPDRF constitution instead of the Ethiopian constitution,” he said.
Negasso became the Ethiopian president not by a choice but, according to him, by his loyalty to his party OPDO. “One evening Kuma Demeksa (former Oromia Region President) invited me to his house for a dinner. When I got there, Aba Dula Gemeda (also Former Oromia region President and the current house speaker for the parliament) and Hassan Ali were at Kuma’s house already. They told me that all the member parties of EPDRF are required to bring nominees to be the president of the country. There were already some nominations. For example, her party nominated Genet Zewede (former Minister of Education) but the ruling party rejected her nomination claiming the Ethiopian society is not ready to accept a women as president. So they told me they nominated me to be the president of the country,” Negasso said.
After they communicated the decision to him, he claims that he resisted accepting. “I said I am only 51 years old and I want to be an active member of my party. The president hardly has significant role in the politics of the country.”
According to Negasso, Meles Zenawi convinced him to accept the position. “Meles told me that being a president will give me plenty of time to engage myself in strengthening my party. His argument was convincing since the president works only 15% of his time and I had 85% to commit myself to OPDO.” Although Negasso noticeably tried in the book to sound resistant to the presidential position, he could not hide the fact that the decision thrilled him. “I told my families about this decision and they cried because they were very happy. We all wished that our parents lived long enough to see that day”
As a president of the country though, Negasso does not seem to be proud of any decision he made. For that matter, reading between the lines of his interview, he does not seem to have had that much of a say on what was going on around him. Though the constitution clearly stipulates that the Ethiopian president, as the head of the state, only have limited responsibilities that has nothing to do with the politics of the country, Negasso, as a relatively young and active member of OPDO should have at least information on the matter.
Surprisingly, the thing Negasso most regrets from his presidential life is signing on the bill that denies corruption suspects their right to bail. That law, as the public already knows, was made on the night when former high court judge Birtukan Miedeksa decided to release corruption suspect and former executive member of TPLF Seye Abraha on bail. Negasso says, “Teffera Walwa, who was Deputy Prime Minister at the time called me one late night and told me that we need to have a proclamation that denies the right to bail before Seye is released. He said I should sign on the bill as soon as possible,” Negasso remembers. In fact, according to the Ethiopian constitution, the president has only two weeks to sign on any proclamation passed by parliament. If he does not sign during that period, the bill will take effect without his signature. However, Negasso knowing what was going to happen could have at least refused to sign the bill.
“There are people who ask me why I signed that bill. However, I want people to understand that I signed the bill because of my strong stand against corruption. I thought EPDRF had the same stand. It was too late for me to understand it was all scam,” he tries to explain.
Negasso also says he stood up for the things he thought were right at the time. He even remembers the occasion when he challenged the unchallengeable Meles Zenawi. “At the time when there was a split between the TPLF - when Seye and other members of the TPLF boycotted the meeting in Mekelle - Meles reported that the group ran away leaving their cloths behind. I did not like the way he talked and I said he sounded like Mengustu Hailemariam. The house was shocked by this comment. Genet Zewde even cried saying how could I compare Meles to Mengustu,” Negasso says.
Then, after ten years, Negasso decided it was time to walk out of the ruling party. The main reason for this decision was the ideological difference he witnessed between the EPDRF dogma and the practice. “My understanding was that, using revolutionary democracy as a bridge, we will take the country to socialism. However, in one occasion Meles Zenawi said the ruling party is following pure capitalism. That was the most shocking thing I have ever encountered in my political life.”
At the end of the first term of his presidential position, he says, he refused another nomination for president. After he decided to remove himself from office, he left his membership at OPDO. “They begged me to be nominated again, but I refused,” he said.
Negasso tries to establish that his decision cost him a lot. As the rule is ‘what goes around, comes around’, when Negasso decided to disappoint the ruling party, they also geared up to let him down. “After I left the office, they immediately drafted a proclamation saying if a former president involves himself in the politics, he will lose every benefit the government provides for him. They knew my passion for politics and they were trying to keep me away from it. After I decided to run for parliament independently, they terminated all the privileges I enjoyed as a former president. They claim I was then engaged in politics and that was against the law and I do not deserve the privileges. They took the cars, my guards and my retirement salary,” he said.
He won the 2005 election and did get a seat in parliament. However, Negasso said the code of conduct in parliament did not treat independent members properly. The time was too limited that he did not get enough opportunities to represent his people. However, his seat at parliament did give him a chance to meet different opposition parties, which finally led to the coalition. Now Negasso is a member of Hebert party, which is a pillar for the coalition of several opposition parties, Medrek.
Overall, the book seems intended to explain why Negasso did what he did through his years as an active politician. At some points, it looked like he wanted to apologize for some of the decisions that disappointed many and seek a second chance. However, if that was in fact the plan, the book fails big time. All it clarifies is the inconsistencies of Negasso Gidada in his political career. Negasso, in his own words, presented himself as weak, one who can be easily influenced, and a man who gets second thoughts in every decision he makes. The mistakes he admits he made through the years are very serious ones, erros that can even put a question mark on his capacity for top-level positions. Negasso’s regret, especially about the constitution, should raise question as to why this man should or should not deserve another chance in politics.
Of course, he must be appreciated for his courage to come forward and admit the mistakes he made in the past. Admitting mistakes should be a culture every politician in Ethiopia should adopt as a principle. However, after admitting, the second step, based on the seriousness of the mistakes he made, must be to conduct thorough and honest assessment of himself whether he is really fit for high office. Politics, as many would probably agree, is not a stage individuals learn from experience. This is because every decision affects the life of the people and even the entire nation. Every mistake steals the confidence of citizens and the effect can sometimes reach everyone in the country. Based on this, Negasso’s decision to remain active in politics might not be as wise as he tries to articulate in his book. In fact, Negasso may yet again regret the decisions he is making today.
Finally, we must give credit for Negasso’s unbelievable memory, especially if he was not referring to papers during the interview. It seems Negasso must get an award for great memory skills. He remembers names, places, events and occasions in great detail from the time when he was about six years old until now.
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.