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Freedom is unknown and the future not so certain in Ethiopia

Rally in support of Abiy Ahmed(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Back-lit and draped in palm leaves, Abiy Ahmed bears an uncanny resemblance to Jesus Christ in the stickers you see plastered on car bonnets, shop windows and sign boards. The 42-year-old appears equally Messiah-like in his posters, which show him folding Ethiopians in a warm embrace, encouraging them to love one another. Men and women wear T-shirts with his image and the radio plays the praise song “He awakens us”. “Let us forgive each other from our hearts and start a bright new future”, Abiy told parliament after his surprising appointment as Prime Minister end of March. He released tens of thousands of political prisoners and lambasted the state apparatus that tortured them as “terrorist”. He declared Ethiopia’s border war with archenemy Eritrea at an end by saying: “The border has been demolished and replaced by a bridge of love”. Abiy Ahmed’s appearance on the political scene represents something that has been missing for too long on the African continent: a chance for profound change.

The population worships its new prime minister. A spell of euphoria and positive energy has been cast over all. “He deserves the Nobel Prize”, argues young construction worker Bekede, “Abiy Ahmed is young and charismatic, he unites all Ethiopians in ecstasy”. Bekede lives in Bole Michael, a bustling working-class area squeezed between a new highway and the busy airport, deafened by the roar of aircrafts. In the neighbourhood cafe Esther serves coffee, Ethiopia’s national drink. Her husband fled to Canada last year and she was planning to close her coffee-shop this month to join him. “Abiy Ahmed won me round. I am not leaving “, she says resolutely, “I phoned my husband and told him to come home. Thanks to our new prime minister, I can now see a future for us here “.

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Leaders in Africa disappointed me- Jan Pronk

Jan Pronk(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

The time has come for Johannes Pieter Pronk’s memoirs. After surviving a major heart attack last year, the former Dutch development minister, born in 1940, feels as if every new day is a bonus for him. At his home in The Hague he whips through reports of his many diplomatic encounters and does that with with the same strict discipline as he showed as minister. Some of these meetings took place in presidential palaces but many were with guerrilla fighters along the Nile or desperate Rwandans deep in the Congolese jungle. His first volume is called “Battle of the Great Lakes”, and it focusses on the crises in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the nineties.

Pronk was always helpful towards journalists during his working visits. I often travelled with him, but one never really got to know him. Pronk always came across as an intellectual, not an emotional person. The latter only very occasionally, very briefly. We were once flying to Northern Kenya when suddenly the windows were covered with thick black slurry. The pilot warned us he might have to crash-land. After a successful emergency landing, unloading ourselves while peeing side by side on the runway, I heard some emotion in Pronk’s voice. “Life is certainly worth living,” he sighed. But a few minutes later, when the pilot had screwed the cap on the oil tank, he sounded distant again: “Luckily I’m am still in time for the parliamentary debate tomorrow.”

Jan Pronk(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Read further:

-How Kofi Annan let Pronk down

-How Pronk in vain asked Kagame not to hurt a dissident minister

-How Meles Zenawi wanted to do his masters with Pronk on the subject of human rights 

All pictures of Jan Pronk and Kofi Annan by Petterik Wiggers  {read more…}

“What an irony that Ethiopia is now the last country in Africa to become democratic” – Eskinder Nega

Eskinder Nega(Photo Ilona Eveleens)

Eskinder Nega is tense. The Ethiopian journalist travels next week to meet his eleven-year-old son Nafkot in the United States after being in captivity in Ethiopia for six years. That makes him nervous, because he barely knows his son. Nafkot was born in prison in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, when his father and mother were imprisoned there. “Would he recognize me?”, Eskinder Nega worries. “He only knows me as a legend, as one of Ethiopia’s most famous political prisoners. But I also have my weaknesses and many mistakes. Will he accept it?”

Nine times, Eskinder Nega went behind bars since he returned from America to his native country in the early nineties. The last time was in 2011 on charges of terrorism. In February he was unexpectedly freed among hundreds of other political prisoners after the Ethiopian regime began to make remarkable reforms. The new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed closed down the infamous Kaliti prison, where Eskinder was stuck for years.

After communist regimes fell around the world in the early 1990s, including that of the Ethiopian military Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam, Eskinder Nega expected change. “The end of the tyranny came into view and my wife and I started the first independent newspaper in Ethiopian history”, he says during a short visit to Nairobi. “Mengistu’s successor Meles Zenawi however turned out to be a Leninist, he did not allow opposition and closed my newspaper.”

The authorities put him and his wife Serkalem Fasil behind bars in 2005 for seventeen months because of high treason. “I heard in prison that she was pregnant. And later that she gave birth to our son”. After his release, the wife and child went to America for safety reasons, but the father did not want to leave. “To be a real journalist in Ethiopia, you have to be an activist.” He became a blogger and inevitably ended up in prison again.

In 2009, Meles Zenawi’s party had adopted a draconian anti-terrorism law. That law made critical journalists into terrorists. In 2011 he was sentenced to 18 years under this law. PEN, the international organization for the freedom of writers, gave him the Freedom to Write Award in 2012. He continued to write, even in prison.

“The prison authorities wanted me to stop writing. But I refused and that is why I was branded as a troublemaker who had to live separately from the other detainees. I received neither a pen nor paper and my books were taken away. But sometimes I managed to smuggle a pen and paper inside. I also wrote on every piece of paper or cardboard I could get my hand on, also on toilet paper. Thus, my life in prison became a daily fight. I never stopped writing. Because I knew that if I stopped doing so, my will would be broken. If I had stopped writing, I would have subjected myself to tyranny. ”

According to Eskinder Nega, democracy is the goal of all the peoples of the earth. “If democracy can work in a state as diverse as India, and even in South Africa, which is highly polarized because of its history, why not in Ethiopia? We are the oldest nation in Africa and we helped the African countries become independent in the sixties. What an irony that we are now the last country on the continent to become democratic.”


Eskinder Nega is optimistic about the chance that the new Prime Minister Abiy can steer the nation into democratic waters. But for now, as a journalist, he remains an activist. “If the new prime minister backs away, there will be big demonstrations against the government again.” He wants to start blogging and writing for newspapers. “In the social media you get your information, while the old media like newspapers gives the analysis. Social media will never eliminate the old media. I want to be active in all media.”


This article was published in NRC Handelsblad on Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The revolution that consumed so many of us

By Dawit Mesfin

Book review

DELIVERANCE: A Tale of Colliding Passions and the Muse of Forgiveness

A Historical Novel

by Bereket Habte Selassie

The story Dr Bereket Habte Selassie presents in his latest book is about the tumultuous era during which I lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I can say that I found it, partly, the story of my youth, reminding me of how the bright and dark shades of the 1970s shaped my attitude and the positions I took in my personal life. The account took me back to an era I had stepped out of long ago and have tried to dismiss from my memory. But the vivid portrayal of that era readily conjured the image up and I came to realise that the characters, and the story itself, touched a nerve within me.

Both Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) were fervent leftist supporters of the Ethiopian Revolution that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie and abolished the monarchy in 1974. There were many Eritreans among them. Who can forget Amanuel Gebreyesus, Tesfu Kidane, Marta Mebrahtu, Yohanes Sebahtu, Amanuel Yohanes and more? The historical phenomenon of the student movement which was overtaken by the outbreak of the 1974 revolution and hijacked by the Derg, played a significant part in the intensification of the struggle to liberate Eritrea. The major part of Dr Bereket’s account revolves around the work of both the EPRP and MEISON and the era of the Derg’s Ityopia tikdem movement which ushered in a collective madness that affected all of us.

The ideological intoxication, courage, armed struggle, military ruthlessness, betrayal, youth anger and frustration, slaughter, flight to safety, life in diaspora and more are movingly depicted by the various characters in the story. The Ethiopian revolution consumed so many young lives that my mind is seized with revulsion whenever it drifts back to that era.

On the other hand, the human stories depicted in the account are heart-warming, albeit sad. Dr Bereket captures love of local cultures, love among human beings, love of God and of course, love of country. The depiction of the personal challenges people faced once bitten by the revolutionary bug is spot on. The accounts of ‘the underground days’ of the revolutionaries, their evolving consciousness during internal fighting, the Derg’s open hostility towards them, the back-biting and betrayal among rivals is emotionally draining to read.

The story challenged my heart while my mind, which retains resentful memories of that era, tried to disown it as if it played no part in my life as an Eritrean. We Eritreans have always been staunchly loyal to our own cause. However, that commitment was so abused as to allow Isaias Afwerki to manipulate and hijack the youth spirit that sustained the struggle. I would argue, heavy-heartedly, that it suffices to look around us to see where that blind loyalty got us in the end.

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Food security: a photo-essay by Petterik Wiggers

Click on the image to view Petterik’s galleryFood Security in Africa

Also see the articles on Flower farms in ancestral Ethiopia: a choice between large or small, by Richard Dowden here on The Africanists

Flower farms in ancestral Ethiopia: a choice between large or small

Flower farm in Ethiopia(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Flower farm in Ethiopia(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Amentu, Ethiopia. The Rift Valley in Eastern Africa is our hole in the ground, where we all come from. Not far from here our earliest ancestors stopped hanging out in the trees and started to use their rear limbs to get around on. From here we began to migrate and multiply all over the world. Today a line of worn tarmac runs along the valley floor, fed by earth tracks through fields of stubble lying brown and empty after the harvest. Wriggling lines of green mark streams which lead to the Awash River. The east and west horizons are bordered with crazy grey mountains jagging into a light blue sky. Flashing like mirrors in the sun are the valley’s huge blue lakes and, in recent years, vast rigid squares of plastic sheeting have sprung up.

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Mourning for Meles Zenawi – photos by Petterik Wiggers

Click on the image to view Petterik’s gallery

Also see the articles on Meles by Richard Dowden and one by Koert Lindijer here on The Africanists

Liberator with a tyrannical tendency


Guerrilla fighter Meles Zenawi in 1990 in Tigray. Photo Koert Lindijer

Guerrilla fighter Meles Zenawi in 1990 in Tigray. Photo Koert Lindijer

Meles Zenawi was, as the Ethiopian culture prescribes, distant and polite. But after an interview he also could talk straightforwardly. “I am a communist and have no reason to hide it,” the guerrilla fighter said in 1990 in a Tigrayan village at the time of the collapse of the Communist empire. Later as Prime Minister in the capital, Addis Ababa, after a conversation of three hours, he put his feet on the table and said: “I just had the French ambassador for a visit. What an asshole that guy was. These Western envoys think they can impose anything on me. Do you have a cigarette? ”

Meles was not the leader to break the traditional authoritarian power system in Ethiopia. Under the feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) Ethiopians could not think for themselves. Under his successor, the ruthless military Marxist Mengistu (1977-1991), no one ventured to express his own opinion. Under Meles Zenawi it was also better not to deviate too much from the ideas of the ruling party. Rulers in Ethiopia tend to rule like gods. {read more…}

How Meles rules Ethiopia

Meles Zenawi © Petterik Wiggers

Meles Zenawi is the cleverest and most engaging Prime Minister in Africa – at least when he talks to visiting outsiders. When he speaks to his fellow Ethiopians, he is severe and dogmatic. But he entertains western visitors with humour and irony, deploying a diffident, self-deprecating style which cleverly conceals an absolute determination to control his country and its destiny, free of outside interference.

He was one of four African presidents to be invited to the Camp David G8 meeting last weekend. The aid donors love Meles. He is well-informed, highly numerate and focused. And he delivers. Ethiopia will get closer to the Millennium Development Goals than most African countries. The Ethiopian state has existed for centuries and it has a bureaucracy to run it. So the aid flows like a river, nearly $4 billion a year. And Meles is the United States’ policeman in the region with troops in Somalia and Sudan. He also enjoys a simmering enmity with his former ally, now the bad boy of the region, President Isias Afwerke of Eritrea. “It’s Mubarak syndrome,” a worried US diplomat told me. “We only talked to Mubarak about Egypt’s role in the region, never about what was happening inside Egypt. It’s the same with Ethiopia.” {read more…}