Africa News blog
African business, politics and lifestyle
When you work for a news organisation in a country like Ethiopia, people often tell you “nobody cares” about the stories you report. What they mean, of course, is that nobody in the West cares. Most of the time, they’re right.
But with Ethiopians about to hold national elections for the first time since a 2005 poll ended with a disputed result, about 200 protestors killed in the streets by police and soldiers and opposition leaders jailed after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused them of trying to stage a revolution, there’s every reason for the public in the West to take notice.
Their governments have been meddling in Ethiopia for a long time now – but quietly – and with an attitude that has angered some here. Western powers are engaged for sound foreign policy reasons, and although most in the West are unaware of it, for the people of this country it’s a constant coffee house topic.
Ethiopia is often referred to as the “key U.S. ally” in the Horn of Africa – a dodgy neighbourhood by any standards. It’s the West’s friend here because – despite its population being almost 50 percent Muslim – they are overwhelmingly moderate and the government is avowedly secular.
The first time I interviewed Birtukan Mideksa I was struck by how careful she was not to say the wrong thing. It was 2007 and we were standing in the garden of a community centre in the part of Addis Ababa where she was raised. She had just been released from prison and the locals — many of whom struggle to feed themselves — had each given about a dollar to throw her the party-cum-political rally we had just attended and to buy her an old Toyota Corolla car to help her back on her feet again.
Such was her care when talking to me that, after less than five minutes, I discreetly switched
off my recorder knowing the interview would never make a story, and continued the conversation only out of politeness and professional interest in Ethiopian politics.
On the evening of the 20th of March 1878, Ethiopia’s two great rivals, Emperors Yohannes IV and Menelik II, came face-to-face to thrash out their differences.
As the two men met for the first time, traditional Ethiopian singers are said to have sang “A road that is perilous is far / you have to climb and then descend.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi agreed to sit down with Reuters on Wednesday only hours before leaving for the G8 summit in Italy. He told us he planned to remind the rich leaders he met there that the economic slowdown and global warming are having a disproportionate effect on Africa. And that the world’s poorest continent did nothing to cause them.
The former rebel represented Africa at this year’s G20 summit of rich nations and is arguing the case on behalf of the continent again today and tomorrow. Continental spokesman seems a roll Meles — who has a passionate interest in economics — is comfortable with. But he told us it was only related to his job as Ethiopian Prime Minister and that he has no desire to take on a pan-African job if and when he retires as leader — something he has recently said he has plans to do.
They say that the foundation of a good retirement is planning. By that measure, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi should have his rest period well laid out. The rebel-turned-leader has been saying he wants to step aside for almost two years now.
But after 18 years at the helm of one of the world’s poorest countries the 54-year-old is still in power and says he is trapped by the wishes of his ruling party. They will discuss his desire to retire at an executive committee meeting next month and a September congress would give him the opportunity to ask the party for his twilight years.
African countries often complain about getting a bad press. They say there’s much more to the continent than war and poverty and starvation. Then there’s the huge coverage given to the International Criminal Court and the fact that all four cases the body is now considering come from Africa.
But what’s strange about the complaints is that the world’s poorest continent is the most heavily represented in the ICC, with 30 member countries. In the March 2009 elections for ICC judges, 12 out of the 19 candidates were Africans nominated by African governments. And Fatou Bensouda, the court’s Deputy Prosecutor, is from Gambia.
Journalists covering African countries rarely get involved in the sort of celebrity circus so common for those working elsewhere. But the Ethiopian presspack got a window into a different world when boxing legend Evander Holyfield rolled into Addis Ababa.
Decked out in a green safari suit and propping up the bar in one of the city’s plusher hotels the four-time heavyweight world champion happily posed for photos with locals and was the focus of attention for a gaggle of Ethiopia’s famously beautiful women.
A plot is defined as “a plan made in secret”, but even by the usual shadowy nature of such matters around Africa, the recent conspiracy to overthrow the Ethiopian government has been hard to see clearly.
The story broke two weeks ago when the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said 40 men had been arrested for planning a coup after police found guns, bombs and “written strategies” at their homes. But a few days later the government communication office was asking journalists not to use the word coup anymore. The “desperados”, they said, had planned to “overthrow” the government by using assassinations and bombings to create enough chaos to get supporters on the streets to topple the government.