The not so cheap talk of Alemnew Mekonnen et al 

By Hindessa Abdul 
March 4, 2014

Amid the drama and conspiracy theories surrounding a co-pilot who had hijacked a plane, two local politicians were hitting the headlines in their own ways.

Zenebu Tadesse is Ethiopian Minister of Women, Children and Youth Affairs. Last week she allegedly tweeted: “There is no place for hate, discrimination in my beloved Africa. It’s not Governments’ business to make dress code or anti-gay laws.” The tweet was a reaction to an anti-gay bill that was signed into law by Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini. Zenebu’s comment quickly drew controversy both at home and abroad. However, the tweet was a short-lived one: deleted. The Minister later denied posting it.

In an interview with the ruling party owned Radio Fana, Zenebu said while she actively uses Tweeter to promote some of the activities of her Ministry, she denied posting the tweet. “I was out of town when I heard about the tweet. I was saddened to hear that. I didn’t even have access to network… I am not an IT expert to comment on how it was posted. We are conducting an investigation.”

Probably the most important issue here is not the content of the tweet. It is to what extent the officials are free to speak their mind. Was the Minister forced to retract her comment? Would she be as blunt to comment on such controversial matter without expecting a backlash? Is the level of IT sophistication that high to easily hack on to her account? Why didn’t the hackers go after more prominent politicians that are known to use Tweeter? Whatever the answer to those questions, officials will be intimidated to say what they think; making their online life as boring as the officialdom they are caged in.

Making Alemnew famous

Alemnew Mekonnen is deputy head of the Amhara Regional State and the second in command of the Party that is imposed on the Region.

Alemnew – according to his own explanation – was “training” the local media staff on issues of good governance and democracy, put simply – he was engaged in political indoctrination.

A leaked audio from the “training” shows what ruling party functionaries are capable of saying behind closed doors. Alemnew scorned the Amhara – Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group considered to be 30 million strong – labeling them “ultra-chauvinists” and “barefoot pedestrians.” He added: “The Amhara walks barefoot but what they say is utterly poisonous.”

Those remarks aired by Ethiopian Satellite Television and later spiraled onto other social networking sites brought about disgust and indignation. While the state media was mute about it, some government affiliated “private” papers talked about the incident without delving into the content.

All sorts of discussion and condemnation ensued. Opposition party members staged mass protest in the regional capital Bahir Dar. Scores of them actually took off their shoes to make a point on the “barefoot” remark.

The deputy chief convened a press conference of handpicked journalists who read questions from a script. The caption that run on the TV screen didn’t even identify him as deputy regional administrator – a move taken by the spin doctors to distance the administration from the comment – only vaguely mentioning his position in the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM).

Alemnew took an hour to basically say two things:

First, he denied making the remark. “How can I say that?” he threw the question back to the reporters. “I didn’t say any of the comments that have been attributed to me by the opposition. I have respect for the people. Who am I to make such disparaging comment against my own ethnic group? (The whole thing) was doctored by computer techniques. It is the work of the opposition politicians to alienate the ANDM leadership from the people.”

Second, he blamed the participants of the training for their chauvinistic outlook. He insisted that he was mainly trying to address issues of ethnic politics that the trainees lacked tremendously.For whom the bell tolls

Remarks by officials that single out specific ethnic groups, particularly the Amhara, are not uncommon. To start with, the pages of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) manifesto handwritten in February 1974 are packed with references to the “oppressing Amhara ethnic group.” That’s where small time ethnic ideologues get their cue from.

Former chief of Southern Region, who has since become Minister of Education, Shiferaw Shigute issued a letter akin to ethnic cleansing when he ordered the eviction of Amhara settlers from the Gura Ferda locality in southern Ethiopia. His counterpart in the Somali Regional State, Abdi Mohammed Oumer, was shown in a video advising his “brethren” which ethnic group they should embrace if they happen to go to the Capital, Addis Ababa.

Such ethnic disparaging languages should not be tolerated where ever they come from. At the end of the day no body chose where they come from. An attack on one is an attack on all. “… never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”


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