Home > Books, Politics > Negasso’s personal revolution: from apologist to critic

Negasso’s personal revolution: from apologist to critic

Negaso Addis Journal

On 22 August 1995, a mild-mannered soft-spoken man, Negasso Gidada- who represented the Oromos- became president of the newly-formed Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. His position was largely ceremonial as real power rested with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Yet the occasion was depicted as a watershed heralding a new chapter in the country’s history in general and the Oromo people in particular.
Before his appointment as president, Negasso, was minister of information, and was closely allied to the EPRDF against the armed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Earlier when he was in Germany, Negasso was president of the Oromo Students’ Association, an organization affiliated with the OLF. Eventually, he administered the OLF’s financial department before he parted his ways.
Negasso has been cultivating bonds of friendship with Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since 1980’s and in 1991, just before Mengistu’s ouster, he joined the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), which was set up in March 1990 and was close to TPLF.
OPDO, seen by some as TPLF’s puppet organization, needed to burnish its standing by bringing educated people like Negaso to the party. He was soon made a central committee member.
After the Addis Ababa Peace and Democracy Conference of July 1991 (which Negasso did not attend) designated Meles as President of the Transitional Government and chairman of the Council of Representatives, a government was set up in August the same year and Negasso was given the portfolio of Labour and social Affairs. The cabinet was headed by Tamrat Layne ad included another OPDO minister, Kuma Demeksa (Internal Affairs) as well as four OLF ministers: Dima Neggo (information), Ibsa Gutema (Education), Ahmed Hussein (Trade), and Zegey Asfaw (Agriculture).
OLF, which had greater acceptance among the Oromos, was at first embraced by the TPLF-dominated transnational government and participated in drafting the 1994 constitution, which provided for a federal republic with ethnically-based regions. However, OLF started colliding with TPLF and came to be seen as something of threat and agent of instability.
The OLF boycotted the June 1992 regional elections, accusing the authorities of fraud. In protest against the poll, the four OLF minsters resigned and were replaced in August 1992 by Genet Zewdie (education), Yosef Kumalo (trade), Elias Negassa (agriculture) and Negasso Gidada, who was given the portfolio for information previously held by Dima Neggo.OLF was eventually designated as terrorist organization and ousted. Negasso’s role in the clampdown of the OLF drew hard feelings from the party’s seething supporters who felt he was a traitor to their struggles against what they called the ‘nefetegna’ administration.
In addition to his ministerial function, Negasso was also one of the architects of the constitution. It was this move that paved the way for the May 1995 election, which saw him voted in as president alongside Prime Minster Meles (a coupling that was returned to power in the election of 2000).Negasso said he had not coveted the figurehead position. The media then considered the late Kifle Wodajo, who was chairman of the Constitution Commission, to be a likely president. One other likely contender was Genet Zewde, whose gender stood against her. Genet’s nomination was rejected as it was believed that the Ethiopian public was not yet ready for a woman president. When Negaso was summoned by OPDO, and told that he would be nominated for presidency, he was surprised and taken aback. “I told them to look for someone else. I wanted to undertake some other activities than being a symbolic president, who had no real power,” he said. Meles trying to convince him to take up the job said that “There is not so much to do. It would take only 15 percent of your time. You could dedicate the rest of your time to OPDO’s work. The party needs educated people.”
Public opinion towards Negasso at the time was divided. The private press vilified him for his one-time association to the secessionist movement OLF. Some also resented that he spent so much time outside the country, while others were participating on the war front. His foreign pedigree and his marriage to a German woman added to suspicions he was a tool to Western powers. Upon his election, Tobia newspaper wrote that Negaso was the first Ethiopian president after King Susenyos of the 16th century to be married to a white woman.
So no wonder news of election was met with suspicion. He was seen, at best a loyal politician, at worst a propaganda tool. An OLF sympathizer newspaper, Odessa called him “the first powerless president in Ethiopian history.”
Negasso’s memoir that hit the bookshelves last week gives insights into the man’s mind and character and the paths he has taken in the political arena. The book ‘Dandi, Negasso’s Path’, written by a journalist Daniel Tefera, has become a surprise bestseller, possibly an indication to Negaso’s changing image.
Negaso is no friendly with the Meles government today. He and the prime minster have not spoken to each other in more than 10 years. He is serving as an interim leader for Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), an opposition party that is not on the good books of the incumbent. In public opinion, his image is a far cry from what it was a decade ago. He enjoys a boost in his standing and his status is overwhelmingly raised. Probably this has a lot to do with the fact that he is now working for a party that espouses the unity of the country, in contrast to the parties he was involved in the past with inclination to tribalism and ethnocentrism.
Above all, Negasso has proven a staunch defender of democratic values and showed himself an open and cultured politician. He is not defending the system with repressive political practices and its commitment to democracy is nothing but lip service. Rather he has dedicated himself to calling attention to what is observing as injustice and he has turned to a vigorous and devastating critic of the EPRDF administrations that it says ignore and neglect the needs of impoverished Ethiopians.
It is this transformation that we observe in this book. The book titled Dandi, which in Oromo means highly frequented short cuts, steep and impervious on account of bushes that invade them, shows the difficult physical and political lieu the protagonist has gone through. It covers the human as much as the political dimensions of Negaso’s life and time, which I will be discussing at length in my next posts.

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  1. hable
    July 26, 2011 at 12:47 am

    A great read, as always. Just one possible correction. You may want to rephrase the last wording in the last line of the 3rd paragraph from the last. “…he was involved in the past with inclination to tribalism and ethnocentrism.” Ethnocentrism and tribalism are not the appropriate sociological/anthropological concepts to convey the message you intend your readers get…

  2. July 26, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Point well taken….thanks

  3. Hailemelekot Agizew
    July 29, 2011 at 6:23 am

    I don’t think Negasso had a really hard time in EPRDF. His biggest mistake I believe is his decade old exercise on Guilt in the EPRDF camp. There are episodes in the book where some facts break out as the testimony of the guilt’s exercised. In one moment where he was a chair of the evaluation committee of OPDO in the national palace he told us one of his compatriots took his own life due to the stern evaluation that was lasted for three hours in the morning. He told readers that he was prepared to tell this guy he is free and innocent after lunch. The other exercise of guilt was the actions he took on employees of the Ministry of Social and Labour Affairs. During his office in the Ministry as a Minister he fired some of his opponents in the name of members of the Dergue and members of the Workers Party of Ethiopia (WPE). He even didn’t regret for these actions in the book.
    In another page he told us Girma Birru now Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the United States was elevated to the status of Minister after the recommendation of Seye Abraha……what a funny story is this? For those who are capable of analyzing Ethiopian politics it is not that much hard to guess Seye and Negasso were and still an outsiders of Ethiopian politics. The route Girma Birru and Girma Woldegiorgis have gone through from Soddo Jidda to OPDO has its own unique character and history that would possibly come to light in the coming few months.
    If I were in his position as a Minister of Information I ask why the Ethiopian Radio International Service former Bisrat Wongel closed and Radio Fana set up.
    Negaso even didn’t know who Tesfaye Gebreab is and what was going on in Efoyta magazine. True, Negaso told us in his book the positive side of EPRDF. How the ruling party struggled to keep to save Eastern Ethiopia from ethnic clashes. He didn’t tell us the impact of structural adjustment, the war against AAPO, the incident in Addis Ababa University. To the dismay of many, he rather explained more about the active role he played for the secession of Eritrea.
    Regarding his view towards ethnicity he said Bereket is Eritrean in one side while Tamrat is Guraghe however this blood related analysis of his own trapped him while he synthesis his own background which had a root of damot and an ethnic group from the south. It is this bare fact of ethnic intermingling in one side or the other that made a query of one Ethiopian nation. Sadly Negasso is not still clear on his view of Self Determination in one part he oppose secession in another he accept it as a principle. however I like the compassion he has towards his family and the friends he met.

  4. Getaneh
    July 30, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    I am afraid that Dr. Negaso has given an unwarranted attention to Tesfaye Gebreab, an Eritrean journalist who matters little to Ethiopians.
    He should not have mentioned his name.

  5. Hailemelekot
    July 30, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Tesfaye Gebreab is an Eritrean by blood Ethiopian by birth. His presence both in Ethiopian Press and Efoyta matters most while discussing Ethiopian issue . It is the key that unlocks the status of Ethiopian media which were fully engaged in Ethiopian politics of the EPRDF transition period. My comment has nothing to do with the Eritrean Ethiopian issue. If that was the case to be honest I could write more and more on the issue.

  6. Bereket
    July 30, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Dr. Negaso is one among the closest to the EPRDF who fell out with the front and parted ways. negaso’s confession as well as that of seye points to one visible truth: that the EPRDF tribal politics is never genuinely endorsed by its own members. EPDRFites know too well that tribal politics only prolongs their cling to power; otherwise they know that tribalism is as destructive as any bad governanve can concievely be, if not worse. It is high time EPRDF comes out of its destructive politics and consider genuine reform and restore sanity to ethiopian politics.

  7. Nahu
    August 4, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    What I like about Negaso’s book is its integrity. It is a rare political biography that is bravely candid. Negaso is frank about how his father was a beggar, how when he became a minister, he couldn’t sack incompetent people because they were Woyane members and former fighters, how scared he was when he first became president. I don’t think this is a quality that we encounter often.

  8. Desta
    August 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    For me the whole question is how much NEGASO is a reliable witness?
    For instance, he talked about the massacre of 180 Amhara people (the media then reported much higher number) in Bedeno area and implied that OLF was the responsible party. Wasn’t this a common knowledge that TPLF, OPDO and even shaebia had partaken in it.
    Tell us the truth, please.

  9. Hailemelekot Agizew
    August 11, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Prior to Bedeno there were ethnic cleansing campaign in Wat’er Garmuleta and Assosa not far from the area where we are expecting the Great Millennium Dam. Driven by their anti-Amhara sentiment armed groups slaughtered settlers from Wollo (settled there by force without their own consent and free will) were massacred. Mothers and children were burnt alive. Pregnant women were mutilated. Surprisingly, the criminals are living in peace in Europe, U.SA, Ethiopia and neighboring African countries. The world which is after the Bosnian and Rwandan massacre is deaf about these queries of the massacre of Amhara settlers . Not only that, the Ethiopian government which still pronounce on its media about the ethnic cleansing in Bedeno treated the genocide case as a simple crime…and those who committed that crime were forgiven and now they are living in the community where they once slaughtered innocent civilian …Sometimes I get surprised by the definition of ‘crime against humanity’ the release of Bedeno criminals and the arrest of Dergue officials. The later fought against EPRDF the first not. The later were against any ideological beliefs the first however against ‘Amhara’ against Menilik settlers, is the Bedno Assosa case as simple as that? I don’t think so. What I believe is that Ethiopia needs to go forward. In order to do that waving the flag of ethnicity could not take us anyplace. Both Negaso and EPRDFites should have to get a lesson from the past. If they still believe that they are in a position of navigating in the sea of ethnocentrism what can we say than this ‘comrades there is a huge gale against you’ wake up

  10. Tamene
    August 13, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Personally, I enjoyed most part of the book. Where Dr. Negaso narrates events with detached eye, his narration is excellent. His anecdotes regarding his friends, family, and colleagues are fascinating. However, there are sections where he takes off on flights of long, overblown political rhetoric, as if he were somehow trying to impress his readers with his command of history and politics. I discovered that the best thing to do with those passages is to skim them… and then move on to more interesting sections of the book.

  11. Jabeesaa
    August 15, 2011 at 2:44 am

    Dr. Nagaso Giday, claims he represents the Oromo people in his political career in the Ethiopian empire. when it comes to this guy’s acomplishements (if he has any), the opinion of Oromos matter more than the opinion of other non-Oromo people in the empire. All comments above are not from the perspective of the Oromo people. i.e. For those of you who praise him most likely because he served your government bettraying his people. For those of you who condemen him, at one time he opposed your chevunist mind set. But now it looks like he’s serving the chevuinist camp so very soon you will start praising him so be patient for a little while. As far as the Oromo is concerned he’s not human. He is a dead man walking.

    Good bye.

  12. Hailemelekot
    August 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    After all Negasso’s autobiography is categorized from the perspective of public history not academic history. Even Negaso do know where this book classified. Anyone has a right to say this and that provided that he claimed he is the only central figure of all the events that took place in his life time. Let alone Negaso’s personal biography books written by groups or institutions can not be categorized as an academic history.History is all about balancing collecting facts and sources—History is like a judge it is not about chauvinism or racism, it is not about white and red terror, it is not about Amhara and Oromo . It is all about recorded events which is inescapable.

  1. July 30, 2011 at 9:03 pm

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