Negasso’s personal revolution: from apologist to critic
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.