“Ethiopia is very vulnerable”
Bereket Simon, a veteran politician, was former Communications Minister of Ethiopia and Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. He has been a significant force in Ethiopian politics specifically after the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front took power back in 1991. However, recently, Bereket Simon was recently suspended from the central committee of his own regional party, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). Bereket, who dismissed allegations of corruption and wrongdoings, says that the current leadership of his party is inefficient. Dawit Endeshaw of The Reporter sat with Bereket at his home for an exclusive interview to discuss the current state of affairs and other pertinent issues. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Recently, you and your comrade, Tadesse Kassa, were unexpectedly suspended from the central committee of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). What was your reaction and what do you think was the motive behind it?
The reason wasn’t clear for us and the party gave no clear explanation.
Initially, members of the central committee were summoned for a meeting on August 15, 2018 that was scheduled to be held in Bahir Dar. We were also invited to attend the meeting. Following the invitation, we had to make sure that our safety in the Amhara region will be ensured. We made a couple of phone calls to officials and ask if it is safe for us to attend the meeting. However, no one was able to give us assurance so we decide to skip the meeting.
Then I heard about the suspension from the central committee of ANDM on television and the statement implicated that it is in relation to Tiret Corporate, an endowment fund under the party. So, as soon as we heard the news, we tried to reach out to some of the member of the central committee.
You recently claimed that the reason for you being removed from the central committee was racism. What pushed you to reach towards such conclusion?
I think we have to look into the situation from the start. I, together with other founding members of ANDM, decided to established Tiret Corporate and different companies under it along with Amhara Credit and Saving Union and the Amhara Development Association. Throughout those years, we have managed to expand and boost their capital. We mobilized the region’s resource for that purpose.
We have invested a lot and we were working in the interest of the Amhara region and the people.
Coming to the problems, over the past six or five years, a number of issues began to surface; not only in the region but also countrywide. We said the political elite within the EPRDF are neglecting public concerns. We were seeing symptoms where our officials are giving deaf ears to the demands of the public.
So we raised those issues within the EPRDF, especially during the time of former Prime Minister Hailemaraim Dessalagn. However, the new administration, following the death of Meles Zenawi, was not willing to listen to us. In fact they took our concerns negatively; as if the old guards within the EPRDF were trying to discredit their leadership capacity.
The administration of Hailemaraim failed to foresee the problems we noticed earlier. Then protests and public disobedience began to emerge in different corners of the country.
The first broke out in 2014, in Ambo, Oromia region followed by a series of wide scale security problems and unrests in Amhara, Southern and other regional states.
The problems mainly occurred because the then administration, along with its leadership, failed to address public issues in a timely fashion. In general the administration was just a reactionary one; it was not responding to public issues before they went to the streets. We challenged those leaders both in ANDM and the EPRDF that they are failing, but they did not want to listen to us.
When we showed their weakness and told them to deal with it, particularly those within ANDM, they began to label us. They began acting undemocratically and failed to take responsibility.
For instance, in a recent party conference of ANDM, I, along with the founding members, told the leaders of the party that racism and hate is being preached and it has to stop. We told them that this will have a grave consequence of causing clashes between ethnic groups in Ethiopia.
Surprisingly, the response from the party members was negative. Instead of recognizing the problem, we were told that as veterans of the party our time has gone and we have no power trying to dictate how the administration of Demeke Mekonnen and Gedu Andargachew should act.
This was undemocratic and they were suppressing our freedom to share our concerns.
Then, they began to spread unfounded allegations against us. They, for instance, accused me of being the docile of TPLF. In fact, I consider myself to be a person of principles. During the era of Meles, or after that, I was always critical on issues that I don’t agree with. And it doesn’t matter who said it. If I don’t agree with it I would say no to it. When I saw wrongdoings within the party, I will say so. I have always been critical; that doesn’t change whether the party is TPLF or ANDM.
Contrary to my belief, especially when it comes to ANDM when I challenge them with ideas and principles and when they fail to beat me, they will always pull the ethnic card.
They said, because I speak Tigrigna, and I am of Eritrean origin, for them am not ‘Amhara enough’ or can’t represent the party’s interest. The fact that they are weak in delivering and articulating their thoughts and beat me in a debate; they choose the cheap way of attacking me.
Those within the region, especially the youth, blame the founding members of ANDM for failing to address the economic and social problems of the region. We recently saw a group of youths in Debre Markos, burning a car was which believed to be yours. How do you see this anger from the young generation? Do you think it is genuine?
I think we have to be careful not to generalize the youth’s frustration and genuine concern with what happened in Debre Markos and gave it a bad image. We be able to see beyond that.
These days the youth want to see changes. They need work; they need money; and want to lead a proper life. Saying this, those problems are more common and are largely affecting youths from the rural side of Ethiopia who are living in small towns and cities.
These youths left their family and decide to live in urban areas in search of a better life and work. However, the system neglected them; it failed to answer their demands so they protest.
I have noticed those problems earlier, particularly in the Amhara region. In fact, I have submitted a proposal to the central committee of ANDM on how to address those issues. This happened years back. I recommended a mega rural housing project and agro processing schemes. This would have created a huge job and income opportunities in the region. However, the party didn’t give that much attention to my proposal.
The regional administration chose a very dangerous and cheap solution. Instead of addressing the problem they began diverting the attention of the youth and tell them that it is the veterans of ANDM who are to blame. They would also accuse a certain ethnic group and blame them as responsible for the youth for being unemployed.
The demands from the youths’ side were genuine and were supposed be address but for the past four years there were no responsible leadership.
I even pressured the government for the youth fund to be commissioned as of last year but the leadership in very level of government was reluctant and weak to implement them.
A few weeks after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) was sworn in, the EPRDF said it will privatize giant state-owned companies such as Ethio Telecom and Ethiopian Airlines. In addition, the Prime Minister has indicated that his government would eventually liberalize some of the sectors which were kept closed for the private sector for so long. What do you make out of it?
For years, our government has been fighting the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank because they were pressuring us to sell the companies as well as liberalize the sectors. But we said no, because we believe on the dominant role of the state in the economy.
After years, the shortage of foreign currency became serious. This basically happened because trade balance was not in favor of Ethiopia and because our industries are weak; we don’t export value added products. So the mothers of all problems are trade deficit and weak production capacity. These in turn caused shortage of hard currency.
Selling Ethio Telecom, Ethiopian Electric Power or the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to foreigners might give a short-term solution but in the long-term we would be in deep trouble.
This is not a solution to our problem. It is an out dated economic silver bullet. We should not transfer those instutions to someone else.
Noticing those shifts, economic reforms and other symptoms, people anticipate that the EPRDF is preparing to change its ideology. Do you think it will happen?
Frankly speaking, it is difficult for me to say. For almost the past six months, I know that there were no discussions or debates on policy, ideology or programs of the party. Having said this, we should not be naïve and just decide to change our ideology and grab another one. I know that recently the Prime minister has said there is no change as far as ideology or policy of the ruling party is concerned.
In recent paper published by Alex de Waal, who wrote about his conversation with the late Meles Zenawi, there are key issues indicated as far as the downside of liberalization/privatization of key economic institutions is concerned. When it comes to privatizing/liberalizing the key sectors, he argued that it will only be the rent-seekers who would benefit from it; he further argued that the state should control the commanding heights of the economy to be able to lead the private sector. Do you agree with this line of argument?
Definitely, and I agree with the concerns. The fact that foreign investors came and acquire those sectors doesn’t mean they would be profitable.
Rather, the state should focus on investing in increasing the capacity of the local investors.
These days, people argue that Ethiopia is becoming vulnerable to external pressures. They said, as in mentioned in the de Waal’s paper, that Meles Zenawi’s nightmare which he depicts as the collusion between Egypt and Gulf states is happening. Do you think Ethiopia is now vulnerable than ever?
I see this within the framework of the external pressure threatening the interest of the nation. I define this era as a time where a hegemonic transition is happening where the US is losing its hegemonic status and the Chinese and the Asians are coming. In this transition, we would see a fierce and cutthroat competition between the two forces. They would compete to get new friends or maintain the old ones.
In this process, Ethiopia, as a country with 100 million, and being in a strategic position, will have influence in the decision process to ally with either of the two sides.
Given its geo-political position, we are seeing that those Gulf States are trying to insert pressure on Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has not yet fully recovered from chaos and political instability and that has made Ethiopia very vulnerable, and we are seeing pressures from every direction.
In a recent intevrivew with The Reporter, Melaku Fenta, the former director general of the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority (ERCA), accused you for being behind his arrest. He said his arrest is related with a conflict between you and Melaku following a camera imported into the country by someone close to you. Can you explain this?
Yes, I heard this allegation before and I want to make it clear.
Just before the corruption crackdown, where Melaku and his deputy, Gebrewahid Woldegiorgis were arrested, there was a meeting of the central committee of the EPRDF where I raised issues regarding the performance of ERCA. During that time, there were a number of accusations particularly against Gebrewahid; so, in the meeting I told Melaku that his deputy is abusing his power under his watch and that he should properly manage his institution.
Then, few weeks later, I receive a call from Ali Suleman, the then commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission to prepare a statement where he told me Melaku and his deputy have been arrested.
Here the issue of the camera came. What happened was, my brother-in-law (brother of my wife) was in the entertainment industry and wanted to import a camera so he managed to get a sponsor because the price of the camera was expensive.
The camera came into the country and customs authorities confiscated it and he went to them to pay the required tax. However, they asked a huge amount, in fact beyond the required amount. This was done by Gebrewahd himself because he knew the individual is related to me. And he thought this would upset me.
I didn’t know about this incident and hear about it by accident. Even after, I didn’t interfere or try to lobby Melaku. I said this is a right decision by the government even if I knew the intention.
So, after their arrest, both Gebrewahid and Melaku began to accuse me of orchestrating their arrest. Their arrest was made based on a study and investigation done during Meles’ era and then Hailemariam use the finding to arrest those officials and businessmen.
Surprisingly, the businessmen behind the two officials attempted to pressure for their release.
So, in short I have nothing to do with his arrest. In fact, I believe that his case, after the arrest, was delayed and I am a sympathizer to fact that he didn’t get a speedy justice.