Two of Ethiopia’s most hated patriarchs gone in a week – Divine intervention or just a coincidence?


What a pity, what a pity, what a pity

Gone Meles Zenawi, without tasting Kality.

(Agust 21, 2012-Stockholm, Sweden).


I’m neither religious nor a conspiracy theorist. However I can’t help but contemplate about the power of some divinity which allowed two of Ethiopia’s most controversial/hated political figures, who were alleged by many as the architects of the polarisation of ethnic division among Ethiopians, to go one after another in just a matter of days. I don’t know them personally, but met them from afar while I was working at the Ethiopian Television Agency back in the days. Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church fifth Patriarch Abune Paulos aka Tagaye (literally translated from Amharic, the word means “a fighter”) Gebremedhin, who is best known for lavish lifestyle, narcissist behaviour and apathy towards the suffering of fellow citizens in the country, died at the age of 76 from an undisclosed illness last week. His godson, and Ethiopia’s another political patriarch for the past 21 years, was officially pronounced dead at the age of 57 from undisclosed illness (again, like father like son) after so much secrecy and conflicting reports by his closest friends/foes about his whereabouts ever since he had been humiliated/disgraced by an exiled Ethiopian journalist in front of the world leaders at G-8 summit in Washington last May. Let’s start with the father:

The bling-bling patriarch

As far as millions of Ethiopians including myself remember, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s patriarchs were best known for their modest or sometimes almost destitute lifestyle, skinny/gaunt features and shabby outfits that symbolise their distance from the worldly life. The 3rd patriarch had allegedly died because of his hunger strike against repression of the military junta. This trend had changed when the now deceased Orthodox Church’s patriarch was chosen by Meles Zenawi’s TPLF party to lead the church in 1992 – a year after the regime overthrew the communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam –- even though Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church doctrine strictly forbids election of a new patriarch as long as there is one alive to lead the office. The legitimate patriarch was forced to live in exile in America and the ‘sectarian’ government brought one of their own, who introduced division/animosity/mistrust among followers of the once united church in the country; nowadays it is not unusual to see Tigrean, Amharan, or Oromo etc. churches especially in Europe and America that group believers based on their ethnicity and/or political allegiances, which had not been the case 21 years ago. This is how I remember the late Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s patriarch: his bulletproof expensive cars, bling-bling outfits and accessories worth hundreds of thousands dollars, extravagant, millions of dollars worth palace, insensitivity to the sufferings of the poor and helpless citizens and his love for the limelight. He was famous among Ethiopian journalists for his generosity, I remember some members of the Tigrigna (a language mainly spoken in the birthplace of the two patriarchs) desk at the Ethiopian television who used to go as an ‘attachment’ with the person who was assigned not to miss the good sum from a brown envelope being provided at every function of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Another thing which I would never forget was that the conflict which arose between him and the disgruntled members of St. Mary Church that eventually caused scores of mass arrests and injuries to the latter group by the police because the patriarch’s requested it. The report I made about this incident after grilling him about the brutality of the police, was shoved into garbage by my immediate bosses and made me blacklisted. How could I forget the raw meat (a rare Ethiopian delicacy) and the Black-Label Johnnie Walker I turned down during one of more than a dozen of his annual ceremonies, that I was invited to after I came back from reporting about food-stricken desperate mothers and their malnourished/skinny children in East Hararghe and southernEthiopia in 2002/3? Hmm, no wonder a religious ‘leader’ who is supposed to abandon a worldly life was suffering from hypertension, diabetes and overweight.

Last but not least, he will be remembered by the country’s LGBT community for his bigoted and inflammatory statements he made when they recently tried to arrange an HIV-related conference in the capital Addis Ababa, This controversial figure was buried in the capital on 22nd of August with so much fanfare and a state funeral despite the fact that he was not only an accomplice to the system that destroyed lives of millions of Ethiopians across the country, but also made no intervention to stop this madness as a supposed ‘religious’ leader. Let’s go to now to his son:

The tiny mini-dictator

Regardless of all the praises being forwarded about Meles (whose original name was Legesse) Zenawi from the West and East, including Sweden despite the fact that their two innocent journalists are being incarcerated in the notorious Kality prison because of this man; this is how Meles Zenawi’s former rebel colleague Seeye Abraha Hagos, who later split with him and was imprisoned for six years, remembered our late dictator: “He was, in a way, the law of the land. He was the court of the land. There was no check and balance in the government.”

I heard his widow wailing hysterically on a viral video that surfaced on the internet saying “welcome to our house but Meles is gone and our home is getting colder/empty”; hmm, if she and her late husband only knew how many millions of Ethiopians have been suffering such losses with different twists for the past 21 years because of this man’s direct and indirect orders. What goes around comes around. I hope you remember how millions of North Koreans were ‘wailing‘ over the death of their mini-dictator last year, and history is recycling itself in Ethiopia, but I have no doubt that many of those people I saw ‘weeping’ are a part of a staged drama. Oh, by the way, isn’t it ironic that Ethiopia declared a national mourning week over the death of one of its ‘beloved’ leader but not to over 250 innocentchildren, women, old and young Ethiopians who were killed at point blank following the 2005 rigged election under the order of this person; it is an insult to millions of Ethiopian who were/are starved/jailed/tortured/killed and forced into exile over the past two decades.

Let’s go back to business: as I said in the beginning, I met our late Premier from a distance, surrounded by his heavily armed and arrogant bodyguards, and never had the opportunity to be at his ‘press conference’ which was mainly reserved for loyalists, many of whom eventually ditched him as soon as they got the first opportunity during one or the other overseas conference to which they were escorting him. What comes to my mind when I think of my assignments at his office when I worked as a reporter at the Ethiopian Television is the feeling of pure disgust, humiliation and worthlessness, spending hours and hours just sitting and waiting and then getting the same gibberish from his spokesperson that we got the previous time.


Humiliation from the main gate all the way into the office

This whole humiliating ordeal begins at the main gate where our poor driver was yelled at by the impolite security officers to park his car at least 800 meters away from stonewalled fence with barbed wire. Then, all of our crew members were invasively searched from head to toe including our mobile phones, tape recorders, and still and video cameras; mind you that this is happening for more than three times until we entered the building where our beloved leader’s office is located. After a series of endless screenings and searches, one of the employees from the Prime Minster Office tells us to sit and make ourselves at ‘home’ in a small room filled with memorabilia given to the late prime minister and or his predecessors by heads of states and dignitaries from various countries and organisations.
50 seconds of video footage and a three-page long press release

Most of the times, we were obliged to sit for hours and hours in that small room and it felt like time was at a standstill. Then the same person who ‘welcomed’ us, let’s say 3-4 hours ago, will come back and tell our crew to shoot while our leader makes pleasantries with his guests; at exactly 50 seconds the host taps his forefinger and middle-finger on his lap, a code every camera crew member must know, to gather their gadgets and leave the room immediately. If we are/were lucky we’d be able to interview the guest otherwise usually, one of the spokespersons gives/gave us mini-briefings about the 2-3 hours of discussions. Then the same spokesperson sends a 2-3 pages long press release in the evening while we, the reporters and video editors, are trying all tricks in the books in order not to repeat the same shots over and over in the video clip that is to be aired during the news hour. It is/was the same routine everyday/night which kills somebody’s intellect and talent; we used to crack jokes about assignments at the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Palace like this: “let’s change only the dates and names and use the same body for every press conference”. I wonder, if we journalists from the government media were humiliated like this, it’s hard to think about how journalists from the private media, who were at fault with the regime, were treated when they (provided that they were allowed to in the first place) to do reporting.

Either Zenawi is one of the luckiest tyrants or the divine power is really unfair to let him die of a natural cause unlike his partners in crime in EgyptLiberiaTunisia etc. who are brought to justice to face criminal/human-rights violations charges.

by Theodros Arega


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