By Elias Dawit 5-10-19
In Part 1 of “How Did We Get from There to Here,” I argued that Ethiopia’s current narrative is flawed and built on the aspirations of external political actors, such as former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Donald Yamamoto. It is a simple narrative of good guys and bad guys. In Part 2, I look at the person Prime Minister Abiy has identified as the primary bad guy in this scenario--Getachew Assefa, former head of the National Intelligence Security Services (NISS). He has just been charged with corruption and abuse of power.
Although identified and targeted last year as the villain of the government’s narrative, the timing of the announcement of these charges raises some interesting questions. Could this be a transparent attempt to distract attention away from the escalating violence and displacement that is steadily dismantling the federal structure that holds the country together?
This week (May 6) has been disastrous for an administration teetering on the edge of legitimacy. While making no statement about the loss of life for some 250 Gumuz people murdered by Amhara vigilante groups, the Prime Minister seems to be grasping for a distraction to turn attention away from his own failed governance.
Just who is Getachew Assefa and why is he playing such an outsized role in this new narrative? How is it that the former head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) has become a symbol of the “before” in Ethiopia when, just as little as two years ago, one would be hard pressed to find anyone in the general population who knew his name.
The basic facts of Getachew’s early life mirror those of many in the TPLF leadership. He was born in Mekelle where his father served in the police force. Major Assefa, having been stationed in every town with the exception of Axum and Shire, made sure that his children, including Getachew, become more than familiar with the farthest corners of Tigray and its people. Theirmodest home in Mekelle, where Getachew and his large contingent of brothers and sisters were born, today remains the focal point of his close extended family.
Getachew excelled academically in elementary school and was selected to attend the renowned Wingate School in Addis Ababa. A few years younger than Meles Zenawi, Getachew was attracted to the revolutionary ideas that had captured Ethiopia’s youth in the 1970s. Like many of his peers, Getachew left school to join the TPLF and become a tagadaley. His intensely analytical mind led him to be assigned to the front’s military intelligence unit.
In 1991, following the fall of Mengistu’s government and the bloodless takeover by the TPLF, Getachew briefly was assigned to the Ministry of Interior under the new government’s first security chief, Kinfe Gebremedhin and then later assigned to the federal police. When the TPLF military wing was, it was only Getachew and Seeye who joined the political arm of the TPLF.
When the war with Eritrea began, Getachew was assigned to the military’s command post. He was appointed head of the NISS in 2001, following the murder of Kinfe Gebremedhin.
Here is where an alternative Ethiopian narrative picks up again.
The security sector is an important feature of any modern state. Security services provide protection for the people, the state and government institutions. However, in the authoritarian state, the security apparatus furthers the interests of the leadership at the expense of the state and its people. The security sector in Africa tends to be subsumed under the military and functions to provide cover for the regime.
The responsibilities of NISS are clearly laid out in the Constitution and Proclamation 804/2013, The National Security Service Re-establishment Proclamation. Oversight is provided by the Prime Minister’s office, the security command council and the Ministry of Justice. The NISS has a mandate to only investigate and report. The reports are submitted to the Prime Minister’s office and the head of the police force. The chain of command is clear—which leads us to as how Getachew can be charged without charging former Prime Minister Hailemariam and former Federal Police chief Workneh Gebayehu?
Until recently, the ordinary Ethiopian had probably never heard the name Getachew Assefa—except at the Sheraton Hotel when he could be seen occasionally sitting with friends and drinking coffee. A man of modest tastes, Getachew neither smokes nor drinks alcohol. Even today, waiters at the Sheraton’s lobby coffee bar will ask Getachew’s friends about his health and well-being, passing along their greetings and wishing him well.
How do we reconcile the genial, modest man sitting with his friends over coffee with the mythological powerful and ruthless caricature promoted by the current narrative?
Not much is written about Getachew Assefa. Unlike many other intelligence chiefs in Africa, Getachew kept a low profile, eschewing the conspicuous trappings favored by high level officials in similar positions in other countries.
The most written about Getachew can be found in the several embassy cables sent by former Ambassador to Ethiopia and later Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Donald Yamamoto. In these cables, one in particular, Ambassador Yamamoto tries to reconcile his perception about Getachew with Getachew’s own views about Ethiopia’s relationship with the United States, terrorist groups operating inside and outside Ethiopia, Somalia, democracy, and human rights.
In one cable, entitled Understanding the Ethiopian Hardliners, Ambassador Yamamoto reports on a three hour meeting with Getachew Assefa over lunch—hosted by the NISS security chief himself. Indeed, there is a misconnect between Yamamoto’s characterization of Getachew and the views expressed by the intelligence chief during their conversation, which are quoted extensively in the cable.
Ambassador Yamamoto wrote, “Getachew, noted for his eccentric behavior and elusiveness, explained to the Ambassador that he welcomes greater dialogue with the U.S. embassy.”
Perhaps Yamamoto was referring to Prime Minister Meles’ own characterization of Getachew. The Prime Minister had, on several occasions and to Ambassador Yamamoto himself, called Getachew “difficult but principled.”
Getachew, according his colleagues, was forceful in expressing his opinions. Perhaps this was mischaracterized by Yamamoto as “hot tempered.” Prime Minister Meles, however, explained that he and the others who had served with Getachew for 17 years in the struggle knew Getachew and understood his character. Getachew’s assertiveness in expressing his views were based on his commitment to the principles on which the Ethiopian constitution was founded. Those principles, according to Getachew, could not be compromised for political expediency.
Like the time Getachew faced down Abdi Iley, the disgraced president of the Somali region, at a party meeting. Despite Getachew’s passionate disapproval of Abdi Iley, he was unable to do anything other than express his views because of the way the party is structured. Yes, his comrades will all agree, he has a temper but his temper was directed at those who disregarded the rule of law and constitutional principles.
Getachew may have shown a temper with his comrades but he never, according to the people around him, let his passions interfere with rule of law. The people who murdered his father—officials of Mengistu’s government—were in Addis when the EPRDF executed the takeover. He knew who they were and where they were. Yet, Getachew refrained from taking any actions against them, allowing the law to take its course.
What Getachew said to Yamamoto during that three-hour meetingis in direct contrast to the current narrative being promoted today—one that characterizes the security chief as a counter to the “medemer” reform movement. We need to remind ourselves that these embassy cables are official memoranda—from the embassy to the Department of State. Each sentence is carefully thought out and constructed to relay critical information required to make policy decisions about the relationship.
Getachew, according to Yamamoto, “wishes to see a vibrant opposition movement.” His [Getachew’s] caveat was that “the opposition is not democratic and, if elected to power, would lead to more political restrictions and a severe deterioration of relations with the U.S. over democratic values.”
Getachew said to Yamamoto that he was disappointed Berhanu Nega had not assumed his elected position of mayor of Addis Ababa. Berhanu had “let down the people of Addis Ababa,” said Getachew. Getachew, wondering aloud, remarked that he found it difficult to understand how Berhanu, who had realized his dream of being mayor of Addis Ababa, descended into the role of terroroist.
In this cable, Yamamoto makes note that Getachew “asked why the U.S. government would give a public platform to a person who advocates violence and the overthrow of a government friendly to, and supportive of, U.S. policy.”
On democracy and human rights, Getachew called Ethiopia’s democracy “a work in progress” and said “the goal for the ruling party is to give way to other parties of common vision in fighting poverty and a commitment to support the process of democratization.”
Getachew kept the lines of communication open with opposition groups like the OLF, despite his reservations. He was instructed to meet the OLF in Dubai with Workneh, the federal police chief, and General Abadulla, the Speaker of the House. He was not in agreement with a rapprochement, but Getachew respected the chain of command that ordered him to have the meeting.
What makes Getachew a “hardliner” in Ambassador Yamamoto’s view of the security chief is his uncompromising position on Ethiopian sovereignty. Concerning the ONLF and OLF, for example, Getachew affirmed to Yamamoto that the government does reach out to these groups in order to end the violence. However, according to Yamamoto, “Getachew stressed that this is an Ethiopian process by Ethiopians and should remain an Ethiopian-led, Ethiopian directed and Ethiopian-coordinated process.”
Despite Getachew’s hardline position on Ethiopian sovereignty, the security chief worked closely with the U.S. on all matters relating to counter-terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 9, 2001, New York City’s Chief of Police travelled to Addis Ababa to meet with Getachew and discuss how Ethiopia’s intelligence service was able to investigate the assassination attempt of Hosni Mubarak while attending an African Union meeting. He met the delegation in the safe houses the NISS kept for high level security meetings located in various parts of the city.
By 2015, Getachew Assefa’s job was getting harder and harder as the country crept towards state capture by today’s leadership. He reported to Prime Minister Hailemariam on the growing radicalization and takeover of Ethiopia’s Muslim community by Wahabists in Saudi Arabia, who had built 35,000 new mosques, mainly throughout Oromia. With satchels filled with money, the Wahabists were attempting to take over the leadership of the community and bring Ethiopia closer to Saudia Arabia; thus, challenging the centuries-old culture of tolerance practiced by the country’s Christian and Muslim communities.
As violence between ethnic communities around the country was growing deadlier and deadlier, Getachew sent report after report to Prime Minister Hailemariam’s office, documenting the actions and persons of interest at the heart of the deadly turmoil that was overtaking Ethiopia.
What happened next is well known. In a stunning political maneuver, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was elected chairman of the EPRDF and Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The Prime Minister sacked high officials of the TPLF, including Getachew Assefa, where, after 44 years of service to the Ethiopian people, he retired to Mekelle.
Now here is where the narrative goes awry.
Those in power have constructed their hero in the form of Prime Minister Abiy. In a different story, the villain would be former Prime Minister Hailemariam, who maintained a placeholder government following the death of Prime Minister Meles. However, it would be awkward to villainies Hailemariam since he was a key figure in the election of Abiy Ahmed. Unsure of what the Ethiopian people would accept the demonization of Prime Minister Meles, the powerful decided to make Getachew Assefa the symbol of all that was wrong about Ethiopia under the TPLF.
No matter that Getachew reported to Hailemariam Dessalegn. No matter that the once head of the Federal Police Workneh Gebeyehu, now safely ensconced under the protective cover of the UN in Nairobi, was head of the prisons where, according to a shameful propaganda film, tortured prisoners “heard Tigrinya” spoken. No matter that Getachew had no authority to arrest or prosecute. The narrative needed a villain and Getachew was chosen to play that role.
Today’s cynical and transactional attitudes perhaps cannot comprehend the values and principles embraced by the young people in Ethiopia during the 1970s. They crushed a feudal empire and then annihilated a military behemoth.
Getachew Assefa was part of that generation. He was shaped by an unyielding and uncompromising commitment to defeat poverty and eradicate inequality. Democracy was not just a word to use to please Western donors. Democracy was real and it was attainable. It was, as Meles Zenawi said, ”a matter of national survival.”
Every day the current narrative is enhanced, revised and augmented to create an inauthentic version of the past—the “before.” Democracy has become a plaything of Ethiopian political elites who toss it back and forth in a game where no one wins and everyone loses.
And Getachew? Getachew Assefa has gone back to his roots—to Tigray where he has assumed the responsibilities he once held as a tagadaley. He is charged with maintaining the security of Tigray, now a region in the crosshairs of those who seek to destroy the people of Tigray. It is a burden he is uniquely qualified to shoulder after decades of defending Ethiopia from internal and external threats—the violence that has emerged to threaten the unity and integrity of the current nation-state.
Why is the current leadership so afraid of Getachew Assefa? They are afraid of him because he is authentic. He has strengths and weaknesses. What he doesn’t have is fear. They fear him.
The narrative promoted today is a mythology created to legitimize the ascendance of a mediocre Prime Minister. To round out this narrative, there must be a villain. The villain, however, is not just a Getachew. The villain is the collective of the Tigrayan people who gave so much and received so little back.
For Getachew and the people of Tigray, in the words of Amilcar Cabral, a luta continua vitória é certa. The struggle continues, victory is certain!
Back to Front Page