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Uncovering the African Renaissanceby Charlayne Hunter-Gault
But my anxiety lay just beneath the surface, for I had managed to secure a promise of the first-ever television interview with Mengistu Haili Miriam, the Ethiopian leader who, among other things, had come to be known as one of Africa?s cruelest dictators, a man who brutally suppressed dissent, fed a famine, and forcibly relocated millions of opponents to a countryside without food or other basics. He had seized power in 1974 from long-ruling Emperor Haile Selassie, whose life he had spared, but whom he confined on the grounds of the old Imperial Palace until he died almost a year later, some say suffocated in his sleep. Others suffered a worse fate, as Mengistu carried out what he called The Red Terror, imprisoning, torturing, and murdering hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians he considered to be against his rule. Rumor had it that Mengistu had called a Cabinet meeting once and mowed down several of those he had come to distrust. Hence, my anxiety, because I knew I would have to put some tough, uncomfortable questions to him provided the interview did, in fact, come through.
Mengistu kept my crew and me hanging in suspense for several days, right up until the day we were to leave. We had packed, with only hours before our plane was to take off for the return trip back to the United States. Then, suddenly, word came that the President was ready to see us.
Meeting him and shaking his hand did not diminish my anxiety. He was dressed in full military regalia, was stiff and formal, with cold eyes. I had worked hard on framing what I considered to be the toughest area of questioning, trying even with the overwhelming evidence of his cruelty to be fair.
Halfway through the interview, I put it to him: "How would you rewrite this chapter of Ethiopian history? I mean, a chapter which says, which often refers to you as a cruel dictator, Mengistu. A man who refuses to allow political expression, who has brutally suppressed dissent and who is indifferent to human life. How would you rewrite this chapter?"
With the same cold eyes and rigid demeanor, he looked me straight in the eye and gave an answer that resonated with the millions of Ethiopians forced by his brutality to live in exile.
Even today, almost 15 years later, no matter where I encounter an Ethiopian, especially the highly educated and informed cab drivers in Washington, D. C. and other cities around the United States, they recognize me immediately, all using the exact words: "Ah, you are the one who interviewed Mengistu. You are the one he told he wouldn't hurt a fly."
I had not been back to Ethiopia until March 2006. In the interim, Mengistu had been overthrown by a coalition of rebel forces, and a revolutionary leader who had promised a new day for Ethiopia had come to power in the country's first multiparty elections in 1995. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had earned a reputation as a new breed of African leader, reformist and accountable. But while I didn't have the same anxiety when I arrived in Addis this time as I had when Mengistu was still in power, I had come to this place because of allegations that the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government was now guilty of some of the same kinds of things that had driven it to overthrow Mengistu. No one was accusing Meles of being another Mengistu, but his government had earned a reputation of being "Africa's worst jailers of journalists throughout much of the 1990s," according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), one of the major organizations in the world monitoring press freedom and advocating on behalf of journalists persecuted for doing their jobs.
I had come to Addis to look into one of the most serious cases on the continent involving journalists running afoul of the State. Some fourteen journalists and political opposition leaders had been arrested the previous November following elections and a massive crackdown by Ethiopian authorities. These authorities, as CPJ reported, "issued a 'wanted' list of editors, writers and dissidents; raided newspaper offices; blocked newspapers from publishing; drove a number of journalists into hiding and exile; and expelled two foreign reporters."
The imprisoned journalists were charged with genocide and treason, and, if convicted, could be sentenced to life imprisonment or death. I was a part of a three-person delegation from the CPJ, on whose board I serve. We had come to look specifically into the cases of the jailed journalists, and had requested an interview with Prime Minister Meles. In the interim, my colleagues Julia Crawford, the CPJ's Africa Program Coordinator, Kenyan Journalist Charles Onyango Obbo, and I were granted a rare meeting at the prison with the accused journalists, all of whom professed their innocence. We also met with journalists on the outside, who had charges pending some as old as 10 years and still others who, so far, had been left alone to do their jobs. But there was one overwhelming sentiment expressed by all: fear.
In this regard, Ethiopia is not alone. Throughout the continent, even as African leaders are taking what I call in my new book "baby steps" towards democracy, many have yet to embrace freedom of the press and of speech as one of its cornerstones. From Addis Ababa in the East to the Gambia in the West, African journalists are being detained, arrested, harassed and otherwise intimidated by their governments for merely doing their jobs. Even as a group of 10 former African presidents met in Johannesburg recently, decrying the negative image of Africa in the Western media, police and security agents in some of their countries Burundi, for example were harassing journalists for simply trying to get a view that was not the official one.
Back in Ethiopia, in sharp contrast to Mengistu, Meles was warm and charming, relaxed and forthcoming. He told us that his government has tried to build institutions of democratic governance, including a free press. But he said much of the private press was "in effect a party organ of the opposition," and that this had affected its relations with the authorities.
Meles acknowledged that the atmosphere between the government and the media was "poisonous," but he pledged to us that the jailed journalists would be given a fair trial and that he would take steps to improve the communication between his government and the media. We suggested that releasing the journalists, especially one who was pregnant, and dropping the old charges would go far towards achieving that objective. We wait in hope.
As African leaders pursue their quest for an African Renaissance and African journalists pursue their quest to own their images and stories, what is also needed is a Renaissance of the mind one that liberates both African leaders and African journalists from the constraints of the past and gives them new freedom to help, each in their own way, build strong institutions that bolster democracy. For example, African journalists have called for support for advanced training and more advanced technology. Many don't even have computers. To that end, there is a healthy debate among African journalists, sparked in part by South African President Thabo Mbeki's admonition that African journalists must be African's first, seen by many as an appeal to African patriotism. As a journalist committed to helping tell the true stories of Africa and its people, portraying them in ways they are recognizable to themselves, I would hope that this debate leads to both sides recognizing even in fragile new democracies the true meaning of patriotism: a commitment to the nation and not to the government, arming citizens with the information they need to ensure they live their lives in freedom and dignity, free from fear of holding their governments accountable as they move hopefully towards the Renaissance they're all envisioning for the African continent.