Poor Azeb Mesfin and her grand new palace

By Abebe Gellaw / March 30, 2011
Earlier this year, Edwardo Molano, Africa correspondent of the Spanish newspaper, ABC Internacional, filed a report, “Unlimited extravagance of >African First Ladies”, that focused on some of the continent’s notoriously corrupt and greedy wives of dictators that have been stealing from poor starving nations. The report revealed, among other things, that Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, owns over 3,000 pairs of shoes while Tunisia’s deposed queen of greed, Leila Trabelsi, fled with 1.5 tons of gold.

What was even more interesting to most Ethiopians was ABC Internacional’s revelation that our first lady of corruption, Azeb Mesfin, has been siphoning off millions of dollars from the starving people of Ethiopia. According to Molano, Meles Zenawi’s wife spent 1.2 million Euros just in one of her shopping sprees in Europe. But Meles had recently told the nation that his salary was 6400 birr. We can easily guess that the combined income of the couple would not be enough to squander millions of dollars on jewellery, designer clothes, perfumes, gems and other glittery items.

One might expect that Empress Azeb would sue the Spanish paper for libel and defamation. Given the fact that she had once unwittingly challenged anyone who has information including the American government to prove any allegations of stealing and corruption against her and her husband, it is still quite surprising that Azeb has chosen not to refute the report of a well-informed European paper. After three months, there was no comment, no denial and no statement from the palace despite the gravity of the allegations. Azeb and her husband, who are lucky enough to be immune from the investigation of their own anti-corruption commission that has been sending thousands of low-ranking officials to jails every year, have silently continued business as usual.

In February 2008, we were told that Meles and Azeb hired Francesco Saverio Anticili, the Italian architect and interior designer of Emperor Haile Selassie’s Jubilee Palace. Anticini told Capital newspaper that he had spent months only on preparing the survey of the expansive palace which has over 100 rooms. They tyrants paid Anticini’s company and contractors tens of millions of dollars to renovate and refurnish the palace. According to Azeb, the palace is a historic heritage of the Ethiopian people though no ordinary Ethiopian is allowed to pass by this heavily guarded bastion of corrupt tyrants and oppressors let alone owning it.

So many things have been said about Meles and Azeb’s unbridled greed and corruption. Their cash cow called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), which controls a significant stake in the Ethiopian economy, has been a subject of intense debate since its inception. A recent news report by a local paper, Ethiopian Reporter, has confirmed that Meles and Azeb are thick skinned. The story, appropriately titled “PM to get lavish residence”, tells of the launch of an astounding plan to build a new palace for the comfort of our ruler and his wife. It appears that the couple, who control privileged but illegal multibillion businesses, care little about their records of corruption, greed, theft, excessive extravagance and vanity in a country still suffering from starvation and abject poverty.

The lavish project is huge and is headed by none other than Ethiopia’s Leila Trabelsi, Azeb Mesfin. A few days after the Meles regime sounded another alarm to the international community to send emergency food aid to feed 3 million people, it was reported that Azeb has been overseeing the construction of a new palace within the expansive premises of the grand palace at a cost of over 82 million birr, according to Addis Fortune. The new palace will have tennis courts, swimming pools, guest houses and hundreds of rooms. It does not seem to bother the corrupt couple that only in the last five years, over 10 million fellow Ethiopians have been dependent on food aid every single year. Over seven million people, including one in three households in Tigray in whose name the tyrants are robbing the nation, survive on food-for-work schemes to sustain their misery.

After the news on the secret palace project was leaked, the palace had to give a ludicrous reason why starving Ethiopia needed a brand new palace to house a couple abusing and robbing the nation. A week ago, Reporter was told the following comical tall tale that the paper published in two short paragraphs. According to the Reporter, the palace disclosed that the “new residence” [palace] being built in the premises of the grand palace was not just intended to be Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s residence. The Prime Minister gave the go ahead for the project after he realised that his “successor” would not be able to build the palace as it might be construed as an abuse of power. In other words, Meles Zenawi put his own “reputation” on the line to save his successors from potential accusations of extravagance, corruption and abuse of power. How laughable! It is quite true that he who lives in water in not afraid of heavy rains.

Well, there is a crisis of everything in Ethiopia. Food is scarce and housing is a perennial headache. The answer is what they call “growth and transformation plan” which appears to include building a brand new palace for Azeb and Meles’ luxury. This is the best transformation any creatively corrupt royal family can think of in a starving nation.

One may remember Azeb Mesfin’s most comical interview in which she claimed that she and her husband were the poorest of the poor among rulers. The simple question she was asked made her look like a mouse caught in a trap and she was at great pains to explain that her husband did not even know the colours of the Ethiopian currency notes and how the two struggle to send their kids to school.

In one of her trips to Sweden, according to Azeb, some Swedes brought up to her that she and her husband were said to be the poorest among rulers. Mind you, even a kid can guess that the whole fabrication is a lie. But she even went on to say that she is so generous that there are eleven street kinds who depend on her kindness.

“Whenever I get some money, I give them whatever I have in my hand. They are like my own children,” the queen of corruption said blinking her eyes. Imagine how much she cares about her “homeless children.” In other words she sustains their misery by keeping her street children in the cold. What kind of generosity is that? May be these kids have now graduated from college. Thank God it is a lie. We know she never cares!

“If we need money, we would not steal from the people of Ethiopia,” she said. According to Madam Azeb, had she wanted money, she would have forced Meles to leave power because he has a “brain” which can be sold in any labour market. This would have been the best favour she could do to Ethiopia though no one will buy a wicked brain of a dangerous killer. But it is clear that the poor lady, who appears to be helplessly naïve and vain, is detached from reality and the world she lives in. This fact also explains why she aggressively pushed for the construction of a new grand palace in a country where the majority of Ethiopians cannot afford eat a decent meal and have no access to clean water. The major diseases killing millions of Ethiopians like insects are water-born. For the majority, tap water is a luxury.

A few years ago, Meles Zenawi was asked why the government does not renovate Addis Ababa Stadium before it collapses on people. He dismissed the question saying his government’s priority is not spending money on stadiums. He said that ensuring food security and undertaking rural development were his priorities.

As usual, Meles should not be taken seriously whenever he tells his contradictory lies. A few months after he ridiculed the idea of renovating Addis Ababa Stadium, the nation was told that the government launched a project to construct a brand new stadium in Mekele at an outlay of 220 million birr. In May 2008, the man who was supervising the project, Engineer Assefa Taddelle, told VOA reporter Girmay Gebru that the Mekele stadium project was good for economic development in Ethiopia. “It is an investment in Ethiopia’s national economy and will be an icon for Mekelle, the administrative center of the State of Tigray,” Assefa said.

Ethiopia is needy. The majority of her people still suffer from man-made and natural disasters. Millions of peasants are losing their land as Meles and Azeb are selling over 3 million hectares of land to foreign agribusinesses.

In spite of the exaggerations of double-digit economic development, only 22 percent of 80 million Ethiopians have access to clean water, according to UNICEF. It was reported last year that 3 million Ethiopians have no access to proper toilets in Addis Ababa alone. The vast majority of people in the rural parts of Ethiopia have not ever seen a toilet let alone having one.

Over 85 percent of Ethiopians live in poorly constructed shacks and thatched hats that are not suitable for human habitation. The majority of schools in Ethiopia have libraries and books. Over 78 percent of the Ethiopian people live in the dark as they do not have access to electricity. Over 10 million people receive food aid annually. Meles Zenawi and Azeb Mesfin’s answer for these and other tragedies is building a brand new palace at the expense of the poor people who do not even afford to eat or have the luxury of getting access to basic sanitation or clean water. If this is not corruption and daylight robbery, what else will Meles and Azeb call it? Meles and Azeb did not seem to understand that Ethiopians do not need leaders that live far from the reality in lavish palaces and towers. We need people that serve not their self-interests and crony capitalists. We need leaders closer to people than vain tyrants that squander the wealth of poor people on palaces that nobody appreciates. The next leaders must be those who boldly reject the excesses, crimes and corruption of tyrants including living in a grand palace.

It is estimated that it costs the poor people of Ethiopia over 50 million birr annually to meet the basic needs of the royal family and fund their lavish styles including unlimited air travel. They have lived in a grand palace, one of the most lavish palaces in Africa, for nearly twenty years. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, poverty needs so much but greed needs every single penny.

Who is in line to be the next Prime Minister of Ethiopia? All the evidence suggests that the only “competent” woman who has been placed as second in command in the power echelon is the vain queen of corruption, Azeb Mesfin. That seems to be the only reason why she is in charge of almost everything including being project manager of the new grand palace of corruption. What can 82 million birr do in Ethiopia? Just build a palace for two people and their kids!

The whole Meles-Azeb drama is seriously ignominious and intolerable! Their oppression, ruthlessness, corruption, exploitation, greed and avarice must end sooner rather than later. Ethiopians have to unite for the epic battle against the wicked king and queen of corruption as well as their cronies. We need to claim our common destiny as Ethiopians. Ethiopia deserves a better future for all its people.

Let the new march start afresh "Let the incoherent activities end. Let the petty bickering stop. And let Ethiopians unite against poverty, hunger, corruption, injustice, discrimination, humiliation…in their own country. Let the new march start afresh..."

The writer, Abebe Gellaw, is editor of www.addisvoice.com.