Berhanu Nega and Lidetu Ayalew's controversy

By Eskinder Nega / November 26, 2010
Somber faced Ethiopians stared in rapt attention as Dr Berhanu Nega’s voice resonated with pronounced intensity. As he dramatically details a 2005 discussion between CUD leaders, his face is noticeably flashed with emotion.

“What (are the findings of the) Committee (tasked with exploring the political options available to the CUD as the post election controversy heats up)?” we (the CUD leadership) asked him (Lidetu Ayalew, spokesperson of CUD and member of the committee.)

“It (the committee’s work) is not necessary. You are making a mountain out of a molehill,” (responds a dismissive Lidetu.*)

“What then are we (the CUD) exactly supposed to do?” ( we inquire curiously.*)

“We will call for a rally (protesting against the doctored election results),” (answers Lidetu authoritatively.*)

“What then happens,” (we ask eagerly.*)

“Weyane (EPRDF, the ruling party) kills (the protesters)” (responds Lidetu coolly.*)

“What then happens,” (we ask incredulously.*)

“(We get the perfect pretext to join Parliament.) We will maintain that we had opted for peaceful protest but that the government had responded with killings. (We could then go on to insist that) the only recourse left is to join Parliament and continue with the struggle from there. There will then be no grounds for anyone to accuse us of cowardice,” (says Lidetu mapping the strategy to be pursued by CUD as public pressure mounts for a showdown with the EPRDF, which had lost the election but reversed the results.)

Berhanu ends his narrative here. But he goes on.

“What I just told you is what actually came to pass in a (CUD) meeting. The person who back then calculated in terms of thirty, forty people’s lives (to get the pretext to join Parliament) is now the same person who (questions the integrity of others). The extent of some people’s moral bankruptcy is really startling.”

( * What are in brackets marked with asterisk* are my interpretation of Berhanu’s tone.)

DATELINE: November 2010---Washington D.C.( Lidetu Ayalew)

Lidetu’s response came courtesy of D.C’s Ande-Ethiopia radio, a preserve of Diaspora fringe narrow- nationalists.

“If this was true, certainly Dr Berhanu et al would not have waited for five years to reveal this to the public,” said Lidetu. “It’s an absolute lie.”

Smelling blood, Ande-Ethiopia could not resist provoking him.

“But why would Dr Berhanu lie?” Ande-Ethiopia asks mischievously.

Lidetu is flabbergasted. He literally rumbles. (“I am sorry for my emotional response,” he says at one point.) “He would lie for four reasons,” begins Lidetu. First: the EPRP (an opposition party, which Berhanu had joined in his teens) is attacked. (There lies the origin of his malice, asserts Lidetu.) Second: Berhanu is declared an atheist. Third: a brother’s ( Berhanu’s) divorce is brought up. And fourth: a bit of psychoanalysis to cap it all. (The death sentence is getting to Berhanu, reasons Lidetu.)

On and on and on goes Lidetu, and then, finally, in what looks like an act of ultimate self-defeat, shoots himself in the foot by denying that Berhanu was ever the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa. “I was disheartened to see him (during the commemorative event) being addressed as mayor. No person was elected (by the voters) to be mayor.” Only the city council could have elected the mayor, he insists. “He was merely slated for the position by the party.” (CUD had won 137 of 138 city council seats. Berahnu was elected mayor-elect by the 137 in the presence of the media.)

DATELINE: June 2005—Addis Ababa. ( Five years ago)

A member of CUD’s leadership (a Central Committee member) reached in to his pocket with a sigh. The avalanche of calls was on the verge of overwhelming him. Glancing at the incoming number though, he couldn’t help but be intriguingly surprised.

It was Berhanu Nega calling.

“ (Name withheld upon request), I need to speak with you urgently,” said an anxious sounding Berhanu, following a brief exchange of pleasantries.

“ Sure, Doc,” shoots back the CC member, wondering why Berhanu would be seeking a private meeting with him.

When they met, Berhanu was quick to get to the point.

“Have you been following the press releases (attributed to the CUD) issued by Lidetu ?” asks Berhanu.

“ Sort of,” responds the CC member circumspectly, but instantly cognizant of where the conversation was heading. The press releases have raised eyebrows within the leadership.

“ I am worried about some of them,” continues Berhanu earnestly. “Could the EPRDF use them as evidence for incitement? I suggest that you assess them from a legal point of view.”

A graduate of AAU’s reputable law school, the CC member carefully reviews the press releases. He settles on urging caution and approaches Lidetu.

“ Perhaps we should be more circumspect about the wordings of the press releases,” he tells Lidetu at a private meeting.

Lidteu almost jumps up with fury.

“Why do you say that?” he asks him visibly angered.

“It’s my professional opinion as a lawyer. There could be room for twisting them. They could charge us with incitement,” replies the CC member, taken aback by the ferocity of Lidetu’s reaction.

“I have been mandated to issue press releases by the Executive Committee. This is the party’s position. There is no need to alter tone or content. I know what I am doing,” barks an annoyed Lidetu , and waves away the issue.

In this immediate aftermath of the post-election crisis, Lidetu was a proponent of what he termed as a “political solution.” It envisioned a mounting (peaceful) mass action against the government. “Confronted with an ungovernable country, Weyane will eventually opt for a political settlement,” he argued. “The legal option will take us no where,” Lidetu intoned passionately. Neither the electoral board nor the courts were to be trusted. “The courts are tainted beyond redemption,” he liked to say.

Lidetu personified popular sentiment at this point. This was the peak of his power and influence. He was virtually unchallengeable. Knowing this, the CC member quietly relents. He parts with Lidetu defeated and shaken.

DATELINE: January 2006---Addis Ababa

The principal leaders of CUD, save Lidetu, appear before court accused of treason ---a capital punishment offense--- by the government. Affixed to the charges as “evidences” were many of the press releases unilaterally issued by Lidetu Ayalew.( Though they lack the strict criteria the law sets for incitement.)

And many of the defendants could not help but wonder if it was not all a deliberate set up from the very beginning.

DATELINE: The Present.

Berhanu has his fair share of critics, but not even the harshest amongst them, including the EPRDF, have questioned his personal integrity the way Lidetu has done. Few are apt to question his personal integrity simply on the strength of Lidetu’s rhetoric; however alluring and powerful it may be. Since Berhanu boldly asserts that the exchange took place in a meeting, a more convincing case would have been made by Lidetu had he demanded the names of those present in the meeting. His failure to do so begs an explanation. Razor sharp as Lidetu is, the public is at a loss to assume an oversight on his part.

Ever since his disastrous break with CUD, Lidetu has blamed everyone (including this writer) but himself for his troubles. Between his break with CUD and the 2010 elections, when he was tenaciously propped by the EPRDF and the CUD had recklessly self-imploded, his chances of political redemption—albeit a limited version--- had looked like a real possibility. What ever the shortcomings of the elections, as even Lidetu admits, that they at least accurately show those impressions were no more than a mirage.

The loss of Lidetu’s imagined world, where his vindication was always around the corner, has obviously turned him in to angry man. His caprice, pretension and obvious destructiveness are no more than coping mechanisms.He should no more be hated. He should rather be pitied.

The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: