By Tadeos Anteneh
Tigrai Online March 17, 2013
When the surprise but brief arrest of Ermias Amelga, the beleaguered head of Access Real Estate was announced last month, the cause of his arrest would have been obvious to the hundreds of customers who accuse him of letting them down by failing to deliver their long awaited dreams of owning homes that they could call their own.
His company, ARE, had collected cash advances in many cases the full amount of the purchase price to build and deliver apartments in 12 to 18 months in some of Addis Ababa’s highly sought-after locations.
To the dismay of nearly all 2000 or so customers across 11 construction sites, the company that Ermias has founded and led since 2008, however, completely missed the tight delivery schedules it set itself relentlessly advertising to lure customers desperate to put roof over their heads.
In fact, customers who spoke in the wake of Ermias’ one-day detention saw his arrest as the potential onset of bigger and perhaps long running lawsuits which may have been looming for quite some time.
However, in what must be a dramatic twist to the story, the Washington based pro opposition ESAT radio took to the airwaves on Tuesday 19th February claiming the arrest was proof of tacit government efforts to re-engineer in favour of ‘Tigreans’ the composition of players in the lucrative real estate sector.
The commentator Sisay Agena responded to carefully crafted questions by the host Mesay Mekonnen who didn’t hide the bigotry of the 5 minute broadcast as he went about echoing politically charged unverifiable claims aimed at one ethnic group.
According to Sisay, Ermias was but the latest casualty in the state’s long term plan of driving out non-Tigrean businessmen and women who have worked their way to the top - many of them with established reputations as ‘successful’ and ‘visionary’ entrepreneurs at home and abroad.
The ex-army lieutenant-turned-tabloid-‘editor’-turned ‘political pundit’, all through sheer dogged ideological antagonism to the ruling party, spun on end without proof about how a whole neighbourhood in Addis Ababa has suddenly turned into an exclusive settlement for those who have hailed from Tigray. A comment he made in open reference to uptown Bole Medhanealem which he dubbed Region 1.
Sisay had, of course, no quantitative or qualitative data to substantiate his hateful assertions. Not a single proof to justify the outrageous claim. His calculated anti Tigrean slander (intended to reach Ethiopian audiences in the country and outside) only listed the names of non-Tigrean businessmen known to have failed foul of the law as evidence for the allegation.
Ayat Real Estate’s Tessema Ayalew serving a prison sentence following tax related charges among others and Leikun Berhanu a former president of Awash International Bank also convicted of a foreign exchange mismanagement offence as well as Tekalign Gedamu another banker implicated in the loss of 57 million Birr at Abyssinia Bank were all names Sisay Agena bandied to justify his toxic internecine hate message.
None of these men were of course Tigreans and their court appearance and conviction (with the exception of the latter) had nothing to do with their ethnic background. Their fall from grace and subsequent imprisonment or exile was the outcome of their own misconduct and/or failure or incompetence to discharge the duties bestowed on them by customers and shareholders who trusted them with their money not to mention the general taxpayer which was put out of pocket by their unsavoury business practices.
The fact is there are Tigreans who had felt the full force of the law when they were found in contempt of it. The case of Askallucan Trading’s boss Girmay Yihdego is a perfect example. He was hunted and arrested from his hiding in Germany in 2010 after he swindled travellers to the tune of 40 million Birr by promising to secure them entry visas to South Africa and tickets to the 2010 World Cup.
Similarly, in 2010 when the Addis Ababa City Administration penalised real estate companies who had breached the terms of their land lease, Tekleberhan Ambaye and Samuel Teklay both businessmen of Tigrean extraction, had their land lease agreements terminated in much the same way as others’.
What’s more, there is no evidence to suggest that the Ethiopian real estate sector; from which the Access boss is allegedly being forced out by political pressure (according to ESAT) is being dominated by any single ethnic group.
The truth is despite its troubles, we are told Access Real Estate still remains a major player in the housing construction market despite the significant contraction it finally announced in the past couple of weeks as it prepared to abandon plans to commence construction at 30 of its project sites across the capital for purely business reasons (although that itself is now being denied by the CEO, Ermias Amelga).
But Sisay, who has got his own scores to settle with not just the ruling coalition but also with those who hail from Tigray in general, was not interested in finding out the truth. So he made no effort to check the veracity of his unfounded claim before rushing to spout it out live on air.
When the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) stopped Ermias from being chairman of Zemen Bank and banned him from serving in any senior position in the banking industry last year, the man who was elected to be director of that bank Tekle Alemineh received a harsher restriction banning him from taking any position in any bank. Though not entirely confirmed, rumour has it that Tekle himself is of a Tigrean background. And if confirmed to be true, it seems at least on this occasion his ethnic affiliation has not spared him the more punitive action.
As former colleagues testify, Sisay mislearnt the tricks of the journalism trade by dreaming up stories in the ‘Kat’ fuelled news rooms of Addisu Gebeya a short walk from the streets of Piazza where he used to spend his days gathering gossip in bars and cafes teeming with middlemen, retired fellow army officers and armchair critics of the regime. While there is nothing wrong with harvesting stories in this way, it is the prime requisite of any respectable journalist to carry out checks before printing lies and half-truths.
His record of going and in and out of prison on charges ranging from defamation to pure fabrication of lies in his days as ‘editor’ of the dust gathering Amharic tabloid Eth’op partly explains the underlying lack of professionalism which characterises the sort of journalism that cost him the licence to operate as an editor and publisher in Ethiopia’s feral private newspaper business.
However, politicising anything and everything that happens is not the folly of just one or two Ethiopian journalist types in the service of disgruntled politicians as all the hacks are in ESAT. It is a glaring turpitude from which many have been unable to grow out of as conscionable eyes and ears of Ethiopian society.
The trouble is such skewed take on events tilts perception among audiences who give credence to the shallow, the politically partisan and the opportunistic in the Ethiopian media. Unfortunately that adds to the problem of distrust and suspicion that exists among Ethiopians at home and abroad.
The Ethiopian political landscape may be dominated by elite which stands for the nurturing of ethnic harmony through the strong expression of individuality and diversity rather than through the suppression or amalgamation of those diversities for fear of weakening national unity.
Yet, whilst it is every citizen’s right to oppose or support that belief, it is not up to those in the business of informing society to promote ideological bias by taking sides on one or the other side of the political divide. But that I think is where the fundamental defect lies for ESAT’s journalist types who toe the lines of their political masters in what is but a complete abandonment of their own self declared editorial independence and promise of providing ‘reliable and accurate’ information.
Otherwise, their reports and comments wouldn’t be painting a simplistic misleading picture of apartheid Ethiopia where one’s fate is determined by the accident of their ethnic identity. An appallingly misleading claim which does not stand up to a reasonable scrutiny but one, which if left unchallenged, will have catastrophic consequences for ethnic harmony in the country that we all call home. Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” And so it is incumbent up on all of us to challenge the lies of those who seek to sow the seeds of discord and division among us in order to achieve their political objectives.