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Abiy attacks impunity as MetEC and NISS officials held for graft and torture

  •  Former MetEC boss and NISS deputy head are among detained
  • Arrests follow PM’s admission of torture and criticism of MetEC
  • Attorney General states MetEC was involved in arms trafficking
The former Director-General of the Metals and Engineering Corporation Major General Kinfe Dagnew, other senior MetEC figures, and an ex-deputy head of national intelligence were among 65 people arrested for torture and corruption this week.

The sweeping crackdown after a five-month investigation is the most significant move yet by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government towards holding current and former officials accountable for alleged widespread misdeeds.

Attorney General Berhanu Tsegaye said on Nov.12 that 36 people had been arrested from the intelligence and prisons services for human rights violations and 27 from MetEC for corruption, which also included former deputy manager Brigadier General Tena Kurunde.

Berhanu said the abuse suspects had used facilities including seven secret prisons in Addis Ababa to torture political prisoners and others in a graphic elaboration of admissions made by the Prime Minister to Parliament in June. Prisoners were raped, tied to trees, held with animals, had water bottles hung from their genitals, and their fingernails pulled out, the Attorney General alleged. “In the last 27 years there have been heinous crimes and human right violations perpetrated by government officials on our citizens,” Berhanu said.

The anti-Meles faction is the one that controls TPLF now

On Nov. 12, a federal court gave the authorities 14 days to conduct further investigations into the 63, which did not include Kinfe, as he was arrested on Nov. 13 in Tigray. Former Federal Police Commissioner and National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) deputy director Yared Zerihun was arrested yesterday.

“This crackdown is long overdue. It shows the administration’s commitment to uphold the rule of law and hold criminals accountable whatever their power is. It also has the positive effect of renewing public trust in the justice system,” said Ethiopia Insight commentator Mengistu D. Assefa. (See full analysis below)

The fatal June 23 grenade at a rally in Meskal Square attended by the Prime Minister was designed to look as if Abiy was not supported by the Oromo people, according to the Attorney General. He said it was organized by the head of national security, in what seemed to be a reference to Getachew Assefa, the former NISS boss and a politburo member of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The swiftness of Major General Kinfe’s arrest near Humera shows the support for the move by a faction of the TPLF leadership that has been competing for years against a group more closely associated with the military, said a political analyst. That ascendant TPLF element is led by Getachew and retired party founder Sebhat Nega, he said. “The anti-Meles faction is the one that controls TPLF now,” he said, adding that Getachew was thought to be out of the country, although his whereabouts are rarely known. However, a source close to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said Getachew was also being lined up for prosecution. “There is more to come,” he said.

Contraband

The beginning of legal proceedings against MetEC officials has been accompanied by a documentary on the company’s mismanagement and wrongdoings broadcast several times on ruling party-affiliated and state-owned media. Tigray’s government issued a statement on Nov. 13 saying that those responsible for corruption and human rights violations were drawn from across the ruling coalition and government and that the rule of law must be respected. It said it would continue its struggle through democratic institutions to protect ethnic communities from unfair threats.

Ethiopia Insight political commentator Alemayehu Weldemariam praised the move to tackle systemic abuses but expressed concern about the handling. “This is part of a necessary process of limiting the power of state authority and developing institutional autonomy. But for the rule of law to embed and for reforms to produce sustainable democratic change, the prosecutions have to exhibit a passion for procedure, not just persecution. So far we have seen the opposite, as this appears to be trial by media and therefore by public opinion.” (See full analysis below)

MetEC was created in 2010 from government defense industry manufacturers and was managed by military officers, but it was accountable to the PMO. It was established with 10 billion birr capital by grouping nine businesses previously owned by the Defense Ministry, including Dejen Aviation Industry and Gafat Armament Industry. Six other industries, including plastic, tractor and vehicle spare-parts manufacturers, were transferred to MetEC from the privatization agency.

In 2015 and 2016 there were large seizures of Iranian weapons

The conglomerate rapidly became a major contractor for the state-owned Sugar Corporation and Ethiopian Electric Power, which have been engaged in credit-funded multi-billon dollar projects. MetEC’s mission was to improve Ethiopia’s engineering capacity through experimentation and foreign partnerships, but failures on major projects have probably cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Attorney General said the conglomerate bought two out-of-service ships from the government’s Ethiopian Shipping Logistics and Services Enterprise called Abay and Andinet for $3.3 million, and may have used them for trading arms and other contraband between Iran and Somalia. It later sold them for $2.6 million after multiple illegal voyages.

The documentary featured Ethiopia’s former Ambassador to Djibouti, Suleiman Dedefo, who wrote a letter in February 2013 raising concerns about the cost of the ships docked at Djibouti and other issues to former Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom, who is now the World Health Organisation Director-General. The Ambassador also made allegations about MetEC’s arms trading in the documentary.

A regional security specialist said the claims need to be looked into. In 2015 and 2016 there were large seizures of Iranian weapons between Yemen and Somalia, although it wasn’t clear what the final destination was, they said. There are unconfirmed reports of arms being transported from Iran to Somalia last year, according to the specialist.

Waste

The corporation purchased goods worth 37 billion birr ($1.3 billion) over six years without following correct procurement procedures and with prices inflated by up to 400 percent, according to Berhanu. It acquired five airplanes for 25 million birr, but the location of one is unknown and the other four have been scrapped, said Berhanu, a senior member of the Oromo Democratic Party.

MetEC has long been the focus of corruption suspicions. It was previously known to have received advance payments for seriously delayed schemes, such as the Yayu fertilizer project and the $235-million Kuraz 1 sugar factory in South Omo. It was stripped of its contract for the electro-mechanical component of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam last month after planning and failing to carry out high-precision engineering work. Kuraz I was incorrectly assembled and may be too costly to fix, and the $100-million Melka Sedi biomass thermal power plant in Afar region was similarly bungled after MetEC tried to import used equipment from France, according to sources close to the projects.

MetEC is the property of the Ethiopian people

Kinfe resigned in April and was replaced by former Trade Minister Bekele Bulado. Industry Minister Ambachew Mekonnen took over as chair from Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen this year and there are plans to split the renamed corporation in two.

In an interview last month with Nahoo TV, Kinfe said the anti-corruption commission had regularly scrutinized MetEC’s activities and found no evidence of graft, and that it used International Financial Reporting Standards. He said MetEC saved the government money with its design work and claimed any missing funds were the responsibility of partners such as the Sugar Corporation. “MetEC is the property of the Ethiopian people. So what is wrong if it is paid 100 percent?” he said.

There were arrests of officials and their business associates under former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, including former Revenue and Customs boss Melaku Fanta in 2013 and a state minister of finance last year, but most were released in a wide-ranging amnesty after Abiy took office. Previous prosecutions of opposition leaders and members of a Muslim arbitration committee were accompanied by state media documentaries in 2012 and 2013 loosely linking them with Islamic extremists and Eritrea.

Analysis

Ethiopia Insight political commentator Alemayehu Weldemariam welcomes the move towards ending impunity and resolving systemic ills, but believes a fair trial is now impossible, and worries about the political consequences of an increasingly cornered Tigray

“Corruption and human rights violations are long-existing systemic problems in Ethiopia that call for a thorough house cleaning and an independent arbiter. Abiy’s administration deserves the praise it is getting for holding the powerful to account. This is part of a necessary process of limiting the power of state authority and developing institutional autonomy.

But for the rule of law to embed and for reforms to produce sustainable democratic change, the prosecutions have to exhibit a passion for procedure, not just persecution. So far we have seen the opposite. The way this is being handled, it looks like legitimate investigative activity and genuine crimes are being weaponized to wipe out political opponents, particularly those connected to the TPLF.

It is troubling to see the continuity, despite the reform rhetoric, in the practice of holding trials before formal indictment by means of the public media and public opinion. The documentary regarding embezzlement and mismanagement by MetEC that was aired by the state broadcaster the day after the arrest of its former boss puts in jeopardy the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence.

All of this is Isaias’ dream

It is plainly evident that the defendants will not have a fair trial and that adverse publicity has gutted the rights of the accused. This highlights an ongoing grave concern—the right to a fair trial with presumption of innocence does not exist in Ethiopia.

This very public prosecution also has potentially critical political ramifications. Tigray state has put out a defensive statement which suggests they are worried that Tigrayans are being selectively pursued, and it does indeed appear that almost all of the MetEC suspects are Tigrayan.

Under normal circumstances, Tigray, as a member state in good standing of the federation, owes the federal and state governments the duty to give full faith to their judicial proceedings. However, it’s also important to bear in mind that Tigray can, under extraordinary circumstances, invoke its constitutional right of secession if it perceives that the federal criminal prosecutions single out government officials and military officers from Tigray for politically motivated attacks.

All of this is Isaias’ dream. His original plan of encircling Tigray seems to be working well. Recall that the federal government looked the other way when Amhara elements blocked the main road that connects Addis to Mekele at Kobo town for an entire week; and that the federal government has already engineered regime change in Somali region. Tigray seems cornered, and TPLF politburo member Getachew Assefa appears to be in the sights of federal prosecutors. So far, the region has cooperated, but its statement seems to suggest that there is a limit to its acquiescence.”

Ethiopia Insight’s Mengistu D. Assefa hopes the critical prosecutions are the start of a thorough process of judicial reform and national healing

“This crackdown is long overdue. It shows the administration’s commitment to uphold the rule of law and hold criminals accountable whatever their power is. It also has the positive effect of renewing public trust in the justice system.

During the time of transition from authoritarianism to democracy, holding previous officials accountable is a delicate matter. There are various considerations, such as consolidating power, and balancing the need for justice with ensuring peace and stability.

The Ethiopian case’s special feature is the way that Abiy Ahmed is from the same party that ruled during the alleged gross rights abuses. Abiy himself dared to call those “state terrorism” and apologized to the people in the country’s parliament about the corruption that devoured the nation’s wealth. This makes the already delicate path of balancing the demand of justice and stability even more tortuous. 

Ethiopia also needs a truth and reconciliation commission

The government should be careful about the documentaries it produces about the cases while they are ongoing. In the past the government has done these propaganda-oriented productions to defame dissenting writers and silence rights defenders. These documentaries disrupt due process and the suspect’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The government should rather open the door to independent and international media and any other interested groups to undertake investigations. Furthermore, this is the best opportunity to make the judiciary free from executive interference, and a strong, independent judiciary does not need help from a compliant public media. In addition to serving justice, Ethiopia also needs a truth and reconciliation commission as part of national healing from the scars of the past.”

Query or correction? Email us

Additional reporting by Ermias Tasfaye

Main photo: The aftermath of the June 23 grenade attack; Addis Ababa; Petterik Wiggers

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

William Davison

William Davison is the owner and editor of Ethiopia Insight. He has been reporting on Ethiopia for almost a decade and was Bloomberg's correspondent in Addis Ababa from 2010 to 2017.

About the author

Hayelom Tewelde

Hayelom is an Ethiopia Insight reporter based in Addis Ababa

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