Abebe Gellaw’s Strange Journey into Fantasy

By The Strathink Editorial Team

There is a painful irony in criticizing the vacuousness of non-Ethiopian analysts of Ethiopian affairs. Although one may fundamentally disagree with analysts like Rene LeFort or John Markham, there is an undeniable weightiness to their reasoning that leaves questions in the readers’ minds. This is intellectual discourse.

And then you have Jeffrey Gettleman and David Steinman interviewed by Abebe Gellaw on Ethiopian Satellite Television. As everyone knows, Ethiopian Satellite Televsion, or ESAT, is the communications arm of Ginbot 7, a self-proclaimed terrorist organization led by almost Addis Ababa Mayor and now leader of a 200-man-strong army based in Asmara, Berhanu Nega.

It was a painful two hours—two hours we will never get back. Abebe Gellaw lobbed softball questions at Mr. Gettleman and Mr. Steinman and his two guests, in two separate interviews, gave inane replies with such gravitas, a casual watcher may be tricked into thinking the answers had meaning.

Let’s start with Mr. Gettleman.

The former New York Times Bureau Chief for East Africa, author of Love, Africa, seems to be on his “Good-bye to Africa Tour,” having snagged a new assignment in New Delhi. Mr. Gettleman, unshaven and dressed as if he was on his way to mow his lawn, comes across as earnest in the same way a newly minted graduate of an Ivy League college doing his volunteer work in Africa seems earnest—good-hearted yet astonishingly naïve.

His flagship adventure in East Africa was when he “embedded himself” with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Why? According to Mr. Gettlemman, “My job is to figure out what is happening.” Mr. Gettleman, based in Nairobi, was told by a Somali informant (ONLF) that the Ethiopian government was “raping women, beating up kids, hanging elders and taking food away” from the civilian population in the Ogaden in a “campaign to destroy the ONLF.” This was in 2007.

Mr. Gettleman said that the Ethiopian military was funded by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that, in the name of counterterrorism against Islamic extremism, the CIA was assisting Ethiopia destroy the ONLF. This “upset” Mr. Gettleman.

Mr. Gettleman knew a few things about the ONLF. He said they were “medium organized,” had no food or weapons and wore “bad uniforms.” He also said that the ONLF was supported by Eritrea and had been trained by the Eritreans. When asked about the ONLF’s ultimate goal, he said it was “confusing” but, in his view, they had a goal of “some more rights and justice.”

These statements come from the East Africa Bureau Chief of the New York Times, a position was once held by journalist Jane Perlez.

And then Mr. Gellaw asks the question he seems to ask everyone. Have you met Meles Zenawi and do you agree with me that he was not smart? What?

Mr. Gellaw seems to have a pathological need to assert his intellectual superiority over the late Prime Minister. We can’t even comment on this with a straight face.

Mr. Gettleman did not meet Prime Minister Meles. In any case, he said Ethiopia was “repressive, had no press freedom and no viable opposition.” He tried to strike a journalistic balance by lauding the country’s achievements in health and building infrastructure. At the same time, he said the government was “creating anger violence and volatility.”

His sharpest criticism, however, was directed at the U.S. government. We quote him here for veracity: “One of the worst decisions made in recent history was when the American government helped the Ethiopian military go into Somalia in 2006, 2007, to overthrow a popular and grassroots Islamic government and installed a very weak government.”

Yes. Mr. Gettleman is an ardent support of the Islamic Courts, which he called “moderate” and “reasonable.” And he also has kind words for al-Shabab, which he knew “before they were terrorists.”

His words of advice for the U.S. foreign policy establishment, quoting again for veracity, “The U.S. should help Africans to be happy.”

Painful. But if Mr. Gettleman is merely naïve and maybe not very bright, ESAT’s second guest has a more treacherous motive.

ESAT’s second guest, aired on August 8th, is David Steinman. Mr. Steinman sas he was an advisor to the political coalition, Kinijit. He also says he advised opposition groups against the Mengistu government.

The Strathink Editors were confused about Mr. Steinman.

In the interview, Mr. Steinman doggedly asserts the criminal nature of the TPLF. He argues that Ethiopia’s economic growth is a façade. He claims that the Ethiopian government has flown 30 billion dollars out of the country. He cites a discredited and silly website that says the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is worth three billion dollars. He maintains that Ethiopians have told him officials of the government own businesses and property in Virginia and Maryland. They have also taken money out of the country and invested it in Indonesia. He talks about a secret genocide in Ethiopia.

Who is Mr. Steinman?

Mr. Steinman is a paid agent of the Eritrean government. Visit the Eritrean Embassy in Germany’s website, hornofafrica.de. There you will find his campaign, Operation Conscience. According to the website, “Operation Conscience is a social impact campaign to make Westerners aware of Ethiopia’s human rights crisis. It’s sponsored by Money, Blood and Conscience, an anti-EPRDF novel–coming soon to Amazon.”

Yes. This campaign is based on a novel—a piece of fiction–written by Mr. Steinman about an imaginary genocide committed in Ethiopia.

The novel is paid for by the Eritrean government.

The campaign is paid for by the Eritrean government.

Mr. Steinman is paid for by the Eritrean government.

Understanding politics in the Horn of Africa is exhausting. Even when the reality offers countless examples of mistakes and wrong turns in legislation, policy and regulations, people would rather talk about fantasy than reality. Maybe reality about the day-to-day grind of governance is boring. Fantastical schemes of corruption and harrowing stories of genocide may do a better a job of capturing the ordinary person’s imagination. Maybe it is just a better story.

A better story, however, leaves out the very real problems facing Ethiopia today. Where is the rigorous political discourse that can advance democracy and economic growth in a country poised to launch into becoming a middle-income country? The problems are real—corruption in the developmental state; a healthy and educated “youth bulge” that is largely underemployed or unemployed; a tension between the federal government and the regions; and massive foreign debt.

If the Ethiopian opposition wants to get serious, it is time they put aside their dalliance with naïve foreigners such as Mr. Gettleman and paid-for mercenaries like Mr. Steinman. It is time the opposition gets down to the serious business of solving problems rather than inventing problems that appeal to the fantasy-saturated diaspora Ethiopians with too much time on their hands. Ethiopia is a real place–not the imaginary country that fills the minds of fraternity boys turned journalist like Jeffrey Gettleman or the fictitious “democracy promoter” like David Steinman.

Let’s stop fooling around. the diaspora, even supporters of Ginbot 7, should require more from their journalists.  Abebe Gellaw is a disservice to his profession. If he can’t provide his audience with thoughtful, evidence-based analysis, perhaps Colonial Parking can give him a job that doesn’t require journalistic skills.

One Response to “Abebe Gellaw’s Strange Journey into Fantasy”

  1. Hule says:

    Ok…we hear you. Ethiopia under fascist and racist TPLF is going to heaven. Abebe Gellaw and these foreign observers are naive. Ok…We hear you. But where is your face, where is your name? At least the subjects of your diatribes are real people. You are cowards hiding and cowering behind “strategy”. We know tyour sponsors. Your “writers”, the likes of His Royal Disgrace Mulugeta Asrate Kassa, are pathetic opportunists who worry more about the crumbs TPLF throws them under the dining table the soul of an Ethiopian killed in cold blood. Shame!


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