Commentaries | Sep 03,2022
Ethiopia’s parliamentary sessions have never been accused of being vibrant. But there have been exceptions. The few opposition figures sprinkled across an EPRDF-dominated parliament have had their memorable moments. There were times when they were able to hold their ground during sessions and inspire a semblance of resistance to the incumbents.
One of these was Temesgen Zewde, opposition member of the Unity for Democracy & Justice party, aka Andinet, who passed away recently after complications from multiple health conditions. Having won a seat in parliament after the fraught and contested election of 2005, the most memorable performance in his time in parliament came near the end of his five-year term.
During an otherwise unassuming parliamentary session in April 2010, he began criticising the government’s increased role in the production and distribution of goods and services. His views on this bordered on libertarianism, or at least classical capitalism, in suggesting that the government’s purpose was to protect against outside aggression and to deal and negotiate with other governments.
He inspired no less argument than when he mentioned that the nation’s fiscal and monetary policy should not be under the control of the executive, insisting that an independent central bank was necessary. He stressed that this was why the nation was experiencing inflationary pressure - by no means an unreasonable argument to make. The nation had within the past two years experienced one of its worst inflationary rates, reaching over 60pc at one time.
But in trying to express his views, this business management major who had spent over two decades in the United States was mispronouncing the word “fiscal” in fiscal policy as “physical.” The late Meles Zenawi, prime minister at the time, wryly pointed this out while rebutting Temesgen’s argument.
When Meles finished replying to Temesgen and other members of the parliament, Teshome Toga, then-speaker of the House of Peoples' Representatives, once again offered the floor to the MPs. When it was Temesgen’s turn, he managed to turn the formality of the parliament's question-and-answer procedures on their head.
He accused Meles of deflecting the question by focusing on his pronunciation of the word “fiscal” and that he was not “whistling” to make the letter “f” sound like “ph." The second he said this, he was cut off by Teshome and warned not to speak out of bounds. Temesgen would not back off. He continued to suggest that Meles had a lust for power and that all of his questions had been left unanswered. He did not get to speak much more before Teshome cut his microphone off once more and gave the floor to another MP.
Later that day, Temesgen, who at the time had health conditions and was using a walking stick, went to the head office of Andinetin Kazanchis. There he ran into Girma Seifu, a fellow party member that would serve as the sole opposition figure in parliament between 2010 and 2015. Girma mentioned that he had heard of the confrontation during the session between him and Meles.
Temesgen was incensed.
“I would have loved to whack him with my cane,” he replied.
Indeed, Temesgen was not one to mince words and fail to stand his ground. He felt that if there was a point to be made, it should be made boldly, loudly and with every intention of standing by your words, come what may.
“He was a man that stood by reason,” said Girma. “When he found it necessary, he would get very angry.”
Daniel Teferra, who wrote his biography, “Behind the Parliament,” with a focus on the time Temesgen spent in the House, adds that there is nuance to his temper.
“He was true to himself and others,” said Daniel. “That is why lies, subterfuges and duplicity anger him so.”
This was crucial to his political convictions. An outspoken attitude, spontaneity and a deep-seated conviction to stand his ground made him an ideal politician. That was why he was at times able to light up a parliament that was otherwise known for being humdrum in a political environment where the government stood accused of crushing dissent. He may not have won the argument but he would make sure that he was seen standing up for what he believed in.
“If he is pushed enough, he would not have any problem getting physical,” adds Daniel.
Eskedar Man-Asbot, his wife, remembers him as a person who tried to be honest with himself throughout his entire life. Mostly, he loved to laugh and play. But he also wanted things to be on the table, up for discussion and without the attendant omissions and tricks.
“He would not tolerate lies,” she said.
About a decade ago, a tumour was found on his back that left him partially paralysed. He had to go to Thailand for surgery, after which he had begun to feel better. But half a year ago, his health declined, and he began suffering multiple complications, including breathing problems, that put him in bed.
He passed away on April 13, 2020, and was laid to rest that same day. He is survived by his wife and three children.
PUBLISHED ON Apr 25,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1043]
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