Azeb Mesfin: The woman from Gadarif By Abebe Gellaw
Little is known about Azeb Mesfin Haile’s journey to the heart of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and by extension the pinnacle of power in Ethiopia. (more…)
Little is known about Azeb Mesfin Haile’s journey to the heart of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and by extension the pinnacle of power in Ethiopia. She rarely gives interviews unless it is about scripted matters such as her “humanitarian” work.
I have had a chance recently to chat with a couple of people that know Azeb very well. The first one, who wants to remain anonymous, is a close relative of Azeb. The second one is called Mekonen Zelelew, former TPLF combatant and cadre. Mekonen is the man, whom she trusted and followed from Gadarif to TPLF hinterland. The bond between the two practically changed the course of Azeb Mesfin’s life journey.
Fifty-one year old Azeb is today one of the most vilified and demonized figures in Ethiopian history. That is quite obviously the burden of being a wife of a brutal dictator who oppresses, divides, abuses, tortures and kills his subjects. It is also a fact that she is not just Meles Zenawi’s wife, but practically second-in-command of her husband’s tyranny. In fact, those who know her well say that she is very mean and more dictatorial than her husband.
The only woman
Azeb is currently the only woman member of the most important shakers and movers of Ethiopia, the nine-member executive committee of the TPLF. She is also the mafia-style group’s central committee member. She is the only woman member of the executive committee of TPLF-controlled EPRDF and member of its council. Not only is she a member of the TPLF-dominated parliament and chairwoman of the social affairs standing subcommittee, but also patron of Ethiopia’s National Initiative for Mental Health and Chairwoman of Ethiopian Coalition of Women against HIV/AIDS. Azeb is everywhere but very mean to people around her. Most importantly, she is the ultimate controller of TPLF’s business conglomerates.
The state-run media respectfully call her the First Lady of Ethiopia. Her critics call her the “Mother of Corruption”; others refer to her as the “Queen of Mega” and the “Witch of Arat Kilo.”
Whatever she is called, Azeb’s arduous life journey started in Welkayit-Tegede, North Western Ethiopia, where Tigrians and Amharas have lived and intermarried for a longtime. Born in Welkayit from her father, Mesfin Haile, who was a peasant farmer and her mother, Konjit Gola.
Her mother is a daughter of the late “Fitawrari” Gola Goshu, who served as an Italian Askari during the 1935-41 Italian invasions. Gola Goshu was even given the feudal era military title “Fitawrari” (commander of the vanguard) by the Italian invaders. He was reportedly ambushed and killed by Ethiopian patriots. As a result of this story, Azeb’s family and relatives were held in low esteem by the community. It may be a coincidence but Meles Zenawi also came from a similar background.
From Gadarif to TPLF
As a country girl, Azeb was very active and served her parents as shepherdess. Before she immigrated to the Sudan, she did not have a chance to get educated beyond elementary school. In late 1970s, her parents sent her to Gadarif, Eastern Sudan, so that she would live with her aunt, Maniahlosh Gola, who had a small bar in Gadarif. It was a time of increasing insurgency in Northern Ethiopia including Welkayit, which was part of Gondar before the TPLF decided to controversially annex it to Tigray region. Due to her grandfather’s betrayal and her role in the annexation of Welkayit without proper consultation with the locals, Azeb is said to be still widely loathed in her birthplace.
Mekonen met Azeb in Gadarif, where her political journey began in late 1970s. Mekonen was already a TPLF member assigned in the Sudan. She was around 20 years old when they met and became very close to him, as a result of which he won her trust.
Mekonen remembers that they had once become so intimate that he even used to see her at night, sneaking in over the fence at her aunt’s house, where she used to sleep in a separate room. It was during this time that he used to tell her about the struggle of TPLF fighters to dismantle the military regime.
In 1980, Mekonen was called back to Tigray by the TPLF commanders. He confided in her that he had to leave for Shiraro, Tigray. But Azeb insisted that she would flee with him rather than stay with her aunt, who did not approve of the rebels. After all, she trusted her friend so much that she wanted to go wherever he was going.
Mekonen recalls that he had already recruited around 25 Tigrian women from Sudan, where so many people had taken refuge during the war. Azeb, who was a vulnerable young woman in a red-light district, joined the group and they set off to Shiraro, which was under the control of the TPLF at the time. They trekked on foot day and night from Gadarif to Shiraro via Kesela. After two days and nights of journey on foot, they entered Shiraro.
Azeb, who quickly got the nickname “Azeb Gola” after her infamous grandfather, was assigned and trained as a copy typist at TPLF political affairs bureau, where Meles was a rising ideologue and used to train cadres at that time. He became her boss and soon after they started having romantic liaison. But during that time having relationship with the opposite sex was a deadly sin in the TPLF. Many young fighters were killed as result. Meles was allegedly responsible even for the killings of some of his close friends, including Teklu Hawaz and Astebeha Dagnew.
To her credit, unlike Meles, Azeb is said to be known for her courage. In contrast, Meles has been described widely as a coward and someone who is cunning enough to push others into the fire from behind. This has been proven to be an enduring character of Ethiopia’s dictator who is accused of perfecting the worst form of sadistic treachery even by his once close friends and associates.
As Azeb’s meteoric rise in the TPLF is increasing day by day, she has almost become the other side of Meles. Azeb is said to be highly disdained among TPLF’s high priests and ordinary members alike. Using her husband’s power as a shield, she has eliminated anyone in her way. Sibehat Nega, Abaye Tsehaye, Abadi Zemu, Arkebe Ekubay et al have either been sidelined or kicked out by the Meles-Azeb coalition that has now been the only pillar holding the TPLF.
One of the most important battles that Azeb has been fighting is within EFFORT. She vanquished Sibehat Nega, who served as CEO of EFFORT from 2000 until his removal in early 2009. She then became “deputy” CEO, under Abadi Zemu, of EFFORT, the multi-billion business conglomerate in the same year. Last month, Azeb’s power struggle brought down Abadi Zemu, a longtime loyalist to Meles Zenawi. He was “appointed” Ethiopia’s ambassador to the Sudan, leaving behind one of the most sought-after position in the TPLF. After all, EFFORT is the money spinner that has been rotten with corruption. TPLF wealth watchers have repeatedly said that Azeb and her husband have been stashing away hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign banks. The renowned Ghanaian Professor George Ayittey recently said that they are not just stealing money but also buying expensive properties in North America and Europe. But Azeb claims that the Swedes told her that she and her husband are the poorest among rulers. According to her, Meles does not even know the color of the Ethiopian currency notes.
Despite the fact that she claimed to be suffering from poverty, Azeb is now overseeing multi-billion dollars projects and juggling too many balls simultaneously. One of her most important projects she manages is an expensive grand palace being built at an outlay of over 80 million birr. According to Edwardo Molano, Africa correspondent of the Spanish newspaper, ABC Internacional, Azeb spent 1.2 million Euro in one shopping spree in Europe. As Azeb Mesfin has not come out to deny the report or file a defamation lawsuit against the paper, one can take the silence as admission of guilt. Now that she is fully in control of the purse of EFFORT’s multi-billion dollar business empire, the cost of Azeb’s annual shopping sprees will probably be enough to feed millions of starving families.
A house divided
Mekonen says that Azeb’s family is divided between those who enthusiastically support her husband’s tyranny and those who are opposed to not only the regime but also the annexation of Welkayit into Tigray. Azeb’s aunt, Maniahlosh Gola, who currently lives in California, is vehemently against her niece’s corrupt lifestyle and the regime’s ethnocentric tyranny. As much as she feels ashamed of her father’s treason against Ethiopia, she strongly disdains the oppression and crimes being committed against the poor people of Ethiopia. This is confirmed by the anonymous source, a close relative of the Queen of Mega. The source also clarified that contrary to rumors, Azeb has never had a child with the late security chief But a well-placed little bird in Addis says that though Azeb has acrimonious relationships with the majority of TPLF bigwigs, it is not the case with a fellow executive committee member, Health Minister, Tedros Adhanom, who rose from obscurity to prominence. But it is learned that their intimacy has stirred whispers in the corridors of power.
The credible witness
Mekonen, who was born in Welkayit but raised in Shire was a teacher Gamo Gofa, Southern Ethiopia, before he joined the TPLF in its early days. He says he was shocked to witness the widespread brutality, killings, torture and crimes. After he saw Samora Yunis, the present Ethiopian army chief of staff, executing a TPLF fighter, who was suspected of wanting to leave the rebel group, at point-blank range, his faith in the front was shaken to its core.
In a two-part interview with the Ethiopian Satellite Television, he has exposed the crimes, treachery, brutality and torture committed by the TPLF under the command of Sebhat Nega, Abay Tsehaye, Meles Zenawi, Samora Yunis, and Siyoum Mesfin et al.