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FROM THE OFFICE TO THE PRISON CELL:

FROM THE OFFICE TO THE PRISON CELL: The Story of Melaku Fenta

Melaku Fenta is the former director general of the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority (ERCA) whose high-powered career abruptly ended five years ago in relation to a high-profile corruption case. Two months ago, Melaku was released from prison following the decision by the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to pardon all suspects and convicts in high profile corruption, terrorism and related charges. Melaku, 50, served in the Ethiopian civil service for over 24 years starting from an expert level with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. He quickly rose through the rank and file to lead one of the most difficult government agencies in Ethiopia – ERCA. As head of the tax authority, Melaku, who is an economist by training, is credited for spearheading many tax related reforms in Ethiopia and cracking down on tax evaders. A father four, Melaku is now free and trying to recuperate from the damages he sustained by the past years of imprisonment. Tamiru Tsige of The Reporter caught up with Melaku this week and sat down with him to reflect on the corruption charges he was implicated in and offer his overall views on the political developments in Ethiopia. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Tell me how you came to lead the Ethiopian tax authority?

Melaku Fenta: I was appointed as the director general of Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority with a ministerial portfolio in the new government that was constituted after the controversial 2005 general elections. Since the country was going through a kind of transitional period at the time, we (my colleagues and I) focused largely on finishing some of the reform measures started by our predecessors while on the side benchmarking some best experiences on how to reorganize the tax authority. Later on, we restructured the authority to incorporate both the revenue and customs aspects together and to be led by a director general.

Since then, until the day I went to prison, I was leading this authority. The new structure equipped the authority to go beyond its traditional tax collector role and assume the responsibilities of a service provider and tax law enforcement entity. Apart from that, we followed a different approach on recruitment and consolidation of our human resource by directly going to higher learning institutions and recruiting graduates who topped of their classes. We also tried to design specific systems and draft strategies for each workflow to enhance performance of the tax authority. These reform efforts actually worked quite well; when I took over, the capacity of the authority in terms of annual tax collection was limited to seven billion birr and by the time I went to prison it has already risen to 85 billion birr.

You have conducted massive campaigns to expand the tax base of Ethiopia while you were in office. With that you are credited for bringing in the business community into the tax fold. How do you define your role in this regard?

It was really a team effort. Of course, I had a significant role to play; but so did my team at the authority. We must also not forget the role of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in this regard. At the political level, the late PM played big role with regards to implementing the reforms. We had long discussions with the PM on how to reform the tax system. From the get-go, I presented three options on the table. The first one was to maintain the status quo and observe the protocols of a minister and do nothing. The second was to live up to the expectations and dip our hands into the coffers and take our share. Meanwhile, the third option, the one I want to sign up for, was to implement real unpopular reforms and be at odds with most in the power corners. But, I also told him that third option would require his active political commitment and support to the cause. Fortunately, he went with the third option and we were able to impact the tax sector profoundly in the years to come. In fact, Meles raised the issue with the party’s executive committee and gave clear directions that the authority is off limits to any unbridled interference by officials.

The biggest problem at the time was the unwarranted interference of some of the high ranking officials in the party and government. These officials acted as a go-between between the businessmen and the tax authority and they always wanted to bend the system in favor of those in the business community. They never trusted the system but their networks and connections. So, when Meles was alive we worked pretty much without interference. However, the situation started to get deiced. Everybody started to develop an unteachable mentality and started to create interference. Naturally, I resisted this advances vehemently. That in short is how I ended up in prison. If you see most of the charges levied against me they were trumped up and based on hearsay. Personally, I was always aware of how I got to the position I was on. I had no tendency to use my office for my personal gain and that is why I have always lived an ordinary life like a civil servant.

Please take me through the process of your indictment and the whole proceeding regarding your corruption case?

Few days before I was arrested, I was in Bahir Dar attending a party meeting. On the morning of May 2, 2013, I landed in Addis Ababa and went straight home to change clothes and by afternoon I was in my office. That afternoon, some officers come to my office and told me that I am wanted in relation to corruption charges and showed me an arrest warrant. I did not resist; I told them to do their wish. Then they conduct a thorough search of my office and took me out of my office around 5:00 pm.

The team that was sent to arrest me was really excessive; it looks like they are apprehending a certain terrorist organ. After that, they took me straight home, and they spent more than five hours searching my home. Contrary to the law, which states that all searches and seizers should not be conducted after 6:00 pm, my house was turned upside down until 11:00 pm in the night. Meanwhile, I can hear the officers communicating with their superiors that they were unable to find anything implicating in my house. Finally, they started to count my clothes and took me to what used to be known as Meakelawi with my clothes. There I was placed in a dark room, in the part of the detention center they referred to as “Siberia”. The jail cell was dark and extremely cold.

Were you kept alone or were there others with you?

I was kept in solitary confinement at “Siberia”; I was allowed only 15 minutes sunlight per day. Apart from where I was kept, there are the so-called “Dark Room”, “Wooden Cell” and “Sheraton” detention halls in Meakelawi. “Siberia” was the coldest. The so called “Sheraton” detention hall is perhaps the best there. It is where prisoners who have agreed to cooperate as witnesses are detained. There is also better mobility there. “Siberia” is completely cutoff form outside world. You can’t even be visited by your family; the officers are the ones who will bring the food brought to you by family. I had a specific time to visit the restroom: morning and evening. One thing I noticed is every jail cell will be locked up when I am on my restroom break. I never understood why; I was in complete isolation. 

Tell me about the interrogations? What were you asked to reveal?

Contrary to the law, most of the interrogations in Meakelawi will take place during the night. Luckily, I was not interrogated a lot. They sometimes called me to confirm this information or that. But, I can hear a number of prisoners being taken to the interrogation room at night. I have heard and sometimes seen – from a distance – severe damages caused by interrogators. I have also seen and heard prisoners telling courts that they were being beaten; but the courts usually do nothing. In fact, personally, I was not interrogated violently; never beaten. When I fell ill I will be taken to the police hospital and will be given Intravenous (IV) therapy. But, they have told me that they had their orders not give me medicine or medical care apart from IV.

I had the opportunity to ask one of the head officers there as to why they are using violent interrogation tactics. He simply told me that there is no other way to make suspects confess. He also said that previously, corruption suspects were not beaten into confessions; but they were given orders in recent times to apply such interrogation tactics in corruption suspects as well. I sometimes shrug when I hear these same prison administrators claiming that there has been no abuse. Now, I am grateful that even the public media is telling the truth. I have heard Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn saying that Meakelawi because of its legacy of atrocities committed on civilians during the Derg era was the reason for the closure of the detention center. But, I am a living witness to the similar brutalities committed during EPRDF’s era inn Meakelawi. Personally, I don’t think closing down one detention center is enough; it is the mindset that needs to change.

You faced charges in three different charge files while you were in Meakelawi. I know that you had to defend a number charges incorporated in these three charge files. How do you evaluate the substance and the sheer number of these charges?

Before, talking about the substance of the charges levied against me, I think it is important to explore the driving forces behind the charges. In a nutshell, they were all trumped up charges put together to score cheap political points or settle personal vendetta against me. The charges were not even drafted by either public prosecutors or prosecutors of the anticorruption commission. I say this because the decision to arrest me was concocted by a team which was commissioned by a network of key government officials and by the approval of the Prime Minister.

The decision was not even passed by a majority vote in the committee but by the heavy hand of some key officials. The other problem is the fact that the decision was approved by the PM without any challenge. The other bizarre thing is as a member of the executive committee of the party, the party should have deliberated on the decision before sending me to prison; but that too did not happen. But it is deep disrespect for my mother party the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). It is purely the work of a mafia like cliques in the party. The funny thing is, a while back, I was evaluated by my party members and labeled free of corruption. In fact, since I first joined the party I had never faced any criticism in the party with regard to corruption. I am very transparent. The one thing I have is my home and it is registered with government and party. Amazingly most of the senior leadership in my party ANDM learned about my arrest from the media.

It (the mafia like cliques) was a government within the government. On the other hand, the so-called study leading to my arrest was also not conducted by the anticorruption commission; rather it was conducted by the security apparatus and transferred to the commission. The way I see it, this small circle of officials and party veterans are the ones who convinced the PM that I was a potential security risk in the country and that I had to be arrested. Imagine, in what world would I be a security risk? And most of this is motivated by personal vendetta. That is why most of the charges are difficult to make heads and tails of. Since they had the media they also went on a rant to tarnish my name.

But, the court ruled that prosecutors have produced relevant testimonies to back up their case against you. And hence, you were instructed to defend yourself. What actually happened if you are claiming that they were trumped up charges?

They mostly abused and blackmailed their way into the witness list. And there was some, who from the beginning, decided to pose as witnesses and escape charges altogether. But, they secured most of the witnesses through violence and abuse. There were some businessmen who refused to give their testimony and rot in jail with me.

At the time, you were also an elected member of the Addis Ababa City Council and had immunity form arrest. But, the court had not looked into that at the time. Why is that?

That is true; I had immunity as an elected member of the council but nobody bothered to lift it before I was arrested. This issue had come up after I was placed under custody. But, I knew that it was going to be easy for these people to lift my immunity if they needed to do that; so for me it meant nothing. However, the so-called judges did not even bother to check and say that it is not appropriate to detain an elected representative with immunity. Even the prosecutors should have done this for the sake of the law. This shows you how they are acting with complete impunity.

At the beginning of your court case, there was one issue which required constitutional interpretation. As having a ministerial portfolio, you were supposed to be tried at the Supreme Court; but instead your case was heard at the Federal High Court. Later, the constitutional interpretation remanded the case at the Federal High Court on the grounds of protecting the right of suspects to appeal. How do you see that decision?

One thing you have to understand is that their strategy is just to drag the case as far as possible so that I rot in a prison cell. They know the case will stand if it was taken to the Supreme Court. They just wanted to prolong the case and inflict maximum damage on me. That being said, even the interpretations offered by the House of Federation (HoF) was being done to please these cliques not benefit me (the suspect).  Apart from that, a number of businessmen were freed based on the newly ratified customs proclamation. On this proclamation there is clause that says if they are to the benefit of the suspects the provisions of new proclamation will be applicable to cases proceeding in court at time of the ratification. Now, when it comes to me, the law was interpreted to mean that it is not applicable to government officials.

This shows you how the law is interpreted in Ethiopia; it is bended to serve the will of few cliques in government. The constitution did not say that laws are interpreted differently for businessmen and government officials. So, our opposition did not carry any weight. The court went as far as intimidating my lawyers. For instance, my lawyer Teshager Dessalegn was sued for opposing the court decision. You know that judge Gizachew Mitiku was taken off the case and fired from his job for trying the case properly. The distance they went to attack me, caused a lot of damages on a number of people. A number of others were forced to leave the institution. It is one thing to attack a person but it is completely absurd to destroy an institution. And they did this using tax payers money.

The action of this group has come a long way to instigate a wave that killed a number of people. These few officials making up this clandestine clique are not actually very bright; and they try to put labels on you based on what you say at meetings. At a certain point, they investigated me on the basis of a suspicion that I was a member of Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). One time, when the tax authority was doing an operation in the gold mining sector, the security establishment has presented a study to the PM (Meles) claiming that I was out to get a specific ethnic group. Luckily, their plan failed since I kept an up to date rapport with PM and the work that I was doing. They tell you to arrest someone and at other times they complain about “tax evaders” being arrest. Especially, after the death of the late PM, they started to get bolder.

There are rumors that you collided with one veteran politician, Bereket Simon, regarding the importation of a film camera imported into the country by someone close to him. Tell me about that?

That is correct. It was a camera imported by his wife and I said it should be treated as any other import. I insisted that the importers should pay proper taxes and duties or it should not cross the customs line. Since they were unable to do that, the camera was confiscated as per the customs laws. I think I did my job in that regard. I think he might have grown suspicions against me after that incident. I actually managed to raise this issue with ANDM Executive Committee but this stage was used as a platform to settle scores against me.

You said the interference grew and the clique became bolder after the death of Meles. Did you try to explain the situation to PM Hailemariam Dessalegn?

Yes, I have informed him many times and he told me that he is aware of the matter. I had personal relationship with some of these people so I told them that they should reconsider what they are doing. I honestly told them that it is destructive to the party. And, soon after, they became my enemies. Three of them were form one party and the other individual was from ANDM. I went back to PM Hailemariam and told him what was happening. He said that he is aware of their activities and encouraged me to continue my work. The various corruptions and embezzlement going on in different government projects were quite apparent to me and I informed the PM at the time. On the reverse what I have been telling him in confidence I started to hear from others and it became another catalyst to my demise.

At this juncture, I remember two officials coming to me telling me to increment and imprison many people including the publisher of the newspaper that you are working for (The Reporter). Together I was also asked to arrest personalities behind companies who are advertising on The Reporter. Furthermore, I was also instructed to block the importation of a printing machine by your newspaper. However, I said no to all of these since it is the right of the advertisers to post advertisement anywhere (as long as they don’t commit tax fraud) and the newspaper to import printing machines.

On the other hand, I did what I can to include the two endowments – EFFORT and TIRET – into the taxation system. At one point I was also directed to work with the security agency by the late PM Meles but after observing how things are run I informed him about the problems and I asked to be excused. I also informed Meles about the tendencies of doing what it wants with the Information Network Security Agency (INSA). I also reported about the status of contraband trade and the involvement of some in the Ethiopian military. Then, all of these things contributed to give me a specific label. I really believed that change can come from within the EPRDF since it is just a few people who are doing all these things.

How do you see the balance between the substance of the charges and the time it took to hear all the witnesses and consider all the evidences?

At some point I was so tired that I asked the court to send the verdict to my prison cell. It was clear that the whole intention was to kill as much time as possible. That is why the prosecutors decided to present the charges in such a disintegrated manner. Perhaps the whole thing could have been consolidated into two or three charges. I have also heard that some in the power corners have concerns that the case against me is going on for too long but shunned on the pretext that it will embarrass the government to stop charges now. The other issue is the fact that some of the people with whom I was accused of having a secret relationship are people I haven’t seen in my life until I met them in prison.

So, finally, just three days before the final verdict, the prosecutors stopped your charges and let you go free. What do say to that?

But, before that, I already cleared out my name in five of the charges. I was found guilty in three. But, I still had four charges pending. I am confident that these too would have been thrown out. Regardless, I was happy when the government intervened. Some part of me still wishes knowing the final decision on the remaining charges.