Ataklti Haileselassie is the former interim mayor of Mekelle city, he was appointed as a mayor Mekelle by the Tigray regional state interim administration around mid-December 2020, shortly after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared the ‘ law enforcement operation’ in Tigray was over on November 28. Ataklti was the Corporate Communications Director at Mekelle University and was also among six independent candidates in the Tigray regional election held in September 2020 who later withdrew their candidatures in the election. During embarking on his duty as mayor he was optimistic that the city will be getting to full normalcy within a short time through the collaboration of stakeholders to bring about better results in restoring peace and resuming social services in the city.
In early January, while responding to questions from community members who participated in a meeting, Ataklit became the first high-level official to admit the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray and said that the interim administration was demanding explanations from relevant military officials.
He says he is happy to see that the city has gotten out of darkness and start thinking about developments during his mayorship.
Shockingly, Ataklti announced his resignation from the mayorship on 30 March 2021. However, the head of interim administration stated he was rather discharged from his post following a 100-days evaluation meeting of the regional administration’s leadership .Addis Standard’s Medihane Ekubamichael had an interview with the former mayor to discuss his resignation and other issues related to the current situation in Tigray.
Excerpts: Ataklti Haileselassie
Addis Standard: How did you reach the decision to resign yesterday?
Atakilti Haileselassie: Mainly there are three reasons that forced me to resign. The first is related to the interim administration being cantered in Mekelle while an authority this big is supposed to work throughout Tigray. Even though the efforts in Mekelle are ones of positive nature that alone won’t solve Tigray’s problems. I repeatedly raised this issue but the administration didn’t like this as they just want to spend their time here in Mekelle. Displaced people flowing into Mekelle are increasing from time to time reaching almost 120,000 people so far and it is still increasing. Therefore if works are not done throughout the problem cannot be solved.
The second reason is in connection with General Yohanis Gebremeskel who gave land to an investor out of his will. We on the other hand, since it’s our duty intervened to stop this, preventing the investor from further work on the land. But the investor named Zeru Gebrelibanos resisted mentioning that he had been given permission to utilize the land by General Yohanis, we then asserted that the General has no authority to do so. Later the General reacted by disrespecting our decisions and started threatening to fire the head of transport and construction who is responsible for the city’s land management. He asked me to fire Kebede Asefa, the transport and construction office head but I refused mentioning that he is conducting his duties and the command post has no mandate to administer such municipal matters as granting or withholding the city land.
The third reason is due to organized robbery in places like city entrances checkpoints where a person named Fasil Berhe who also has family ties with Dr Mulu Nega was assigned as task force coordinator with responsibilities that are not relevant to him. When we decided to ban moving out machineries from the city to control possible lootings, we learnt that this person was letting go of machineries by charging 60,000 Birr at all checkpoints on the city outskirts. Later when we put him in custody, he said he was authorized by Dr. Mulu.
So, if the situation is in such a mess then where is the change? Our struggle is not to change the status of few and their relatives…
So, if the situation is in such a mess then where is the change? Our struggle is not to change the status of few and their relatives. These people and their likes are people I don’t accept to work with and that pressure led me to resign. Generally, the change is in jeopardy with conditions like work being done through family ties and the halting of aid sent from the federal government and international institutions from reaching the people properly and honestly, I don’t want to work in such conditions.
As: In connection with the land holding issue, you said a land was given to an investor by the General that commands the command post. Has the command post been given a mandate on these matters?
Atakilti: Never, how can this be? The command post leads security affairs and cannot administer land. Furthermore, currently we have suspended construction permit services in Mekelle until situations calm to focus on humanitarian services, security and public services. Like what was in the past, ordering people to grant land is not what I am aspiring to see onwards.
AS: Land grants at these hard moments might be justified if it helps the humanitarian aid activities. was it given with that intention?
Atakilti: Not at all, the intent was to build a hotel. if the issue was shelter, we have already prepared places and temporary tents are being put in place. The General seems to work with that individual and the individual had been connected to corruption allegations that led to his discharge from duty during TPLF time in power. Anyways my focus is not to personalize issues but as I said, I am not seeing reform implemented with the speed and procedures I want to see and it is not right to entertain such deeds while people are dying and being displaced by hunger. People and the federal government are sending aid but it is not reaching the intended people properly.
AS: Are you saying that the administration services do not reach people outside Mekelle. If so What is the main reason?
Atakilti: Nothing is done elsewhere. Although zonal administrators are assigned, most of them live in Mekelle. We have already extended different administrative structures down to kebeles and blocks in Mekelle and almost all public service sectors providing services in terms of health transport, court services, water and power supplies, banking services as well as other private businesses are providing services. Most services and activities are restored, what is left is schooling. While those in charge sit in Mekelle and criticize what is done in the city, other areas of Tigray remain without water and inaccessible to the benefits of aid.
Mainly there are three reasons that forced me to resign. The first is related to the interim administration being cantered in Mekelle while an authority this big is supposed to work throughout Tigray…
With regard to security the region is under command post and the administrators could be assisted with the security apparatus while performing their duties. But If the command post is not clearing security issues or obstacles created by the war and we can not reach people quickly, then what is the point. This is not what the Ethiopian people sacrificed for and what can be resolved in due time should be addressed. I have done what I can but the situation is reversed and we are going backwards.
AS: Until recently, you were part of the administration which you describe as failing. Then what are their convincing reasons behind their failure?
Atakilti: Convincing reasons should be convincing in the first place; the problem is the reluctance to do what they can with resources available to elevate the deteriorating situation in the region. When challenge is raised to address these issues, intimidation comes from different directions like the recent attack that was targeted at me. I will wait for investigations into the matter to be done to find out who was behind it.
Of course the attack happened. There was a loud explosion rocking the area as it was also witnessed by many, but questions related to “who did it?” and “how did it happen?” are under investigation and we are waiting for the findings.
AS: Last week we all heard that you nearly escaped from a bomb attack in Mekelle that was claimed to target you. Has it really occurred to you? Is it yet identified who did it?
Atakilti: Of course the attack happened. There was a loud explosion rocking the area as it was also witnessed by many, but questions related to “who did it?” and “how did it happen?” are under investigation and we are waiting for the findings.
AS: There are rumours that are circulating that your resignation is also related to a loss of life at the explosion attack scene. Was there anyone who lost their life by your doing?
Atakilti: This is part of a struggle and there could be loss during struggle, but no, I was not even armed at the moment rather I had guards assigned to me and I was escorted to my home. I was heading to the car from the restaurant where I had breakfast when the explosion occurred. The guards and security forces around were engaged to take the situation under control. So, it’s false.
AS: Can we say that the situation in Tigray restored back to normal after the establishment of the interim administration?
Atakilti: The interim administration is here mainly to restore what could be restored back to normal in different aspects. However, on the ground there is nothing that is being done outside of Mekelle city. It’s not even due to shortage of resources, because the federal government is also providing all it can but those responsible are not reaching the people in need..
AS: Dr. Mulu Nega, the interim administration head gave a statement saying you didn’t apply for resignation rather that you were discharged because you were ineffective in the evaluation conducted to evaluate your 100-days performance by the interim administration. What do you have to say about this?
Atakilti: By the way, let alone to discharge me for ineffectiveness, the 100-days evaluation matrix is based on the excellent work done in Mekelle and my work is considered a model for the matrix. Basically, there is nothing done outside Mekelle, my work on community mobilization, renewing and fixing infrastructures, commencing public services, engaging youth on peace and security works are modelled as best experiences to extend to other parts of Tigray. The 100-days evaluation matrix is based on the excellent work done in Mekelle and my work is considered a model for the matrix.
The most important issue is why all Tigray administration is gathered in Mekelle instead of seeking to work closer with the people. How many “mayors” Mekelle has, Mekelle’s evaluation matrix and the result was streamed on Tigray TV. Mekelle zone cabinet members were at the meeting and they can tell you exactly what was raised. There wasn’t even a thing raised as a complaint against me. He said that because I have been challenging them on different issues.
AS: Do you think there are differences in terms of the integrity of decisions within the interim administration?
Atakilti: Yes, there are differences in different aspects, for example in regard to what they did to me, I called the three deputy administrators (for security, social affairs, and economic affairs) to ask them about the letter I received after I announced I was resigning and they told me that they don’t know about it at all and you can tell it was done by one or two individuals. That means neither the cabinet nor the deputies know about the decision as nothing was said at the 100-days evaluation meeting that comprises more than 90 people from sub-cities and zonal cabinet members.
That was an effort to override the decision of my resignation and there was no prior evaluation matrix that decided to have me discharged.
AS: Although the interim administration insists you have been discharged yet you said you had resigned earlier. What happened to your resignation letter?
Atakilti: When I refused to discharge Kebede the General (General Yohanis Gebremeskel) started to threaten me that he would do something about it. I spoke with Dr. Mulu explaining that the transport and construction head has no problem with his work and so it is not right to decide what to do with his assignment through an individual’s order and it’s not up to the command post what to do about it rather it’s our mandate yet the general was interfering in my job and threatening me again and again. He previously agreed that the general’s interference should be corrected and he would speak to him.
But when the situation became serious and couldn’t be resolved, I told Dr. Mulu that I want to resign and come to submit a resignation letter, however, he told me that he was in Addis Ababa after I couldn’t find him at his office. Nonetheless, the letter they wrote later in that evening practically has his signature. The letter indicates the decision of my discharge from the position with gratitude for my contribution so far. That was an effort to override the decision of my resignation and there was no prior evaluation matrix that decided to have me discharged. This should be known by the Ethiopian people and especially by the people of Tigray.
AS: Some would argue that there could be better options to overcome challenges and continue to serve the people than resigning. How does your resignation serve the people?
Atakilti: The environment at the work determines how well you do your job, as this kind of work needs to be team work. The people of Tigray face different problems that are not addressed yet. People are dying, starving and being displaced and to address these problems you need a helpful team but not someone who threatens you everyday and who collects money through selling machineries that belong to the public or with a person who allocates land to a wealthy person. This is harmful and this can not be a productive work environment and if seen in that environment people will not trust you. Opposing this means interfering with this toxic business and it got me a threat.
Therefore, me resigning doesn’t mean I gave up the struggle and I will keep struggling for my people and I work on resolving the problems they face with all my capacity. It’s not right to have someone else trying to interfere and run the show while I am the one who is responsible and accountable to the city administration. It’s not right for my moral nor to history to have someone else charge money for construction machineries to illegally pass-through city entrances checkpoints. If I can’t protect my team working under me, then where is my authority.
As for regrets, I am a young person who wants to work for the people and the country, so I don’t regret much as I am working with a long way ahead to serve.
AS: What would you say were your biggest achievement and greatest regret?
Atakilti: I was the first to be assigned in the administration from Tigray and when I took Mekelle most services including electric power, water supply, telecom services, bank services were down. All government offices were not only out of service but also looted. There were no police and people were also being killed daily and organized crimes were on the rise. It was a generally dark time.
Anyone can see how well Mekelle is doing now. Transport, private businesses, and all public services are restored back to normal with the exception of education. For me, it gives me great joy to see the city getting back to an active state. It doesn’t mean I did this all by myself but it’s in collaboration with the Defense Force, Federal Police and others. We have even commenced the activation of projects like water supply and cobblestone works. I am happy to see the city gotten out of that darkness and start thinking about developments. I have big respect for the city cabinet members and sub-city leaderships who worked with me to realize this.
As for regrets, I am a young person who wants to work for the people and the country, so I don’t regret much as I am working with a long way ahead to serve.
AS: You were the first official to admit the presence of the Eritrean forces in the country. Recently it was announced that an agreement has been reached for the withdrawal of the Eritrean troops from the country. What progress have you noticed in this regard?
Atakilti: Actually, just to give you the correct information, since I am based in Mekelle and there is nothing much we do outside Mekelle and I don’t think I have better information about what is going on out there. But as far as our city is concerned, we don’t have any Eritrean troops here in Mekelle.
The federal government should also do a coordinated work to quickly deliver what they said in regard to the Eritrean forces, doing so could develop trust in our people and flourish hope.
AS: Finally, what are your recommendations to address major problems facing the people of Tigray?
Atakilti: Problems facing the people can not be resolved unless it has the support of people. Therefore, the interim administration should work closer to the people. Secondly, The leadership at all levels should check themselves and above all an individual who came to a leadership position in such difficult times should not take advantage of the position they are in to strengthen their self-interests and that of their network or work for personal gains but be committed to serve the people.
The federal government, regional states, and international institutions should also continue and strengthen the provision of aid. The federal government also should do coordinated work to quickly deliver what they said in regard to the Eritrean forces, doing so could develop trust in our people and flourish hope.