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Now 86, US citizen Berhane Gebremedhin was once the owner of the National Alcohol and Liquor Factory (NALF) in 1969. However when the Derg came to power they took over the company. When the regime was defeated, the father of seven returned to Ethiopia. This started another 20 year chapter in his life in which he has been struggling to get the factory back even as it is in the process of being auctioned off.
Capital: The first owner of the company was a Greek native, Elias Passions, how did you possess the National Alcohol?
Berhane G.Medhin: I bought the company from him. Then I invested a lot. The factory was named after him, Elias Papassinos. I named the company National and established the Sebeta and Akaki factories.
Capital: How did you define the performance of your company back in those days and now?
Berhane G.Medhin: We were the only Pure Alcohol suppliers for three companies, Balezaf, Mola-Maru, and Merkebgna. The market was booming and also was expanding. I also started to construct a winery around Akaki Kaliti area to diversify the supply. We had distribution centers in Dire-Dawa, Adama, and Shashemene. But after the government took the company it suffered and this was aggravated for the past 20 years. In 2008 the crisis was severed and the Ministry of Public Enterprise (MoPE) State Minister said the company couldn’t even cover the capital city’s demand. The daily demand is 200,000 bottles and they said they would do an expansion project which would not add more than 45,000 bottles a year. If you see the market share of the NALF now it is exceeded by other companies especially with Balezaf which controls the market more than 60%.
Capital: After you went back to Ethiopia from the US what did you do you to retrieve the company?
Berhane G.Medhin: I returned to Ethiopia after 16 years in the US. After the current government came there were proclamations and other legal frameworks which regulated the way to the return confiscated properties. After the Ethiopian Privatization Agency (EPA) did a survey on the company it gave two options. One was for me to pay the 26.4 million birr to the government and take back my company or for me to get compensation payment. I took the first offer and responded to the EPA, later renamed MoPE that I would pay the money and take over the NALF. Until the final week of my stay in Addis Ababa about 28,000 Eritreans were deported. Due to the Ethio- Eretria border conflict, many were taken away as a threat to the national security.
There were only three days left for the handing over of the company when I and my family were taken away. The Board’s decision was not officially canceled then but pending.
Capital: When you started to recover again how was your being an Eritrean handled? You were deported by the government being considered as a national threat.
Berhane G. Medhin: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) wrote a letter to the Ministry of Public Enterprise in 2009. The letter referred to the Council of Ministers Regulation for the legality of its approval of my entry into the country. The letter in a clear manner stated that I was not a threat to the national security and that it would not oppose it if my questions were held legally. So the issues of citizenship were never an issue during the entire process.
Capital: Why could the MoPE board execute EPA’s decision?
Berhane G.Medhin: The board says that the government invested a lot of money and returning back the company will be uneconomical. It is not a legitimate argument as I was primarily ready to pay what the government has invested. I am sure the entire sabotage is created by corrupted individuals in the MoPE. Also, the government returns back the winery for me. It is clear that there is a double standard and individuals are interested to have my company at their hands.
Capital: The US government intervened in the process and after a few months congressman Dana Rohrabacher wrote a letter to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seeking his intervention in the process. Walk us through the application.
Berhane G.Medhin: Not only the latest letter but the US government even advising its investors not to invest In Ethiopia because the government was denying me my property. According to the letter written by Sufian Ahmed to the industry minister, the US government officials raised the NALF issue multiple times. He ordered the Ministry to look for a legal way to resolve the issue as it is affecting the FDI. So the US government was helping me to get justice.
Capital: Do you believe the Prime Minister will solve the issue?
Berhane G.Medhin: First of all I am happy that I can see such a leader of Ethiopia while I am alive. I am satisfied with his performance. I thank God for giving us such a wise leader. I know he is busy with more critical problems now and he might not get time to see the application soon. But I believe justice will be served.
Capital: You and the US congressman in his letter to the Prime Minter mentioned that the problem was created by corrupt government officials in the MoPE. As the current Minister, Ambassador Teshome Toga, was appointed by him did you approach him and try to explain the matter?
Berhane G.Medhin: I went to his office when I heard the news. But he refered me back to the legal department director to explain my complaint as he was new to the post. I told the legal advisor, which already knows the case. But after that moment the legal director didn’t respond to my calls or bring me back any answers from the Minister. When I went back to Teshome’s office later he rejected my applications to an appointment which made me frustrated.
Capital: What was the experience of other companies whose cases were being handled like yours? Did they get their company back?
Berhane G.Medhin: There were other five companies which had similar cases to me. The government returned back all of them except mine.
Capital: You managed to cause the injunction of four procurements announced to sell NALF. However now the latest bid has received a multibillion birr offer. Do you think the time has come to end this controversy?
Berhane G.Medhin: The companies which are trying to buy a NALF while knowing the risks are risking their investment. If the justice in the country failed to keep my rights I will go to the next stage which is to the international bodies. I have all the documents; all I need is a neutral body who can read them. The companies are buying a liability, not a fortune. I am seeking justice politely and wasted many decades in the injustice. If the government returns the company I will work happily.
Capital: What were your best memories when NALF was yours?
Berhane G.Medhin: Our Company got a reward, a diploma, from Emperor Haileselassie at a symposium at Asmera for being best company next to Meloti Beer Company. I want to take my company back and make it successful again. I forgot many things. The Derg regime took all of my properties and I couldn’t retrieve them back again. Now I live with my children’s support. I rent an apartment in Addis Ababa and I thank God for all I have and don’t complain. But the issue of my company is like no other. I spent two decades of my life fighting for it and I will not give up, I am trusting God will give me justice.