Call it seismic or Tsunami, Ethiopia is engulfed in waves of change. The dominance of TPLF is ending faster than most people expected it. Barriers that TPLF had created to divide Ethiopians are crumbling everywhere, including in the diaspora. The masterwork of its walls, the one dividing Eritrea and Ethiopia, the wall of hate, or the “black curtain” as PM Dr. Abiy Ahmed called it, is about to be dismantled.
As I write this piece, I am watching live feeds from Ethiopia where the reception party for the Eritrean delegation is in full swing. Facebook pages are full of the flags of Eritrea and Ethiopia decorating Bole Airport and the main avenues of Addis Ababa. Some creative artists made some innovations by physically merging the flags of Eritrea and Ethiopia signifying unity and love.
Also, I watched last Saturday’s big rally in Addis Ababa, where Ethiopian PM, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, made a moving speech of unity and love, the anathema of TPLF’s behaviors and policies. I watched as the bomb went off and I prayed for the safety of the PM and the attendants. Unfortunately some innocent lives have been lost and many injured. I believe that cowardly act will encourage Ethiopians to double their efforts for supporting the reforms their PM is introducing.
On the exciting side, pictures posted in the social media purportedly taken from demonstrations organized to support the new PM in Addis Ababa, Gondar, and other Ethiopian cities showed Ethiopians and possibly some Eritreans waving the flags of both countries.
The general theme of PM Abiy Ahmed could be distilled to peace, love and hope. But previous leaders of Ethiopia have also played that motif. So, what is new?
I think there are four reasons why Ethiopians and Eritreans are electrified by the performance of the new Ethiopian Prime Minister.
- Firstly, he appears to have understood the grave situation that had befallen Ethiopia at the hands of past TPLF-controlled administrations. So he had to show Ethiopians that he is resolute enough to clean up the mess of injustice, cronyism, and division that had pervaded Ethiopian politics.
- Secondly, he understands that his legitimacy comes from the power of the people, not through the barrel of the gun. Therefore, he has to answer to people’s demands and address their grievances. He owe his rise to power to the Qeerro movement and the general popular uprising. Thus it is expected of him to be accountable to the people who brought him to power more so than to his party’s establishment.
- Thirdly, he understands that Ethiopians are sick and tired of divisions. His speeches indicate his reformation agenda is not bound to issues of structural deficiency but aim at reforming the constitution itself. The next election may give him stronger legitimacy to reform more. He already announced that a Commission would be setup to assess the current boundaries between the states, and to study the pros and cons of boundaries delimiting ethnic communities.
I think he is broaching the subject of constitutional reform gently.
- Fourthly, Dr. Abiy Ahmed and his reform colleagues have openly advocated for a just end to the Ethio-Eritrean conflict. Eritrea reciprocated with an even bolder positive gesture by sending a high-ranking delegation to Addis Ababa. We will see how things progress. [At this juncture of my writing, the Eritrean delegation comprising Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, and Yemane Gebreab, the presidential advisor of Eritrea, has arrived in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian PM himself has met them at the airport, the mood is like a state visit with a red carpet, I can see top Ethiopian politicians, religious leaders, and intellectuals. Indeed, it is a day to remember.]
How have fortunes turned upside down?
The main culprit is TPLF’s predatory behavior. From the outset, TPLF tried to rule Ethiopians as colonizers did to their subjects. TPLF is the primary engineer of ethnic federalism that is churning Ethiopia. As a first experiment in Africa, it would not hurt if TPLF followed the constitution to its letter and spirit. Observers say that TPLF used the ethnic balkanization of Ethiopia in order to reduce the country into pieces of its size. The main objective was creating ethnicity-based competing Kilils (states) where it would lord over Ethiopia as the final arbitrator.
As things spiralled out of control some Ethiopians wondered if it was the constitution that has created the political mess or the abuse of its provisions. Although it is not my business, I would suspect it was the abuse of the constitution, not necessarily the constitution itself. But that is a byway issue.
As it happens, I observed Ethiopians complaining of local cadres, inserted by or serving as viceroys of TPLF. According to my Ethiopian friends, the local cadres representing the ruling coalition, instead of becoming a vehicle of change in their communities by advocating for their interests and defending them, they were promoting TPLF monopoly in economy, politics, military, and the security of the country. I also read about land grabbing from indigenous communities by greedy investors and cronies of the ruling coalition which had been under TPLF influence.
Additionally, repressive measures against political and human rights’ activists railed Ethiopians. And the brutal crackdown of petitioners who had used the rights their constitution had granted them was even more infuriating. Moreover, the TPLF-controlled previous administrations had abused power by instrumentalizing the constitution to serve their narrow political agenda. For instance, the “terrorism law” was primarily used to silence peaceful political activists, bloggers, and journalists. Corruption has reached records where the well-orchestrated double-digit economic growth did not trickle down to the poor masses.
Ethiopia seemed to tilt so dangerously towards the edge of a steep cliff that it became doubtful if it would be governable. The situation triggered a state of emergency twice with no reprieve on the horizon.The military had effectively taken control of the day to day administration of the security of the country.
Meanwhile, the popular uprising had ebbed and flowed but never stopped putting pressure on local politicians. In the process, it produced local leaders who felt they should answer the demands brought up by the local communities..
Once the leaders of the parties making up the coalition assessed the situation and gathered their strength, the first measure they took was to clean up TPLF dominance at local and national levels. Thus they set out to liberate their local parties from the tentacles of the TPLF.
The Oromo youth movement, known as Qeerro, brought about grassroots leaders who created a climate where individuals such as Lema Megersa and Dr. Abiy Ahmed of the OPDO were propelled to the national scene as proponents of change. The wind of change that had started in the OPDO camp had liberated OPDO from the influence of TPLF and then went to almost liberating the EPRDF from the total control of TPLF ideologues.
Indeed, Oromo leaders liberated their organization (OPDO) from the spell of the TPLF, positioning it into an organization that could play a pivotal role in stabilizing Ethiopia and leading it to a more united and peaceful future.
The process still continues. As I write this piece, there is news that Shiferaw Shigute of the SPDM has been replaced by the House Speaker, Muferihat Kamil, the first Muslim woman to rise to this prestige. It is to be recalled that Shiferaw Shigute was TPLF’s favorite pick for the PM post which ultimately went to Dr. Abiy Ahmed. In that sense, this move may be orchestrated by the SPDM to liberate their party from TPLF influences.
The Amara party, ANDM, is also preparing for its conference. Word has it that the ANDM will also clean up its house from long-standing pro-TPLF leaders.
The long-serving TPLF Chief-of Staff of the EDF, Samora Younis, and the security chief have been pushed aside. Top TPLF leaders have also been respectfully discharged from influential positions they have held for the last 27 years. The new PM has officially said he would go after officials who had embezzled public funds, and we know the top suspects are TPLF leaders and their cronies.
The above assessments are all public. And the PM himself articulated them in interviews and in his latest appearance in front of the parliament. He even apologized for the state terror his coalition under the TPLF had committed. Top TPLF leaders however don’t seem to get it. They are still in denial. At times they congratulate Ethiopians for the changes Dr. Abiy has been introducing adding they were the fruits of the struggle TPLF had fought for. They seal a deal in the Executive Committee of the ruling coalition, as it happened in the latest communique of the EC accepting the Algiers Agreement and the EEBC verdict and expressing its readiness to implement it without any precondition. But then things change when they address their Tigrigna speaking people. So, even for people who have observed them for the last 42 years, it is hard to figure out what TPLF leaders think. But we have no option other than engaging them. Eritrea will have to engage whomever the Tigray people place in power. ካብ ሳዕሳዕካ ተቖጻጸ’ንዶ ኣይተባህለን።
Is the game really over?
President Isaias of Eritrea has famously said “game over” to TPLF. Many Tigrians and Eritreans found it offensive and humiliating. My take is that, as a matter of diplomacy I did not like him saying that and in that way. However, as a matter of fact, he was right. The old game has ended, period. If you are old enough to understand my ranting here, the chance that you will see again another type of TPLF rule controlling Ethiopia, the way TPLF had controlled it, is so slim. If you are a supporter of TPLF hegemony, make sure to preserve your memories, you may want to rewind the “sweet memories.”
Be that as it may, what does president Isaias mean by his announcement that the game was over?
Well, there is no way for me to have a cup of coffee with him and ask him that question. I hope my friend Paulos Natabai of the Eritrean News agency raises that question in his next interview with the president. But I suspect president Isaias meant what I have just described above.
For the record, I said game over long before Isaias did so when the issues of identity such as WalQayt and the rest erupted, and when the issue of land-grabbing, Addis Ababa and the rest came out, and that is when I saw how incorrect the assessment of the officials were. I argued at that time that unless the government made fundamental changes based on objective assessments, assigning the blames to Eritrea and Egypt would not solve the problem. As the uprising spread out, I warned TPLF pamphleteers that the popular uprising was evolving to national political demands. Well, regretfully, those TPLF cadres have populated the social platform I use. They have been demonizing Eritrea all these years instead of looking after themselves. Well, then,game over. [My readers know me and the rest can check out my disqus account of those years]
Back to Wedi-Afom…
I think president Isaias meant the following:
The game of pitting Ethiopians against each other to rule Ethiopia for the next 50 years is over. The game of monopolizing the economy, politics, military, and security of that country is over. The use of Eritrea as a boogieman to frighten Ethiopians is over. Does that make sense? (ገጋ ይኽለኣለይ’ምበር። ኣባላት ሃገርራዊ ድሕነት ኣየንብብዎን ይኾኑ፡ አእ—ዓደይ ክኸይድ እደሊ ኣለኹ)
In a nutshell, I believe he is saying the old predatory game is over. I think he is hinting that there is a new Sheriff in town. The old game is over. There is a new game in town, and I think he is suggesting better for the TPLF to find its bearing and catch up with the wind of changes. It’s better to reform itself. Well, truth be told, Isais has consistently said the people of Tigray is among the most marginalized communities. I heard him saying the “no war, no peace “ had equally hurt the people of Tigray. To the credit of the Eritrean government, it never mixed the leaders of TPLF with the people of Tigray or the historic TPLF. And knowing IA’s undiplomatic behavior, it should not surprise anyone. I watched Dr, Debretsion of Tigray welcoming IA’s bolder response that made today’s arrival of the Eritrean delegation in Addis Ababa possible. But we will try to train PIA to be a bit cooler, that is if he takes some time off from his project in Adi-Halo.
The above is my perspective. But I do know that TPLF belongs to Tigrians, they are the ones who could call the shot and declare it “ game over.” [ Let it be said on behalf of the president]
However, it is my sincere opinion that Tigrians should reform their organization and make it compatible with the new realities in Ethiopia. Appearing to be threatening the new order is not to the benefit of the Tigray people. Tigray people created TPLF; TPLF did not create the people of Tigray. I am confident peace-loving and patriots citizens will push the old guard to reform. Please don’t ask me how about yours. We are discussing TPLF within the context of the changes taking place in Ethiopia. Eritreans will chart out their reformation agenda driven by their objective situation and out of their volition. The era of dismantling PFDJ or uprooting it is over. PFDJ is going to stay a formidable political force. But we will discuss about it sometime in the future.
A conciliatory note..
I have seen the people of Tigray overcoming adversities. I have no doubt they will overcome the current confusion. There is a new game in Ethiopia and there are many able Tigrians who can show us spectacles. In that sense, the game has just begun. The new game is that of peace. I know that the people of Tigray also yearns for peace. Tigray and Eritrea have martyrs from both sides buried together in shallow graves in Ethiopia and Eritrea. We should rekindle that positive experience. Let the rusty tanks and mortars get melted down to manufacture agricultural tools. I have grown in war. I have come to hate it as I get older. My mission has always been to curtail the possibility of war. That was one of the points I have had differences with many Eritreans in the opposition who have been arguing for armed confrontation with the government of Eritrea. If war is poignant, civil war is even more calamitous. We experienced it. Therefore, both countries should desist from interfering in each other’s affairs.
We need to mature…
The rapprochement between Eritrea and the federal government of Ethiopia could not replace the relationship that must exist between the political forces of Eritrea and Tigray. There is no reliable peace without a peaceful engagement between the PFDJ and TPLF. Adding up (መደመር) seems appealing…Regional peace and cooperation is a must to uplift our people out of poverty.
A costly lesson…
To put it mildly, we are here because of bad choices made by our leaders. When we say the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea are one, we mean there is a strong social and economic ties between the two peoples. The same could be said about the relationship between Eritrea and Sudan, and Eritrea and Djibouti. As Dr. Ahmed put it, adding up (መደመር) is beneficial to both peoples. War has cost us a lot of opportunities to grow and prosper. However, as Osman Saleh, the Eritrean Foreign Minister put it, “ We should not look behind. We should look forward and try to make up lost opportunities.”
I would not want to pick on our festering wounds but for the record, I have to say this: the Eritrean government, right from the start, believed that borders were not necessary. Prior to 1997, both countries were striving towards integrating their economies and ministries. There was no visa between them. However, when Eritrea issued its currency to control its monetary and fiscal policies, Tigray administration embarked unilaterally on drawing the map of greater Tigray, incorporating chunks of Eritrean land into its province. Tigray administration uprooted villages from their ancestral lands because the farmers said they were Eritreans. Therefore, it was the Tigray government that had brought the importance of border to prominence. Borders should be seen as markers designed to avoid border ambiguity which may lead future generations to costly wars. They should not be seen as barriers between peoples and communities.
I have an utmost respect for the people of Tigray and for their organization. My problem has always been with few top TPLF leaders who had made Eritrea a sacrificial lamb to consolidate power in Ethiopia. Therefore, when I criticize the TPLF, I have those individuals in mind. when I say “game over,” it concern those few individuals and their destructive role that has deprived the people of Eritrea leading a normal life. Nevertheless, as I emphasized it above, ultimately, TPLF is an important political player, it is up to the people of Tigray to tell it “game over.” I can speak only from an Eritrean perspective. As a prominent player in Tigray political scene, however, Eritrean leaders will have to deal with it. I will come to it in the end.
To patriot Eritreans
You have worked hard to see this date happen. Peaceful engagement between Eritrea and Ethiopia clears the way for improving relations between Eritrea and Djibouti and Eritrea and Sudan; it enables Eritrea to regain its rightful place in IGAD; it also contributes toward lifting the unjust sanctions placed on Eritrea. If not for your endurance, Eritrea should have been disintegrated. The pressure and stress you have endured through the years is unimaginable. The rest of economic and political revival should evolve from internal strength. Copy and paste style of politics did not help other countries.
Back to the pressing question: What Now?
1. I think the first order should be the de-escalation of rhetorics (I promise, starting from tomorrow, I will tone down, I have depleted my rage to safe levels). The language of hate should be replaced by the language of rapprochement.
2. Start demilitarizing the border. Peace-loving people of Eritrea and Ethiopia should unify their voices in articulating the notion that war is an outdated mode of solving conflicts, be they domestic or international.
3. The diplomatic bridge connecting Asmara and Addis Ababa, currently overpassing Tigray, should translate into the creation of physical, social and economic bridges primarily connecting the people of Eritrea and the people of Tigray. I am hopeful the leaders of both countries will not squander this opportunity. The plausible approach would be building bridges that connect Eritrea and Tigray and then move onto inland Ethiopia. But with the current situation, it may be smarter to start the bridges from the capitals of the two countries and then move towards the periphery bordering Eritrea. I leave that to the political engineers.
4. The demarcation of the border should be conducted in a peaceful atmosphere. Peace should precede the actual demarcation. When I wrote my last article, I was more cautious and suspicious about the situation. Subsequent rapid developments have made me be more optimistic and be a bit relaxed. The more one is informed the more he/she get comfortable with revising their stances. I am comfortable with the latest development, who knows, PFDJ and TPLF leaders might have already met. At any rate, the current momentum of peace overtures should pick acceleration. And the priority should be the demilitarization of the border.
5. leaders of both organizations, PFDJ and TPLF, must lead. One of the defining characteristics of leaders is having a vision and the will and stamina to take actions to realize that vision even if the actions are not popular. Leaders of both organizations must take historic actions that will leave lasting marks that will serve as a basis for enduring peace and cooperation between the two peoples. There is no hate between the two peoples; the hate is political and it should be solved at the political level.
PS: Thanks go to the people of Addis Ababa and and particularly to my favorite Ethiopian artist, Mahmoud Ahmed, for the warm reception you threw for our delegation. Ethiopians, better watch when your delegation, hopefully led by Dr. Abiy Ahmed, lands at Asmara airport. Welcoming Asmarinos will be there. Anyway, በጣም ታምራላችሁ። Just perfecting my Amharic for my visit to Addis next year, Inshaallah.
June 26, 2018.