In an exclusive interview, US-based Professor Yohannes Gedamu; a lecturer of political science at Georgia college, an expert on federalism and commentator on Ethiopian politics, spoke with Teshome M. Borago of Zehabesha newspaper & Satenaw media Group regarding recent developments in Ethiopia.
Zehabesha/Satenaw: Did you anticipate the ruling TPLF politburo will collapse this fast, soon after the Oromo protests spread to other regions?
Prof. Gedamu: The changes that we are witnessing today are indeed mostly unexpected. If someone would say that he or she has expected it, it will be quite a stretch. However, I was very much eager to see what will be the end of the three years long popular struggle that played out in the form of protests and strikes and whether such waves of protests will bring about some needed change. Indeed, as the question implies, what has expedited the process was the fact that citizens from the Amhara region, especially from Gondar, felt the pain and suffering of the Oromo brothers and sisters and officially joined the movement. Citizens from Amhara administrative region had also experienced their share of suffering and for them, establishing such an alliance was something crucial. As we know the two regions constitute more than 65 percent of the country’s citizenry. Thus, such a simple but important fact makes it clear that the change that we see today belongs to all Ethiopians and was made possible because of the sacrifices of all Ethiopians. And when all Ethiopians unite, I cannot imagine a force that could deter any movement.
Z/S: The abuses in Oromia were so systematic and extensive that many Oromos used to say OPDO was more brutal to them than its TPLF masters. Who would have thought that OPDO, TPLF’s own creation, would now become this popular in Oromia. How did all this happen and will OPDO’s popularity survive when ODF, OLF, OFC and others start campaigning?
Gedamu: As we all know, the OPDO of the last couple of years is very much different from the OPDO of old. The leadership led by Mr. Lemma and Dr. Abiy recognized the anger within their constituency and these leaders and their coalition partners within EPRDF, especially ANDM leadership, came out united to acknowledge questions and grievances from the public at large. The leadership of these two political organizations also fully understood that for any change to emerge and for any possibility of addressing those very serious political challenges, standing together with the raging citizens was the best solution. It was indeed difficult for them and it could have been very costly for these leaders. However, as long as the people remained with them, it seems that they had no doubt that they will emerge victorious.
As to OPDO and whether it survives the challenges that could come from its oppositions within Oromia, it remains to be seen. However, I really think that whether for OPDO or ANDM, establishing political coalitions would be extremely important. That could also be done while they remain members of the EPRDF coalition. Political dialogues among different parties must start and all should understand that without any credible effort towards coalition making, we could even go few steps back to where we were before Abiy came to power. Coalitions do not mean creating new political parties, rather establishing alliances for the purpose of winning elections and leading a government until the next election.
Z/S: There are pessimists out there, who say the military still has mostly Tigrean leadership or say Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s privatization schemes might transfer wealth to Tigrean conglomerates. They accuse Dr. Abiy of flexing his muscles only on Abdi Illey or demanding resignation of officials from smaller tribes, but he does not confront the TPLF directly. How would you respond to such critics?
Gedamu: Yes, such are timely questions. I have no any bad judgment to those who say PM Abiy has no control over the military. But I really think he is very much in control of the security apparatus of the state. What we witnessed in Jigjiga was indeed a national security emergency and that also was a blessing in disguise for me because the event has shown me the leadership qualities of the Prime Minister. He was decisive and eventually controlled the situation without much more bloodshed. That was significant. Having said that, we should also consider the difficulties that any leader could face when attempting to reform such huge and sophisticated institutions like the Ethiopian army. It is not really easy. Institutions are not built overnight. If someone wants to see a complete overhaul of such complex organizations in a short time, that means he or she do not fully understand the process that is known as institution building. It takes time. And there will be ups and downs along the way. But I am confident that he will get there. Why not confronting the TPLF? I believe that he has already done that and TPLF officials will eventually understand that they can not deter the reform efforts and will come to terms that way.
Z/S: What is the worst case scenario that could possibly restore TPLF to its former status politically?
Gedamu: I do not foresee any such circumstances. In my opinion, TPLF will just be a regional party in control of the Tigray region and if they are smart they will also heed that the only alternative is to partner the change agents and be part of this new journey.
Z/S: If TPLF hardliners continue to sabotage Dr. Abiy or challenge his authority, how should he deal with them?
Gedamu: Whether that is from TPLF or any sympathizers of the old regime, I think we can call it that way, challenges will remain out there. The most important solution will be to make sure such individuals and groups who resent the progress under PM Abiy are identified and if there are evidences for sabotages, use the justice system to make them accountable.
Z/S: During my last interview with Republican US Congressman Mike Coffman, he supported applying the US Magnisky Act as a warning to TPLF spoilers in Ethiopia. Should Dr. Abiy embrace such western measures to discourage mutiny from TPLF security apparatus?
Gedamu: I am not sure if it will be wise to use US’s Magnitsky Act in our case. However, as a sovereign state and a regional power itself, Ethiopia could also legislate a similar law when it comes to questions of suing those who might have stolen from public assets or dealing with former bureaucrats who are accused of corruption in general.
Z/S: Unlike the Obama & Susan Rice praises of the TPLF, do you agree with some analysts who say that the lack of diplomatic cover from the Trump US administration (and the diminishing role of TPLF generals in the “war on terror” in Somalia) contributed to their downfall?
Gedamu: Probably. The Trump organization is suffering from many challenges at home and we can debate that all day. However, we also know that the U.S. Department of State and the newly appointed US Ambassador, Michael Raynor, were very vocal in their support of the changes that we are observing in Ethiopia today, including the historic Ethio-Eritrea peace accord. And the fact is also that the Obama administration was also very much taking a u-turn from its policy in Somalia and that is what Trump seems to have followed after he came to power.
Z/S: Historically, people of Gondar, Wollo and others did not identify themselves as “Amhara.” From Menelik to Mengistu to Mesfin W/mariam, all Ethiopian elites reject the existence of an Amhara ethnicity completely; even after Meles created the “Amhara Region.” Today, this concept is a double-edged sword for Tigray, but isn’t the rise of AMHARA identity politics one of TPLF’s biggest political achievement?
Gedamu: An Amhara identity, as we all know, was very much contested as to its meaning and scope, especially in the past. Nevertheless, the question is that if there is no such thing as an Amhara identity as a nation or ethnicity, is there such a thing called Gondare ethnic group or Wollo ethnic group and so on? The answer is there is not any thing that we refer as Gondar nation or ethnic group and or Gojame ethnicity. We need to look at this very carefully, objectively and in very much honest terms. Moreover, Amharas live all across Ethiopia. In fact, the Amharas who live outside of the ‘proper’ Amhara region in today’s federal setting could outnumber Amharas who reside in Gondar or those in Gojam. This definitely creates a problem of understanding where Amharas actually live since they are not defined by a certain ethnic territory alone. But when Amharas are evicted or face hardships because of mere reasons related to their identity, where do we see them going? The answer is, they go to Amhara region. We have seen that with incidents from Gura Ferda, Benishagul Gumuz or when it comes to evictees from some parts of Oromia region. This also shows that let alone the Amhara from Gondar, Gojam, Wollo and Shewa, even the Amhara from other parts of the country recognize their Amhara identity and they go to the region whenever they seek shelter from any hardships they might suffer from elsewhere in our country. That is also evident given what we see in Wolqait and Raya areas and their questions of identity that are very difficult challenges to the current federal arrangement.
Because of the fact that the current federal setting (which is created along ethnic fault lines) projects that each region belongs to one or few cleared identified groups, it has created a problem for the Amharas living outside the ‘proper’ Amhara region in today’s federation. And the pervasive nature of an Amhara identity in Ethiopia is that we cannot limit such a huge population to a certain geographical location. I also assume that this might be the reason why most people openly question the nature of the Amhara identity. This definitely brings us to very broad definitions of identity formation. Therefore, the question should focus on how we define an Amhara identity? Is it the language, Amharic? I think that will be difficult to decide. However, I can say that the psychological make up of citizens form most areas in Amhara region and those Amharas living outside of the region is mostly similar, which is enough to say that there is an Amhara identity that could serve as an organizing principle in end of itself.
The TPLF did not create the Amhara identity, rather the Amhara region of today. However, its ill motives targeting the Amhara has helped transition the once weak and even ‘contested’ Amhara identity into a solid political and national identity. So, yes. That definitely has contributed to TPLF’s demise.
Z/S: Can Dr. Abiy appease both ethnic nationalists and Pan-Ethiopian nationalists at the same time?
Gedamu: Most Ethiopians, I could say, recognize that Dr. Abiy is pan-Ethiopian nationalist although he is a chairman of an ethnic political organization, which cannot make him any less pan-nationalist, by the way. But he needs to be very careful from unintentionally undermining ethno-nationalists since that could lead to the emergence of difficult and disruptive challenges especially from his electoral constituency of Oromia. Because, as we all know, he is widely popular and has massive support across the country, but given the current institutional designs whereby the the government is founded upon, Oromia remains his only electoral constituency. Therefore, his best bet will be to try to tame ethnic-nationalism and support coalition efforts towards the creation of Pan-Ethiopian organizations in systematic ways. Thus, the salient nature of ethnic politics should be recognized and not undermined. Having said that, I would also add that he needs to use his rhetorical skills and his widely recognized appeals towards moderation, as he moves forward as the country’s reform leader in the next few years.
Z/S: What are some practical alternatives to ethnic-federalism in Ethiopia?
Gedamu: That is a difficult question. And from few media appearances and few public discussions that I attended over the issue, I have also learned that our discussions on the solutions are also becoming a very sensitive one to address and come to any consensus too. My solution is what I refer to as ‘A Consolidation Strategy.’ In short, my solution touts the need to abolish a reference to so called ‘developing regions’ and ‘developed regions’ within one federal setting. How? We need to make sure to find ways in which regions that the regime refers to as ‘developing regional states’ merge with more capable ones so that those mostly peripheral regions will enjoy the administrative capacity of the stronger regions nearby. For example, Gambella region could benefit from merging with Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz region will benefit from possible merger with Amhara region. Some part of Ethiopian-Somali region can also merge with Eastern parts of Oromia. And Dire-Dawa can also serve as a capital of a new region that we can refer to as Eastern Ethiopia regional state. Each of the two most populous regions such as Amhara and Oromia regions could also be divided into two to accommodate such changes. Such consolidation strategies could have few important consequences. A) the newly created regions definitely emerge multi-ethnic or multinational, which will reduce ethnic tensions and save all of us from the kind of evictions that we witnessed over the years. B) They will still have places to host both ethno-nationalist political organizations as well as Pan-Nationalists. Such solutions also require ethno-nationalists to broaden their base and eventually become ideology and message centered than staying with their ethnocentric agendas. And lastly, such an arrangement increases the value of formation of political coalitions for electoral and administrative purposes, and limits ethnic organizations towards becoming political caucuses alone after elections.
Z/S: Some Western organizations are demanding Dr. Abiy hold human rights abusers accountable for past crimes. But since many diaspora-led opposition groups, like the ONLF, were also accused of assassinations, ambushing economic sites and other crimes; is it realistic for Dr. Abiy to hold every abuser accountable without damaging the ongoing reconciliation efforts?
Gedamu: This is a matter of how we see transitional justice mechanisms and what avenues or approaches we should take as a nation to address past crimes. And PM Abiy’s emphasis seems to focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. But he has also affirmed his belief, per his latest press conference, that he will hold those with such crimes accountable. That remains to be seen.
Z/S: Millions of Ethiopians are mixed, with ancestors from two, three or more ethnic backgrounds. Should the new government continue forcing them to choose one tribal identity or should they be recognized as “Ethnic Ethiopians” (or simply Ethiopians)?
Gedamu: Most Ethiopians are intermixed and intermingled in one way another, be it in ethnic or in religious terms. Hence, unless an individual has any particular interest to identify as a member of a given group or whatever, he should not be obliged to choose so. The only solution that addresses such problems is that the country should move away from ethnic-based ideologies towards citizenship based politics. However, as I clearly stated earlier, that will not be easy. Hence, for that to happen, taming ethnic nationalism is also very important and we will see how that unfolds.
Z/S: Like Addis Ababa, Awassa City is viewed as a tolerant and multiethnic oasis where all Ethiopians feel at home, and its thriving economy is a testament to its success. But many Ethiopians in Awassa, especially the Wolaita, are now worried about Sidama nationalists who are demanding referendum for a separate state. How should they address this growing threat?
Gedamu: That definitely is very much concerning and recently, we have seen a terrible violence as a result of that. The creation of any new ethnic based region, however, will become our demise as a nation. Therefore, the question of our Sidama brothers and sisters should only be solved via a new institutional design that we hope could address the challenges within the current ethnic federal arrangement. But just to reiterate, any isolated effort to address that, could potentially become very damaging.
Z/S: To solve the worsening crisis, should Awassa become a federal chartered city like Dire Dawa?
Gedamu: I think we should have a working federal setting that significantly improves the current malfunctioning system, which is based on ethnic fault lines. Making Awassa another federal city could solve the issue that is concerning the non-Sidama residents. But it will not be a lasting solution for all. Therefore, we should look into the grand scheme of things and call for a complete overhaul of the federal system by way of the consolidation strategy that I mentioned earlier. And this can be contested, but if we build a consensus on the issue, its implementation could be done in a way that would not anger anyone in both sides of the argument.
Z/S: Prime Minister Abiy was recently frustrated when Amhara nationalists pushed him on the Welkait case. But some Amhara extremists are even claiming a medieval city of Barara, an Abyssinian capital located at present-day Addis Ababa before the 16th century Oromo settlement. Do you believe Amhara tribalism is becoming a threat to peace in Ethiopia?
Gedamu: For me, it is not tribalism whatsoever. And we should be careful about the use of such terms. We can always look at other cases across the globe where ethno nationalism is very much rampant. Such questions are also a testament to the ugly nature of ethno-nationalism. Because, different ethno-nationalist movements always come with a narrative that they think will help challenge the narrative of other ethno-nationalists. For example, the issue with regards to the history of Barara came about, in my opinion, to challenge the narrative that some use when it coms to the special interest of Oromia in Addis Ababa.
We should calm down, think and discuss about such a divisive issue for some time. It starts with doing away with the use of terms such as, special interest. Instead, we should use phrases such as coordinated regional planning strategies and coordinated city-planning strategies. Unless we make some changes in our mindset on such issues, we will have a hard time to reconcile those interests. Being an enclave in a given territory doesn’t also mean you will lose your autonomy as a city and your sovereign entity status as a level of government within a federal setup. Just like the fact that Lesotho is an enclave doesn’t mean South Africa can violate its sovereignty for some special interests that it might have. But indeed those two countries have some coordinated planning for developing their cities and regulate trade and people to people interactions. Of course, it is completely different issue. But I believe that we can apply a similar logic at times, when we face with a similar challenge within a given federal system.
Z/S: Oromos have recently became victims of nativist tribal attacks, with almost a million displaced and many killed in Somali, Benshangul, Gedeo and other regions. So why do Oromo elites still support the current segregationist federal system?
Gedamu: Yes, Oromos have been victims, although sadly they are also blamed for some. At the end of the day, the Oromo is one of the largest ethnic groups in the country and the region. We should not forget that Oromos are also cross border societies since we also have ethnic Oromos in Kenya. So, just like you said, I do not understand why the Oromo elites prefer such an ethnic box, which is too limiting or constraining for such a large ethnic group that should freely roam around. Because, I do believe that Oromos should also live and prosper beyond the confines of Oromia region. The size of the population requires and encourages that. Unfortunately, the ethnic federal arrangement today is not permissive of that and I hope that some of the elites would reconsider and look at the bigger picture.
Z/S: Looking forward to the 2020 election: Dr. Abiy belongs to EPRDF, but his populist & democratic rhetoric sounds more like a Kinijit or Ginbot7 party leader. How should the Pan-Ethiopian opposition camp deal with him during the next election?
Gedamu: That will be an interesting situation to look forward to and enjoy with some popcorn. But I have no doubt that it will be such a great spectacle for the country that we will have such exciting debates to look forward too.
Z/S: Do you expect the Ethiopian ownership of Aseb port in Eritrea to become a hot topic in 2020 as it was in 2005?
Gedamu: I don’t think so. Because, both the opposition and the incumbents will be smart enough to understand the sensitivity of the issue. As a result, they should restrain from debating the issue for this upcoming election. However, the right to access to the sea understandably will remain a question for along time.
Z/S: Should Prime Minister Abiy recognize Somaliland independence?
Gedamu: No, is my answer. Any new Ethiopian administration must patiently wait for any lasting solution between the Somalian state and the Somalilanders.
Z/S: Ethiopia is a country of minorities but Amharic is spoken predominantly almost everywhere in the nation. If You visit even the most remote areas in Wolaita, you will still find people who speak Amharic, not Afan Oromo. Aren’t recent efforts to add Afan Oromo as “official language” more appeasement politics?
Gedamu: I think Afan Oromo is a very good candidate for a second working language for the federal government. And it should be. All will benefit from this. However, such decisions and implementation strategies are like building institutions and that will take time and effort. Hence, I advise that we should be less appeasing and become more accommodating as a nation.
Z/S: Instead of having over fifty parties, is it possible to create aTwo-Party system in Ethiopia: with right-wing Ethiopian nationalists advocating individual rights VS. left-wing ethnic-nationalists advocating group rights?
Gedamu: a two party system is almost impossible in today’s Ethiopia, at least in my opinion. Therefore, multi-party system would remain the appropriate one for the foreseeable future.
Z/S: Almost a year ago, you said the Pan-Ethiopian nationalist camp are the majority in Ethiopia because they dominate in Amhara region, parts of the south and urbanites nationwide. After the recent growth of Amhara ethnic nationalism, do you still believe the Pan-Ethiopian side is the majority?
Gedamu: No doubt that the reality on the ground is changing with coming of a fast growing Amhara nationalist movement. But let’s also not forget that ANDM is also becoming more popular and it shows. However, I still believe that the region remains very much open and fertile for any political groups to campaign and win over the voters. We will see what happens. But the party with very good campaign organization will win, in my opinion. It is all about strategies.
Z/S: Do you forecast EPRDF winning the 2020 election and Dr. Abiy having another term?
Gedamu: I know EPRDF will be very much competitive and even could win it all if they could continue with the rebranding efforts. But with Abiyotawi Democracy? I don’t see them winning. For now, PM Abiy seems committed to that. If he wants his party to win, the rebranding must go beyond logo and party names. Hence a change in ideological frameworks and possible efforts towards coalition formation with some opposition might be needed if we want to see Abiy remain the Prime Minister.