VOA Facebook Panel Discussion on Ethiopia
By Shiferaw Abebe, VOA
February 12, 2018

First of all, kudos to the VOA Amharic Program for organizing this timely virtual panel discussion. The moderators Alula Kebede and Henok Semagzher were courteous to their guests – Dr. Berhanu Nega, Dr. Merera Gudina, Gebru Asrat, and Lidetu Ayalew - and moderated the entire 90-minute discussion professionally.  Their attempt to having a regime official on the panel was a worthy effort but the official’s last minute disappearance was also predictable.

The discussion about the current political crisis in Ethiopia had two basic questions: what are the reasons for it and what are the solutions? One would think the first question is too obvious, if unavoildable, to merit any lengthy discussion, but that would be a wrong assumption.  As it turned out, three of the panelists - Dr. Merera, Gebru, and Lidetu - spent a great deal of time going over the usual list of items, like lack of democracy, injustice, corruption, inequality, etc., as the reasons for the current crisis. Lidetu added the ethnic political system and Gebru mentioned economic injustic as additional factors – all in all, the same stale, tired, and utterly uninspiring answers.

Dr. Berhanu appeared surprised by the very fact that such a question needed to be asked at this point in time.  He therefore gave the briefest answer, cutting to the chase, so to speak. He said the cause of the current crisis and the roadblock to finding a workable solution is Woyane, a brutal entity that has zero interest about anything other than its own power and greed.  The current crisis is a crisis of lack of democracy, a crisis of endemic injustice and inequality. The real question, as Dr. Berhanu reformulated in the way he answered the question is therefore not “what”, but “who” is the cause of the crisis.

Pedalling on the “what”, instead of the “who”, is actually what TPLF wants the conversation to be all about because that would allow it to stir the conversation to its own empty promises of widening the democratic space, ensuring good governance, respecting the consitution, etc., so as to buy time to take the steam out of the popular uprising.

Changing the conversation to the “who” is also important to clearly stipulate the real power dynamics in the country.  For example, the three panelists kept refering to the regime as EPRDF and at no point singled out TPLF as responsible for the current crisis.  That in itself is a huge factual and strategic blunder one cannot expect from seasoned politicians like Merera or Gebru. For they very well know EPRDF is a misnomer that in the past served as a Trojan horse (under which the three minion partners served TPLF’s sinister agenda), while today EPRDF is not a monolithic entity even for a Tojan horse given the disarray and misalignment within it.  

Moving on to the discussion of the solution for the current crisis, Merera, Gebru, and Lidetu talked about the need for having a national dialogue for a democratic transition. Merera argued the opposition must walk half the distance to meet EPRDF middle of the way without giving any inkling what the opposition must do or why TPLF will find it in its heart to travel half way.  

Lidetu talked about creating an independent commision to organize a national dialgue of everyone under Ethiopia’s sky, which might sound a clever idea except the fact that TPLF will not create such a commission simply because Lidetu suggested it. Lidetu also talked about his staple topic of bashing the opposition camp as undemocratic and all that, which is music to TPLF’s ear.

Gebru added his voice to the need for a national dialogue to resolve the crisis and raised a grave concern that inter-ethnic conflict could derail a peaceful transition, a point that did not get the time it deserved during the panel discussion, and to which I will come back later.

Dr. Berhanu once again went to the heart of the matter by reformulating the issue from one of objective to one of strategy. He said convening a national dialogue is a worthy objective which almost all opposition groups agree on. It has been espoused for over two decades now and has recently been detailed in the proposal put forward by theEthiopian National Movement.

The problem is not with the objective. The problem is how to get there, how to remove the roadblock to get to that critical statge. First things first is how Dr. Berhanu put it.Since Woyane will not, of its own volition, allow a true national dialogue take place, it must be forced to accept it; it must be forced to realize that its tyrannical clock has run its course, that its brute ways can no more work.

How can one force Woyane to come to this realization, one of the moderators asked on behalf of a facebook audience. Dr Berhanu's answer was that the struggle must continue relentlessly in all its forms until Woyane gives in. Once the roadblock is removed for having a national dialogue of all stakeholders, once we reach a stage where reasonable people can sit down around the table and explore and debate alternative pathways to a common future, then, said Dr. Berhanu, the transition to democracy may be hard work but not insurmountable.

Not to put down the other three panelists – Merera, Gebru and Lidetu - but it appeard to me that they don’t appear to understand the stage where the popular uprising is at let alone play a leadership role in it.  Interestingly, the qeros and the fanos of the Oromo and Amhara regions have come to understand that the time has passed for merely demanding TPLF to respect democractic rights, that the struggle must move to demanding and fighting for the removal of the TPLF rule, to end the TPLF regime.

I have have resigned to accept the fact that Dr. Merera is not particularly insightful on many substantive issues. His comments, including at the VOA panel discussion, appear to be glib, long winded and repititve to the point where the moderators had to cut him twice. But, Merera could be a force to reckon with, given the huge political capital he seems to be enjoying as a result of his incarceration and now his release. However, I am afraid he might squander it unless he refocuses his attention and sharpen his message to what is demanded by the present moment. He must forcefully and unequivocally demand TPLF to end its 27 year tyrannical rule;  he must call upon all his supporters and party members to double and triple their peaceful uprising to force the regime to come to a negotiating table. 

I was surprised Lidetu was invited along the others panelist because, to my understanding, he has nothing except his mouth to command at this point in time. Even commanding his mouth proved to be a hard feat given his eagerness to talk and, at some point, even arguing with the moderators on time allocation as though he was in an election debate. That said, the problem with Lidetu is that the more he tries hard to sound reasonable, even knowledgeable, the more he comes across as a charlatan, which I think he is.

Before sharing my views on the inter-ethnic tension Gebru raised, let me say that, after he left TPLF, Gebru almost always came across as an honest and reasonable person to me.  I have appreciated and enjoyed reading his great book - Democracy and Soverignty in Ethiopia - from which I learnt a number of interesting historical facts and perspectives. (As a side bar, I also believe he should not have left the Arena leadership to Abraha Desta who, as it turned out, has no better things to do than quibbling about small things on Fcebook, exposing his immaturity and making more enemies than friends).

Back to the issue he raised at the panel discussion, no one can argue about the need for deescalating ethnic tensions for a peaceful political (and economic) transition. The problem is always in the understanding of the facts, the contexts, and the perceptions.

The reason why Gebru raised this issue was because some Tigres lost their property in the recent uprsinings in Wollo.  The fact is, however, those who lost property in Woldia, for example, were not only Tigres. Establishments owned by Amharas were also burnt down. The judge who was killed after he killed many in Mersa was an Amhara. The same was also true in Gondar over a year or so ago, which debunks the notion that Tigres are exclusively targeted.  

Hoever, this is not to suggest that non-Tigres do not see Tigres in association with TPLF, a fact only someone who lived in the outer space for the last 27 years can be surprised by. And here lies the main problem I see with Gebru and almost all Tigre politicians - that they lack an appreciation of why non-Tigres have every ground to associate Tigres with TPLF.  

For the last 27 years, Ethiopia has been a country where every key political, security and military position is occupied by Tigres; where an entirely Tigre-constituted military force, known as Agazi, is commissioned by a Tigre-only ruling party to kill, torture, arrest and dehumanize peaceful demonstrators all over the country, especially in Amhara and Oromo regions; where TPLF has created an unmistakable political and economic system that puts Tigres as first-class and the rest as second-class citizens; and where an entire Tigrean population is dead silent as their Amhara and Oromo compatriots are subjected to unspeakable atrocities.  These are the lenses through which non-Tigres have seen the realities on the ground for 27 long years.

Still, the Amharas and the Oromos have shown an incredible amount of civility, patience and far-sightedness toward their Tigre brothers and sisters and I don’t think this magnanmity will disappear no matter what. That is where Gebru and other Tigre politicians and activists must start their discourse on ethnic tension in Ethiopia, by appreciating what non-Tigres are going through under TPLF’s boots and by expressing outrage about those who are killed by Agazi bullets. 

If Gebru and others want to deflate the tension between Tigres and non-Tigres, then start by talking sincerely about the unfortunate duality TPLF has created in the country; they must start by putting part of the blame on the Tigre community itself for not speaking up against TPLF’s atrocities  (like the Oromos did, like the Amharas did), and then proceede to caution non-Tigres not to lump all Tigres with TPLF, to caution them not to be tempted into igniting an ethnic conflict. That, to me, would be an honorable and honest position that will find a place in the collective heart of the Ethiopian people. By taking sides with the people of Tigray and wagging fingers at the rest on a non-existent targetting of Tigres, Gebru and other Tigres will only lose the credibility of being an honest broker.

And, I do believe, part of the strategic solution going forward is finding an honest and honorable broker that will rally the people of Tigray and speak on their behalf; one who is perceptive and farsighted to understand the urgent need to reconnect the broken bridge between Tigres and the rest of Ethiopia. Since action speaks louder than words, I would encourage Gebru and his party to immediately call a rally of their members and supporters and declare: the Amhara blood is our bloodthe Oromo blood is our bloodetc. If they do that, they can be guaranteed the tension between Tigres and others will start to melt away over night.  Citing statistics on how many Tigres are still poor or disadvantaged, or arguing the point that the people of Tigray live under the TPLF Tyranny too will not cut it. These facts, as true as they may be, cannot give the people of Tigray a special privilege to keep silent as their fellow Amharas and Ormos are slaughtered by TPLF.

I am personally against any targeting of a Tigre or an Amhara or any other individual or group simply for supporting this party or that party. People should be free to support any party they want. The fight for freedom and democracy must be to ensure even the most hated political party has its supporters who, save committing a crime, can freely exercise their democratic rights. However, presently, I do appreciate why some properties are and will be burnt down if, in particular, their owners are active spies of the TPLF regime, if these owners make their properties accessories to the regime to commit attrocities, if these owners get out of their way and collaborate with the regime in the killing and arrest of those who are opposed to the regime.

The solution for deescalating inter-ethnic tensions and minimizing collateral damages does not rest with the most agrieved, with the most victimized, with the Dad or the brother or the friend who lost a loved one by Agazi bullets. The blame goes exclusively to TPLF who created the toxic environment, and the solution to de-escalating tension rests with the Tigrean community more so than the Amharas or the Oromos. The people of Tigray, at the very least, must rise and publicly demand restraint from TPLF. At best, they must join the popular uprising to bring an end to a regime that is killing their country in their name!



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