Interview with Professor Berhanu Nega (Addis Standard)
Having acquired his PhD in economics from the New School for Social Research, in New York City, Berhanu Nega is an accomplished economist and author of a book ‘Yenetsanet Goh Siked’ (“The Dawn of Freedom”), which he wrote while serving time in prison as a result of the post 2005 contested-turned-deadly general elections in Ethiopia. But as someone who participated in politics as way back as mid ’70s students’ movement, when he was a freshman university student, Berhanu commands as much knowledge and involvement in Ethiopian politics as his impeccable track record as an economist who, among other things, played a vital role in establishing the Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA) and serving it as its president. As a leader of the opposition party Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), the party that took EPRDF’s hegemony to the task during the 2005 elections (it won 137 seats of the 138 seats in the Addis Abeba city council), Berhanu came to dominate the public sphere in Ethiopia and paid deadly for it. First he was jailed and convicted for treason, then he was forced to live his life in exile in the US where he took up a teaching job at the economics department of Bucknell University. But his commitment to what he elaborates in detail in this interview as ‘democratic principles’ means Berhanu’s journey for freedom was not about to come from his teaching job at Bucknell, rather from an armed resistance group he founded and called Patriotic Ginbot 7. After years of armed resistance from its base in Eritrea and following a wave of political liberalization in Ethiopia which began in March this year, Patriotic Ginbot 7 announced that it was ceasing all armed struggles and moving back to peacefully operate from Ethiopia.
Members of Patriotic Ginbot 7, led by Berhanu himself, are now preparing to arrive in Addis Abeba this coming Sunday. As part of his last leg tours to Europe, Berhanu traveled to Germany in mid August where our editor Tsedale Lemma had a chance to meet him and conduct the following interview. Excerpts:
Addis Standard: I don’t want to delve too much into the post 2005 election tragedy. But there is one question that kept dividing Ethiopians across the board: your decision not to join the parliament and its lasting impact. I am asking this because many Ethiopians have continued looking at the Patriotic Ginbot 7 through the prism of what happened in post 2005. In short, do you regret your decision?
Berhanu Nega: It depends which decision you are asking me about. There were so many decisions at that time…
AS: Your decision not to enter the parliament…
This was just one decision that the ruling party at the time thought it was convenient for it to talk about it more by deliberately controlling the kinds of issues it wants to raise. If you ask me was our decision not to go to parliament legitimate? In fact our decision has never been not to go parliament; part of the overall misinformation in this issue is that nobody is interested in listening to what actually happened and think about the process in which those decisions were made. We decided that we will go to parliament insofar as X, Y, and Z happened. These were the eight issues that we raised that even if we were absolutely confident that the EPRDF has lost and that it has literally stolen the election, we were still willing to go to parliament insofar as we know that the next election five years later would be free and fair. The questions that we raised at that time were entirely related to the independence of institutions: election board, judiciary, military apparatus – every issue that we are now talking about as part of the ongoing change. And unless otherwise these issues were settled, unless otherwise we sit down and agree on the establishment of independent institutions that would lead to a meaningful democratization process five years from then, then it has no meaning; it becomes absolutely meaningless and it would give a wrong signal to the people that democracy is just a joke. To decide not to play, not to agree to this kind of open and egregious circumvention of the political process, I think, was a legitimate decision on our part. We were not there to get positions here and there; that was not our interest. Our interest was to usher in a real democratic change and to be a part of the process. In that sense our decision was very specific; in fact we coached it and even the term we used was a very positive in the sense that we will go to parliament, but we need to negotiate on these issues, on the future of our politics. When it became absolutely clear that the ruling party was not at all interested in this whatsoever, then we decided that other than joining the parliament and making noise, there was no purpose in being there. The only thing that we would have achieved would would have been being a party to cheating the public.
The other and one that always amazes me is this decision that we refused to accept Addis Abeba, where people say we have refused to accept the city despite the fact that we have won close to 99% of the seats in the city. It was the strangest thing that came from the ruling party and its supports because they know, we know, the election board knows; they were there when we went and asked to accept the responsibility of running the city. They even called me and we went there, they were there; the election board official [Tesfaye Mengesha, the deputy head of the election board] was there; and the EPRDF officials from the city were there. But after discussions they said ‘no, we are not going to hand over the city to you’. This is what they said; the CUD never decided not to accept the city it won 137 out of 138 seats; that is how absolute it was; we never said we were not going to take over the city. So this rubbish that you hear about the CUD not willing to accept the city is nonsense. So the decision not to go to parliament, I think is, proven. But what people don’t understand is also over 90 percent of the elected CUD members have gone to parliament. They have been in parliament. What change did take place? They changed the rules of parliament just immediately after that; they just circumvented the whole process.
AS: Fast forward to 2018. Have you imagined yourself having to prepare to travel back to Ethiopia, let’s say six months ago? Have you foreseen this was going to come or were you always determined that the path that you pursued, the armed struggle, would have yielded a result sooner or later?
No…no..I mean, we… you know when you get into this kind of decision you make a decision on the bases of what you think is right. And the choice that we had after 2005 was to either accept to live under tyranny, or to fight it. There was no third way; the version of EPRDF before 2018 doesn’t know a third way; there is no option for them – you either follow their route and become a bootlicker and live because you just want to survive, or you fight them in any way you can. Once you didn’t have no choice, once it become very clear that peaceful resistance of any form is not something that they would accept; that for them whether you fight them peacefully or by arms it is the same, it really is the same. Essentially, they made it very clear: you want to take power, you have to take it from us. So our decision was to say ‘okay, if what they want to see is how much we are committed to the cause, how much we were willing to pay in order to achieve democratic politics, we will show them, we will fight’. It is not because that is the best way, but if we have to show our commitment, if we have to show not only to them but to the public, that this thing is worth fighting for, to live in freedom is worth dying for, then so be it; it is worth it. You know the reason why we applaud our forefathers for Fighting against colonialism is because of this yearning that they had for freedom. So for us it is a commitment. I can only call my country, my country when it reorganizes my citizenship that I am a citizen of that country. Citizenship is the most important thing that a country gives to the people who live under its border. But it cannot come if you just sit and pray for it. You have to struggle for. So our fight was a demand for this right, but also the responsibilities that you have to usher in with it. So our commitment is to have this freedom.
AS: But have you anticipated that you would have found yourself in this position today, having to prepare to pack up and go back and conduct a civil struggle from the ground? Have you anticipated this would have come that early or have you always expected that would be what your armed struggle would have brought?
Close to three years ago, it was very clear that this regime was not going to continue. I mean, we were absolutely certain that this regime cannot continue, it was finished; it has finished its energy; all the tricks that it played to stay in power by fooling people into was gone since three ago. People have said ‘enough is enough’. Earlier on it was only a few of us who were willing to die; but since three years the whole people of Ethiopia were willing to die for this regime to go. I think for anyone who looks at society carefully would see that it was the beginning of the end. Now our worry was how was it going to end? And we were really hoping that the civil disobedience was going to lead towards that rather than any armed…you know, there is, there has always been a nervousness – this nervousness also include nervousness on our part – that anyone an armed group beating a regime and come into power has very little guarantee that it would be true to the principles that it fought for. So we were hoping that we will not be, or any armed group will not be the one that ushers in this change, if in the long run the change we seek is a real meaningful democratic politics. We were really hoping that the civil disobedience would lead toward that end. And we participated significantly in that part of the struggle. So we were hoping that would happen. So towards the end it was very clear that the regime could not go on. What was not clear was how was the change going to come. So when the change came from within the EPRDF, when the struggle by the public led to this fissure within the EPRDF, we thought okay, that would be a cheaper way of achieving the goal in terms of life and treasure that would have been sacrificed; that if the reformist group within the party recognized that there was no way forward than to fundamentally change and that change can only be a meaningful democratic change then that’s great for everyone. There is no need for further bloodshed, you don’t have to go through this retribution, things of that sort. So we were very happy when that change began to take place within the ruling party. We supported it, we were following it very closely. So that more or less defined the nature of the change. It’s not yet settled. We used to have this discussion about how long before they collapsed. For someone who was not there, it might be difficult to accept. But we were there; we have some clarity about the fact that 2016 was the year; we were clear that the option was either to have this change take place or a complete collapse. These were the options. And we were rooting for the changes to take place before the country collapses. That’s what happened. And we are very, very pleased.
AS: Let’s talk about Ginbot 7 as an organization and some of its decisions that many deem are controversial. It is safe to conclude that its journey has not been without a bump, which at times clouded the initial euphoria that followed its establishment. One of this is your decision to locate in Eritrea to pursue the armed struggle. In my reading, through time, you have lost some support, particularly from Ethiopians who are categorized as the “unity camp” (although that in itself is debatable); and who have not recognized Eritrea as a sovereign state. How do you asses this in terms of its political cost? Did you think this campaign to isolate Ginbot 7 from its constituency because of your decision to locate in Eritrea cost you some political currency? If so, do you think it was legitimate?
Let me first, at least partially, disagree with you on the way you presented the so called the unity camp. A/ you presented it as if it is a homogeneous group, which is wrong.
AS: That is why I said it is always debatable…
It is wrong in the same way as talking about any ethnic nationalist group and say it is homogeneous, which we all know it’s not. You can have one ethnic group with ten organizations with different opinions about what the interest of that particular group is. And the same thing is true with what is dubbed as the unity camp, which, if I understand you correctly, the unity camp essentially is this broad category that you painted which essentially says Ethiopia should be one, there should not be division and dismemberment of its region. In that sense we are absolutely in that camp. But there is of course a big difference in terms of how that is to be achieved. On what political bases is unity to be achieved, including the issue about Eritrea’s sovereignty and so on. The same way as any ethnic political camp has divisions on variety of issues, the so called Ethiopian unity camp also has the same divisions. We have always, at least as an organization, we have always believed that unity is important not only because any politics outside of that that requires the dismemberment of the country as its objective is not only politically not right, but it is also practically not going to be the way to achieve peace in the people that live in that particular geographic region. We know dismemberment of Ethiopia is going to come at a very high human cost and it’s going to be a civil war where everyone is engaged in war in one form or another and I don’t think it can be settled in any way. So for the sake of peace, for the sake of survival as a people a politics outside keeping Ethiopia’s unity in one form or another and having a sober discussion about what the foundations of such unity should be, would be hopeless. So we argued that unity is extremely important, but the bases of that unity is real meaningful democratic politics that accepts the citizenship of everyone that lives in that political boundary. In that sense, our concept of unity has always been a concept that is problematized in the sense that it’s not unity by any cost. It is unity on the bases of democratic politics, which we believe is the only sustainable, stable political argument. So the decision to go to Eritrea has been entirely based on practicality in a sense that Eritrea is the only country that was willing to support any kind of opposition to the regime. As you know, the so called democratic countries in the west are the ones that had been funding this regime. They have abandoned their own principles, and were willing to support such a brutalizing regime; so nobody can tell us about democratization or things of that sort in terms of aligning some form or getting support from Eritrea; it was never a big issue.
But to come to your point, yes, we expected a lot of noise that was going to come not just as you said from the unity camp, but particularly from TPLF, presenting it as if [we were] selling the country. But we have never had doubts that of all the people, the TPLF folks cannot tell us about Ethiopia and what it means to love your country. We know a lot. We are not children, we know everything that has happened in terms of how the TPLF and EPLF were united to get rid of the old regime; we know what their relationship was, we know ultimately what caused the conflict and the war and we have our own opinion, but that’s not what formed our position on this issue. We know the unity camp, as you suggested, takes Eritrea at some point as the enemy, and that it is anti-Ethiopia, that it is committed to making Ethiopia disintegrate, that it was the one supporting ethnic politics all over. We know all that. We know what the story was, but we also know that the Eritreans since 1988, even before they came to power, have been against ethnic politics in Ethiopia. We know they thought this was crazy for the TPLF to advocate and push; we know, they know that this kind of politics is dangerous and that they have been telling the TPLF not to go that route. But the TPLF did it because as far as they are concerned that was the best thing for them in order to consolidate power, in order to divide societies so that they can control power. So we know the initial reaction might be negative, but we also know that initial reaction was not based on facts and truth. So,we have never, as an organization, never been an organization that simply follows what is popular. We have always followed our heads; we try as much as possible to analyze things before we make a decision, but when we make a decision, it is not based on whether it is popular or not, it is based on what we think is right for the country and what we think is the right politics. Not popularity.
AS: There is also another dynamicl one which has been used by the TPLF-dominated EPRDF, particularly since the introduction of the 2009 Anti-terrorism law. The practice of weaponizing Ginbot 7 and summarily charging thousands of individuals with terrorism. OLF and Ginbot 7, so to say, were the two leading organization on whose name thousands were prosecuted. I personally know, and I do have a documented evidence that your mere presence as a political organization has been weaponized inside and outside of a court room and was used to prosecute, force into exile and torture thousands. I have also seen this reaction, among some people, of holding you responsible for that. How do you answer to that? How do you answer to the people who often say ‘all we have benefited from your name is pain by alleged association’ because, as I said, your organization’s name has been weaponized.
Why would that be my problem?
AS: I’m not saying it is your problem
But you are discussing it as if there is some justification to that
AS: No. I am saying your name has been used for that. If you were to address victims of this weaponization of your organization, what would your message be?
This is just like saying that part of the problem of being a Jew is because the Germans killed you. And I am saying that people should think that it was done by the TPLF-led government. You are essentially saying, by what you are asking now, that here is a perpetrator of a crime who is not willing to accept your basic humanity, who is going to do everything in its power, including abuse you in every sense of the term in order to stay in power, but this guy is doing this because you have said, ‘I don’t want to live like this. I want to live in freedom.’ So it must be your fault because you fought against this tyranny. The way I see it it is the same way as blaming a woman who is raped by saying that, ‘look, you know you wore a miniskirt.’
So, I’m going to say clearly what I told you. If somebody rapes a woman, the rapist is the guilty party here. Whatever she wore, whether she put a lipstick or not; weather she has said to the guy, ‘you are ugly, I don’t want you’ and all, at the end of the day, the crime committed is by the rapist; blaming her is blaming the victim. So anyone who is essentially accusing us saying ‘you said you were going to fight against tyranny, but you have given the government the excuse to arrest people’ has nothing to do with any of this.
I have communicated that why I’m fighting tyranny is because I believe in freedom. I love my freedom, I will fight for it. And I will continue to say this. No matter what. I never made a decision in terms of what is legitimate, what should I do and what I shouldn’t do on the basis of what the enemy would do using it, as you say, weaponizing it; the enemy weaponizes a journalist who writes a little criticism and say, you must be Ginbot 7 whatsoever. But I don’t operate on the basis of assuming how my enemy uses it; of course he’s going to use it by saying what I’m doing is wrong and what it is doing is right, including its torture and rape and so on. If there is anybody to blame, it is the perpetrators of the crime. That is the end of the story.
But there is another ugly side to this: an argument that says, well, insofar as there is a brutal regime that could weaponize any struggle for freedom, the best thing to do is not to struggle; that the only way that you can avoid it is not to struggle. You presented it in the form of other people saying it, but essentially your argument is because tyrants can use your organization to abuse even more, the best thing to deal with tyrants is to sit down and accept it and live; and not only that because your conscious might trouble you because you have accepted this, in fact, you blame it on the people who fought against it. You see how strange it is? So this is actually legitimizing the acceptance of tyranny as not only an existential response, but as legitimate, acceptable correct and heroic response.
We have never been the means to this brutality; EPRDF tortured, killed and did many things because they wanted to. Any attempt to link this to us is an attempt to justify your impotence, and your own inability to respond to brutalizing regime.
AS: I’m asking this because I’ve seen people pushing this agenda perhaps more than you would like to accept. I have seen accusations flying around that you are not there in any meaningful way other than giving the EPRDF the excuse to punish dissent. The Ethiopian social media sphere, be it Facebook or any other platform, is a host of all sorts of theories to this end. Just for clarity, this is not what I have invented as a question.
I would say even one more thing. There are people who have been telling us how great the EPRDF regime was. There are people who have been telling us how great the economic miracle that was created by the EPRDF was, and I think your media also contributed towards that.
AS: I disagree with you…but please go on.
I am saying this because the media for its existence has to say this. So there are a lot of people who say don’t you just simply sit and let them develop the country. I have seen people who want to justify their existence and their own lack of commitment to anything by saying ‘we were right because we didn’t do anything’. If that gives them some kind of comfort and having sleep, let them do it, but it would be absolutely insane to blame those who said ‘no, this is unacceptable’. It is sickness to really blame those who fought against this tyranny.
AS: Let’s look forward to your actual presence on the ground. Who do you think is your constituency? Recently I was listening to one of your old interviews in which you referred to a friend of yours during the 2005 election campaign who had told you democracy has no constituency in Ethiopia. We are 13 years down the line. Do you now think democracy, particularly the kind of democracy based on civic nationalism that you are advocating, has a constituency in Ethiopia beyond a few urban areas, and given the alignment of the current political order? How do you see the role of the ideals of democracy that you espouse are going to be positioned?
The person who told me about not having a constituency, for me that question was answered in 2005. That was the day that I was traveling in all kinds of places to see how people actually, genuinely want to go out and exercise their basic rights to vote. I saw people waiting for hours and hours to vote and make a decision about their leadership. At that time for me, it was clear that Ethiopians want to live in a democracy; Ethiopians want to choose their leaders; Ethiopians want to stop being afraid of the state or the government. That question of whether there is a constituency for democracy or not was answered at that time for me. There are people in a very significant sector of the population who really want to live peacefully in a democratic political order. That question was answered in 2005.
AS: But do you now see a repeat of that 2005 moment outside of your urban centered constituency?
Oh, yes. I went to rural areas and saw. Since 2005, what we have, even for EPRDF, is the worst of the EPRDF because that election loss was such a shock because they have never been grounded on reality, in any case. But that was such a shock for them. I think they decided that they cannot rule this country in a democracy. So they became even more brutal. They became bandits. I mean literally bandits who are there to steal and loot whatever they can as long as their power lasts. And they used every nasty method in the book, including dividing people, making conflict between people and so on. So now if you ask me do I believe people want democracy in general? As a matter of principle? I would say yes. But I have been away for close to 11 years. I don’t know what the impact of this years of my absence and this changing attitude, changing modality of governance from bad to worse [and] this division has done to the society. I’m not entirely sure, but as you know, as a person who follows closely, there are also a lot of other things that worry me about Ethiopia right now, a lot of things.
AS: Such as
You know the ethnic divisions are not my biggest worries to tell you the truth, because these are political issues that you can find mechanisms to accommodate. For me, the bigger worry is the moral collapse in the society. The degree to which people have literally lost their moral compass.…you know the absence of mechanisms of learning right from wrong. Making a distinction between what is right and what is wrong. Every society has to have some kind of a moral compass to exist. Our moral compass has been lost. Our religious institutions are corrupt. The state is corrupt, everything is corrupt. There is no civil society, there are no even independent traditional institutions such as ‘Shimgilina’ [traditional peace making mechanisms]; none of these institutions are functioning [the way they should]. So, it is a society sometimes that has lost its bearing, you know, it doesn’t know which way to go. That is why you have this inbuilt anger and madness that makes this ethnic divisions much bigger than they are and why they trigger this emotional reaction, because we have lost our basic moral compass and the concept of the rule of law. You know when a mob goes out and kills someone on the bases of absolutely false information and when others sit and watch this happen without any resistance, without any moral challenge to them, that, for me, is a bigger worry and probably the biggest challenge is to rebuild this moral compass. And I think with it would come, once we have some bearing on differentiating right from wrong, with some kind of moral measurement, then all these other political issues, we can sit down and talk and say, okay, collectively what is a better way to go? I don’t think that would be rocket science. I don’t think that would be impossible. It can be done. I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s going to be very difficult, but it can be done. But in the absence of a moral compass, if politicians are interested only in the day-to-day achievement or whatever benefit politically or otherwise they would get; if our religious institutions are interested in maybe recruiting more people to their religion rather than teaching morality on what is right and what is wrong; if our academicians [and] our intellectuals are not committed to the truth and show society what is right and what’s wrong, what is truth and what’s not truth, and how we make a decision…when you have all these not in place, when Charlatans and corrupt business people and corrupt politicians are playing on it for years, it is going to be very, very difficult to rebuild that society. So I think that is the most difficult challenge. But once that is established, I am absolutely confident that people would like to live in freedom, because for me that is a basic human trait; human beings like to live in freedom – and I don’t think Ethiopians are any less human than anywhere else. I think they also want to live in freedom; I think they want to live in a society where their rights are respected, where their languages and their cultures are respected. So in that sense, yes, there is a constituency for democracy – on average people would go for it. We also have to explain why that is important. But before all that is achieved there is a lot of cleaning up that has to be done in a society and it’s not a task for one political organization or even the state. It is a participation of a very broad sector of society to get out of this moral vacuum that we have been living under.
AS: Is it probably why you said in your recent presser in Washington D.C. that your priorities were not to rush to participate in elections as much as to see yourself engaged in helping the current government “build and strengthen institutions”? Is this where you would like to see yourself actively involved?
We as a political organization our priority right now is to contribute towards the establishment of a meaningful, genuine democratic political order in Ethiopia. Whoever leads it, wherever is the head of it is absolutely secondary for us. For us what is important is building these institutions, making sure that these institutions are strong, that they can stand on their own two legs. That people have gotten out of their fear, that they can start to behave as free people, that political differences will continue to exist. But we have to find a way to address this political difference in a civilized manner with functioning institutions. Helping towards achieving this is the primary objective for us.
AS: In light of the points that you mentioned would be your priorities, am going to limit my questions on whether or not changing the current constitution, as part of your struggle and as often advocated by many of your supporters, is your immediate plan. But it would be naïve not to think that at some point it wouldn’t come, given your party’s stand over the last many year. So I have to ask you what it is that you will be advocating to see changed from the current constitution. What do you think should be repealed, amended or even completely discarded? And how do you propose to go about that?
For me a very important element in any politics is knowing what questions you ask when; knowing what would be your questions in relation to your overall strategic objective, (as I told you our strategic objective is the establishment of a meaningful democratic political order). This requires a very broad support from varied political groups and interests. Now, how do we go there, is a question that have very different elements in it. If you start with the assumption that you can address all of these elements in one go today, you’re going to fail. It’s not going to work. If you are really committed to the project, then you have to also know when to ask which questions. Which problems do you tackle when. The constitution has a lot of faults. It has a lot of problems. I remember when we were in the 2005 election we had a big booklet where [we presented] a series of articles that we felt needed to be changed in the constitution. I’m not going to go into the litany of it now. But what we have to agree is we cannot address all the faults of the constitution in one go. Not today, maybe not even in a year. Insofar as we agree – and that’s why it is very critical that the most important agreement that we need to have right now is that Ethiopia is going to be a democratic country. We know democracy can have different versions. But the basic elements are common in all places; the structure and the modality of its operation could be different from country to country. At some point we have to devise what would be the right thing for us as a country that would work, but when we do this, we can’t hope that we can establish that by fully agreeing on every aspect of it. There are going to be points that we defer; there are going to be points that we defer that we agree to deal with later; points that we would agree to disagree but we don’t have to deal with these issues because the priority of establishing the democratic political order doesn’t need solving that issue today in one go. We can address it after one election, after two elections. It depends on, you know, once you have a commitment for the kind of political dispensation, spending an ordinate amount of time on addressing every issue in one go is not wise, it is not going to lead to where we want to go. So the way I look at it is, there are a lot of holes with the constitution and we have to address many of them, but we have to decide when to address what. And we can only do that if we agree on the most important priority now, which is, how to go into a real, meaningful democratic political dispensation. Once we agree on that, then we will have agreed on the way we resolve our differences.
AS: Do you think free and fair election is one part of establishing the route to this political dispensation?
Democracy it’s not just about elections. Democracy is about a lot of things. Yes free and fair election is one, but free and fair election cannot happen without the existence of meaningful institutions. We have to have free media where ideas can flourish all over. We have to have institutions such as free electoral institution, independent judiciary, we have to have the military and security apparatus that is totally independent of the political process. These are important institutional issues even before free and fair elections take place. But even in the absence of this, I think what is important is we have to agree on some, two, three, items that we have to agree before we proceed.
The first one for me is that we have a country; that this is one political community. That is very important because no conversation takes place in the absence of agreeing to that. The second is we have to agree on the process in which we solve our differences. That is what I call the rules of the game. We have to agree on the rules of the game. ‘Here is how it works; you have your right to say what you want, but you have to say it in a responsible manner so that you cannot incite violence and stuff; you have the right to choose your leaders, but if you lose, you have to accept that you have lost, and that you would abide by the rules of the game. Or if you go to a court that you have to accept the adjudication of an independent court.’ These are the basic rules that we have to fundamentally agree on. But what are the rules on which we play as political actors? What is the power of the state? What is the power of the individual or the rights of the individual? What are the powers of the state in relation to these different institutions? These are all issues that need to be outlined in no uncertain terms. Once we have that then the differences would keep going, and whenever new differences come, we will have a mechanism to solve them. So that is, in my view, the priority in establishing the rules of the game and that requires negotiations, discussions, patience and compromise …that is the most important item.
AS: You met PM Abiy Ahmed twice before your party made its final decision to move to Ethiopia. Was this part of the negotiation or the agreement, if you will? What happened in those discussions?
I am not going to talk to you about that. That is not going to work to try.
AS: But when you travel will it be for good or will you be shuttling in and out? What is your first agenda?
I am going with absolutely not prejudged schedule. I am going to go; I am going back to my country. I presume I still have the right to live in that country of mine. As long as I want to.
I’ve never left Ethiopia voluntarily, it was forced upon me. If I leave it next time, I hope it will be voluntary because I have some other interests. But right now my interest and the interest of my organization, after all these years, after generations and generations and hundreds of years of living under tyranny, is to use this chance that we have now. You know after squandering opportunities, two revolutions in our lifetime, where it went awry, and we became worse than what we were before, here is the third chance, a chance where we can man up, can get our right hat and sit down and address this once and for all so that our children and the future generations can live at least in peace and can live in a society where their basic rights as human beings are respected.
AS: You think you have a partner in EPRDF to see this come true?
I hope the reformist wing also believes in this. I believe so. But not just only the reformist group within EPRDF, but the whole movement; what we have seen in the past few years. This is a product of blood and toll; people suffered for this for years and all these people have been asking the same: we just want to live in freedom. So hopefully they are all partners through this very difficult journey. I am not saying it is going to be easy; it will be a very difficult road. But I think we can achieve what many have missed in our history and what we cannot afford to miss anymore. Establish a true meaningful democratic dispensation where we can live together in peace. This is really what I want.
AS: Lastly, about Andargachew Tsege. I know that he is a very significant part of your organization, but he is at the same time a holder of British passport. I am anticipating this discussion about foreign passport holding Ethiopians who want to participate in politics is going to come sooner than later. Do you see that as a potential challenge? Considering that many would like to see him play a political role?
Andargachew is Ethiopian. Many people hold foreign passports because they couldn’t live in their countries. Many Ethiopians became refugees from their own country because they were pushed for exercising different political views than the ruling parties in different times; they are pushed for wanting freedom. So all these Ethiopians as far as I am concerned who live abroad are Ethiopians. Yes the current law has a very narrow definition of citizenship, but I believe, and our organization believes, that we, as a country cannot have it both ways. We cannot on the one hand say we need help from Ethiopians abroad; we need your money; we need your skill; we want you to come and help your country and at the same time say it’s not your country. It doesn’t jive; it doesn’t work that way. So we think that is going to be one of the points that we will raise in this process of transition, that Ethiopians wherever they are, so far as they are born in Ethiopia and have Ethiopian parents, it should be their choice. Even those who live abroad should be able to vote in their country’s elections if we want them to be the partner in this long project of getting this country out of poverty and all the miserable things that we are in. If you want to use these people for that, it’s a quid pro quo; you have to also recognize their citizenship. They can choose not to be, but when they want…
AS: There has to be a mechanism to accommodate that?