Kassahun Berhanu (Prof.)
The Ethiopian year that came to an end a week ago featured ethnic motivated killings, civil war and economic slowdown. The political powers in the country took matters from confrontation to an outright war. Ethiopia had to endure the pandemic, locust infestation, floods and war during the past year. Elections also took place in parts of the country. Kassahun Berhanu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Addis Ababa University. He has researched and published on issues mainly relating to democracy, civil society, decentralization and governance in Ethiopia, as well as conflicts, elections and constitution making in Africa. Tewedaj Sintayehu spoke to the seasoned scholar to make sense of all that happened during the past Ethiopian New Year.
The Reporter: What happened in Ethiopian politics over the past three years?
Prof. Kassahun: Ethiopian politics entertained a number of victories and associated challenges over the past three years. The positive developments have been repeatedly raised. These include: widening the political landscape, creating institutions, taking baby steps to go beyond differences, gather on common issues and consult each other, holding elections albeit the shortcomings, realizing the second filling of the GERD in perseverance of the pressure, and measures taken to ensure the sustained existence of the country. Parallel with these efforts were challenges that include: identity based attacks that took place in different parts of the country; displacements; incitement of violence in Tigray and the North by a group that seeks to end the country’s existence; pressure from foreign forces and their local associates. So, we can see the past three years as a time of victories and challenges.
The Reporter: Especially the past year saw things escalate. How bad was it for Ethiopian politics?
Prof. Kassahun: There were challenging conditions. Difficult circumstances followed clashes in various parts of the country. These circumstances include the economic slowdown, the harm to Ethiopians and their displacement. Even with these challenging circumstances, the policy and procedural reforms that started in 2018 continued. We also don’t have to forget about COVID. The measures taken in that regard sprung up from nothing and prevented widespread damage. The notable implication of the pandemic on Ethiopian politics is that it led to the postponement of national elections. With no end in sight to the pandemic and the sporadic clashes across the country, ensuring the legitimacy of the government through elections proved to be a challenge. However, the government was forced to hold the first round of the elections in June anyway. Shortcomings were inevitable as it has been difficult to hold flawless elections even under regular conditions in Ethiopia. Despite the irregularities, the first round of elections drew wide public participation. The second round of elections is also in schedule to be held recently.
The major events of the previous Ethiopian year were: the construction and filling of the GERD, and holding the elections that have led to the impending establishment of a new government. I think the latter creates a good foundation for the New Ethiopian Year.
The Reporter: How do you assess the international aspect of Ethiopia’s politics?
Prof. Kassahun: The assembly that calls itself ‘international community’ is blinded and one-sided about Ethiopia’s stand – whether it is about the dam or the conflict with Tigray. Ethiopia has made diplomatic efforts to clearly let them know that it would not accept arbitrary foreign interventions in its internal affairs. Understanding of Ethiopia’s stand led to the coordination of efforts between some foreign forces to reflect their view at the UN and other platforms. Tremendous efforts have been made to resist the pressure from these forces. The Ethiopian people crossed religious and ethnic lines to come together and stand in defense of the Ethiopia’s existence. That is a positive response in the face of foreign threats.
The Reporter: There have also been some instances that negatively impacted the government’s credibility in the eyes of the rest of the world. For instance, the government denied the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray at first only to confirm such reports later. So, is it the case of them not trusting the Ethiopian government or is it a clash of the foreign policies of international actors and the Ethiopian government?
Prof. Kassahun: The Eritrean army did not go into Tigray at first. The government said back then that it did not go in. But the Eritrean army went in later and the government admitted to it. The Eritrean government did not even respond to the provocative rocket attacks by TPLF. However, when the threat from the belligerent group turned from destabilizing the Northern command to Eritrea, the latter went into Ethiopia to nullify it. A government can allow army of another country to go into its territory, if it feels like there is existential threat to the country it administers. The government can send an open invitation and draw the army of another country in. International law does not forbid it. Even in our region, Uganda was invited into South Sudan; Ethiopia went into Somalia after the Federal Government of Somalia felt threatened and invited it in. They were not concerned about Eritrea’s involvement.
The Reporter: That was just an example raised to showcase the change of hearts. We can have another instance: the government claimed that it conducted the most efficient war as it did not kill a single civilian. But it later admitted to the killings, rapes and other crimes.
Prof. Kassahun: I’m not sure about the number of civilians killed but the push to control Mekelle did not claim civilian lives. That is because the battle was against the armed forces of the TPLF. The people did not participate. The unlawful killings and rapes came later. The government admitted the crimes and took punitive measures against the culprits. Members of the defense forces suspected of committing these crimes have been apprehended and their cases are in due process of the law.
The Reporter: If the foreign forces are one-sided in their approach to the issue, as you stated above, what is the reason behind such a stand?
Prof. Kassahun: The current Ethiopian administration is new. Foreign forces are threatened that the rise of Ethiopian nationalism since the ascendance to power of the current administration in 2018 could make them lose their strategic interests. That is because Western countries promote their interests in a country when there is a
1. puppet government
2. chance to intervene as mediator, arbitrator, and negotiator to settle conflicts.
Especially the political affinity created between Ethiopia and Eritrea left them with fears that the absence of a culture of subservience to Western interests in the latter would rub off on its newly found friend. It is not that they are closer to the people of Tigray than Ethiopians. As demonstrated in Africa, Latin America and Asia, Western powers have supported, catered to and helped lengthen the tenures of dictators that massacre people. Had the Ethiopian administration ensured its subservience but massacred tens of thousands of people a day, they wouldn’t have cared less. That is because the politics in Western countries, especially the USA, is driven from its core by imperialism.
The Reporter: Ethnic based killings were rampant over the past year. Would you say the government did enough to stop them?
Prof. Kassahun: The ethnic based killings are the results of TPLF’s design. As a result of obligatory causes, the government could not do enough to stop them. I might be wrong but I hope things will improve in the New Ethiopian Year. Ongoing tendencies, however, indicate that there are efforts to set such shortcomings straight. First, Prosperity Party inherited its legitimacy from EPRDF (the ruling coalition that ruled for 28 years) and did not enjoy popular legitimacy. The national elections provided it with the legitimacy it needed. Secondly, the voluntary recruitment and mobilization of Ethiopians to defend their country is evident for all to see. The human resources, financial and other resources mobilized could be taken as a great starting point to build on unity. Such efforts need to be strengthened so that it could be used to become victorious against those who seek to dismantle the country. Yet another of the positive developments is the preparation to kick start a national dialogue forum. Such a forum could be used to identify the shortcomings we witnessed over the past years, point out possible measures and march forth. The forum needs to be all-inclusive and bring major issues of the country on the table. I expect it to bring about understanding and cooperation.
The Reporter: You raised the National dialogue forum and that it has to be all inclusive. Considering the people of Tigray have demonstrated their support for TPLF by fighting along with it, wouldn’t that be enough ground to get the group involved in the forum? What do you expect the results of the dialogue to be?
Prof. Kassahun: I don’t think the dialogue forum should include the group (TPLF). It’s a criminal group that committed treasonous acts. It betrayed the country. The group needs to face justice, if that is possible. If not, it should be dealt with militarily. Yes, the people of Tigray and TPLF are together. However, the front is fighting to reclaim the power it lost while the people of Tigray are enraged by some of the criminal acts committed against them. Therefore, it is a temporary bond. I wouldn’t say they are completely one. The group is criminal. It didn’t show its criminal intents but went out and demonstrated them through action. After taking this group to its knees, the people of Ethiopia need to come close to the people of Tigray and consult with them.
I expect the result to be the deliberation, understanding and working together of political powers on major national issues. It may not be as easy as we presume it to be. To ensure that it is all-inclusive, various forms of social organizations have to be involved. These include: religious groups, youth, women and men groups, private and Civil Society. After ensuring the all encompassing nature of the forum, agendas have to be set. Consensus on all matters is obvious unexpected. However, there should be common understanding among major national issues. For instance, the form of federalism to pursue is a matter that needs common understanding. I haven’t heard of a party that argued against federalism as the administrative model for Ethiopia. The debate is against the ethnic nature of the current federalism. Everyone involved has to debate for their cause and finally come up with an amicable solution for all. Another issue has to do with casting out parts of the constitution that were inserted for some specific purpose. Participants have to come up with a common understanding on the constitution as well. If the dialogue forum concludes successfully and peacefully, a lot can be done to avert the danger.
Moreover, I’m a student of political science. I know that government has monopoly of violence in addition to its other responsibilities. No individual or group should be allowed to undermine that. The government needs to use that force when the situation demands it.
The Reporter: Ethiopian politics features the struggle between ethnic nationalists and Ethiopian nationalists. Who do you think is winning the fight?
Prof. Kassahun: As long as they are implemented normally, ethnic nationalism and Ethiopian nationalism are not antagonistic concepts that work to eradicate the other. The problem arises from tendencies of extremism on both sides. For instance, the question of nationalities to administer themselves, use their own language in education and the justice system is a good thing. These are legitimate questions. The thing to note here is its implementation in various instances. There was a tendency to isolate and target others. Such modalities of implementation take it to extremism. On the other hand, ensuring Ethiopia’s territorial integrity is a good thing. Claims to build a country in which ethnic groups, religions and languages tolerate their differences are also good. However, tendencies to take offence at the issue of rights of nationalities and argue that self-administration is not needed make up the other extreme. Bringing these two extremes to the centre makes them complementary and does away with their antagonistic current form.
The Reporter: The reality on the ground, however, is that these two groups are confrontational towards one another.
Prof. Kassahun: The national dialogue should work to realize such a scenario. I think the opportunity to change the reality and come together to deliberate on matters is opening up. Under the course of such a process, extremists will be cast away. Some might even set themselves straight. Why is it that the Somali, Sidama, Oromo and others are contributing their finance and sacrificing their lives to defend the attack against Afar and Amhara? I take this as a positive signal. If we work on it and keep it in the spot light, the ideas of extremists will slowly fade away and get beaten.
The Reporter: Do you think there is a clear danger of Ethiopia falling apart?
Prof. Kassahun: I don’t think so and circumstances don’t indicate that. The drive to dismantle Ethiopia did not start recently. It is evident throughout our history. We are here because the internal forces of unity managed to keep the territorial integrity of the country. We cannot say that the tendency to break the country into pieces will disappear anytime soon. It will go on. The only option is to fight it. In my view, the forces of integration have become stronger than they used to be.
The Reporter: How did the geo-political developments during the past year in the Horn of Africa affect Ethiopia?
Prof. kassahun: One of the major geo-political issues has to do with GERD. After the agreement reached between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan in 2015, the downstream countries went in breach of it to make the matter an international issue. Their international allies that lurked behind first came into the scene as observers, and then promoted themselves into mediators and arbitrators. Despite the major threats from this allied group, the construction and filling of the dam went as planned last year. They challenged Ethiopia but it stood its ground.
The second geo-political issue is the invasion of Ethiopian territory by Sudan. Diplomacy and negotiation was the way Ethiopia pursued to handle the matter last year. Sudan was not told its claims were unfounded; it was asked by Ethiopia to negotiate on the matter and find a solution in which both of us win. The Sudanese used the war in Tigray as a good opportunity to annex the land just as Somalia did during the time of Ziad Barre. The year ended with them holding on to the land. Until the situation in Ethiopia changes, I expect them to continue to seize the land.
The commencement of working relations with Eritrea defused the tensions that were there for decades. Although it still has far ahead of it, Somalia has a government in place to handle its affairs. Egypt is always Egypt. Sooner or later, it is going to have to come to the negotiating table.
The Reporter: Egypt and Sudan have been holding joint military exercises. Would there be a chance of Egypt waging war against Ethiopia?
Prof. Kassahun: After we take care of our home work, Ethiopia would come up with a bold question: Do you want to negotiate? Claims that Egypt might blow up the dam don’t hold water. Once Ethiopia handles its internal matter, setting Sudan straight and making sure that it won’t serve as a bridge for Egypt is easy. But why venture into that when negotiation is still an option? The chances of war erupting are highly unlikely. They will either come to the table or the current situation will linger on. International intervention through the UN is not going to happen as Russia is there to block the conspiracy by the allies against Ethiopia. The stalemate continues at that level.