Dereje Gerefa (MD)
Dereje Gerefa (MD), a political commentator, known for sharing his views about the political situation in Ethiopia. He believes the problems Ethiopians faces today arose over time or persist because previous changes did not fully address them. The Reporter’s Ashenafi Endale sat down with Dereje to reflect on issues concerning ethnic politics, nation-building process, land, and the predicament the nation finds itself in. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Can you put the political ebbs of the past five years into perspective?
Dereje Gerefa (MD): The 2018 political change in Ethiopia is a continuation of the 1974 and 1991 movements that marked political turning points in Ethiopia. Many questions have been raised in Ethiopia since its state formation. I expected 2018 would be the last time all those questions regarding nations and nationalities would be answered.
I did not foresee the war in northern Ethiopia, but I expected there would be disagreement between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the new administration. I expected there would be conflicts here and there across Ethiopia, but never of this magnitude. It was also unexpected that the forces that brought on the change would be divided to this extent.
The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia has also grown more than anyone expected. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), who won the Nobel Peace Prize, garnered a positive reputation, but his fame also faded more quickly.
I had no illusions that the ethnic tension would fade, but it is strange how violent it became. I was even more astounded by Abiy’s positive influence and acceptance throughout the country during his first years in office.
Generally, the past five years have been filled with many ups and downs, all more severe than expected.
What are the lingering issues in Ethiopia’s nation-building efforts, which have seen public protest and political change at times?
Failure to diagnose the problem squarely, lack of interest in correcting the problem, or lack of capacity to solve the problem can be reasons for the failure to solve the issues once and for all. Even if somebody wants to solve the problems, the scenarios in Ethiopia might not allow it. Some of the problems are intertwined with Ethiopia’s state formation process.
For instance, the 1974 revolution answered ethnicity questions simply from a cultural perspective. Even the “land to the tenant” proclamation did not fully address the land issue. Land was under government control, be it during the Derg or EPRDF or now. The proclamation even missed its target. From the start, it appears that land is being transferred from the feudal to the farmer, but in reality, the land ended up in the hands of the government. But even that recognition gave psychological satisfaction to the farmer and laborer.
Do you believe that privatizing land can help resolve Ethiopia’s land-based ethnic politics?
Privatizing land needs a serious approach because it has both opportunities and grave consequences. I do not think it will solve the ethnic politics. The constitution allows anybody to live anywhere in Ethiopia. One can also be elected in any part of the country if they know the local language and have lived there for a certain amount of time.
Some scholars say Ethiopia cannot escape the vicious cycle of change as long as the federalist and unitarist, or ethno- and ethio-nationalist, groups reach a consensus on the nation-building of Ethiopia.
Obviously, there are political forces that support or disdain the existing federalism structure in Ethiopia. I don’t believe these two forces are ideologically opposed; if only they could see Ethiopia’s problem without the ethnicity lens. Some relate the old Ethiopia to certain ethnic groups, while the rest relate the current Ethiopia to certain ethnic groups. This is not a scientific approach to a problem. It is only hindering us from seeing the real problem in Ethiopia.
Most of the federalist and unitarist camps agree on Ethiopia’s unity. They share the same concerns. If the two camps could work together, I do not think there would be any difference between them.
I do not think the modern generation has difficulty accepting other languages and cultures. Few, who control the media and have a stronger voice, are praising only the differences. No one in Benishangul wants to see Somali underdeveloped. It is similar for others. All ethnic groups wish for the growth of each other’s culture.
The scholarly question should be how to integrate all ethnic groups so everybody can equally say, “I am Ethiopian.” The elite also need to avoid divisive approaches that highlight their differences. Politicians and the elite always try to mold their own supporters. But the public should not be confused by the power seekers’ narration. To stay on track, think tanks, media, and independent organizations free of power ambitions are required.
Is culture and identity the defining factor in Ethiopia’s politics? Ultimately, it is greed over resources.
Fukuyama, in an article, concluded that the world is united and there is no more ideological difference among people. So he summarized that the economy is the only governing power. But then Samuel Huntington argued that globally, politics is driven by identity. He said the world was governed by ideology only for 70 years, during the Cold War.
So I presume the economy is not the only governing value. Identity is so deeply ingrained in human nature that it cannot simply be avoided. Even economic empowerment comes through identity. A nation-state is a country built on identity, and the culture fits within the boundaries.
Today, identity has become a fertile ground for any political mobilization. This is because identity is sensitive. So we cannot say resources are the only factor behind the conflicts we are facing. People can sacrifice their economy for their identity or adhere to economically unsustainable political formations solely motivated by their identity.
If people think they are suppressed because of their identity, they have less concern over the economy. Yet, we can see people of the same ethnicity kill each other over a patch of land. Simply put, identity and economy are intertwined.
Is ethnicity the result of ideological makeup or genetics (blood)?
It is arguable, but mainly it has an ideological makeup. Psychological makeup and social connections are extremely important. Yet some groups want to routinely identify themselves with some definition. When somebody says I am Tegaru, Oromo, or Amhara, what does that really mean? It is related to the context in which they define themselves.
Is “Ethiopian” an identity or a mere citizenship?
At face value, it is citizenship. But some have strong and sensitive attachments to Ethiopianism. For instance, there are Americans or Jamaicans who have strong attachments to Ethiopiansim. That is beyond citizenship. So it is wrong to conclude that Ethiopianism is only about citizenship. It is about the roots of identity, upbringing, memory, and life. So we should not take the definition at face value.
Some have reservations about Ethiopia’s state-formation politics, while others refute the nation-building approach. How can they have the same value? Can all the competing ethnic groups see their image in Ethiopia?
We have more shared values than divisive points. Above all, we can create more shared values together in the future. For me, statecrafting is a project. If we plan, we can make history together.
Currently, Ethiopia is facing many challenges, but if we work together and solve these challenges, every ethnic citizen will be proud of that history. Assume that Ethiopians work hard and win the World Cup. That success will be shared by every Ethiopian. However, the players should not be limited to Gambela or Tigray. Everybody must have the opportunity to play in the tournament. If Ethiopians defeat hunger and poverty and begin exporting food, that will be a success story for all Ethiopians. Many associate Ethiopian history with war. That is wrong.
Chinese people are proud today because they changed their history in the past 40 years. Ethiopia can do so much more together and become a model for Africa.
At first, the post-EPRDF transition seems peaceful. Why would the TPLF not be part of the reform? Was it by design? Do you think the war was avoidable?
I prefer not to reflect on this issue. It is not the right time, and it is a sensitive issue, and we are still in a fragile situation.
Did anybody win the war?
Lately, I was reading a book dubbed “Destined to War.” It raises 16 trends that can determine the possibility of war between America and China. In the past 500 years, four of the 16 factors enabled the avoidance of war. The rest of the twelve factors can cause war between the two. China and America want to win so they can influence each other.
But ultimately, there can be no winner. The next war is a nuclear war, which nobody can survive.
Basically, it is fear that leads to war. Each opponent fears the other side is about to strike. Each side fears the other is about to destroy it. So they rush to strike first. The good thing is, both the TPLF and ruling party can now be part of Ethiopia’s better future.
Both the TPLF and the Prosperity Party feared for their own existence as parties, not for the existence of their respective populations. Did they reach an agreement because they learned they were no longer an existential threat to each other?
It is the Tigrayan people who will benefit from the peace agreement. We are aware of the extent of the Tigrayan people’s suffering as a result of the war. However, the agreement and peace dividend ultimately benefit the entire Ethiopian people, including those in Addis Ababa. So it is not only about the parties.
Of course, the war could have been avoided. Nonetheless, the peace agreement has prevented further loss of life. This agreement might even have saved Ethiopia from falling apart. South Africa sustained itself because it reconciled the scars of apartheid. The next generation of Ethiopians can learn much from this.
Some observers say the Prosperity Party has no experience and is learning through trial and error. Others say the ruling party gained windfall power and has to legitimize itself.
Before the regime change in April 2018, there was a strong public protest and social movement taking place in Ethiopia. Specifically, the Oromo were raising opposition to both the government and the state itself. As a result, some of those concerns have been addressed following the change of government. However, the issues raised about statecrafting cannot be resolved simply by changing the government.
Some of the Oromo’s questions are directed to the EPRDF, while others are directed to Menelik. So the Oromo people cannot embrace Abiy simply because the EPRDF has been changed.
The Oromo anticipate structural changes in the state crafting system as well. When we talk about opposition in the state, it begins at the kebele and woreda levels. Who is assigned to lead these structures?
For a long time, the red line was set at 1974. So nobody wanted to raise the complications related to the imperial regime. But when Abiy starts talking about the emperors, the issues are upright. Many factors have exacerbated this issue. For instance, modernization has contributed to the problems in Ethiopia. As a result of EPRDF policy progress, population and urbanization were rapidly increasing. Schools and mass media expanded.
After social media, everybody became a reporter. This also complicated the problem in Ethiopia.
In general, Abiy can only answer questions about the government. He cannot solve issues related to the state since there has been no structural alteration so far. Everybody wants a piece of the cake, and the unsatisfied section continues to protest and destroy.
Ethiopians, particularly the Qube generation, have grown up believing Ethiopia is their enemy. You cannot solve this until you redefine Ethiopia for the Qube generation. These cannot be solved just by changing a government or leadership. State-crafting questions remain, and socio-political change alone cannot solve every question.
Those who led the public protest against EPRDF could not keep the change on track. From Oromia’s perspective alone, some of the opposition leaders took political power, some are still in the same peaceful protest, and some took up arms and are fighting the government. Reform, by nature, is very difficult.
The change in Ethiopia came abruptly, and nobody was ready to lead the change. The change took place while the train was moving. So those who managed the change and came to power were not well prepared to take all the precautions. But in some cases, the new government performed better than expected.
Even if all the Oromo political forces agree or even if the TPLF works with the ruling party from the beginning and the war is avoided, there are some challenges that cannot be avoided at all.
Handling modernization alone is difficult, let alone dealing with statecraft. Every year, over 2.7 million Ethiopians enter the labor force, spawning a plethora of interest groups. Creating jobs alone is another headache. How can you distribute all the “crème job” positions equally among all groups? Who will run the local governments?
Do you support PP because there is no alternative or because PP is right?
Both. I am very sorry that we have no alternatives yet.
Still, there are times when I harshly criticize PP. If I support Ethiopian unity, I have no other option than the middle road. PP is somehow trying to take the middle road. So I believe it needs support. But the underlying issue is not solved. When the PP came to power through oromo politics, a lack of alternatives forced other political forces to align with the unitarists.
I believe PP is on the right track, even if it is taking us down a bumpy road; at the very least, it is trying. But above all, PP filled the vacuum we faced four years ago.
The 1960s started with a class struggle and ended up with a nationality or ethnicity struggle. Five years ago, the question was about good governance and nation-building issues, but now it’s about the formation of states themselves. Why do political questions always go off-track in Ethiopia?
General Tadesse Biru of Mecha and Tulema tried to overthrow Emperor Haileselasie I on his birthday. This is not a class question. So there was an ethnicity/nationality question even during the reign of the Emperor. In Tigray before the TPLF, there was Mahbere Gesgest. The Eritrean case raises ethnic concerns as well.
Class struggle was an issue for only the urban elite at the time. But because the urban voice was loud, it seems the 1960s question is only about class struggle.
Political change in the 1960s was largely led by educated and independent feudal children. These elites began their political journey with a class struggle. But after some point, they started understanding that ethnicity was the real factor. That is why they are progressive.
Both the 1974 and 1991 changes have no real problems by themselves. But both the Derg and EPRDF eventually committed grave mistakes. However, the early TPLF fighters did not die in order to imprison the rest of Ethiopia.
In a nutshell, identity issues are at the core of every political struggle in Ethiopia. But we cannot say class issues do not exist.
But when it comes to the Oromo struggle, the economic part is less important. This is one of the areas where this government gets it wrong. The Oromo struggle is highly attached to culture and identity issues. What differentiates the Oromo Liberation Front from all other political forces in Ethiopia is that it leads a cultural and social movement. It is attached to identity and language. The economy is secondary. Oromo politicians are happier when they see Oromo symbols in Addis Ababa than when they see a large number of wealthy oromos in Addis Ababa.
Do you think Abiy has diagnosed Ethiopia’s problem thoroughly?
I cannot say he did not understand. But the way he tried to solve some of the issues was not cautionary. Some of the problems are very difficult to solve. For instance, Derg and the EPRDF outright rejected some of the burning questions raised by Oromo. But Abiy deferred these questions.
The PM suggested such questions should be addressed through dialogue, while on the other side, some people criticize the PM for his perspective on Menelik.
Some of the actions the government took were motivated by good will. But they turned out badly. For instance, failing to immediately address the Oromo questions in order to solve them through dialogue has cost the government. The Oromo Youth is no longer supporting the ruling party because their questions have not been answered by this government.
Some groups do not like “nations and nationalities day,” while others do. Some think diversity erodes Ethiopia’s unity. But it is good just from the festival aspect alone.
Anyone in the PM’s shoes could be wrong. With a new party, unstable politics, and a divided society, the burden only worsens. The Ethiopian elite, in particular, makes everything difficult. They get happy when the other ethnic group loses.
Some scholars also accuse the government of exploiting the ethnic divisions in Ethiopia.
No. The current leaders do not do that. Instead, they undermine or ignore ethnic boundaries. They try to show there is no ethnic difference, even if there is. This is what has caused the current government so much trouble. The current government tries to paint an image, saying all Ethiopians are one; there is no single division, etc.
This government should do the right thing regarding ethnic lines. The correct course of action is to strongly discourage divisive lines, show the middle ground, and bring all extremes to the table.
When you are a politician, you must struggle for what you believe in. The government should not be soft on divisive issues and should have brought everyone to this middle ground. However, the government tried to appease all sides at the same time, losing credibility on all sides. This government ambitiously sought unity instead of sticking to its line of political argument.
It should lead the way and avoid reacting to ethnic narratives in Ethiopia.
Both the Oromos and the Amharas claim to have brought about the change but were marginalized as a result of it. Which questions remain unanswered? Are there questions that cannot be solved in this system?
This should be answered by them. I sympathize with this government to some extent.
One of the questions raised is the issue of self-rule or self-governance. They say Oromia was being ruled by people who were represented by others. They argue that real federalism is not implemented. They say Oromo is not well recognized at the federal level and is economically marginalized, among others.
Today, self-rule is not a question. Regarding federalism, this government is trying to accommodate Oromo. The Prime Minister wields the most power in the country. And the PM is now Oromo. So the Oromo cannot claim they are not represented in the power structure.
I do not think the current federalism is affecting Oromia, and there is no intentional impact. Except for the issues concerning state formation, the Prosperity Party has resolved them or is willing to resolve them. However, the government cannot solve problems that are not addressed in the current constitution. For instance, the peace and security issue is a new question in Oromia. Growing corruption is also an emerging question. The weakening of the institutional structure and government capacity also gave birth to new questions.
The Amhara side also has many expectations for post-EPRDF. There was a tendency to imagine a pre-1974 Ethiopia. For instance, when the government decided the constitution would be amended instead of scrapping it, this group was not happy. But is it really that simple to scrap a constitution?
This government did not exploit the tension between Oromo and Amhara. Rather, the government is trying to solve it through discussion and consensus. The government also showed interest in amending the constitution in a way that could strengthen Ethiopia’s unity. But it proved difficult.
Oromo elites say the constitution is not fully implemented. Amhara elites, on the other hand, claim that the constitution does not represent them. How can this be reconciled?
It is about the federalist and unitarian camps. But both sides have found common ground in Ethiopian unity. Following the 1991 change, the OLF and ONLF demanded secession. But now, ONLF has changed that policy and is working with the government. OLF is also not speaking of secessionism, under all the pressure.
The OLF still seeks recognition under the Ethiopian umbrella. So today, more political forces believe that their questions can be addressed under the Ethiopian umbrella. As a result, the unitarist camp must also come halfway. The unitarist camp should be proud of the different languages and cultures Ethiopia has.
On the federalist side, if they believe in Ethiopian unity, they have to articulate how diversity can strengthen that unity. So both camps must not avoid each other’s point. Both sides have valid points. We know what the USSR faced as a result of its diversity.
Oromo political forces are showing a tendency to lose hope in the peaceful political struggle and take up arms. Why is the government not willing to talk with OLF if the group has dropped the secession policy as you said?
Leading figures in Oromo politics still believe in a peaceful struggle, even after prison. There is a lack of articulation on how all political forces can solve their questions under the Ethiopian umbrella. This is because some politicians still have questions about Ethiopia’s statecraft. So the point is about finding the right spot that balances unity and diversity.
The OPDO developed into Oromia Prosperity after policy changes. But there was a strong grudge between OPDO and OLF, which should have been sorted out immediately. Before 2018, the OPDO was both the government and the opposition party. So reconciliation is key.
Two months ago, the unexpected happened. A deal was reached between the TPLF and the federal government. So anything can happen. Peaceful cooperation must happen between all political forces. The government must talk with both armed and peaceful political forces.
You mentioned this government is not affecting Oromo people. But west Oromia and Borena have been in severe situations for the past couple of years.
Oromia is in trouble because the political forces could not sit down and reach an agreement. The war between the political forces is also increasing civilian casualties because the forces fail to honor war principles. The public is also exposed to armed robbers in the name of political forces. I am not saying the government is doing the best it can for the Oromo.
Amhara and Oromo people had fought the TPLF together. But they now stand against each other. According to Ezema and NAMA, power struggles between Oromo parties are resulting in conflict between the two ethnic groups. The government blames the OLF/shene. What is the real reason?
The problem between Oromo and Amhara goes beyond PP. If Ezema and NAMA think so, why don’t they work with OFC, OLF, and other opposition parties? Ezema, in particular, is a national party that excludes federalist political forces. As of now, it is only the PP that is trying to work with both federalist and unitarian forces.
The main reason to support the PP is because Ethiopia will face more problems without it, and none of the existing parties are willing to work together to hold Ethiopia intact. So I believe everybody should support PP until the party vacuum is filled. Which party, other than the PP, has the potential to overtake the EPRDF?
I am not saying PP is a perfect angel. But we can see the Oromo and Amhara politicians inside PP accommodate each other. We also see some mistakes coming out. No political force should blame the PP for what it cannot do itself. They undermine PP and, at the same time, criticize it.
Opposition parties must talk seriously, bringing every point to the table. They cannot get along while reserving their points. A middle ground can be created only after talking explicitly.
Conflict in many parts of the country resumed immediately after the Tigray war stopped. Why?
There are actors who are behind the conflict ravaging the country. Especially in Oromia, institutions are weak. The socio-demographic change also gave birth to many interest groups. There are also sympathizers for both sides in the government structure.
Foreign powers with vested interests, such as Egypt, could theoretically use such groups to destabilize Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s ethnic politics are at an all-time high right now. It is fertile ground for such foreign powers.
For Amharic speakers, Abiy is an OLF leader. For Oromifa speakers, Abiy is the Fano leader. This makes it difficult to find a solution. The government should take decisive action against such groups before they grow stronger. If the need arises, the government can also request international support to control these groups.
Some people, including government officials, publicly say the government is supporting Shene.
I completely reject this. If the government is forming Shene, why does it send drones to fight Shene? Strong nationalists claim Oromia’s president is behind OLF/Shene. The Oromia politicians also claim the Amhara regional government is behind Fano. This is creating inaction against such groups.
How can OLF/Shene kill the civilians that harbor the group itself?
There are many groups created for the sole purpose of robbery. In a leaked video, OLF leaders categorized the Shene groups into three or four. Such robbery groups exist across all regional states.
There might be people who are fighting for the cause of the Oromo, Amhara, or others. I do not think everybody fighting out there is a robber. But they must be stopped because they are causing damage to the country. They must be ready to silence the gun.
I admire and respect TPLF because they ultimately made the painful decision to give up the fight. OLF must also unilaterally declare a ceasefire and resume peaceful struggle. The road OLA is taking now will never make it successful.
How can tensions between Oromo and Amhara elites, as well as Tigray and Amhara, be resolved?
The national dialogue can be a good platform. The public must discuss it. Apart from the national dialogue, sub-dialogues and community level dialogues can be organized between special cases like Wolkait, Kiramu, and others.
The government said the armed forces can participate in the national dialogue if they lay down their arms.
Some scholars say that the government labeled OLA a terrorist group because the Oromia Faction of PP is afraid that the public will accept OLF. What do you think?
During the war, the OLA collaborated with the TPLF. Fano sided with the government and fought the TPLF. Thus, fano and the OLA cannot be placed on the same spectrum.
Why has the Oromia government failed to protect the Amhara ethnic groups in the region?
It is not only Amharas that are being killed in Oromia. For instance, there was fighting in Chobi town, just a hundred kilometers from the capital. There were also Oromo civilians who were killed there.
The constitution allows anybody to live anywhere. Over 270,000 people from Amhara were relocated to Oromia during the famine in Ethiopia. You can imagine how many Amharas live in Oromia. Most of the land in Gambella and Benishangul is owned by investors who came from other regional states. These investors bought V8s with their investment money. What would the people of Gambella or Benishangul say? They are not getting anything from their own land, while others are benefiting from it.
Thus, not all complaints are genuine complaints. That is why I believe Ethiopians’ voices must be heard more loudly, particularly in Addis Ababa. My recommendation is that we must find the “golden point,” where diversity and unity converge.
The biggest danger for Ethiopia is the competitive identity of Oromo, Amhara, and sometimes Tigray. The problem in Ethiopia is not how to handle diversity, but how to handle competing identities.
Lately, social media, especially TikTok, is being used to distribute hate speech and disinformation that can incite violence. Such platforms have no censorship. How can this be solved?
Many agree that social media plays such a role. This is because it engages more when it disseminates negative information than constructive information. So social media is playing a distractive role. Some authors even predict that social media will lead to civil war in America.
Facebook has been accused of inciting violence in Myanmar. Next to Burma, Facebook is being accused of causing conflict in Ethiopia. This is a serious allegation. Now, TikTok is also becoming a cause. The government and civil organizations must start talking to these tech companies like TikTok or their governments. Other social media platforms, for example, are not permitted in China.
Ethiopia fulfills all the criteria for civil war that can be caused by social media chaos. Anyone can be attacked for speaking a certain language.
Recently, there has been chaos in schools in Addis Ababa following the raising of the Oromia flag.
Addis Ababa has been Oromia’s seat for the past two decades. When the EPRDF tried to relocate the seat in Adama, there was a strong protest. Addis Ababa was the seat of Shewa during the reigns of the Emperor and Derg. The difference now is that the languages used by the Oromia regional government, the Addis Ababa administration, and the federal government differ. Yet Addis Ababa is surrounded by an Oromifa-speaking population.
So this is the unique character of Addis Ababa.
So the public must understand such unique characters, complexity, and competitive identities. For instance, in Canada, the population is bilingual. However, in some areas, either English or French is the official language. As a result, they do not compete. Addis Ababa can learn much from Canada.
The difference in Addis Ababa should not be taken as a ticking time bomb. The government must protect opportunistic politicians from exploiting it.