In his current role, Eshetu Dessie (Amb) advises the Minister of Peace (MoP). He had been an ambassador before that, most recently as Ethiopia’s envoy to Ireland before the Tigray war. After Ethiopia severed diplomatic ties with Ireland in 2021 due to tensions stemming from the northern Ethiopian war, Eshetu returned to Ethiopia.
Formerly, Eshetu also served as speaker of Chaffe Oromia, as ell as deputy president of Oromia regional state, and cabinet affairs minister at federal level.
Ashenafi Endale of The Reporter caught up with the ambassador to talk about the ministry’s work, the increasing number of IDPs, establishing enduring peace, and nation-building. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: There are new initiatives in the pipeline in regards to the rising number of internally displaced persons (IDP) in Ethiopia. Can you brief us on the initiatives as well as the renewing pledges from the international community and humanitarian organizations?
Eshetu Dessie (Amb.): IDPs’ issues were ignored before. But because the figures have been increasing over time, we have decided to give them due emphasis. When we analyze the factors contributing to internal displacement in Ethiopia, we divide them into natural and manmade reasons in the background.
The natural factors can be drought, fire, flood, or any other natural disaster. These are common in Ethiopia. Man-made disasters are relatively new and of increasing magnitude in Ethiopia. We found that man-made crises need more attention now.
Manmade disasters are happening due to two reasons. The first reason is the scramble for natural resources. The competition for resources is creating conflicts between different groups and forces. The competing forces are happening between ethnic groups, religious groups, or even working groups like farmers and pastoralists competing to access land.
The second factor for man-made disasters in Ethiopia are political forces. They are disseminating false and distorted information in their effort to mobilize the public behind themselves. This type of conflict or disaster has been particularly prevalent since 2018.
Following the conflict in Tigray, man-made crises and conflicts spread to other regional states. So the political factor is behind the increasing number of IDPs in Ethiopia.
The African Union (AU) passed the Kampala Convention, which aims to put an end to IDPs. It intends to avert the occurrence of internal displacement and explain how to manage it when it happens. The Ethiopian government has accepted the convention this year. We accepted it by modifying certain points in alignment with Ethiopia’s laws and legislation.
A new proclamation is required to implement the Kampala Convention, which is currently under preparation. We are discussing this with the international community and human rights organizations to show them how seriously committed the Ethiopian government is to addressing the IDP issue. This discussion will continue for two days.
This meeting with the international community and aid organizations comes just months after the Pretoria peace accord was signed. What are the Ethiopian government’s expectations, and are there new pledges and commitments?
The IDPs are Ethiopian citizens, and the government wants to work on it seriously. Ethiopia is globally recognized for its great work in accommodating refugees from other countries.
One of our focus points regarding IDPs is mitigation before people are displaced. This requires assessing, identifying, and averting conflict causes before they happen. This is what the Ministry of Peace is preparing to do. We are constructing the institutional structure from the federal down to the local government levels. We have already started the mitigation work in some woredas. This is specifically about averting conflicts before they happen.
Whenever we find signals and factors leading to conflict, we engage political leaders to react immediately and solve the case peacefully through dialogue. But since the conflict has already happened, law enforcement will take the lead in stabilizing things. After the conflict ends, restoring social establishments continues.
There are a lot of human rights violations that happen during conflict. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is working on the human rights aspect. That is why the commission organized this discussion with human rights organizations and the international community.
Death, displacement, property damage, and many other violations occur during conflict. Especially defenseless people like children, women, seniors, and people with disabilities are highly affected and fall victim to human rights violations. That is why the international community and human rights organizations are needed. They have a lot of potential for preventing conflict and assisting IDPs in their post-displacement recovery. We expect a lot from them.
So far, the international community and human rights organizations have raised the issue in Ethiopia. but when the Ethiopian government requests that they act, they are not ready to commit resources. They are not doing as much as was expected of them. The focus of most of these humanitarian organizations, human rights bodies, and the international community is limited to some areas in northern Ethiopia.
Their commitment there is not adequate, but relatively, their focus is limited to there. They are providing some support there. But IDPs in other parts of the country are not getting the same attention. In these areas of the country, the government is bearing the entire burden. International aid agencies and CSOs have to work hard in these areas, and the government is ready to work with them on this.
Since the Pretoria peace agreement, the west are demanding accountability for human rights violations, arguing Ethiopia should be open to an extra-national judicial mechanism to bring the perpetrators to justice. But the government claims that the domestic legal space and transitional justice are sufficient. Are they using the accountability concern as a precondition to re-engage with Ethiopia? How will this predicament be resolved?
Many crises happened during the conflict. When a nation is at war, it is expected that the actors in the war will commit violations even outside the context of war. The Ethiopian government has clarified that it is ready to make sure the mechanisms are in place for accountably handling issues and is also ready to work with international organizations to ensure accountability.
However, some international organizations have demanded that they take on the accountability task themselves. They are arguing that an independent international body has to undertake the accountability work for the violations that happened during the Tigray war. This argument has cooled down. But they did not fully withdraw this argument.
This is an issue of sovereignty for Ethiopia. These violations took place in Ethiopia, against Ethiopian citizens. So the government has the legitimate power to investigate and ensure accountability and justice. The government is elected by the public and has all the legal basis to do this. We believe ensuring accountability for the violations that happened during the war should be left up to the Ethiopian government. We have the mechanisms and the resources. The process of holding the perpetrators accountable has already begun.
When a foreign entity requests to do such legal work in Ethiopia, it erodes the country’s sovereignty. So far, their request has not been accepted by the Ethiopian government. As long as Ethiopia has legal institutions to ensure accountability for human rights violations, external institutions cannot take over the role. But they can support us and jointly work with our institutions. This is the Ethiopian government’s position. I believe the enormous pressure is currently easing.
Since 2018, Ethiopia has seen an increase in man-made conflict and IDPs. Why couldn’t the government manage internal conflicts in the past few years?
There are currently around 4.9 million IDPs in Ethiopia, of which about three million are due to man-made causes. The rest, around two million, is due to natural disasters like drought. The drought is largely happening in southern and eastern Ethiopia, particularly in Oromia, Somali, and SNPPR.
The war in northern Ethiopia is the major source of the increasing number of IDPs in Ethiopia. The war happened following the law enforcement effort. This war affected the three regional states greatly. So the IDP figure is high in Amhara, Tigray, and Afar.
IDPs’ figures are also significant in other regional states. The conflict in these regional states is somehow related to the northern war. Somehow, it is due to the political problems in these regional states. There is evidence that some forces are serving as Trojan horses for foreign powers that have an interest in destabilizing Ethiopia. These forces are creating conflicts and IDPs in some regional states in Ethiopia.
There are also other types of conflicts caused by the interests of and tension between political forces in Ethiopia. The other reason is the scramble of some groups for resources. In general, man-made conflict covers a wide area in Ethiopia. It is not simple to handle.
The government was attributing the conflicts that happened across Ethiopia after the 2018 political change to the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF). But the conflicts in regional states like Oromia grew larger and larger, even after the TPLF reached a disarmament agreement. Now who is behind the growing conflicts in Oromia and why couldn’t the government solve it?
The problem in Ethiopia started long ago and has widened now. Still, it will take some time before things return to normal. It is a conflict that is inflicting scars that cannot be healed immediately. Even reestablishing the IDPs in Oromia will take more time.
Of course, the scale and intensity of the conflict in Oromia have decreased from previous levels. But the depth of the conflict and the numbers of IDPs in Oromia are very large. Bringing that back to a state of normalcy will take time.
The politics of extremism and dividing the nation have taken root. The extremist political groups have been working on this for a long time. The impact is huge. The conflicts we see today in Ethiopia are the result of such political extremism and division.
Our differences have never been greater than Ethiopians’ common values. Ethiopians share many more values that unite us. Our differences are insignificant. We have different languages, but that is not a barrier to unity. The reason such small differences are becoming bones of contention is because we did not work on them before. Government, political parties, CSOs, religious institutions, and other stakeholders did not work on bridging our differences. We have to work on this now.
Extremism still exists in Ethiopia. There are forces at work that are exacerbating the situation by forming two extreme groups. So it takes hard work to bring them to the center. That is why the government initiated the national dialogue platform.
There might be several issues we do not agree on. Several groups and societies might bring up past injustices during the dialogue. We have to discuss everything, reach consensus, close the past chapter, and move on together towards a new chapter. So we expect the national dialogue to address many issues.
Is the government and the Ministry ready to take on these extreme views and concerns as part of a nation-building process? To what extent does the government’s scope accommodate the diverging points being raised? Is the governed endowed with a broad shoulder that can accommodate concerns from all walks of life? For instance, many have suggested that the government should solve the conflict in Oromia peacefully, just like it did in Tigray. Is the government ready to accommodate their requests?
There are so many tasks expected from the government. Similarly, many assignments are expected from the public too. Nation-building in Ethiopia is a work that has yet to start. Institutions that have public trusts across Ethiopia have not been built. Institutions that the public can go to and get a genuine and perfect solution for any problem have not been built.
Institutions in Ethiopia come and go as the regime changes. So, nation- and institution-building are two major tasks Ethiopia has to fulfill. The state building faces deficits due to the absence of these two key ingredients. There must be institutions that serve the country and the public at all times, whether or not there is a government.
The state must be able to continue, whether a party is elected and a leader is in place or not. Disagreement over the election outcome should not affect the state. Public service should not be interrupted. Justice must be served at any moment, irrespective of what happens in politics. There are countries that go for months and years without forming a government, and we have to take our country to that level. Our institutions and state-building must be as strong and reliable as that. They should not fluctuate each time a new government comes and goes.
Nation-building is a homework assignment that Ethiopia has not started so far. We have to create values and principles that nobody can touch. Even governments and ruling parties should not be allowed to breach the nation-building consensus reached by the people. It will be defended by the public if we create such consensus and values. For instance, we have a better consensus on sovereignty. Every Ethiopian has common ground when it comes to Ethiopia’s sovereignty. We need to find similar grounds on other issues. There ought to be “red lines” that nobody can cross on such common grounds.
One of the ministry’s missions is to facilitate the establishment of such common values and strengthen the nation-building process.
Some argue regions need full autonomy, while others claim it is giving power to regional states that is a threat to Ethiopia’s unity. For instance, some believe regional states should not have Special Forces. Does the government have plans to abolish the special forces of regional states and integrate them into the Ethiopian National Defense Force? There are also rumors that new legislation is in the works to integrate federal and regional law enforcement.
I have no information regarding the new legislation. Regarding our country’s federal structure, there are works that should have been done before. This is the relationship and mode of cooperation between regional states, as well as vertically with the federal government.
The Intergovernmental Proclamation should have been introduced a long time ago. Regional states have existed for at least 25 years, though they may have existed before that. However, there have been no formal channels of communication between regional states so far. The type of relationship among regional states and with the federal government is limited to party relationships. The federal government has been engaging regional states under party discipline and channels.
Even ministers at federal institutions face challenges whenever they want to get reports from regional states. Relationships and cooperation with regional states have been based on willingness. Regional states have no mandate to report to federal institutions. The constitution also does not allow this. Regional officials are ultimately responsible for the regional council.
There were no platforms and channels to create cooperative relationships horizontally or vertically.
That is why the intergovernmental proclamation has been ratified now. The MoP is in charge of carrying out the proclamation. We are creating the platforms currently. The first platform is about connecting the three organs of government at the federal and regional levels. The second platform is for connecting regional states horizontally. The third channel is a sector-wise connection. For instance, the Ministry of Education is establishing legal relationships with regional education bureaus. They plan, execute, and evaluate together.
So the proclamation ratified last year is now in action. All sectors have created their respective relationship platforms. They convene every quarter, with discussions organized in different cities and towns. For example, the MoP recently met with regional states’ security forces. This included, among others, federal law enforcement agencies like the police, federal disaster risk management, and regional vice presidents. This will continue quarterly.
Another platform is also formed, in which the PM convenes the presidents of regional states.
The only gap is regarding horizontal platforms between neighboring regional states. We have planned to create such horizontal platforms this year. Different community members from neighboring regions will use this platform. The platforms will aid in the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the integration of communities, particularly in neighboring regions.
House Speakers have also created platforms and are making good progress. Federal and regional courts have already established such platforms. And this will continue in all aspects.
Do you think the MoP has achieved its missions and objectives?
This is a quest for many. Some even claim that peace has disappeared since the MoP was formed four years ago. It took some time before the structure was laid out and work began on the ground. The MoP also took over the missions of the former Ministry of Federal Affairs. So, it has many tasks and is not only limited to maintaining peace.
The ministry has embarked on most of its missions. However, we cannot say that they were met. Given the short time since its inception, we can’t say why it didn’t accomplish its goals.
It has been over 70 years since the Ministry of Agriculture was established in this country. But poverty is not eradicated in Ethiopia. The Ministry of Education is 100 years old. But illiteracy still exists in Ethiopia.
Promoting peace is a particularly difficult task because it involves working on people’s minds. There is negative peace and positive peace, and the ministry works on positive peace, which is about creating peace first in the minds of each individual. Then, peace is created at the societal level and at the national level. If conflict happens, it is the mandate of law enforcement institutions to handle it. But MoP’s task, which is building positive peace, takes more time.
Everybody has to achieve internal peace first before engaging with others peacefully.
Some opposing political forces in Ethiopia say they are forced to take up armed struggle because the political space for peaceful opposition is closed. More people are also getting access to weapons, and the government no longer has the sole right to use force. Do you think the MoP’s positive peace approach is compatible with the forces’ armed struggle mentality? Is it a timely strategy?
Positive peace is about opening up the space for dialogue and free speech. It is all about creating the culture to solve problems through dialogue, not force. So our mission is to change the public’s mentality and create the environment for such positive peace.
One of the major targets of the reform that happened in Ethiopia was widening the political space. It took a long time to get to this point. Is it sufficient? It might be argumentative. However, the government made significant efforts to reintroduce opposition political forces into the fold.
If a permanent system and institution are built, the effort to create a free political space can continue. If such an inclusive political environment is created, opposition parties have no reason to take up weapons and kill people.
Creating a free political space through a positive peace approach is also a good way to deny the reason for political forces to take up arms. If a free political space is created, a political force that takes arms will not have the public’s support. Once the public believes there is a political space to solve everything through dialogue, there will be no room for armed struggles.
After all this, there might well be forces that take up arms. But this happens because of the government’s inactivity in taking measures against them. Some groups are taking up arms because of the government’s slothfulness in quelling them. We can still reverse this by ensuring the rule of law and widening the political space.
In general, if the public believes there is sufficient political space, it is simple to build positive peace. So we should work both on the mind and on improving the legislation at the same time. If this succeeds, conflict will decline in Ethiopia. Of course, our history and culture are largely about war and conflict. So it is difficult to change that.
A lot has happened in the past two years due to the war, which started as a political fallout but ended up creating a wedge between ethnicities. How does the ministry plan to normalize these and bring the relationship back to its pre-war status? How do you evaluate the government’s view of the war as a threat to the existence of the nation, and what kind of lesson is taken from the war?
A lot of lessons should be taken from the conflict in northern Ethiopia. Everything that happened in this situation must be analyzed and documented. Most of us who are far from the situation might not know a lot about the war. I myself was not in Ethiopia during the war.
Definitely, there were alternative venues for the federal government and also for the TPLF. There was another option for a peaceful resolution. This is the lesson we should take from the war. It should also be seen from a legal perspective. But still, it is difficult to conclude without deep research and analysis on what happened.
For now, what happened has already passed. In this conflict, no one came out as a winner. The biggest victory now is putting an end to the needless deaths and damage to the country. But we have to study in detail the lessons we have to take as a country.
The political elites argue that Ethiopia’s political issues slipped back from nation-building during the EPERDF to state formation issues now.
There are elites, including in the media, who are working to positively contribute to this country. There are also elites, social media personalities, YouTubers, and activists who are contributing destructively. The latter should think again about their contributions and positively contribute to the nation-building efforts Ethiopia is undertaking. They could motivate people in a good way. Otherwise, the scarring process will continue.
Most of the elites who are behind the conflicts and ethnic divisions in Ethiopia are peacefully residing abroad and disseminating misinformation. But it is the people at home who are suffering the consequences. This has to stop.
There are a lot of reports of civilian casualties during the government’s action against armed forces in Oromia. How does the MoP plan to solve the crisis in Oromia?
Definitely, it will be solved. The communities and ethnic groups in Oromia have been living together for a long time and share many positive values. There is no intruder or newcomer. Every Ethiopian has the constitutional right to live and work in any part of the country. As long as they do not attack or destroy the property of another person, they can live anywhere.
One region should not reject another group from another region. Of course, there are forces that have such political interests and motives. These forces seek to incite ethnic conflict, and it is the government’s responsibility to take action against such divisive political forces.
The objective of the intergovernmental platforms is also to address such conflicts. The Somali regional government is responsible for maintaining the peace and stability of its region. It is not its task to intervene and handle the conflict that happened in Oromia.
The Somali regional government is elected by the Somali people, it collects taxes, and administers them. Each regional state is tasked with the same task and cannot intervene in the other’s task. The task of ensuring peace and security in Oromia is given to the Oromia regional government. Each regional government is responsible for protecting the well-being of every citizen in that region.