Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD)
Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD) is the Chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the four parties that form the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). He is also the Vice President of the Tigray Regional State. Samuel Getachew of The Reporter, who was recently on a region-wide visit of Tigray, caught up with a busy Debretsion, who was in between meetings, to discuss a slew of issues, which include development in his home region, security concerns and the former spy chief. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Throughout our stay in Tigray for the past few weeks, we have seen changes here and there in terms of development. Can you mention some of the changes that took place in the region since you took office?
Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD): Before going into that, let me answer why these changes are taking place. Prior to taking those measures that you’ve just mentioned, we, as a party and government, a year ago, have extensively evaluated ourselves in terms of what we have done for our people as well as what we’ve missed. We held a meeting in Mekelle that lasted for 35 days. After evaluate ourselves, we decided that there is a lot to be done.
There has been lots of improvement and we have done many positive things in the past. However, we agreed that we need to make changes. Not only that, we have also discussed on how to bring about those changes.
Moreover, instead of doing business as usual, we have also decided to introduce new ideas and new ways of doing things i.e. it in terms of improving education quality, development as well as investment.
We understood that the problems we identified are multifaceted so after our meetings we engaged different stakeholders including scholars from Tigray. For instance we identified that there are problems in regards to quality in the education sector. So we let the scholars come up with solutions. We also engaged the scholars in investment options as well as developments works. They were involved in generating new ideas.
We are now implementing those new initiatives. The whole thing is to bring change. We are committed to bringing changes not only because we are trying to compensate for the things we failed to implement but also because Tigray, in relative terms, is one of the top impoverished regions in the country.
We have to speed up the development activities. And the changes you just mentioned have genuine rationales and pushing factors behind them.
Again those changes are driven by real and genuine factors. More than anything, we are now seeing investment inflow to the region. And the fact that our region is relatively peaceful is attracting both local and foreign investors.
Speaking of creating a peaceful environment, recently a number of investments were targeted and attacked. Moreover, we have also witnessed violence in universities. A case point: a few weeks ago, students in Debre Markos and Axum universities were killed. Where does this take us as a country?
As a country it is concerning and we are in a very critical and dangerous situation. Over the past three years, we have seen a number of deaths and it is still continuing. Most of the killings are related with identity. This is a new phenomenon for Ethiopia and it didn’t even happen following the 1991 transition.
We can’t blame the killings on the public; rather, it is happening because of corrupted and spoiled political elite as well as the government structure. The government is there to deter these things before happening. Government is mandated to follow and ensure rule of law. However, those killings show us that the government has failed and is weak.
Our people have lived together for thousands of years. The problem now is that the system has failed. If the system is not going to be fixed, these killings will continue.
We don’t have similar situations in Tigray. Here we have a government that is engaged with the people and always takes the lead. Not that we don’t have demands from our people when it comes to democracy, as well as things like maladministration; we are always trying to respond to those demands.
However, in most parts of the country, there are many killings. This shows that the government is failing to avoid that. The government system at a country level is falling apart and the people are paying the price.
In our case, following what happened in Axum University, we didn’t undermine the incident because it was just one killing. We took measures and arrested suspects.
We have many people in Tigray who were displaced from Oromia and Amhara especially over the past two years. These people lost their assets as well as their loved ones. These people didn’t go to avenge anyone because of what happened to them. They rather accepted their loss. Our region is home of Ethiopians from different ethnic groups.
So, all in all, we need a functioning government and relatively the government in Tigray is functioning well.
There are tensions between Tigray and Amhara regional states. I personally witnessed an incident where goods that were being transporting to Tigray via Amhara have been blocked. Are there attempts on a higher level to solve these differences and tensions between the two regions?
First to all blocking roads and prohibiting grains from coming to Tigray is a grave crime. It was not done to attack few individuals or groups; it was done targeting the people in general. It is total madness! You don’t commit such crimes even on your enemies on the battlefield. How could someone label the whole population as your enemy?
Seeing this, we didn’t do something distractive as tit for tat. It was done under the watchful eyes of all concerned government bodies; be it in the Amhara Regional State and the federal government.
This was done not because the government lacks the capacity to avoid the incident. It was done because there is an interest from the government to let it happen in order to put pressure on Tigray. The government bodies allowed it to happen.
When moving around the region, we observed that there is this feeling of being pushed away and being isolated by the current administration. Those we spoke to in Tigray told us that the current administration is attacking Tigreans. What do you say about this?
Well it is an open secret. We have seen media houses both from regional states like the Amhara Mass Media Agency as well as those at the federal level targeting Tigryans. They labeled the past 27 years as the “age of darkness”. All positive developments done during those years were overshadowed by this narrative and people from Tigray were blamed for it.
We also believe that both top and lower level officials are intentionally targeted just because they are ethnic Tigreans. So, currently, there is this campaign and propaganda targeting Tigreans.
For instance, if we mentioned the case of Brig. Gen. Kinfe (Dagnew) [former Director General of METEC], we were the ones who agreed to hand him over to the federal government. However, the way he was treated later on was unacceptable. This was done because he is from Tigray.
We see a former military officer, who defected with many of his soldiers to Cairo; being received and applauded at the airport where as a general who served his country was shamed and embarrassed. Not only that, there were a number of officials who were selectively removed from their jobs as well as arrested just because they are from Tigray. All in all, those things are bizarre for me.
They also accused the TPLF or Tigray whenever there is any incident in the country.
We have tried to share our concerns to the federal government as well as the Amhara Regional State.
Now we seen the camping against Tigray is being formalized. For instance, the House of Federation just recently said that Tigray was more beneficial in terms of road infrastructure. We see those campaigns and propagandas targeting Tigray being formalized.
So, if the government continues to do that, there is no reason for us to continue working with such kind of government unless otherwise they fix the problem. Not only that, this will have a grave consequence and the country will dismantle.
After seeing all this, people are frustrated and the dominant thinking is why we should continue to work with such government.
So are you saying that the people want to secede from Ethiopia?
Yes, there is a growing feeling among the public. It is only us who are saying that we shouldn’t resort to such feelings. We, as the regional government, are telling our people that those problems will be solved and we are telling them to be patient. However, the pressure from the public is different.
People even tell me that I shouldn’t go for meetings to Addis Ababa.
All those things pushed the people to the edge. They feel hopeless and are saying that we should secede from Ethiopia.
Why is the Tigray government refusing to handover the erstwhile director general of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Getachew Assefa?
We are not going into the details. But I personally believe that accusations against him are false or fabricated. However, I am not saying that there were no mistakes.
However, we have seen former spy agents who are now arrested. In some cases, some of those agents were accused of spying on Asmara, Eritrea, which is unacceptable. We have never seen such things in any country. These people have served their country. Their case is just incredible.
For me, these individuals must be released but if these people including Getachew committed other crimes as individuals, they have to be held accountable. However, these people are arrested because they are from Tigray.
Not only Getachew but when it comes to others there is nothing that these people acted upon without the consent or knowledge of the then Prime Minister even when it comes to gathering intelligence.
So you can’t just arrest Getachew only. If there is anything Getachew is suspected of, the then Prime Minister has to be held accountable. If you are only going to arrest Getachew, it will be politics not about holding people accountable.