Skip to main content
Alex of the Horn

Alex of the Horn

Alex de Waal is a British researcher and expert on Sudan and the Horn of Africa. He is executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is known for his close relations with the TPLF leadership. Recently, he has been writing quite a number of articles about the war in Tigray. Tewedaj Sintayehu discussed his relations with members of the now defunct power, TPLF’s miscalculations, criticisms made against him and the humanitarian crisis in Tigray. Excerpts: 

The Reporter: Your interest in East Africa came after you worked on human rights related issues in the mid 1980s. So tell me about that period of your life?

Alex: Actually my engagement started on the issue of refugees. I was a student at Oxford University in the 1980s. And at that time in the mid-1980s, the intellectual Center for work on Refugee and humanitarian issues was the University of Khartoum. So for anybody who was really interested in doing research on those issues in Africa, one of the main places they would go to was Sudan. So in 1984, I went to Sudan to do the research for my PhD on humanitarian issues. And I worked in Darfur. During the course of my research, I became very interested in how armed conflict created famine both in Sudan, especially South Sudan and Ethiopia. And in 1988 as part of this research, I crossed the border from Sudan into Ethiopia and spend time with the TPLF investigating the ways in which the conduct of the wall by the then Ethiopian government of Mengistu Hailemariam was worsening the problems of food insecurity and creating famine; and I wrote extensively on this topic. It was two things that contributed to my career. First of all, I was introduced to some of the leaders of TPLF, notably the late Meles Zenawi whom I met in the field in 1988 and whom I debated with extensively. It was very interesting experience not only to be in the Warzone but to see how seriously the leadership of TPLF, the EPRDF was not founded at that time, engaged in academic and theoretical discussions.That also led me into the field of Human Rights. So I was very interested but my entry point for Human Rights was how human rights abuses caused food insecurity and famine.

The Reporter: So had the chance to meet TPLF leaders. How did that come about? How did you meet them for the first time and what sort of theoretical and academic discussions were you engaged in?

Alex: It came about more or less accidentally because I crossed the border from Sudan at night in 1988 on the mission just to do research into food insecurity and agricultural rehabilitation in the TPLF areas. And the people I was in contact with were the humanitarians only within the TPLF controlled areas – the relief society of Tigray (REST), Teklewoine Assefa in particular. But it so happened that after crossing the border, I traveled overnight for several nights because all movement back then was at night because of the daily aerial flights and bombardments by the Ethiopian air force. So I go on the back of the same track as several members of the central committee including the late Seyoum and the late Meles. And the first and most of the discussions I had were on my own specialist topic which was starvation and famine. And we debated extensively; in fact, we didn’t agree on many things. There were some things we agreed on and some things we disagreed on. But I found it very interesting to be able to have that extent of discussion. The discussion ranged much more widely into issues of the conduct of the war, the way they treat prisoners-of-war, the issues of Justice because they were confident at that stage that they would win and what they would do with those senior members of the Dergue regime whom they expected to overthrow, what they would do when they took power and also issues, because I was a Social Anthropologist,about ethnic identity and how they would handle the claims of other ethnic groups including those that were in the areas they controlled at that time. So they were beginning to have these discussions about how they would handle the issue of ethnicity and what a potential federation would be like.

The Reporter: So what were the conversations about ensuring equal rights for all nationalities like?

Alex: I think the TPLF grew out of the Ethiopian student movement of the 1970s and as we all know and there were very vigorous debates within that Revolutionary movement about the nature of ethnic identity. The way they preferred to formulate it was not as ethnicity but as Nations and nationalities and this was a very unusual formulation for the late 20th century because it drew upon the formulation that the Marxist-Leninist developed in Russia in the early part of the twentieth century. That had strength and weakness. The strength was that it formulated ethnic identity around the concept of a nation and the nation was something constituted by history – wasn’t something that was fixed or primordial or inherited from ancestors. It was shaped by politics, by economics, by the forces of history. And the weakness of that was that in its application, it ended up fixing what a nation would be by circumscribing in political and administrative terms what a nation would actually look like. So as it were, stopping history at a point at which you recognize the rights of different ethnic groups. And this was an ongoing debate that I had over the subsequent years with not only the EPRDF leaders but the Oromos too. One of the key drafters of the charter that was drawn up in 1991 was the Oromo leader Lencho Leta whom I got to know, in fact, years later. He was very influential in formulating the map of Ethiopia and the rights that nationalities including, especially, the Oromo possessed. Lencho, as we all know, fell out with the EPRDF. He said the way in which the charter was being implemented was not Democratic. It was not actually absorbing. It was not allowing the Oromo people in particular but the people in general to choose their own representatives and he was very critical of the TPLF for having formed the OPDO. He described the OPDO as prisoners of TPLF and that OPDO administration of the Oromo areas is making the Oromo people into prisoners of prisoners. Now, the time when I went to Tigray in 1988, this was all in the future, there was still a debate going on about how they would engage with the Oromos. And by the time I was there, they hadn’t formed the OPDO and if they had taken the decision to form it, they didn’t tell me; but they were still in discussions with the OLF about forming an alliance. Had that happened, I think the modern history of Ethiopia might have been very different.

The Reporter: But once they came into power and they started running the country, how did you see their administration’s handling of issues that have to do with the rights of nations and nationalities? There are accusations that the TPLF proxy ruled all nations and nationalities in Ethiopia and that it has negatively impacted social cohesion.

Alex: I think there are several key issues here that need to be born in mind. The first is the issue of nationality and diversity in Ethiopia is an extraordinary complicated issue and nobody has the right answer to it. The premise has to be not that anybody got it wrong because everybody has got it wrong. Nobody has got it right yet. So that’s the first point. The second is that there were two different philosophical approaches to how you see a national identity. One was the modern approach, which is you see it as something that is formed by historical processes in the moment. So nationality is, if you like, a regular conversation or vote on what is happening at the moment. A nation is elected day by day. The other is that a nation is something that is handed down from the ancestors. It is a legacy of History. It is something around which we tell heroic stories and it is an ideal - it is something that is fixed. One of the things that the Ethiopian revolutionaries and not just TPLF but also the others, EPRP and Meison, were trying to do was to shift the debate from Ethiopia being a special nation - the nation that was Beloved of God handed down in the Solomonic dynasty from centuries, which is somehow mystical, religious or magical - to Ethiopia is a nation like other nations, like other African states and the states in the world. We need to look at it critically as a product of its history. And I think the key thing TPLF /the EPRDF got right and where it agreed with the OLF and oddly enough with others like the EPRP was this modernist view of Ethiopia as a nation like other nations in the world. It created the norm that all nations and nationalities should be equally recognized and Know all these cultural and linguistic rights. What went wrong, of course, was how this was administered. The nature of the EPRDF government changed over the 28 years but the key problem was that it had a decentralized unitary Vanguard leadership vested in the upper echelons of the party, which were mostly Tigrayans, not entirely, but it was trying to run a system that was supposed to be Democratic on that basis. And that was a problem; that was impossible to do. And so the complaints against the unfair implementation and biased undemocratic implementation of the Federal Constitution began even before the Constitution was adopted. The complaints were articulated from early days by many Ethiopians and recognized actually. I mean, I often discussed the issue with the late Meles and we didn’t have the same view but I found his view interesting. His view was that the norms of plurality and representation will be realized over time. He had the same view about liberal democracy; he said it is very different for us to do both the plural democracy of recognizing different groups and the liberal democracy of one person one vote at the same time in Ethiopia with its history and with its level of under development. His view was that economic development has to come first and then follow the trajectory of states, and his favorite states were Taiwan and South Korea. He said then when we achieve middle income status, we will transition to democracy. My response to his argument was routinely that South Korea and Taiwan did not have this problem with diversity. How are you to manage that? And he never came up with a really good answer. I discussed these conversations in my writings.

The Reporter: Intellectually, these ideas might be interesting; but has TPLF’s job once it came to power been as impressive as its intellectual engagements?

Alex: I think there were two areas I was particularly impressed by TPLF/ EPRDF, because let’s face it - many who were non-Tigrayans were senior members and part of this. The first area which I think the record was extremely good and I became impressed and interested in their performance and the ideas was poverty reduction and especially the prevention of famine. The record of the EPRDF government in terms of economic growth, in terms of welfare provision of Health Services and food security was remarkably good. Ethiopia used to be the land of feminine; it used to be holding out a begging Bowl to the world for essential food. Now the EPRDF record for this was pretty good. There were one or two black marks; the blackest mark on this is what happened in the Somali region 2000-2001.  That was a very serious humanitarian emergency in which as many as 25,000 people might have died. But when we look at the very serious drought and food crises of 2001-2002 and then 2015-2016, when the level of food insecurity could have been the worst in Ethiopia’s history and the worst in Africa, the way it was handled by the EPRDF, and here I stress EPRDF because many of those who are now in leadership positions were part of that response, especially the last one. The second area in which I think they were extremely successful was the construction of a foreign policy. Ethiopia was in the 1980s a pariah States, a state that destabilized the region and it became over the period of the EPRDF an anchor of peace and security in the wider region - very instrumental in the African Union and IGAD. It was a major contributor to peacekeeping forces and it is very interesting to look back and read the National Security and foreign policy strategy paper of 2002, which has two key elements. One is it puts poverty reduction and economic growth as the centerpiece of the National Security strategy. It says we no longer want what the TPLF leadership called jingoism on an empty stomach; we want to be strong enough not to have to beg and in order to do that we need policy autonomy from all the major powers. We don’t want to be dependent on the US or on China or on Europe. We don’t want to be dependent on Egypt or the Gulf States. The centerpiece of the development strategy was and still is the Renaissance dam. And in order for the Renaissance Dam to succeed, the Diplomatic policy meant constructing an alliance of African States and keeping Egypt and the Gulf States at Bay and I think it was very successfully pursued.

That said, there were a couple of black marks on the foreign policy. One was the invasion of Somalia in 2006. It was interesting when I challenged Prime Minister Meles and I said surely you’re making a big mistake. His response was we’re not worried about the jihadis in Somalia. We have experience of controlling extremists and we can do that. What we’re worried about is Eritrea. We believe Isaias has an agenda, which is to dismantle Ethiopia and we cannot give him one inch. It is the Eritreans in Mogadishu we’re worried about, not the Somalis.

The 1998 War was the biggest failure of the EPRDF. The TPLF led Ethiopia into that war. I was involved in that war in trying to find a peaceable solution and I was arrested both in Asmara and in Addis Ababa when I was traveling between the two. I was very critical of the expulsion of Eritreans from Ethiopia. It was a citizens’ initiative.

The Reporter: Some claim that TPLF proxy ruled other nations and nationalities. Do you agree with that?

The term proxy-rulers is your term and I understand why many Ethiopians are deeply resentful. The words of Lencho Leta in the 1990s where he described them as prisoners of prisoners were very good ones.  

The Reporter: Considering the TPLF leaders and their intellectual engagements were your first window into Ethiopia, do you think your assessments of Ethiopia are very much influenced by their views?

Alex: The first time I went to Ethiopia and Eritrea was in 1987 under the Dergue and I only later on went to TPLF controlled areas. (Pointed out later that his roommate at undergraduate, Alula Pankhurst, introduced him to Ethiopia). Then in 1991, after they took power, I spent quite some time particularly with the Oromos and others. So, on some issues I was definitely influenced by TPLF particularly on issue of humanitarianism in poverty reduction. I was impressed by the way they performed on that, also on regional peace and security. I was continually in critical dialogue with them on the issues of domestic governance and human rights.

The Reporter: You wrote in a recent article that “the notion Ethiopian is in grave danger of reverting to being identified solely with in Amhara identity and agenda.” That is actually a very typical TPLF view. Doesn’t that show their views had a lot of impact in yours?

Alex: Just because I say something that is the same thing that a TPLF person says doesn’t mean I came to that view via…

The Reporter: but the line of argument and the understanding of Ethiopian history are the bases for your assessments.  

Alex: The most influential writer for me on Ethiopian history and identity would be the Oromo historian Mohammed Hassan. My PhD supervisor when I was at Oxford was an anthropologist called Wendy James who worked on the Western peripheries of Ethiopia; with the Gumuz people for example. And my view on the nature of the Ethiopian State arose more from my engagement with the Oromo scholars and with the scholars of the periphery than the TPLF. My critique of TPLF’s theory of nations and nationalism, which you will read for example, in the articles of a very recent issue of the journal nations and nationalism, is informed more by the Oromo and the marginalized view than it is by the TPLF. Now, if TPLF says sometimes the same thing, then of course, sometimes they will say the same thing. What I was saying was that there is a fundamental distinction between two views of nationalism; one being that it is something that is primordial and inherited, magical and so on. And I see that coming back very much in the rhetoric coming out of the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. 

The Reporter: The statements and the things that you describe in your articles have an influence of ethno-nationalism. Those might have something to do with your days with the TPLF.

Alex: I readily admit that I was in open discussion with some members of TPLF leadership, notably the late Meles on these issues. But I will insist again we did not always agree and my critique of his view came from my reading of the histories of Ethiopia by the likes of Muhammad Hassan and others. If the TPLF is saying the same thing I’m saying, it doesn’t mean I’m parroting what they say.

The Reporter: You had working relations with TPLF leaders such as Mulugeta Gebrehiwot. One of the main criticisms against you from people in the current Ethiopian government is that you are a TPLF lobbyist in the international system. So, have you been on TPLF’s payroll?

Alex: The only time I have ever enjoyed the hospitality of TPLF was twice; once in the mountains in 1988. The second was when I was detained on the instructions of Getachew Assefa. I have not received a penny from them. Every visit that I made to Ethiopia from 1991 until now has either been paid for by myself, my university or by the African Union.

The Reporter: But you had access to the Prime Minister, you had access to top officials in the country. You engaged with them and you worked with Mulugeta at the World Peace Foundation. Did any of these things lead to getting projects?

Alex: I had occasional discussions with Prime Minister Meles on two issues. One was we had these intellectual debates about the developmental State and all other what was going on in the region. The other was in my capacity working with the African Union on Sudan. We often engaged with Meles on matters of regional peace and security. My relationship with Mulugeta – I actually met Mulugeta a couple of times in the 1990s but that really began after he left government and he started the Institute for Peace and Security Studies. Because it was not that big an institution, I was partly a faculty member there. I was involved in discussing with him and setting up something called the Tana high-level form. And Mulugeta had a proposal to set up this forum which is modeled on the Munich security forum. He said it is important it should be outside of Addis Ababa. He said he had two reasons for this. It should be in a place where the senior policymakers are not distracted by the day-to-day business of a capital city. Second, he said it is important that in the federal structure, there is another regional city gets exposed to this. He chose Bahir Dar. He could have chosen somewhere else but he chose Bahir Dar. As you know TPLF also had its internal problems. Mulugeta had resigned from TPLF and had a split. Because I occasionally met with Meles, he asked me to be the messenger to introduce this idea to Meles. So that was my role. So I took the proposal of the Tana forum to Meles and he said yes. The Tana form was then set up. That was about a year before Meles passed away. It was 2011. Because of the differences between Mulugeta and the TPLF leadership, he left the IPSS and wanted to do a PhD. we also had a project. He became active in regional peace and security issues advising the African Union and so on. So, he came to do a project on regional peace and security - African Peace Mission at the World peace foundation, and he became my best colleague and remained so. I have deep respect to his personal integrity and his intellectual understanding.

The Reporter: Can we say then that they gave you jobs or projects? There definitely must have been some payments for your engagement with the IPSS. It sounds like exchange of favors.

Alex: This is complete nonsense. I was never paid. The IPSS was an academic institution and I was on the faculty of it at a time when the EPRDF leadership was not happy with what it was doing. The mission that I had was from the IPSS institution at Addis Ababa University where some senior officials of the current government may even have studied. My mission was from the IPSS, and it was a purely informal personal mission to take a message to the prime minister.

The Reporter: A few years back, I watched a documentary about a group of foreign zoologists who went to Kenya and studies a pack of lions in a zoo there. They saw the lions grow from little cubs to maturity and rule their own colony. When they finally got old and killed by another group of lions, the group of zoologists actually cried on account of their years of attachment to those group of lions. Do you see any similarity of this story with yours?

Alex:  I don’t like speaking in Parables. I think you need to speak directly. Say what you mean.

The Reporter: You are actually considered to be a TPLF sympathizer. And now that the TPLF has been defeated, you are actually making your voice heard as you are coming up with a number of articles. Do you think TPLF’s demise has upset you a bit? Or has it made you sympathetic to the group?  

Alex: I was very upset about the killing of Seyoum Mesfin, somebody I knew and respected. I am upset by the way in which some honorable people within the Tigrayan elite circles have been treated and the way that they have been described. And I am profoundly disturbed by the level of atrocities being committed by all sides in the conflict, including Eritreans, including the Ethiopian forces and including the TPLF. I really feel that what has been happening in Tigray with repercussions throughout the whole country and throughout the whole region over the last 3 months is a huge step back. One of the things that Prime Minister Abiy did which I thought was really an important step forward was to decriminalize the opposition and invite them back and say we must have dialogue and solve these problems politically. Now in the case of TPLF, I understand that the hostility started when TPLF overran military bases and committed crimes. In a political settlement to a dispute, it is perfectly normal and acceptable for one of the elements on the agenda for negotiation to be we want to have accountability, examination and prosecution of those who are responsible for crimes. Had Prime Minister Abiy said that at the time when the military operations were launched, I would I would have supported that. What I cannot support is maintaining a military approach that is inflicting so much human suffering and damage and is going on under the cover of darkness, when we know there are terrible things being done by the Eritrean forces who are pursuing their agenda. And we know that president Isaias Afeworki is no friend to democracy, to human rights and to humanity. Why this is tolerated is beyond me. I’m really aghast at and I’m also worried, to be frank, about friends of mine such as Mulugeta who are everyday living in peril and facing great hardship. 

The Reporter: So, where do you think the TPLF miscalculated in its final days before the war that led to its defeat?

Alex: I think the TPLF clearly miscalculated massively. There were statements of bravado about how it was invincible. No political force is ever invincible. I would argue that there are arguments to be made on both sides of the constitution, because the Ethiopian Constitution is not a revered document that everyone will bow down to and respect. It is something that has to be renegotiated. There has to be a political solution to this dispute and I think it was an error on both sides to make it a point of absolute legal principle that the other side should not be recognized. I think the biggest blunder of the TPLF leadership was to say that they did not recognize the legitimacy of the federal government. That was a road to war. I think the biggest mistake on the side of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was not to recognize fully that the TPLF had a legitimate fear that the Eritreans would take military action that went beyond just inflicting military defeat towards committing major atrocities against the Tigrayan people.

The Reporter: You called for negotiations between TPLF and the Ethiopian government, especially on opening up humanitarian roads. Do you think the TPLF is in a position to negotiate now?

Alex: I think it is very important for the future of Ethiopia that certain steps should be taken. The TPLF has suffered a very serious military defeat. The great danger is that the level of suffering, violence, hardship, starvation that is being inflicted on the people of Tigray by all the forces there lead to a level of bitterness and resentment such that it could last a generation. This is a wound that has been opened and could bleed from many years. But more quickly that is an opening for political dialogue and for leading to some form of agreement and Reconciliation. They should start with humanitarian access and should continue towards an investigation of all the crimes that have been committed. The sooner that can be done, the better. If this means negotiating with TPLF, then that is absolutely what should be done.

The Reporter: But do we have enough of TPLF left for negotiations?

Alex: I think clearly you have two things. One is that you have a TPLF leadership and you may want them to be called to account for some of their abuses. But then there are other individuals who are in positions of respecting authority such as previous veterans of TPLF who would command respect and could be negotiated with. But above all, you have the people of Tigray who are very demoralized and very angry and it is very important that they have some political representation that can lay the groundwork for an end to the fighting so that the talking can begin.

The Reporter: How do you perceive your role in matters related to Ethiopia and Tigray in particular?

Alex: I will continue to speak the truth as I believe it to be based upon the information that I’m able to obtain. I will continue to advocate for humanitarian access for human rights and for peace. I won’t be deterred; I will strongly resist those who try and put me in one political camp or another. I have never parated in any political line other than my own and I think anyone who reads my writings on any topic will know that.

The Reporter: You said that there is a famine denial in Tigray. Tell me about that.

Alex:  My concern about famine is that we have very complex sophisticated systems for monitoring food insecurity, malnutrition and hunger. One of the problems with those systems is that they demand good information. The information from Tigrai has being cut off and especially it has been cut off entirely from the Eritrean controlled areas of Tigray. Normally these information systems come to a sort of a best guess which edges on the side of caution saying things are bad, but maybe that does not take seriously the worst stories we are hearing. In the case where you get armed conflicts and where you get systematic looting and other abuses such as in the Eritrean controlled areas of Tigray, that assumption does not hold. So, it is important for us to amplify the warnings to say actually things in this case may be less than we fear. And so my worry is we do not have the data, we do not have the information to say whether there is famine or not in Tigray. But the stories that I hear from the rural areas of Northern Tigray where there has been widespread looting, destruction and hunger, we need to be alert to the real possibility that famine is either happening now or may be happening soon.