“To be led by a woman is something I have always advocated for my country”
The tireless Ethiopian human rights activist, Obang Metho, is back in Ethiopia after almost two decades. The head of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE) has been touring the nation advocating for a slew of ideals in pursuit of a new Ethiopia. Showing little interest for elected office and calling his effort a “movement”, the social justice advocate reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on his homecoming, dreams for Ethiopia and on why he is adamant ethno-centric politics has been a destructive force in the country. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You have been in Ethiopia for some time now. What has been the highlight so far?
Obang Metho: It has been a humbling experience to be back in Ethiopia. I have been outside the country for 16 years. I celebrated that milestone last June. One thing that has surprised me is the population growth of the country. The thing that shocked me is also the many buildings that have been built but are only partially finished. You see than from the airport and beyond. As well, the train that connects the towns and the cities were not there when I was here.
Also the poverty shocked me a great deal. I see many people who do not have anything. There are so many beggars everywhere. However, I feel something positive is currently happening and which I find as something good that I had not seen in a long time for Ethiopia. Human beings live on hope and there is a glimpse of hope among the people. What I am seeing is encouraging.
But something I would like to highlight is the reason of my homecoming is not because I have done something profound but I come with the hope of continuing the work started by so many people who have died fighting for a greater cause that is much bigger than us. All of the thousands of people that have comeback from abroad, like myself and the millions of Ethiopians here speaking their minds is because someone has died, been injured and tortured fighting for their rights to speak.
In all of these, I want to pay tribute to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and Team Lemma. They had a choice to take the country in any direction, but they chose the direction that we are currently in. They chose to stand with the public, not just for their own interest and I appreciate them for that.
Also Hailemariam Dessalegn is someone to be appreciated. He could have chosen to continue with the status quo but he decided to resign and give way for the winds of change that we are seeing today for the country. It’s his resignation that paved the way for Prime Minister. Abiy. As for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), they could have chosen to take up the guns to hold on to power but they did not. They deserved to be thanked. Sadly, we still live in a society where we fight for ethnic interest and not that of our national interest. That is unfortunate and I have seen that throughout my recent travel across the nation.
You had an audience with the Prime Minister recently in the United States. How was that like?
Indeed. I had a great conversation with him. From what I have seen up-close, he is someone who is a genuine human being. The thing that struck me the most about him was how spiritual he is. I saw a man who is family oriented and someone who loves Ethiopia. Talking to him, seeing him up-close, I saw a man who is authentic with much humanity and honorable. He told me that he has been following my activism from a distance and that he appreciated that.
He has this idealism about him, an idea to empower Ethiopia and unify it. He is someone willing to go beyond the constitution of the land that is built on ethnicity. We are the only one in the world whose constitution is built on the idea of nation and nationalities – we the tribe, not we the people. I am certain there are many who may oppose his way, his idealism even from his circle, but for him to rise above it all is something that is to be admired and supported. He needs to be supported so he will not become frustrated and give way to the status quo.
I told him the fact that how many of us predicted Ethiopia was heading to a dead-end and that the country was about to explode. That there will be a blood bath and he gave us hope when he came out of nowhere and made an early impression on many of us. I supported his vision from the get-go, not because we share the same ethnicity (we don’t) and political party but because he seemed to believe in the idea of “Ethiopianism” and in a society that believes in human rights.
He has to be really careful, on his security in particular. We are a vulnerable society, as people and as a country and we do not have a strong institution. We have been through a lot. Forty years ago, it was the Key Shibir (Red Terror), the student movement that was killing the youth and another 27 years that has been an anti-Ethiopia. Changing that narrative is hard to do over night and he seems to know the challenge of the nation well and that there is a high level of expectation from every corner as well as the eyes of the world following his every move.
The fact millions came out in Meskel Square and as well in all over the nation is endorsing his vision. That, I reinstated to him. Also, we spoke on spiritual things. He told me, him being in the job is almost a curse but that he envisioned it from a young age. He reflected how his wife is more spiritual than he is and that she regularly tells him that she prays for him. But always tells her, not to worry about him and that even if he dies fighting for a better Ethiopia, he would be in a better place. I interrupted him and told him that we needed him most on earth for a better Ethiopia and to help us reach a preferred destination.
You have spoken before the Canadian Parliament and the Congress in Washington DC and others advocating for human rights. You are now back in Ethiopia and you recently visited Gambella. Are you beginning to hope that things are finally changing?
You know, even the name of our organization speaks volume and is that of solidarity. We believe in humanity before ethnicity and languages. We are a movement, not a political party. We believe in a society that creates an environment where people can live according to their potential as a united people.
Gambella is one region of Ethiopia and it has been neglected. Being in a remote part of Ethiopia is not an excuse for it to be neglected. There is no remote area; every part is part of Ethiopia.
Even if we go back to Haile Selassie and Menelik, when the latter went to Gambella, he found and saw the people and decided to re-name the river to “Baro” river in reflection of their dark skin of its inhabitants. What people don’t understand is, Baro literally means “barya”, to mean the river of slaves. This is a glimpse of how marginalized the people have always been.
There is also the issue of land grabs that is widespread and having the people misplaced and killed as a result and stealing their natural resources with little benefits. Many people have died and genocide has happened. Did I see any hope? No, I did not.
Gambella has not yet been put in the equation to the changing landscape of Ethiopia. For instance, the Prime Minister was in Gambella recently; even the young people that came out to welcome him were detained. As a result, he unfortunately held his conversation with authorities and not with the regular people. That was a missed opportunity.
Little do we know that the ambition of the people of Gambella is no different than others. They want education, their human rights to be protected and co-exist peacefully in their own land. Even during the Derg, there was no issue of land grabs and forced relocation, but was mostly because of drought. But that has changed.
It’s also unfortunate to see the defense force to react and shoot people, killing many, when they conduct a peaceful protest. Many are simply calling for their rights to be respected. All of these people who are actors in the killings of young people in Gambella should be made to account to their action. In my conversation with some of these people in my recent visit, that was a uniform like complaints I often heard.
What has been the role of South Sudan to the local politics of Gambella and vice-versa?
You know South Sudan is a very unfortunate society and South Sudanese people have brought shame to themselves, to Africa and also to black people. These are people who fought hard against the Arabs but when freed, they became no different than the people who they fought against. They still use ethnicity to repress within a land that is fertile and with many resources enough to adequately share. If what they fought for was genuine and out of the concern of the people’s interest, people would not still be killed but they are.
Without the support of Gambella, South Sudan would never be a nation. They used Gambella as a source to feed their people and train their army. Their current issues is reaching, affecting Gambella.
Every country has a system where it allows people to come to their country. Ethiopia doesn’t. All these South Sudanese refugees are walking in to Ethiopia, as refugees, not with their bags but with their guns openly, with an open border between their nation and Ethiopia. You know the population of Gambella is only 500,000 and the refugees are more and now, everyone is in a position to fight for scarce resources.
Gambella remains a much neglected place with little infrastructures with a lone government hospital that is overwhelmed with people in need. The area is rich enough to feed and take care of itself, not just within its area, but within the region. Yet, the hospital is not even suitable for an animal, let alone for humans. That should not be our reality, yet that is now overwhelmed with the local populations and the refugees.
You hold a Canadian citizenship. What was your take on dual citizenship? Is that what is preventing you into becoming a budding politician and change it within, instead of as an activist from the outside?
I don’t know. I never thought of running for office in Ethiopia. I used to see myself running for office in Canada instead. Here, I don’t think my conscious will let me. There are many that are in politics for their own interest and it can get very dirty. If I run, it will be based on my own conscious. Ethiopia remains to have great potential yet we remain poor, not because we are or because we have little resources but because we lack good leaders who value the human rights of our people.
If our people go abroad for a slew of issues and come back home and wish to stand for politics, which should not be a problem. Politics should not be associated with bad things. I would rather be led by someone who has gone abroad and has been exposed to good things than one that has just been exposed to ethnicity alone. We want politicians who see us as humans, not our ethnicity and they should never consider our citizenship secondary to that. I mentioned that when I met with President Mulatu (PhD) as well as with the Prime Minister. We need more Ethiopian leaders, not tribal leaders.
I also want to see more Ethiopian women take leadership positions in the affairs of their country. They do not belong in the kitchen; they belong in the leadership of the country. To be led by a woman is something I have always advocated for my country (This interview was conducted before the announcement of the new cabinet and the appointment of the new President of the Republic).
How do you want to be remembered?
If there is something to remember me by, as a human rights activist, is someone that tried to teach our people the humanity that is within us and go beyond the old boundary of restricting us see the beauty among and within us. As I always say, to me, a garden can be beautiful with one flower, but with many, it’s even more beautiful. I see Ethiopia’s diversity as strength, with 86 languages is like a diverse and complete flower.
We are all flowers. Let us nurture it and share it and pass it to the next generation. The people that see us for our ethnicity alone are simply blind. I want to be remembered as one that promoted the dignity and respect of our people. Sadly, we live in a world where the color of our passport is valued more than our humanity. I don’t want to see our people die in the Mediterranean ocean for the ideal passport but have a passport of Ethiopia that is valued at home and aboard. We need to give more opportunities to our people at home. But for that to happen, we need more actors in every sector to make that dream a reality.
Any final thoughts?
You know when the Europeans came to Africa; they used our diversity and differences to divide us. Even, former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi followed suit, created an ethno-centric society and it served him well. But we cannot use the same medication to treat the same disease. To kill the ethnic disease, we have to use a new way to treat it. Ethnic politics is a disease that has never worked for our country and citizens. If one wants to change Ethiopia, he or she has to think beyond that. We have to liberate ourselves from the old way of thinking.