My Take on Andargachew Tsige’s Interview Of Taking Position and Partnership with Eritrea
I just finished watching the two part interview Sisay Agena has had with Ginbot 7 Secretary General, Angargachew Tsige. Sisay poses various crucial questions to Andargachew and Andy answers most of the questions demonstrably calmly and candidly. The interview gets more interesting in the second part when Andy discusses my favourite topic, the issue of forming partnership with Eritrea. I am not comfortable with Ginbot 7’s position and Andargachew’s analysis of the issue; it lacks depth and sounds superficial. In this article I will comment on those points I have found unsatisfactory and troubling. My focus on that part of the interview that I think is troubling should not be interpreted as if I had problem with the whole interview. Irrespective of my misgivings about the accuracy of Andy’s account of some fundamental issues, the interview is good people will able to understand from the interview where G7 stands with respect to sensitive national and regional issues.
Let me start from the fundamental problem I have with most Ethiopian political parties. When it comes to issues that can potentially divide people into two or more opposing camps or when taking a position seems to have some political cost to them, our politicians tend to avoid responsibility by saying that they do not have authorization from the people to make decision on those controversial issues. They say they people will decide later. It is pretty straightforward that in any democratic process the people are the ultimate decision makers and that is what the TPLF/EPRDF deprives our people of. However, unless political parties take positions on contentious issues and try to convince people to buy their policies, there is no way for ordinary people to make an informed decision. The need for political parties to take the lead gets stronger when complex and very complicated national interest are at stake. What makes politicians different from ordinary people is that politicians take positions publicly and lead their followers. Ordinary people are free from that hassle. I strongly believe that Andargachew has breached this rule in the interview.
Take for example, the issue of working with Eritrea. In the current political configuration of the Horn of Africa, unless Ethiopian political parties in the Diaspora invest their knowledge and resource to finding what is the best way to deal with the Eritrean issue, including Hasseb (Asseb), and advance their solution boldly, there is no way for ordinary Ethiopians to make a sound decision on the issue free from emotion and resentment. In the absence of directions from politicians, the Ethiopian people will follow what the TPLF media feeds it. As I sense from the interview, Ginbot 7’s approach to working with Eritrea is vague. It lacks clarity and depth. When Sisay asks him what their policy towards working with Eritrea, the issue of access to the Sea, and what they give to Eritrea in exchange of the material support Eritrea affords Ginbot 7, Andargachew’s answer is neither convincing nor honest. It is better to say he defers the answer to future dates by saying that Ginbot 7 does not have any legal or political authorization from the Ethiopian people to act and bargain on behalf of the people and said the ultimate decision will be made by the Ethiopian people. I disagree with this approach for two reasons.
First, no rebel group, including the TPLF, EPLF or the SPLA came to power with people’s endorsement or approval. That is a rule that applies at peace time. That is something political parties will strive to attain once political normalcy is established in Ethiopia. Ginbot 7 and other foreign-based political parties are operating in exceptional situation where obtaining people’s approval is impossible. As long as political parties honour their promise to validate their actions with popular vote when they succeed in their struggle, they should not fear to declare their positions upfront on issues that are controversial and it is based on their reasoned positions on those contentious issues that we support or reject them. No avoidance will help our parties to win the people’s heart. Confronting the issues head-on is the best approach.
For me, recognizing Eritrea as a nation and pledging not to violate its territorial sovereignty, including dropping our claim to Hasseb expressly is necessary to advance our political causes, i.e. defeating the TPLF and establishing democratic Ethiopia. It is painful and it is also a sad part of our history that Eritrea, which was once part of Ethiopia, is now an independent nation. As Andargachew says in the interview, whether it is the little Djibouti or big China, we have to respect the sovereignty of any state. From now on, that is how we should deal with Eritrea: respect its territorial integrity and try to live with it as good neighbours. Ginbot 7 should brave to say so openly. Ato Andaregachew and Ginbot 7 have not come clear on that topic. Their position is evasive one that is based on trying to re-invent the non-existent unity of the two peoples. We are not one anymore. We are two nations and any dealing with Eritrea should clearly base on that understanding.
Some people have issues with the way Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia. Although there was some unfairness in the referendum process, Eritrea got its independence mainly through armed struggle. Even before the referendum, Eritrea achieved over 90 % of its independence. Our Eritrean cousins fought for 30 years to attain their independence. It is painful but it is also true that they defeated us. In retrospect, I am surprised they held the referendum to determine their fate after winning us in the battlefields. In the case of South Sudan, the referendum was held because the war came to an end by Peace Agreement. That was not the case with Eritrea. They won the civil war. The referendum was held only to rubber-stamp the already achieved independence. The Eritrean people were promised honey and milk would flow in their land and 98.85 of them voted for independence at the end of their victory. A new status quo emerged. History did not stop there. War broke out between TPLF and EPLF in 1998 and the two cousins broke up in a way their love affair cannot be repaired. As long as Esayas is in power, I do not think the two will come together and it is that window of opportunity that I suggest Ginbot 7 should exploit openly. Andy’s explanation on those issues was not only unsatisfactory, but it was also full of hesitance. That is why I say Ginbot 7 should be assertive on this issue and try to mobilize us to go to Eritrea to free Ethiopia. That was where we lost the battle and that is where we can win from at this time. But, first, we need to assure Eritrea/Esayas that we will never raise this Hasseb stuff.
I haven’t read Yakob Hailemariam’s book about Hasseb and Ethiopia’s right of access to the sea. What I can say at this time is that although it is unfair to leave a big country like Ethiopia landlocked, I do not think any future democratic and peaceful government of Ethiopia have time and energy to argue and fight with Eritrea over Hasseb or the right of access to the sea. We may be able to get Hasseb back by legal or military battle, but that won’t solve the problem permanently. Our relationship with our neighbour will remain characterized by mutual distrust and animosity. Therefore, the focus should shift on forming democratic governments in both states. Eritreans will deal with their problem. In our case, once we are able to form a democratic government in Ethiopia, the rest will be easy like peeling Banana; only if political parties are willing to take the lead. The ordinary farmer in Ethiopia cannot understand and take a valid position on issues an informed politician, in the stature of Andargachew fear to take position on. It is in the best interest of the political parties and the people of Ethiopia to know the candid positions of the political parties in this or other important issues. Political parties, who are fighting to take power, or to return political power to the Ethiopian people, should be brave enough to take positions where it is necessary, even if taking positions means losing some or all of their support.
Back to the people’s issues; do we need the people to approve our undertaking with Eritrea or any other nation for that matter? Not necessarily. Politicians do not have the authorization from the people of Ethiopia when they form political organizations to fight for democracy. Political parties are usually formed by a group of individuals who are either exercising their individual rights or assuming that the people deserve democracy. The only best way to know the people’s position on any issue is when the people vote in a free and fair election. Until the people get that opportunity, political parties are by definition obliged to make decisions on several controversial issues without the people’s approval. I say politics is almost always the act or art of making decisions on risky and costly issues. If you win, people will be with you; if you lose, people will blame you; in some cases even mothers will leave their defeated kids and side with the winning one. Unfortunately, in this interview, I have witnessed Ginbot 7 making much deference to the people. It is not time to defer to the people. It is time to make bold decisions, sometime even on behalf of the people. The people can reverse the decisions when they go to the ballot-box. What we need now is getting that opportunity by hook or by crook. I know it sounds risky and dangerous. But, isn’t that always the case in politics?
Of course Ginbot 7 has made several bold decisions on many contentious issues. Its policy towards working with OLF and other separatists in Ethiopia is one commendable example. Nevertheless, Andy/Ginbot 7 has not made itself as clear as it should be with respect to the Eritrean issue. With all its risks and problems, partnership with Eritrea is necessary and the lesser evil. Andy knows that better, but he looks fearful or shy of articulating that position clearly in the interview. Sisay fails to pursue some related pressing issues such as why would Eritrea help an opposition group from Ethiopia, a country Eritrea considers as its colonizer? What would be the downside of working with Eritrea at a time when the international community and the Western governments are shunning Eritrea? Does the allegation against Eritrea that it supports terrorist groups in Somalia have any impact on our partnership with Eritrea? How would the Ethiopian see the whole partnership with Eritrea? What could Eritrea give us anyways? Sisay fails to raise those questions. I hope both Andargachew and Sisay do not believe Wedi Afeworki’s remark that the cause of the problem between Ethiopia and Eritrea is the TPLF. Although TPLF has escalated the problem to a new height, the problem has existed even before the TPLF came to power. Andargachew himself expresses that in the interview when he elaborates on the root cause of the problem between the two nations. Therefore, putting TPLF as the only hurdle for a harmonious relationship between the two countries is very flawed and unconvincing.
The interview is educative. Since my good friend Sisay Agena joined ESAT, we are blessed to have watched many insightful interviews he hosted. His selection of issues and way of presenting questions show his resourceful journalistic background. However, I did not find his interview with Ato Andargachew Tsige provocative and engaging. For example, at a couple of points he allows Ato Andaregachew to speak for over ten minutes and escape with vague answers. Letting politicians talk straight for ten minutes will make the interview boring and more of a sermon or narration than a dialogue. That will blur the difference between ETV and ESAT. I hope Sisay will consider my comments in his future interviews. Good job anyways Sisay and Andy as well; keep it up. I hope Sisay and the ESAT team will keep informing and enlightening us with their shows in the days ahead provided that we throw our few bucks ($$) to sustain ESAT on air. I will. “No money, no funny.” Help ESAT and watch ESAT. A minimum of a dollar a month from 10, 000 of us who live in the Diaspora is all they need to sustain ESAT. Just a minimum of a dollar a week or a month!!
“Zsantirar” T A S, November, 2011, Ottawa, Canada
Sometimes confusing and erroneous, for example, with respect to the term “Habesha,” I am afraid Andargachew’s position is accurate. My understanding is that when we say Habesha, we mean all Ethiopians, including the Amharas, Tigres, Oromos, Aderes, the Gobenas … and including the Eritreans. Close to the end of the interview, Andargachew said something to the effect that Habesha comprises only Tigreans and Amharas. I think that is the TPLF version of our history or sociology that Andargachew unintentionally kept up to now. I appreciate Andargachew’s courage to apologize for the mistakes (not “crimes” as he wrongly said in the interview) he committed when he was working with the EPRDF.