It is a time of reconciliation and change: Seeye Abraha – By Teodros Kiros, Ph.D. | January 8, 2007
A pensive mind seasoned by the rigors of war was at a Starbucks café in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I first met him last week. (more…)
A pensive mind seasoned by the rigors of war was at a Starbucks café in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I first met him last week. He was in the company of a few friends, who knew he has been languishing in prison for six harrowing years, and were trying to offer the warmth of friendship he missed while serving time in one of the maximum security prisons in Ethiopia.
The man was Seeye Abraha, medium height, cool, with bright fierce eyes.
Unable to speak but willing to listen to this frail body, I sat speechless. Suddenly the mighty soldier who was known for rocking the Ethiopia-Eritrea terrain, made it easy, as words began to flow out of him with a characteristic lucidity, befitting a statesman of good breeding.
With a measured tone, given only to gifted orators, he said, “I have known you in spirit for a long time, and even read some of your articles in the Ethiopian Reporter…and I so much want to know the learned members of my country…”
Thus begun my acquaintance with Seeye, and I had the honor of spending five days with him in Washington, DC. I also attended a conference where he gave a tantalizing speech framed by thought and propelled by measured passion.
He spoke at Hilton Hotel in Crystal City to an estimated audience of about 800.
Ladies and gentlemen, he said, I was criminalized and imprisoned by the party I helped build, but thanks to my loving people who protested and wrote on behalf, I was set free. I will not rest, however, until all those political prisoners who are languishing in prison are released, and there are hundreds of them. The regime falsely calls them hoodlums and criminals. I call them political prisoners; Indeed, they are prisoners of conscience.
He raised his passioned voice and added, “Please do not forget these prisoners.”
Thus began the two-and-a-half-hour-long oration, stimulating from beginning to end.
“Though I’m formally free,” Seey said, “the reality smacks of quite the opposite.” The regime keeps him under a radar screen; his house is patrolled 24 hours a day; his moves are monitored with frightening precision; all those who met with him and his family are afterwards interrogated. The legacy of haunting the ‘free man’ continues from his prison days, when his former employees were fired when they refused to testify against him when he was falsely accused of corruption.
The details of his everyday life as he described them to various individuals in the last four days reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984, particularly Winston, the main character that the regime criminalized and kept in check through meticulous observation, and through the minute observation, sought to inhibit his movements, his dreams and his ideals. Mr.’ Seeye is also subjected to the same harsh reality. Formally free, Mr. Seeye remains the object of the gaze of power. His freedom is incomplete, and he is now determined to covert that abstract freedom into real freedom in concert with the Ethiopian people. The speech provided Mr. Seeye’s outline of New Thinking.
Before he turned the pages of the outline of New Thinking, he asked his brother, Mr. Daniel Yohannes, previously president of US Bank – the sixth largest Bank in the US, with a quiet and dignified demeanor to stand to an admiring crowd, and thanked him for supporting his family during and after the demeaning years of imprisonment. Seeye said he was now penniless but chose to trade the road of dignity and service to the country.
The New Thinking refuses to say no to power, no to docility, and yes to political action disciplined by thought and fired by injustice. We Ethiopians need New Thinking, he declared to an aroused audience. New Thinking seeks to draw from the values of classical Ethiopian personality: respect for tradition, tenacity, resistance and cultural pride. The new politics of cynicism, he argued, must be replaced by a new politics of engagment and hope. I am very proud, he declared, to seek to set new standards of political excellence with dignity and integrity, a politics that resists oppression by risking once life.
Whereas the regime sought to him as an example of what might happen to those who dare to speak truth to power, he takes great pride in resisting oppressive power through reasoned courage, and setting standards of political excellence.
Mr. Seeye says yes to life with dignity and no to prosperity with corruption. The new politics of cynicism, which is producing youth who do not dream, and dissenters who are imprisoned for their convictions, ought to give way to a new national party, which will sculpt citizens with dreams and the right to live them.
He declared that his freedom is not complete. He said, “I am formally free but concretely unfree. But I am committed to convert this freedom into a real one, together with my fellow Ethiopians. Together we can forge a new Ethiopia from the mosaic of its ethnicities and nationalities.” Furthermore, he said, the New National party should use ethnicity positively. He advised that Ethnicity should not divide the Ethiopian nation. When propelled by a clean heart, ethnicity can unite us. Central to that unity is the idea of a united Ethiopia composed of individuals with rights, the rights to dream, to dissent and to speak truth to power.
The regime preaches that it is democratic, republican and federalist. The regime is not any of these. The idea of federalism is used not to check power by power by dividing power into the legislative, executive and judicial branches, in the great spirit of the American founding fathers. Rather, the executive branch dominates the other two branches inorder to centralize power into its bosom, and thus obliterates the inner core of democracy, and plants the seeds of tyranny.
Furthermore, the contemporary regime is increasingly becoming tyrannical and its citizens are gradually becoming docile. For Mr. Seeye, docility is contributing to contemporary Ethiopia’s political malaise. He contended however that a new political landscape could dawn if the following conditions are met.
Ethiopians must reject the politics of division and cleanse their hearts and begin afresh and learn new political virtues of listening to one another with respect and vigilance. Respect, vigilance, listening attentively must be practiced as new habits. A reasoned dialogue free of domination must address differences and visions.
That Ethiopians should busily participate in the civic spheres and develop organizing structures where abstract freedom could become real freedom that controls the excesses of the highly centralized state, which governs by intimidating and controlling political space through the instrument of a sham federalism.
Tolerance is the ultimate medium through which we learn how to live with our differences, and mechachal (Tolerance) must be the goal of dialogue. We should learn the difficult art of learning from others by listening attentively and respectfully. Intolerance is precisely what is destructively contributing to our disunity and to the benefit of those who are governing us by dividing us.
The new national party is a party of unity through tolerance. He said, “A divided house is useless.” The crowd broke into laughter, when he said, “ I am sure you are in utter disbelief that these words of peace are coming from a military leader used to settling differences through the gun. But you must believe that I can also settle differences through reasoned dialogue,” and that is how the military genius spoke as a potential statesman, and a seasoned politician.
The crowd loved the change. He told them further that he is a changed man, a man who will continue to learn from his mistakes. As he put, “ I will never say I will not make mistakes. I have participated in mistaken decisions that the party that I founded made. I will make mistakes again and continue to grow from them” This new tone appeared to be unusual to an Ethiopian audience that has never heard a public figure admitting mistakes, and willing to correct them every time mistakes are made. This too is a brilliant feature of the new party of the future. He assured the crowd that his stance on Eritrea separates the duty of respecting the Eritrean people from the oppressive regime that must be changed by force, if necessary. He contended that the war against Eriritrea, which he commanded masterfully, was aborted by the regime that stood on his way. Had he been permitted to finish the job, Ethiopia and Eritrea could have been spared of reeling under two oppressors, poverty, and war. He was prevented from finishing the job militarily by removing the oppressor, and the job was half done, and Ethiopians are now paying the price; similarly, he firmly denounced the regime for its involvement in Somalia as a political suicide. He is committed to the combat of terrorism by other means, short of an entrenched stay, which is endengering Ethiopian lives. He cried in his heart when he saw dead Ethiopian bodied being dragged on the streets of Somalia. Mr. Seeye, reiterated that the ultimate solution to the Eritrean question is a lasting blend of firmness and diplomacy, aimed at ending the poverty of the people of these two nations. He called this solution a win-win situation as opposed to a zero-sum game.
The speech turned toward an articulation of his goal, which he ably summarized into the following points.
1. He will continue to struggle for the release of all political prisoners, including his brother, Assefa Abraha.
2. He will appeal to the regime to change its ways and revise its national agenda by opening the public sphere and encouraging dissent and allowing contestations and debates with a formidable national party.
3. That his politics of forgiveness allows working with the prevailing regime, including its leader, for the sake of national unity. He harbors no bitterness, and is willing to work with all those leaders who love the Ethiopian people.
4. The party of the future should use the idea of ethnicity positively as a source national strength and not the death of the Ethiopian nation through spreading the venom of ethnic hate. He ended the speech by stressing that engaging the regime on any level is like walking on a sharp blade, but that he is prepared to die for a noble cause and that the new politics of excellence demands courage based on a strategic thinking. He advised the Ethiopian Diaspora to use its freedom and the power of the media at its disposal to pressure the regime to change its ways by developing a new strategy of putting a united front organized under a national party. This vision cannot take place if Ethiopians are, Seeye said, divided and boxed into ethnic groups busily fighting one another. He further advised that Ethiopians must use their classical virtue of tenacity to resist and fight oppression.
These dangerous times, which could lead to undesired results, must give to the politics of engagement and hope cemented on principled resistance. He announced his plan to continue speaking truth to power by risking his life, if need be. He appealed to learned Ethiopians and Eriritreans to forge new unity and solve their problems through reasoned dialogue, the centerpiece of his New Thinking.
After the speech was over with a standing crowd, attention was then turned to attend sixteen questions by engaged citizens.
The questions demanded answers to concerns revolving around (1) asking forgiveness (2) The mistakes of TPLF (3) Peaceful struggle (4) the question of the rights of nationalities (5) Supporting EPRDF (6) Federalism (7) Algiers Agreement (8) Languages (9) The Tigreans (10) The rule of Law (11) Eritrea (12) Non- violent struggle (13) The Eritrean question and peaceful solutions (14) National party (15) New democracy or a repeat of the same (16) Individuals and nationalities. He addressed them fully.
Most of the questions were addressed by the speech but I will highlight brief responses to answered questions and longer answers to newer ones.
1. I have made mistakes, and I may make mistakes again, not with intent to commit mistakes but with a clean heart that I’m doing good to my country.
2. Tigray is part of Ethiopia and that the pains of Tigreans ought to be looked as the pains of Ethiopians, and that the new politics of engagement should expand our horizons and not limit them. We must begin to suffer with any nationality of our country. Their pains and triumphs belong to us all. We must learn the arduous task of empathy and compassion.
3. The question of peaceful solution, foreign to most of us, has not been fully studied. We must study this method carefully and use it as a tactic of resisting oppression and minimizing human death through violent struggle.
4. The respect of ethnicities is not racist; it is a nuanced way of respecting Ethiopians as members of different language groups and ways of living. Individiduls did not choose to be born to ethnicities, but once they are born, then we must respect their ways. Tolerance of differences is the answer to the question of ethnic rights. Ultimately, there is no Ethiopian who is not blended with the Oromos who are spread across the length and breadth of the nation, and that this fact demands our respect. Thus the demand of the Oromos is not propelled by racism but ground on the fact that we are blended with the Oromo people.
5. Supporting or not supporting EPRDF is an expression of a political right, and not a matter the ruling party should use to victimize anyone.
6. Federalism as used by the current regime is a tool of controlling political space by dividing Ethiopia into ethnic spheres. Indeed, this particular use is manifestly a destructive use of ethnicity as an instrument of division that contributes to the centralization of power in the hands of the powers to be.
7. I have taken a firm stand against the Algiers Agreement as a serious blunder.
8. Yes, EPRDF has divided the nation by using ethnicity destructively. Whether or not the Oromos should speak Latin will be discussed in the future by the Ethiopian people under the atmosphere of freedom and via reasoned dialogue, free of domination.
9. Tigreans are Ethiopians too. They should not be attacked for their ethnicity. Nor should Tigreans be denuded of their right to support other groups, other than TPLF. They are individuals first and members of ethnic groups second. Not all Tigreans are supporters of the existing regime by virtue of being Tigrean.They have the right to choose Kinijit as the party of their hearts.
10. The rule of law is a sham at the moment. The very laws that the regime promulgated are the same that the regime is violating. The idea of respect for the rule of law has to penetrate our national consciousness. We yet have to create a society governed by the rule of law.
11. I had no intention of taking over the Eritrean nation. The strategy on behalf of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean people was to topple an oppressive regime that is disturbing the peace, and negotiating a reasoned solution impossible.
12. Hawzen was a tragedy for all Ethiopians.
13. Yes. The Eritrean question can be solved by a reasoned dialogue, which would benefit all parties. Both countries can gain from a peaceful solution that would allow Ethiopians to use the sea outlets and Eritrea to acquire a trading partner, a market for its goods. Look for mutually beneficial arrangements.
14. There are Ethiopians willing and capable of building a new national party out of the mosaic of its rich ethnicities and nationalities.
15. The new democracy will have to blend the best features of what we have built, and what united Ethiopians can forge.
16. The rights of the individual and the rights of nationalities are part of a single democracy and we are lacking in both; and when we can, we must satisfy both conditions.
These are highly condensed versions of answers to questions asked by a critically engaged and peacefully inclined audience, which gave Seeye an undivided attention, thus ending a remarkable conference on a beautiful night in Crystal city, Virginia, on January 5, 2008.