A Call for Meaningful Reconciliation for Lasting Peace in East Africa


Currently, East Africa is in a volatile political situation. It has been a political battle ground by various forces from within and from without. With no doubt, it is in the spotlight by many observers as well as interested parties. The resolution of the political conflict in a peaceful manner must be in the interest of all the parties directly involved and others. 


A quick survey of the countries in the region suggests that peace and stability are the most precious political commodities in the region today.


Somalia has been destabilized over a decade ago and no one from outside knows with certainty what is on the ground today in that country.


Eritrea became independent about a dozen years ago. However, the leader of the country seems to find himself at loggerheads with his own people and former comrades in arms. There are groups with old wounds from his front. Years have been counted since Eritreans started to flock to Ethiopia to seek refugee in the country they voted to be independent from just about a dozen years ago.


Ethiopia has been effectively in the hands of a tiny minority group of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) for the last fourteen years. The TPLF may have felt that it won the war with the Derg, the former ruling group in Ethiopia led by the communist dictator Mengistu Hailemariam. Yet serious observers believe the war was rather won by the pressure from various directions. Failing to observe this, the TPLF ruled the country practically unilaterally for the last fourteen years with confidence. However, its confidence is short-lived because by now, it has practically lost its once unflinching power in the country.


The frustration caused by this minority group to the other majority groups has been simmering for a long time and caused emotions to run high in many quarters. That by itself may have contributed to the quick mobilization of opposition forces against the party in power in the run-up to the May 2005 legislative elections. As if to add insult to injury, Meles Zenawi recently warned the oppositions that if they incite violence using public demonstrations, the instigators would “burn.” He seems to have run out of even vocabularies in his political discourse. 


The two main opposition parties that gained a large number of seats as well as their supporters leave a big room to show farsighted leadership. In fact, they seem to be playing hide and seek between themselves already. The first opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), has been the forerunner in calling for civic demonstrations. To this call, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) seems to prefer to be in the back seat yet at the same time not making its position clear whether to complete the vote rigging debacle in a peaceful process or not.


The CUD seems to think that it won the recent legislative elections in many places including in those areas where the rejection of the EPRDF earned it some votes. It is apparent from its political rhetoric that the CUD would have us believe that it won enough seats on its own to form the next government. It would have us believe that it really represents all the peoples in Ethiopia even though close observers know full well that it is a political fortress of politicians from the Amharic speaking peoples.


That is what the combination of some personalities in the leadership of the party suggests. It is a combination of politicians who affirm that there are no people called Amhara and those former leaders of the All Amhara People’s Organization (AAPO). Our imagination fails us to see what political philosophy brings together some who were set out to defend the interests of the Amhara people and others who profess that there are no people called Amhara.


Hailu Shawul, a former leadership member of the AAPO, told us a few years ago that his party known as the All Ethiopia Unity Party was formed in the north and planned to expand into the south. Interestingly, the northern Amhara region and the Chartered cities are where this party won the votes in large proportion compared to all the other states in Ethiopia.


Lidatu Ayalew, the former leader of the youth arm of AAPO, now confuses us that he is fighting for all of the peoples in Ethiopia on a balanced footing. He seems to have been going at quicker pace even compared to his own colleagues in his party in calling for civil unrest that could potentially destabilize the country.


In the early 1990s, Dr. Admasu “The Detective” Gebeyehu, the founder and leader of one of the parties in the CUD, would spend one full evening going around dormitories of students and call for an all-student meeting the next evening at the institute where he was the dean at the time to detect if there were any OLF involvement in a well founded student protest at the institute. After his two day detective investigations, he would admit that he found no indication of the sort in the process of his conversations with the students he talked to on a group basis or at the all-student meeting. That was how much he went overboard only to find out his perception wrong. However, it tells a lot about how far he can go in matters that concern the OLF, which is struggling for the right of the Oromo people. In the process, he settled back with the added name of “The Detective” by some students who were caught by surprise in his anxiety of attempting to find what was not there.


These clues about the personalities in the CUD and the party's stated stand to redraw the federal map will not give the Oromo people any reason to view the CUD as a political party that represents them. Instead, the combination of its leadership is suggestive of a fortress of the Amharic speaking people’s politicians who are out to stand in the way of liberty of the Oromo people within democratized Ethiopia.


The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) which stood afar from the ongoing debacle and enjoys the overwhelming majority of Oromo political activists as well as the Oromo mass is not without its own troubles. Having been split into two groups which now seems to be propagated officially to the public, the main group is claiming to lead the struggle of the Oromo people whereas the splinter group is claiming to be leading the organization itself. The very fact that the OLF made its office in the Eritrean capital of Asmara makes us question whether its policies are not predicated on the interests of the state of Eritrea. In fact, how much of OLF’s policies since 1991 has been tied to the interest of the state of Eritrea has already become a hot subject of discussion.


Overall, what is happening in the region seems to be nothing less than a political drama. The critical players are already being pointed at while still on the political stage.


The script of the theatre seems to have been written by the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) that was part of the overall movement that brought down Hailesellassie’s rule over thirty years ago. Yet, this student movement seems to be still learning the art of politics, and has not developed wisdom of its own, or is it able to pick up the wisdom of its forefathers. Perhaps, it needs to be reminded of one of Amharic’s: alebabsew biyarsu be aram yimalasu, which roughly means plowing by covering weeds is for coming back to it.

What is at stake today may be graver than coming back to the weed. Some may never come back to this opportunity. In their rhetoric, all the political groups lack the factor of time dimension in the social state of our region. Not many seem to be aware of the reign of Dark Age for nearly two millennia in East Africa. Some subconscious politicians in the region talk about Renaissance in that part of the world without a full understanding of its Dark Age. Some are, in fact, unwittingly driving the region into further Dark Age at this time.


Today is the time for all sides to do some soul searching and look at their as well as other parties’ weaknesses and strengths including good intensions.


The EPLF, the OLF and the TPLF fought a bitter war against the Derg and finally won. Removing the Derg and cultivating the notion of respect between the various nations and nationalities in Ethiopia was a formidable achievement. Their intentions to liberate their respective peoples should also be commended. It must be acknowledged that they all had positive intentions for their peoples.


However, the intentions went wrong when the former rebel movement leaders, after winning the struggle, failed to root out their propensity for revenge. The above three organizations have been led by university students who went to the jungle at young ages. Consequently, all lack the wisdom that can be acquired by living among the civil society at an active adult age. Instead, the sense of suspicion and insecurity may dictate these leaders who have been playing hide and seek with their enemies. Such predicament is evident in the languages of these organizations' top officials.


After bringing down the rule of the Derg, Isaias Afeworki of the EPLF is reported to have said that he gave 100 years of homework to Ethiopia only to find out the complexity of the problem he gave away as homework come back to stare him in the face fourteen years later for a length of time no one knows. A conscious and visionary leader would deliver language of cooperation instead of revenge. The EPLF subconsciously sent a cruel blade in the flesh of the Afar and Tigre speaking peoples to divide them into two countries in the name of independence and to frame that independence of the state of Eritrea on dried blood that was spilled during the war it waged with the Derg. Wisdom would demand that no matter what the sacrifice that was paid, the descendants of the Aksumite civilization would, when the opportunity came their way, build a common home. King Ezana would be probably shivering if he were to learn in his grave that the descendants of the Aksumite civilization today live separated into two different countries.


During his fourteen years of rule in Ethiopia, Meles never tires to characterize the citizens who disagree with his policies “vagabonds” and “unemployed youth”, perhaps forgetting that he is their leader as well. He has chosen to advance policies that benefit Eritrea at the expense of the directly affected people of Afar and Ethiopia. In the last fourteen years, it appears that Meles chose to stretch himself too thin between the interests of Eritrea and his constituency in Ethiopia and we are not sure if he is still stretched too thin or standing on one foot. Wisdom demands that Meles would not be half-hearted between Ethiopia and Eritrea; or incase he is full-hearted to one side, he should make full disclosure of that to all the affected parties.


Some careful observers are already advising us to rethink what has happened since 1991. In his May 5, 2005, testimony before the House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Dr. David H. Shinn, put it eloquently: the [dispute over the demarcation of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border] is, in fact, much greater than the demarcation of the border and involves the totality of the Ethiopian-Eritrean relationship both today and since 1991.”


In light of what we have come to witness and such observations from third parties, it may not be surprising if this becomes a ground for a future government in Ethiopia to nullify all documents signed by Meles and then declare war on the state of Eritrea. It may not be surprising if future leaders of the most populous land-locked nation in the world are tempted to get direct access to the sea by any means necessary including assistance to the Afar people in Ethiopia, especially if it becomes apparent that they were denied such access under mischievous circumstances. Despite their weaknesses, the oppositions have the issue of the country's access to sea as their strong point.


Lenco Lata, the former deputy chairman of the OLF who fails to distinguish between organizational flag and the national flag of the Oromo people may have his fair share of the ups and downs of the politics in Ethiopia. The OLF was mute in the separation of the Afar people between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1993. Wisdom dictates that the OLF, as the political organization of the Oromo people who are closer to the Afar people than the Tigrigna speaking leaders in Asmara, would demonstrate its concern about the injustice committed against these kin of the Oromo people. In addition, the Oromo people and other Cushitic peoples may have been roaming along the Red Sea coast before the sailors from Yemen crossed over to the African side of this sea, and some of their descendants would be the decision makers in denying these people any corridor to the sea. In the pages of history, all players will not escape judgment someday. 


The Oromo people have yet to learn why the OLF leadership is taken hostage in Asmara for several years now, especially when even members of the ruling party in Eritrea are escaping from their country. In the strictest political sense, OLF’s presence in Asmara gives Isaias a political card to play even against his former comrades in arms and there is no moral high ground for the OLF in this. Instead of being taken hostage, perhaps, the OLF should advise the EPLF to enter into negotiation with other parties in our region for a regional political settlement.  


All the political players in Ethiopia as well as Eritrea are not immune from critical weaknesses. None of them can escape strict scrutiny. Yet, with all their weaknesses, they are the peoples’ political parties. What they should do is not political trickery, but farsighted political deliberation that should lay solid political foundation for all the peoples concerned. All the peoples in Ethiopia should also be far sighted as to tame their political leaders not to take them in the wrong direction that will be hard to back out.


All Oromo political parties should tap into the very rich wisdom of the Oromo people and spearhead the resolution of the political problem in Ethiopia as well as the region. The majority should not only look for the benefits, but also face the challenges since the most losers if events take us in the wrong direction may well be the majority. The TPLF should not parade some ill-informed, not-informed and misinformed Oromo groups by promising them some rights so that the TPLF would get out of the political gridlock it put itself in. Today, all Oromo political parties seem to be not free from an Abyssinian group’s political alliance: the OLF with the EPLF, the ONC with the CUD and the OPDO as well as WAFIDO with the TPLF. Yet all the Oromo groups have Oromia and the Oromo people as their common denominators that are the locus of peace and stability in Ethiopia and by extension in East Africa. The cooperation of other parties with them will only make the assurance of peace and stability in our region stronger.


Once peace and stability is assured, all the political issues should go to the people's courts. The issue of Assab should go to the Afar people's court and verdict. Oromo question should go to the Oromo people's court and verdict. The list can go on, and when the verdicts come out from all the courts, the short-sighted political players will the stage to be replaced by genuine leaders that will pull the region out of all the ills it has been in during its Dark Age.