Yonas Biru, PhD
Ethiopian politicians are irredeemably polarized. If sensibly engaged, external parties such as the US can play a decisive role to break the impasse. The US requires to be judicious without being judicial and impartial without being neutral. This is where the challenge lies. The fact that you are the third US Envoy since April 21, 2021, attests to the challenge.
Ethiopia is an extraordinarily opaque nation. The political theater in Ethiopia can be synthesized and encapsulated in one pregnant line. It is a theater of the absurd where the protagonist and the antagonist are 16th century monks and 17 century peasants elbowing each other to claim the 21 st century. You can play a decisive role if and only if you figure out what tickles their fancy and tactfully sidestep it without trampling on it. If you fail to understand what makes their soul sing and their spirit dance, you will end up being a part of the problem. You will ultimately abandon your efforts and leave behind a country in worse shape than you started with. Your first steps suggest you are marching on a road more traveled into failure. You need a reboot.
My open letter is triggered by two meetings you had with two different groups of Ethiopians. In a nutshell, there are three groups of Ethiopians that you are dealing with, including the Abiy Administration. None is amenable to an internationally mediated resolution. The solution for Ethiopia comes by changing the rules of the game not by trying to find a common ground between them. In the current game, there is no middle ground. If by some miracle you tease out a common ground, they will change it into a battle ground in a New York second.
Currently, each group is jockeying for a position to accuse the other as the culprit for the failure of the yet to be commenced negotiation. A recent briefing by the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary in which she accused everybody under the sun of arming and financing TPLF and the daily tirade by TPLF’s spokesperson scream for attention and lesson.
My letter is divided into three parts. The first part provides you with a brief introduction of three political groups. The second section explains what Tigray and Oromo forces are seeking. The third section shows the danger in your approach. The last section provides a way forward.
Irredeemably Polarized Warring Factions
The first group is epitomized by ሙአዘ ጥበባን Daniel Kibret (henceforth “The ሙአዝ”) and Professor Al Mariam. The two are culturally frozen 16th century intellectual twins from different mothers, sleepwalking in the 21st century. The two happen to be aligned with the Prime Minister, but the group includes his arch enemies. The group believes the entire world is against Ethiopia because of its biblical history and godly culture, which, they believe, is drawn from the Scripture.
They are quick to remind you that Ethiopia appears in the King James version of the Bible 45 times and ask you if America is mentioned in the Bible at all. Before you digest that they rattle glorifying Ethiopian stories from Greek Mythology and try to convince you that mythology is a fact-based history. When you think you have heard it all, they will let you know Ethiopia has never been colonized. How about America, they will ask you. They believe “what is happening in the relationship between Ethiopia and the U.S. is a ‘clash of civilizations’. It is a clash between a civilization founded on white European supremacy and an African civilization deeply rooted in black independence.”
This group sees you as naturally predisposed to be jealous of Ethiopia because of her position on the totem pole of God’s kingdom and her history that she was never colonized. You did not help your case by taking a selfie with the TPLF guys. Your selfie, members of this group say, created suspicion, and your smile in the picture gave you up.
Having seen your smiling picture, Professor Al Mariam, a traditionalist Ethiopian who goes by an American first name went berserk. The Professor who holds a PhD and JD and writes in a Shakespearean English and Sports Einsteinian hairdo, is plenty sure that you are a part of the American establishment that is “doggedly committed to destroying Ethiopia because [it] wants to avenge the humiliating and devastating double loss of a white army in Africa in recorded history.” Some of the people you met a few days ago via Zoom were members of this group. You have better luck having a lunch date with a UFO than having a rational discussion with such souls.
The second group is made up of pre-intellectual tribal apostles who are arch enemies of the first group with one limitation. Their world outlook is narrower than a Nietzschean view of medieval era peasants. Nietzsche reminds us peasants have morality. Tribalism of the kind Ethiopia is living lacks morality. It is primitive in its outlook, degenerative in its nature and demonic all around.
All the atrocities you have heard about in present day Ethiopia are not driven by political conflict in the traditional sense. They are energized by impulse-driven animal instinct that is par for the
course for tribalist societies. Just because it is happening in the 21st century does not make it any different.
This group is on life support. The last thing you should do is supplying it with oxygen. But that is exactly what you did when you invited so many of its supporters for your meeting. If your goal is to eke out political concessions out of this group that will be akin to trying to resurrect Osama Bin Laden from the grave and training him as a pilot to fill the current shortage in pilots in the US. Be wary of the people who compiled the list of invitees for you.
The third group is the Abiy administration. I have been writing about Ethiopian politics since 1992 and I closely follow current events. I am yet to figure out the governing principle that the Prime Minister is governed by. One thing I know for sure is that he is a phenomenally visionary leader, and his reforms could have transformed our nation. Another thing I believe with a reasonable degree of certainty is that his administration is run partly by default and partly by prayers. His disdain for intellectuals and subject matter experts is matched only by his fervent attraction to the ሙአዝ. Few people understand that the ሙአዝ phenomenon is more damaging to Ethiopia’s future than the present day worn-out TPLF.
The ሙአዝ’s Ethiopia believes in “የኢትዮጵያ አምላክ” (Ethiopia’s God), which is different from the God the world Christian community believes in. The fact that the Abiy government is not making its case before the international community is explained partly by its paranoiac view of the West, partly by a dysfunctional administration, and partly by the belief that የኢትዮጵያ አምላክ will reveal it to the world. I think your God is not connecting with የኢትዮጵያ አምላክ. This may be due partly to a language problem, But English as a second language is an issue for another day.
What Does TPLF and the Oromos Led by Jawar Mohammed Want?
This is the one question that rules all the others. You must know this before you venture into Ethiopia’s affairs. The following question was raised by Tibor Nagy, former US Assistant Secretary of States: “What do the Tigrayans want? We discussed that question when I was in the US Government with no clear answer. Is there one?” This part of my letter is grafted from my article titled “Why the US needs to reset its approach to the conflict in Ethiopia” published in Canada.
There are three clear answers to Tibor Nagy’s question. All three involve granting Tigrayans special political privileges. The first demand is to grant Tigrayans more political voting rights in contravention of the “one-man/woman-one-vote” democratic principle. Tigrayans believe “Tigray is the cradle of Ethiopia’s civilization. If the PM insists that Tigray’s influence over the nation’s
business will be determined by the size of our population, we cannot accept that. The option will be secession.”
During the 27 years of TPLF rule, Tigray was treated as the Alpha tribe. Tigray is listed in the Constitution first. The listing is not alphabetical, not by size of the population. Nor is it by land mass. Although Tigray represented only 6 percent of the nation’s demography, it was given proportionally more voting rights than concomitant with its population size. For example, it has 38 seats in the national Parliament, 40 percent more than the Somali nation that has a greater population than Tigray.
To strengthen it economic base, the TPLF annexed swaths of fertile lands from the Amhara tribal land. This has been acknowledged by the Hon. Ras Mengesha Seyoum, a Tigrayan and former governor of Tigray under Emperor Haile Selassie, and Dr. Aregawi Berhe, the founding chairman of the TPLF. TPLF wants to keep Amhara lands it took by force.
Second, the TPLF demands special status in a confederation arrangement. As Time magazine noted, the group “has been demanding greater local autonomy” after its national political dominance “started to wane in 2018.” René Lefort of Le Monde has stated that the TPLF seeks “to govern Tigray with as little external interference as possible with a true confederalism.” This is a flagrant violation of the federalist Constitution, under which the TPLF itself had governed the country for 27 years. They believe in Tigrayan exceptionalism. They cannot be governed by what they consider backward Ethiopians South of them. They are white supremacists trapped in a black man’s body.
The third demand and what triggered the war was that they wanted to nullify the last national elections. The Tigray tribal land had its election in 2020, which the National Election Board of Ethiopia (a constitutionally empowered autonomous body) rejected as unconstitutional. The national elections and elections in all other tribal nations were conducted in 2021 in full compliance with the Election Board’s rules and regulations. However, TPLF unilaterally rejected the national elections and demanded a transitional government to prepare for new national elections. In the meantime, they stood by their 2020 election that the Election Board ruled illegal.
The US is on record that the TPLF “carried out attacks” against Ethiopia’s military to overthrow the PM and return to its former privileged status. In sum, what the TPLF wants is to: (1) maintain an Apartheid-like alpha tribe status to run itself without intervention from the federal government, while demanding more political power than its population warrants to influence the federal government and other tribal nations, and (2) keep parts of the Amhara land it took by force.
TPLF has lost its military power with which it tried to institutionalize and constitutionalize the Tigrayan exceptionalism creed. Its exceptionalism has surrendered to a nightmare reality: Tigrayan humanitarian crisis. Currently, it has two options of last resort: The international community and humanitarian crisis, which it leverages.
If you wish to find a lasting solution you must not give TPLF a lifeline to its Tigrayan exceptionalism illusion. This is where the US can be judicious without being judicial and impartial without being neutral. The US must have some baseline principles and let it be known. Given the humanitarian crisis, it is understandable if the US tries to help bring it to an end even at the expense of allowing both TPLF and the Ethiopian government escape accountability to atrocities committed during the war. But this should not in any way entail allowing TPLF to eke out political concessions out of its failed war adventure.
Let us Turn to What the Oromo Led by Jawar Mohammed need?
This section is borrowed from my article titled “The Silver Lining in Ethiopia’s Darkest Moment Shows All the Stars are Aligned in Its Favor.” After 50 years of an unholy Oromo liberation theology, the concept of Greater Oromia seemed to have won against all odds when Jawar Mohammed claimed the Oromo tribal theology altar. The young leader was supposed to bring Oromo’s long struggle to a thrilling climax. Instead, he proved anti-climactic.
In his heydays, Jawar was seen as the Oromo Man-God who popularized the contemptuous “Ethiopia out of Oromia” creed. He tried to erase Adwa from Ethiopian history to rebrand Ethiopia as Oromia-plus the miscellaneous others, under the current Constitution. He is on the record saying:
•Multinational federalism ingrained in the current constitution is here to stay. It’s not up for discussion, let alone negotiation.”
•To those who doubted his bluff, he was quick to remind them that “the real power resides with Qerro [the group he ruled] and that Qerro is able to takeover Addis Ababa within 24 to 48 hours.” He added: “If war (“ግብግብ”) is needed, that is easier for me because all I need to do is incite Qerro and tell them let us finish the job we have started.”
•On September 13, 2019, he issued a bold ultimatum to the Prime Minister’s party, the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), not to tinker with constitutional reform as its election strategy. He announced that ODP cannot go to the election before it
agrees on a power-sharing arrangement with other Oromo tribalist parties. “We will not allow competition within the various Oromo parties… We must build a consensus and have a united front behind the current ethnic federalist system.”
•He added: “We cannot allow ODP to behave like a ship that has lost its compass…
They cannot tell us this is their party, and they can do what they choose to do. We will not allow that.” This is on tape.
•He dictated a narrative to create a hegemonic Oromo and gave the PM an ultimatum to fall in line or expect to meet Ethiopia with “an expiration date.” This, too, is on tape.
Then came the 2021 election. Team Jawar was struggling with financial shortage to challenge the Prime Minister’s party in every voting district and the prospect of winning a majority was somewhere between zero and nil, give or take a few points. Therefore, Team Jawar withdrew and launched a campaign to have the people of Oromo boycott it. OLF-Shene threatened the Oromo people that they would risk being machinegunned and bombed at the voting stations. Seventy-eight percent of the eligible voters registered, and 74 percent came out to vote. They stood in line for as many as 10 hours and voted for the Prime Minister’s Prosperity Party.
In the end, Jawar’s political stunt expedited his own expiration date. Today, moderate Oromos are with the Prime Minister and radical Oromos are with OLF-Shene, leaving Jawar without a political base. The glamorized image of Jawar’s Greater Oromia turned into a diabolical reality of bestiality and monstrosity in the hands of OLF-Shene. A diminished radical Greater Oromia now exists as a fugitive in the forests of Wellega, sleeping by day and spreading terror and barbarism by night.
These days, with a more introspective character, Jawar portrays a duality. On the one hand, we see a realist Jawar who is in quest of liberating himself from his past. On the other hand, we see him trying to leverage the international community for a negotiated political concession.
The people of Oromo have risked being bombed at the voting stations and casted their votes. Whatever the US does, it must push Jawar and company to live by the will of the people. Once Jawar and company realize they cannot leverage the international community to eke out political concessions, their political calculus will change. Once again, the US needs to be impartial without being neutral. Impartiality does not require the US to turn a blind eye. Only when the US stands with principle can it change the rule of the game and bring about a positive change. Help Jawar and
company to honor the will of the people and prepare for the next election. Let them know the US’s position is that the outcome of the 2021 election cannot be overturned in form or substance. Jawar and company cannot use a backdoor for political concession after boycotting the election which they knew they would not win.
What the US Does Can Save or Push Ethiopia Over the Cliff
From the get-go, let me reveal parts of this section that are borrowed verbatim from my earlier articles. The Ethiopian Constitution is billed and marketed as a constitution that establishes the rights of all tribes large and small. In practice, the Constitution has three different classes of tribes with different levels of constitutional rights and protections. The first class consists of Tigray, Afar, Amara, Oromia, Somali, Benshangul-Gumaz, Gambela, and Harari Peoples. They are fully recognized and granted constitutional rights to govern themselves.
The second class is the Southern Peoples Region. Southern Peoples is the only region in the Constitution that is not a tribal land. It can be referred to as the constitution’s miscellaneous region. The region is a square peg that does not fit into the philosophical underpinnings of the tribal constitution’s circle. Its establishment was an afterthought and driven by a desire to form an economically viable region. The larger tribes within the region such as Sidama, Wolaita, Hadiya and Gurage each have more population than Afar, Benishangul, Gambella and Harari People. Yet, they were not given Autonomy to administer themselves.
Their rights to form their own autonomous region was stripped to form a region, consisting of a hotchpotch of dozens of smaller tribes. Since smaller tribes are not economically viable to exist on their own, the larger tribes were forced to serve as their constitutionally sanctioned adoptive partners.
The third class consists of two dozen small tribes that the Constitution does not even recognize by name. The only place they are included in the Constitution (without being mentioned) is in Articles 61 and 62, as members of the Council of Federation. Though the Council of Federation is a legislative body (often compared to the US Senate), it has no legislative power. It is denied legislative power to enact or block the enactment of laws.
The Constitution provides for 9 tribal Presidents. Ethiopia does not have regional governors. It has tribal Presidents with their own flags, palaces, and security details and all. Recently, Sidama relinquished its adoption (ጉዲፈቻ) responsibility and made itself a free tribal land and upgraded itself to be a member of the first-class tribal colony. It now has its own President, flag, palace, and
all. There are nearly more than a dozen tribes who are fighting for their own tribal land or a cluster of tribal lands different from the current tribal divides.
Every leader of tribal politics wants to be President. At the writing of this letter, there are at least two groups campaigning to create their own tribal enclaves, breaking out of the Amhara tribal land. Many of the people who met you via Zoom are business people, scholars, professionals, cab drivers, Uber drivers, etc. They all want to be Presidents of their tribal land. If the process continues, it will not be long before we see 84 Presidents in Ethiopia.
As every tribe fights to carve out its own little kingdom, Ethiopia will enter a new era that will bring border conflicts with long-term consequences of epic proportions. The race to the bottom will be fueled by what physicists call entropy of the second law of thermodynamics. In politics, the entropy dynamics propels societies into a self-destructive state of random chaos. This happens as a systemic social order splinters into smaller components that spin out of control in a way that is not predictable. Experts in the field tell us that the only solution is to introduce new energy to defuse and douse the negative energy that is causing random chaos. That is why I said the solution resides outside of the current game.
The people of Ethiopia have rejected every radical tribal party and voted for the Prosperity Party. In the Amhara tribal land there were several hardliner tribal parties. They won zero seats collectively. Only 44 percent of the eligible voters came out to vote for the Prosperity Party. Those who were not excited about the Prosperity Party stayed home rather than casting their votes for tribal parties.
Sadly, the ሙአዝ doctrine that sees the international community as a natural enemy does not allow the government to explain the state of the union to the international community and find support to address the problem. Be that as it may, changing the destructive current day politics requires decelerating not accelerating the energy that is feeding into the tribal entropy. That is what the people of Ethiopia did when they casted their vote in 2021. Whatever you do in Washington, it must be aligned with the will of the people. Meeting with Uber drivers who want to be mini presidents of their villages will not bring peace to Ethiopia.