By Tesfaye Maru
A lot of positive and negative things have been said about Elias Kifle, the publisher of the Ethiopian Review. There were times that he appeared like any citizen who is genuinely angry about the gross human rights violations that are taking place in Ethiopia and is doing his part to expose them. As such, many of his commentators on his web site refer to him as “the true son of Ethiopia”. On the other hand, there were more instances where he stooped to the lowest of lows to attack people with whose politics he doesn’t agree. In that respect, many accusations have been thrown his way. Some say that despite screaming out for what he says is democracy, he is hardly a democrat; that he would do the same thing this government is doing if he is to hold any power; that his disrespect for people he disagrees with does not promote democratic behavior and is sickening; that his frequent willingness to stoop to the lowest of places to attack people is disgusting; that he promotes “extremism” and so on. Of course, I have heard people praising him or crucifying him depending on who is being attacked.
Personally, I have found it equally sickening when he said Tefera Walwa is “[the dumbest person in the EPRDF cabinet]”, that Hailu Shawel and company are all sorts of names, and Dr. Berhanu Nega was a Kehadi of some sort (that was before he became his new found “hero” now). Whether the victims are deserving of it or not, the ease with which he bad mouths people has always made me uncomfortable. As for the “extremist” views he promotes, I had given him the benefit of the doubt or even defended him, not just because he has the right to self expression, but also because I do not like to delude myself into thinking that those are opinions held by him alone. If the rating of his web site is any indication (despite all those annoying pop-up ads), it seems that he has a significant following and whether we like it or not, he brings that fact to light for us. What to do with that information is another question. All in all, as much as I have been sickened by some of his activities, I have also given him the benefit of the doubt in the face of many accusations thrown against him. But I have never brought myself to write a serious commentary about it.
However, one of the latest rumors circulating about him – that he is sponsored by the Eritrean regime – coupled with his recent activities, has caught my attention and is not a matter that I felt should be passed without some examination because his activities are negatively affecting people and causes many of us care about. Let’s get some things clear before we move on: first of all, no one has come forward with any hard evidence showing that Elias Kifle is paid by the Eritrean government for what he does. So far it’s all rumors. Second, we have to ask ourselves a question: does anybody really have to be paid by Eritrea to raise the prospect of cooperating with it? I do not think so. In fact, at one point, it appeared to me as if he was being used by some politicians who want to test the water before considering the dangerous option of cooperating with Eritrea. But that is only my suspicion, and those are only politicians. What do average Ethiopian say about this? During the last Great Ethiopian Run, it was reported that some youngsters were chanting “Gifa belew Shabian, gifa belew!” Furthermore, I have talked on the phone to random Ethiopians back home and have heard positive reviews of Isayas Afewerqi. My point is this: the fact that Elias Kifle promotes these opinions should not be the sole reason to suspect that he is getting paid for it. The truth is that, fortunately or unfortunately, however way you look at it, this opinion belongs to a significant portion of our populace. Although many Ethiopians understand the harm Isayas’ government has caused and the threat he continues to pose on our country, they are genuinely worried that Meles’ power in the region will be even more strengthened if the former is removed from power. There is also the short sighted perspective: though they understand the brutal hand he has been exercising on his own people, given the stubbornness of our people, they would rather embrace Isayas and the double standard that comes with it and score any point they could against Meles’ and company. I do not believe these people are treasonous or want bad things to happen to our country. Some have viable arguments, and others just feel suffocated and helpless in the current political situation. How to deal with these people and their opinions, and channel their energy into more productive and long sighted ways of freeing our country is a topic for another essay.
Under normal circumstances, I would not think it is productive to speculate about a person’s motive and would just stick to discussing the merit in the idea being promoted. And as I said above, the issue of cooperation with Eritrea is an opinion held by so many well meaning Ethiopians, so it is not something we can get past by denouncing the opinion holders and the opinion. Thus, the merit of the idea must be debated in a respectful environment. I am sure that if these people are presented with logical and convincing arguments as to how dangerous it is for our country in the long term to team up with Eritrea, they would be willing to abandon any thing, let alone an opinion, for the sake of our country. I am also sure that many of these people, despite entertaining such ideas of cooperation with a living enemy of our nation, do understand the importance of our different pro democracy organizations and are providing them with all the support they need.
However, when it comes to Elias Kifle, there is something that makes him different from all these people who just happened to hold those opinions; and that is what calls for the examination of what could be his real motive or any other underlying reason for his actions. As I have said, motive may not matter as long as we can debate the merit of an idea with reason. But in such cases when there is no merit to an idea and when, giving no room to discussions and debates, the man jumps to campaigns of destruction, it is important for us to learn if there is a hidden motive.
What makes Elias Kifle different from the average Tafese promoting any idea? It is not just the fact that he is the publisher of one of the highest rated Ethiopian web sites. First of all, the arguments he so fervently puts out in support of the ideals he promotes are mostly short sighted, and devoid of logic and detail. He makes his foreign policy advices in the kitchen and he doesn’t even seem to cook them. Secondly, despite the weaknesses of those ideas, he does not seem to leave any room for disagreement. After he comes up with those ideas, (heaven spare those on his way!) it is his way or death. He will then invest so much time and energy, and sell his own name and integrity (I do not know the man personally, but I am just giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he had one) to unleash some of the most disgusting and vicious personal attacks on people who are respected and revered by many. Never and nowhere have I seen the kinds of attacks Elias Kifle has at different times unleashed against different personalities in the Ethiopian political arena. Not even on those sickening government sponsored web sites! This man does not know the difference between young and old! He attacks opposition politicians, who have done nothing but risk their lives to face our gun-totting-mistake-for-a-government on a daily basis, the same way he attacks the child killers (in fact worse on countless occasions!)!
So please tell me: if a person is all about democracy and what is best for the country, doesn’t it make sense to you that he would present his disagreements with logical arguments and invite discussions open mindedly? And even in the case of loss of hope for such discussions, how about going off and supporting those political organizations he likes? Why so much drive to destroy others? And why the need for so much vicious attacks on the personalities behind organizations he doesn’t agree with? Let’s examine some of his recent activities and see if we can find answers.
The past couple of weeks, he has been trying to do two things: one is to pressure the newly formed Ginbot 7 into cooperating with Eritrea and embrace armed struggle fully among other things; and the other is trying to destroy the UDJ. There are two possible reasons that I can think of: one is that, as some say, he is actually receiving an incentive to promote the idea of armed struggle and the necessity it entails – Eritrea – at the cost of what is best for our country; the other is that he is genuinely concerned about our country, but is politically ignorant and lacks in strategic thinking.
Let’s explore the first possibility by asking an important question: who and what does Elias Kifle support? I will try to answer this question by pointing out two things. First, in his attempt to see the end of the UDJ before it even begins, he tries to portray himself as the supporter of Ginbot 7 and demands the leaders of the former that they free their support organizations across the world from their obligations so that they could support the latter. He also calls on them to close down all operations and join Ginbot 7. But he really isn’t a supporter of the latter either. Because, just the week before, he was giving them an ultimatum to “prove themselves in six months” and among the list of demands he was making was embracing armed struggle and cooperating with the Eritrean government. Looking at all the “recommendations” and demands he makes of Ethiopian political groups, the issue of armed struggle, and thus, cooperation with Eritrea seems to stand out. It seems to be the standard with which he judges all groups. What this means is that if Ginbot 7 does not “prove themselves in six months” by doing those two things (they are really one because seeking Eritrean support is almost a must if you are pursuing armed struggle), we should expect Elias to attack the organization, degrade its leaders, call them names, etc…Therefore, we can establish here that he is no genuine supporter of Ginbot 7. He is a supporter of what they can be if they follow his advices, with no room for disagreement, of course. (Never forget the rule: Elias yalew weyim mot!)
Second, he tries to portray himself as someone who wants a viable struggle waged against the status quo in Ethiopia and is accepted by many of his supporters as such. That doesn’t seem to be the case either; at least not to me. Because if it was, this man would keep an open mind like Ginbot 7 does and tolerate and be inclusive of all those who are in the struggle in their different ways as long as they are not harming the cause or our country. Even if there was to be a disagreement, a pro democracy Ethiopian would disagree with the ideas and support those groups he/she agrees with. But we all know that is not what Elias does. What he does is: the minute he has figured that his “armed struggle and Eritrea” policy is not being embraced by a certain organization; he would unleash a barrage of personal attacks on its leaders and start a campaign to destroy the organization in question. His behavior, let alone being of a democracy promoter, is an epitome of the very thing that has been destroying our countless organizations, associations, parties, etc…As such, by all measuring standards, it is very hard to say this man’s goal among other goals, let alone the only goal, is democracy in Ethiopia.
Therefore, what we infer from the two points raised above is that Elias Kifle is a supporter of armed struggle and cooperation with Eritrea above anything else. But to what end? We do not know and that is something only he can answer, but we have established that it sure doesn’t seem like it is for democracy. And this leaves the option of a hidden motive wide open.
If that is not the case and the man genuinely wants democracy for Ethiopia, then the only other possible reason left for his actions is sheer political ignorance and lack of strategic thinking among other things.
First of all, his attempt to portray Ginbot 7 and the UDJ as organizations that are opposites, as opposed to ones that can compliment each other, is lack of understanding of the very philosophy on which the former is formed. Ginbot 7 has made it clear that its goal is to bring together all democracy loving Ethiopian parties, movements, civic organizations, etc…for the purpose of joining efforts in the struggle against the dictatorship and shorten its time in power. They did not say they want to destroy any body. Even more importantly, the last thing the leaders of Ginbot 7 would like to see happen is their former Kinijit colleagues – whom they know to have integrity and dedication – denigrated, disrespected, and called names. I am sure that Elias’ former enemy but new found hero, Dr. Berhanu Nega himself, strongly disapproves the former’s attacks on UDJ’s leaders. As such, Elias is not only distorting or misinterpreting the stated goals of Ginbot 7, but also stepping all over the personal values of its leaders and portraying them in a bad light.
Secondly, he makes an attempt to portray leaders of the UDJ as complacent with the sufferings that are happening in Ethiopia at the moment, as fearful of prison, as people who want full time jobs with travel options, and as fake opposition who are only there to give the government legitimacy. He gives no substantive evidence to prove his points, and past and current records of the individuals point to the opposite. The only thing left for me to say is that he completely misses the point of why the UDJ exists under the current circumstances in Ethiopia. Before I go on to explain this, let’s quickly go over each accusation. 1. The leaders do criticize the government on various issues although it may not be to the satisfaction of Mr. Elias and his likes. All one needs to do is read the various interviews they have been giving. 2. They obviously are not fearful of prison because, if they were, they would have remained in the U.S. or Europe or simply stayed out of politics. 3. Most of these people are well educated individuals with better than average jobs or personal businesses before joining politics and they still have those options open. Or as I have said before, they could have decided to seek asylum elsewhere, create a web site, unleash all sorts of angry rants, score high ratings and live off ads. So, obviously, they are not in need of jobs. (Isn’t he mocking his readers when he suggests that people like Dr. Yaeqob Hailemariam are in need of full time jobs that let them travel around the world?) 4. Lastly, their past and present records of integrity and continued willingness to put their lives at risk to carry out the promises they have made to stand for democracy proves beyond doubt that they are not a fake party created to give the ruling party legitimacy.
So, what exactly is Elias missing? Many important points. First, if Ginbot 7 ever succeeds in pressuring this government to dialogue or even remove it, we need a viable party that will sit at the other end of the table or be ready to compete for power. Ginbot 7 is not a political party; it is a movement. Its stated goal of bringing other parties and groups together, and the way it is structured at the moment prevent it from quickly transforming itself into a political party and joining the competition in case this government is removed or pressured to open the political space. Therefore, for that day, we need a political party that was established and maintained openly and democratically, not clandestinely like Ginbot 7. We need a party that has gone to every end of the country to organize members, promote democratic ideals, and amass members and their support. Furthermore, the culture of peaceful struggle is badly needed in our country and people deserve a chance to experience it, practice it, live it and see its result at the end. They deserve a chance to establish from scratch a democratic party that does business in a transparent way, carry it to victory and call themselves the primary stake holders. UDJ is our best shot to achieve these purposes.
Secondly, in order to achieve the above stated goals of establishing a party based on grassroots support, UDJ leaders must do all it takes – including walking on tip-toes around those criminals occupying our palaces – without going against the democratic stances of the party. They must do all their best to escape prison for one more day, and save their party from being denied existence for as long as possible. The more days they could spend outside prison, the more chance they have to take the party to all corners of the country and sew the seeds of democracy. Establishing the party and strengthening its roots is more important for the long term benefit of our cause than going to war over the denial of their meeting rights. It is more important than issuing daily statements criticizing the government over its non-endless flaws, mistakes and blunders. First, who can keep up with these things? Second, there is no point to them banging their heads on a wall over issues the entire world already knows. The question is what to do about it! Elias screams his lungs out at the government every day; what has happened? Under normal circumstances, if there was freedom, opposing political parties would criticize the incumbent party over all sorts of things to make clear to the public where they stand. In our case, it could take them to prison any day. I am not saying anything will save them from prison, but the longer they stay outside, the better it is for our cause in the long run. UDJ is saying we must refuse to quit in the face of injustice. That we must not allow these criminals to run us out of our country! We must refuse to admit that we are not smart enough to defeat them even with their guns held against our heads! And by God, we have got to be the luckiest people in the world that we have people like Bertukan Mideksa, Yaekob Hailemariam, Gizachew Shiferaw, Hailu Araya, etc…who are more than willing to put themselves at the fore front in this dangerous ride!
All those who want democracy, are objective, open minded and understand the complexity of politics cannot look at the issue of the two organizations as one or the other. I understand if people who are adamant about supporting the peaceful and peaceful alone path the UDJ follows disagree with Ginbot 7. However, those who support the latter cannot argue, based on any stated stance of the organization, that they disagree with or denounce the UDJ. In fact, their cause is best served by supporting it in all that is possible. If not for the methods they have chosen, the leaders of UDJ need to be supported and blessed for their personal commitment to the cause of democracy and their willingness to be on the ground serving it.
Elias has a lot of explaining to do as to the real motives of his actions. I think we have the right to know who is behind these endless attacks against people and organizations many Ethiopians hold so dear and find them to be important to the future of our nation.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]