By Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam
Author’s Note: In a recent interview on Voice of America- Amharic Service (for audio of original English interview click here) former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and U.S. ambassador, Herman Jay (Hank) Cohen, called for U.S. mediation and reconciliation among stakeholders in Ethiopia to prevent the “collapse of law and order” in Ethiopia.
Ambassador Cohen has played a critical role in recent Ethiopian history. By some accounts, he sought to play a constructive role in Ethiopia in 1991 by facilitating that country’s transition to democratic rule but was overtaken by events and crafty duplicity of rebel leaders of the TPLF and their confederates. At the time, Newsweek observed, “To avoid further bloodshed, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, who chaired the negotiations, had to jettison original plans and make unexpected alliances, backing the rebel seizure of the capital and Eritrean demands for self-determination, but warning that Ethiopia “cannot expect international cooperation without democracy.” He is also credited for “working urgently to bring about a broad-based interim government that would preserve Ethiopian unity.”
Critics have described the ambassador’s mediatory role in 1991 as “Cohen’s Coup”.
Over the years, Ambassador Cohen has been an outspoken critic of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its monopoly on political power and domination of the Ethiopian economy.
In 2012, Ambassador Cohen said, “They [TPLF] are condemned to rule the country as a minority and that is very dangerous for [Ethiopia’s] stability.”
In December 2015, Ambassador Cohen condemned extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions by the TPLF regime. “The political leaders of the Ethiopian Government have a policy of killing all opponents who take to the streets to demonstrate against them. Other opponents who do not demonstrate but make public statements instead, are sent to jail for long periods. I fail to understand why the Ethiopian regime feels it is necessary to exercise such extreme control to the point of committing murder periodically against their own citizens.”
In December 2017 (interview below), summarizing his discussions with U.S. officials regarding the current crises in Ethiopia, Ambassador Cohen recounted, “I said that mainly there is no sharing of economic or political power, and that there was such a small group that I said very unhealthy and it would not last. It couldn’t possibly last, which I see evidence now but it is not lasting.”
In his interview, Ambassador Cohen expresses deep concern over the “breakdown of law and order” in Ethiopia, the “central government’s loss of control”, the “general feeling of disintegration” and the destructive nature of “ethnic politics” in Ethiopia. He calls for “reconciliation” through broad public participation including “women, youth, the press” and other marginalized groups. He laments the fact that the TPLF “decided to have a minority regime which did not share economic power as well as political power.”
I do not know if Ambassador Cohen has undertaken his efforts to encourage the TPLF regime to act in its own best rational interest and save itself from the error of its ways and eventual doom, or merely lending his long and substantial experience in African affairs to do what he can to avert the creeping civil war in the country. I also do not know if he reflects in one form or another American policymakers’ perceptions of events in Ethiopia and official policy orientation on the status quo in Ethiopia.
There may be some who speculate Ambassador Cohen is sending out an unofficial official trial balloon for a negotiated settlement of the country’s longstanding political problems. Is there a clear message in his interview to the TPLF regime? Is he testing the waters on behalf of the Trump adminstration? Is he striving to get informal discussions between the contending parties underway on his own initiative?
I am impressed by Ambassadr Cohen’s concern for urgent action and prevention of bloodshed in Ethiopia. In 1991, he expressed the exact same concerns until he was outwitted, outfoxed, outplayed and outmaneuvered by the late Melies Zenawi and his confederates in London. I also do not doubt his intentions to facilitate a democratic transition to Ethiopia.
In the very last sentence of his interview, Ambassador Cohen urges, “now is a good time to do the right thing and have a national reconciliation exercise.”
Is a “national reconciliation exercise” possible at this stage in the Ethiopian crises?
Is it possible to trust the words of a regime that “believes only they can know what is best for Ethiopia,” as Ambassador Donald Yamamoto observed in 2009?
Is it reasonable to even propose “reconcilation” with a regime which only knows how to play a zero-sum game?
I shall address these issues in due course.
Ambassador Cohen writes on African affairs regularly on “Hank Cohen’s Africa Blog”.
Transcript of Ambassador Herman Cohen’s English Interview With the Voice of America- Amharic Program, 12/22/2017
VOA Journalist Solomon Abate [Solomon]: Ambassador Herman Cohen, thank you very much for your time. As you know, the situation in Ethiopia is very tense currently. And you, I hope, are following up on the situation in that country. I am sorry if my expression would be wrong, but there are several people who consider you as midwife of the current government as much as the frustration of the Ethiopian people on the previous regime was. This morning, you tweeted a message on the current situation in the country and here is what you had to say on your twitter message. ‘Ethiopia’s TPLF leadership should seriously consider requesting United States government mediation to organize a conference among all parties that will produce new democratic dispensation before law and order collapse completely.’ What do you mean by this, Mr. Ambassador? Do you think law and order are collapsing in the country?
Ambassador Herman Cohen: Well, I’m listening to the US Embassy which made an announcement that they are troubled by the fact that there is so much use of lethal force against civilians. When I hear that from the US Embassy which is very friendly to the government there, I have a feeling that there is a loss of control, that the central government is losing control of various states and that the various heads of the states, I guess they call them presidents, are not listening to the center anymore. The general feeling of disintegration which is very dangerous because this is what happened under the previous regime of Mengistu. So, I think time has come to do something and since the United States Government is generally well trusted by all people in Ethiopia, I think they should be called upon to do some mediation just as we did in 1991.
Solomon: 26 years ago.
Amb. Cohen: Right.
Solomon: Mr. Ambassador, you said all parties in your statement, what do you mean by all parties?
Amb. Cohen: Well all parties you know. There’s a tendency to have parties in Ethiopia that seem to represent ethnic groups. I don’t think that is healthy, but I think also lots of organizations, young people, various civil society groups. So, when I say all parties I don’t mean political parties. I mean all stakeholders in the country.
Solomon: Who do you think the stakeholders are?
Amb. Cohen: I’m not that familiar with things now because haven’t followed it extremely closely but I think you have youth groups, you have women’s groups, you have the press. The press has been very heavily repressed, so I think they should be allowed to participate. There are political parties you know, the leading political parties captured all the seats in the parliament but then those who wanted to be in power, they exist they should be called in as well. There is the military. There is the Civil Service. I think all of them should participate.
Solomon: Mr. Ambassador, if you’re not following up the development of things closely these days, what made you issue this Twitter statement today and what is your concern at all concerning that country?
Amb. Cohen: Well, I follow the statements of the U.S. Government. I think I can trust that. And when they start talking about civil unrest, and use of violence by the government, I take that very seriously. And I think the US government would not say that unless there’s a serious problem. I know Ambassador Yamamoto who is now in charge of Africa, who was ambassador in Ethiopia. He knows the country well. When the US government starts getting worried about Ethiopian stability, then I start getting worried also.
Solomon: Mr. Ambassador. You worked as Assistant Secretary of State of the United States on top of the fact that you were ambassador of the United States to Ethiopia at some point, and you mediated negotiations 26 years ago before the current government came to power. Did you think anytime the situation would go down this way?
Amb. Cohen: No. Unfortunately maybe I wasn’t thinking deeply enough especially about Ethiopian culture and traditions. But after the London conference of May 1991, there was an Addis Ababa Conference of July where many different groups got together and there was a mutual pledge that there would be a democratic system established and a new constitution written and that sort of thing. So, I attended that as an observer and they gave me hope for the future. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. The regime turned out to be a very of authoritarian and very repressive regime which I regret very much. But I did have hope at the beginning.
Solomon: When you say regret, would you elaborate that please?
Amb. Cohen: Well, I regret that the power was concentrated in the hand of [muffled] when it should have been… There was a great opportunity to establish real democracy there especially after the Mengistu regime had been so repressive. So there was great opportunity there seem to be a great deal of support for it but unfortunately the people who took over power and the military force decided otherwise, decided to have a minority regime which did not share economic power as well as political power.
Solomon: Did you have any chance at any time during the last 26 years to talk to the authorities of the Ethiopian government starting from with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi all the way down?
Amb. Cohen: I had conversation with prime minister Meles Zenawi on a lot of different subjects. I left the US Government after 1994. I was working with the World Bank on promoting good governance in Africa. They had set up a new program which I joined. So I had an opportunity to talk to Meles Zenawi. I didn’t speak to other high officials in the government. I guess I spoke to Mesfin who is now ambassador in China.
Solomon: The former foreign minister.
Amb. Cohen: Foreign minister, right. I spoke to him and we talked about a lot of these things. But I guess I didn’t have much impact.
Solomon: You mentioned your concerns to the Prime Minister and to the foreign minister openly.
Amb. Cohen: Quite openly.
Solomon: What were the points you raised with them?
Amb. Cohen: Well, I said that mainly there is no sharing of economic or political power, and that there was such a small group that I said very unhealthy and it would not last. It couldn’t possibly last, which I see evidence now but it is not lasting.
Solomon: President Obama had a good thought about you. He said some good words about you at some point even. Did you try to talk about the US officials about the situation in Ethiopia, about the way where it was heading?
Amb. Cohen: No I did not have much dialogue with the US government about Ethiopia. I was really concerned some crisis situations there much more difficult. So, I didn’t really talk much about Ethiopia. And of course you had the issue in Somalia. I think, say starting 2005, the US government considered the al-Shabaab problem in Somalia to be far higher priority than internal issues in Ethiopia.
Solomon: You advised the TPLF leadership to ask the US government to facilitate the mediation. Why did you specifically address TPLF?
Amb. Cohen: Well, they are the ones that control the power, the political power. And they are behind the use of lethal force that is currently going on plus the fact that they control the economic power. They are the ones who should initiate an exercise in national reconciliation. If they don’t do it, it won’t happen.
Solomon: So you think it is the TPLF leadership that is totally responsible for the situation in the country now?
Amb. Cohen: Yes, absolutely.
Solomon: And you ask the TPLF leadership to ask the US government to facilitate the mediation, why not the vice versa? Why you didn’t offer this advice to the United States Government to facilitate the discussions between all parties in Ethiopia before things go worse?
Amb. Cohen: Well, I am currently advising them to do that.
Solomon: You are doing that?
Amb. Cohen: Yes.
Solomon: Which medium do you use?
Amb. Cohen: I talk to them regularly. I talked to… I’m a good friend of ambassador Yamamoto. So we talk regularly.
Solomon: Do you think the US will take this initiative?
Amb. Cohen: It’s not impossible. They might do that.
Solomon: And do you think it would work?
Amb. Cohen: Well, the U.S. is not indispensable as a mediator. There are other possibilities. You have the United Nations. But I think given the history of Ethiopia and the relationships with the U.S. going back to the Second World War, I think the US is the most logical intervenor.
Solomon: What leverage do the United States government has on Ethiopia?
Amb. Cohen: They don’t have much leverage. The US provides military support. The US provides famine support. Humanitarian assistance. But one thing the United States will never do is refuse humanitarian assistance when it is needed. So, I don’t think the U.S. has much really leverage. So really a moral leverage between good friends.
Solomon: Do you think the Chinese have anything to do in this situation?
Amb. Cohen: Well, the Chinese have a major presence but they don’t get involved in Internal Affairs. In Africa, they might have gotten involved with the Zimbabwe regime with the departure of Mugabe. Generally they stay away from internal political affairs just do their business, do their investments and they do their trade and they do tend to stay away from political issues.
Solomon: Mr. Ambassador, when former president Obama traveled to Ethiopia when he was president of the U.S. gave a statement saying that the Ethiopian government was democratically elected and many activists and political analysts and especially politicians in the country, the opposition resent the president for saying that. What do you think?
Amb. Cohen: Well, President Obama is a very sincere person. I believe he must have been briefed, someone gave him a briefing that was not true because his statement was absolutely not true. It is impossible to have 100% members of parliament from one party. That cannot be democratic. So he was briefed poorly or made a mistake.
Solomon: Did you communicate this to the president by anyway, through any medium?
Amb. Cohen: Well, I spoke to State Department people about that. They acknowledge that it was a mistake.
Solomon: But the president the former president never acknowledged or apologized for what he said then?
Amb. Cohen: Not to my knowledge.
Solomon: Mr. Ambassador. Is there anything you would advise the Ethiopian government, its allies that they should do so things go better?
Amb. Cohen: Well, I think Ethiopia has a great future. It has wonderful resources. It has a great enterprising people. So, I think if they could have a national reconciliation, investments will pour in and there would be great increases in employment and they can have a very bright future. But while the current situation goes on, and there is deterioration, there will be no new investments coming in. There will be growing unemployment and great misery. So, I think now is a good time to do the right thing and have a national reconciliation exercise.
Solomon: Mr. Herman Cohen, former ambassador and assistant Secretary of the United States, thank you very much for your time.
Amb. Cohen: Ok. You are very welcome. Good luck to Ethiopia.