Interview with Gebru Asrat, Former President of Tigray
November 1, 2016 - Gebru Asrat is a former president of Tigray Regional State (1991–2001) and one of the top leaders and executive and central committee member as well as politburo member of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. After the Ethio-Eritrea War two factions were created in TPLF and the faction critical of Meles Zenawi, the then Chairman of the TPLF/EPRDF and Prime Minister of Ethiopia, led by Defense Minister Siye Abraha, and Gebru Asrat, the then influential governor of Tigray, disagreed with those aligned with Meles over "key issues of ideology", accused their supporters of corruption and Meles of failing to act quickly or decisively enough over the crisis with Eritrea. Then the party was divided into two groups. One group, which included Gebru, Tewolde Woldemariam, Aregash Adane, and Siye, believed that the leadership was bent on serving foreign "imperialist" interests. The other group which included Meles Zenawi argued that the TPLF was sinking into decadence, involving itself in Bonapartism. Eventually, Gebru left the TPLF/EPRDF in the early 2000s after the division and went on to establish Arena Tigray, an alternative political party to TPLF in Tigray. Gebru became its chairman in 2007; Arena Tigray merged with other opposition parties in Ethiopia to form the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek). Gebru ran for the parliamentary seat representing the city of Mekelle in the 2010 parliamentary elections but came short of winning, according to The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). Regarding the latest protest and other pertinent issues, Wudineh Zenebe of The Reporter sat down with Gebru for interview in August 2016.
The Reporter: It has been 15 years since you left the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and formed a political party, Arena Tigray. How do you see these 15 years in retrospect?
Gebru Asrat: As you know, 15 years is a very long time for a politician and a citizen. As a citizen of this fair country of ours, I have experienced a lot of ups and downs during this period. Especially, the so-called reform process in TPLF, which took place some 15 years ago, has left a lasting impact both on the nation and on me personally. Our party has endured a lot during this time. We have seen a lot of our members imprisoned, exiled and three of our members killed. We still have 20 of our members imprisoned, including farmers. Generally, our party and I have endured a lot of repression and abuse; so I can say that this has been the most testing 15 years for me.
Although you have parted ways with your party comrades, do you still keep in touch with your friends in the party? Do you have the opportunity to meet and hold political discussions with them?
As you know, 12 of us had left the party during the fateful split. Out of that, three of us organized ourselves under the Arena Tigray umbrella and have continued our political struggle. So, we keep close contacts both on the account of our party work and personal level. With the others, I can’t say that we have a common political platform to discuss. However, we see each other on social occasions and the like. Unfortunately, we don’t have that cordial relationship since then because it has been the case that the political and social life is highly intertwined in the TPLF. By the way, when someone leaves a party, he or she is considered as an enemy. I do understand that political life should have been kept separate from our social and personal lives. And for people who went to the bushes to take part in one of the longest guerilla resistances in Africa, we should have had a bond that transcended political boundaries; but that is not the case. I know this is not modern, but, you see, that is the nature of the TPLF.
You have held key party and government positions for more than a decade before the split. How do you see that party back in those days and the party today?
When you think about the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the problems it is facing today, you have to understand where all these issues are emanating from. I think the mother of all the problems that the party is facing today emanates from the ideological foundation of the party. As you know, the EPRDF is a Marxist party and most of the political direction that it follows comes from Marxism. This has crystallized particularly during the days of struggle. This is a party which has set out to ensure a dominant party system in Ethiopia. This is also a party that believes that democracy is class-based and that it is deserved only by those classes which are affiliated to the party. In general, it has worked to ensure the dominatnce of one party or the dominance of a proletarian party in Ethiopia. So, when the world started to change, the party also realized that it could not go further with those sorts of ideas in the new world order. Hence, it reformed some of the ideas slightly to make it more suited to administer the nation in the new global context. This sudden shift can be seen in the remnants of the so-called revolutionary democracy which includes party hegemony, democratic centralism, lack of checks and balances and separation of power in today’s EPRDF and the government.
So, if you must talk about the issues, which are overflowing today, it is instructive to consider the basic nature of revolutionary democracy. If you follow that system of governance, it will not allow citizens to have political and economic freedom. So this is the true nature of the party but owing to the political context of the rest of the world, it was forced to introduce a generally liberal constitution. This provision, in my opinion, is just a cover-up to address pressure coming from outside. Articles 14 to 44 of the constitution are generally fundamental democratic and human rights. In my opinion, this is a document drafted for the benefit of donor nations; it is a façade to say that the party is really democratizing the nation. But, the real document that is used to rule the nations is those emanating from revolutionary democracy ideology and those which divide the population along friend and foe lines. So, these contradictions have resulted in a major division in the party’s higher level leadership right after the Ethio-Eritrea War. This division ended with Meles Zenawi emerging as an authoritarian leader in the party. After that, the party faced a big challenge in the post-2005 period from opposition parties.
As usual the party dealt with this challenge by force and violence. But, forceful repression was not enough to settle the nerves in the party; rather it has taken other legal measures such as the Antiterrorism Law, the Media Law and the Charities and Societies Law. After all, the long-time strongman of the party, Meles Zenawi, passed away and the party did not prepare someone to fill the shoes of its leader. Now, tactically, the party is weakened to its cores. The party did not have a leadership which controls the party, the government and the army altogether. So, this has weakened the party tactically and resulted in being overrun by corruption and maladministration. In fact, it has reached to a point where it has been detached from the public. This has to do with the overall centralist tendencies of the party. The party ideology from the start is a centralist and controlling ideology.
You said that Meles has been a center of gravity in the party for a very long time. So, since his passing away, where would you say this purported centre of gravity lies in the party?
One thing I have noticed after the passing away of Meles Zenawi is that the party did not make any changes to its ideology and overall thinking. They are saying that they are upholding his legacy. So, the question is what they are calling the legacy of Meles Zenawi. Is it a legacy of authoritarianism and thus far we have not seen any strongman emerging from the party; it does not seem that it will happen anytime soon. So, now, the political centre of gravity is dispersed. One is the member parties of the EPRDF while the army, the regional states and government are various centers of gravity in the politics of Ethiopia. If you look at the regional states, they are not under the control of the central government as it was the case before; now each are trying to establish their own independent governments. So, this has its own conflicts and grievances; I think this is what we are seeing in Ethiopia at this point in time.
The EPRDF is a four-party coalition, and there are some five affiliate parties which are active in all regional states. Now, the decision that is passed at the EPRDF level will have consent of all the four parties but the affiliate parties are not in the coalition and hence are not in the decision-making process. How did you reconcile this contradiction when you were in the party?
As I have said before, I don’t think affiliate parties have any meaningful role in the political decision of the country. As I remember it, all and every decision that matters to the nation is made by the EPRDF Executive Committee. Practically, government and party have no distinct separation of power in Ethiopia. Because this is the basic essence of the so-called dominant party system, the party controls the government, the army, the civil society and other key structures. Let alone the affiliate parties, I don’t think the members of the party itself have any real decision-making power; it is the executive committee that calls all the important shots. It has been this way always. Previously, it was the decision of Meles that goes down to the kebele level. Now, the executive committee is one stirring the nation.
After the succession, most of the members of the EPRDF Executive Committee are a new batch of leaders. On the other hand, the veteran members of the party are still in the party structure but not in the leadership anymore. So, how do you see the two playing out in the decision-making process?
When Meles put this so-called succession plan on the table, I expected that he had his own political calculation. He perhaps had an idea that the old guards might not be suitable to conduct business the way he wants to conduct business. This is what he did by the so-called reform process; he retained a group of “yesmen” around him and got rid of the rest. Then, he came up with a succession plan because he was not content with the outcome of the so-called reform process. If you look at the succession, he did the same thing; he still managed to retain a batch of old veterans who pose less challenge for him. So, as I see it, the succession process had no value other than weakening the party.
However, as I said it before; the problem of the party is in its ideology not the personalities. So, empowering young leaders under the same political ideology would bear very little fruit. My assessment now is that the old guards are a bit worried about handing over the party to weak leaders. I see that from what they have been doing and saying. They are saying things that undermines political leaders at various levels in the party. This is a sign that they are not comfortable. I hear them saying on different occasions that the current leadership is generally weak. This, I think, is the legacy of Meles; he picked these leaders because they were weak; because they don’t pose any challenge. And the old guard is of the view that all these problems are now reigning in the party because the leadership is weak. Of course, I don’t fully agree with this assessment; I think when the party sets out to build a political system where everything rests on one party that is when that party set itself up for failure.
In the first place, I think if the party is democratic internally, strong leaders would have the chance to emerge. Nevertheless, no amount of strong leadership would undo what is being ruined by the founding ideology of the party. Now, if you see the reform period, Meles raised the agenda of corruption and internal party democracy to get rid of us. However, you can see that he used that agenda just to get rid of us since the problem of corruption and maladministration escalated even after we left. Now, had we remained in the party, would these condition change? I highly doubt it because corruption and maladministration are reflections of the internal democratic nature of the party first, and the rest of the country in general. You see, you can’t get rid of corruption unless you have free media, free democratic institutions, free law enforcement institutions and free civil society; they are watchdogs.
But, if I may ask, even from the time when you were in the party, the four parties in the EPRDF were accused of nurturing their own economically empowered support base which resulted in the current severe disparity in wealth distribution in the country. Is that a sound argument?
You see, one cannot build a dominant party system without a critical mass that has serious economic stake in the party. There must be a group which carries the system forward. In other countries, they call it chronic capitalism. Even when you look at the drive to become a member of the ruling coalition, you can see that it is the economic advantage that overwhelms all the other drivers. These so-called million-plus members have joined the party for exactly the advantage that they expect to get from membership. This could be in terms of accessing bank loans or other advantages. I think the party has a name for it; they call them developmental capitalist. But, at the end of the day, this business people have one intention that is using policy rent to accumulate wealth. This is common for all the parties and as I told you before this process had already started back in the day when I was in the party.
I can understand individuals with less than genuine intentions joining the party to strike their personal advantage. However, did these parties have a grand scheme to empower such individuals, which is approved at the party level?
I don’t think it needs an open endorsement or a grand plan. If you see, some of the biggest businessmen in Ethiopia today and ask how they make their wealth you will have your answer. You will see that most of them had relations with politicians in one way or the other. But, for sure, there is not official party slogan to this effect; in fact, at the party level the narrative would be that the party will be fighting rent-seeking. If you think about it, how can you expect business to grow genuinely in a country where almost every aspect of business and social life is controlled by one party; and that there is no visible system of fair competition? This even goes down to the education system. Grades and all-round academic excellence are not going to land you a job these days. Now, this does not mean that all the six or seven million members benefit from the system. Only a few reap the benefits. However, for the majority, they hope to benefit one day.
The party is said to have a very strong individual and institutional evaluation process; you and your friends felt the brunt of this evaluation back in 2001. But, how do you see this now? Many people claim that it has gone soft. Do you agree?
When I was in the party, there was a strong belief in the evaluation process. Whatever the basis—be it from the ideology or from the political direction—there was always a strong belief in the process of evaluation. Some of us had a genuine trust in the process of evaluation and I know of many party comrades who fell prey to this process. The basic issue is that the evaluation process is not institutional; it has no formal structure. For example, if someone accuses you of something, there is no way of defending that or check the facts. If the evaluation process is conducted following the country’s legal framework and if it has the freedom and the institutional structure to ensure the implementation of legally accepted principles; including the framework to respect the right of appeal and the like, then it will be acceptable. However, without those systems, the so-called evaluation process would become an instrument to attack a few people. This is what we are seeing these days. However, I don’t think having a stronger or a weaker evaluation would make a difference. It is like what Albert Einstein said: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As far as I am concerned, it is equally insane for the EPRDF to try to use the same evaluation tool that it used during the struggle days. Rather it should have focused on reforming the evaluation process based on the rule of law, freedom and justice; it should focus on nurturing the institutional structure of evaluation. I think that it is the toughest challenge for the party to date.
I think the so-called Good Governance Deficit Survey that was conducted by the government last November and which was revealed to officials is one indication of this challenge. As we know, after all that fanfare about the survey and the political determination to uproot issues of good governance, rent-seeking mentality and corruption, the agenda was not able to move an inch in the past one year. This is clearly because the party is entangled by patronage networks all over its hierarchy and even with personalities outside of the party. This complicates things and makes it difficult to take any concrete measures. This was also admitted by the leadership of the party even during Meles’s leadership. Meles was quoted as saying, “our hands and legs are tied”.
Now, the party is planning another round of evaluation, targeting abuse of power among mid-level and high-level leadership of the party. Do you think this evaluation would bear fruit?
I am afraid I don’t expect anything different from this round of evaluation either. I have heard the press statement that was released by the executive committee this week and found it to be completely off base with regard to the current situation in Ethiopia. If you look at demonstrations across the Oromia and Amhara regional states, they both are about basic freedoms. They are also about free and fair elections; which mean the people are saying that they did not vote for the government. The other is fair distribution of wealth. As much as there are some unnecessary questions advanced by the demonstrators, most of the questions are basic and fair. So, it is a platform for the public to express its grievances. Hence, one can judge that the party leadership is way off in its evaluation of the political turmoil. If you see what the party has identified as challenges, these are issues which were recognized a year ago. So, I don’t suppose, this is a credible evaluation.
What does that tell you about the next course of action? Do you think the party would concentrate on taking measures than solving the problems?
I think you have to note two points. If you have noticed, the party has stopped citing progress in the political arena to justify its rule of the country. I think it has noticed that it could no more claim gains in the political aspect such as democracy, freedom or justice since its track record is an utter failure in all these aspects. So, the other alternative in absence of legitimacy is force. You can see that from the statements issued during the protest in Amhara and Oromia regional states. Especially, in the TPLF what is heard is really absurd. They are reverting back to narratives which are befitting to the struggle days some 25 years ago.
If you look at the whole EPRDF structure, you can see some of them say that the problem is caused by extremists, narrow-nationalists or chauvinists or some say it is the involvement of the foreign forces in the political life of the country. They also lack overwhelming unity in what has been the source of the unrest. If we evaluate the claims deeper, there is Eritrea which is our next-door neighbor and enemy of Ethiopia. Yes, I do see Eritrean leaders tying to destabilize the country. But, if the Eritrean leading party is able to conjure such huge political avalanche in Ethiopia, EPRDF should really look inward and identify why it has been outdone by the leadership in Asmara.
Can you please clarify it more, because, given the fact that the protests are organized and having slogans, flags and other stuffs which require a great deal of finance to organize. In this regard the government and some commentators argued that there are some external factors such as the Governments of Eritrea and the others behind the protest in Oromia and Amahra regions. How do you react on this matter?
I don’t think it is possible. It is difficult to argue that a movement, which incorporates thousands and millions, can be led by external forces. I don’t also think external forces conspire to organize such massive movements. If there was no problem internally those forces are not capable to organize and lead such a movement whatever they propagated.
In my view, such comments are humiliating the youth and public who are asking a legitimate question and demanding their rights. The questions are crystal clear. Even the regime itself admits that unemployment, corruption, bad governance and so on are the problems in the country.
Of course, since the movements are spontaneous, have some elements of irrationality and ethnic interests focused attacks. However, we have to look at the base and the extent separately. Bear in mind that the movement is not led by any political party, association or anybody who takes the responsibility. In this regard, it might miss its intention. Flags were down but the public itself did it. But the sentiment to down the flag is there within the society. So, we should discuss it critically. Some ethnic-based clashes and targeting a certain ethnic group were evident which in my view should be criticized. Though these were evident during the protests it is difficult to conclude that external actors back the protest. It is totally unacceptable and wrong.
I don’t mean that there are no external actors or interests at all; I am not that naïve. Eritreans, some neighboring countries, and the Arabs might be involved but the key issue is that these groups would use the opportunity to destabilize or back the movement if only there is a problem internally and where there is no democracy and freedom. If these issues are addressed and the internal administration is proper any external force can’t do anything let alone finance and support others. It is very difficult to win Ethiopians through wars. For me the greatest danger that is directed against our country is that shifting the cause of the current problem into other issues and blaming external forces, narrow-mindedness and chauvinism. This will lead the future of the country into uncertainty and an unnecessary path. Take my party for instance. Members of my party are detained, harassed and are suffering a lot and are able to witness the problems in the country. In this regard, closing all ways of peaceful protests will result in mutiny, chaos and radicalization. Therefore, if radicalization and unlawful activities erupt in this country, the entire responsible body is going to be the EPRDF itself.
There are ongoing protests in Oromia and Amhara regional states. The Amhara protests are associated with the identity question of the Wokait people. Given the fact that you were the President of Tigray Regional State, how was the issue back then and what do you think is the possible solution?
Both the issue of the master plan in Oromia and the question of identity of Wolkait for me are just phenomenon or manifestations; I don’t think these are the fundamental questions that the public demanded. Our land is grabbed, the election was rigged, the administrators are dictators, there is no justice at all, the youth are unemployed, party affiliation is important to secure jobs and so on were the major questions raised in Oromia. The same is true in Amhara as well. However, a certain movement erupted as a result of a certain phenomenon. In Amahra region the organizers believe that the Wolkait issue has mobilized the public into one. In Oromia they believe that the issue of the master plan will do the same. These questions are indeed questions by themselves, but their role as mechanism to address other questions is much stronger and in this regard it played a great role to triggering the public.
I was the administrator of Tigray and concerning the issue of Wolkait we should look at two things. Let me discuss the issue of Wolkait and the regional administration generally. Wolkait was bordered based on the federal arrangement enshrined in the constitution putting in to consideration language, culture and patterns of settlement. In this regard, half of the Wolkait population speaks Tigrigna and half of the Tsegede population also speaks Tigrigna. Those who speak Tigrigna are incorporated in the Tigray region and those who speaks Amharic in the Amhara region. From Tigray those who speak Agewegna were also incorporated in the Amhara region. Five weredas, which were administered under Tigray region before the federal arrangement was implemented, were also incorporated in Afar Regional State. Here we have to look at the cause of this issue carefully the cause was not about resource or land grabbing. Because, if the issue was about land grabbing or resource, the Afar region, which has a large deposit of salt, potash and other resources is much vital than Humera or Wolkait, which is in the Amhara Regional State.
Concerning the border demarcation issue, the previous border demarcation was changed but it was not only in Tigray, the new Oromia border demarcation itself incorporates areas, which were called Shewa, Bale and Hararge provinces. The Afar region also incorporates areas from Wello and Tigray. However, proper demarcation can be questionable and arguable. The principle might be arguable but the demarcation of Wolkait and other areas were conducted under this principle. This question should be raised not only in Tigray; it should rather be raised all over the country. If we said that this issue affects the people living in the area the issue should be resolved through political discussion. Now people raised the question in relation to the identity of Wolkait and the question should be addressed in a democratic and peaceful manner.
Are you saying that the federal arrangement, which is implemented in the country, focuses on ethnic lines rather than geographic lines?
By the way, I don’t buy this argument. I don’t consider a federal arrangement that follows ethnic lines is the source of all the problems that the country is facing now. The issue is that there is no democracy. All the problems that we are facing now will happen even if the federal arrangement is based on geographic lines. There were geographic-based demarcations in this country but the question is why did different ethnic groups mobilize their forces to fight against the Emperor? There was chaos during the military regime too. However, the key issue here is that one of the major sources of problems was lack of democracy. Hence, if the federal arrangement is implemented without democracy the end result will be chaos and war.
Therefore, I don’t consider the debate over the federal arrangement is mainly about geography or identity. The major question here is whether the regions are exercising their powers democratically or are they simply following a top-down approach. I believe that these regions are controlled by a dictator from the center. In this regard, I also don’t believe that there is real federalism in Ethiopia. In any country, federalism exists when there is democracy. If you look at the cases of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and other countries, disintegration occurred not because the system follows ethnic lines; it is rather due to the undemocratic and dictatorial nature of the regimes and leaderships.
What I suggest is that there is a 25-year-old border demarcation in the country and the ruling party focused on identity and eroded unity. This sentiment has influenced the relation of the people of this country. The values and procedures of unity are loosely held and the major propaganda of the regime is focused on the rights of nations and nationalities. The regime detached the issue of respecting the rights of nations and nationalities from democracy and made it its foundation. When the regime campaigns in Tigray, they say that chauvinist Amharas and narrow-minded Oromos are coming for you. While campaigning in Oromia and Amhara, they do the same. The regime propagates these elements. Previously, the Amhara elites did not raise the issue of ethnicity; however, now some sections of the Amharas are also raising this question.
So are you telling me that the regime focuses on dividing than uniting this country?
Yes, especially during the election campaign period. Since each party is running in this own localities and constituencies, each party is ordered to focus on its differences from other ethnic groups and terrorize the society based on the differences. The extent of the campaign through time reached this level.
In the case of Wolkait the population speaks both Tigrigna and Amharic. Was there any effort to incorporate the consent of the public during the border demarcation or was it simply implemented through a top-down approach?
Generally speaking, the demarcation was conducted based on the agreement of the political parties of the respective regions, which were established during the time. It was not like a referendum. So there was no say from the public. When the demarcation was conducted, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) was there from the Amhara side and the TPLF represented Tigray. The decision was made based on the language of the population not based on referendum. It was taken for granted, except for some debatable issues, but it was not that contentious.