Ethiopia: Dr aregawi berhe talks about the situation on tigrai region
Ethiopia: Dr aregawi berhe talks about the situation on tigrai region
A founding member of TPLF strives to maintain his political career
Homecoming for the opposition leader and head of Tigray Democratic Coalition Party (TAND), Aregawi Berhe was not about spending some relaxation time with his family. His return to Ethiopia after more than thirty years absence in exile a month ago was about rebuilding his political image and trying to remain relevant in the fast changing Ethiopian political landscape.
Part of that mission has brought him to gruelling schedule of visits to nearly all towns in Tigray region, including his ancestral town, Adwa and other symbolic places such as Sobia woreda, one of the original bases of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the past three weeks. “Life has not much improved for rural peasants. The much-vaunted development and improvement has amounted to very little. We have seen how people are barely surviving and many waiting in line to receive USAID handouts,” he reflects. “Maybe, one significant change we have observed was how larger towns were connected by asphalt roads,” he added.
Failure to differentiate between a people and a ruling class could have dire consequences and would play into those oppressive’s hands.
This is the reality of decades of neglect as the long-entrenched elite focused on their enrichment and power, failing the people of Tigray, he says. “It is unfortunate that there is an amalgam between Tigray people who are as much struggling as people in other parts of Ethiopia and the leadership elite who are busy enriching themselves,” he says. “Failure to differentiate between a people and a ruling class could have dire consequences and would play into those oppressive’s hands.”
Toward reconciliation, coexistence
Aregawi’s return is part of political reforms and national reconciliation introduced since Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in April. In tune with the widespread feeling of entering a new era, Aregawi says he would work in order to advance a reconciliation process and achieve coexistence between different ethnic groups in Ethiopia. One of his immediate tasks, he said, would be to travel to different parts of the Oromia, Amhara and southern regions to talk to officials and community members to move away from polarization and demand a halt on attacks on Tigrayans who live in other regions. “Not all Qeerro and Fano members but some are targeting Tigrayans for attack and slurs. I would travel to those regions to talk to the leaders to make plea that such attack should be stopped,” he said, referring to underground activist networks in Oromia and Amhara regions who made pressures for leadership changes in the country.
This latest reference to those groups was different in tone from the one he made at a Tigray Governance Forum, in July 25, praising the movements for bringing change in the country and paving the way for the rise of Abiy Ahmed. That compliment didn’t leave a pleasant taste in everyone’s mouth, provoking online attacks especially from Tigrayan activists, accusing of him extending praise for groups that they see working against Tigrayan interests. Aregawi says that that was a deliberate distortion, disregarding parts of his comments in which he also made mentions of other actors, such as the Ethiopian Muslim groups who rallied against the regime with the slogan, “Let Our Voice be Heard.”
This incident would be reminder of the need to for him and the party to walk a tightrope between struggling to secure support from people in Tigray region, who do not always see the new political atmosphere beneficial to them and convincing others in other regions this is journey for the whole of Ethiopia for better future.
Exile years and rites of passage of self-development
This is the latest chapter in the story of a man who dropped out of his third year political science study at the University of Addis Ababa and travelled back to the Tigray bush in 1974 to take part in a nationalist revolt against the regime in Addis Ababa. A year later, he helped found the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). He became the civil as well as military commander and was the first chairman nominated by the party, a position that he held until 1979, ousted by Meles Zenawi, the man who would become the country’s Prime Minister after the fall of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Aregawi left his homeland and moved to Netherland after he was officially expelled from the party in 1985. He lived in Amsterdam in exile most of those years. While there he continued his studies, earning MA in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and PhD in Political Science from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He would also team up with Gidey Zeratsion, another founding member of TPLF to establish TAND. The party also became member of the Ethiopian opposition coalition the United Ethiopian Democratic Front (UEDF). Aregawi has written critical articles on organization that he broke up with, TPLF, including an acclaimed book, A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991): Revolt, Ideology and Mobilisation in Ethiopia. He has taken part in various seminars, panels and open discussions.“With hindsight, I am happy that that they kicked me out of the country. I have learned valuable lessons in my exile years.It has been an interesting process of self-development and personal growth,” he says.
Aregawi views federalism as best way to unify and protect Ethiopia’s multiple ethnic, linguistic and religious populations. He warns in the name of unity, many tend to deny the country’s diversity, and with that denial the attendant rights are negated. Conversely, in the name of secession, it has become common to deny the merits of unity and the progress it entails, he explains. In both cases, denial feeds dissonance and propagates uncalled-for conflicts within the opposition and beyond, he says. The balance could be found and it is somewhere there, he says.
What’s next for his party?
Aregawi has no illusion about the difficulty for him and other opposition returnees to develop enough of a reputation nationally to be credible contenders and possess the capacity to shoulder the responsibility of this complex country. Ethiopia’s future viability, stability and security lie in empowering its people, and fragmented opposition would not in any way help to achieve that objective, he contends. Despite the present-day optimism, the country looks set for some very choppy political waters ahead as small parties are trying to assert their presence and clash over both ethnic representation and personality. This was already the theme that preoccupied Aregawi Berhe when he addressed the Frankfurt – Ethiopia Futures Conference, 9th and 10th December 2017, when he said that “the failure of the Ethiopian political opposition forces and civil society movements to act in unison on common ideals of national interest has enabled the dictatorship of the TPLF/EPRDF regime to persist in power through nearly three decades, thereby prolonging the multi facade misery of the Ethiopian people.”
“We don’t need hundreds of parties operating in the country. We could have a system in which the right, left and maybe the centre agenda is represented. What do we need the other parties for? Regional parties that would build up extra support in particular constituencies? Our party has been clear from the very start. We said we would join other forces for common goals and agenda. Our party was organized under the agenda of Tigray cause because were obliged under the then climate. Embracing only Tigray cause would take us nowhere.”
Aregawi’s greatest challenge will be to try to be relevant and position himself above the contending forces in the political arena in the region and beyond. Mulugeta Aregawi, a lawyer who teaches Constitution and Media Law at the Addis Abeba Universty, says the question should be whether those in charge in Tigray would let him to be relevant or not, he told Ethiopia Observer.
Kibret Mekonnen, 48, a co-founder and editor of the defunct monthly magazine and weekly news paper, Aimiro and now living in exile in Amsterdam since 1995 describes Aregawi as a devoted politician who has sacrificed all his personal interests for the Ethiopian political struggle. “I hear that he still retains the respect and trust of the elderly community members of Tigray region and some senior TPLF members. At the same time, he has returned, equipped with a better adequate knowledge of political strategies which would give him the confidence to reach the educated and young generation of Tigray people,” he says.
The multiple problems and challenges of the nation distorted by decades of unjust and oppressive rule means the struggle will be long, Aregawi Berhe says. He is yet hopeful that the country is ripe for a change in style and a policy objectives and priorities. “Our party recognizes the many ties and commonalties shared by Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups and the great deal of cross-fertilization, social harmony, intermarriages would be pillar to work in unison with others.” He and many others could play their role to bring the necessary transformation, towards building the country afresh and to have democracy restored.“Dr. Aregawi is in a good position to play an important moderating role to ease the ethnic tension and bring the people in Tigray region in harmony with people in other regions. I think he will be smart enough to use his cumulative knowledge, time and energy to bringing people together, and work against those working to create antagonism and rift,” Kibret told Ethiopia Observer. Even his critics must concede that the TPLF founder is someone who has first-hand knowledge what it takes and he is a political survivor.