PHONY HANDSHAKES AND FAKE SMILES: How Eritrea based “mergers” and “deals” have exposed our political immaturity above anything else

Tuesday May 3rd 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem.

A major Ethiopian political plot twist, which saw a leader of an Eritrean based militant group and several hundred of his underlings defect back to Ethiopia from their armed opposition stance in Eritrea last year, was all the rage at the time in our political junky scene.

In September of 2015, according to accounts impossible to verify, the leader of the Tigrayan Peoples Democratic Movement (TPDM) Molla Asgedom and a sizable force of hundreds of heavily armed TPDM rebel fighters, backtracked on their commitment to armed resistance against the Ethiopian government, wiped out an Eritrean army garrison near the Sudanese border and crossed into Sudan before Eritrean reinforcements could arrive, before eventually entering Ethiopia to a party of Ethiopian state media fanfare. These developments came as a total surprise to many observers as these events occurred barely days after another Eritrea based rebel group, Ginbot 7, announced that the TPDM, Ginbot 7 and two other Eritrea based Ethiopian militant groups had fused to create one single force dedicated to bringing regime change to Ethiopia. After the defections, despite clear cut details on exactly what pushed the TPDM to do what it did being unavailable for the most part, the vocal cries of zealots praising TPDM leader Molla Asgedom as an Ethiopian hero or outright chastising him as a backstabbing traitor have drowned out the few sane minded calls for an independent review of the mass defections. And even if those voices of reasons prevailed for once and people reverted from throwing labels at the group to actually examining the sequence of events into what happened, the only media networks on the ground covering the story are the biased and untrustworthy propaganda outlets of the Ethiopian or Eritrean governments, meaning that an impartial balanced look into what happened is likely never to happen.

Esat merger
An ESAT journalist announcing the merger of four Eritrea based armed Ethiopian opposition groups just days before the leader and a number of fighters of one of the groups absconded from Eritrea (Photo: ESAT)

Despite the orchestra of gasps of horror from the opposition and shouts of glee from regime supporters, the breakdown of an agreement among Eritrea based Ethiopian armed groups isn’t a surprise in the least and your calm cool and collected political observer would have seen this TPDM curveball from miles away. Ethiopian right wing partisans, who for the most part were left shocked and wounded by the drama on the Eritrean Sudanese border, need to brush up their basic geopolitics. Because unlike what their patriotic camouflage clad spokesmen and women preach at fundraisers hosted by the Ethiopian diaspora across the world, the path of armed struggle from Eritrea was never a venture worth investing in from the beginning for reasons that the politically unripened vocal urbanized masses at home and abroad have failed and still fail to grasp.

ethiopian_opposition_in_eritrea
Ethiopian rebel fighters in Eritrea (Photo: Awate.com)

Ever since the end of the 1998-2000 Badme war that left hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans dead, the Eritrean government has pursued a proxy war policy of attempting to destabilize Ethiopia by hosting, training and arming dozens of rebel groups who have the goal of wreaking havoc in Ethiopia, one way or another. The Eritrean government openly supports many of these groups, allocating air time to commanders and fighters of various groups including a faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Ginbot 7, TPDM among others. The recruitment of Ethiopians for guerrilla training in Eritrea really skyrocketed after the events of the 2005 Ethiopian national election, when state forces opened fire on unarmed civilians protesting the projected win for the ruling EPRDF party, killing two hundred people and wounding countless. In 2006, Kemal Gelchu, a commander in the Ethiopian army, defected to Eritrea with about 150 fighters and joined the Eritrean based armed wing of the OLF.

oromoliberationfrontorg
General Kemal Gelchu has spent the last decade in Eritrea as a leader of the OLF segment based there (Photo: oromoliberationfront.org)

 

In the decade or so since the establishment of these self declared Ethiopian liberation armies in Eritrea, virtually nothing has changed on the ground, despite a lot of bravado and chest pumping from the media websites and radio networks which had heavily promoted armed resistance in Ethiopia. Other than several accounts of hit and run style guerrilla attacks near towns bordering Kenya or Sudan, militarily these groups have done nothing that lives up to the hype which once surrounded them. There are many factors which contributed to the absence of Ethiopian fighters pulling Eritrean triggers, among them UN sanctions against the Eritrean government, the other can be the fact that these groups are viewed as nothing more than puppets of the Eritrean regime, which is most likely the reason why there is very little widespread sympathy for their cause among Ethiopians.

So when an Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) news bulletin announced that the ink from the signatures confirming the merger between four militant groups in Eritrea was drying, immediately I called offside on this play.

The details behind this merger was never announced and exactly what was agreed to will probably also never see the light. But had the leaders of several Ethiopian left wing and right wing rebel groups actually came to an agreement to fight side by side, it would have been a landmark moment in Ethiopian history that would have caught everyone by surprise.

The Ethiopian nationalist right wing and reformist left wing are politically galaxies apart. They clash on everything from Ethiopia of yesterday to how Ethiopia should be governed tomorrow. The right wing adherents tend to express dismay whenever leftists shun their nationalism or attack Ethiopia’s rulers of yesterday. On Facebook and Twitter, these left wing right wing debates usually end in screaming matches with insults, ethnic slurs and the kitchen sink not being spared in the bandwidth eating cyber bouts. Today there is little to no worthy effort by any political group to bridge the gap between these two feuding political ideologies, with adherents to both sides remaining staunchly opposed to their counterparts. In North America and Europe, Ethiopian diaspora events, festivals and community gatherings have seen politically motivated disintegrations as national “Ethiopian” communities tend to be headed by people from the traditional nationalist right. Their refusal to refrain from attempting to further political goals and ideologies through their organisations is one reason a plethora of people flock to Ethiopian ethno nationalist events organised by the Tigrayan, Oromo and Somali communities across the world. In short, due to a highly intolerant culture of refusing to compromise on age old beliefs, both sides aren’t even close to sitting around the same table, let alone agree on changes that could create mutual understanding amongst people who’s ancestors have lived on the same land for millennia.

So for anyone with the slightest idea of how extremely divided our political heavyweights are, the idea that Ginbot 7 chairman Birhanu Nega could jet in to Asmara from the USA, spend a couple weeks with leaders of various other groups and manage to create a merger of his right wing party/armed group and at least two left wing armed groups (TPDM and the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unitary Front (ARDUF)) would be just ludicrous. Knowing Birhanu Nega and the kind of rhetoric he uses to preach his vision of an Ethiopia where federal freedoms are considered an affront to the national identity, there is no way the endless unpaved mined highway between the Ethiopian right and left wing political spheres could be so easily repaired and no way that both sides would come to a warm embrace with a Ginbot 7 official as a mediator.

Berhanu-Nega-and-Molla-Asgedom
Berhanu Nega and Molla Asgedom were supposed to jointly lead the newly merged “United Front for the Salvation of Ethiopia” rebel group until Molla’s defection from Eritrea with hundreds of fighters (Photo: Ethiopian Tribune)

 

This isn’t the first time that Ginbot 7 and its affiliates announced to the world the signing of such a farfetched agreement on Eritrean soil to a chorus of clashing cymbals and tooting horns.

On New Year’s day 2012, the OLF in Eritrea announced that they were dropping their secessionist agenda, embracing Ethiopian unity, and working hand in hand with Ginbot 7 and other parties to hasten the downfall of the Ethiopian government. It was hailed as a landmark deal, a right wing loyalist’s dream come true. Despite the fact that both groups had been in the country for many years without ever coming close to threatening the EPRDF’s grip on power, the hullaballoo and the ululations would give the uninformed casual observer the impression that a coalition of Oromo and Amhara forces were banging on the gates at Arat Kilo in Addis Ababa. The website “timret.org” was created in honour of the deal to promote gatherings and update supporters on the happenings surrounding this new revolutionary group that was supposed to rescue the country.

However, the agreement didn’t disclose if Ginbot 7 had agreed to a longstanding non negotiable OLF demand, the right to self rule in a democratic federal Ethiopia. In their announcement, Ginbot 7 made no mention of their stance on the status of the Oromo language and whether it should be upgraded to the same status as the Amharic language. The OLF didn’t reveal the conditions they agreed to either. Among the leftist crowd, the deal was simply taken with a pinch of salt and a whole lot of suspicion.

sibseba tiri
An advert for an event that took place in February of 2012 in Virginia promoting the 2012 supposed merger of the OLF and Ginbot 7 groups. While Ginbot 7 chairman Berhanu Nega and outspoken activist Tamagne Beyene attended, a much lower profile member of the Oromo American community was on hand to represent the OLF
olf_timeret_Dallas_post
A town hall styled meeting in Houston with representatives of the two groups in 2012 (Photo: Ginbot 7)

In the weeks and months after the deal, representatives of both groups organised joint discussion forums among expat communities across America. And although there are no numerical figures available, the turnout from the Ethiopian Oromo community was very low and there was very little endorsement by known Oromo American community leaders. By dodging the questions that have divided us, such agreements remain nothing more than ink on paper that can be torn up on any given day. It has been more than three years since the OLF Ginbot 7 announcement and no outpouring of support from Oromos, and disagreements that have allegedly led to the OLF’s main man General Kemal Gelchu being arrested and deposed from his position as leader of the armed faction, it has unofficially been rendered null and void, with no further mention of the 2012 deal. It’s like it never happened.

timretorg
Timret.org was the website established in 2012 to promote the merger between Ginbot 7 and the OLF. But a screenshot of the timret.org homepage today shows a message from the website’s Japanese server company explaining that the site is down

Having keenly followed the events of 2012, I was puzzled to see the same war cries and hopeful cheery rhetoric from the right wing crowd after the same clashing of cymbals and tooting of trumpets from three years ago were sounded again in 2015. An agreement? Again? Whatever happened to the 2012 deal that was supposed to revolutionize Ethiopian politics and forever calm our suspicions surrounding the “separatist” Oromos? The ESAT breaking news bulletin reached my Facebook newsfeed and I greeted it with a deep sigh and my hand clasped over my forehead in resignation.

Once again, no details on what Ginbot 7 and these three other groups agreed to except that they had merged as one “United Front for the Salvation of Ethiopia.”

One could argue that despite the political differences, different groups could agree to fight as one with the common goal of overthrowing the oppressive regime in Ethiopia. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend for now,” as many put it. But once again, those who make this argument are those who would fail a test on Ethiopia’s recent history. During the Ethiopian civil war and the bloodshed of the Derg era, the TPLF, EPLF, OLF and many others fought in the names of millions of people as one against a common enemy, the ruling communist Derg party. The downfall of the Derg in 1991 was supposed to usher in an era of cooperation amongst these groups.

But it was clear that they all had irreconcilable political differences. All armed to the teeth with weapons and with no intentions to compromise after decades of fighting, they turned on each other, with the TPLF and EPLF surviving the bloody battle royale which left many more fighters dead or wounded at the hands of former comrades. The civilian population wasn’t spared as well. Eventually the TPLF and EPLF turned on each other over their own differences and their tit for tat battle is what devastated two poor nations between 1998 and 2000.

The point is, unless the interests and desires of the populations who are allegedly represented by these armed groups have been discussed in detail, it is immoral to send the sons of those people to fight alongside militants of a group which is the politically opposite. Time and time again, such decisions come back to haunt the gullible commanders who ink the deals. The enemy of my enemy cannot be my friend without his agreeing that I have needs and wants which I want honoured during AND after the struggle. Turning a blind eye to this is gambling with the lives of so many young men and women. And as far as we know, there is no indication that the parties involved in the four way merger in Asmara had agreed on principles that would reconcile the specific interests of the people of Afar, Tigray and other regions. Hence my saying, such an “agreement” was doomed to fall apart, although perhaps not as dramatically as what played out on the Eritrean Sudanese border some six months or so ago.

mollafatigue
Molla Asgedom (standing dressed in military fatigues) and his TPDM fighters photographed in Sudan a day after escaping from Eritrea (Photo: Ethiopianfirst.com)

To resume, agreements made without any consideration of the interests, desires and aspirations of the people the fighters claim to be fighting for, are just bound to fall apart as they are houses built on sand. We saw this happen with the 2012 Ginbot 7 OLF agreement that never was, and the scenario replayed itself in 2015, albeit reportedly with much more violence involved. It is most probable that TPDM leaders couldn’t fathom working alongside Ginbot 7, a group whose policies and beliefs are known to clash with those of groups like the TPDM.

 

So what about Molla Asgedom?

Photo-TPDM-leader-Mola-Asgedom
Undated photo shows former TPDM leader Molla Asgedom at his office in Asmara

The fact is this man, who spent a decade in Eritrea doing all he could to rally young Tigrayans to join his cause, abandoned a considerate number of his men in Eritrea, where they are now in the hands of paranoid and extremely unpredictable Eritrean military officers. Many of them put their trust in him believing that his word was accurate and that his path via Eritrea would lead Tigrayans to prosperity and a better tomorrow. Now these young men and women are left disillusioned, without a leader and at the mercy of a power which doesn’t necessarily care for their well-being. Molla Asgedom is no hero. He is responsible for leaving these young Ethiopians in the predicament they currently find themselves. We have heard of what happens to Ethiopian rebels who fall out of favour or who are no longer deemed useful by their Eritrean handlers. In 2010, the Eritrean army summarily executed seventeen members of the Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front (EPPF), apparently over disagreements according to former EPPF members who managed to escape Eritrea. Colonel Abebe Geresu, an Ethiopian army officer who defected to Eritrea to join the OLF faction there hasn’t been heard from in years with reports claiming he has died in an Eritrean prison. Molla Asgedom has been spared from the demise of these unfortunate men, but he has left countless others to an uncertain fate. He isn’t a hero in my eyes. He is no more than an opportunist who jumped ship after a decade in the enemy’s lair.

Shibabaw_Abebe
Shibabaw Abebe was an EPPF rebel commander who had travelled to Eritrea and joined the group in 2008. He is alleged to have been murdered by the Eritrean government sometime in 2010 after disagreements with the movement’s direction

In the meantime, if there’s a silver lining in the aftermath of the turbulence on the Eritrean Sudanese border, it would be that Ethiopians would probably be much more skeptical of anything that is brokered on Eritrean soil. We as Ethiopians are yet to reach the level of maturity required to engage in national dialogue over contentious issues without being led astray by our emotions and blinded loyalties. We are yet to adopt the culture of listening and compromise. Without undergoing the evolution to reach this epitome of mental ripening, we cannot even begin to hope that our political parties or armed resistance groups from opposing political ideologies would come together for a common cause. Despite the colours and sparkles, even our love for our country apparently isn’t a good enough reason to take a good long hard look at ourselves and realize that WE are the problem.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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