Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki on OMN: Much ado about nothing

Wednesday April 19th 2017

By Zecharias Zelalem

Why did you bring these monkeys to the throne, this throne was supposed to be for lions!”

This was former guerrilla commander and current President of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki in his most recent interview, a two parter in English on Ethiopia’s dissident Oromo Media Network (OMN). By monkeys, he was referring to the regime ruling Ethiopia for over two decades now. Upon the Eritrean President’s uttering of these and other statements that were sure to spite Ethiopia’s autocratic personalities, the two OMN interviewers crowed, obviously delighted to have obtained something that would be deemed as belittling of the EPRDF government.

It is the EPRDF government that resorted to using live ammunition to quell last year’s Oromo protest movement, resulting in the deaths of around a thousand people, mostly unarmed university and high school students.

OMN, seen by many as the media wing of the uprising, has set out to present the Oromo people’s struggle as a righteous one, espousing equality, freedom of expression and democracy.

A sit down with a man who by all accounts stands against all these values would further enforce their convictions, or so the folks at OMN headquarters apparently believed. Hence the OMN’s sending of a team to Asmara to meet up with the diplomatic recluse.

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Screengrab of the OMN journalists in Asmara interviewing the Eritrean President
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Logo of the Oromia Media Network (OMN)

OMN, based abroad and described by the government in Ethiopia as a terrorist breeding station, has seen its transmissions to Ethiopia jammed by the impoverished country’s heavy investments into satellite television signal blocking technology. Despite reports of millions of dollars being spent on such endeavours, the EPRDF government felt the media outlet’s countering of state propaganda to still be a threat that when a series of emergency measures were announced in October of last year, watching, or even talking on social media about OMN television programs were declared warranting of one’s arrest. More recently, the station’s executive director, Jawar Mohammed, was charged in absentia with inciting violence. If anything, the government’s harrying to censor OMN’s broadcasts testifies to the channel’s growing stature and influence.

Isaias Afewerki’s 90 minute conversation in front of OMN cameras was heavily promoted in the days preceding the release of the interview video via the station’s social media portals and website. Snippets of the interview were released as teasers for what was to come.

Previous appearances on Ethiopian dissident media

It isn’t the first time Isaias Afewerki has appeared on the cameras of dissident Ethiopian media portals. Who could forget his 2009 chat with American based Ethiopianreview.com editor Elias Kifle and his colleague Sileshi Tilahun? The duo asked questions in Amharic only for Isaias, a fluent speaker of the Amharic language himself, to respond to each inquiry in English. The interviewers shared a puzzled look on their faces, but continued in Amharic, apparently unaware of the Eritrean President’s oath not to be captured on camera speaking in the official working language of the country he fought to free his nation from. The video of that interview has nearly disappeared from the internet. A much more prepared team of interviewers from Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) travelled to Asmara sometime in late 2014 and also got a chance to sit down with Isaias Afewerki.

OMN’s allocating of airtime to the Eritrean leader isn’t groundbreaking in itself. But without a doubt, the potential to probe unsettled matters, especially surrounding the uneasy relationship Eritrea has had with Oromo freedom fighters, past and present, meant that many awaited the video release with the utmost curiosity.

What would set the OMN interview apart from the other two interview Isaias has had with diaspora Ethiopian media outlets, is the fact that the interview would center on themes central to the Oromo struggle and questions would be asked from the Oromo peoples’ standpoint. It is the first time a left wing leaning network would be given a chance to set up cameras in Asmara. The previous two interviews were by ideologues of a similar right wing backing. Both interviews ended up being mainly focused on the damage being done to what they deemed to be Ethiopian unity by the powerbrokers in Addis Ababa. The questions ranged from what Eritrea could do to help restore Ethiopia to its “rightful owners” to inquiries into the dirty history of the TPLF during the struggle. In both interviews, Isaias, in fluent English and sometimes in Tigrigna, chastised what he qualified as being the conniving nature of the “Woyanes,” calling them killers, looters and harmful to the idea of an Ethiopian nation. They are a destructive presence in the Horn of Africa, standing in the way of healthy, prosperous relationships based on mutual respect between the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia. The interviewers of course, lapped it up.

In terms of journalism, the two interviews were quite hollow and the topics discussed lacked depth. But in both cases, the expectations were reasonably low. Ethiopianreview.com for its part, in its heyday was one among a collection of news websites known for publishing unfounded rumours as fact and lacking professionalism. In 2011, Editor Elias Kifle published an article titled “Ethiopian Billionaire’s daughter faces stoning in Saudi.” In that article, he claims Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi had financed terrorists and funded the murder of Blackwater contractors in Iraq. The Ethiopian billionaire decided to sue for libel. When Elias’ defense constituted of just one statement, “Here is my formal statement: screw yourself,” the judge found him guilty and fined him £175,000. Since the ruling in 2011, Ethiopianreview.com low on credibility and finances, has disappeared from relevance. The website tried to recover by rebranding itself as Mereja.com, but it doesn’t appear sufficient to getting back into the good graces of its former audiences.

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BANKRUPT: Elias Kifle (right) managed to arrange a sit down with the Eritrean President in 2009, but a lawsuit for defamation has since seen him disappear from relevance (Image: Ethiopianreview.com)

ESAT meanwhile, is run by a collection of personalities including executive director Abebe Gellaw and Birhanu Nega, who is also the leader of an Eritrean backed rebel group Ginbot 7. He is believed to channel funds from the Eritrean government to cover financial expenses of maintaining ESAT, thus expectations that the organisation would corner their main financier and fire away with unanswerable questions were low. It would also be unreasonable on ESAT’s part and one can’t blame them for their leniency.

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Cakewalk on ESAT, Isaias thrived in his 2015 released ESAT interview (Image: ESAT)

   Opportunity for something new

This is why the OMN’s interview was hyped as something new and different. Unlike the previous two organisations, the OMN in its mere three year existence has established a reputation as a credible media outlet free of right wing influence and that adheres to the ethics of the journalism game. Despite the blemish of the organisation being run by a widely known political activist (which compromises their claim of being free of partisan political leanings) their coverage of the Oromo protests movement for instance of 2016, was considered much more detailed, accurate and reliable.

There was ample opportunity for the OMN to be much more penetrating in their interrogation of the “Lion of Nakfa.” I cannot recall Isaias Afewerki ever being pressed to discuss the endless struggles of the Oromo people. Which is rather a shame, because the President of Eritrea has indeed been in the proximity of the Oromo march forward since the OLF’s heyday back in the late eighties. The question of the Oromo may not have been worthy of airtime on Ethiopianreview.com and ESAT, but it would be unavoidable on OMN, hence the peaking of many people’s curiosity. It would be a first!

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2007 image of Oromo rebel fighters based in Eritrea (Image: OLF)

What to ask and where to start? There are so many things to address. The journalist’s instinct would be to bring up the most urgent matter regarding Oromos and Eritrea, the current OLF segment based in Eritrea. It has been over a decade since members of the OLF established a presence in Eritrea. After losing Somalia as a base for operations, Eritrea has been home to armed Oromo rebel groups, too fragmented to operate on Ethiopian soil. Eritrea welcomed their presence, principally due to their feud with the Ethiopian government in the aftermath of the Badme war, which had culminated in a no peace no war footing and thousands of troops massed upon their common border. Pursuing the destabilizing of the Ethiopian regime as a strategic interest, the Oromo fighters have been armed, trained and funded by Eritrean elements. The most noteworthy event since the partnership began is the 2006 defection of an Ethiopian military general and about 150 of his troops. General Kemal Gelchu, himself an ethnic Oromo, crossed the border with the troop of ethnic Oromo soldiers and became the leader of the armed faction based in Eritrea. Prior to his defection, General Kemal had been a commander of Ethiopian troops in their victorious yet costly Badme war efforts.

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One of several known images of General Kemal Gelchu taken sometime after his 2006 defection to Eritrea. He is believe to have been deposed from his position as OLF operations head by elements in the Eritrean government

Despite the hullaballoo surrounding the 2006 arrival of an Ethiopian military general and his underlings, nothing significant has occurred since. The Eritrea based OLF group is nowhere near capable of threatening the Ethiopian army and in the decade since, they have nothing but several hit and run attacks to answer for. Reports of Kemal Gelchu being dismissed from his post and placed in house arrest have been frequent. The latest, a 2014 statement purportedly from remaining members of the OLF contingent announcing his removal. There are no known images of the man taken after 2008. He has been reportedly imprisoned after falling out of favour with his Eritrean government handler, the infamous Colonel Fitsum Yishak. Or so many of us have heard. We cannot be sure as there are no independent reports out of Eritrea. But UN Security Monitoring reports have described the OLF presence as being minimal, with fighters defecting back into Ethiopia or being forced to toil on farms and property of Eritrean military officials as slaves. All in all, the more credible reports give us a picture of the OLF being a puppet whose strings are manipulated by the Eritrean government. Further evidence of this was seen on New Year’s Day 2012, when the Asmara based OLF leadership penned a communiqué announcing a merger with traditional rightist group Ginbot 7 and that it haddropped secession and embraced Ethiopian unity.” The move was widely denounced in Oromo diaspora circles and appeared to have been made without consulting anyone in Oromo community circles. But while Ginbot 7 officials went on tour in the United States celebrating the decision, Kemal Gelchu wasn’t allowed to leave Eritrea and address supporters and backers abroad who demanded explanations over this decision.

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Poster promoting a 2012 townhall gathering in the USA to discuss the then newly announced OLF-Ginbot 7 merger in Asmara. The 2012 announcement caught members of  Oromo diaspora communities off guard

So with the OMN well acquainted with this and other happenings directly involving Eritrea, you would expect President Isaias to be leveled on the subject. Why is the Eritrean government impeding on the OLF’s right to make decisions regarding its future? Why are we hearing reports of OLF fighters being reduced to servants and farmers? Why hasn’t Kemal Gelchu been allowed to tour the diaspora and personally address the Oromo communities based abroad when leaders of other organisations have been granted this luxury? Has he fallen out of favour with Eritrea and if so why? What explains the complete and utter failure of the group to grow and prosper as an organisation in Eritrea?

The OMN interviewers decided to avoid these potentially turbulent subjects. Despite being in Asmara, despite the interviewers coming from the Oromo diaspora which at one point invested consistently in the Oromo fighters based in Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki wasn’t asked any of these questions. Forgetfulness or a lack of knowledge on the topic? Both cases are highly unlikely. The OMN’s refusal to explore the accusations of the Eritrean government’s complicity in defusing the tenacity of the Eritrea based Oromo struggle suggests that one of two things likely happened: one, the OMN were told ahead of time that such questions were off limits. Two, focusing on Eritrea’s faults, no matter how much of a negative impact they have had on the Asmara based OLF was just not on the cards for the OMN. Both cases highlight massive journalistic shortcomings of the interviewers. Asking a list of questions filtered and preapproved prior to the interview hints at propaganda, not fact digging journalism.

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OLF fundraising event held in Minnesota back in 2006. Despite the Oromo diaspora’s track record of investment in the Eritrea based OLF brigade, the OMN interviewers decided against asking the Eritrean President anything related to the topic (Image: OLF)

Instead, the interviewers opened up the conversation by asking the Eritrean President about his time in the Eritrean liberation movement and what he remembers of the Oromo struggle, appearing to refer to any recollection Isaias may have of the OLF during the eighties and nineties. While it is far from being hard hitting, it would still be interesting to see what kind of an impression the original OLF left on one of the biggest players of the entire conflict, the leader of the EPLF himself.

The Eritrean President went on about how the nation of Ethiopia was a “myth” and how Eritrea had been a victim of endless propaganda and that they had to battle misconceptions regarding their history and nationhood. While he went into detail on these issues, he only mentioned the Oromo contribution to overthrowing Mengistu Hailemariam in passing. He had very little to say about the struggle era OLF, which some suggested may have been due to his unfamiliarity with the history of the Oromo struggle and his being unable to meet with as many OLF personalities as he might have liked to back in the day. Or, it could simply mean that he didn’t value, care, or seek to learn about the Oromo struggle at the time and thus has nothing new to share with us. Either way, he had to be further pressed to speak specifically about the Oromo struggle. He spoke of his sadness at the marginalization of the Oromo, but he didn’t share anything about the Oromo struggle that observers weren’t already long aware of. Waste of a question. For viewers, rather disappointing to say the least.

 Hiding evidence of his lackadaisical stance towards the Oromo

There are several other theories as to why the Eritrean President would be hesitant to go into detail on his memories of the Oromo struggle. The most likely ones are that he either wanted to conceal the fact that he may have collaborated with the TPLF in its anti OLF war efforts, or hide his turning a blind eye to the wrangling between the two groups. Why would he want to speak about what could be described as his group’s moral failures?

The theory of his having no serious contact with the Oromo struggle can be immediately debunked when one considers the fact that the OLF were a part of the rebel contingent that made the final decisive march on Addis Ababa in 1991, alongside TPLF and EPLF fighters. One can argue that this is false in that it was the TPLF’s Oromo proxy, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) that were embedded with fighters under the command of Isaias Afewerki and his former ally Meles Zenawi. However, as Isaias stated in his interview, “you can go back and look at the history records.” The capture of the town of Dembi Dolo in 1991 was executed by a joint TPLF-OLF force that routed the Derg invaders. In an article for the New York Times written back in 1991, Clifford Krauss described the alliance of rebel groups that had combined forces to trigger the downfall of Mengistu Hailemariam’s Derg regime:

“Rebel groups based in Eritrea and Tigre provinces are the two most powerful forces in the fighting, with the Eritreans on the offensive in their northern province and the Tigreans tightening a ring around the capital to the south. They have formed a loose alliance that includes a third, smaller rebel force drawn from the Oromo tribe in southern Ethiopia.”

       Now how would the head of that Eritrean force, the current President of Eritrea, not have ample knowledge on his organisation’s forming of a “loose alliance,” with a rebel force drawn from Oromia? What did the Eritreans, Tigrayans and Oromos agree on? Is there a document detailing the conditions for the pact’s existence?

Isaias Afewerki declining to go into detail means that these questions and more would remain unanswered. Isaias’ reluctance to dwell on the issue was most likely the former guerrilla fighter’s way of dodging the bullet of how the short lived pact fell apart. It is well known that the EPLF and the TPLF continued their allied kinship for another five or six years, while the OLF fell out with the TPLF almost immediately after hostilities with the Derg ended. The EPLF most likely sided with the TPLF in the deals that would leave the OLF shorthanded, unarmed and left out of the discussion forum. Isaias wouldn’t enjoy being forced to admit this.

After the downfall of Mengistu and the capture of Addis Ababa, the winning parties of the war assembled at numerous conferences to discuss how to create an inclusive Ethiopia/Eritrea that would encompass the hopes and aspirations of all the armed groups/liberation fronts and the people they sought to represent. At these meetings, the TPLF aggressively pursued their own group’s military superiority. They announced that the TPLF would inherit the responsibilities of the Ethiopian army, while the OLF would be able to participate in discussions, only after all of its fighters had surrendered their weapons to the new TPLF led transitional government authority. But giving up their weapons would effectively render the Oromo rebels’ bargaining power zero.

      The OLF resisted attempts by the TPLF to militarily usurp them. The two groups clashed for months in the newly liberated areas, leaving scores of fighters and civilians dead. In early 1992, the United States, which had openly lauded the fall of the Derg regime, hailing the event as the dawn of a new age in the region, called for negotiations to end the new conflict. In April of that year, an agreement was reached, with American and Eritrean mediation in which all armed rebels would retreat from their operating territories to camps. Perhaps naive on their part, the OLF leadership of Lencho Leta complied and ordered 20,000 OLF fighters to assemble at specific locations in Ethiopia while negotiations continued. In his book Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers, John Markakis explains that the OLF were duped into believing that the TPLF would encamp their fighters as well. They didn’t and instead TPLF forces quickly surrounded the encamped OLF fighters who now had no escape. Markakis adds that after the OLF fighters were disarmed and detained, they had the added humiliation of going through TPLF sponsored, “re-education programs,” the same ones that surrendering former Derg troops were forced to complete, before being released. Ironic when one remembers that these OLF fighters had sacrificed lives and limbs to see the overthrow of the Derg.

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Left hanging: OLF leader Lencho Leta on the far left was left shafted by the negotiations, despite the intervention of Isaias Afewerki (second from left) and US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman J. Cohen (middle). Meles Zenawi (second from left) clearly came out on top (Image: Herman J. Cohen)

After the disarmament of the 20,000 man OLF contingent, the Oromo struggle no longer had a military wing. Their leader and representative during the OLF’s short lived transitional government membership Lencho Leta, fled the country for exile shortly afterwards. No leader, no fighters, the OLF was decisively defeated, leaving nothing in the way of the TPLF’s total monopolizing of the EPRDF state apparatus.

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Undated image of Lencho Leta and Meles Zenawi taken in Senafe Eritrea. After the former’s tactical howler landed his entire fighting force in detention, Meles Zenawi consolidated his power and Lencho had to flee Ethiopia

Isaias was indirectly asked about the encircled 20,000 OLF fighters of 1992. The interviewer asked him about the 1992 encircling of 20,000 OLF fighters, although the manner in which the question was delivered, you would think the interviewer was simultaneously declaring him free of any potential involvement.

  “Mr. President many Oromos think that they don’t have a friend in Asmara because of that past history (the encirclement). How do you assure Oromos that Eritrea is a friend of the oppressed Oromo?”

Isaias answered by saying that he never had the opportunity to explain his side of the story. He blames the OLF and their poor leadership for the horrible blunder that resulted in the near entirety of the group’s fighting force being rendered sitting ducks. “A historical mistake,” he called it. He claims that he strongly opposed the TPLF’s dominance of national affairs throughout the transitional government period and repeatedly voiced his concerns. He went on to lament the lack of representation of the Amhara, the Ogaden, the Southern people and even the Tigrayan peoples who he reiterated were not adequately represented by the TPLF.

Isaias Afewerki also described the the initial draft of the national constitution in 1994 as “fake.” He described it as legalizing the marginalization of the Oromo in the name of a “fake federal democracy.” He claims to have been among the first to see the draft and reacted with “this is a disaster,” upon reading it.

The TPLF was never interested in anything other than neutralizing the major opponent to their hegemonic rule, the Oromo. While they lobbied for this, Isaias claims he stood up for the unrepresented peoples. “Our commitment to the peoples of Ethiopia is there and will never change,” he said.

“The Oromos, they are free to make their judgement. But history can judge the people of Eritrea and the EPLF on their commitment to the struggle of the Oromo people.”

In his OMN interview, Isaias Afewerki basically described his organisation as having been the Robin Hood of oppressed Ethiopians trying to get a word in against the marauding bloodthirsty Vikings in the TPLF. This is laughable to say the least. History actually testifies to relations between TPLF led Ethiopia and Isaias Afewerki led Eritrea being rosy during this period. Stretching beyond political ties, there is evidence that the military ties between the TPLF and the EPLF continued at least several years after Eritrea’s independence. Among the smaller armed groups which had gained a degree of relevance as the fall of the Derg became inevitable, was the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF). The Ethiopian ethnic Afar armed group made it known through their leadership in the early nineties that due to their goal of creating a state which consists of Afar lands located in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, they would refuse to recognize Eritrea’s independence and borders. In 1995, after ARDUF rebels kidnapped several Italian tourists who were in the Ethiopian Afar region on a volcano tour, the Ethiopian government took action, launching what is believed to have been a joint operation alongside the Eritrean military against the ARDUF rebels. Eritrea’s military involvement in dealing with Ethiopian security issues as recently as 1995 suggests that the TPLF and EPLF were unwavering in their resolve to see their joint rise, politically and militarily. Which is in total contrast with what the Eritrean President said in his most recent interview.

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Good times: Isaias Afewerki and Meles Zenawi enjoyed a warm friendship during Ethiopia’s transitional governing period. It was during this same period that the OLF was militarily and politically stripped of power

And who could blame the EPLF? The EPLF, composed of leaderships and fighters bred from the same ethnic Tigrigna background as the TPLF, would naturally be in support of TPLF aspirations in Ethiopia. They knew them better than any other group, they fought in the same trenches and had similar ideologies. Why would Eritrea risk propping up the OLF, a group of fighters it had no kinship with and whose aspirations weren’t fully known to them? How much more of a “historical mistake” would supporting the Oromo rise to power be if the OLF led Ethiopia later demanded Eritrea hand over the Red Sea port of Assab as Ethiopia’s legal outlet to the sea? The most trustworthy of the bunch, at the time, appeared to be the TPLF.

The Oromo agenda wasn’t on the cards

Isaias Afewerki owes nothing to the Oromo people. He never sought to guarantee the freedoms and rights of the Oromo people. Why would he bend his back to ensure the Oromo people got a fair portion of the Ethiopian pie? In terms of the EPLF’s interests at the time, there was nothing in it. So why should he have felt bothered? He had a friendship to protect. The camaraderie between the leaderships of the EPLF and the TPLF of the early nineties is well noted. If as Isaias claimed in his interview, he was always “committed to the struggle of the Oromo people,” he would have been much more outspoken about his concern with the way the political paradigm in Ethiopia was shifting. We would have heard more than just reports of his murmurs of discontent. The truth is, he may have cared, but not enough to do anything serious about it. Openly condemning the exclusion of the Oromo from the political arena wouldn’t serve Eritrean interests and probably would have served to cool what were then very warm relations between the EPLF and the TPLF. To go on television twenty years, later long after having fallen out with his former TPLF comrades and claiming to have been the angel on the shoulder of a demonic Meles Zenawi is as he worded, “fake” and most likely done to portray himself in a good light and appease a critical OMN audience.

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Another undated image of Isaias and Meles in the early nineties. Despite evidence pointing to the dynamic duo being inseparable comrades, in his OMN appearance Isaias recently claimed to have fought Meles’ efforts to monopolize power in Ethiopia

The OMN could have pounced on these and many other gaps left in Isaias’ explanation, but their interviewers refrained from doing so. An investigative journalist, well acquainted with Ethiopian history of the early nineties would have had a field day with the Eritrean President’s claims. But another failure to pounce on his opening of a can of worms once again indicates one of two things: either the two interviewers aren’t your standard interrogators or there was no desire to dig for the truth, if it meant implicating Eritrea in the downfall of the OLF in any shape way or form. The latter scenario would be consistent with the theory that the entire interview was a planned propaganda stunt for the Eritrean government.

Multiple personalities on ESAT and OMN?

Isaias Afewerki’s doesn’t conduct many interviews with Ethiopian media networks, as I suggested above this is only his third such sit down with them in the past decade. In all of them, he blasts the Ethiopian government’s policies and ridicules their decision making. In his OMN appearance, he condemned the EPRDF’s failure to recognize the validity of the much discussed Ethiopian constitution Article 39, which allows for ethnic groups to pursue self determination up to secession.

“Ninety million people are deprived of their economical and political rights, the myth of a federal democratic republic, where is this EPRDF now? Where is this myth of an umbrella organisation that would allow everyone to participate? Where is Article 39 that brags about giving every nation the right to self determination including and up to secession?

    Here, the Eritrean President laments the lack of freedoms and Addis Ababa’s refusal to honour its constitutional commitments. The refusal to allow the exercising of political rights including those enlisted in Article 39 has left Ethiopians “politically deprived,” he said.

However, his statements given to the OMN journalists strongly contradict what he told two ESAT journalists in his 2015 interview with that network. Let alone support the right of nations and nationalities to have a degree of self autonomy in a federal state, Isaias Afewerki spoke of how he strongly condemned the idea of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia back when Meles Zenawi first proposed the idea back in the nineties.

“Creating a system by dividing the country into “kilils” is a destructive Ethiopia created to divide and foster hatred among Ethiopians,” Isaias told ESAT back in 2015. “One of the most damaging things this government has done to the Ethiopian state is implementing this ethnic system.

In his OMN interview he described looking at the 1994 constitutional draft with disdain over his foreseeing the systematic discrimination of the Oromo that would follow its implementation. But in his ESAT interview two years earlier, he also spoke of the moment he saw the contents of the document. To the ESAT journalists, he also spoke of shock and disappointment, but not because of what he feared would happen to the Oromo or other marginalized groups:

“I was among the first to read the draft in 1994. I couldn’t believe their nerve! I didn’t believe this constitutional plan was right for Ethiopia. Especially Article 39, what do you call allowing people the right to separation?”

“This doesn’t help Ethiopia or any of the people who were involved in the struggle. But when I shared my concerns, they told me “this is how we want to rule Ethiopia.” Ethiopia needs a homogenous, unifying governing system, not one that worsens the friction among its people. Anyone with a sane mind can see that this is wrong!”

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In his interview with ESAT two years prior to appearing on OMN, President Isaias Afewerki spoke of his staunch belief in the ideals of right winger “Ethiopian unity,” including his despising of the idea of ethnic federalism. This was in striking contrast with everything he said in front of OMN cameras (Image: ESAT)

    Is this not a mockery in itself? Barely a couple of weeks ago we finished watching Isaias rant endlessly on OMN on how Ethiopia’s ethnic groups are marginalized and how they aren’t benefiting from the fruits of the constitution or allowed to implement Article 39, whereas two years earlier he attacked that constitutional right as being destructive and against national unity.

For the left wing audiences of OMN, Isaias spoke of his undying commitment to the freedoms of Ethiopia’s specific ethnic groups. He described have been worried for their plight decades ago. On right wing media in 2015, he pretty much cried out for Ethiopia’s unity and stressed that he had done all he could to salvage it.

The two statements are polar opposites of each other!

After Isaias’ right wing friendly comments, a writer named Nahum Zemariam wrote an article on this for the Ethiopian rightwing leaning dissident news portal EcadForum.com. He described the Eritrean President’s total opposition to the federal system in Ethiopia in this way:

For instance, the President recalls, 1994, after he read the draft constitution presented to him by Meles, he advised the late leader of the TPLF and dictator Prime Minister Meles Zenawi not to institute ethnic politics and ethnic federalism In Ethiopia. He was farsighted to warn Zenawi but the latter was not willing to listen, and change the destructive path, the divisive ethnic based rule he charted for Ethiopia. Recalling that historic moment, the President shared, “I remember, we advised them (TPLF) to change their colonial style divisive politics. But, they refused and dragged the country back to the 19th century. 

  Eritrean government allied editorial website Tesfanews.net also chimed in on Isaias Afewerki’s views on federalism.

The only thing I regret to this date,” said President Isaias, was I didn’t do enough on that regard other than voicing my complete disagreement over the plan.”

   In Ethiopia, perhaps the only person with a noteworthy profile, who is known for having fluctuated back and forth between political ideologies like this, is Ethiopian singer Solomon Tekalign. How can anyone buy what Isaias Afewerki sold the OMN? Two years ago he basically condemned federalism/self autonomy, the number one non negotiable demand of the Oromo people, to please the right wing leaning audiences of ESAT. Two years later, he appears on OMN and appears to address the leftist audiences with heartfelt emotion, trying to convince them that he has always been committed to the Oromo struggle.

At this rate, Isaias Afewerki might go on record next as saying that he also helped develop the Oromo language Qubee script.

The last half hour or so of the OMN interview was an utter waste of time. The interviewers asked the Eritrean President to share his views on the 2016 outbreak of protests all across the Oromia region. Freedom loving Ethiopians are for the most part, in agreement that the Oromo protests movement was a spontaneous uprising that saw a generation of gallant, brave, selfless young men and women stand up as one with a spirit that first engulfed college and university campuses before winning the hearts and minds of countrymen of all ages. It was catalyst for fraternal allied uprisings in the Amhara region and Konso zone of the country’s SNNPR state. The colossal losses of life and limbs and the mass detentions of tens of thousands haven’t dampened the revolutionary feeling, it risks igniting the nation again at any given time.

The Oromo protests have been described as the underdog’s righteous battle against authoritarianism, dictatorship, elitism and tyranny. The tipping of a vase and the unleashing of a mass movement fueled by humanity, said others.

Demonstrators show the Oromo protest gesture sign during Irreecha, the thanks giving festival of the Oromo people in Bishoftu town of Oromia region, Ethiopia
Demonstrators show the Oromo protest gesture sign during Irreecha, the thanks giving festival of the Oromo people in Bishoftu town of Oromia region, Ethiopia, October 2, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

NOBODY needs a conceited, power hungry, autocrat such as Isaias Afewerki to tell us what he thinks of such a movement. There is no journalistic value whatsoever in getting the President of Eritrea, a tyrant and dictator who has plunged the people of Eritrea into endless misery to speak of Ethiopia’s protesters and the “Qeerroo.” While the OMN is doing this, they ought to send someone to Addis Ababa to interview Abay Tsehaye on the advances made in ensuring the rights to free speech, protest and protecting human rights. It would be the same level of sheer lunacy.

The Qeerroo are no one’s proxy toy

The Oromo audiences who sat through the entirety of the interview shouldn’t be swindled by the words of the Eritrean dictator. The Oromo youth who shook the core of Ethiopia’s establishment throughout 2016 didn’t need a starter’s pistol fired from Asmara as a signal to grab their destiny by the horns. The movement is proof that unarmed students, citizen journalists and cyber activists were sufficient to rally the masses, without the involvement of any foreign government or regional player. Isaias likes to portray himself as a dependable supporter of the Oromo fight for equality. The reality is in stark contrast to the image the OMN team tried to subliminally sell us. Isaias is nothing more than a regional enemy of the Ethiopian government who would leap at an opportunity to weaken its authority. He sees in the Oromo, an opportunity to pursue strategic interests, nothing more. The Oromo are no one’s rag doll and shouldn’t be the subject of a tug of war battle between two dictatorial formerly allied regimes.

File photo of Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki in Sana'a
For the  Oromo, Isaias is most likely another wolf in sheep’s clothing (Image: London Evening Post)

So as the title suggests, the OMN’s sit down with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki was much to do about nothing. An hour and a half in which a critical observer will have learned nothing, gained nothing and leave feeling ripped off after all the hype publicizing the interview as a much see piece. As was the case the last time Ethiopian journalists made a trip to the Eritrean Presidential palace, the journalists involved refrained from throwing jabs that Obbo Isaias wouldn’t have been able to block. Instead, slow, underhand pitching from the OMN ensured us the “friend of the Oromos in Asmara” as the interviewer called him, would hit a homerun unchallenged. The interview won’t be archived as a reference tool for budding stars of the domain. The OMN simply set out to demean and demonize a foe of the Eritrean President, which despite that foe’s recorded cruelty and barbarism, still qualifies as mudslinging, not journalism.

There is one last note I’d like to leave you with if you’ve lasted the entirety of this lengthy article and are still with me. It is in regards to quality grade journalism.

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Image of Isaias in his last international media appearance (not counting Ethiopian opposition outlets) back in 2010 (Image: Al Jazeera)

Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki has given a number of interviews to foreign media outlets such as Al Jazeera. In most of his interviews, he is unable to deal with the barrage of questions and resorts to emotional responses, even accusing journalists of being handed a list of questions written by the CIA. Because of this, Isaias, unable to take the heat, has chosen to stay out of the kitchen. He had refused any interview requests with major media outlets since 2010, when his last interview left him the subject of much ridicule.

The only journalists that have been granted the opportunity to interview him over the course of the last seven years have been employees of local state propaganda networks, or Ethiopian dissident media, who will refrain from tossing hardballs at him.

With this in mine, are we to look upon OMN’s travelling to Asmara to interview the President of Eritrea as an achievement?

It’s been barely three years since the founding of the Oromia Media Network, let’s hope the executives at head office aspire to set the bar a little higher than that.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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6 thoughts on “Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki on OMN: Much ado about nothing

  1. Why do you expect him to speak in Amharic ? You could also reverse your feelings and say why don’t the interviwers speak tigrigna? the onus should be on the interviewers to speak in tigrigna in my opinion.

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  2. Had he done his interview in Amharic would you have included this “….. editor Elias Kifle and his colleague Sileshi Tilahun? The duo asked questions in Amharic only for Isaias, a fluent speaker of the Amharic language himself, to respond to each inquiry in English. The interviewers shared a puzzled look on their faces, but continued in Amharic, apparently unaware of the Eritrean President’s oath not to be captured on camera speaking in the official working language of the country he fought to free his nation from…and also don’t you think they would have agreed on the format(Language) of the interview with Elias before commencing ? As for your opinion I respect and value it ,you have to accept unfortunately as a reader and other readers may process your article differently than what was intended.

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  3. What happened happened. This was the highlight of that interview, a lack of on camera unpreparedness and a lack of pre interview communication between the interviewer and the interviewee. This isn’t an opinion. It’s a fact. I stated said fact. Nothing subjective about what was said here. If you don’t believe this is a fact, please tell me how the 2009 interview of Isaias by Elias really proceeded and I will gladly edit any mistaken bits out.

    I have a responsibility to remain ethical….but I cannot be blamed for someone misinterpreting what I said.

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