After three years of public unrest that saw a Prime Minister resign and two emergency decrees, the beginnings of political reform appears to be on the horizon. One of the most promising indications of this is the arrival of leaders of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) last month for negotiations with the ruling party. Tamrat G.Giorgis, Fortune’s managing editor, and Christain Tesfaye, OP-ED Editor, sat down with veteran politician, Dima Negeo (PhD), deputy chairman of the ODF, on current political development, current reform agendas and the best possible outcome. Dima’s political activism dates back to the early student movements of the early 1970s and late 60’s. The first chairman of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and a minister during the Transitional Government, he served as a founding member of the ODF during his exile overseas. He did his PhD at the University of Tennessee and served as a Global Leader fellow at the Oxford and Princeton universities.
Fortune: You are here in Ethiopia after protracted negotiations with the Ethiopian government for a peaceful dialogue and political discourse. One of the sticky points on your return was registration of the ODF with the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). You had wanted to come as an organisation. Have these issues been resolved?
Dima Negeo (PhD): Our organisation had resolved from the beginning to return to Ethiopia and participate in politics. To that end, we contacted the government several times to allow us to do just that. We wrote and met with officials, but they never wrote back to acknowledge the receipt of our letters. But we continued to engage with the government at various levels, for nearly five years. We were unable to sit for a discussion until last month.
Q. And that was the meeting in Dubai?
Yes, we talked about the modalities of our return to the country. And the issue of registering our organisation in the country will be carried out through the normal legal process. We are studying the requirements of the law and the procedures. We will register soon. Whether the party will continue to have the same name or another depends on the provisions of the law.
Q. You, and some of your comrades at the ODF, are one of the founders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), of which you were once a chairman. You have broken up with the OLF ever since. When did you realise that violence and military activities as a means of political advancement are wrong?
It evolved. We did not break off from the OLF. The OLF disowned us at various stages – relieving us of our duties. I was relieved in 1998. Since then I have pursued other possibilities. I returned to graduate school; thought and wrote research papers. But the issue of what sort of tactics to pursue to regain the rights we were fighting for started early in the OLF.
After the Dergue’s fall in 1991, we became part of the transitional government, but we could not evolve to a normal political party because of disagreements with the EPRDF during the first year of the interim government – both organisations maintained armed units. We considered the possibility of phasing out politically organised armies and how to rebuild a national army, even after we withdrew.
Some of the gestures by the Ethiopian government should encourage them.
Q. Was withdrawing from the transitional government, which you were instrumental in setting up, a regrettable decision?
Not regrettable, but we did not want to leave. We were forced out; even after we went, we continued to engage with the government. One sticky issue was how to disband politically affiliated forces and build a new nonpartisan national army. Of course, the OLF lost the armed struggle within a few years – it had small forces. It was defeated even if the resistance was renewed.
This issue of whether to continue the armed struggle or not started to be debated. We have seen in many countries that guerrilla movements never really brought about democratic dispensation. Once they come to power, they maintained it through armed means.
Q. One of the major reasons for your departure from the OLF was you were disowned by its leadership for pursuing politics through nonviolent means.
The issue was never publicly discussed in proper organisational forums. I do not think that was the main issue. We had other differences. After we had joined the transitional government in 1991, we essentially abandoned the issue of independence for Oromia, which was the end goal. We diverted to trying to bring about equality, and social justice in Ethiopia to achieve democracy. Once we became part of the transitional government, we had to review that objective of the struggle.
The Oromo are a significant group in Ethiopia, and they inhabit a large part of the central islands. The independence of Oromia would disrupt the country. It is unlikely that Ethiopia will exist as a state if the Oromo are not part of it. It would be difficult. We are now pushing for a new democratic state where power is shared, and self-rule is exercised at various levels. We believe the federation of Ethiopia was the right approach for a large, complex and diverse country such as Ethiopia. But the problem with the federation that was established in 1995 was that it is not democratic.
Q. A proposal by the ODF in 2016 makes an overwhelming case against armed struggle to democratic order – haven`t you noted the exception of the American Revolution against the British colonisers in the late 18th Century that finally led to the democratic United States?
It is a different case – the United States was a colony fighting for independence.
I have multiple identities. I am a man and an African. I am an Ethiopian and my family raised me as an Oromo, with Oromiffa as my first language.
Q. So did the OLF claimed the same.
The character of the United States is different. People there came from various European countries. Most of the people who settled there were running away from the tyranny in Europe, from absolutism. They did manage to come together and set up a state – but a flawed one because a significant number of people were held in bondage. Democracy applied to the ruling elite. Only those with property were allowed to vote, and women did not get to participate. Even today there are severe flaws in the American democracy.
In our case – in any other case we looked at for the last century – those who secured power through armed means were later forced out by another militant movement.
Q. How do you explain your decision to form a coalition with political organisations that have raised arms? Does this not contradict the principle that armed means to political struggle will not bring democracy?
Initially, the coalition was negotiated to pursue a nonviolent means of struggle to bring about change in Ethiopia. But in the process, one of the movements refused to adopt this approach. We tried to push them and continue to do as such, because a nonviolent form of struggle bases itself on popular participation. It will eventually ensure that a democratic system would be put in place, whereas when an armed group topples a government it will put in place the people who came through the use of force.
But the coalition has been evolving for some time, and we hope [Ginbot 7] will reconsider its position, especially in light of recent developments that have allowed us to return. We have advised them publicly and privately to abandon that form of struggle, as the method is problematic and other groups that have tried it, such as the OLF that is based in Eritrea, have failed. What would it [Ginbot 7] achieve by basing in Eritrea where the OLF has failed?
Q. What is the status of the coalition after you came back to sit for dialogues with the ruling coalition?
In name, it is still there. But it is not active now – it is more or less frozen.
Q. Do you see a possibility of dissolution?
We do not intend to dissolve it. As far as we are concerned, we would have liked even to enlarge it and bring in others. But the group that pursued a different path of struggle was not happy with our discussion with the Ethiopian government and our return to Ethiopia. In a way, they wanted to freeze it. It depends on them whether they will continue along the same path or they will change course. We hope they would.
Some of the gestures by the Ethiopian government should encourage them. That some of their high profile prisoners have been released should convince them that the course of the struggle has to change. It was never a serious one anyway. Maybe they used it as a threat. I do not know how large of a force they have organised, but from what we know it is too limited to make a difference. Especially when you look at the country for the past three years, there has been a popular struggle which made a difference and provided the impetus for the ruling party to pursue a path of reform.
Q. The ruling party had a meeting where it invited parties to return and engage in peaceful political discourse. Your party happens to be the only one that responded.
From the moment we were organised as a political organisation, the founding congress resolved that we should return to our country. When the ruling coalition issued this call for all political organisations to affecting and participate in the country’s political life, we issued a statement immediately, praising that they were now opening the political space. That was what we had wanted.
Q. Does that have a political cost to you? Some of the other parties may have been concerned they could lose ground among the very polarised constituencies they have should they follow suit.
No. We think we would gain even more ground, for millions of people could respond to our line of thinking. From the beginning, we wanted to change the political culture in the country whether with those in power or outside. It has been very adversarial for we do not even acknowledge some of the positive aspects of those in the other camp.
Q. Do you think this is as a result of being opportunistic?
I think it is the political tradition. You seek power through force, and you maintain it. All those that oppose are seen as an enemy. Even traditionally, in Northern Ethiopia, after the king comes to power, he would imprison his own brothers or any other potential claimant to the throne until someone escapes and organises a force to overthrow the incumbent. To this day, that is how political power is viewed. Those in power and those outside it do not see reform as a possible way of improving political landscape.
Q. Do you believe others will follow suit?
Yes, and they should. We have to change a lot of things. Ethiopia’s politics is very fractured and fragmented. We have over 90 parties in the country. There cannot be a democratic system in a country splintered into all these political parties. This tradition has to change. People have to learn how to compromise.
Q. You are hopeful of appealing more to your constituency because you are based here. But this requires a broader tolerant and accommodative space. The ruling party has tried to assert its hegemony but has been challenged with a revolt for the last two or three years. Do you believe the time has changed now? Is there a space sufficient to accommodate differing views, including yours?
We will struggle for it. We are here now, and it is up to us to use whatever political space we have and broaden it. It does not only depend on the ruling party.
Q. But you could have also done that before. Haven`t you?
It was not possible. For instance, one of our leaders [Lencho Letta] came to Ethiopia in 2015 but was thrown out [of the country] after two days. Now it is different; I can come and go. We are looking at the political space in very broad terms. We do not just want our own organisation to register. We also look at the possibility of creating a much broader political movement with other organisations. We hope to be able to reduce the number of political organisations to five at the most.
Q. Will that include the possibility of an alliance with the OPDO?
It depends. We have not discussed it yet. But the OPDO has to change its attitude. I do not think that the OPDO can decide this by itself. It is part of the ruling coalition. Thus, the ruling coalition itself has to change. Whether it will be able to reform itself and be responsive to the demands of the people will depend on how much reform it can undertake within itself. But we would like to bring as many groups as possible into one broader movement to challenge the ruling party through a much broader political boundary.
Q. Do you not agree that you have more in common with the ruling party than with other political parties here and abroad?
That is possible. We have a history of collaboration as we pursued similar objectives during our struggle. But we have evolved while they have been in power for the past 27 years and have grown comfortable there. People become members of the ruling party not out of conviction but because they can be in a position of power. That is one of the major problems the ruling coalition has to address, and for that, they probably need to be defeated in one election. If they are defeated, which will allow them to regroup and then become a real political party. One major problem we have is there is no distinction between party and government and between government and state. It is all mixed up. We have to establish this difference.
Q. In ODF’s proposal that was released in 2016, titled “Our Common Future,” you have called for a shift in attitude in the traditional mindset. You seemed to be advocating for realising democracy through popular consensus rather than a few people waging war and taking power through violence. But in the era of post-truth and fake news, where the public may not necessarily be informed accurately and adequately, and half-truth is more powerful than the complete truth, do you not think that this discourse will lead to even more fracture?
Of course, there are always challenges in any movement and any reform. Many enter into certain positions but then find it difficult to change and pursue a different course. The media, including social media, is full of information that cannot be trusted. There is a responsibility on the part of the political leadership on both sides to counter these false narratives and fake news. It will damage everybody.
Q. We do not see you, or the ODF, active on social media. Do you have a social media account?
We do. But I am not active.
Q. Do you not have a fear of being disconnected with Ethiopia’s youth? Close to 64pc in the demography are under the age of 29; another 43pc are under the age of 15. These are young men and women quite active and reachable through social media.
Yes, I am concerned. There are a few of us who participate actively on social media. Our organisation also has official social media accounts, but it is not regularly updated.
We have to be active in the future. In the past, what discouraged me personally is that social media has a lot of landmines. The majority of people want facts and truth, but there are also distractive elements that actively participate in social media and carry out character assassinations. We have been at the receiving end of this and, usually, we do not even know who does it.
Also, Internet penetration in Ethiopia is not that large. There are a couple of million users of the Internet, most of these are probably the most privileged sector of the population. This limitation did not encourage me. It is more advisable for the future though. Our approach will evolve as we become active in the country. When I was a young student activist here, our means of communication was leaflets that we printed and duplicated. It was risky, but we would put them in strategic places, sometimes on parked cars. But now the times have changed, and we have to change also.
Q. In the absence of strong and independent institutions that can intermediately contest for political power, when there is a popular revolt taking place, are you concerned that this may end up leading to an autocrat emerging in the style of Poland, Hungary, Russia or even the United States?
Even in the United States, where there are elections, you can end up with Donald Trump. The majority of the Americans did not vote for him but due to the flawed nature of the American democracy, he was able to become president. There are many other examples of this in Europe as a result of large-scale immigration.
There is a transitional program that was drafted by the ODF and then adopted by the coalition of the Ethiopian National Movement. It is a program for how institutions could be reformed. Elections are not a democracy – it is part of it, but there are more fundamental issues such as building or rebuilding institutions that can guarantee a democratic future and the rule of law.
Q. The Ethiopian history informs us that from every period of uncertainty some kind of autocracy emerges, be it in the transition from Emperor Haile Selassie to Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.) or Meles Zenawi. Are you worried that if mishandled, the current euphoria for change and reform will end up producing another one? You seem to have implied, in your proposal, of such scenario.
It is possible, especially in a situation like that of ours where there are no strong institutions to guarantee the sort of democratic dispensation we want. That is why we are calling for the reform of institutions such as the judicial system, the electoral body, law enforcement as well as a certain constitutional reforms. The people should own the constitution itself. It should not just be a document recognised by a dominant group.
There are lots of people in the opposition who reject the constitution, not because they do not like the content but that of the process through which it was enacted. A process sometimes is more important, especially in drafting a constitution. We had left that process, during the transitional government, and only the EPRDF and a small group of its allies had remained. We have a history of governments enacting constitutions, which are swept away when that government collapses.
Q. You seem to be quite pleased with the multiethnic nature of the constitution though. But the concern for others is that as a result of the political internal administrative demarcation that considers ethnocultural formations, conflicts between different ethnic groups have been recurrent. Many are concerned that this may lead to the disintegration of the whole nation. Would you not prefer the constitution is based on civic nationalism, instead of ethnocultural or multicultural nationalism?
It is not the structure that is the problem but the way it is managed. We can even go back 40 years when ethnic nationalism began as the primary focus of political movements in Ethiopia. The initial demarcation was based on linguistic communities after a study carried out during the Dergue regime. Many of the regions now are multi-ethnic; we need to establish citizenship as an integrating force. There is still room for improvement.
There are indeed those that oppose it, and even advocate a unitary form of the state. Thus, the ODF has indicated that all these issues have to be resolved, and we have to sit down with those who believe in a unitary form of state as well others who are comfortable with federalism. We must build consensus for we cannot continue an antagonistic kind of struggle. Some people oppose not just the sort of federation but also provisions in the constitutions such as Article 39.
Q. Which you are quite pleased with, right?
Personally, I do not think it [Article 39] was necessary; but, it does not mean everybody would opt out just because the article is there. We can work on other factors that bind people together.
Q. If ODF becomes a governing party, what part of the constitution will it be interested in changing or amending?
There are certain elements I would consider to be debated and discussed, such as the parliamentary form of government. I would prefer a presidential one.
Q. Ethiopia will have a national election in less than two years, but there are too many issues that need to be dealt with ahead of time, particularly the autonomy and competence of democratic institutions that intermediate among the different parties. Will you be participating?
Elections are not our priority; we want to push for reforms in the country to create the basis for proper elections and proper political parties.
Q. But if that is your intention, why would you be a political party, to begin with? Why do you not be a civic organisation?
We can better pursue this by being a political party as there are limitations to civic organisations` ability to influence change. If we instead win elections by ourselves or through a coalition, those are some of the changes we want to see brought. We believe it is better for the current government to carry out these reforms for itself.
Q. In ODF’s proposal of 2016, it commended the incumbent for putting development at the top of its agenda. Does this mean that you are currently happy with the policymaking of the EPRDF?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that after 2005 the ruling party used development as a legitimising cause. Ethiopia is one of the most underdeveloped countries thus positive development should be a priority.
But has the development been sustainable and equitable? When we look at what happened in the past three to four years, large swaths of the youth came out in opposition to the government. It showed some of the failures in terms of massive youth unemployment; growth and development have not been shared across large parts of the population. Few people have become very wealthy. Too many live under food insecurity – 20 million according to the United Nations, a fifth of the population.
Q. Thus, you would not want to change the prevailing economic policies fundamentally, but just tinker with it?
Q. Are you pleased with the fact that the state is a significant force affecting changes to overcome poverty?
Q. Ethiopia has a Federalist Constitution, giving at least ideal autonomy to regions. Currently, the government has affected significant development averaging nearly 10pc in a gross domestic product (GDP) since 2010. Economic policymaking is highly centralised at the expense of the autonomy of regional states. Would you instead have regional states exercising their autonomy, or get rapid growth at their cost?
I believe that the government should be inclusive in making such decisions. There should be a broad national consensus on this. If the regional government gives some of its powers to the central government willingly, that should be alright. But not all regional governments are capable of managing their own economies. Some are very small, and some are big and dependent on the federal government for handouts. There are a lot of other issues that have to be debated especially on how to implement the constitution, including the powers to tax. Some have broad tax bases; others too little. There needs to be a discussion on improving the constitution, including who gets to interpret it.
Q. The House of Federation (HoF) is the equivalent of a constitutional court. Are you happy with this?
If the constitution is based on a broad national consensus, yes. But I would prefer to have a constitutional court. There could be lots of conflicts in the future. Already, we have serious border conflicts, identity issues, and territorial claims. Had there been a constitutional court to deal with this, it would have been better.
Q. You are a product of the Ethiopian student movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now in your late sixties, what is the one thing you would want to see before your days come to an end?
That is why I moved to Ethiopia – to contribute whatever I can in the limited time I have on this planet. I would like to see a national consensus on the type of state we want. Another bottleneck we have is development. Ethiopia is the oldest state in Africa but also the poorest. It has a large population and resources, but it has not managed to pull itself up and become a medium-income country. I believe the character of the state is the major impediment. No other state has had its legitimacy questioned as much. The majority have to feel that the state works in their interest. I want to see a legitimate state that is defended by the majority of its people.
Q. How would you like to identify yourself?
I have multiple identities. I am a man and an African. I am an Ethiopian and my family raised me as an Oromo, with Oromiffa as my first language.
Q. Do you have an identity that precedes all of these?
No. Why should I? People should identify themselves as they are pleased.