By Kindeneh Mihretie — The latest issue of Awramba Times, a weekly newspaper published in Addis Ababa, features an interesting interview with Ato Siye Abraha. Siye is an influential personality in contemporary Ethiopian politics who hardly needs elaborate introduction. Many consider him as a key figure during TPLF’s armed struggle to topple the Derg. He was also one of the very few people who wielded actual power in the TPLF lead government until his row with Meles landed him in jail in 2002, an event that also led to the split of the party. He owed his unexpected release in 2007 to the post 2005election political dynamics in the country.
Siye’s endeavor to come back to the political scene ever since has consistently kept him on the spotlight. His role in the formation of Medrek, a coalition of opposition parties formed in 2008 marked his comeback début. Most recently, his decision to join UDJ, arguably the strongest party in the Medrek coalition, has astonished many observers of opposition politics in Ethiopia, who were speculating that Siye would either join Arena, a new Tigrian based party, or come up with a party of his own. No sooner was also his joining of UDJ along with Negasso Gidada, former president of Ethiopia, announced than he was elected as vice-chairman and PR officer of the party.
It is not very clear yet how the ruling party received the news of Siye’s rise to such prominence in the hierarchy of UDJ’s leadership. What is certain is that his earlier role in the formation of Medrek had the ruling party once again on a high alert after finding a brief breathing space following its, i.e., the regime’s success in dismantling CUD. His subsequent move in joining UDJ seems also to be the last straw to some around TPLF circles, who were still entertaining the prospect of Siye being somehow rehabilitated and brought back to the fold. In a desperate move to control damage, Aigaform, a pro-TPLF online news website, tried to spin the news of Siye’s decision to join UDJ as an indication that UDJ had moderated its view against article 39 of the constitution. How else, Aigaforum seemed to be asking, could Siye be expected to go to such an extent of compromising his stance on the right of nations and nationalities to self-determination up to secession, in his selling out to the opposition camp.
Conspiracy theories aside, the reaction of UDJ supporters both in Ethiopia and outside to the news of Siye’s joining of UDJ was also mixed. Some welcomed it as a triumph of Ethiopian nationalism. Others advised caution against any such premature celebration. Several others were alarmed and considered the move as a hijacking of UDJ by Siye and his newly formed clique within the party. The latter group of UDJ supporters also expressed concern that Siye’s goal will prove to have little in common with their aspiration to see a free and democratic Ethiopia. To them, Siye is driven more by a desire for personal vendetta against arch-foe Meles. His quick adaptation to the merits of peaceful struggle and the beauties of democracy might have also little or nothing to do with a genuine personal transformation that would have made him a welcome addition to UDJ. Rather, it is an adjustment he made based on his clever assessment of the situation and strategic calculation as to how best to pursue his goal under the existing circumstances. While that certainly makes him a real danger for Meles to reckon with, he should have had a lot to prove before being embraced by the opposition in open arms, they contend.
It is in the above context that the highlight of his recent interview with Aweramba Times needs to be situated. It concerns the issue of apology. The journalist asked Siye why he does not consider it important to apologize for the people of Ethiopia for mistakes he might have committed while he was running various government departments. In posing the question, the interviewer cited the case of former president Negasso Gidada who did so as part of his effort to prove his reconstituted political self to the Ethiopian people. It needs to be added here that the journalist was rather very sensitive in the way he carried out the interview. As Siye himself knows only too well, other people do not think twice in characterizing the nature of his sin in question as outright crimes, than just mistakes, with all the legal implications the difference entails. In any case, Siye’s reply was that “the Ethiopian people are not yet in a position to grant apology”. Evidently startled by the reply, the journalist tried to ask a follow up question. Siye however refused to make any further elaborations and demanded the interview to move to another issue.
EMF, one of the well-known pro-democracy Ethiopian websites, has posted the whole interview online, and if the reaction of my friends is anything to go by, it has already so many people talking. I am not however so sure if Siye has done himself a disservice by refusing to clarify his reply. It is a more nuanced response than just a matter of pride and arrogance that it suggests at first sight. As a rather shrewd politician, Siye seems to be trying to use an apparent drawback to his own advantage. It is however doubtful if he succeeded in doing so. He certainly did not with one of my friends. To this friend of mine, the statement is yet another proof of what Siye is at his best; a clever politician who perceives the rest of us as just gullible foot soldiers in his rivalry with Meles.
In driving his point home, my friend went to the extent of comparing Siye’s statement with an infamous provision in the League of Nations charter drafted in the aftermath of World War I. The provision offered the blessing of the international community at the time to British and French takeover of former colonies of Germany and the Ottoman Empire as spoils of war, under the guise of mandateship. The people of the mentioned areas were aspiring to become independent at the end of the First World War. They did not just daydream that. They worked for such eventuality supporting the British war effort in the hope that Britain would facilitate their independent nationhood once the war came to an end. However, they were betrayed by the Brits who had better plans in store for them. After keeping what it wanted for itself, Britain handed over the rest of the areas mainly to France. Adding insult to injury, the League of Nation came up with the following statement in justifying the move;
“…those colonies and territories which … are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, …the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility…”.
Though hard to believe, the statement has no meaning other than what it just means. The League judged certain people of the world at the time as unfit to exercise self-rule and condemned them to British and French tutelage, to enable them acquire that capability.
According to my friend, by his statement that ‘the Ethiopian people are not ready to grant apology” Siye has similarly judged the Ethiopian people as currently unfit to hold their rulers accountable. Not only that, but Siye also justified his current political role by the statement. Siye therefore wants us to greet his joining of the opposition camp as the arrival of a cosmic deliverer, who, like what the British and the French promised to their mandates, would guide us in our quest for freedom and democracy. Continuing to draw the parallel, my friend cited another statement in the same interview where Siye claimed that he has a proven record of making the impossible come true, which according to Siye, is what the opposition and the Ethiopian people need. Begging to differ, my friend points out that in popular parlance, even in our culture, the term Englize (which means someone from England) is synonymous to shrewdness, especially in reference to the way a politician conducts his business. I wanted to tell my friend that that might have a lot to do with the repeated mischief the British had committed against us too in our modern history. However, I did not do so for fear that that might sidetrack the discussion too long in another direction. All the same, I have to say that I really found his point very interesting. He was basically wondering, what if, by responding to Siye’s call to arms, we also only end up profiting little more than a change of masters, like the people of former German colonies and Ottoman territories.
The circumstances of Siye’s rise to the highest possible position in UDJ’s leadership hierarchy are certainly not confidence inspiring, to assuage the fear of my friend and many others, in this regard. In the same interview, Siye dismissed the issue by saying that he does not want people to make a big deal out of party procedure and bylaws that might not be followed and strictly adhered to in the process of his election. He said that what matters is what he intends to do with the role the party bestowed upon him. In other words, he is claiming that the end will justify the means. To many people however, that sounds just too familiar, and it is not particularly reassuring in being so. The TPLF version of such “the end justifies the means” approach, where Siye had all his schooling in party politics, had involved dragging tens of thousands of young men and women to the altar of sacrifice. Yet, as Siye himself is now the first one to admit, that noble end did not materialize. Instead, reversing the frustration of that end is currently justifying several other means, such as compromising the bylaws and party procedures of UDJ by Siye and his clique. Siye’s response to this seems to be that compared to the means employed in TPLF, his sidelining of those bylaws and other inner party legal niceties of UDJ does not warrant the crying foul that disgruntled party members are persistently making. However, the latest word in town is that such complaint of dissatisfied party members is gaining traction. To them, and many other people, showing care and sensitivity to those bylaws and procedures is the least Siye can do to establish trust with the pubic. Apology is also part of that. It seems that nothing short of Negasso’s plea can do in Siye’s case too.
In all fairness, it should also be however mentioned here that the message Siye was trying to get across by the statement that “the people of Ethiopia are not yet in a position to grant apology” might not warrant the parallel with the League of Nations mandates provision. All he meant to say was that under the existing circumstance, he does not owe the people of Ethiopia apology. Personally, I agree with him. Because, requesting apology in cases such as his, presupposes exercising power through popular mandate. It also presupposes losing power or falling out of grace through popular outrage and pressure. Siye did not exercise the duties of all the public offices he assumed in the course of his stay as part of the ruling party through popular mandate. His removal had also nothing to do with popular demand. No trust was therefore abused or contract breached. It also follows that his attempt to reconstitute himself currently should not require apology as a prerequisite. That is why he said he does not owe us apology in the existing circumstances and under the context in which he exercised power. He came to power and lasted as long as he did by means of brute force. If popular outrage were powerful enough, those still in power, who are guilty of similar or graver crimes, would not have been there.
Siye does not stop there. As already pointed out, he goes further and tries to justify his current political role as an effort to allow the people of Ethiopia to be able to hold their leaders accountable in the future by granting, withholding and withdrawing consent and legitimacy. When that happens, Siye seems to say, his future will also be decided through popular will. If people grant him their consent to contribute his share in a future government, that means that the people of Ethiopia also grant him forgiveness to his past mistakes. If on the other hand, people prefer to withhold their consent to any desire on Siye’s part to assume public office in the future, it means that after weighing his vice against all his past and future virtues, the public finds the former heaver, and as a result might even instead conduct him to jail to serve another round of sentence. The system he is now fighting to see put in place, Siye’s statement also implies, will insure accountability of public officials even after being sworn in to office, since it will allow for withdrawal of consent already granted.
The question is however how this could be the case when people do not own the struggle. Siye seems to consider leaders, not the masses as the decisive force behind the struggle for such future political system. The way he is conducting himself inside UDJ contradicts his avowed mission, to say the least. Among other things, this is what the ease with which he sidelined important procedural issues in the party shows.
It is also doubtful if his actions would have had the blessing of Birtukan Mideksa, to whose continued leadership he pays lip service along with other members of his clique. While that is a theme for another piece, it is interesting to note here that in her last interview with Abiy T/Maryam, one of the editors of the now fold weekly newspaper, Birtukan said that she was always in her guards in any dealings with Siye. She also noted that though some form of collaboration was inevitable, she was not eager to immediately committee her party to speedy coalition with Medrek, Siye’s brainchild. One cannot therefore help wondering how Siye’s role in UDJ would have been defined if Birtukan was still in charge.
In general, Siye’s handling of business certainly shows how a clever politician he is, who can operate under any circumstances. However, it is curious if there is anything such personality would allow to stand on his way in pursuing his goal. Everything seems to be expendable except the goal, and the goal, many supporter of UDJ fear, might have little in common with their aspiration for the party and its role in the struggle for freedom and democracy in Ethiopia.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.