A plea to Communications Minister Getachew Reda [by Dr. Tilahun Megerssa ]

Getachew Reda

I am writing to you today as citizen concerned about the present political situation in Ethiopia. Needless to say, I do not belong to any organized political group, nor do I subscribe to the ideology of any such group. If I have to express political views in my letter, it is not in any capacity as a political commentator. I leave that privileged position to the increasing number of experts that take to various stages especially in recent times. I rather write to you as a humble citizen who tries to stay as informed as possible on matters concerning his country.

I have known you for a long time now – from our time at the Law School through your time at Mekelle University and now as a politician. I have always admired you intellect, wit, sense of humor and social skills. In no less measure is your command of English admirable in a country where language proficiency is considered to be one of two major yardsticks of knowledgeability – the other one being political power. I know many others have different views about you based on your alleged lack of ‘seriousness’ when you were at the University, your outgoing behavior and, most importantly, your comments as a politician.

When you were embroiled in a war of words over your comment that the demonstrators in the Oromia region were having difficulty ‘reigning in the devil they invited’ (yeterutin gannen mekotater akatachew) some months ago, I recall you stated that anybody who knows you would stand witness to the fact that you would not insult a people as gannen. If nobody has come out before me on the matter, let me be the first to testify publicly that you are a person who has neither the ignorance nor the disposition to insult a people – much less to call the great Oromo people gannen teri. The Getachew I know is a respectful, understanding and sensible fellow who has proven capability to make friends with people of different social and cultural origins. It is just that you chose the wrong words in describing what was a really serious situation.

However, I do not think I can say the same about many other comments you have made over the period of your tenure as a politician. First of all, your comments should be put in proper perspective. You speak from the vantage point of party position rather than your individual opinion. You essentially execute what your party decides. Furthermore, you are a Communication Minister whose job is to communicate the decisions of your government to the public in a way that best promotes its political agenda. This is not to say that your individual opinion does not matter because the decisions of your party/government result from the debates and discussions you would have before you go out to communicate the outcome. Consequently, it is to be assumed that there are views or party positions that you would express even if you do not personally believe in them (recall the observation of the late Prime Minister that he executed the decision of the party to go to war with Eritrea even if he did not believe in it). However, you are most probably the author of many of the words you use in articulating and communicating the positions.

If you have to be evaluated as an individual politician or as a person, you are to be judged based on the views and positions you stood for during internal (party) debates, which the public has no way of knowing. On the other hand, your evaluation as a politician can logically be based on how well you articulated and defended your party’s/government’s position. You cannot expect the public to walk the fine line between the two roles, i.e., to differentiate your party position from your individual opinion, and judge you accordingly. It is also in the nature of your position as a politician to be in the spotlight of public opinion.

I have seen and listened to you so many times speaking in defense of your government/party in a variety of delicate issues, including on the effect of the CSO law in narrowing the space for civil society in the country, the usage of the anti-terrorism law against journalists and political critics, the fairness of the ruling party’s 100 per cent control of the parliamentary seats, the alleged interference of government in religious affairs, and, more recently, on the protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions. I have always seen the different views from the perspectives of party political positions and the generally polarized nature of political debates in our country. I must say that you play your ‘supposed’ role quite well in these contexts. When I would assume that Getachew as an individual would take a totally different view or surely would struggle to control his mirth, you took the government position to a new level of seriousness (e.g., advocating for the escalation of Government measures against civil society and dissident groups with “secret” agenda, defending the 100 per cent control of parliament as a result of free and fair elections, rejecting every critical human rights report as baseless and biased etc.). You join the chorus of labeling all dissident voices as power mongers, terrorists and agents of foreign elements who want to counter the democratic and development gains of the country under your party.

The above is all to be expected from a typical party politician. I must admit, however, that when you first appeared at the national political stage in a turn of events that remains enigmatic to me, I somehow expected that you were going to be a ‘friendly’ face of the regime whose top officials remained aloof, particularly from the (independent) elite that they called by different names such as (petty-) bourgeoisies, narrow nationalists, chauvinists etc. I honestly assumed you and the other ‘new generation’ politicians were going to let go the animosity reminiscent of the politics of the 70s, to which many of our old guard politicians belonged, and create an interface between the government and the broader politically concerned elite, which reasonably felt excluded. However, that was not to be. Especially with the recent rounds of protests in the country, you have plaid a typical regime politician’s role, perfecting the arts of dismissal, labeling and fear-mongering that we have seen  many governments in the same situation put to use. I watched you many times being put in the difficult positions of defending the democratic credentials of your government and, more particularly, justifying the admittedly disproportionate measures of the security forces. You never disappointed.

The rounds of statements you and your colleagues made on the demonstrations in the Oromia and the Amhara regions have not helped calm the situation down a bit. You rather came out as an undeservedly controversial figure. While I stood with you on the “gannen” comment and understood your party/government position statements, I was dumbstruck by your recent comment on the demonstrations in Oromia and Amhara. After singing from your government’s hymen sheet of blaming some, externalizing the problems and labeling the causes as narrow nationalism (Oromia) and chauvinism or timkihtegninet (Amhara), you went on to lament the “weakness” of the government in not doing enough to avoid the eventuality of the demonstrators in the two regions standing for the causes you described. You labeled them, or their unidentified organizers, “separatists and unifying forces which should never have supported each other’s causes”, i.e., one group asking government to hear the voice of the other, “if the government did its job well”. You added that there is no way the Government negotiates with such groups.

Considering the immediate causes, overall issues raised and the apparent absence of coordination among the demonstrations, one would find their depiction as some sort of solid groups with identifiable characteristics and objectives to be quite strange. Even if the name-calling was a result of established political strategy or connections created with forces such as the Oromo Liberation Front and Ginbot 7, I found it hard to understand the logic of a responsible government official in playing the game of division between two people who happen to be out in demonstrations that broke out for reasons which are not necessarily related to one another. If at all there are common reasons, they somehow relate to the Government’s overall handling of politics and governance in the country which would require considered, nuanced and steady responses. However, your comment portrayed a (spontaneous-sounding) response that strangely seemed to suggest that it could have been possible to avoid such demonstrations, i.e., the simultaneity and support to each other’s causes, by fomenting animosity and conflict between the two groups of people, or by fueling the supposed historical tension between the two ethnic groups.

The forgoing understanding of your comments fed very well into the views of many critics that the regime has been promoting division (rather than unity within diversity) in the country for so many years. I think all reasonable minds agree that, when the ruling party came to power, there was an issues of cultural hegemony that had taken elite political ramifications, which needed to be addressed. The possibility of being able to be served, administered, adjudged and go to school in ones’ own language is one big and irreversible achievement of the incumbent regime, which any group with a serious political agenda cannot hope to change or re-negotiate. Nevertheless, many would also agree that this is something that has been achieved (maximum) in the first 4 years of this regime’s reign. Since then, ethnicity has taken center-stage in political, social and even economic life within the country.

We went on to have our ethnicity written on our identification card – in disregard of mixed heritage and in a way that makes our Rwandan friends drop their jaw. Political parties are organized around ethnicity to the extent that a non-ethnic or national political organization has come to be considered a camouflage to a unifying agenda that rolls back “the gains of ethnic nationalism”. The political power contest among the tiny number of political elites is expressed in terms of usurped or assumed ethnic constituency. In a manner that defies any logic, we have come to hear of the “thinking” or political position of an ethnic group – like ye Amara or ye Tigre astesaseb. Meanwhile, the millions of people with mixed ethnic heritage either felt completely abandoned by, or had to align themselves to the demands of, the favored political architecture.

While no one ethnic group can obviously claim monopoly or superiority of competence, political and civil service appointments followed ethnic and party lines sometimes at the cost of merits (recall the often quoted remark of the late Prime Minister to the effect that political allegiance matters more than merit). This further opened the door to nepotism wide open – leading to realities and beliefs of ethnic favoritism. Ethnicity went even into academics and business – academic institutions took ethnic names, whereas anybody would tell you which bank belongs to which ethnic group. You may have heard from practicing lawyers in the country that even Chinese and Indian businessmen who happen to have court cases ask one’s ethnicity as part of the discussion to decide whether he/she will actually be their lawyer. There are also stereotypes building around this. When a person becomes rich in a short period of time or gets a high-level public service appointment, the number of people who try to assume his/her ethnicity are definitely not small. I am sure these are all not hidden to you. Obviously, they do not come from nowhere.

You proudly state that the regime/ruling party has been promoting democratic (ethnic) nationalism. However, while the ethnic question continued to be overplayed, many would agree that the promise of genuine self-government in the regional states remained elusive and the political space narrowed particularly in the periods after 1993 and 1997 E.C. In the last decade, organized political opposition has been practically decimated by the barrage of laws and actions (in what is called “rule by law”) – leaving the ruling party in the precarious position of claiming 100 per cent of parliament and having no viable partner for negotiation on the current political predicament. Under these circumstances, what you are left with is the promotion of ethnic nationalism as the only viable result of the revolutionary democracy political agenda. The yearly “Day of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” has been celebrated under mottos such as “our difference is our strength”. I first thought the word “difference” (liyyunet) was a slip of pen for “diversity” (bizuhinet), but to the misplacement of my hope I saw the motto being used repeatedly and in different parts of the country. This is not semantics, because there is clear danger in accentuating dissimilarity and/or disagreement (this is the meaning of difference) in a context where there have been much inter-ethnic relationships and less unifying political institutions and factors. Be it designed or incidental, the lack of an organizing or common agenda could also be the reason why the present protests are framed or described in ethnic terms.

Some have considered the politicization of the Muslim protests that broke out in 2011 as a spin-off from the ethnic/group politics promoted by the ruling party. It is no coincidence that the late Prime Minister’s first public address on the protests, which at that stage were essentially about the alleged interference of government into the management of religious affairs, depicted it as an issue of political representation as well. If you begin the lines of group political participation, anybody who has closely looked at our political history would logically consider our Muslim citizens as a possible political constituency. This would challenge the ethnic-based political agenda of the ruling party because its distinction of group political entities is religious blind and also because the dividing lines of ethnicity would be diluted by religion, which could either unit or divide ethnic groups.

The reason why I go at a little bit of length on the matter of ethnic division is to show how your comment could be interpreted as falling perfectly into a prevalent divisive mode of thinking. I understand that part of the ‘ethnicization’ of life in Ethiopia is not something on which the government may have taken clear position, but any politician would be hard-pressed to have been oblivious about the stated eventualities and the danger in this trajectory. We have heard a lot about how ethnic politics and/or federalism saved the country from disintegration. That might be true, but how has overplaying ethnic politics in the way the regime did solve ethnic-based questions in the country? Many regions still have ethnic-based dissident, and often armed, groups. Most of all, the turbulence in which part of the country is currently caught up is essentially ethnic. While the strategy that the government has promoted for far too long has not helped avoid this, it is puzzling that the response to the upheavals and demonstrations now occurring is still to categorize, divide and call names. It has now become the punchline of the government-controlled media to refer to three categories of people in the description of the present political conundrum, namely, “narrow nationalists” (mainly in relation to the demonstration in Oromia), “chauvinists” (regarding the Amhara demonstrations) and “targets of ethnic-based hatred” (in reference mainly to the Tigreans). Where it is felt important to describe the nature and causes of the protests more generally, words such as “backwardness” and “rent-collection” come into the picture.

It is as clear as day to everybody by now that the problems are real. Under this circumstances, one finds it difficult to understand the political or any other importance of labeling the demonstrations in the above ways. As could be seen from the position statements of the various party meetings and orchestrated interviews with high-level members of the ruling party and ‘independent’ political commentators, the government seems to be reckoning with some of its problems – going a little bit beyond its monotonous claim that it has problems of implementation (bureaucratic bottlenecks) rather than policy. I do not see how one reconciles this with the description of the ethnic-based (may be incidentally) demonstrations in terms that sound like there is interest in pitting one against another, or creating or widening rifts among different groups. How is that different from the often irresponsible social media, television and other web-based political comments that essentially foment division and hatred? What is the point of associating some instances and views of hatred by a limited number of individuals to the mass pretests happening in certain regions – following the logic of a “people’s thinking”?

Coming back to your comments, I am not sure if the government/ruling party has seen how dangerous your depiction of the demonstrations could be or if it has come to know how it was generally received. By the way, I should mention here that I have heard views of differing levels of negativity about your comments from acquaintances hailing from different parts of the country, including the small village where I grew up. Going by the frequency with which you appear on television windows these days, you seem to have been informally sidelined since the comment in question. In the one instance I watched you speaking about the work of government in responding to the people’s demands, you appeared to be trying to mellow. In any case, Ato Getachew, understanding the party political context within which you operate, I want to ask you just two questions:

  1. If you really think there is democracy in the way politics is done in the country – a system in which broadly held and aired voices are heard – there should be consequences to the views that have unfortunately as well as reasonably been developed about you based on your comments over time, particularly the above-mentioned divisive-sounding comment. I am talking about views held locally, not in the diaspora or outside the country. I suppose you are not oblivious to them. Considering the importance of public office you hold and the impact of the views you express, the most logical way is for you to publicly resign. Ideally that resignation would require public apology for comments on which you have been misunderstood or you committed gaffes. Depending on your political outlook and ambition, you may find my suggestion naïve or even offensive, but trust me, your resignation would not only respond to widespread views, it will also have unparalleled symbolic significance as I do not know of a high-level politician who resigned by will in our recent history. This may help the Government as it attempts to change its face.
  2. You can use the intellect of Getachew as an individual to curb the tendency to utilize divisive and disparaging language in the responses of the government/ruling party to what are understandable upheavals that are expressed in ethnic terms, which the government has acknowledged to some extent. As the government is reckoning with the nature, magnitude and seriousness of the problems, I hope it will be wise to take more appropriate measure to address them. The country is at cross-roads. The Irreechaa and sebbataa incidents are veritable signs of how things are going out of control. What we do now may define the fate of a generation. It is clear by now that externalizing the causes, meeting demonstrations by force or taking cosmetic measures such as changing heads of political parties would not suffice. Where the declaration of state of emergency takes us is anybody’s guess. Nonetheless, the objective of my letter is not to discuss possible solutions. There are different proposals from different angles, some of which challenge the polarization of our political debate in substantive terms. I would rather like to ask you to fight within your party/government against the divisive and name-calling rhetoric that has been used in the characterization of the demonstrations and the accompanying threats. I understand that ethnic questions require ethnic response, but as any responsible citizen would do, I am seriously concerned about the danger of putting a divisive spin on the problems on top of the already overplayed ethnic politics in the country.

Sincerely yours,

Tilahun Megersa (Ph.D)



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