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Eritrea/Ethiopia: Even an Assab-maniac accepts finality of ruling

Eritrea/Ethiopia: Even an Assab-maniac accepts finality of ruling


16 January 2005


When it comes to Eritrea, one of the most outspoken Assab-maniacs of the land Ethiopia has been Abona Mesfin Woldemariam, who was touted as Geography czar that he taught at the then Hailesellassie I University at least during our initial tenure there. Be that as that may, in an interview with ‘the Ethiopian Reporter’, even the professor now acknowledges that it is over and suggested that  “it (the border ruling) was accepted when at the Algiers Conference they (Meles & Co.) decided to go to court and accept the ruling of the court. That was decided.


So it would have been honorable to accept the ruling of the court without any problem because the mistake was made earlier and you stay consistent with your mistake. You will become honorable by just simply accepting your word, your commitment to it” and added … There is no principle… when you accept something that you say is wrong and unjust” referring to the governments “acceptance in principle” ploy.  Following is text of the full interview:

It has been sometime since Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presented to Parliament and made it approve the five-point New Peace Initiative that, according to him, would break the prevailing deadlock in the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea. And The Reporter has never failed to report the views of various people on this new initiative. Today, Zerihun Taddesse presents an interview he’s had with the prominent intellectual, former head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and one of the brains behind the newly-established political party called Rainbow Ethiopia, Movement for Democracy and Social Justice, Professor Mesfin Woldemariam. Excerpts:

What is your general impression of Prime Minister Meles's new peace proposal? And do you think it will make any difference?

Well, for me it was very sudden and unexpected. It was a complete turn-around from the position he has been expressing for several years. And there was no attempt, thirdly, to at least leak the information earlier for public discussion. So it came really as a terrible shock to most people. And it was shocking because it was sudden, a complete turnabout. That's the most important characteristic of that speech in the so-called Parliament.

Do you think it will make a difference? Do you believe that it will bring about the desired result?

It would have made the difference if the proposal that he presented was sincere. But I do not think it was sincere because the statements in it were pregnant with problems. For instance, he says we accept this 'in principle' and there's 'a give and take' that is going to take place. I think this expectation of give and take, if it will not be in accordance with his desire, there may be another turnabout and the problem may still be with us. So it's not a definitive statement that we shall accept this Commission's decision and we'll resolve that.

Would it have been better for him or the Ethiopian government to accept it without any qualification?

But it was accepted when at the Algiers Conference they decided to go to court and accept the ruling of the court. That was decided. So it would have been honorable to accept the ruling of the court without any problem because the mistake was made earlier and you stay consistent with your mistake. You will become honorable by just simply accepting your word, your commitment to it.

But then they rejected the decision as unjust, wrong. Now, they turn around and say, "We will in principle accept this unjust and wrong decision." Now, I do not know how and by what logic one would arrive at this conclusion. You know, if something is wrong and unjust, how do you accept it in principle? It beats me.

It also beats me to grasp the meaning of 'in principle' in this context. What does it mean?

It has absolutely no meaning. Principle has lost meaning here. You know, you can say, if it were the reverse, because it is a commitment that we entered into earlier, because it was a principle that we accepted earlier, we accept the ruling of the court. Then you have a principle because you have your commitment and you are consistent. But there is no principle here when you accept something that you say is wrong and unjust. There's no principle I know that forces you to accept what is unjust and wrong except perhaps the principle of force, which he has only hinted at. What sort of force it is I do not know, but to put it generally it is the pressure from the outside. If that is the case, he should have come right out and said it. Although it is wrong, although it is unjust, we are forced to accept it. But that's not to say we accept it in principle. There's no principle here.

But the decision by the Boundary Commission is not obviously to the liking of the Ethiopian people and government. And they have to at least do something about it in the first place, and they have done that. That is, they have rejected it at first. Now, after a lot of pressure has been put on them and, probably, after realizing that they can not live with their rejection of the decision, they have accepted it. Doesn't that make sense to you?

No, because, you see, when you submit to arbitration or judicial decision, you submit to that. You are submitting to the decision whether it is against or for you. Now, you don't go to court with the idea or the presumption that you are going to win because this may not happen. And if the verdict is against you and if you say it is wrong and unjust and reject it, then you are breaking your earlier commitment to go to court. You shouldn't have done that before.

What if the decision or the ruling itself is, as they say, "illegal"?

No, no. Who says that?

The government.

No, no. All this comes, as I said, to the original decision to go to court. If you at that time decided this court has no jurisdiction over you, you don't go. You shouldn't have gone. But if you submit to that, then you must abide by it. You can not say it is unjust because it is against you or just because it is for you. The decision, whatever decision it will be,  is to be left  for that court to arrive at. If that court does not have jurisdiction over you, you should not have decided in the first place to go there.

Let me draw your attention to the fact that the Ethiopian government doesn't object to the decision, at least from what I know, simply because it gives away certain territories, which Ethiopia claims, to Eritrea. But it does so because large positions of the decision do not adhere to the evidence presented to it.

This is the discretion of the court to use the evidence that is available in the way they choose. You know, the evidence that the Ethiopian government presented must be seen against the evidence that the Eritrean government presented. And the court sees these two sets of evidences and decides on the basis of that. So either the Ethiopian government did not produce sufficient and strong evidence or it did not argue its case properly, and so it didn't go its own way.

And what do you think the problem was from these two?

The problem for me is that this is the latest part of a series of mistakes that have been committed by the regime. This is not the last one. I do not know what the next one will be, you know. If you don't stop and correct one mistake, you go on committing other mistakes to cover that mistake. And so the original, fundamental mistake is the view (propounded by EPRDF) that Eritrea is a colony of Ethiopia. That is the fundamental mistake. From there on, you have a long series of mistakes that resulted from this wrong position of this regime. And now, we have reached here, a total reversal.

I personally do not want to see any war between the two countries, between any two countries for that matter. I vehemently opposed the war before between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But they did it. Now I hope they will not go to war again. I do strongly oppose the war. But there must be a settlement of the problem. How this settlement will come about, I haven't the faintest idea. This is because normally when this sort of grand mistake is committed by a regime in power, if that were a responsible and a democratic regime, it wouldn't survive. It would either resign or be voted out of office. But this regime has been going on with its mistakes and repeatedly compounding them, and continues to do so presently.  This is in the nature of dictatorial regimes.

One of the most important duties of democracy, in spite of its many faults as many are eager to point out, is that it is self-corrective. There is a possibility for mistakes to be corrected at any level: the press, the academia, the politician and so forth would try to correct whatever mistakes are made by officials. Things are aired out. A dictatorial regime is not self-corrective. It can not correct its own mistakes. So it continues with its own mistakes, compounding them, until they become too big and impossible to handle.

We will come back to the political implications of this compounding of mistakes that we see with regard to the issue of Eritrea later. But right now, you said that this new peace initiative by the prime minister will not bring peace between the two countries. Why would it not? Why would dialogue, for instance, and also renunciation of the policy of regime change in Eritrea, fail to bring about peace?

I don't want to go into these hypothetical things but rather focus on the facts on the ground today. The Ethiopian people as a whole, and particularly the people of Tigray, are angry. The Eritrean regime has not accepted it because it says it is insincere. Now, therefore, if the Ethiopian people are angry about it and have rejected it and if the Eritrean regime has rejected it, this so-called peace proposal will not be able to get off the ground. I do not see how it can.

I do not think that a regime change in one of these countries would definitely set a new stage for dialogue. It would be possible to talk, and we should talk. We should be able to talk about our problems. We should be able to resolve our problems amicably, peacefully. But at the moment with these two stubborn, dictatorial regimes, each of whom want to have it their way and only their way, each one of them, and they know each other very well I don't think we will do so. It is a case of, I think, identical twins. I had classmates of identical twins. When they were fighting, nobody could separate them. Nobody could stop them. They would stop it themselves when they feel like it. Now when I think about it, it is because each one of them was anticipating the other, the one knew exactly what the other was thinking because they were identical twins. So the fight would go on and on until both after a certain time would say, that's enough. And I think it's a case of identical twins that we have here, who are stubborn, unreasonable and dictatorial.

Do you mean to say that this gesture by the Ethiopian government is not sincere, that its aims are not peace as such but to please the donors?

That's my reading of it.

So if the intention is not peace, the result would not be peace.

It cannot be because it is rejected by all sides. And peace is not something that can be imposed. Peace is something that comes from within a people, a regime and from both sides. You know, you can't force peace.

In this case, there are some words in the Prime Minister's statement that suggest that he is hoping to get something through negotiation. He accepts the verdict, although unjust and wrong, and then he turns around and suggests that we may still get something and so forth. Suppose he doesn't get something, then we go back to war, back to rejecting the whole thing again. So it's not, as I said, definitive. He did not say definitively that we accept the ruling, the decision and go on. No, he didn't say that. He talked about give and take. What is give and take? What is there to give and take? Give and take would have taken place in Algiers, or before Algiers, between the two parties. Now a third party has intervened, decided, then what's there to give and take? This is because the other side is saying, "now the verdict is mine, hand me over." That is what they are saying. And this side is trying to say, "Ok, you hand that over to me and I'll hand this over to you." How? On what basis?

Ethiopia and everyone is presently bracing themselves for the coming general elections. Do you see any wisdom in this new proposal of the Prime Minister, coming as it does just six months before the elections in May?

No democratic government would do that because it would have ensured its being voted out, undoubtedly. But there's no fear of being voted out in a dictatorial regime. So what? The series of mistakes that culminated in this last policy statement have been taking place for 14 years and nothing happened. So why should the regime believe that now there'll be a change in the attitude of the Ethiopian people? The Ethiopian people at any rate are held by force of one type or another.

So in that sense it is an indirect comment or a betrayal, so to say, of its belief that it can not be voted out of office. In that case, do you believe that is right? Do you believe that all the efforts of citizens and the political parties  (in one of which you belong), all the efforts that have been put by many people, many actors into making the elections free, fair and more democratic than the ones before are all for nought?

It is not useless. Basically two things are really important. One is the very exercise of democratic practice in elections. In every election some people are learning. Not all, because the media are totally controlled by the ruling party. If the media were free, if they were really truly public property, then in fourteen years there could have been a lot of change. You could have educated the masses by now about democracy. But this is a regime that is controlling the media as it is controlling the land. So it has the power to exert its will on the majority of the Ethiopian people. But, nevertheless, in every election, however marred by injustice and oppression, some people have learned about election, about democracy. Some people, you know, have talked about it. The press, the free press comes out and writes about the election. So there's some sprinkling of new ideas about democracy during elections. So the exercise of democracy, in spite of its being suppressed and kept at a very low level, is important.

Secondly, I think we should also see it in another way. Every election that takes place in this country is a demonstration of the oppression of the regime, of the fact that elections in this country are not free and fair. So you are exposing the regime. Every election that takes place here exposes the regime to more criticism. In the past there have been monitors from outside. And there will be some, hopefully, truthful monitors this time, too. (Not all monitors who come from the outside are truthful. Some are bought.) So, exposing the regime's tricks to turn the election into what it wants, that the elections are not free and fair, is also important both within the country for the Ethiopian people and also in the eyes of the international public. So it is not futile. It's a very important, useful exercise that definitely serves a very useful purpose in the long run.

That may be a philosophical or theoretical evaluation of its importance. But what can it bring practically?

I have no doubt that if there were free and fair elections in this country, this regime would have been a minority. It would have been out of office. It would have been beaten hollow in Tigray, let alone in other places. But it is doubtful whether they will make it free and fair because you have 85% of the Ethiopian population, peasants, who are held on the land and are threatened with eviction from their land if they don't vote for EPRDF. 90% of urban dwellers, especially the poor, live in kebele houses. And it is very difficult to get houses in cities these days, so the dwellers would think twice before angering the ruling party. And you have the civil servants. I find it very difficult to call them civil servants. Any way, these again are hostages of the regime because if they join any other political party, they are kicked out of their jobs and so forth.

Now all these are pressures on various parts of the Ethiopian population. But still, in spite of that, there are many critical issues that could come out publicly and make the Ethiopian people take a very decisive step to use the ballot. They still do not know that this is power. You know, the individual right to vote is power and the majority of the Ethiopian people have not yet realized this. So the election process is also a mechanism for educating the public. You have seen that so-called parliament where the Prime Minister made his speech. And then, four persons out of five hundred and something, and all four of them are from the opposition parties, objected to what he said and raised some very fundamental questions. He brushed them aside. And then they said, 'vote', everybody put his hand out. This is not a parliament. This is less than a rubber stamp. It is disgraceful. You know, as an Ethiopian watching TV and seeing that, I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed that these are the people who represent Ethiopia. We must change that, somehow. And I think there's a possibility.

Story from ‘The Ethiopian Reporter’


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