"I cannot accuse these young people of their lack of knowledge"
When the first news about the assassination of the Oromo singer Hachalu Hundesa ran through the news tickers on the morning of June 30th and all Ethiopian internet sites went dead, the first thing we tried was to call directly to Addis - but there was no connection. Therefore, one of our first calls reached Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate* in Germany, who confirmed our worst fears - shots and riots in Addis Abeba. A few days later the international agencies reported more and more deaths in Oromia - 239 is the latest figure. We arranged an interview with the Ethiopian Emperor's great-nephew.
DÄV: The murder of Hachalu Hundesa and the subsequent riots werde widely reported in German and international news. There were a lot of reports about the freedom fight of the Oromo and their feeling of oppression. Is this still a topic since Dr. Abiy has been in power?
Dr. Asserate: Not at all. What is the Oromo Liberation Front about? The OLF has existed since over half a century. Whom do they want to liberate, and from whom? There hasn't been any time in Ethiopian history when the Oromo people were specifically targeted to be oppressed. If there ever has been oppression in Ethiopia, it has always happened simultaneously for everybody. Mengistu, for example, never asked if anyone was an Oromo, Tigray or Eritrean. He oppressed, or even killed everyone equally. The second question is from whom do our Oromo countrymen want to liberate themselves? Do they want to free themselves from Ethiopia on the one hand, but on the other hand keep insisting that they are the strongest ethnic group? This is a major contradiction: In the whole history of mankind, has there ever been a situation where the majority of a nation demanded separation from a country? Whenever this happens, it has always been minorities splitting off - for example Eritrea. What is it that differentiates the Oromo people from the other Ethiopians? They are a mixed population, just like the other Ethiopian people. There is no monoculture within the Oromos, they too are made up of different tribes. As far as I am concerned our Oromo brothers and sisters have played as much a role in forming present day Ethiopia as anybody else. Unfortunately, their hate figure is our great Emperor Menelik II. Some Oromo now claim, that he is an Amhara, forgetting that he had also Oromo ancestors. The Oromo accuse him of conquered their country at the end of the 19th century. Instead, we should talk about a reconquest of formerly Ethiopian territories dating back to the 16th century. On old Portuguese maps you can see a cross for every Ethiopian Orthodox Church they found in the Horn of Africa. Crosses are to be found in parts of Northern Kenya, Western Sudan and even within Eritrea.
Back again to the feeling of oppression that the Oromo have. Isn't it more that the Ethiopian population, especially the predominantly young people, need more democratic partipication and above all more economic prosperity? Be it in Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, Somali, Afar or Gambella? It is precisely the latter who have not been so represented in the system that has just come to an end, such as the Oromo, Amhara or Tigray.
That is absolutely right. On the subject of the Oromo not being represented, we have to ask ourselves when they were allegedly not represented. For example Menelik II. was the first Emperor ever to have a cabinet - and four of his first seven ministers were Oromo. And I have not yet talked about his generals and his highest dignitaries, most of whom were Oromos. Also Emperor Haile Selassie, who himself had Oromo blood through his father Ras Mekonnen, had many Oromo generals and high officials. So, their version of Ethiopian history must be revised. Let us come to the present. We are now living in a country with more than 110 million Ethiopians, 85 percent of whom are younger than 25 years. Jawar Mohammed, for example, the leader of the Qeerroo, is only 35 years old - so he was five years old when Meles came to power. That means 85 percent of Ethiopians don't know of any other government than that of Meles Zenawi. That is why I cannot accuse these young people of their lack of knowledge of Ethiopian history. How should they have learned what I explained above? Who taught them this country's real history? I am afraid I have to blame our Oromo countrymen of my generation for this unforgivable lack of passing important information to the next generation. They have been living in Europe and America for 40 or 50 years and have taught their children nothing but a fake history of Ethiopia, revenge and hatred. That's why their children are confused - they don't have a clue of what they are saying and only repeat what their elders have told them. Therefore, I must accuse these armchair culprits, who have harmed a whole generation of innocent Ethiopians. Otherwise you are right: Young men of Oromo origin are also living in the 21st century and have exactly the same dreams as all the other young men in Ethiopia or Africa, which is to live decently, to be able to go to school and university, and later get a good job in order to support their parents and family.
Why don't all discontented people in Ethiopia - no matter which ethnic group - work together and demand more participation and economic perspectives?
Because they have been divided amongst themselves for more than 47 years. Nobody has told them to live after the motto: "Unity in diversity and diversity in unity!"
What are the underlying causes of this ongoing crisis, which has repeatedly had fatal outbreaks? Do you see any solutions?
The origin of all evil in Ethiopia is the racist constitution we got in 1995. All we see today is nothing but the harvest of the seed we sowed then. Ethiopia is a country that can be so proud ot itself. Above all countries it has done most to bring about the process of decolonization throughout Africa. We were the first to support African freedom fighters like Mandela, Kenyatta, and others. Ethiopia was the only African country to be a founding member of the UN - at every session decolonization was put on the agenda because Ethtiopia insisted. The "Organization for African Unity" (predecessor of the African Unity - editior's note) was based in Ethiopia from the beginning. We have carried the Pan-African spirit all over the world since the Victory of Adwa in 1896. It makes me incredibly sad that this country of all countries should be the only in Africa with an apartheid constitution.
But Ethiopia calls itself an ethnic federation. What do you say to that?
I don't dare talk about Ethiopia as a real federal state since its inception by the TPLF. It should be seen as an apartheid state. "Kilil" (the Ethiopians regions - editor's note) is a synonym for Homelands. Looking back to South Africa: In 1948, the fundamentalist Boer Party led by Daniel François Malan came to power in the South African parliamentary elections. He is considered to be the father of the apartheid regime. A few days later he held an international press conference and an English journalist asked him: "What is this weird stuff called apartheid that you want to present to us here?" And he answered literally: "Apartheid is nothing more than an ethnic federation". Regrettably, this is what Ethiopia has officially been for 30 years. There isn't a single country in the world anymore with this kind of a system. As a matter of fact, there have only been two countries with this form of government since the beginning of mankind: South Africa, where this system is thankfully dead and Ethiopia. Ours is the only country in the whole of Africa where the word race appears on our identity cards. Our brothers and sisters in Namibia, the youngest state to be granted independence, are indeed lucky people in comparison: The Namibian Constitution states that neither a minister, nor a judge, nor a policeman has the right to ask a Namibian citizen which ethnic group he belongs to. For us Ethiopians that sounds as paradise on earth!
How could Ethiopia get there too? What would be the concrete next steps for this?
We now have the situation that Dr. Abiy wants to legitimize himself and insists on new elections. I personally would have preferred it, if the Ethiopian Parliament had decreed that Abiy would remain as interim Prime Minister for another two years in order to convene a constitutional assembly. Ethiopians of all parts of the population, local and foreign lawyers, elders from all the different ethnic groups, and various social organisations would be represented in this assembly and would be asked to prepare a new constitution, which would then be legitimized by a referendum. Only then would it have been useful to hold the first truly democratic election in Ethiopia. This would be the fulfilment of what Ethiopians have dreamed for the last 50 years: At last to become citizens of a truly federal and democratic Republic! However since the Ethiopian parliament and the Election Board decided otherwise, we have to accept their decision.
How do you see the future of Ethiopia?
The next few months will show us to what extent our country will maintain its unity and sovereignty. We must decide wether we really want to continue along this path of ethno-fundamentalism, which the treaded TLPF has imposed upon us. Do we want to continue to cultivate ethno-nationalists within the country and slip bit-by-bit into a civil war? If we say no to ethnocentricity, then we must continue along the well trodden path of democratic federalism. "The dignity of all human beings is inviolable and untouchable" - this sentence must apply to all ethnic groups in Ethiopia. What I would like to see is a free constitutional state, where every Ethiopian feels, that he is treated fairly, where no one is given preferential treatment and where all Ethiopians are equal before the law. These are the rights, that we must guarantee our people once and for all.
We discussed this on the phone for the first time on in December 2015 and you said: "A miracle must happen for Ethiopia to still exist in this form in five years" - we have spoken again and again - you seemed to have had more hope for the future of Ethiopia. We still have a few months until the five years end. What will the situation be at the end of this year and afterwards?
In the last few weeks, I've become more pessimistic again. But I know one thing: Ethiopia has one last chance. If Prime Minister Abiy succeeds in maintaining law and order and go ahead with his policy of reconcilation Ethiopia's future will be an enviable one. Ethiopia will indeed become one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. But I am afraid, we may not have a second chance. We must put all our eggs in one basket - and today that basket is called Abiy Ahmed. Let us give him our wholehearted support to create a peaceful, truly federal, democratic and just Ethiopia.
The interview was conducted by Alexander Bestle, press officer of the German-Ethiopian Association (DÄV). Due to new perspectives some editorial changes were made in the transcript from German.
*Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate, Ph.D., is a consultant for African and Middle Eastern Affairs, bestselling author and a Political Analyst.