In one of his first interviews he gave to the international media since assuming the reins of power in August 2012 after the death of Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi, Ethiopian PM Haile Mariam Desalegn tried desperately, but failed dismally, to explain himself and defend his government’s policies at home and abroad. He was insincere and unable to disguise his lies with the finesse his predecessor dictator was adept at concealing the criminal acts of his regime. Although those who knew the current system in Ethiopia, did not expect much of him, since he was just a front man for the Tigray ruling clique, still as a new leader it was at least plausible that he may assert himself a little bit and chart new course for the deeply divided and directionless Ethiopian regime.
Unfortunately, for the people in Ethiopia, the Ogaden and the greater Horn of Africa region, he showed in this interview that there was not much to be expected from him. He came across as someone without a political muscle and without ability or temerity to challenge the status quo by taking bold steps and introducing new initiatives to reverse the two decades of abuse perpetrated by a narrow based ethnic clique that survived on extreme cruelty and total abrogation of all human and democratic rights in Ethiopia and the Ogaden.
In the interview with Aljazeera, Desalegn tried lamely to defend the indefensible. However, he fumbled in his attempt to defend his regime’s callous record against the people in the Horn of Africa and the mountain of evidence against his administration. In the end his forced smile and the frequent interruptions –‘that is not true’; ‘by the way, you’re misinformed’ etc , to the interviewee– could not compensate for his glaring misrepresentation of the realities in Ethiopia and the internationally documented tract record of human rights abuses and the closure of all democratic space which has made Ethiopia a country without legitimate opposition parties and free media.
On the issue of the long standing and bloody Ogaden conflict and the recent peace talks between ONLF and Ethiopia, Haile Mariam Desalegn lacked self-confidence and the sagacious vision expected of a head of state. He seemed as if he was meticulously guarding against angering certain sections of his administration, mainly the Tigray People’s Liberation Front(TPLF) -led military-security-complex who immensely profit from the Ogaden war project and exercise a total monopoly on this issue. This TPLF-led military-security-complex, hijacked the peace process, sidelining the foreign Ministry and other seasoned Ethiopian politicians and blocked any meaningful progress after the first breakthrough in the first round of talks. And although it was obvious that Haile Mariam Desalegn was rehashing the script prepared for him by the army Generals who derailed the talks, what astounded many was his claim that the Ethiopian government did not agree to the principle that ‘there shall be no preconditions’ in the first round of talks (ONLF has this on record and the concerned parties hold copies of this correspondence). The fact of the matter is that the Ethiopian government agreed in principle that there shall be no preconditions and that all substantive issues shall be negotiated.
Thus, the regime’s insistence that ONLF must accept the Ethiopian constitution as precondition was a plan introduced later during the second round of the talks by beneficiaries of the conflict – the army-security-complex – and the intention was to derail the talks, since it was this issue the armed conflict between ONLF and the Ethiopian regime started when the Ethiopian regime tried to impose this constitution on the Ogaden Somalis without their consent in 1994. ONLF’s position is and has been always that a constitution shall reflect the will of the people and based on their believes, values and interests, and that without addressing the issue of self-determination through an internationally monitored free and fair referendum, forcing the Ogaden people to accept the Ethiopian constitution without their consent has no political, legal or ethical validity. Moreover, the greatest transgression of the political, democratic, economic and the human rights of the Ogaden people has been perpetrated by the current regime during its tenure and that constitution never protected their basic rights, despite lauding them in its script.
Furthermore, Haile Mariam Desalegn’s illogical argument regarding the constitution, which equates citizenship to acceptance of the Ethiopian constitution, is ridiculous to say the least. One can be a citizen of a country and at the same time not accept its constitution. There are examples of these throughout the world. There are countries that have no official constitutions, while some countries’ constitutions are still debated, amended, changed, and replaced. However in Haile Mariam Desalegn’s warped logic, the EPRDF constitution equals Ethiopian citizenship; therefore, the ONLF and the Ogaden people have to first accept Ethiopian citizenship, and only then can they have a right to secede from Ethiopia. This in effect means Ethiopia will kill millions and force them to be part of Ethiopian state, then as soon as they accept to be part of Ethiopia through force, whatever remains of them shall have the right to secede or still be part of Ethiopia by force! Instead of committing so much bloodshed and waste of valuable resources, why not settle the issue peacefully and accept the will of all the people concerned.
The constitution is not only rejected by the Ogaden people, who consider themselves colonized by Ethiopia, but, even for those who consider themselves Ethiopians reject the constitution since the regime never held a referendum on the constitution and consulted properly the Ethiopian people. Therefore, Desalegn’s insistence that the Ethiopian opposition violated the laws of land by rejecting the constitution or the legitimacy of the regime and its bogus elections has no legal or democratic basis. His assertions insinuate, “If you accept the EPRDF constitution, you’re automatically a citizen of Ethiopia, and if you reject it, your citizenship will be taken away”. This claim perhaps explains the reason the majority of Ethiopians (who did not endorse the constitution) live below the poverty line as second class citizens or worse (by being denied ownership of land, fertilizers or international aid), while few EPRDF fat cats and their supporters are milking the country dry. In TPLF-EPRDF parlance those who reject their constitution and rule are not regarded as citizens; they’re subjects whose rights can be trampled upon and violated. That is why the opposition groups are categorized as terrorists, and the independent media as terrorist mouthpieces. In light of this, it’s understandable why the Ethiopian government introduced the anti-terrorist laws which took away the democratic and citizenship rights of all those who oppose it and its constitution.
It is worth remembering that at one time in the late 1980s, the Derg regime walked out of negotiations with the TPLF after the latter rebel group (currently the ruling oligarchy) refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Derg constitution. The Dergs claimed then – as TPLF is claiming now – that their constitution reflected the will of the Ethiopian people and that it was criminal to reject it. History has a tragic way of repeating itself.
Haile Mariam Desalegn’s replies to the question ‘why the talks collapsed?’ were full of contradictions and innuendos. On the one hand, he claimed that ONLF was fragmented and that the largest group has signed peace deal with Ethiopia and was leading a normal life in the country and that only small splinter group was still holding out. On the other hand, his administration felt it necessary to open talks with a weak splinter group that he says have no major support in Ogaden and is not even united. If the ONLF is not united, if they have no support in the region, and if “the people of Ogaden themselves are fighting the Ogaden rebels” as he claims, why did his regime agree to open talks with such group without preconditions, in neutral venue, observed by neutral third parties? Why is his regime blocking international media to visit the Ogaden freely and ascertain that there is peace there and the Ogaden people are fighting ONLF? If the Ogaden people are Ethiopians, why not include them in the deputy PM’s posts or other influential positions as they are the third largest nation and the pie of Ethiopian leadership is being divided based on ethnicity? Why is there Marshall law and constant fighting in Ogaden for the last sixty years? This defies logic!
The fact of the matter is that Ethiopia is today fragmented, rudderless and run by Tigrayan strongmen and army generals, who are now divided into the old TPLF guard and the late pro-Zenawi group that are fighting over the leadership of both the TPLF–EPRDF and Ethiopia. Moreover, Haile Mariam Desalegn is simply a phantom PM installed to give a humane face to their rule during the transitional phase until a new Tigrayan leader takes over. As such, he cannot overstep his limits. Although that much is known, what is uncertain how long he can successfully sell the tyranny, in light of the current wave of people’s power sweeping Ethiopia’s neighbors and the never ending onslaught of liberation fronts fighting his regime.
Finally, ONLF wishes to reiterate that it is committed in principle to dialogue and negotiations to solve the Ogaden conflict but has no willing partner, who understands or values peace or international norms and laws.