Interview with an Eritrean opposition Yonathan Sebhatu
Eritrea, though it succeeded from Ethiopia 21 years ago, remains to have a significant place in Ethiopian political discourse more than another country, due to several factors including Asmara’s militarized foreign policy and the historic ties between the two people.
At state-level, both countries are busy lobbying the international community as well as backing groups opposed to the other. Though Eritrea’s efforts range from arming all sorts of anti-Ethiopian groupings to plotting terror attacks, it is Addis Ababa’s diplomatic lobby that bore more result by securing UN Sanctions and turning Asmara into a pariah state.
As it is uncertain that sanctions will induce a change of heart or a regime-change in Asmara any time soon, many ask if the Eritrean opposition can make a difference.
However, the Eritrean opposition complain about the quality and nature of the supports and advises provided by Addis Ababa. On the other hand, the later criticizes the opposition’s failure to take directions necessary for effective mobilization. Yet, many in the Ethiopian political elite are not excited about the Eritrean opposition, as the latter seem to resemble the Eritrean ruling party, PFDJ (Popular Front for Democracy and Justice), in more ways than not.
I invited Yonathan Sebhatu, Eritrean politician residing in Sweden, who is more involved in the opposition politics than he wishes to disclose.
Though Yonathan, without hesitance, agreed to have a debate-style interview via Skype in Amharic language, regrettable time and technology were not in our favor.
Read the interview with Yonathan Sebhatu below conducted through two rounds of email correspondence. (the words in brackets [ ] are my insertions intended to clarify).
Daniel Berhane: Are you worried a possible peace talk between Addis Ababa and Asmara would be the end of Eritrean opposition?
Of course, I am seriously worried because looking back to 1994-97 when the opposition were hunted down in Addis by DIA [Dictator Pres. Isaias Afeworki] agents. Well now, the outcome of a peace talk between Addis and Asmara will not be different. My worries are that there are more Eritreans and some of them are in wanted list by PFDJ. Ethiopia will take action to make the peace talk work, DIA will strengthen his position, we will never see any opposition after that.
Daniel Berhane: Does the passing of the late PM Meles Zenawi have any bearing on the Eritrean opposition? Especially with regards to the Ethiopian government assistance?
Honestly, my opinion is NO. Because Meles Zenawi did nothing to the opposition rather paying their travel and residences and facilitate their meetings in different location; such as, Awassa, Mekelle, Debrezeit, Addis Ababa, etc.
I have the sensation that Meles had his personal interest to “help” the opposition. This also happens to in Eritrea territories, DIA too helps Ethiopian oppositions. I can’t imagine Eritreans trust someone who is still occupying their territory. They (Alliance/ ENCDC) asked assistances but what they get is an incubator of ethnic parties. We have now 33 groups or parties [from 13 previously].
Daniel Berhane: One may argue Ethiopia’s support for the Eritrean opposition has no long-term benefit. The opposition would be no less hostile than PFDJ towards Ethiopia if/when they assume power in Asmara.
If the opposition comes to power, its first priority is the Eritrean people not the Ethio-Eritrea relations. You said “the opposition would be no less hostile”, I would ask for how long? Because, unless the roots of problems are gone soon or later the danger is there.
Daniel Berhane: What are the “roots of the problems” ?
The main thing that we do not have a government genuinely and open voted by the people, namely a democratic system, plus a civilized culture to solve our differences without war for the sake of future generations.
Daniel Berhane: Is it probable that the opposition would abandon the current government’s claim on the border town Badme?
This is a sovereignty issue. PFDJ gave Badme to TPLF [Tigray region wing of the Ethiopian ruling party EPRDF] during the armed struggle time to govern it. That is why we are now in this mess.
Well if the opposition do this [abandon the claim on Badme], they will burn one more chance to come near the people. No Eritrean opposition or government would abandon the claim of what belongs to the Eritrean people and official recognized by the UN.
Daniel Berhane: It seems more likely that President Isaias Afeworki will die in office and his son or trusted general will take his place. On a scale of 1 to 5, what’s the likelihood that the opposition could change this scenario?
I would say 1. A general or one from the inner-circle [of PFDJ] will take the power after DIA’s death. The opposition must change how they take care the situation as it is are now very hard for the people to follow them. Eritreans are tired of DIA and PDFJ, but the opposition too do not indicate much solution.
Daniel Berhane: There are claims that the Ethiopian government is building a radio station in the north-western city, Bahirdar, for the use of the Eritrean opposition. If true, isn’t it a waste? One can’t overthrow a government through radio-waves.
This is a waste of time to the opposition and Ethiopian tax payers. If the Ethiopian government honestly concern to help the Eritrean opposition, it must make a pressure on them to build one army not different ethnic grouped armies, give them the border and arms for those who are ready to defeat PFDJ, so that they launch attack and throw the regime by themselves.
Daniel Berhane: What do you mean by “give them the border”?
I mean where they can be active militarily. Like the PFDJ does for Ethiopian oppositions.
Daniel Berhane: What is the difference between PFDJ and the opposition anyways? Neither acknowledge group rights and are bent on assimilating the various identities by imposing the identity of the Tigrigna speaking highlanders.
Ethnic right issue has never been a problem in Eritrea, it is exaggerated by some but to tell you the truth all 9 ethnics in Eritrea have equal rights and all have offered their lives to the armed struggle [for independence], I can not see that Tigrigna speakers have more rights than the others.
Daniel Berhane: As an Eritrean politician, do you see Alula (the 19th century war general who defeated Italians and Egyptians on what is currently Eritrea territory) as someone who saved Eritreans from foreign occupation or as an occupier himself?
He saved Eritreans from foreign occupation and gave work to Eritreans. He was a good ruler and wanted his name remembered as such. But, because he came from poor family, the Tigrai nobility found too many faults on him and he lost name.
I appreciate Alula’s help to Weldemichael at Dogali to prevent us from the colonialists. On the other hand, at lowland of Eritrea he committed war crime his soldiers burned villages, raped women and executed many. He is considered by a lowlanders Eritreans as one of those who committed genocide in Eritrea.
Daniel Berhane: What do you mean by “Alula’s help to Weldemichael at Dogali”? Am I missing something? Who take the primary credit for defeating Italians at Dogali?
Primary credit of defeating Italians – For me, as a highlander would be Alula as a helper and the primary credit goes to Weldemichael.
Daniel Berhane: Addis Ababa had been generous towards Eritrean refuges – allowing them to attend Universities and even to live outside refugee camps. Is this helping the opposition in anyway? Again, could people-to-people relationship be strengthened through this kind of measures – as Addis Ababa claims – if Eritreans do not acknowledge and try to reciprocate?
We are thankful for Ethiopia’s “help” to Eritrean refugees. But in return Ethiopia is posting camps in the boundary, which could be easily attacked incase of a war (by the way Eritrea does it to Ethiopian opposition). On the other hand, I have the sensation Ethiopia is doing this so that opposition will not start asking Badme at this time.
But other wise, we must be thankful, because PFDJ, by closing the only university, is dispiriting Eritrean intellectuals and bringing them to their knees. I would like to bring to the attention of all considerate Eritreans that the epidemic that this scheme bears will be irredeemable, as it will create a generational gap between the educated and the ignorant in the future. Finally, the dia`s hatred of intellectuals is also shifting on opposition and demise of educational institutions is making our country a place of ignorant, immoral, diffident, obsequious and submissive citizens.
Daniel Berhane: How did the Eritrean government received the passing of the late PM Meles Zenawi – relieved or apprehensive?
How can we know how the Eritrea government received the passing of Melles? We can only speculate about how they received it. Officially they gave their condolence (by the ambassador of Eritrea to AU in Addis) to the government of Ethiopia, but we Eritreans people haven’t heard any words from our own government.
Daniel Berhane: Any thing you like to add?
The Eritrean opposition specially in Ethiopia has gone far by forgetting main issues to oppose the dictator regime and started fabricating new problems which do not exists. If the Eritrean opposition wants to revive must start listen the heart beat of his people in Eritrea and stop propagating ethnic politics because my experiences of last two decades shows that Eritreans will never accept such politics. Thanks!
Bio: (written by Yonathan Sebhatu, himself) I studied in Germany and Sweden working in my own private business and living in Sweden. I am active in Eritrean politics, was director of Radio Sinit (of the Eritrean diaspora) from 2001-2006, activist on human rights issues too.
* Based on info on social networking sites, Yonathan completed secondary education in Addis Ababa, Lycee Gebremariam Franco-Èthiopienne school, and studied Ethnology/Anthropology in University of Heidelberg. He speaks English, German, Tigrinya, Amharic, Swedish and French, and is adherent of Orthodox Christianity.
* This interview is part of the “Post-Meles 2012″ Special Edition of this blog.