By Vision Ethiopia and ESAT
On Sunday October 18, 2015 a successful one-day long conference was held at Georgetown Marriott Hotel, 1221 22nd St NW, Washington, DC 20037. The theme of the conference was on the present and future relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia and had conflict prevention and resolution threads. The panelists range from former United States diplomats and State Department officials to former government officials of Ethiopia, senior academics, authors, professionals and social and political activists. The conference was organized by Vision Ethiopia, a network of Ethiopian academics and professionals residing in the United States and Japan, in collaboration with the Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT). The number of people who attended the conference was at full hall capacity. The audience had ample opportunities to ask and express diverse view points on a variety of current and sensitive issues affecting Ethiopia and Eritrea. The full conference audio and video is available and will be transmitted to the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia very soon. Although there were four panel sessions scheduled only three sessions were delivered because of lack of time. They all focused on historical, social, cultural and professional dimensions of building and rebuilding trust between the two related people, the role of super powers and regional powers in the Ethio-Eritrea relationship, and the risks and opportunities of establishing fraternal relationship between the Government of Eritrea and the Ethiopian political organizations.
The Master of Ceremonies, W/t. Birtawit Girmay, Manager of ESAT Washington DC studio, opened the conference at 10:15. She outlined the objectives of the conference and laid out the conduct and procedure of the conference. After clarifying on important issues of housekeeping, W/t Birtawit invited Ato Gizaw Legesse of Vision Ethiopia and ESAT producer to make the formal opening remarks about the purpose, importance and timeously nature of the conference.
The first of the three panel sessions was moderated by Professor Getachew Begashaw. The four panelists were Mr. Tariku Debretsion, Mr. Gashaw Gebre, Dr. Assegid Habtewold, and W/t Lulit Mesfin. They all presented their well researched and documented papers that were well received by the audience. As a prelude to the ensuing two sessions, drawing on their vast experiences of engagements and studies, these four panelists talked on the roles of Ethiopian and Eritrean Community leaders in building people-to-people relationship at different levels, how much the basic principles of peaceful co-existence of nations can be foundations for peace between the two countries and the region as a whole, and how social and professional organizations, including but not limited to churches, mosques, professionals and men and women of the Arts can create useful links and elevate the relationship to an even higher level.
The second session was moderated by Professor Minga Negash. The theme of the session was on the roles and interests of foreign powers in the regional peace, security and stability. On the panel were former senior diplomats of the United States, Ambassador Herman Cohen, Former Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador David Shinn. Their tenure at the State Department coincided with the collapse of central government of Ethiopia and the takeover of Addis Ababa and Asmara by the TPLF/EPRDF and EPLF in 1991, and the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. They were joined by the veteran critical scholar of Ethiopia, Professor Emeritus Mesfin Wolde Mariam. There was a candid discussion about the United States’ policy failure towards Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ambassador Cohen revealed that Eritrea’s relation with the United States is unlikely to change during the term of office of President Obama.
He was also open about what transpired in 1991. He revealed that the crisis in Somalia is a threat to the United States and its policy appears to be driven by a singular concern for security. For Ambassador Cohen Ethiopia must accept the boundary commission’s ruling and start engaging Eritrea on all other matters. He underscored that both governments do not trust one another. As regards to the lifting of the UN sanctions against Eritrea he informed that it was only the the United States that used its veto power to block the lifting. He also revealed his efforts to engage in second tier diplomacy and organizing expert level discussion between the two countries.
Drawing from his experience as an Ambassador, Dr. Shinn went on straight to the identification of the powers that have interest in the region. He classified them into a two tier countries and acknowledged the United States’ influence must be examined in light of other countries’ interests. For Ambassador Shinn accepting the boundary commission’s ruling was evident and did not spend time on that. He was more cautious about the prospect of peace and urged that more work needs to be done to prevent another cycle of conflict. The European Union, China, and regional powers are also important and noted that much of what happens in Ethiopia is influenced by regional powers.
Professor Mesfin was unforgiving in letting his audience know that successive Ethiopia governments, including the current regime, were clients of super powers, and Eritrea is being punished for resisting dominance by the United States. The old Ethiopian ethos of not bending to foreign powers and pride exists only in Eritrea, as manifested by the behavior of the Eritrean government and in contrast to the behavior of the regime in Addis Ababa in relation to foreign powers, Professor Mesfin Woldemariam asserted.
As a peace activist he regretted that the peace proposal he initiated before the collapse of central government in 1991 was not supported by the United States. He highlighted the double standards of the United States, and compared Ethiopia and South Africa’s reconciliation. He also urged that Ethiopians must take ownership of their own destiny and start building and rebuilding the relationship with Eritrea. In general, there was a consensus about the successes and failures of U.S diplomacy in the area. And all the three panelists explained the economic incentives that are available from reconciliation and cooperation between the two countries.
Nine participants from the audience presented varieties of questions. Most of them were directed to Ambassador Cohen and Ambassador Shinn. There was no unanswered question that was important. The questions to Professor Mesfin were more focused on seeking his guidance. The session closed with vote of thanks and a call for the continuation this type of productive panel discussion. The session took more time than was originally planned because of the interest shown by the audience. The panel closed with a sense of satisfaction.
The third session started after a brief lunch break. The session was moderated by Professor Messay Kebede and the theme of the discussion was on relations between the Eritrean Government and the Ethiopian opposition forces. Ambassador Dr. Kassa Kebede, former minister and diplomat of the Ethiopian Government under Dergue, Mr. Erimias Legesse, former deputy Minister of government communication under TPLF/EPRDF, Dr. Mesfin Abdi of the recently formed Oromo Democratic Front and Mr. Neamin Zeleke of the recently merged Patriotic Ginbot 7 were on the panel.
Dr Mesfin Abdi presented a carefully thought out document and indicated that the view expressed in the document is also being adopted as the official position of his party. He outlined a carefully thought out proposal and invited discussion. He emphasized the need to recognize the sovereignty and independence of Eritrea in order to have peace, stability and prosperity in the sub-region. He further announced that his organization is planning to host a conference shortly, and called upon for participation.
Dr Mesfin was followed by former Ambassador Dr. Kassa Kebede. Dr. Kassa started his presentation by making few remarks on Ambassador Cohen’s presentation. Citing early historical inscriptions he outlined the history of state formation in Ethiopia. Ethiopians and Eritreans lived together for thousands of years and shared language, culture, religion, and geography until recently. Dr. Kassa Kebede stated that the two countries had defended the region from enemy forces and colonialists in unison. “Of course, Eritrea was under Italian colonialism for fifty years and British Military Administration (BMA) for ten years before the Federation which was abrogated during Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime, “he recalled.
He then moved to answering the questions about the feasibility of good relationships between the government of Eritrea and Ethiopian political parties. He recognized the rights of the Ethiopian opposition forces to do so by declaring that the choice must be left to the organizations themselves. Throughout his presentation Ambassador Kassa detoured from time to time and intimated a number of important information which surprised/excited the audience. For instance, he confirmed that the relation between Eritrea and the United States might be simply explained by personality clashes between Ambassador Suzan Rice, who is now the Chief National Security Advisor of President Obama and President Isayas Afeworki, and noted that this relation is unlikely to change while President Obama is in office. The implications of this for Eritrea is that lifting the UN sanction against Eritrea may not be possible.
Dr. Kassa Kebede cited closed door negotiations and backdoor meetings held with leaders of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) during his time as a top official and Ambassador in under the PDRE/WPE regime. He told the audience that President Isaias Afeworqi has an unbending belief in the existence of a united Ethiopia and that he is a living witness to this belief held by the Eritrean President.
Mr. Ermias Legesse presented the TPLF/EPRDF’s policy towards Eritrea. He explained the differences between what are discussed in EPRDF internal documents and what are published in its ideological magazine, using pennames. Ethiopia’s policy and party official statements, including Prime Minister Haile Mariam public pronouncements are exact extracts from the party’s ideological magazine which were written by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Minister Bereket Simon. According to Ermias, the policy of containment, isolation and undermining the Eritrean government and eventual regime change is the strategy of the government of Ethiopia.
The fourth panelist was Mr. Neamin Zeleke. Although he did not prepare a formal presentation, he made few general remarks about the nature of the government in Ethiopia and provided the rationale for his organization’s actions. He told the audience that there are thousands of political refugees in Eritrea. He emphasized that Eritrea is the only safe place in the Horn of Africa where Ethiopian refugees can go. He reported that Patriotic Ginbot 7’s relationship with the government of Eritrea has passed the initial tests of building trust and Eritrea does not interfere in his organization’s internal affairs.
There were a total of eight questions and views from the audience; and some from both sides of the Eritrean political divide. There were some views coming from different angles from the Ethiopian side as well. Some of the views regarding Eritrea include call for democracy in Eritrea and how Ethiopia can be helpful. This view was not well received by Ethiopians in that Ethiopians acknowledge the fact that this must be left for Eritreans. The comments from the Ethiopian side include the reliability of the government of Eritrea in committing itself to the unity of Ethiopia, what Ethiopian political organizations may have to give in order to get Eritrea’s support, and Ethiopia’s right to own the port of Assab.
Mr. Neamin stated unequivocally that his party has no mandate to negotiate on the future of Ethiopia with any government or international body and only an elected and properly constituted future government of Ethiopia would take the matter forward. He, however, said that they see the current relationship, not as a tactical one, but as a groundwork for building confidence, trust, and a springboard to chart a new era of peace, stability prosperity within a framework of a comprehensive and strategic partnership with the state of Eritrea that should include economic, security, and other vital interests such as the question of ports and access to the sea.
The panelists agreed that at present the focus must only be on building trust between The Eritrean government and the Ethiopian opposition forces.
Vote of thanks and concluding remarks were delivered by Dr Assegid Habtewold and the conference was closed at 6:30 pm.
Note: the moderators’ session, scheduled to be the last one, “Quo Vadis? Where are we going to? The un-answered Questions”, was to be presented by Professors Messay Kebede, Minga Negash, and Getachew Begashaw.