Off to diplomacy
Prior to being appointed ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the US recently, Kassa Teklebirhan served as minister for federal and pastoral development affairs for the past two years. He used also to be speaker of the House of the Federation. As a high-level public official, he had worked in different capacities–at both regional and federal levels– in the fields of security, defense, agriculture, trade, industry and investment, among others. The Reporter’s Neamin Ashenafi and Zemenu Tenagne recently sat down with Kassa and raised a range of issues, from the current situation in the country, border demarcation between regions, issues associated with the question of identity to what he wants to achieve in his new assignment overseas. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You have recently been appointed ambassador to the US, and will soon be assuming your post there soon. However, given your previous service record, which included speaker of the House of the Federation (HoF) and minister of federal and pastoral development affairs, how do you feel about your new position?
Kassa Tekleberhan: Starting from my days in the armed struggle, I have been working in different capacities, and the various positions that I assumed were not similar or uniform; but their aggregate purpose was similar. Therefore, if we look at the period, for example, since we established the incumbent government, I have been working in different fields, including insecurity, defense, agriculture, trade, industry and investment, speaker of the House of the Federation. Recently, I served as minister of federal and pastoral development affairs. In this regard, if we count them all, I have been engaged in numerous tasks. Yet, the purpose of all positions was serving the country and the public at large. Therefore, I don’t see the new assignment in the diplomatic field any different from this process. Of course, there is a difference, in the sense that while you are working here, you are directly dealing with the day-to-day activities of the country. On the other hand, while you are posted overseas, though you are working for your country, you are far away from home. In my view, my direction was set when I decided to become a politician. The whole time since then, we have all been working under group leadership with a view to addressing issues collectively, which entails that one could be assigned to a position that the collective leadership decides on. No one is assigned to a position that he/she looks for. Therefore, for me, there’s nothing new and different. The difference could be that it is a new frontier for me.
There are some groups who claim that this new position of yours is a retirement of sorts for politicians. On the contrary, there are others who assert that assigning experienced politicians to countries like the U.S. is very vital since these individuals have ample knowledge about domestic policies and strategies. What is more, the former argue that diplomacy is a separate field requiring a set of skills and knowledge. What would be your stance vis-à-vis such comments?
There might be different suggestions and opinions. However, what matters is not the different views people may be holding about it. The reality I know doesn’t support such assertions. Be it America or other countries, they are very important to us strategically in terms of economy, diplomacy and security. The public can have any kind of suggestions and opinions. However, if we look at the issue of retirement from political activity, I don’t think it is possible to be detached from politics because there is global politics and the local one will, to a certain extent, be guided by that. Therefore, I don’t see any malice in that. Regarding the issue of experience, this is also the case with many countries’ diplomatic practice–there are career diplomats and there are also appointed ones. It is not unique to Ethiopia. Here what we have to look at is that having a diplomatic experience is not the only requirement. Having sound understanding of the general policies and strategies of the country and the capacity to implement them should be an issue as well. It’s true that it is going to be my first experience in the diplomatic frontier. However, what is to be done through diplomacy? What are the interests of the country? What are the pillars of our relations with others? In this regard, I might be considered as one of the officials that have a clear understanding of the country’s constitution, policies and strategies. All the same, the deficit in some diplomatic skills and experience will be resolved in a very short period of time so long as I have the major foundation to carry out my duties and responsibilities.
Speaking of the country of your posting, there are so many Ethiopians who support or oppose the incumbent government. In view of this, what is your plan to incorporate these groups so they can do their best to their birth country?
One of the major activities undertaken in the diplomatic field is that of engaging Ethiopians and the Ethiopian-born diaspora in general in the country’s overall political, economic and social endeavors, and to support them to contribute their due share in the process. The composition of the Ethiopian diaspora living in these countries is rather varied. There are those with advanced knowledge and skills working in different institutions and corporations. There are also those that lack such opportunities but who can contribute to their country in other ways. After all, we all have only one country. Therefore, as is clearly enshrined in the government’s policy, our diplomacy is working to engage the diaspora to contribute to their country accordingly. They are serving the country and their family in knowledge transfer, investment, market creation and remittance. The diaspora policy clearly states that we have to work to facilitate the support so that they could contribute according to their capacity and more or less this has already been implemented. We might have different thoughts and perspectives but this should not hinder us from our contribution to build our country. Now my focus will be on working to address such issues irrespective of our differences. We all are not expected to have similar views. However, we have to engage each other in a civilized manner to build this country. My effort will be to implement this. My predecessors on the post had also started some activities in this regard, and my task will be to build on the already implemented activities.
You served as board chairman of the Addis Ababa University. In this regard, what would you consider are the legacies that you left behind? What were the most challenging situations and achievements in your stint as board chair?
The first quality in any leader of an institution, irrespective of the position one holds, is that of fortitude in facing challenges that the institution may be experiencing. When I joined the board of the Addis Ababa University, I found out that there are both enormous challenges and opportunities. The biggest opportunity was that the institution brings together so many skilled and knowledgeable individuals. On the contrary, the big resource in the institution, due to different reasons, was not utilized. Therefore, the challenge could be rectified by using this big resource, and that was both mine and my colleagues’ contribution. Therefore, establishing a cordial relationship between the government and the university, the university and the students was a big success, in my view. The first thing towards that end was building a common understanding on the issues, which means thinking beyond one party or interest group. The second issue is that of participation, as I have mentioned earlier. The knowledge that we have at the government level is limited. Therefore, to use that resource, participation is vital. To raise the level of participation, we have to build up trust. In this regard, the process to create this trust taught me a lot and for me it was a successful time. By doing so many achievements have been registered—the university became internationally competitive, its research out puts appeared at international levels, its contribution to solve the country’s problems through research increased, and so on. Therefore, our aim was to build a proper bridge between the government and the academic community of the university. And at the same time, we were also working to use the resources in the institution properly so as to contribute in the development endeavors of the country.
There are a lot of issues with regard to the findings of the audit report on the institution, though the audit problem of the university was there for so long. But, recent audit findings also revealed that those problems have persisted. What have the board headed by you been doing in this regard?
It is true that there is a problem with the audit finding of the university. However, our first agenda was also assessing how come such a big institution fail in this regard because many of the professionals in the financial sector are the product of this university. It looks like a paradox, so we were working to correct this. But the problem is that while the university was active for 60 years, the existing system has so many problems. To do the auditing, the base line was problematic most of the time. To do the base line, most documents were missing and hard to find easily. Therefore, it was very difficult to do the auditing. So what we did was do the base line as much as possible. Though the problem was there before us, and since the problem is the problem of the institution we have to work tirelessly to address the issue so as to come up with a baseline. In this regard, the question was raised from the board and the management of the university itself. It was not from an outsider. This shows the commitment of the board. However, since finally only the result is disclosed and the result doesn’t include the entire process and the background, it has limitations in giving the real image to the public. Secondly, some activities that were undertaken, based on laws and procedures, were also part of the report as faults. But there were so many intricate activities undertaken to reform the working culture of the university. All these efforts are now modernizing the university and make it able to provide modern services to the public. But the findings presented to the public did not consider the background of the problem. The reports have already been made public but can be fixed through discussions.
You were minster of federal and pastoral development affairs. In this regard, there have recently been problems and even clashes related to border demarcation issues. You were also doing some activities to address the issues in different parts of the country. But what are the real causes of such problems?
Let’s look at this issue from two perspectives. First as a system, the Ethiopian federal system is not the source of clashes. I am saying this because the system granted rights to the people and resolved and addressed the oppression of the peoples once and for all. The rights of the peoples incorporate the right to self-administration; it has both self-rule and shared rule. Second, irrespective of their size, the rights of all ethnic groups are respected, and the sharing of resources is also designed in that regard. So the system fundamentally is the source of peace. The purpose of the system is to ensure sustainable peace, democracy and development and to create a strong socio-economic community. This desire and purpose needs strong leadership and institutions. It also requires a community that fully understands this purpose. If it lacks such requirements, there might be gaps in the implementation of the purpose. Secondly, the system has put in place a solution for problems because it is difficult to conclude that there will not be problems, but there is a mechanism for resolution if problems occur. There will not be any kind of clashes over border claims because the system has put in place a resolving mechanism when such clams arise between regions. Therefore, the regions will sit and deliberate over the issue to avoid any possible clashes between them. But what if they failed to solve their problem through discussions? In this case, the House of the Federation plays a pivotal role in addressing problems as per provisions enshrined in the constitution. All regions are represented in this council and this council takes up the case and looks into it independently, and provides a lasting solution. The decision by the council is final and everyone is expected to accept it gracefully. This is what the document states. When the document is implemented, it requires understanding of its pillar, how is it going to be implemented? Then what if we can’t? How are we going to step to the second level? Therefore, this is the system. While this is the system, why are we facing problems and clashes here and there? This should be questioned. Basically, as a nation we are able to deal with basic hostilities and clashes between ethnic groups. We had some 17 armed groups that claimed equal representation, but we don’t have that now. What we have now is questions associated with border demarcation and other minor problems related to economic benefits. These problems were not expected to happen in future. However, if they happen, they have to be resolved and corrected through the principles enshrined in the constitution. In this regard, the problems that occurred in different parts of Oromia, Somalia and between Amhara and Tigray regions are the manifestation of the failure to understand the constitution and the federal system fully. Second, there are some economic questions between the clashing regions or groups. In some places there are clashes arising from grazing land, water and other resources. Therefore, we need to address such issues. Take pastoralist communities. Since their way of life and sustenance depend on resources, whenever they move from place to place in search and making use of resources, clashes or problems are inevitable and hence addressing the issue will provide long lasting solution to the problem. The third and highly biased attitude is that towards land. It is obvious that land is very important but it is not above the people. The value of the land becomes very important when the country is tranquil and an engagement between the people increases. The first honor goes to human beings, not to the land. The fourth problem is that failure to look at the bigger picture. All these problems are identified and listed on the reform document that the government wants to address. Now there is an effort to address the problem in this respect. The point here is that our federal system has so many interesting facets. It seeks to promote unity in diversity. There are differences in language, culture and religion irrespective of these differences. The destiny of all these differences is going to be decided by our unity. This is an asset of our federal system. When there is a problem in one region, it affects all of us. Therefore, our destiny is decided by our unity. The principle is clear–loving only oneself selfishly will destroy us altogether. It should be ensured that when you love yourself, you should also make sure that you also love others too. This is what we call democratic nationalism, and that’s what we are working assiduously towards. So long as this attitude remains strong, Ethiopia’s renaissance will be realized.
There are also many questions related to the question of identity from different ethnic groups of the country and these questions are addressed by the House of the Federation. In this regard, as you were speaker of the house, how do you evaluate the institutional structure and capacity of the house in addressing such questions?
Since I left the house two years ago, this question should be addressed directly to the officials who are working in the house currently, but generally speaking, the question of identity has basically been addressed in Ethiopia. There is no provider and acceptor of identity; this question is addressed while the constitution was endorsed. The constitution granted to all Ethiopian ethnic groups to identify their identity and exercise their language, religion and culture. Now there are 76 ethnic groups recognized by the house and there are about 10 to 13 groups that raised questions of identity. Here we have to look at the tools to address the question of identity. We have identified the difference between two ethnic groups clearly. In my tenure at the house, I remember two questions presented to the house regarding the question of identity, but rejected. The question was presented by Manja. This group lives in the Southern Regional State, both in Kaffa and Dawro localities. However, these groups speak different language the one situated in Kaffa speaks Kaffegna, and the one in Dawro speaks Dawro language. But the peoples of Manja were socially outcast from the community, and in this regard, the group claimed that it was different from the other ethnic groups in the vicinity. In this regard, what we have to combat is the backward attitudes that were practiced in the area because the class difference in the area resulted in marginalizing these groups. Therefore, if we work hard to address these issues, the groups will live harmoniously with other groups of the area. Therefore, it is fighting this backward attitude to address their question. Everybody should work to address this issue; the failure to address these issues will persist and result in the question of identity. The other question of identity was from the Shekash in Somali region. This group raised the question of identity. Their question was in place for 13 years, they were even armed and fighting. Therefore, some the questions of identity might be aroused from the question of governance. However, there are also real questions of identity like the one by Qimant in Amhara Regional State. It is well known that there was a Qimant community. But there was an assumption that it is assimilated through time. However, the members of the groups claimed that they are not assimilated. When this occurred, it was essential to address the question efficiently. However, through back and forth to address the issue for the long time, it resulted in loss of lives and destruction of property. In this regard, some of the measures taken to address the issue made the two brotherly groups turn at each other. Therefore, it identifying the issues clearly and addressing the issue accordingly is vital. It also requires institutional efficiency to address such questions. The institutional efficiency in all institutions is not that strong.
While you were addressing the recent meeting between the elders of Amhara and Tigray, you were so emotional and even started crying when talking about the price that the two groups paid during the armed struggle to overthrow the Derg regime. What was the major reason that made you so emotional?
As a human being, I have feelings and emotions. I personally believe happiness and sadness are the manifestations of a good person. The feeling at that particular moment resulted from the relation between the Amhara and Tigray people that has stood for so long. I am the witness and part of the joint struggle of the two groups to overthrow the Derg. In this regard, the bigger picture and memories of the struggle came across my mind. Let me tell you some interesting fact here. I was a fighter of ANDM [Amhara National Democratic Movement] when we established an alliance with the TPLF. Back then, our number was small compared to that of TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] and, therefore, when we were engaged in the battlefield, members of the TPLF were supporting us considering our small number and our significance to the nation-building process later. Many died doing so, and the people of Tigray were the source of morale while ANDM was established. They also provide us material and other support to strengthen us. We are the result of such process. While we were advancing to the capital of the country, though the areas were under the control of the Derg, the peasants of Amhara were also taking care of TPLF fighters who were injured during the fight. This is our history; this is part of our recent history. If we look at ancient history of the two, and there is a very high interaction in terms of religion, in the history of Ethiopian nation-building and other issues. Therefore, in our era though we don’t want to fight each other, the situation was unpleasant. Unhealthy racist sentiments were intensified not only in the regions but throughout the nation and it did not augur well. Together we have passed through a lot, buried so many individuals who fought for the coming generation to live peacefully and harmoniously without demanding anything in return. And recalling those moments and looking at what had happened in the last two years mademe emotional. During the struggle, we did not mourn. We just swore solemnly that we would accomplish their [the martyrs’] dreams and aspirations. Now that we managed to establish a government and have started to live a tranquil life. But in this generation, some unnecessary things happened, and that’s a shame, and that really makes me emotional.
By Neamin Ashenafi and Zemenu Tenagne