Just a few months ago, Ethiopia — a vast country of 100 million people — was still mired in dictatorship and war. But dramatic shifts are taking hold and they appear to be moving the country in the right direction: toward freedom.
This week, Ethiopia’s democratically elected prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, signed a peace treaty with Eritrea, its long-standing enemy. The news was one more sign that the change promised by the new government is real.
Ethiopia still has a long way to go. But Eskinder Nega, a leading Ethiopian journalist and former political prisoner, recently told me that he sees democracy as the inevitable destiny of his homeland. Now, he said, it’s “Ethiopia’s turn.”
He doesn’t make such claims lightly. Nega has spent a total of nine years in prison, most recently serving a 6½-year stint on a terrorism conviction for supposedly inciting violence against the government and having ties with the West. In reality, of course, the government targeted him because he was a vocal advocate for democracy, demanding an end to years of one-party rule.
Amid growing protests, he and several other political prisoners were released in April in a bid to “foster national reconciliation,” authorities said at the time.
In the months since, Ethiopia has been undergoing rapid reform, with Ahmed promising greater freedoms. For Nega, though, the only acceptable outcome is a representative democracy respecting the rights of all people.
(The interview below has been edited and condensed.)
Jason Rezaian: Do you think reforms being implemented by Ethiopia’s current government will lead to real change?
Eskinder Nega: We don’t know whether the new leadership envisions the kind of change that [Mikhail] Gorbachev imagined [for the Soviet Union] or whether they want the kind of change [F.W.] de Klerk wanted [in South Africa under apartheid].
The kind of change that we want, as a people, is the de Klerk version. A multiparty democracy.
It’s encouraging that the new leadership acknowledges the need for change, and they should be supported at least in this regard. But, if they’re envisioning the type of change that Gorbachev intended, it’s not enough.
JR: What’s at stake?
EN: If Ethiopia implodes, the region will come down, and this will seriously affect Western interests. If there’s chaos in the Horn of Africa, the strategic security alliance the U.S. has with the Ethiopian government will be compromised.
I don’t think the world can afford to see chaos in the Horn of Africa, because extremists will have the sort of safe haven they had in Afghanistan.
JR: At a moment when there is an epic struggle between authoritarians and democrats, is the current aspiration for freedom unique to Ethiopia or is it universal?
EN: When you aspire for freedom, you’re asking for recognition of your human dignity and this is innate. This is the human condition wherever you are, whatever your religion, culture or history is. Authoritarianism undermines that quest. No country or society is an exception.
We don’t know when each society will come out to demand it, but we know that at some point all of them will. The French and the Americans reached that point 200 years ago. Now is the time for Ethiopians. But Iranians will come out and do it, too, and there will come a time for the Chinese as well.
JR: What do people think about the prospects of reconciliation with Eritrea?
EN: Most Ethiopians don’t like the idea of Eritrea being a separate country. Including me. But there is a recognition that Eritrea is gone. It’s now a member of the international community, the United Nations and the African Union. And this is not something we could undo without violating international law.
We should have peace with Eritrea whether we like its independence or not. Whatever the government is doing to come to peace with Eritrea should be supported.
JR: What role do you see the U.S. playing in Ethiopia’s quest for freedom and democracy?
EN: The primary responsibility of U.S. foreign policy should have the interest of the U.S. as its main component.
But a huge chunk of that self-interest is the promotion of freedom, because that’s where the safety of all countries lies. A world in which there’s no tyranny, where freedom has the clear upper hand morally and politically, is the ultimate deterrent against terrorism and war.
JR: Has the U.S. pursuing its security objectives undermined freedom on the ground in Ethiopia?
EN: Ethiopia has played a major role in combating terrorism in the Horn of Africa. It’s understandable that the U.S. should have an alliance with any government in Ethiopia, because it’s the most effective partner in this fight.
Unfortunately, since 9/11, security issues have completely overshadowed the cause of freedom.
JR: Did you see your imprisonments as directed at you personally or designed to defuse the quest for democracy?
EN: I always knew this wasn’t about me. It was a battle between tyranny and freedom, being manifested through me. One of tens of thousands of cases through which the story has been projected. And this battle is not unique to Ethiopia. It’s part of the human condition that has been there since the beginning of history.
This is the moment for Ethiopia. We’re almost there. Fortunately, we’ll see it in my lifetime.