“We Have to Pay With Blood”: Berhanu Nega’s Struggle for Relevance and Legitimacy (Part 1)


by the Strathink Editorial Team

Berhanu Nega came back to the United States on a mission—to re-energize a brittle and flagging organization breaking apart from Asmara to Washington, D.C. On January 31st, he gave a speech in Maryland to his followers. We look at Berhanu Nega in his search for relevance and legitimacy through his own words. This is Part 1 in a three part series this week. We would love to hear from you. Please leave your comments and all will be posted here.

On January 31, 2016, Berhanu Nega, leader of Ginbot 7, received a warrior’s welcome in Silver Spring, Maryland. His entrance into the hall was accompanied by music and clapping traditionally reserved for Ethiopia’s bravest—the men and women who fought on the battlefields in such places as Adowa, Tembien, Wuchale and Dogali. Wearing a blue shirt, his voice hoarse from a cold, Ginbot 7 leader Berhanu Nega sought to inspire a crowd weary from the devastating setbacks suffered by Ginbot 7 in 2015.

Last year was a bad year for Ginbot 7. Andargechew Tsige, Ginot 7’s leader who preceded Berhanu Nega in Eritrea, was detained in Yemen and extradited to Ethiopia. There he confessed to training young Ethiopians to commit terrorist acts on civilians in public spaces such as shopping malls, churches and mosques. He spoke about his dissatisfaction with Ginbot 7 leadership who, based in the U.S. and London, cared only about their mortgages and retirement funds. This was only the beginning.

Ginbot 7’s alliance with Asgedom Molla was sabotaged when he defected from Eritrea back to Ethiopia, bringing with him 800 troops. This must have been a devastating blow to Berhanu Nega, but also to Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki as well. In a state dominated by a well-trained security apparatus, how did Ethiopia break through Eritrean security to pull off such a feat? Both Berhanu Nega and the Eritrean President must be watching each other through the lens of paranoia following this unparalleled security breach.

At the end of the year, Neamin Zelleke, Managing Director of Ethiopian Satellite Television, owned and operated by Ginbot 7, resigned. And even more disturbingly, Eritrean President Isayas Afewerkis’ health crisis sent waves of shock through an already brittle organization. Will Ginbot 7 be welcomed in Eritrea with the death of the Eritrean President?

Berhanu Nega, now based in Asmara, is waging not just armed struggle but a struggle for relevance and legitimacy.

Flanked by an American and an old imperial flag, Mr. Nega stood before his supporters with the herculean task to inform, convince and inspire a diaspora looking for answers. He began by putting to rest rumors about why he had come back to the United States, saying “Ethiopia is in danger” adding nothing will stop me [Berhanu] from returning to Eritrea.

This was a significant statement because the Ginbot 7 leader was adamant about assuring his followers that the war is taking place in Ethiopia, not Eritrea. According to Berhanu, “The struggle is not being waged in Eritrea; but Ethiopia…The struggle is in Ethiopia—not Eritrea.” He added, “We are getting support from Eritreans.”

Why is this such an important statement? Many people in the diaspora are extremely uncomfortable with Ginbot 7’s relationship with President Isayas Afewerki. In 1998, Eritrea waged war against the Ethiopian people. Despite winning militarily, Ethiopia feels the Algiers Agreement, which ended the war, ceded too much of the disputed territory to Eritrea.

How can the diaspora reconcile Eritrea’s support for Ginbot 7 with a war fresh in the minds of Ethiopians? What did Gibot 7 agree to Eritrea for its support? What are the terms of engagement for this risky strategy? What is Eritrea getting from this alliance? What will happen to the organization—and Berhanu Nega—when Isayas succumbs to his illness? These are questions that can only be answered by Berhanu Nega. Unfortunately, these questions are assiduously ignored in the speech.

As a trained economist, we had expected a more informative, policy-driven discussion about the drought. However, even the question of the drought is framed in terms that lack real substance and are contradictory. According to Mr. Nega, no one talks about the drought in Eritrea because the government was prepared and had the foresight to buy food for those affected. He slipped this statement in without real discussion, knowing his supporters’ ambivalence about Eritrea.

Yet, he points out the historical relationship between hunger and democracy. According to Berhanu, in 1967 China and India experienced famine. In China, 33 million people died because China was not a democracy. In India, not one person died of hunger because India was a democracy.

The implications of this rather simplistic historical revisionism are vague but seem to imply that Ethiopians—17 to 20 million people—are in peril because of the current drought. On the other hand, Eritreans are not in peril because…they live in a democracy?

The more important questions Mr. Nega might have raised should revolve around the Ethiopian government’s response to the drought. Drought is a weather condition that governments can’t control. What a government can control and should be judged by is its response. How long ago was the government aware of the the impending weather conditions and its impact on farming and cattle? Where will be the most affected areas? How many people will be affected. When did the government sound out the alarm within the international community. What steps were being taken to mitigate the impact of drought?

These are legitimate questions to raise that would help in determining what worked and what didn’t work in responding to the drought. Moreover, what would Ginbot 7 do differently to improve the government’s response? These substantive questions, which might have given its supporters a better sense of what Ginbot 7 stands for, were ignored and replaced by a lightweight generic criticism of the Ethiopian government—a cheap response to an important issue. Mr. Nega does remind us that Saudi Arabia produces no food but no one goes hungry. Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves sat like an elephant in the room.

Overall, Mr. Nega’s presentation on the Ethiopian economy simply rang false based on the prevailing facts on the ground. The Ethiopian economy, according to the most powerful multilateral financial institutions, is experiencing double digit growth for the past ten plus years. Mr. Nega calls this kind of information “government propaganda,” but these numbers and conclusions come from the outside. As an economist, Mr. Nega could have raised important questions about many of the issues surrounding this economic growth. By denying facts, however, Mr. Nega is doing a disservice to his followers, opting for form over substance and missing another opportunity to provide alternatives to current policies.

According to Mr. Nega, in order to transform the Ethiopian economy, the farmer must own his land. Again, there is a lost opportunity to substantively discuss the government’s land policy and provide an alternative to the current policy. The major question that was ignored concerned the situation of the farmer who sells land during an economic shock. What happens to the household when land, their only asset, is sold during a crisis? Without a developed industrial base to absorb the landless farmer, how does the farmer earn a living to feed his family? This is at the heart of the current land ownership policy.

Visit us on Wednesday, February 10, 2016, for Part 2 of this series on Berhanu Nega and the future of Ginbot 7. In the next installment, we talk about Mr. Nega’s analysis of ethnic federalism, the reaction of Oromia to the Master Plan and Mr. Nega’s vision of next steps for the organization. In the meantime, let us know what you think.





































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