“We Have to Pay With Blood”: Berhanu Nega’s Struggle for Relevance and Legitimacy (Part 3)


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 through his own words. This is Part32 in a three part series this week. We would love to hear from you. 

So what do we make of Berhanu Nega and Ginbot 7? Will Berhanu Nega be able to revitalize a brittle organization or will he continue to struggle for relevance and legitimacy? Will Ginbot 7’s ageing supporters in the diaspora be inspired and motivated by his leadership? If they are, what does this mean? Will they leave their comfortable lives in the suburbs to take up the gun in Eritrea? Or will Ginbot 7 be merely a topic of conversation in the bars and coffee shops that litter the landscape of the major urban centers that host Ethiopian immigrants?

What does Ginbot 7 even mean within the context of Ethiopia in 2016?

It is staggering that an organization that says it is committed to armed struggle does not have any clear policies, or even a roadmap, on the major challenges facing Ethiopia. Like in 2005 with Kinijit, Ginbot 7 knows what it doesn’t want—ie. EPRDF—but cannot seem to articulate a concrete vision of Ethiopia and how to get there. Ginbot 7 has not done the work required to propose alternatives to EPRDF’s blueprint for the Ethiopian economy, democracy and the way forward on social issues. Land ownership, banking, access to credit, gender inequality, intellectual property, the environment—these are just a few of the myriad of issues that demand sober, evidence-based policies devoid of politics and heavy on empiricism.

Is it enough to simply reject the EPRDF? Is it enough for Ginbot 7 to offer itself to the Ethiopian people to replace EPRDF?

Ginbot 7, in the view of the strathink editorial team, is empty of any substance. It appears to be fueled by the egos of its leadership and supported by a diaspora that has lost touch with the new Ethiopian reality.

Berhanu Nega is a man who has lost his way. Following the euphoria of the days leading up to the 2005 elections and its aftermath, Berhan Nega has been trying to re-capture the feeling that power was just inches away from his fingertips. At that time, the opposition had spent months enjoying the democratic process in Ethiopia and challenging EPRDF’S fourteen years of rule.

Berhanu Nega was everywhere. He debated the Prime Minister on television, he stood in front of crowds and made speeches, and he huddled together with Ana Gomes and the other election observers from faraway places to plan Kinijit’s ascendance to power.

It has always been about power—a struggle for power that began with the student movement in the early 1970s. It is the same faces, the same issues, and the same followers. What is different from the days of the student movement is an arrogance and sense of entitlement that comes from living for so long outside of Ethiopia.

Even in prison, or maybe especially in prison, Berhanu held on to the messianic persona he had worked so hard to build during the time leading up to the election. Prison would not deter him from taking his rightful place to govern Ethiopia.

Perhaps he felt it was a disservice to his cause when the Ethiopian President granted amnesty to those convicted by the courts for their role in attempting to overthrow the government by force. Released from prison, Berhanu Nega faded into the obscure background of teaching beginning economics classes to American teenagers in a small college located in central Pennsylvania. Was he bored attending faculty meetings to debate textbook choices and graduation requirements?

Berhanu Nega squandered his real place in making history. Having won almost one-third of the Ethiopian legislature, the opposition could have advanced the democratic process in Ethiopia by fulfilling their responsibilities to the electorate and take their seats. Maybe that was almost as boring as the faculty meetings he endured in a small town in Pennsylvania.

So he formed a political organization—Ginbot 7.

The organization, however, was failing to capture the excitement and attention he envisioned. So then he decided, along with his cohorts, that weyene would only leave when faced with the barrel of a gun. Excitement and attention rose as Ginbot 7 held fundraisers and sold bonds to gullible Ethiopian in the diaspora

Isayas Afewerki, Eritrea’s President, saw an opportunity to exploit the hatred Ginbot 7 had for Isayas’ enemies, his neighbors in Ethiopia, and invited Ginbot 7 to join him in Asmara. Surprisingly, Gibot 7 accepted his invitation and sent Andargachew Tsige to undertake terrorist acts on Ethiopians going about their daily business in the shopping centers and places of worship.

And the soldiers of Ginbot 7? We see glimpses of young men dressed in new uniforms, posing with shiny boots and idle guns. Berhanu Nega meets his troops for the first time, shaking their hands and trying to project courage and leadership to the sacrificial lambs of unbridled egos. How many are there, what kind of weapons do they have, where are their positions, how will they defeat their foes? These are all questions that remain unanswered.

The Ethiopian diaspora tweets its support for Ginbot 7 and waits for the call home. In the meantime, they drive their taxicabs, sit in the parking lot booths, sell injera and tire kitfo while raising their kids and paying their taxes in the country of their exile. Is it every immigrant’s dream to return home having defeated a government made up of their peers who stayed rather than went? Is it every immigrant’s dream to be able to justify the roots they put down in a strange country long ago and to have children that no longer speak the language of their parents?

Perhaps Ginbot 7 is merely a manifestation of the diaspora’s regret for leaving the country of their birth. After all, many of the refugees who entered the U.S. and Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s, like Berhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsige, were fleeing from a brutal and repressive government trying to kill them. That age group had entered the 1970s as students, young and idealistic revolutionaries who risked—and many lost—their lives to improve Ethiopia’s peasantry. “Land to the tiller!”

They left and spent the remainder of their youth and much of their middle age as exiles, still engaged in a political struggle against the Derg. And they were successful in their own way.

In the meantime, members of the EPRDF stayed behind and did the work of a guerilla army. They eventually won and took power in 1991.

Maybe it is time for the Ethiopian diaspora to give up on the notion of armed struggle. Is armed struggle even possible? It certainly is not probable and, moreover, does not serve the interests of the Ethiopian people—the people who stayed behind—to promote violence in a country that is moving forward in so many ways.

Maybe it is time for the diaspora to forgive itself for being fortunate enough to be able to leave Ethiopia during those terrible days and seek refuge in other places.

Maybe it is time for the diaspora to re-define its role in Ethiopia politics and work to serve the interests of the Ethiopian people without struggling to gain power. After all, the children of the disapora will remain in the country of their birth, having their own American and European children.

Ginbot 7 is an organization that remains stunted in the politics of the 1970s. Berhanu Nega is stubbornly clinging to a past no longer relevant to Ethiopian realities and a present no longer credible.

The diaspora should re-focus its vast resources and experiences on leaving a different kind of legacy to Ethiopia—one devoid of the emptiness of renewed violence and disruption.

Ginbot 7 will end up in the dustbin of history. Berhanu Nega will soon, if not even now, return to his small college in western Pennsylvania and dream his dreams of power.

The diaspora still has time to make a difference.

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  • Must be weyene :) https://t.co/9UV9bUiN3A
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  • Really, Will. The only thing holding the country together right now is the Constitution. It's easy to take the word… https://t.co/SUvtX3plCE
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  • Excellent analysis. rather than being used as a tool in internal power struggles, the peace must be operationalized… https://t.co/eiv58kQFlh
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