A single moment of violence turned the young Ethio-Canadian man into a human rights activist. He has been looking at Ethiopian socio political moves closely interims of humanity. Obang Mato founded the famous movement called “Adisitwa Ethiopia”, The New Ethiopia Movement, which he talks about in this exclusive interview with Capital’s Haimanot Ashenafi. Obang also shares his views about the current political environment, challenges, and prospects of the ongoing reform in Ethiopia.
Capital: Let us start with clarifying for people who have confused you with Umod Ubong, a man who ran from his post in Gambella?
Obang: Some people sometimes confuse Umod Ubong who was once the Gambella region president. But I left my country when I was 16 to Canada with my family. Umod is now in the Philippines, I think. But I have never been involved in any political or government posts, rather i speak for human rights.
Capital: How did Canada treat you when you were a teenager?
Obang: I was the only dark skinned guy in a school of thousands. I fit in as a human person there and that’s my life principle now. Every person has to know that God created a human, not an African or others in a different way. I lived in Canada for 28 years and it treated me as one of them, that’s why I call Canada home.
Capital: Your academic status is in political science and international relations. How did you become a human rights activist?
Obang: I came back to my home country in 2000 for the first time since we moved to Canada. I expected the Gambella region to have some development. But the reality was the exact opposite. At the moment there was only one medical doctor for the entire region. The region had a single hospital and the development in the EPDRF was even more backward than the Derg regime. The Derg constructed various water wheels, roads and hospitals. The resettlement known as Sefera was a good opportunity for the region to have a lot of development projects.
Gambella’s fertile land can feed the entire horn of Africa if utilized well. But the marginalization paralyzes the region. The HIV prevalence rate was higher than the nation’s rate. So those were my reasons for me to set up an NGO called Gambella Development Agency (GDA) in 2001. After we established it in Canada, we came back to Ethiopia to work on Health, Water, and Education as a priority. But when we came back to make the project operational there were some serious disputes between the regional heads and the federal government appointed advisories who wanted to rule the region in de facto terms. The clash caused the removal and detention of the regional appointees and the federal government installed its own governors later. The tension would build on and also cause many arrests from the regional powers. There was one incident where an international organization’s car was ambushed and about nine people were killed, in July 2003. Some people say they had evidence that is was the Anuak tribe who did it which led the National Defense Force to kill 424 people from the Anuak tribe. That was the moment which I was flipped into the fights for our Ethiopian people’s human rights. I was called from different areas to participate in the issue which made us fall into fear. I called for justice at the moment which I am still doing.
Capital: Some people say refugees coming from South Sudan are now affecting the lives of the residents. Some even say the ethnic composition is now overshadowed by the South Sudanese residents. How do you evaluate this?
Obang: The major problem of the Gambella region is the failure of the federal government. The issue of refugees started even before I was born when Emperor Haile Selassie agreed to receive the Sudan refugees, which was a very generous decision. But the current failure of the Federal Government to set the proper channel of screening and security check created the situation. There is no border I can say as anyone can come carrying a weapon and cattle with no immigration, custom or arm check. The federal government is the one which is responsible for dealing with the inter-country matters. I am not surprised by the failure of the federal government as it happens all around the nation. It all starts with the insult of calling the four pastoralist regions as a minority. In which term does the large state of Somali region become the minority while other regional states which in many terms are smaller the opposite become? They call these regions as underdeveloped, minority and the party arranging is as much as insulting to call them just a partner but not the front. The government receives money from the UN to host the refugees but it doesn’t care about the people. So the people of Gambella are suffering a lot because of the failure of the federal government.
Capital: Do you think the status of the civil war in South Sudan is ethnic cleansing? How is it affecting the Gambella region?
Obang: What happened in South Sudan is not well documented and it is hard to know. As you know uranium is peaceful mineral unless you weaponise it and it becomes nuclear. Same is true for Ethnicity as it is a good thing but if you weaponise it, it will become the worst nightmare. In South Sudan, there are lots of people who were targeted just for belonging to some ethnic group. So that’s nothing I regret to call based on what is happening. The Nuer tribe is targeted in the civil war in South Sudan and they are fleeing in large numbers to Ethiopia. There are only a few Anuaks now. That defiantly affects the political landscape. As the Nuer can escape the ethnic cleansing in South Sudan and as they are not even screened here and live in Gambella. I think hosting refugees is a good thing but unless it is well managed it can lead to one of the most dangerous conflicts.
Capital: Is there a potential of self-determination in Gambella?
Obang: I am not afraid for Gambellan secession. I can only speak for myself. But the government shouldn’t take the states for granted just because they believe in Ethiopia. You can’t say home is home when you didn’t clean it. Some of the residents in Gambella would say the government just wants our resources but not us and they may abandon Ethiopianism. Who knows if someone from the region pops up and says we need to determine ourselves in another place? The system itself is allowing it to be this way. When I was a kid every day I was proud to stand in front of the flag and sing the national anthem. We were very proud of being an Ethiopian before but now people are proud to belong in some tribes.
Capital: Are you a politician now?
Obang: Politics will be dirty when it is handled by bad people. Politics is a way of life and how people manage things together and that is the thing which differentiates us from an animal. It is a way of living together and headlining a rule of law for us to live together. A political environment like we have here in Ethiopia is dominated by politics of hatred, lies, corruption, and division. And I can’t see myself there for sure. So I see myself trying to play a role to empower people. I believe that tribalism and ethnocentrism are an illness. It is very backward thinking in the world which needs a cure. It is really short of imagination which is going to make you short sighted.
Capital: What you are referring as tribalism and ethnocentrism are rephrased by people as nationalism and empowering people starting from the initial circle. How do you see that?
Obang: Nationalism may be narrow but it will put people as a package and will think of other peoples. But tribalists are the more selfish and narrow ones which think only about themselves. So it is a failed experiment for the past 27 years. And in the globalized world of 21st-century tribalism will not work. Every nation which focuses on their ethnicity failed including Yugoslavia and Rwanda. You can see the effect in the intermixed society of Ethiopia. So ask me where and when the failure story of the ethnocentric system and I will tell you from the Somali-Oromo clashes to the latest Raya and Wolqayit issues. No matter how big was India the British ruled the land of a billion using their differences and the same is happening to Ethiopia. They are using our differences to rule us forever. So the big problem of ethnicity is not happening accidentally rather it was intentional. You can see our constitution which says “We nations and nationalists” which you see in any other countries saying “we the people”. This is the ideology of Wallelign Mekonnen who had a communist copy ideology to lead us. I remember some say we copied this law from developed nations as proud thing. A copy is not original and it is dangerous in politics.
Capital: Some may think that the ‘Medemer’ theory of Abey Ahmed (Phd) cures the hate wound but with unmanaged freedom leading everyone to fight on everything. How did you analyze the appearance of the ‘Medemer’ theory?
Obang: The Medemer thing is not owned by only Abiy, rather that’s the base of existence of every living thing. Coming together will reward you a breed of good thing. I should say that the arrival of Abiy is an opportunity which we should protect. Almost three million people came out in Addis to show their support to him, and the same people will be demanding change from him. If he failed them they will come out also challenging. The word Medemer will not take us anywhere alone. There need to be a change in the structure which might touch the backbone of EPDRF, ethnic federalism. It is the best time for him to change that if he really believes we are one.
Capital: What does the new administration need to do to meet expectations?
Obang: There is one man on whom everything depends on, Abiy. And this man’s time is running up. He has to reach the problems fast before it’s too late. Words are not enough. We need a real genuine reform. It’s been six months since he came and that is enough time to get things together and give real reform. Abiy needs to draw where he wants to take the country. The era of experiment has to come to an end and we have to get the better policy and roadmap to be the best of ourselves. He should work with the election. The army needs further arrangement. Security agencies must take their hands out of ethnic issues. We had enough of an empty bottle feeding. Our stomach is empty and we need a real thing. We have been told we have the double digit economy and we have the most harmonious and united nation, which was deceptive. The change that we had with Abiy was amazing. We were in the darkness and now we see a light but the darkness is not completely gone. You and I will not be talking like this unless it is for him. Many brothers also paid sacrifices for this change, which I will be thanking them every day. But their sacrifices must be respected and paid off.
Capital: What would be your priority now? Is the New Ethiopia Movement institutionalized or an ideology?
Obang: Our priority will be helping the youth have self-esteem, humanity and to respect one another. Adistua Ethiopia is in the process of being registered now as a civil society. We want to focus on reconciliation because a lot was done to us. There were so much blood, pain and hate. Our motto minimally focuses on promoting the civil discourse in a way that can help us to have a national consensus. Our new Ethiopia movement is not changing the map or flag of Ethiopia rather our thinking. The thinking which looks down others because of their skin color, gender, ethnicity, language or any other things which they didn’t create is a threat to our survival. People have to have the rational thinking of bringing humanity in the front.
Capital: What would be your message to those who doubt nationality and being Ethiopian can’t co-exist?
Obang: The nation was there for the past 3,000 years accommodating both, so we don’t need another proof is my short answer. Our grandfathers lived in this country walking with both. God creates every human being into his image but doesn’t make one better from one other. So this thinking has to be changed. I consider every nationality as a flower. A single color flower is less beautiful than a pot filled with a mixture of different ones. That’s the case each and every nation in Ethiopia are a single flower. Each and every other group in Ethiopia makes the nation this beautiful. It is trouble to see students in higher education fighting with ethnic issues to one another rather than studying hard. It is a result of what they have learned but we need to draw a line. Some people In Gambella attack the third generation highlanders just because they have a little bit lighter skin color shade. Being a human is not just eating and walking.
Capital: How do you want to reach society in your New Ethiopia Movement?
Obang: I am suggesting that our curriculum be restructured in a way that promotes love, affection, humanity, and unity. Also, the media is a crucial means to access the majority. Beyond all public dialogue is mandatorily to leave behind things that were eating us alive for three decades. We are pushed to the level where you treat a man based on his name. We failed to see humanity and we just see ethnicity. Putting our ethnicity on the ID cards is the worst case scenario. Your ethnicity will give you a job or will just make you a criminal. Not what you learn is going to count or your skill but your ethnicity will make you a favor. This will be changed through love and education. Loving each other is the only help.
Capital: Do you think the opposition political parties have any platform to solve the problems which you are mentioning?
Obang: The opposition political parties didn’t have the platform how to love anyone other than their ethnicity, which is dangerous. Someone who doesn’t have principle will settle for everything when someone with principle will die for anything. The main challenge of the oppositions is they have no ideology they stand for and they just oppose. They had to take the lesson from EPDRF who let the nation in this status. It was once founded with liberation fronts whose initial aim was liberating ethnicity from Ethiopia. And suddenly they get the chance to take over the nation which they want to be liberated from and they put it in a current situation. And beyond having the ideology they have to become ten times better than the ruling party if the people have to vote for them.
I see people saying I am this ethnicity first but they are human first.
Capital: How are the advanced relationships between the opposition and the government helping the people?
Obang: There is no opposition. Abiy is the government Abiy is the opposition. He used a good language while calling them competitors and brought them here. They stay in their hotel and just have a vacation. These parties are doing nothing and he paralyses them. They are just sitting on time and election is just ahead. If the election is not going to be extended, EPDRF will keep walking even without a real challenge. I always wonder about how they mushroom in such numbers. Few strong parties are enough to build this nation. I didn’t see them talking with the people rather than having a good time here.
Capital: What is your suggestion in such cases, for the government and the parties?
Obang: The country is in danger and I am very much worried. If the opposition political parties have not any better idea they should leave and stop being a road blocker. They have to get a common vision on how to participate in the politics. The current political engineering is so complicated and if they can’t be way better than that, well we will lose and will make the people pay the cost. They have to have a much more sophisticated, visionary harder tool for a better Ethiopia.
Capital: Some divide the power in the nation into different parts. Is there a power competition and division here?
Obang: I see four groups. The one that leads the country and others but we may have other groups. The old guards say if we don’t get the power back this change will collapse, so they are one. There are others which believe Abiy owes them and are demanding favorable treatment. The last will be the opposition political parties who come from abroad. It is very worrisome that we focus on this while we have a real problem to solve that is lack of rule of law. We top the list in the Internally Displaced People globally with 1.8 million. With all the clashes costing lives and the system created that. More than 75% of Ethiopians are youth and they will be demanding. Those forces can force him for good things but unless he becomes stronger it may cost us the change. A sinuous of fights brings the change and this turn must be Ethiopians’ turn. Anything less than a genuine reform to make the nation a fair one will be bad.