Last Saturday, June 22, Ambachew Mekonnen, President of Amhara Regional State was tragically murdered. In memory Capital reprints his interview with us from December 2018. At that time he was serving as an advisor to the Prime Minster before being appointed to head Amhara Regional State.
Ambachew Mekonnen could smile through difficult times. He was known for being assertive, standing for what he believed in and academic prowess. Before leading Amhara Regional State and serving as an advisor to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, he served in various government posts over a 28 year period. Ambachew, was a major protagonist in reforming the ruling party. He talked with Capital about the four year struggle which culminated in electing Abiy as Chairperson of EPRDF. He provided much insight in this exclusive interview. Given recent events we felt it appropriate to print his words which were full of hopeful idealism.
Capital: Tell us a little about you, who is Ambachew?
Ambachew Mekonnen: I grew up in a diligent farming family in Gayint, Gondar. I am very proud of my hardworking farming community. I passed through a number of schools since I joined high school because at the time the full package was not provided in one school. I was not a bad student and was promoted several grades in a year. I was passionate in natural science especially Physics and Math. Unfortunately I was unable to complete high school when it was shut down because of war which later led me to join the guerilla fight with EPDM/EPRDF, in 1990. When the war ended I was appointed to serve as a cadre and after five years of interruption I continued my education through Mexico distance education and Temehert Be Radio. It was a difficult time to learn. I had a busy schedule working with the administration in Abichu ena Gne’a/ Sheno area, North Shoa. Then I joined the Ethiopian Civil Service University and I studied Economics and graduated in 1998. Even though I aspired to be a teacher as a child and liked natural sciences I diverted to Economics. In my childhood I was inspired by my good teachers. I went to South Korea for a Master’s Degree and studied economics. After I returned to my country and had 11 years of political and administration engagements I went to England, United Kingdom to study my PHD in the University of Kent at Canterbury. I also obtained another MS in International Finance & Economic Development as a precondition to the PhD. It was made mandatory by examiners and it was difficult in terms of course loads but advantageous to have another education. “Economic growth, trade and investment in sub-Saharan Africa: nexus and determinants” was the title of my thesis. After I came back I worked in different Federal and Regional posts.
Capital: After you went to the UK you were told to stop your PhD studies and return, what happened?
Ambachew: After I completed my first year of classes and won two scholarships, some shrewd appointees said the region did not have the budget for my education and I was told to quit. I opposed the decision and went back for the second year. My colleagues in the party used to collect money and tried to support the payment of part of the university’s tuition fee. At the end, despite my reluctance, the government tried to send me the money via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but I kept refusing their conspiracies. But, I continued exposing the conspiracies for the objective of not to be repeated again on others. Many brilliant minds were pushed away from ADP (Amhara Democratic Party) with these kinds of toxic political conspiracies. We are bringing back those who were pushed away by those people. In any case as it is a struggle with human beings there are different kinds of ideologies and this is normal. But life in the ADP was difficult. But, among all, it was challenging for us to entertain the legitimate demands of the public. Controversial ideas have been raised which were not acceptable most of the times. So, the people were forced to conclude that ADP is a dependent annex to others.
Capital: Do you have an official social media account?
Ambachew: Yes, I use but with limited contacts. I usually use to follow a few and selected writers. But I hardly check them continuously.
Capital: You once stated that political appointments are similar to sitting on a hot pan. You also said that you wished you could be relieved from political posts. Do you still feel the same way?
Ambachew: It was during the fractious days of our country when we were very sad and devastated. I was sad because people who trusted and followed us were victims of various human rights violations. During the meeting, when I said that, I saw many victims with wounds that touched my heart. Nothing was as embarrassing for a leader to witness the people you represent suffering but being helpless to do anything about it. Our party was able to bring many economic and political fruits but later it changed. When we failed to manage the differences of ideas and political gaps, use of force was deployed. Many youth have died and were injured due to bad leadership and political decisions. This can only be regarded as a failure for the nation and the appointees. The way that we handled peaceful demonstrations was harsh and took precious human life. So appointments are even more difficult at such moments. The chair is still hot but it is a historical responsibility for us to handover our country to the next generation.
Capital: Do you think that your party will be again trusted by the people?
Ambachew: The change which has come to this nation is not brought by the reformist group in the party only, but the frustration and anger of the people who took the major share. If I have to compare from any other moments of resistance in the party, the most difficult struggle was made to the most maximum point, over the last three years until that night which Abiy was elected as our chairman. What we struggled against was the wrong doings of individuals against the law and also against the party’s values. We weren’t sure if we were going to achieve the change until Abiy was elected, let alone being the people’s party again, but on that night a hope sparkled. The change was driven so fast and well by the people which became more than our expectations. We know our people deserved more and that means the people itself should determine what it needs. If the people didn’t support what we believed to be better for the country we have to respect its decisions. We have to give back the complete autonomy to the people to decide on its country exclusively and that is when we believe that the change is complete. We want the people to get its country back on its hands and the rest is nothing for us.
Capital: Do you believe the reform has reached the stage where it won’t collapse?
Ambachew: It is like two steps forward and one step back, which is we are going forward one step ahead amid the problems. The change will not be taken away from the one who owns it, the people. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to sleep, rather it’s the most critical time which the people have to stand firm and keep the reform alive. There are people in support and in favor of the change, but also those who are against. The pace of our walk could be slowed if we couldn’t stop to tackle each other. Of course we have to expect such problems which we are witnessing but resolving them quickly is mandatory to bring the change which this people deserve timely. Our people need to be patient and avoid opportunities for those who are working to bring this change down. What we see in the Universities is an example.
Capital: When did the struggle that brought Abiy Ahmed to the front begin in the party?
Ambachew: The latest reform could be traced four years back while there were lots of them earlier. The 2001 renaissance could be the first one I can say. The reluctance to solve problems makes them a tumor and causes the latest explosion. The people went out for demonstrations not because they were crazy or to cause violence rather it was to tell us their sadness. The party’s use of force to put the demonstrators down caused multiples of damages. The extent of the problems created differences in the party and that was not only limited to arguments rather there were strong fall out. Naturally it might be hard for one to see its own problems but rejecting others observance might be due to bad intentions. So the struggle took long time because we couldn’t agree on our problems which we agreed at the end. The government couldn’t bring equal treatment of citizens, which was the main cause for the anger. We couldn’t hear what the people said and we were not responsive. Of course politically motivated people could inflate the problems but it was the people itself speaking.
Capital: I know Tesfaye Getachew was your close friend. I think he was gone before the people knew him. Tell us a little about him.
Ambachew: Tesfaye shined on the moments which need bravery but not shrewdness. He is known for his direct confrontations. What Abiy said in the US about him was not just sweet talk rather it was absolutely true. He was ahead of the leaders and always in front of every struggle. I always feel bad that he couldn’t taste the fruits of his struggle and see the release of our friends, which he was advocating for. General Asamnew Tsege, Melaku Fenta, General Tefera and many others, not only in Amhara Region but also in the Oromia. He fights for them and he always stands for the truth and that is why our brothers from the Oromia and South were sad when he died. Whenever I think of how the people honored him I forget that he was taken away too soon. He didn’t like to show off which you never see on the media, but he was a real hero. At this moment which political leaders were hated, the people gave this honor. In our country nobody will be happy of any ones death but there might be some which were challenged by him. What we all have to learn from him is that those who stand for truth will be honored by the people even on their death. He had various surgeries but worked until the last weeks of his life. He is a model for us with his consistent stands for the truth. Our system is disrupted by servility. There were individuals who breathe and lived to praise their superiors but not for truth, and this still exists. Tesfaye also knew that he was in a bad health condition but he focused on his duties. When he was appointed as the party office head he resisted accepting and I asked him why. He told me that he wanted to have his last moments with his children, and he became critically ill before serving for a month. But now his children have Ethiopians from all over the country as their father. So when you live for truth your children will walk with their heads up, no matter if you are alive or not. He was my best friend since 1990.
Capital: What are the procedures that the government is taking to decide if the election is going to be extended or not?
Ambachew: I believe the respected government bodies are doing the necessary measures to that end. But in general what I can say is about how the election has to be conducted would be repeating what Abiy said. The worst life is in the political appointment. Especially back in those days we lost the popular support and the legitimacy and we use the law and the security force to put people down. No one is going to live happily in such condition. So, unless we bring an election which avoids such chaos it will be our failure. What drives the youth to go out on the streets and face the bullet was because it they were denied their right to have a say in their nation. Political appointments are no more going to be occupied by those who want to get benefit from their duty rather to benefit the people.
Capital: There were social media campaigns predicting you would be appointed, during the reshuffling over the seven months. How that did affect you and where were you since the reform?
Ambachew: I think I became a topic in the past few months for a reason I didn’t know. I don’t think those campaigns were meant to benefit me rather it showed the expectations of the people. I believe most of the people who wanted me to be appointed don’t even know me. But it was so difficult for me as my friends who were in the post and many more who claimed the posts felt bad about it. But it has caused unnecessary damages in respect to some relationships I had. So it has to bethe government who researches and appoints the appropriate person for the appropriate position. One could not forbid such campaigns as they are the reflection of the people but we have to leave the final decision to the legitimate bodies.
Capital: Were you a candidate for those posts actually?
Ambachew: I was a candidate for the presidency but as the public opposed that and wanted me to continue in political participation I changed my mind and also the party’s. The information leaked about my candidacy when people didn’t see me in the Ministerial posts and people’s opinions led to the fact I think. Also, I asked for some people to conduct a public dialogue and collect the real information doubting if the stand was driven by activists. It all turned out to be the same. So an idea came would the appointment cause unnecessary unfitness between us and the people so then we decided to wave it. I believe the fundamental services the president had are known but I think considering my age the people want me to keep participating in the political activities. I am in the executive committees of both the party and the front so I have various assignments. I am appointed, since the last Monday, as the Infrastructure and Urban Development Advisor for the Prime Minister now.
Capital: Do you think the government has changed in terms of being responsive and open to other opinions?
Ambachew: The reform in the party gives liberty not only for the people but also for the members and appointees of its own. The leaders could not say anything without the circle marked properly and rule was broken at the end of the reform. But some were not getting away from that circle and others were tackling those who were driving and started to say no. What surprises me now is those who were working to bring the reformists groups down are appearing to be one of them. Some wanted to defame those who paid scarifies, but I considered that they are doing it because they are in a fear. That part of the struggle was closed in the night Abiy was elected. I am completely sure that if he was not elected another person who would sustain the previous system would come. The government is no more comforting some leaders or groups rather it has to bring the people to be happy. Fair distribution of resources and rapid economic growth are different. Economic growth by itself will not bring peace and stability unless that is distributed fairly. There is a proverb in our country which says “kill me with the same knife which you kill him”. Happiness of the people is a collective result but fair and equal treatment is an ultimate element. The people are supporting us not because we lobbied for that rather it is because they believed us. So for us to learn from the previous mistakes is without a choice. The policy of the nation promotes equal distribution of wealth among the people but it is not implemented well.
Capital: Some say the change has not trickled down to the lower levels of the administration to the woreda and kebele level. What is the government doing to close this chapter of power reshuffles and also in the lowest level some are suggesting this might cause unnecessary damages?
Ambachew: Some leaders think appointment is a right. That is wrong and it must be given by the government or the people. The people spoke clearly that it needs change in the leadership in every level, including to the closest appointment to them. So the leaders have to resign themselves believing in the demands of the people. But the forgiveness and love agenda has to go to the woreda and kebel levels also. We have to let go of our anger and move to the next stage. There are efforts to bring the change in the wider level but it needs various efforts to move the nation. The people are actively participating more than any time in history and that needs to be supported not for our people to lose the regained confidence. One thing we all have to know is that most of the middle and lower leaders are shaped by custom and changing them is not easy. Most top level leaders will get the chance to witness other countries experiences. Also change is not free and that will not be implemented this easy. The main thing that could bring change to this beautiful nation is change in the attitude of the human being. Creating trust, benevolence, and love with one another and with nature needs to be our priority. We will be using technologies to bring the change we demand to be real. But our instruments have to be updated, not biased like we do on one to five groups, circles of influence. It was an appealing format which brings other nations be successful but here in our country it becomes a political instrument.
Capital: After exposing the grand corruption crimes and violations of human rights people kept comparing the Derg with EPDRF. Do you think the Derg was worse than the EPDRF?
Ambachew: I don’t think Derg was a total monster. It has various achievements besides the destructions. I sometimes compare what we have brought to this nation in this country other than what Derg did. It had very good developmental agendas and some projects we are doing now were tried by the military regime. We spend our time fighting the failed administration other than constructing our own for many years. In the area which I was grown up Derg achieved the forestry and basic education which the society is enjoying it fruits still now. But, the main problems of Derg were the killing of the innocents and the fact that everything was done with use of force. The settlement of villages was a good platform but done with force.
I don’t think Ethiopians will believe if one told them Derg embezzled the nation more than what happened in our times. Even if I was a little boy at Derg time and as I can’t speak of what was the situation in the big towns of the country there was some briberies. But I don’t think grand corruptions like now were committed. We have to admit the problems from our heart. Do you think the people didn’t know that we were part of the previous party system? No, the people forgive us while knowing us well and we have to respect this generous people.
In terms of human rights violation, it is not a fact you compare based on numbers. Human life is precious and number doesn’t matter. In terms of number a generation was taken away by Derg and it was all made clearly in public. What you have to know is Human Rights were an emerging fact at the moment and the regime was military. There were torture in our times, youth were killed and Ethiopians mothers were not saved from grief. What is shameful is that we throw the Derg for doing so and we did what we oppose. So were we opposing the violation just because we didn’t do them? So what makes us the worst one is that we repeated what we have fought for and what many sacrifice their life. Numbers don’t matter and if one person is torched or killed the entire community will live in fear. No leader admits what has happen to this nation but enormous number of people which were victims of unexpected human rights violation is coming out. So who did it? Never again!