Awol Kasim Allo was born in a small village in Bale called Wate-Chimmo, located just on the outskirt of a small town called Gassera. At the age of eight, he moved to Dodolla, another city in Bale. The influential lawyer says he was molded by his family and his own experiences. After graduating from Batu Terara High School in Goba Town, he went on to Addis Ababa University where he studied law and graduated in 2006. After graduation, he taught for a year at Saint Mary’s University and at Addis Ababa University and went on to postgraduate studies in the US. He studied a Master of Laws degree in International Human Rights Law at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. After completing his Masters degree, Awol returned to Ethiopia and resumed teaching. In 2009, he won the prestigious Lord-Kelvin Adam Smith Scholarship from Glasgow University for a Ph.D. program to study the role of law and legal institutions in enabling progressive social and political change. Awol completed his PhD in September 2013 and started teaching at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) the same year. He moved to Keele University in September 2016 after securing a tenure track academic job as a lecturer.
In this exclusive interview, the legal analyst and researcher share his opinion about Ethiopia’s changing political environment. He also provides his insight about events in the Oromia Region between the government and opposition forces. Awol discusses issues he thinks are crucial for the transition the nation is experiencing. He has a new project, focusing on Medemer and Solidarity as two important themes and concepts underpinning Ethiopia’s transition. He sits down and talks with Capital’s Haimanot Ashenafi.
Capital: What is the objective of the new project you are working on focusing on Medemer and Solidarity?
Awol Kassim Allo: It is an extended research project which aims to see how Medemer, in conjunction with solidarity, can help us overcome our deep divisions, and move forward as a country. Social change is a complex process, and society needs transformative ideas and discourses to move forward to a better future based on recognition, acknowledgment, and equality. So this research is aimed at exploring the extent to which solidarity and medemer can offer ethically appealing possibilities for us to overcome our deep divisions and the hatred of the last few decades (even centuries) and move forward to build a new state based on equality and justice for all.
So we want to speak to Members of Parliament (MPs) from Amhara and Oromia regional states and try to discover how they understand these concepts, and whether they believe these are useful ideas to help move the country forward. We will also speak to political decision-makers, activists, media personalities to gauge their views and inform our analysis. We are funded by the Parliaments and Peoples Project.
Capital: Why are you interested in these concepts?
Awol: I have been interested in the concept of solidarity for a very long time because we are among the most diverse countries in the world, and we need something, some kind of concept, that allows us to bring us together and harnesses our resources to struggle for change. During the Amhara and the Oromo protests, I have written quite a lot and I have advocated for the idea of inter-ethnic solidarity between ethnic groups, particularly between the Oromos and the Amhara. I have always stressed the need for these major groups in this country to come together if we are to challenge the TPLF-dominated EPRDF and seek a true change that works for us all. When Abiy Ahmed came to power and introduced the notion of Medemer, which is quite similar in its content and form to the notion of solidarity, I was naturally interested as this is an intriguing concept that got a lot of traction and had such a resemblance to what I was interested in – Solidarity. I believe there are different theoretical perspectives, ideologies and intellectual resources which we can use in terms of clarifying the concept and make it useful – and this is one of the justifications behind the research project.
I gave lectures and advocated for the need to come together, combine our resources, and work to create a better future for us all rather than undermining each other. I believe the current change that we celebrate in this country would not have been impossible if it weren’t for the alliance, even if tactical, between the Oromos and Amharas, both at the level of the party, and society.
As you remember, one of the earliest manifestations of this was seen at the height of the protests when the Amhara youth declared that “the blood that is falling in the Oromia is our blood too”. This was a monumental change in the way that these two communities related at the political level. There is no denying that Oromos and Amharas have had a long history of antagonism and competition. The TPLF led EPDRF intensified that and used it to its advantage, making the chance of the two groups to come together and trusting each other an impossibility. So, one of the things that I have been trying to do was to clarify why we have these differences, what the role of the state was in fostering divisions, and how solidarity can help us move past this divisions.
So when the Idea of Medemer entered our political parlance, I saw is somewhat as a continuation of the idea of solidarity, and I wanted to explore it further from a theoretical and empirical point of view. So the project is basically about providing tools, resources, and discourses for people to understand the possibilities and prospects of this kind of coming together in creating a more democratic, more just, and more equal Ethiopia.
Capital: Do you think the will of the alliance stops after an election? What will be done to continue it afterward?
Awol: I think bringing together a highly divided society which has been competing with one another requires time and hard work. It needs to be supported by the state and there must be robust strategies in place in terms of implementing reforms and making it work for the people. Not just empty promises, but making sure that people see change actually happens. So unless the theory of medemer is followed up by actions, and people began to see the benefits of the alliance for the overall wellbeing and prosperity of the country, it will be very difficult to see how the alliance can be sustained.
One of the central problems we have is there is no equal treatment of people before the law. Depending on who you are, you are either treated differentially, or you are denied the rights that have been given to you by law. Your ethnic identity, your religion, your gender, and your political opinion can be the basis of persecution and even of imprisonment and some other serious abuse. Identity-based attacks are one of the reasons why identity has become such a prominent political discourse.
This also led to nationalist narratives which rely on a particular reading of history and the naming of suffering as a central mobilizing theme, the idea that if you want to mobilize people, you have to appeal to things that motivate them. And people are usually motivated by anger, grievance, and hate than other types of imperatives. When we hate somebody we will find the time and the energy to move to action which we could not have to defend ideas and values such as justice and equality.
One of the things that is absolutely important for Ethiopians going forward is to democratize the system in ways that are sensitive to the history of the nation. When we begin to treat people as equals, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or gender, while respecting their culture and their preferences, creating conditions in which individuals and collectives can thrive and feel at home, their particular identities would become less and less important, at least politically.
Capital: Some people are eager for change, how long will the healing process take?
Awol: It is very important that the government gives people hope and it must make sure that it is taking action and understands the enormity of the problem. It is critical that the government actually works on concrete ideas and strategies that pave the way toward a democratic change in the long term. At the same time, the broader public and social change agents should understand their enormous responsibilities and act accordingly.
The problems that we are talking about now can’t be solved overnight, because they are deep, material, emotional, and connected to historical, economic and political questions that have been around for a long time. These issues could be re-signified and used for political reasons by different actors, and there is no way of stopping politically engaged individuals and groups from doing so.
These are going to be challenging but the government should try all it can to ensure that we will transition to democracy and build confidence that it is doing something tangible and wins the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian public. There are already some very visible steps taken like establishing the Peace and Reconciliation Commission and this needs to continue.
Capital: Let us talk about the truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) and its potential to heal the wounds.
Awol: It is a grand national project which requires a lot of thinking and preparation but I don’t know how the government aims to shape or structure that process. Setting up a Commission of this kind with the intention to bring people together could give rise to the opposite result if it is not planned carefully. Instead of reconciling people it could end up dividing. You as a child would not have the chance to hear the abuses your parents have endured, and you wouldn’t know how you would react when things come to light? Sometimes people think that there is a causal relationship between truth and reconciliation, in the sense that if you know the truth you will reconcile. But actually, knowing the truth can create unexpected complications. Knowledge of truth doesn’t automatically lead to reconciliation.
So it is really important that the government and all stakeholders understand the enormity of the project and have a clear sense of what they want to achieve (deliverables) from this process. Do we want ton truth? Reconciliation? Peace? Justice? Or All of the above? And how does the pursuit of one affect the other? These issues need to be thought through very carefully. So, I think it is an appropriate and important step taken by the government, but it is important that some serious thought is given to a project like this if it is to succeed or help people and move Ethiopia forward.
Capital: Will this give justice to the victims?
Awol: One of the central reasons why we need a transitional justice process, as part of the political transition, is because the previous government left behind a legacy of massive human rights violation, state-sponsored acts of violence and massive plunder of the national patrimony. As a country that wants to break free from the violence of the past and turn a new page in its history of abuse and suffering, you can’t ignore abuses of the past. You have to find a way of dealing with and processing that past. So, one of the ways in which transitional societies deal with this is creating TRCs. There are so many imperatives that need to be balanced during times of transition.
Capital: To what extent can the reconciliation go in terms of human rights violations? What can be forgiven legally speaking?
Awol: Other countries including Chile, South Africa, Philippines, Haiti and a number of other countries used Truth and Reconciliation Commissions as part of their transitional justice process. Those processes were not perfect and are often fraught with contradictions and inconsistencies. The tension between accountability/justice and peace are one of the most well-known and inevitable of contradictions faced by almost all transitional societies. Strict adherence to rule of law means that every abuser and human rights abuser should be held accountable. In reality, this might mean every police officer or public official throughout the country. And no country undergoing transition can actually ensure accountability for all the crimes perpetrated under the previous regime.
But this doesn’t mean that there are no individuals that need to be held accountable. There are certain crimes that are so heinous and grave that society should not tolerate them being ignored. The Constitution also sets limits on the kind of crimes that the government can pardon. But the key focus has to be on the future, on making the transition hold, every decision on issues of accountability and reconciliation must not lose sight of the interests of the transition. These are not normal moments and you cannot be fully and perfectly consistent. Transitions are exceptional moments that require exceptional solutions, including working within and outside the rules of the game.
Capital: You have been traveling in parts of Oromia, what do you know about ongoing issues in the region?
Awol: I spoke with many people in parts of Oromia and the majority of the people are still hopeful and optimistic even in the face of some of the most absurd events that we have seen over the last several months. People I spoke to still believe that individuals who are leading the transition are the most suitable of all to lead the country through this unprecedented period of hope.
Capital: Some suggest that the government is allowing for conspiracy theories by not following-up on violence and other serious events that break out. Do you think that has affected the ability of people to understand what is really going on?
Awol: I am not expecting the Ethiopian government to be democratic anytime soon, regardless of what the authorities would tell us. While I am not privy to any details about why the government has or has not acted in the early days of the transition to restore law and order, there are multiple explanations why things got out of control, including the reluctance of the state to use force.
But building a democratic state requires maintaining law and order, and providing security – which is the primary public good that supersedes all other considerations, be it democracy, human rights or rule of law. In fact, law and order is a precondition for democracy and the rule of law. That is why democracies declare a state of emergency and legally suspend democratic and human rights when there is a breakdown of law and order. That is because you cannot defend democracy under conditions of anarchy although I am also aware of the political use made of law and order by several regimes in our region and beyond.
Capital: What do you recommend for the government and opposition forces in the Oromia region? And what do you think the people want from them?
Awol: There is nothing more damaging to the Oromo people and everyone else in this country than the failure of this transition. The possibility of fulfilling some of the central demands of the Oromo public and the rest of the country rests on the possibility of a successful transition. Engaging constructively in policy level political debates, participating in the electoral process and ensuring that it is free and democratic, and holding the government accountable as opposition parties, are among the in which organized political movements can play a key role in transitions.
A number of opposition parties have not yet registered and it would be very difficult to see how they can organized and mobilize their constituencies and mount a credible challenge to the incumbent party within the next few weeks. So, they need to be registered, organized, and open offices across the country, enter into coalitions and engage in constructive politics. That I think is what the Oromo public expects of political parties that claim to advocate on its behalf. No mature and decent leadership can resort to violence under any condition. My message to everyone is this: let us focus on making the transition work as everything depends on it. If you engage in sabotaging the transition for short term political gains, we would all lose, and we betray the phenomenal sacrifice of our youth.
Capital: There are various laws being amended, what do you think of the legal aspects of this?
Awol: Given the number of authoritarian legislation that have been enacted in this country in the past 27 years, you would naturally expect a government leading the transition to focus on repealing or reforming repressive legislation as its priority. We must make sure that those institutions and laws which had been used against the very people that they were meant to protect are reformed and that we will never return to those utterly deplorable practices. But the rule of law is not simply about repealing repressive law. It is also about the government and its bureaucracies observing its own laws, and constitutional limits, respecting the independence of the judiciary, and supporting the free press, and civil society. Government officials must relearn that there are limits to their power. That’s why I said earlier that we all need a deep cultural change as individuals and societies.
Capital: What are the legal requirements to arrest individuals from regional states suspected of federal crimes?
Awol: The federal government has the legal power to arrest individuals suspected of federal crimes anywhere in the country. I think you are asking about certain regions that refused to hand over individuals wanted by the federal government and it seems to me that the government is trying to avoid confrontations and resolve this as amicably as possible. We have also seen this in several parts of the country where the government showed significant levels of patience, even when the army was prevented by ordinary citizens from moving from one place to another.
Overall, there is a general pattern of restraint on the part of the government and I see this issue of arresting and not arresting federal crime suspects as part of that policy of restraint aimed at avoiding confrontation and to give negotiation a chance. I see it as a part of the government’s approach aimed at solving differences peacefully, and that is a very good thing. But from a constitutional point of view, the federal government has complete power to arrest, investigate, and prosecute individuals suspected of federal crimes anywhere in the country.