The meaning of Kassa Kebede’s return to Ethiopia

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The speed and boldness with which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is transforming Ethiopia is breathtaking. Who would have thought just a few weeks ago Ethiopia’s prison will be empty of political prisoners; the head of Ethiopian government will take responsibility for the state-sponsored terrorism that was waged against the people of Ethiopia for the past 27 years; exiled dissidents, journalists, and opposition leaders will return to Ethiopia; Ethiopian prime minister will travel to Asmara…? These and many other good things are happening today thanks to Abiy Ahmed’s extraordinarily bold and visionary leadership.

This past weekend, there was another major development: Former President Mengistu Hailemariam’s most trusted confidant, Dr Kassa Kebede, accepted PM Abiy’s invitation and has returned to Addis Ababa after 27 years in exile. His arrival at the Bole Airport sent another shock-wave through Ethiopia’s current political landscape.

Those who complain about the Prime Minister’s respectful treatment of recently fired army chief Samora Yenus and intelligence chief Getachew Assefa have no argument now. Samora and Getachew are two of the worst perpetrators of human rights atrocities in the history of Ethiopia. The Prime Minister’s actions in both instances — providing a graceful retirement for TPLF human right violators, and welcoming back DERG human rights violators — are consistent with his ideology of forgiveness.

Abiy’s ideological consistency is remarkable. And it serves an extremely important purpose: a fresh beginning for Ethiopia. He appears to be determined to try what no other present-day Ethiopian politician is willing or courageous enough to even consider — open a new chapter in Ethiopia’s history with a clean slate by closing the old chapter. Instead of becoming a hostage of history, he wants the Ethiopian people to forgive those who have wronged them so that they can focus on rebuilding their nation that has been devastated by 40 years of civil strife and war. Most of Abiy’s supporters today were not born when Ethiopia’s nightmare started with the overthrow of Emperor Haileselassie’s regime 44 years ago. Ethiopia’s youth are Abiy’s most important source of power and motivation for the goals he has set out to achieve.

The return of Dr Kassa, who was accompanied by Ato Tekle Yishaw, chairman of an exiled human rights advocacy group named Moresh Wegene, paves the way for former President Mengistu Hailemariam to return shortly. One individual who is well attuned to PM Abiy’s thinking suggested that he may be planning a ceremony in Addis Ababa where Mengistu Hailemariam, Isaias Afwerki, members of the royal family, representatives of TPLF, EPRP, OLF and others who participated in the bloody civil war of the past 40 years shake hands, giving the Ethiopian people the closure they deserve. Dr Kassa has already started the work a few years ago by having a face-to-face meeting with Isaias Afwerki in Europe and follow-up discussions. If that happens, it will be a miraculously positive development for the entire Horn of Africa region and a model for other conflict-plagued regions of the world.

Things could go sour also. Because there are powerful elements in Ethiopia who are bent on trying to stop PM Abiy’s transformative agenda. The leading figures among this regressive group are senior TPLF officials Abay Tsehay, Seyoum, Mesfin, and Samora Yenus, to mention some of them. They have practically declared PM Abiy their enemy. One of their cadres, the recently replaced head of Ethiopia’s cybersecurity agency (INSA), General Teklebirhan Wolde Aregay, has told Dimtsi Woyanne Tigray (DWET), a TPLF-affiliated radio station, last week that the government has been taken over by an enemy force — “በስልጣን ላይ የወጣው ሃይል ከኢህአዴግ ፕሮግራም ጋር የሚገናኝ ትንሽ የኢህአዴግ ሽታ እንኩዋን የለውም። ለእኔ ይህ የጠላት ሃይል ነው። እንደጠላት ሃይል እንውሰደው።” The general’s statement is a declaration of war. Unless precautionary measures are taken, there is a high probability that the Prime Minister will be assassinated. If the old-guards openly declare him as an enemy, the next logical steps for them is to get rid of him. They are well-equipped to do that. They have tried once already and failed. They could be successful next time.

Some individuals who emerge as leaders at a given time in a country’s history are indispensable. Winston Churchill was indispensable during WWII. George Washington was indispensable for America’s war of independence. Nelson Mandela was indispensable for saving South Africa from a genocidal civil war. Abiy Ahmed is an indispensable leader at this junction of Ethiopian history. He possesses a visionary thinking, a rhetorical skill, and an indefatigable spirit that are necessary for healing Ethiopia’s severely traumatized society and charting a path towards freedom and prosperity. All necessary precautions must be taken to protect him. This cannot be stressed enough.