Look Unto Ethiopia, for Lessons and Questions


Kenyatta Otieno


On Tuesday the 15th day of January, armed Al Shabaab fighters attacked the DusitD2 Hotel on 14 Riverside Complex. This was exactly three years since Al Shabaab insurgents ran roughshod over KDF’s AMISOM Camp in El Ade – Somalia. It got me thinking why Ethiopia with a larger Somali population, longer border with Somalia and a long drawn hostility with Mogadishu including invading Somalia was not prone to terror attacks like Kenya.

This incident reminded me of Marcus Gurvey famous quote – “Look unto Africa”. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF), Ethiopia’s GDP to 2017 was expected to hit $78 billion from $72 billion recorded the previous year. Their economic growth was pegged at 10.8% since 2015 which pushed a gap between them and Kenya. Ethiopia like Kenya is a non-natural resource driven economy yet its economy has passed Kenya as the biggest economy in Eastern Africa. We cannot avoid looking North because Ethiopia is definitely getting some things right.

Even as Ethiopia was registering economic growth its economic (human) development was dwindling. Until 2017 Ethiopians were leaving the country in droves, it was exemplified by long distance runner Feyisa Lilesa. In the marathon race at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in Brazil, Lilesa who bagged a silver medal made the famous crossed wrists at the finishing line in protest to human rights abuse in his country. He left for the USA, in fear of retribution if he returned home.

While Kenya has been hit by many attacks like the huge August 7th 1998 attack on American Embassy, Garissa University and Westgate Mall, Ethiopia seems to be dodging the attacks. Somalia has been a mess since the fall of Siad Barre government in 1991. In 2006 Ethiopian army invaded Somalia and it is reported that they killed many civilians by the time they left in 2009. As Ethiopia was leaving, Wikileaks released leaked US diplomatic cables that Kenya was working out a plan to invade Somalia by proxies.

The Daily Nation reported on a Special Report on 11th April 2015 that the Kenyan government lied to the US officials that it aimed to train a group of 36 Somali nationals who would then be returned to Somalia under the guidance of retired Kenyan military officers. The government insisted that there will be no Kenyan boots in Somalia. However the government secretly trained a 4,000 strong force made up of young Kenyans of Somali extract disguised as Somali police force. The training is reported to have been conducted in Archers Post and Manyani in Tsavo West.

Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetang’ula while in Djibouti for Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) meeting in December 2019, tried to win over a senior US official into Kenya’s plan. Prime Minister Raila Odinga also supported the strategy but America responded that as much as they understand Kenya’s position, they will not render support.

Nobody knows if the youths were deployed but one thing is certain, the government did not deliver what it had promised them. Some of the well trained youths must have joined Al Shabaab or opted to fight from Kenyan soil. On the contrary, Ethiopia has had a systematic plan from the onset.  It will surprise you that Al Shabab forces would withdraw slowly whenever Ethiopian forces crossed into Somalia. Kenyan foreign minister in 2009, Hon. Moses Wetangula even said that Ethiopian forces marched to Mogadishu like a hot knife through butter because Al Shabaab is weak.

Najib Gardad writes that by the time Al-shabab was formed in 2006, Ethiopia had had its agents in the junior ranks of Islamic Courts Union (ICU) before it collapsed. The top leadership of Al-Shabaab was made up of figures from the fallen Islamic Courts Union. The new leadership was soon sorted. Ismail Arale, the Amir was lured to Eritrea for a meeting he was not officially invited to by an ‘ally’. He was arrested in Djibouti on his way and ended up in Guantanamo Bay. Ahmed Madobe his deputy was sold out by his fighters leading to a hit by American air strikes then he was captured by Ethiopian troops but later released.

In their absence, new leadership emerged made up of ‘unknown people’ but who Najib Gardad claims are Ethiopian agents. Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Zubayr whose real name is believed to be Ahmed Abdi Godane became the Amir. The new Amir appointed Mahad Karatay as his security chief and right hand man. Mahad joined radical Islamists in the early 90s. When Ethiopia crushed their bases in 1997 he fled to Kenya where he was arrested by Kenyan forces who handed him over to Ethiopia. He resurfaced in 2006 as a key figure in Al-Shabaab.

These allegations may sound like a conspiracy theory or outrageous to Ethiopia, nevertheless they shed light on the state of things. There is something Ethiopia is doing that Kenya is not doing. You cannot have it both ways; Kenya cannot be an open, democratic state and still afford lapses in security surveillance. The backlash the government received in parliament on December 18th 2014, when the controversial Security Laws (Amendment) Bill 2014 was passed amidst fistfights on the floor of the houses is evidence of our dilemma as a country. We expect our security forces to fight terrorism without infringing on our rights and privacy. Kenya must strike that delicate balance and the police force must show that they can handle extra powers without taking advantage or settling political scores.

Real Handshake

In mid-February 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned. He had been in power since 2012, overseeing a period that will be remembered more for riots, clampdown on the media, killings and intolerance to dissent as well as a long state of emergency than the attendant economic growth. The epicenter of this uprising was Oromia region home of the populous Oromo with Amhara region also jumping the gun against a perceived Tirgayan dominated regime. Desalegn said that he hoped his resignation will lead to reforms that will bring sustainable peace and democracy.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is a coalition of several ethnic and regional parties. Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) punches above its weight in the coalition that also has Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) which has been trying to be assertive within the coalition. The others are the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), and Amhara Democratic Party (ADP). Critics of government say northern Tigrayan minority, which makes up 6 percent of the population, dominate government. This is because they were the founders of EPRDF together with Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement in the late 80s. The others joined the movement later which then brought down Mengitsu Hailmariam’s Derg regime.

The normal political posturing came into play in EPRDF as Desalegn stayed on waiting for the party to elect his successor. One thing was clear; it was time for the populous Oromo who have played second fiddle to Amhara and Tigrya to take charge. The name that came up first was Lemma Magersa, an ethnic Oromo. When the state of emergency was declared in 2016 after mass protests, Magersa was then little-known speaker of the Oromia State Assembly. He was elected chairman of the regional branch of OPDP and president of the Oromia National Regional State. He came out strongly as an Oromo defender by first calling for Oromo Economic Revolution. His stand that the military stops interference in Oromo affairs was controversial though he tapered it with trying to calm down protests in his own backyard.

Then Ahmed Abiy’s name came up. Abiy, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother was born in 1976 in the Jimma region of western Ethiopia. He joined EPRDF’s forces as a teenager to fight Mengitsu’s Derg regime. He joined Ethiopian Army in 1993 and rose through the ranks as an intelligence officer. The Computer Science graduate continued with his education and holds a doctorate degree in conflict resolution. In 2010, he jumped from the defense forces into politics. Abiy had to learn the Tigrinya language because Tigrayans were the majority in the early EPRDF forces and later dominated security apparatus. This gave him an advantage in his military career. In October 2015 he was appointed Minister of Science and Technology, a post he held for one year. In October 2016 he became Deputy President of Oromia Region  under president Lemma Megersa.

Abiy’s biggest advantage over Magersa was that his boss in Oromia was not a member of parliament. Abiy was also popular among Oromia youth and dominant TPLF friendly. He was quickly elected OPDP president to prepare him for EPRDF’s 180 member executive committee meeting to elect new chairman in March 2018. He beat his rival Shiferaw Shigute of SEPDM by 108 votes to 59. Amhara’s ADP had pulled out its candidate in support of Abiy. There has been a breath of fresh air in Ethiopia since April 2018 when Abiy took over as Prime Minister.

Lessons for Kenya

The 2017 elections to me was a watershed in our elections history even bigger than 2008 Post Election Violence. The ODM youths and youthful MPs began calling for secession of NASA friendly counties into People’s Republic of Kenya. The party even activated the people’s Assembly clause in the constitution towards this end. The centre of this dissatisfaction was the realization that they can never ascend to power in Kenya through the ballot. The best option to them seemed to leave Jubilee rigging machine with their country to rig elections against itself. Surprisingly NASA leader Raila Odinga remained silent through it opting to be sworn in as people’s president.

The government’s decision to let NASA swear in Raila Odinga was more than a wise move. A showdown with NASA supporters could have taken a life of its own, and you never know. The handshake with Uhuru Kenyatta in March 2018 was a magical way to stem the crack in our national fabric. So far so good, but is good enough.

It is time we learned from Ethiopia and give the presidency to a Luo. If powerful forces in Kenya are bold enough then they can give Raila Odinga the top seat. If they are a bit apprehensive then a system friendly Raphael Tuju can be a good option. British statesman David Lloyd George said “Do not be afraid to take a big step if it is indicated you can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps”.

Marcus Garvey reminded black Americans to look unto Africa, an Emperor shall be crowned, and Haile Selasie became Ras Tafarai. I ask Kenyans to look unto Ethiopia, a Prime Minister has been installed