'Everybody is hopeful,' says exiled Ethiopian rebel leader who returned after 11 years

After more than a decade, Ethiopia's top dissident and rebel army leader has finally returned home.

Berhanu Nega fled to U.S. in 2007 after release from prison, and founded rebel group Ginbot 7

Berhanu Nega celebrates at his parents' Addis Ababa home after his pardon and release from prison in 2007. (Anita Powell/Associated Press)
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The last time Berhanu Nega was in Ethiopia was 11 years ago, after spending nearly two years behind bars as a political prisoner. 

When he was arrested, Nega had just been elected mayor of Addis Adaba. But the government denied his party victory and imprisoned him before he could assume office. 

After his pardon from prison, Nega fled to the United States and helped found a movement called Ginbot 7. The armed group operated out of Eritrea and has since been accused by the Ethiopian authorities of small-scale terrorist plots.

Nega was sentenced to death in absentia in 2009 for allegedly plotting to kill government officials.

In 2015, Nega left his comfortable life as a popular university professor in the U.S. for Eritrea, and took over as the commander of the armed group.

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April, he introduced sweeping political reforms, released scores of imprisoned dissidents, and declared the state of war with Eritrea over. This week, the border between the two countries re-opened for the first time in two decades. ​

On Sunday, Nega returned home, where he was greeted by thousands of supporters.​

He spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Addis Adaba. Here is some of their conversation.

How did it feel to be back in your homeland, to be back in Ethiopia after all these years?

It feels good. This is an exciting time to be back. Everybody is hopeful about the future, despite that everybody knows that there are going to be a lot of challenges, with the assumption that we should be able to solve our problems through discussion and debate rather than through violence and brutality. 

Ethiopians rally in solidarity with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the capital city of Addis Ababa on June 23. (Mulugeta Ayene/Associated Press)

You were wanted on all kinds of charges that could have put you in prison, could have given you a death sentence. What risk do you take believing in this amnesty, believing in Prime Minister Abiy and his commitment to this change?

I think it's good to see this in two ways.

First, this change came after quite a bit of bloody civil disobedience over the last three years, which has made people in the country — even in the ruling party — realize that this cannot continue, this is not sustainable. If we go that route, the country's going to be in a very serious crisis, possibly a civil war. So we were at a precipice. So because of that, I don't expect any possible danger from the government.

I always preferred the peaceful way of dealing with issues — debates, discussions. But when someone is out to get you for what you speak — to kill you, brutalize you, to torture you — then people have no choice but to resist.- Berhanu Nega, returned Ethiopian opposition leader

On the other hand, change periods are always volatile. Danger could come from different places. But this is a risk that one has to take if your aim is to stabilize and chart a long-term future for the country.

You were committed, as the leader of Ginbot 7 — this rebel guerrilla organization — to destabilizing the government by "any means necessary" in order to put pressure on the government and international community to come to a negotiation. You were involved in a violent armed struggle to achieve your political aims. What has changed for you?

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, visits Mogadishu, Somali, on June 16. (Farah Abdi Warsameh/Associated Press)

It depends upon where you start the story.

You also realize that we were the products of the 2005 election. We have been peaceful. We have been committed to democracy and peaceful struggle from the get-go. We were never interested in violence.

It was when it became clear after the 2005 election, that the government realized they were going to lose, they brutally suppressed the results of that election. They killed hundreds of people, imprisoned over 50,000 people. Then we had no other option than by whatever means that we can.

But it has never been our preferred means of struggle. We never wanted [to be] a purely military rebel group. That's why when there is a clear indication that the change agents within the government were committed to democratization, once we were convinced that they were serious, it was a very easy thing to drop everything and join the political fray.

Berhanu Nega works on his computer in the kitchen of his house in Lewisburg, Pa., in 2009. (John Zeedick/Associated Press)

A personal question: when you launched Ginbot 7, you were in the United States, teaching at a very liberal university, Bucknell — teaching democratizing Africa, human rights — a very popular professor. At the same time, you had this double life. You turned to armed struggle to achieve your goals. How did you reconcile those two sides of yourself over all those years?

Anyone who understands carefully the teachings of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, when the option is between doing something and doing nothing, the choice has always been clear.

Rather than sitting and tolerating and accepting tyranny, you have to fight. This is a foundation of all western liberal democracies. It is not only a right, it is also a responsibility to fight with everything you have to get rid of tyranny.

You try with every means that you can to end this peacefully — but if, as is usually the case, these kinds of brutalizing regimes will never accept peaceful resistance, as we did in 2005, then what choice do you have? 

More than 10,000 supporters gather to listen to and celebrate Ethiopia's new prime minister on July 30 in Minneapolis. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via Associated Press)

At the same time, the United States was supporting the government that you were committed to overthrowing, or at least ending. ... President Obama went to visit, and declared it a democracy and a partner against terrorism.

That is the irony of our world, isn't it? There are countries that declare their value is democracy, human rights and what have you, and then they sleep with absolutely brutal regimes. 

For us, it was a bit of a disappointment to hear Obama come and declare that when he knows full well that that is not the case. It benefits the U.S. for national security interests, so the rest of the country, the rest of Ethiopia be damned.

That direction in western foreign policy is to a certain degree responsible for the cynicism against the democratic project, in general.

For me, it was always clear. I always preferred the peaceful way of dealing with issues — debates, discussions. But when someone is out to get you for what you speak — to kill you, brutalize you, to torture you — then people have no choice but to resist.

I cannot just teach that stuff in school. I have to be part of that movement.

I think we have a very good chance for the first time in our history to democratize this country. This is a very important, long-term project. We are fully committed to it.

We advocate for all of us to solve our political differences peacefully. And that is what we are going to be doing.

Written by Donya Ziaee and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Donya Ziaee. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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