Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin was a veteran and longest-serving Foreign Minister of Ethiopia. Currently, he is Ethiopia’s Ambassador to China, where he has been serving as such for a few years now. Before that, Ambassador Seyoum was one of the seven founding fathers of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), and one of the four parties constituting the ruling front Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Although his diplomatic career has not yet come to an end, ambassador Seyoum has already started this week another by launching his independent think-tank called Institute for Advanced Research (IAR). Ambassador Seyoum is chairman of the board of trustees of the IAR where he is joined by his former colleagues, ambassador Tekeda Alemu (PhD), Ethiopia’s permanent representative to the UN, and another veteran diplomat, ambassador Teffera Shiawl in the management of the institute. IAR’s objective is the advancement of development, the deepening of democracy and contributing to the creation of an environment of peace and consolidation of security in the Horn region. All this will be achieved through the dissemination of knowledge and the analysis of situations and processes. According to the ambassador, the IAR is out to change the rule of the game in research and development in Ethiopia while beefing up the existing knowledge stock in Ethiopia. At the lauching ceremony that was held at the Golden Tulip Hotel, Ambassador Seyoum squeezed in Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter for a brief interview. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Your research institute is named the Institute for Advanced Research. Is there anything in the naming of the institute? What are you going for when you say “advanced research”?
Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin: By the way, the name of the institute is one of the things that we have debated about among ourselves. We come to understand that there are academic research institutes that are called by this name. We noted that these institutes conduct voluminous research work every year and since they are academic researches, most of these research outputs are destined for shelves until someone pick them up and uses them. We have asked ourselves if this was what we want to do. But, our decision was that we want our research outputs to reach stakeholders at the relevant time; we want to provoke dialogue and discussion through our research work. Apart from that, we want to come out of these dialogue sessions with the stakeholders with common understanding of the problem and concrete solutions. But we do not want to stop there. We want to engage the stakeholders on continuous process of follow-up regarding the implementations of the proposed and agreed upon solutions. We want to play our role in assisting stakeholders with regard to challenges that they might encounter during the implementation process. We want to do further analysis and research depending on the challenges that stakeholders are facing while implementing the proposed solutions. So, we want to go a step or two beyond formal academic research and be part of the solution. Hence, the board of trustees decided recently to change this name into Center for Dialogue, Research and Cooperation. However, this decision has led to another complication in finding out when the dialogue is conducted and when the research is done. Do we need to conduct the research before or after we have kicked off a formal dialogue with the stakeholder? We asked ourselves if we are going to do the kind of research where we will try to indentify the problem by ourselves and engage the stakeholder later. The answer was no. We said we need to consult the stakeholder before embarking upon the research process; we said we need to organize problem identification forums first and then run with ideas raised during the dialogue and do our research. So, we want to follow a holistic approach. We want to indentify the problem with stakeholders, that is those who are close to the matter. We want to beef that up with thorough research and investigation. Finally, we want to sit down with the same stakeholders and discuss the proposed solution and cooperate with them throughout the implementation phase.
But this involves a lot of work. How are you planning to manage resources wisely, be this human or financial?
We do understand that we cannot do this kind of work in-house. What we are relying on in this is a collective coordination forum where the problem would be indentified and the possible research directions are synthesized. We have to identify the comparative advantages of all the stakeholders: governments, businesses, other research institutions and the public. Going forward, we will be working on nurturing such platforms both domestically, in our region and abroad. With regard to human capacity, the center is planning to headhunt and work with a number of young researchers. There are a number of talented researchers who need to be supported and our center would provide these critical supports to tap into that capacity. We are trying to establish a working relationship with all higher learning institutions in the country and some from abroad. By the way, the center would have formal membership both on an individual basis and as an institution. Membership would entail a nominal fee but offers a huge opportunity to tap into the research potential of the center. We are planning to call upon all business entrepreneurs to join the center; we also call upon all institutes offering tertiary level education, both private and public, to be members. We also intend to call upon all governmental agencies, professional associations, artists and individuals to join hands with us. This diversified membership would get rid of any dependency on certain sections of the society. But, moreover, we want stakeholders to come to us and ask us to do research in certain areas; we would only require nominal fees since we would have a broad base of membership. We don’t want our research work to be dependent on finances; we do not want to do research which has a marginal impact on our country just because some groups have the means to pay for it. The center should contribute towards building local capacity and that is why we want to have a wide base of membership. So, basically, we are saying that we have to change the rule of the game for research and study in Ethiopia.
We have heard that the first test of this center was its involvement in conflict mediation process in South Sudan. What kind of work did the center do in South Sudan in the mediation process?
I must say that, via its involvement in the South Sudan peace mediation process, the center has gained quite a valuable experience. As you can image, the South Sudan mediation process is quite unique in the sense that the process has brought together all the direct and indirect stakeholders of the South Sudan Conflict under one umbrella. There were a lot of interest groups around the world with significant influence on the conflict on the ground. In fact, let alone the varied interest of the varied groups and countries in the world, even the Inter-Governmental Agency for Development (IGAD) regions was highly divided when it comes to the conflict in South Sudan. As you can remember, Uganda was part of the conflict, while other nations and groups in the region, driven by their own strategic interest, were advocating positions that would perpetuate the conflict in South Sudan. There were also forces that don’t want peace working from within the country. There was nothing that Ethiopia could have accomplished standing alone as a mediating nation. So, these forces inside South Sudan were benefiting from this divided position of the external stakeholders. They repeatedly went on what you call forum shopping: they went to Tanzania, Luanda, Cairo and many other places. They tried it all. So, what they had to do first was to engage IGAD nations and show them that the conflict in South Sudan would drag everybody in the region back into an endless conflict that can linger for decades to come. We have succeeded in showing this danger and IGAD once again managed to find its unity of purpose regarding the conflict in South Sudan. On the other hand, we have managed to bring to the table varied external interests which include China, Japan, Russia, EU, US, AU and many others. That was why we named the peace initiative the IGAD Plus process. This closed the door for any push for alternative forum shopping. And, it was then and there that the mediation process started to gather critical mass and have leverage on the conflicting parties in South Sudan. Partly, that is why we have managed to put a stop to such a devastating and deep-rooted conflict within 22 months. I tell you, nobody expected the conflict to be over within such a short period of time. Even the warring parties themselves have expressed this sentiment at times telling us not to rush them by citing the conflict with North Sudan and how it took 11 years to wind up. Although the implementation of the agreement is yet to come, we can more or less say that the conflict in South Sudan has ended. I think this experience would be valuable for conflict resolution anywhere and certainly it is a valuable experience for the center.
What would you say were the major lessons from the conflict and mediation process in South Sudan?
I think the conflict in South Sudan has taught us many lessons as to how to approach similar future conflicts in the region and the world at large. If we are ready to take lessons, there are a number of critical lesson that can be drawn from this conflict. The first thing is, as I have mentioned to you already, how the international community has managed to achieve unity of purpose and come together to find quick solution to the devastating conflict. Still, I cannot say that we are 100 percent out of the woods, especially when we see the issues with the implementation process. So, we can learn that the actual process of peace and institutional building is quite difficult; it is not as easy as striking an agreement on paper. The actual peace building process is quite different from peace negotiation; the latter is testing and time-consuming. Yes, we have agreed on paper that the whole peace building process would take an important step forward by establishing a transitional government by the end of the 30th month. But things are not quite easy. However, the important thing is that the warring parties in South Sudan have now started to enjoy their peace and they don’t want to go back to the conflict anymore. Now, the opposition group leaders are in Juba; this is a very important step for the peace building process. The international community still has some unfinished business with regard to helping the two sides walk through the implementation process. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons that we need to draw from this conflict is about possible conflict prevention. The fact of the matter is that none of the countries in the region and the global community were surprised to learn that conflict had broken out in South Sudan. I can fairly say that the situation was not a surprise; it was there for all of us to see that the conflict would break out at some point in time. Starting from the IGAD system, both the AU and UN have ample knowledge of the impending conflict in that country; all these organizations have early warning systems and it is fair to say that they had some form of prior knowledge that conflict is lurking around the corner. The UN peacekeeping force is already in Juba and they have notified the global body of the growing tension there. However, nobody did anything to prevent the conflict from happing. So, the global security architecture lacked the conflict prevention mechanism. Now, knowing full well that this conflict will happen at any time, and doing nothing to prevent the conflict, any effort to curb the conflict once it has started is considered to be a wild goose chase. As you know, the global community has spent millions to stop this conflict. And in my opinion, the kind of effort that is exerted towards the conflict would have taken us a long way with regard to preventing the conflict. Yes, the efforts have paid off in terms of putting an end to the conflict. But, we could have avoided loss of life of thousands of people and the dislocation of millions more. So, if we are to learn from this, we have to think about our approach towards potential conflicts. Conflict is not like a tsunami; it can be avoided. The global community could hold the potential conflicting parties accountable and advise them to avoid unnecessary escalations.
What about in the context of IGAD…?
The points that I raised above also apply to the IGAD group as a whole and the individual member states in particular. Nevertheless, this condition also brought to the fore disunity of purpose, in least at the initial stages, among the member states of the IGAD. It is fair to ask if this is a new phenomenon in the region, but I can say that this time around the condition was dire. The warring parties in South Sudan exploited this situation and tried to stall the mediation process. Above all, such a trend of disintegration would have taken a heavy toll on the region and the development agenda of the individual countries. On the positive side, the countries in IGAD region started to realize what was happening and that the chaos is to the detriment of the nations themselves. This led to quickly amending their ways and come to be unified under the same goal. The main point here is that today this is happening to South Sudan; tomorrow it could be any one of us in the region. Nobody is immune to this. So, I think, we need to learn from this situation.
Do you really think the warring parties in South Sudan are ready to fully implement the peace accord, especially with patches of conflict still raging in that country?
Yes. In the context of such a broad-based and devastating conflict, it does not necessarily mean that everything would automatically stop once the parties to this conflict manage to sign a peace deal. Just because a ceasefire deal is sealed, it does mean that everything would fall into place immediately. Take the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. It broke out in 1998 and ended in 2000. The two countries had signed a peace deal at the time; however, one can see how things are between the two nations today. One can see what Shabia is doing. Now, considering the peace agreement that the two countries signed, the expectation is for the two nations to cooperate as neighborly nations. Unfortunately, there is no semblance of a relationship between the two nations but provocations here and there. Now, mind you that, when we are talking about Ethiopia and Eritrea, we are talking about two national armies with military discipline and some level of order. However, when we refer to the South Sudan conflict, we are talking about disintegrated armed entities with minimal centralized command and military discipline. And under such conditions, such patches of conflicts are bound to happen here and there. But, this in no way can be construed to be an impediment to the peace building process. Actually, when you compare the intensity of the conflict last August and today, it would be quite clear that recent skirmishes are nothing but isolated incidents until the process started to take root. For instance, the three states in the Greater Upper Nile Region can be said to be enjoying relative peace. Yet again, even in that region, there are a few clashes here and there. But, these days, there isn’t a single conflict in the country that raged for more than an hour at a time. Perhaps, there could be incidents in new areas which have not been part of the conflict before, such as the Bahr el Ghazal and Equatoria regions involving independent militias in these areas and the government forces. These militia forces don’t answer to anybody and frequently they find themselves in conflict with government sources. These are just isolated skirmishes that could not be taken as stalling the peace process.
Recently, the Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, a body that is following up on the implementation of the peace agreement in South Sudan, has expressed concerns that conflict is still raging in certain patches of the country and the humanitarian crisis is getting out of hand. What is your take on that?
The observer and monitoring team is doing its level best to report on the progress of the implementation of the peace process on the ground. The team is reporting on the situation and on the activities of some elements that are stalling the process. Both the individual countries, the UN and the AU are scrutinizing the process very carefully. Currently, the recommendation about the necessity of taking measures on those who are stalling the peace process is surfacing. On the basis of principles, issuing stern warnings to detractors of the peace process could be possible; but we need to indentify which groups would be at the receiving end of these warnings. For one, most of these problems are created by the scattered militia forces in the peripheries of the country. However, we need to do everything in our power to prevent those major warring groups from engaging in another around of conflict. We need to work hard so that this could never happen. In fact, recent reports indicates that the head of the rebel forces, Dr. Riek Machar, has announced that he will be arriving in Juba in the coming days pursuant to the agreement and the peace building process. We believe that a favourable environment is being created in Juba to facilitate the arrival of the leader of the rebel forces. Juba has to be secure enough for both parties so that they can work towards peace building. So, we believe that the current government is responsible to make this happen until the transitional government becomes a reality.
With regard to regional security, a number of scholars allude to the fact that Ethiopia has no choice but to play the role of a regional hegemony in the Horn of Africa. Having led the peace negotiations in one of Ethiopia’s neighboring countries, do you agree with that assessment?
Look, you have to consider that these kind of propositions are forwarded by people in academia and scholarly circles. But, you also have to know that it is their prerogative to make such assertions since they have no obligation to actually scrutinize such assertions and see if they are tested on the ground. However, it is true that, Ethiopia is a credible country with credible people and state. So, it cannot say that its responsibility starts and ends with its own. That is why, currently, Ethiopia stands second with regard to its contribution to the UN peacekeeping mission in Africa. We are not doing this because we have strong armed forces. It is because we have responsibilities. Moreover, currently, Ethiopia has more at stake than before since our development endeavor is invariably connected to the peace and security of the country and its immediate neighbors. If our neighbors do not have peace we could not have peace and that means jeopardizing our development process. Yes, we do wish that our neighboring nations find peace and security; so we do what we can to make sure that happens. However, we also want the peace and security for our own selfish reason since our security depends on them having peace and security. So, in that regard, we do understand our responsibility. On the other hand, we do believe in the people-to-people relationship too. Unlike US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, we don’t believe that one can keep two peoples separate from one another by building walls or other barriers. Ethiopia does not believe in building an artificial wall between its own people and the people of its neighboring countries. So, as to the assertions you have made, I would say that we are already doing it (taking responsibility) extensively. On the other hand, with regard to hegemony, power-play and the like, we believe that it is a failed model through which even countries like the US have not managed to bring peace to the world. The story is the same with the Europeans and their NATO instrument; we can see what their hand work has created in Libya. We added to this what happened to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. All these problems were created because the western powers believed that they were the police men of the world and that they can bring democracy and freedom in other nations. So, to the case of Ethiopia, we have no dream of making this model work while the most powerful and affluent nations on the global scene had failed to do. Ethiopia is taking a different avenue; we are focusing on the cooperation angle both economically and politically.