September 1997. I was in Bichena, the stronghold of the hero Belay Zeleke. My plan was to reach at Addis Ababa University (AAU) for registration as final year undergraduate student. Unfortunately, the scheduled bus failed to appear. Everyday around 6pm, we passengers were supposed to get registered afresh, hoping the bus could come the next day. We did registration six times, that is for six days. My money generously given by my relatives run real fast and I was in shock. But most worrisome was whether I could reach for the registration at AAU. Every passing day seriously touched my nerves. That time, no mobile, no Internet. Was real dark time.
As no useful information was released concerning the status of the bus, I had to take a desperate measure- to leave for Addis using an old-model Isuzu carrying Teff. Through transport agents, I managed to secure a place for a price double the price of the bus. Although the amount really hit my head, I have had no option as I had to get registered at AAU the next morning.
The truck left Bichena in good time- around 11am local time. I was sure I would make it to Addis at night. That did not materialize however. The driver stopped at Dejen and told me to have fun around for some time. I could not believe what he said. I asked him when we were supposed to keep going. His answer was beyond imagination: that we would leave Dejen around 6pm. That effectively reduced my probability of reaching Addis as thought. To cope up with the immense stress, I had to reconfigure my mind and I even started to think what would happen if I missed the deadline. After some painful time, I decisively started to recollect myself. I took it that I could reach at Addis the next day in good time, putting at constant the technical realms of the truck, and registration was highly likely. I even thought that it should not wreck my mind that much even if I had to miss the deadline.
Six pm. The driver was nowhere to be seen. After half an hour, the assistant emerged from a cage-like kiosk nearby, regurgitating Chat like a well-fed camel. He had a soft plastic bag full of Chat and two bottles of Coca Cola. Though I was sad and angry at what they were doing (I mean in relation to the time), I tended to be relaxed and gently asked when we were supposed to cross the desert, Abay. He out of sheer confidence explained that they were taking time for good reason- Abay could turn cooler at night. It was just 7pm when the driver came. He was also full of life, voraciously chewing Chat and sipping Coca. He ignited the engine quickly and turned his nose- his truck- down to the great desert. I was that moment exhilarated.
Because of the long day I have had, I just felt asleep after nearly an hour drive. What awoke me from my sleep was the argument between the driver and his assistant. Both looked so fresh and energetic and were talking about Professor Asrat Woldeyes. Their line of argument was clear, consistent, emotional, and appealing.
The driver proudly explained how and why the good professor founded the All Amhara People’s Organization (AAPO). Accordingly, Professor Asrat did not believe in creating an organization dedicated to serving a particular ethnic group. The driver kept talking: “you know what? The government (EPRDF) claimed to stand for the rights of all nationalities at the expense of we the Amharas. Amharas are being fired from government positions for no objective cause. Amharas living in Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the country are under persecution. Several are dead. No one stood in defense of us. We could not defend ourselves because the government confiscated our weapons. … It is only Asrat who risked his life only to save us. He created this organization; we have to be members…” .
I could not believe how persuasive and grounded the argument was. I heard a lot about Asrat before from news and occasional talks by people. I was puzzled by how relevant, significant, and acceptable to forge the first ethnic-based political party since EPRDF assumed leadership. Although I perfectly recalled all the bluffing and idiocy involved in relation to the Amharas (they were provided by the regime as scapegoats for all the ills and evils the country was suffering from), I tried to challenge the driver. I argued that it was better for Professor Asrat to form a national political party that could be tasked with protecting the rights of every ethnic group. Forming an Amhara-only party did not go along with the professor’s overall integrity and strong national identity, I added. It was a way of playing within and acknowledging the narrow ethnic-oriented ideological frame provided by the EPRDF, I claimed.
The assistant driver intervened and claimed that from the beginning, the professor should not have started politics as it was not within his expertise. Professor Asrat is a “miraculous man who heals patients not by medicines alone but by just his hands. Upon seeing and talking to him, patients got cured. This is his gift from God and he should have protected and used it rather than playing dirty politics with people of different caliber. Now, he could not help himself let alone the Amharas. I really am sorry to see him suffering as if he did something terrible to the country he loved. He devoted his entire time, resources, and expertise only to see Ethiopians to progress…”.
That was just a snapshot of the discussions we have had on our way to Addis. We the three held three different lines of arguments. We ‘fought’ for our own respective ones until the driver reportedly saw a person quickly crossing the road under his nose. He stopped the truck forcefully and gazed outside as if he was looking for something. After a long silence, the assistant recommended that we had to get outside to have fresh air. After some break, the long travel begun again and we reached at Ihil Berenda at 5am and slept in the car for an hour.
At 6am, I took a taxi to Sidist Killo and managed to be the first person to get registered for the last year of my studies. Registration was over but the talk we made about Professor Asrat and AAPO never settled down for years, even until now. Now, I at least got the courage and the opportunity to surface it again.
My analysis would evolve around the following questions: Was Professor Asrat wrong in taking that trajectory of forming an ethnic-based political party? Is the current opposition political fabric in Ethiopia any different from Asrat’s model? What are the potential advantages and shortcomings of ethnic-based politics when it comes to ensuring democratic governance in Ethiopia? These topics are treated under "Ethnic-based politics in Ethiopia".