The Interview: Amb. Teshome Toga- Navigating Ethiopia’s delicate ambition to demilitarize amidst “deliberate misunderstanding”, hoping to avoid a fourth DDR

Amb. Teshome Toga. Photo: ©Addis Standard

Ambassador Teshome Toga became a familiar face among Ethiopians when he served as the Speaker of the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HoPR) from 2005 to 2010. But before his position as the Speaker, he had served Ethiopia as the Minister of Youth between 2001 and 2005. His earlier positions include serving in different capacities as a member of Ethiopia’s diplomatic mission in different countries. Among others, he was the ambassador of Ethiopia to Ghana (1992–93), Egypt (1993-1996), Kenya and Tanzania (1996-2001). He became Ethiopia’s Ambassador in Belgium after leaving Parliament as the Speaker (2013-2019), and then moved to become Ethiopia’s Ambassador to People’s Republic of China, where he served for four years between 2019 and 2022.

Up on his return, Ambassador Teshome was appointed to become the Commissioner of then newly constituted National Rehabilitation Commission (NRC) of Ethiopia, a position he took up on 6 January 2023.

Last week, Ambassador Teshome met with Addis Standard’s Molla Mitiku to discuss a wide-range of topics related to the role of NRC in Ethiopia and beyond.


Addis Standard: There seems to be a big misunderstanding about the mandate and the role of NRC? Could you first provide me with the specific objectives of the NRC?

Ambassador Teshome: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to clarify on some of the confusions that arise regarding the mandate of the National Rehabilitation Commission (NRC). The NRC was established by Council of Ministers regulation at the end of 2022.  We would recall that we went through a very devastating war and conflict in the northern part of Ethiopia.  For us the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) that was signed between the government of Ethiopia and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is the basis for the establishment of the commission. One of the critical components of the CoHA is Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants. The council of ministers decided to establish the commission because the DDR is an urgent and of course critically important aspect of the CoHA and assigning this task to one existing institution may make it a bit difficult.

“……. the major task of the NRC is to really demobilize and reintegrate ex-combatants into the community, into a peaceful life and finally of course we want them to be productive…”

Ambassador Teshome Toga

Many countries that emerged out of conflict usually undertake the DDR program and they establish a commission or a government agency to implement the DDR of ex-combatants. So, the major task of the NRC is to really demobilize and reintegrate ex-combatants into the community, into a peaceful life and finally of course we want them to be productive. We are also tasked with making these forces to be forces of peace, development and democracy or they should be an integral part of the nation building process in this country.  So, these are actually the two critical mandates. Of course, in the process we will advise the government how to implement the DDR, we will develop a policy and strategy. Essentially that is the task we are given by the regulations that set up the commission.

AS: If so, what do you think is the source of these misunderstandings and misrepresentations of  the roles and mandates of the commission?

“… there are people who deliberately misquote us when we had this engagement with regional governments, with the media and that is I think part of the politicization of the efforts that we are trying to make….”

Ambassador Teshome Toga

Ambassador Teshome: One is the deliberate misunderstanding, I would say, and the other is the name itself. We are talking about rehabilitation and the rehabilitation is a very broad concept; but rehabilitation in this case particularly refers to ex-combatants. And then when we talk about rehabilitation, of course, people think of rehabilitation of affected areas, rehabilitation of social and economic infrastructure and so on. I think, the confusion and misunderstanding arise from this aspect or perspective. The second thing I think is there are people who deliberately misquote us when we had this engagement with regional governments, with media and that is I think part of the politicization of the efforts that we are trying to make. Sometimes we are quoted [on] what we didn’t say and that is the deliberate misunderstanding or deliberate misquotation.  Again, we didn’t create enough awareness, we just added an engagement with the regional governments because they are our key stakeholders, they are our key partners and we have done that. We have done that engagement with our partners but apart from that we have to really create awareness on the task of the commission not only to regional states but we need to work with media, we need to work with private sectors, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and other major stakeholders. I think that the remaining task on us may be that also could lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the task of the commission.  

Amb. Teshome Toga. Photo: ©Addis Standard

AS: In line with your roles since the establishment of the Commission, what did you execute until now?

Ambassador Teshome: So far, the first task we have undertaken is building a new institution.  Although we had two previous DDR programs in this country, as I said this is a sort of a project, it is a temporary task; once the task is accomplished then the commission or the agency will be dismantled.  So, the first task for us is, as this is a new commission, we have to build the institutional capacity of the commission which I think we are still working on. The first thing is of course to create an organization and structure [and] send to relevant government institutions for approval, which is approved already… the organizational structure of human resource needs and of course budget needs for the commission, as these are already in place. 

Once we have the organization and its structure the second step is mobilizing human resources and the staff. We started with the task force from several relevant institutions, partner institutions and we have been working with the task force; now we are in the process of mobilizing human resources for the commission. I think this is a very important first step and in that regard we have done pretty well in a very short period of time because my appointment was on 6 January 2023 and it is only since then tat we started moving into implementation of the mandate of the commission.  In fact, my two deputies were appointed at a later stage, then we had a task force from different ministers and they have been helping us to organize and build the capacity of the institution.

The second and most important task we have undertaken so far is what we called the development of demobilization and reintegration program framework.  We had    support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). They brought in an expert and senior advisor on DDR so we developed the program.  The program entailed essentially what kind of major activities will be undertaken by the commission and then when those activities will be implemented and what kind of resources are required, what kinds of risks are involved when that program has been developed; not only developing the program but also presented that program framework to our donors and we had a round table discussion, which went on very well. The third one is engaging with partners. We have been engaging with development partners in this country based here in Addis Abeba. Of course, I have also talked to other delegations that came from abroad who are interested in supporting Ethiopia to fully implement, to fully realize the CoHA. So, engagement with our partners, engagement with international organizations including the UN, EU and the AU commission etc was another major task that we have achieved so far.  The intention is to mobilize support, resources so that we did, I think again, in a very short period of time and  I would say that we had done a good exercise.

“…..the consultation helped the regional states to create awareness of what it meant by DDR and then at the same time it also helped them to understand the mandate, the duties and tasks entrusted to the commission…”

Ambassador Teshome Toga

The fourth important activity that we have conducted so far is consulting the regional states.  Although the commission was born out of the CoHA,  we have other ex-combatants in other parts of the country. We have those who have taken up arms against regional governments like [the] Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement, and , Gambella Liberation Front etc; these are all fighters but who have entered to an agreement with regional governments, disarmed themselves voluntarily after the peace deal and they are now considered as ex-combatants.  So, having an understanding on the DDR program with the regions was critically important.  So far,  we have conducted consultations in  Mekelle, Bahir Dar, Semera,  Oromia, here in Addis Abeba with the leadership of the Oromia national regional state;  we were also in Assosa and the last round of discussion was held in Hawassa, where we brought three regions: Gambella, South West and South Nations and Nationalities States.  

Two things:  first of all the consultations helped the regional states to understand what [we] meant by DDR, and then at the same time it also helped them to understand the mandate, the duties and tasks entrusted to the commission. They benefited a lot from that engagement but we also benefited a lot because initially our understanding of the situation regarding ex-combatants in regions was not that big, so the engagement also gave us first hand information as to what kind of situation exists in each of the regional states. 

The outcome of the consultation is of course that there are things that we clear further, make clarification. We also need very accurate data on how many ex-combatants we are talking about in each of the regions and then of course we need dis-aggregating the data because each intervention requires dis-aggregated data. I am talking about age, gender, disability and so on. We haven’t precisely collected the data that we require for next course of action, but we have raised this and we explained to them the importance of such a data, for our next course of action. But we have a rough estimate on how many ex-combatants we are talking about entirely in the country and then in each of the regions.  We have working figures, it is not a final one and we will only know the final accurate number once we do the registration and verification.

So these are the four major activities we have undertaken as I said not with full staff, not with a fully equipped institution but with the task force that we have established and organized the commission. Generally speaking, I think the effort we have made helps enable the commission to keep its start with its mere core mandates which is demobilization and reintegration. You would recall that disarmament is not the task of the commission. Disarmament is the job of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), which they are doing but we cooperate with them to make sure that the disarmament is completed. That is why we have been actually going around and making sure that the preconditions for demobilization and reintegration are matured in each of the regions that we are working with.

“DDR does not only include the ex-combatants as there are people like drivers, medical personnel, security personnel, providing them protection, providing them other support and their families and this is again a question that requires a policy decision”

Ambassador Teshome Toga

AS: So, what is the estimated figure you are currently working with?

Ambassador Teshome: To be frank with you, we need further verification on the numbers. Numbers are very important that is why we need accurate data even to present it to our donors and partners but for us as a commission we need exact data. The exact data could only come when there is registration because we are talking about disarmed ex-combatants so there is a way of verifying that we will work with regions, with ENDF, with the police and other institutions working on disarmament because that is the starting point.  But we have a working figure when we developed the program,  we used an estimated 250, 000 ex-combatants.  This is the figure that the defense forces have from an operational perspective not from overall demobilization perspective. The defense forces have their own way of viewing ex-combatants using what they call operational mechanisms. For us and even other international standards of DDR, DDR does not only include the ex-combatants as there are people like drivers, medical personnel, security personnel, providing them protection, providing them other support and their families and this is again a question that requires a policy decision.  But for now we needed a working figure and we are now working with the mentioned number; but there are those who say the number could even go up to 300,000. We just hope and pray that the negotiation between the government and [Oromo Liberation Front – OLA] could result in a positive ending and in that case the number could even go up.

AS: Historically, Ethiopia has so far implemented three DDR programs. After the 1991 regime change, in the post Ethio-Eritrean war, which ended in the year 2000, and to a certain extent, former OLF combatants following the 2018 changes in Ethiopia. However, one can safely say they all had shortcomings, especially in the effective reintegration aspects of the DDR. What is different for the one under your leadership?

“…we just hope that we don’t need the 4th DDR program in this country and that can only be done if we pursue all our ambitions, all our political agendas, all our political questions through peaceful means through civilized democratic means…”

Ambassador Teshome Toga

Ambassador Teshome: One of the DDR programs you mentioned the country implemented was financed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) but it was just a small quantity.  I think just thousands; I don’t even think ten thousands so it is not really considered as a very big program as we used to have in 1991 to 1995 and in 2000 to 2005. These were the two major DDR programs that the country had. We also refer to other DDR programs among which the one in Nepal, Colombia, Sudan, Afghanistan,  South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. We also look into our own DDR programs. All DDR programs have their own shortcomings.  But the commitment of the commission right now is to make the DDR program a successful one and we continue to pursue that; we just hope that we don’t need the 4th DDR program in this country, and that can only be done if we pursue all our ambitions, all our political agendas, all our political question through peaceful means through civilized democratic means. 

By the way there are debates in this country as to whether the two previous DDR programs were a successful story or a failure. There are those who say they were successful and others say they were not. Now, for me the lessons are very important and the critical and important element in all these is what I call the political and security environment. The political and security environment needs to be correct. What I mean by that is for instance the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF signed an agreement that is a very important political document.  So implementing the agreement in full is very important for us and that provides the necessary environment for us; security is also very important.

Amb. Teshome Toga. Photo: ©Addis Standard

As far as I know, and I follow very closely, the implementation of the peace process ‘is] going well.  There are delays here and there but so far we are on the right track and I am happy about that. Most importantly there is a very strong commitment on both sides to fully realize the CoHA and work is being done and this is work in progress, that is number one. And in that regard, I do not see any threat and I hope that with the confidence that is being built every day and it will be successful politically.

Secondly, involvement of all stakeholders is very critical; without stakeholders’ involvement DDR cannot be successful. [First] the government is the owner of the program. Second, you need the private sector to participate, the media to participate and the CSO to participate. Finally, of course our partners should also participate because the bulk of the resources are expected to come out of donors, private sector and CSOs; technical support is also expected from them. There are so many technical things we need to do. IT based technical work for instance, providing IDs that cannot be duplicated or copied, providing registration with all social and economic variables of the ex-combatants. All these are very important, and that is why we are working with our partners.

So, participation of all stakeholders including the leadership of the government, there is now an institution on behalf of the government, the private sector, the donor community, the CSOs and the media including you is critically important. I know with social media we are all struggling to get it right, but I think for all operators in the social as well as the mainstream media it is very important to promote peace and stability in this country.

The third and crucial element for a successful DDR is resource. DDR requires huge resources and unless we get the resource on time, in fact in time, this will be a very serious limitation in the implementation of the DDR program. Once we have those and once we also draw an appropriate lesson from the previous shortcomings, from the previous failures, we hope we will be able to do a successful DDR program in this country not that we are building something for the 4th but I just believe and hope that it will be a lesson for others. 

Ethiopia doesn’t deserve, doesn’t need a 4th DDR, I think, once we have done this completely.  I hope, believe and pray that we will resort to a different mode of a peaceful struggle, democratic struggle, legal struggle and based on dialogue, based on discussions, based on give and take and those are I think the lessons that we want to opt from the previous two DDR programs and from DDR programs elsewhere [is to] make sure that the program that we have now at the end of the day will be fruitful.

AS: One of the challenges Ethiopia continues facing in the post-2018 change is the massive level of privatization of violence, which has seen a significant rise in private citizens possessing arms. Do you see this as a challenge to the uniqueness of the DDR under your leadership that you described?

“The best strategy for Ethiopia is really to revert to a peaceful and democratic dialogue centered approach to resolve all our problems”

Ambassador Teshome Toga

Ambassador Teshome: Violence is all in all the challenge not only to DDR but it is a challenge to social and economic development or nation building programs. All sources of development, democratic and peaceful exercise undertaken after the change of the government actually requires a stable, peaceful environment.  But again with the violence experience we have several other initiatives in the country; the national dialogue and transitional justice and of course efforts that we are making to get out of the post conflict challenges that we are facing. So, that is what I actually refer to as the political and security environment, which is a necessary precondition for any endeavor we undertake in this country.  Well, whether violence is a civilized way of doing things, I think we need to pause and reconsider that violence has never resulted I think in anything. 

The best strategy for Ethiopia is really to revert to a peaceful and democratic dialogue centered approach to resolve all our problems. If there is one lesson that we should draw from the last two years of conflict, it is that nobody is benefited.  I think the government, other parts involved in the war and the people of Ethiopia were not benefited.  So let’s avoid, let’s shy away from  violence and that is my message. Let’s really  avoid violence. Now we have post conflict recovery programs and let’s support those programs actually. Then we have regular programs, economic reform programs, democratization programs in this country, dialogue and other major national activities. Let’s support it.  Whenever there is a limitation, let’s try to fill the limitations.  Let’s try to work to fill the gaps and that is I think the best way for us to move forward. We have to be responsible, we have duty for our country and I think that is the best way or approach in avoiding violence and resorting to a peaceful course of action.

AS: The recent public debates and discussions are centered on the disarmament and demobilization of Tigrayan combatants after the CoHA was signed in Pretoria. Can you tell us the coordination level between the Commission and the Tigray interim administration towards achieving the DDR goal stated in the agreement?

Ambassador Teshome: I have visited Mekelle two times and the first one of course is like any other region.  We went there to create awareness on what DDR is and the commission’s mandate. To that end, I think we had a very good discussion. Of course in Mekelle, it was not only officials from Tigray, but we have invited officials from other regions and from the federal institutions. I went back to Mekelle with my team and we also had a very good discussion. This is after the establishment of the interim regional administration. As I said earlier, it should be very clear to everyone that disarmament is not the job of the NRC but it is a precondition for us to undertake our work. In that regard, we went to Mekelle and had a discussion with the president, and the vice president as to where we are in terms of disarmament. One of my deputies came from the military background so we had a very good discussion there. That process is being followed by the ENDF and regular exchanges of information.

Secondly, the regional interim administration is our partner in Tigray and we are trying to open a branch office there. There is a provision in our regulation that if it is necessary we can establish a branch office so that is what we are also planning to do. But to answer your question we have a cooperation, we have regular communication, we have regular engagement so that they make the environment conducive for us and the first thing is ensuring that disarmament is completed and the second is we will start demobilization in order for us to start demobilization we need registration, we need orientation, we need verification, we need so many other technical things.    

We are sending a team next week to Mekelle so that we can work on preparatory work. We make sure that we will be able to start demobilization and the first thing we want to make sure is that disarmament is completed and we will have of course verification from the defense and then that will pave the way for our next course of action, which is demobilization and to that effect we are working with the interim administration and we will also establish a branch office in Mekelle that will be another partner institution which is working with the commission.

AS: It is clear that the DDR processes in Tigray has a framework provided in the peace agreement signed both in Pretoria and Nairobi. What is the framework in doing similar works in other regional states, such as in Oromia, Benishangul Gumuz and Gambella regions?

Ambassador Teshome: The framework was very simple. The framework is with the mandate actually that is given to the NRC. You are right the starting point for the NRC was the CoHA, but when the establishing regulation went to the council of ministers, the council of ministers took the decision that the NRC should have a national scope – meaning it should include as you said, the armed group in other regions who have given up armed struggle and then resort to a peaceful struggle. So, there is a deal already in Benishangul Gumuz, there is also a deal in Gambella, and we have quite good number of ex-combatants from “Shene” who gave up armed struggle and opted for a peaceful struggle so the framework for us is the regulation that established the commission and I think it was a very wise decision of the council of ministers to give the commission a national scope and that is the framework we are doing on.

AS: In the National Demobilization and Reintegration Program (NDRP) for ex- combatants that the commission developed, you envision effective DDR for 250,000 ex-combatants. Where do you plan to secure financing for such an ambitious plan?

Ambassador Teshome: Well that is a good question.  This is a million dollar question as well. As I indicated earlier the DDR program can be effectively successful if we have the necessary resources. I think we need huge resources for what we are talking about.  In this regard, the DDR program is financed partly by the government and mainly by the contribution of our partners. [Ethiopia’s] second DDR program was financed by the World Bank (WB) and we hope the WB and other partner institutions would support us this time too.

Obviously the government has the responsibility; the government is making a contribution by running an institution, by making some contribution to the programs that we are working on. So, those are the partners who are interested in peaceful, stable Ethiopia, prosperous Ethiopia because they have stakes in Ethiopia, and because we as Ethiopians have also stake in stable Ethiopia. That is why I said that if we all hope and expect to have a successful DDR then we all should make a fair contribution. I expect and believe that our donors will support the program; I expect the private sector should contribute to the program and I hope that CSOs should also contribute to our program. But the government has also a responsibility, one is on programmatic and the other is institutional support. 

So that is the source of support we are expecting. In fact I have been talking to the AUC because we have been emphasizing African solutions for African problems. And I think they did a good job in peace agreement but achieving CoHA is the one step, the right step in the right direction, but then making sure that the CoHA is fully realized is the major one and to that effect I talked to the chairperson of the AUC and the commissioner of political affair,  peace and security and they ensured to contribute to the implementation of the  peace agreement…and to contribute in other ways by mobilizing resources from financial institutions, member states, African private sectors. That is generally where we expect the finance for DDR to come from. 

AS: What major challenges do you expect to face in effectively executing the National Demobilization and Reintegration Program (NDRP)?

Ambassador Teshome: We have taken this responsibility with commitment, with strong commitment, with the significance and importance it has for our country. I think, from what I have said earlier,  I have no serious worry about the political commitment and the security environment and the support from the regional states is very reassuring;  to be honest they want us to start the job tomorrow. But I think [we also have] some major challenges: one is the institutional capacity, which we are building because we need to do that. Secondly, the participation of all stakeholders in a timely fashion, and the third and the critical one is the finance.  If we do not have finance, there is no DDR. So finance is very critical.  Those are the challenges, but again I hope with the commitment of the government, the leadership of the government that all those challenges will be solved with the participation of stakeholders. Those challenges can be overcome, they can be met and we will achieve what we intend to achieve for Ethiopia.

“we want [Ethiopians] to support the demobilization and reintegration program because the ex-combatants will go back  to the community and we are planning to reintegrate them into the community…”

Ambassador Teshome Toga

AS: Finally, what do you expect Ethiopians to do towards its realization?

Ambassador Teshome: In a very narrow sense, we want them to support the demobilization and reintegration program because the ex-combatants will go back  to the community and we are planning to  reintegrate them into the community. So,  I want to call Ethiopians to welcome their sons and daughters accepting that whatever you know from their struggle they have improved themselves. I think that is very important because an embracing and welcoming community is very important. For ex-combatants themselves, I would again urge them that they should really condemn violence and they should really resort to peace and dialogue as a way of presuming their political agenda. This becomes very critical whatever cause we might have because the two year war didn’t solve our problem, our political differences. We finally went to a round table. We could have done that before the war… I appeal to Ethiopians because ex-combatants are families, they are friends, they are communities, so we need to encourage all of them to be citizens working for peace, working for democracy, working for prosperous Ethiopia is important.

Finally, of course, for us after two years of conflict, as well as the challenges the country went through, the recovery and the rehabilitation program is very important. Ethiopians who have the means should come forward. I was saying that we are actually asking our partners to support as [but] charity begins at home; we should start with ourselves. I also appeal to the private sector to really come forward and support, it could be in training, it could be in job creation, it could be financing; we have to shoulder that responsibility upon ourselves and that is I think the right way. When you help yourself then others will help you; we should not rely on our partners only. We are grateful to our partners because we have to come together, we have interest in each other and that is what the international relation is all about, but on the other hand I think we as Ethiopians should come forward in implementing the CoHA;… we need to move forward and that should be what I think all of us aspire to do as Ethiopians. AS

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