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Horn of Africa: Interview with Kassahun Checole
September 18, 2019 (2019-09-18)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
For over 36 years, Kassahun Checole has shepherded hundreds of
manuscripts into publication through his twin publishing houses
Africa World Press and Red Sea Press. He is widely respected among
scholars and activists in Africa and around the world as one of the
giants of African and African American publishing. Yet his own keen
insights on Africa´s past and present, particularly on Eritrea and
Ethiopia, are hardly to be found in print or on-line.
It is with great pleasure, therefore, that AfricaFocus presents
this transcript from a recent detailed interview with Kassahun
Checole by Walter Turner, on KPFA´s Africa Today program for July
While the interview sketches in Checole´s personal history and
touches on the issues of the diaspora from the region, the emphasis
is on Ethiopia and Eritrea. It provides an exceptionally clear
exposition of the history of recent decades, leading up to the new
hopes for the region after the inauguration of Abiy Ahmed as prime
minister of Ethiopia in April 2018. As those who know him would
expect, the interview provides nuanced judgments based on wide-
ranging contacts in the Horn of Africa region and with the
For a catalog of books published and distributed by Africa World
Press and Red Sea Press, visit
In September 1994, Checole´s early career was featured in the New York Times,
under the title, “A Boy's Dream of Great Things Leads to a
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia and Eritrea, visit
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Interview with Kassahun Checole by Walter Turner
July 22, 2019
Full audio available at
Fantastic Transcripts. Slightly edited for clarity and length
Walter Turner: You’re tuned into radio stations KPFA 94.1, KPFB
89.3, coming from the city Berkeley, KFCF 88.1 from the city of
Fresno, and K248BR coming from the city of Santa Cruz, online all
the time at http://www.kpfa.org.
In the background, sounds of music from Ethiopia, jazz between the
years 1969 and 1974, Ethiopiques.
Today, we’re going to speak with Kassahun Checole, publisher
extraordinaire of Red Sea Press, Africa World Press. He’s going to
be talking to us about developments in the Horn of Africa.
The country of Ethiopia is located in northeast Africa, has a
population of more than 100 million, bordered by the countries of
Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Sudan. The
settled history of Ethiopia dates back beyond the ancient empire of
Aksum. Within the borders of Ethiopia, there are probably about
80-plus different linguistic groups. The contemporary history of
Ethiopia has been marked by invasions by Italy in the late 19th,
early 20th century, the leadership of Haile Selassie, the competing
interests of major powers for the strategic Horn of Africa, the
rule of the Derg throughout the 1980s, and the attempt at what many
characterize as ethno-federalism through the EPRDF, the Ethiopian
People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.
In 2018, after ongoing protests in the Oromo region, prime minister
Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down from office. This led to the
ascension of Dr. Abiy Ahmed as the prime minister. The political
agenda of Abiy Ahmed has led to forward steps to repair tattered
relations with Eritrea, releasing of political prisoners, and
reconfiguring longstanding roles in power based on ethnicity.
We are joined today on the phone by Kassahun Checole to discuss
Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Horn of Africa. He is the president and
publisher of Africa World Press and the Red Sea Press. He hails
from the country of Eritrea in East Africa. He founded these
publishing houses in the mid-1980s. He began with a title by the
great Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which was entitled The
Barrel of a Pen. He has taught at SUNY Binghamton. He has also
taught at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. He has been
exclusively over the last decade or so working with Africa World
Press and Red Sea Press, putting out an impressive catalog of more
than a hundred titles per year, covering just about everything you
want to cover, some emphasis certainly on the African continent,
but certainly throughout the African diaspora, and working with
luminary presses such as Black Classic Press and Third World Press.
Kassahun, thanks for joining Africa Today.
Kassahun Checole: It’s my pleasure, Walter.
Turner: Good. Why did you enter into the field of publishing and
Checole: Well, coming out of an academic background, I saw the
dearth of material on African and African American history. The
books that I used to use in my classes were going out of print as
fast as I can use them. So I decided that what we need is a
publishing house, and I didn’t see significantly a strong academic
publishing house. That’s where my interest was. Therefore, I
launched into publishing. That is after having come off five
years’ experience in Mexico and having seen the validity of their
own publishing and writing history – in other words, they were
writing and publishing their own history on their own. That makes
a difference. And I thought we needed – Africans and African
Americans need press publishing houses.
Turner: The publishing house we, to some degree, know about,
certainly. But there’s also a big part of your work which is
distribution. How crucial is the control or the narrative around
distribution toward your ultimate goals in terms of informing
African communities worldwide?
Checole: OK. Well, Walter, I came into distribution from a
necessity that was driven by the fact that when I started
publishing in 1983, I couldn’t find anyone who would carry my
books. The traditional distributors in the United States were
sympathetic, but they were not willing to carry black books in a
significant way or promote them in a significant way. I was being
told again and again that it’s good to publish black books, but
there’s no buyers. So I had to disprove that notion. And in 1985,
I began distributing not only my own books, but the books by other
black publishers in the United States and around the world.
Turner: How many books are you putting out per year at this point,
Kassahun, on average over your last – well, now it’s been more than
– you’re 25-plus years into this, right?
Checole: Not 25 – it’s been exactly 36 years now.
Turner: 36 years, OK.
Checole: Yes. And we are putting out – it fluctuates from
anything from 60 to a hundred books a year, depending upon how our
pocketbook looks like, which is not always in a positive sign. So
we’re doing quite a large number of books, but trying to slow down
and do more specialized books as well.
Turner: You’ve got some fantastic titles there. You’re doing the
thing from Black Classic Press, and when you look through your
pages, you see the titles by John Henrik Clarke and Asa Hilliard.
Is the interest increasing in what you’re doing and the type of
books that you’re putting out focusing on Africa?
Checole: Well, the numbers have actually decreased, but the
quality of readers has gone up. More and more readers are
interested in specific areas, particularly on the question of
politics, religion, history. This has been the strong point. We
are lucky we are working with sister companies, like Black Classic
Press and Third World Press, and other Black publishers who are
doing fantastic work in this area. So we bring them together along
with our own titles, and we see that we still, by and large, have
strong interest in reading. But the buying power has shifted a bit
because of the digital intervention. It’s a digital era, and
people have access to websites and they have access to the
internet, and some people do not want to go deeper, as they should.
The items that they find on Wikipedia and others like that think
they know enough. But as I said, the quality of readership is
Turner: You’re originally from the country of Eritrea in the Horn
of Africa. People look at a map there – that piece that you see of
Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia there that borders the Red Sea. Is
there something about your experiences growing up, your family,
your experience during the political changes and evolution of
Eritrea that has motivated you in the directions that you work in,
Checole: Well, I’m fortunate that I came from a family and from a
country that is literate, that has been in the industry of writing
and publishing for ages, before even the Western world entered the
writing and literary figures. So I was influenced as I grew up by
my access to church literature and other historical materials
written in my language and that of Ethiopia’s Amharic language.
Eventually, I also began to read materials in Italian and English
and a little bit of Arabic. So that background helped. When I
came to the United States in 1971, my interest in reading and
learning history increased significantly. I specialized in African
American history in undergraduate studies. That also really
increased the emphasis on my reading and love of literature.
Turner: In regards to the history of the region, do a couple of
things here for us, Kassahun. One, just give us a sketch so that
listeners know the depth of the historical background, the region
that we’re talking about. And secondly, the importance and how it
plays out – the fact that Ethiopia was a country that was never
colonized by Europeans. Talk about that region, Ethiopia, Eritrea,
as well as the roots of history, the roots of early human
Checole: OK, let’s do three things. One is to say that the region
as a whole is the center of civilizations, from Meroë to Nubia to
Aksum to Egypt, and that is a significant part of the human
civilization that started and developed in the region. That is
one. And that historical fact most people don’t know.
The second is the area is the origin of both of the major Abrahamic
religions – the three major Abrahamic religions – Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam. Most people don’t even know this, but
that region played a significant role in advancing our modern
Abrahamic religions as we know them. We still practice those three
religions in the area. That is a significant one.
The third part is that this civilizational development in that area
has grown up with a historical parallel, which is the people of the
area were tenacious. They fought against all sorts of invaders.
In the Sudan, for example, we see the incredible struggle against
the Anglo-Egyptian empire, against the Turks, against, later on,
British imperialism, what have you. You can see the same thing
happening in Ethiopia and in Eritrea and Somalia.
So Ethiopia emerged as an independent nation throughout these years
except for five years of occupation. This was the fact that it was
protected from the interior by the existence of Eritrea as a sea
border society. So all outside interventions, actually, came
through Eritrea. The Turks, Egyptians, the Italians, the English
were able to penetrate east African region, as we know it, and into
Ethiopia through Eritrea. So Eritrea was both a victim of this
geographical existence, but also a very tenacious fighter against
all these invaders. Until 1935, Ethiopia was not penetrated. When
it does at Battle of Adwa in the late 19th century, it fought back
heroically and defeated the Italians in the Adwa battle. That is a
pan-African struggle that should be memorable for everyone to know.
Turner: How do we distinguish for listeners here as we go forward
and work our way towards contemporary developments – a couple of
other things to put out there. One, the legacy of Haile Selassie,
Emperor Haile Selassie. Secondly, for listeners, distinguish
between in some role of ethnicity or peculiarities the countries of
Ethiopia and Eritrea.
africa.html. For a map also showing the independent but internationally not recognized Somaliland (to the east of Djibouti), click here.
Checole: OK. Well, both Ethiopia and Eritrea, you could say, are
a mosaic of peoples. We have in Ethiopia in particular hundreds of
ethnic compositions from all sorts of parts of Africa. It’s a very
difficult to now explain in a short manner the various migrations
inward and outward towards east Africa from as far away as southern
Africa, west Africa, and through the Sudanic belt movements to the
Bantu movements. There is huge amount of intervention of peoples
and cultures and languages to that area. So we call both Ethiopia
and Eritrea the mosaic of peoples. Any color, any language, any
culture that you can think of in Africa, you can find in this area.
So it is particularly important.
The second item is the external interventions, as I said, from the
Turks, the Anglo-Egyptian empire, the Italians, and recent times,
the American empire has played a significant role in the present
politics of both conflict and the struggle to resolve them.
Turner: And the leadership of Haile Selassie – the legacy of it
all the way up, I guess, to 1974.
Checole: Yeah. Well, Haile Selassie was, to start with, part of
what is called the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia. He ruled because
he led a group of monarchical elements in the society that wanted
to advance their interests. He was a feudal ruler, by and large.
He really lived and existed as such. And people were highly
oppressed, particularly the peasant society of Ethiopia.
But if you look at him for what he’s worth, he was a progressive
element for his time. He played a significant role in bringing
about modern education, modern technology, some form of legal
reformations in the society. But still, he remained a very
oppressive ruler. So there was a coup d’état – a revolution
against him led by movements from the north, mainly from Eritrea,
which wanted to get rid of the occupation of the Ethiopian
government, and Tigray, which was one of the most oppressed
societies in Ethiopia. Those groups of people led a very strong
revolution that lasted from 13 to 17 years in the Tigray case and
won the final success in 1991. So it is very, very critical to
think about Haile Selassie in both positive ways and also in his
character as a feudal ruler.
Turner: As we talk – we’re speaking with Kassahun Checole. He is
the CEO of Africa World Press and Red Sea Press. We’re talking
about the Horn of Africa, working our way to a discussion about the
most contemporary developments. There’s a couple phases that we’re
walking through, and one, of course, is the phase of the Derg. The
other is the phase, of course, of the most recent period, where
we’ve had the leadership of Meles Zenawi, during the phase, of
course, of the independence of Eritrea in 1991 and the declaration
of Eritrea as a state, and then the most contemporary development.
You can walk back on any of those, if you’d like to, Kassahun.
This notion of what we see in the EPRDF, how do you characterize
that? I see the word ethno-federalism. How do you characterize
that, why did it come together, and what were some of the
challenges inherent in that degree of union?
Checole: Yeah, if I can go back one more step –
Turner: Please do.
Checole: – and say that the coming of the Derg in 1974 is an
important milestone. The revolutionary action taken by the
military in 1971 came about for two main factors, but many other
factors as well. One is that the military could not win the battle
against the Eritrean freedom fighters. They were angry with the
government of Ethiopia. They were losing the war and losing so
many of their soldiers. As a result, they didn’t see a way out
except a political resolution. That’s one.
Second, the country was going through a tremendous amount of famine
and suffering, and the Haile Selassie government had neglected
dealing with those issues in a proper manner, to a point that
students in the university and other places who had been active for
social reformation in the society became the leading ideological
leaders of the military rulers.
So in 1974 to 1991, we had military rule in Ethiopia which still
did not resolve the troubles in the country, which are, in my
opinion, three. One, the war with Eritrea. Two, the suffering of
the people – the poverty, the hunger, what have you. And three,
the question of how to deal in a just manner with the various
ethnic and linguistic differences within the country. So
socioeconomic factors took over, and we come to 1991 with the
EPRDF, which was made up of four regional ethnic groups put
together by the Liberation Front – led by Tigray People’s
Liberation Front from the north, and has been ruling since then,
and still is in power, actually, at least in name, if not in fact.
Turner: Walk us through that, as a person from that region who has
followed that, this attempt to unite Amharic-speaking people,
Oromo-speaking people, Tigrayan-speaking people, the southern
provinces, and the other what – I guess it would be the other five
provinces of Ethiopia. What were the challenges?
Checole: Well, as I said, the troubles of the country are
internally socioeconomic factors. Societally, the country, as I
said, was divided into different regions, into different ethnic
groups. Bringing all of this diversity into a singular united
front is not easy. There were people who actually lived
comfortably, relatively speaking. Then there were others who were
oppressed because of their language, their ethnicity, and for other
For example, a good example is the Oromo people, by and large, one
of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. But the Oromos have
always complained that their history was misinterpreted and that
their personality as a people have been distorted. They have been
insulted as a rival ethnic cultural group, and they have been
repressed and marginalized by the state of Haile Selassie, the
Derg, and others.
So the Oromos really have very serious complaint to make on the
state structure. And they showed that, as you saw, in the last
four years in particular, leading up to the breakup of the EPRDF
internally and the coming of Dr. Abiy Ahmed. So those are the
The other, of course, we talked about – Eritrea, which gained its
independence in 1993. That nation and that people have been
fighting for their freedom for over 30 years, which at that time
was one of the largest armed struggles for liberation in Africa.
They created a society that was supposed to be a democratic,
socially progressive, and economically advanced society. But in
1993, definitely, they declared independence.
But the problems of Ethiopia are further than that. It’s the
economic structure – the land issue, which was partially resolved
by the Derg, who nationalized the land and made it available to the
landless and gives the peasants in Ethiopia a little bit of
relative freedom to do what they can do with the small piece of
land they had. So as an agriculture-based society that really have
had no positive input from the state until the coming of the EPRDF,
which if it has done anything positive, it is providing the peasant
society a leeway to a modern agricultural system, a leeway to a
modern marketing system, and getting rid of the middle classes that
used to exploit the peasantry was one of the biggest achievements.
Today, in my opinion, the Ethiopian peasantry is probably one of
the best-growing and the best-advanced parts of the society,
because they are able to till their land and market their grains
Turner: As we move towards the events in 2017, 2018, how do you
evaluate the role of Meles Zenawi, who when he came to power was
hailed as someone who was one of the renaissance leaders of Africa,
I think along with – perhaps it was Thabo Mbeki, I believe, and
maybe it was the other leader who was the country of Nigeria – was
hailed a renaissance leader. How was he seen inside the country?
Because he’s in power until the early 2000 period, I believe.
Checole: You’re right. In fact, in the 1990s, Museveni in Uganda,
Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Isaias Afwerki
in Eritrea, and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia were seen as the
renaissance force that are going to change the way Africa operates.
There was much hope put on them. (laughter) But that is more
idealism than realism. Meles did, in my opinion – I have a lot of
respect for him. He did a lot of good for the country. But he was
encumbered by the fact that he comes from a single party, the TPLF,
that was – like it or not, became a ruling party, and the leader of
the EPRDF, the group of parties that came together.
And he had several problems. One, he got into a war, once again,
with Eritrea in 1997, and that became disastrous. It became almost
genocidal. Hundreds of people, young people, died in that war. He
was not able to manage or to get himself out of that problem, and
it created quite a resentment among especially Ethiopians of
Eritrean origin who were expelled from the country, from Ethiopia.
The second, he created a federal constitution that relied heavily
on ethnic formation, that divided the country on the base of
ethnicity and gave certain amount of autonomy to those ethnic
states. That comes with its own problem, and it is so huge I can’t
even talk about it in a detailed manner. The Oromo people, who
always complained about oppression – rightly so – who always
complained about marginalization, woke up, rose up, and said things
have to change. The EPRDF had to respond, and within it, it had
fractures. And the party – this coalition party is still alive,
but it’s still being challenged by what has happened since.
Turner: It appears to be fairly clear, and you can update us on
that, Kassahun, that Hailemariam Desalegn, when he stepped down in
2018, that he stepped down because of the developments in the Oromo
region. Is that the whole story from your analysis? That appears
to be what he said, and that appears to be what many analysts say.
Checole: Well, from what I can read, I think Desalegn was a decent
person. He had a positive idea about how to work out the problems
that exist in Ethiopia. But he didn’t have much power within the
party. In other words, he really was almost like a symbolic
element, not having a genuine power or power base to change things.
So when the rise of the Oromo people, especially the young people
in Oromo – the rise of young people among the Amhara came up, he
saw that there’s not much he could do. He saw the writing on the
wall, and he stepped down. And I think he did it in a very
gracious and very humble way, which led again to Abiy Ahmed.
Turner: Now, Abiy Ahmed, he’s of Oromo origin, but he fought in
wars [for the previous government]. He worked in intelligence. He
holds a doctorate. The analysis is that there was some
contestation about him becoming the prime minister. How do you
evaluate that process from Desalegn to Abiy Ahmed?
Checole: Well, I know as much as you do about the evolution of
Abiy Ahmed. Yes, he was part of the ruling party. He was in the
intelligence, and he fought in the Eritrean War. So he comes from
a military background, from an intelligence background, and that
may help him a little bit in understanding what war means and the
negative role wars place in society. His origin, his ethnic
origin, is of mixed background. He’s Amhara partially. He’s Oromo
partially. But I’m hoping that he has gone beyond that to say that
he’s more of an Ethiopian than an ethnic this or ethnic that.
So far, he has done the best he can. He has shown idealism. He
has shown hope and aspirations for progress in the country. But
the challenges are incredible, Walter. The challenges are huge,
and how he manages this challenge, how he survives this challenge
is going to be the one that defines him properly. So his ethnicity
aside, I think he has his heart in the right place, but the reality
of Ethiopia is quite complex and quite difficult. I don’t envy
Turner: How is he being received in Ethiopia? How has Abiy Ahmed
– because he’s come and he’s made some changes very quickly. He’s
moved on issues of political prisoners. He’s talked about
restructuring the state. Maybe the most important piece, I would
say, is the reconciliation, if that’s the word –
Checole: Yeah, absolutely, with Eritrea.
Turner: – with Eritrea. How has that been received?
Checole: I think the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea received this
reconciliation idea very well. They were tired of war. They were
tired of the standing still situation in both societies. So it was
a great joy to see the potential of peace – the ability of the two
people to live together in peace and progress jointly economically
and otherwise, and to visit societies that were divided between the
two borders. It was an emotional and very encouraging period.
As you said, he also made a very good move in terms of freeing
prisoners. Rightly or wrongly, thousands and thousands of people
were in prison for their political views and for other petty
crimes, and he made a really sweeping action to release prisoners.
The third most important role he played was to free the press, to
be able to say that people can speak freely their opinion, and
write about it and publish and speak on radio and TV, and that is a
major move. That really was quite encouraging for people as a
whole. I hope it holds. He seems to have backed out a little bit.
As of now, we have a few journalists in prison, and that is a sad
experience to see happen.
The fourth most important is his move on the economy. I think his
move to privatize state businesses, his move to allow businesses to
grow and prosper independently without the heavy intervention of
the state, is looked at very positively. And the list goes on and
on. There are several other good moves that he has made. Now the
challenge is how to keep it going.
Turner: The notion that you mentioned there of privatization –
looking at the debt that exists, I think, currently with the
country of China – I don’t remember, $26 billion debt to China –
and the increasing interest, not just in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in
the Horn of Africa and Africa altogether, the Saudis, the UAE, etc.
– are there some perils there in terms of being able to continue to
manage the economy to the best interest of the Ethiopian
population? Your thoughts?
Checole: Well, to be honest with you, I’m not an expert in
economics, but my view is the following. China is helping Ethiopia
to grow economically, particularly in the area of infrastructure,
which is much needed. The roads need to be built up. The
railroads, the airports, the ports of the country, both in
Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and it’s very, very important role it
One has to be responsible on how one takes aid, support, loan from
the Chinese. If you don’t receive this support carefully, then you
will be in trouble, as other African countries like Zambia are.
The Chinese are like any other capitalist society. They are
looking for their own interests, their own benefits. So balance
has to be found between your interests and that of the Chinese
economy and society.
So I don’t see it negatively. The loan doesn’t scare me as much.
As long as the economy is growing, as long as it’s managed properly
and corruption is kept under control, then I think the loan can be
adjusted, as they already have done with Abiy and the Chinese
government and dealt with properly.
Turner: How has this period of reconciliation, if we want to refer
to that – I’ll use that word, Kassahun – how has it impacted – what
have we seen in Eritrea under Isaias Afwerki? Obviously, it’s been
positive with people being able to be in touch with relatives and
being able to cross borders and reconciliation about land. There
certainly have been questions about the way in which the
relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea has led Eritrea perhaps
to be involved in events in Somalia, perhaps to be used as a base
for some of the conflicts in Yemen. Give us your thoughts on how
Eritrea has moved through this last 18 months, year-plus.
Checole: Yeah, the Eritrean situation is a very difficult and
complex situation, mainly because of the revolutionary party in
power. It has not yet devolved into more civic government. We
still have the same revolutionaries who fought the war for
independence ruling the country. So their attitude and approach is
that of revolutionaries, and that is simply to say we have a goal,
we have a direction, we’re going to follow it at any cost, and
civil rights necessarily are not their priority. You see what I’m
saying? So what is their priority is that there’s discipline,
there is a clarity of direction, and that they are not imposed upon
by external forces, and that they keep the country independent.
So the reconciliation brought about hope, but it didn’t bring about
fundamental changes within Eritrea. So nothing in Eritrea has
really changed that we can talk about. It remains the same way it
has in the last 28 years of independence. And there are legal
issues that need to be resolved between Eritrea and Ethiopia. For
example, the Ethiopian Army is still occupying Eritrean land. They
need to withdraw. The argument that was reached between the two
countries in 2000, 2001 has not been implemented. That needs to be
done. The borders that were quickly opened when Abiy came to power
have now essentially closed down. That also needs to be sorted
out, because what people want is a free movement of people back and
forth and the free movement of the economy between the two
[Editor´s note: For an in-depth analysis of the flaws in
the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea, see the early 2019 analysis by Yohannes Woldemariam.]
So Eritrea, by and large, remains the same. It is steadfast in its
position that the sovereignty of the country is more critical than
civil rights. So we still have the same prisoners that have been
there for the last 15 years, the same leaders. The economy is
burdened by the sanctions that was implemented on Eritrea –
international sanctions. It’s burdened by the fact that there is
no investment from outside, and the government still has a
stronghold on the economy. And in my opinion, they haven’t done a
good job with it. So they need to relent. When they will do so is
a matter of time and something that we have to watch.
Turner: Kassahun, as your work informs you, you would certainly be
characterized – I think this is a fair judgement – as a pan-
Africanist. Looking at the continent and looking at the challenges
that are faced by the leadership of Museveni, the recent events in
Zimbabwe, the challenges in Nigeria and Burkina Faso and
particularly northern Africa at this point, should we have more
patience with seeing what Abiy Ahmed is doing, how it plays out
both in Ethiopia and Eritrea? Because at this point, there’s even
some levels of concern and criticism from people who are Tigrayan,
who are saying, well, things are not turning out well. This is
changing the face of the EPRDF. As a pan-Africanist, putting this
in the context of how do we keep going forward for Africa, your
thinking on that?
Checole: Well, thank you for raising this issue, because pan-
Africanism is the closest thing to my heart than anything else.
The long-term solution for Africa is a united Africa. There is no
other alternative. We were divided and put apart because of
colonial structures with no consideration to our linguistic,
geographic, and cultural unity. That still remains a problem, and
no one can solve that but us. Africans can resolve it by saying
that the colonial structure is unfair and unnecessary, and we need
to create a unitary system of some kind in Africa. That move has
already started, and it’s making progress. Very slowly, of course,
but it is making progress. Soon we will have potentially a single
currency, a single passport, a united economic structure that
allows people to move back and forth with their goods and their
services. So all of those are happening, but in a slow manner.
Now what we need to deal is with regional issues. For example, in
east Africa, Abiy brought the hope that we can have a regional
union. That makes Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Sudan,
and even Kenya. They can form a union, as used to be in the East
African Community. This union can lead into other unions of
regions coming together. It is a big challenge. We don’t need to
change the state structures. But we need to have an umbrella body
that coordinates our economic and social development in the area.
So I am hopeful that pan-Africanism, hopefully in our lifetime,
will be advancing faster than it has so far. But it’s the only
solution that I can see to our political and social problems and
our economic dependency on China and others.
Turner: OK, because I think that’s the other analysis – and one of
the articles you shared with me is this discussion about the fact
that there’s a half a million Ethiopian workers who are in Saudi
Arabia, another 100,000-plus – it seems as if both Turkey and Qatar
and the Saudis and the UAE have their interest not just in Ethiopia
and Eritrea, but also throughout the African continent. It seems
as if Abiy has been very, very active. In fact, was the
reconciliation – did it not occur in Saudi Arabia? Am I mistaken?
Checole: Yeah, the formal presentation of the reconciliation
document happened in Saudi Arabia. Let me tell you about our so-
called Arab neighbors. They are a blessing and a curse at the same
time – a blessing because they have a huge amount of resources that
if properly managed, if properly shared among the peoples of the
area, can become an incentive to growth that will not only benefit
them, but benefits the peoples of the Horn of Africa. Right now,
that is not happening. Both UAE and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a
war in Yemen, which for all practical purposes is an African
country, except that it’s divided by water. They have done
incredible amount of damage to that society. It’s a totally
unnecessary war. I think even UAE is beginning to regret its
involvement in it. So that is a blessing yet to be shared that
they have the resources to make a difference in the area.
The curse factor is that they see themselves as superior to other
peoples in the area. And that cultural nuance is critical, because
as they have done in the slavery period by enslaving Africans, they
continue to have an attitude that these Habesha, these black
people, do not have anything to offer to them. Yet if you go to
any of these countries, you will see that a large amount of the
workforce is drawn from people of color from either Africa or Asia.
And their attitude to this labor is horrendously unfair. They
underpay them. They overwork them and maltreat them when they have
to exit out of the country.
So I say this in both ways. Their existence and their relative
wealth is both a blessing and a curse. And more dialogue, more
discussion is to be done, from an African point of view, with these
Arab nations – particularly the ones on the Gulf area, who for all
practical purposes are also Africans. All you have to do is look
up their genesis and look up their intermarriage from Kuwait to
Qatar to Oman and all these places. Their link with Africa is deep
and long, but they are slow in recognizing it and slow in acting on
Turner: The Ethiopia-Eritrean diaspora, Kassahun, their thoughts
from – you’re here. You work here. I know you’re a global person.
The thoughts of Ethiopians and Eritreans in diaspora – how do they
see these recent developments with Abiy Ahmed and this last more
than a year or so of changes and new pronouncements?
Checole: Walter, like all diaspora movements, diaspora is always
critical in helping the home countries, and also in damaging the
home countries, in the sense that they are so ideologically
divided, organizationally divided. They in many ways sometimes
bring trouble to home countries than they do positive things. Now,
we have to admit that the remittances to Eritrea and Ethiopia are
critical. It is a significant part of the economic situation in
both countries. And obviously, the way our societies are built up,
we believe and drive our lives in supporting our families and
relatives in the home country. So the remittances will continue,
and it makes a significant difference in the home economies.
But the ideological division that the diaspora leaves – for
example, among Eritreans, there are people who are excited and
hopeful by the new dispensation. The others will say, well, Isaias
Afwerki is about to sell out the country to Ethiopia. We fought
all these years to be independent, and now he wants to make us part
of Ethiopia. I don’t think that is true. I don’t think Isaias or
any other leader in Eritrea wants to give up on the sovereignty of
Eritrea, but that’s the feeling. It’s a very strong feeling. How
to allay it is another issue.
Among Ethiopians, the ethnic division that exists in Ethiopia also
exists among the diaspora, and that is a very bad situation. They
have not managed to come together as Ethiopians. They are still
functioning as Tigrayans, Amharas, Oromos, what have you, and this
has a negative role to play in the home country. So the diaspora –
in all their love for the home country, they often forget that they
have moved on, and they have a society, whether they’re living in
Europe or the United States, of their own making, and they should
be engaged strongly in local society, but they are still
intervening in the home politics and economy and society.
Turner: Although, from, I guess, the read of those of us here who
work around African issues or in general populations concerned with
human rights, it appears to be that the ascension of Abiy Ahmed and
what he’s been able to do or what he’s been able to imagine or
dream that he would do, it would seem to be a positive for all of
the African continent, for African Americans, for Africans
throughout the diaspora. Certainly not a smooth road, but it
appears to be a way forward.
Checole: Yes, there is no question about it. I think Africa as a
whole has benefited from the relationship with the diaspora – the
traditional diaspora, the enslaved Africans who were forced to come
to this land, and it should be playing a significant role in
African development. And they had in the liberation. Whether you
are in South Africa or in Ethiopia, the role of the diaspora, the
traditional diaspora, the enslaved Africans who came here
involuntary, has been important, has been influential in many ways.
It should be more. And the African Union should open up
citizenship, for example, on the African diaspora and allow the
economy to grow through their intervention.
But the new diaspora, the people like me who came in the last four
or five decades, have a critical role to play. One, we should
really play a significant role in the African American community.
As a publisher, I wouldn’t be what I am if I hadn’t relied on the
existence of the African American community and my linkage with it
– I have to say I would not have survived the last 36 years
without that support system. And it’s very important to realize
the linkages in that sense. But we have to humble ourselves. Most
Africans of recent migration have an attitude towards African
Americans which is negative, and that has to change. They need to
study the history. They need to study the role of African
Americans in the society and appreciate and play a significant role
in that sense.
Turner: We certainly appreciate the work that you’ve done,
Kassahun, with both Africa World Press and the Red Sea Press.
That’s who we’re speaking with today. Can you give us a website
here as we finish up so that people can go online and take a look
at the amazing list of titles that you have, Kassahun? What is the
Checole: Indeed. It is
Turner: Any last words here in our last moment?
Checole: I just want to say the following – that hope is
essential, and what Abiy gave us in east Africa is hope. I wish
him great fortune, great opportunity to get to the point where we
all begin to realize a united east Africa, a united Horn of Africa
– that would be critical. And as I said in my last point, but it’s
also important for particularly the African American community to
intervene positively in Africa by going and spending their
resources, understanding the culture, and playing an influential
role in African economic development.
Turner: Kassahun, it’s always a total pleasure. I encourage
people to go to African World Press Books and take a look at the
work that you’re doing. I think anything that anyone is looking
for, that you can find it on your site. Much respect for the work
that you’ve done for so many years. And please stay in touch,
Kassahun. You’re always welcome on Africa Today.
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