Staggering opposition

Beyene Petros (Prof.) is the president of the Ethiopian Federalist Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek), one of the major opposition political parties in Ethiopia which is also a front made up of six parties. Originally, Beyene was president of the Ethiopian Social Democrat (ESD), a party that later merged with the South Ethiopian Unity party (SEUP) to form ESD-SEUP, which, in turn, is part of the larger front: Medrek. Beyene, a familiar face in Ethiopian politics since the transition period following the fall of the Derg , is also a biology professor at the Addis Ababa University Faculty of Science. Since the victory of the ruling front Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) during the last election, which was held in May 2015 in which the front and its affiliates managed to take 100 percent of the seats in parliament, Beyene and his fellow opposition politicians have become more scarce on the public platform. Hence, Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter paid the professor a visit in his office located around Sidit Kilo near the Addis Ababa University main campus to sit down with him and reflect on the current political landscape in Ethiopia and on other pertinent issues such as drought. Excerpts:

The Reporter: You have participated in the Ethiopian politics since the transitional government and if there is anyone who can analyze the country’s politics in the past 25 years it is you. What are the successes and challenges of the Ethiopian political landscape in the stated period?

Professor Beyene Petros: This question requires a complex answer. First of all, there is no government or political party in this country that commands a political clout which enables it to bring about a change in way that satisfies or is agreeable to the majority. By bringing change I mean a favorable and democratic political environment which is based on trust for various interest groups and political forces in the nation. This is the mother of all problems. Since the politics lacks trust, what we have witnessed on the political landscape of the country in the past 25 years seriously lacks positive mentality. Since politics is mainly associated with the struggle for power, it is construed as sheer naivety or innocence for a politician to speak about positive attitude. However, based on my experience, one thing I am certain about is that the ruling party EPRDF is leading the country by the politics of rigging, pretending and shrewdness. Apart from that, they have their own dreams and illusions which they developed during their gorilla fighting days.  I can say they were very committed to this dream and were unwilling to entertain any other suggestion or comment other than theirs. In my opinion, this was the biggest challenge. For me, the root cause of this is the way the Derg was overthrown; it was via force. For me, it would have been better had the Derg transferred power via discussions. You see, there is a trend here. The Derg overthrew the imperial regime by force. Although many people advised the emperor to reform the political landscape at the time, he refused to do so and as a result the monster Derg assumed power. By the same token, had the ruling party (EPRDF) shown little willingness to discuss with the various groups and individuals about the future of the country and valued these suggestions, things might have been much better today. The victory comes without proper consultation and discussion with all the concerned bodies in the country; hence what we have noticed since then is sheer domination of the winner which is the ruling party. As the saying goes it takes two to tango; the ruling party should be willing to accommodate other voices in the country. However, the ruling party espouses a mentality that dictates whoever paid the most sacrifice by defeating the Derg should impose its ideology and the rest should accept all political prescriptions. By doing so, they have closed the doors on further discussion and discourse. On the contrary, we kept saying no; we said starting from the charter we have not been fully convinced and that there is no agreement. Then, many groups other than the ruling party decided to embark on their own movement. We had a series of discussions with the ruling party after that and even met the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, several times. However, the strategy of the ruling party from the beginning was mainly aimed at dividing the opposition camp. Another thing that should be raised here is that EPRDF assumes that since it chased out the Derg, the entire public is thankful and that this achievement is highly revered. However, the fact on the ground suggests otherwise. The public wanted to be listened to; it is good that the Derg is overthrown, but the public also needs to be consulted when it comes to the future of the nation. As a result, the country witnessed many clashes here and there. If you take the election history of the country, before the first election which was held in 1992, there was a snap election which was aimed at creating a favourable environment to hold the first general election. This election was all about determining who will administer the process and who will be running and the like; and in that election EPRDF got only 20 percent of the votes in Addis Ababa and heavily lost in the Oromia region. Another challenge was the ruling party’s mindset of being the only political force that truly cares for the nation; they always thought their way is the only way and all the other voices are detractors at best. Honestly speaking, is there any Ethiopian who is against the development and the growth of their nation? Is there anybody who opposes the equality of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia? It is hard to imagine that there is. The only concern here is that of administering properly, in a way that includes all groups and individuals in the country. EPRDF assumes that if they lost grip of power just once, the country will be in utter chaos. However, this is an obsession.

That is largely what you thought to be problems associated with the ruling party. However, the opposition camp also seems to have problems of its own; especially with regard to working together by challenging the ruling party. Can you reflect on that?

There are different varieties of political questions and issues in Ethiopia around which different political groups and parties are organized to contest power. However, when we look deeper into these issues, we find that many of the opposition parties in Ethiopia are born out of grievances and discontents rather than having clear ideological basis. Many of the parties are the result of current problems. If you look at most of the former political parties such as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON), they have some sort of ideological underpinning. However, due to the actions taken by the Derg they were unable to work in the country; EPRDF also closed the door on them once and for all. Hence the parties which were born subsequently were mainly the results of grievances. They don’t have a certain principle that they are committed to and stand for. Therefore these parties emerged as a vanguard of a certain ethnic group or raised issues revolving around the equalities of their own ethnic constituency. There were and still are also others, which took the nationalist avenue and/or formed under the premise of saving the nation from virtual collapse; most don’t clearly state how and why the nation is on the verge of collapse. The pubic lives here because it wanted to live together, there is no other reason; those who don’t want to stay have already gone. But this should not be the center of gravity for unity. The center of gravity should be one common principle that will incorporate all groups. Personally, I have been working with many groups which opposed the EPRDF, utilizing all my resource and energy in the hope of achieving my political goal. However, when we look at it now, it seems that these hopes have been drying; especially in the past five years. It is very difficult to consolidate the Ethiopian opposition camp; I have tried it so many times but with whom are you going to sit and discuss? What would be the political agendas? It is very tough. All parties which are in the political space tend to be highly emotional while advancing their political agenda. Apart from that, these opposition parties are established based on a variety of issues and it is very difficult to consolidate and work together. This is the major challenge in the opposition camp. First of all, we should address more of the tactical issues and these tactical issues are those such as the question of democracy, human rights, good governance and the rule of law. If all political parties in the opposition camp focus on these tactical issues than other detailed political agendas consolidation could have a chance. Political parties lack the capacity to differentiate between tactical and strategic agendas. It is common everywhere; no one can discuss over its strategic agenda at the beginning; the first things that are usually placed on the table are immediate agendas that need swift solution; and then and only then can we move to the details. In this case, the first agenda in our country should be discussion on how to conduct free and fair elections. Parties have different ideologies; however, setting aside ideological differences, what should be a top priority for us is pressurizing the ruling party to create a favorable environment where a free and fair election can be held.

During the last election, your party Medrek and other political parties were highly active and visible organizing town hall meetings and demonstrations to galvanize public support. However, you have disappeared after the election. What are you up to these days?

 

Medrek walked away from the election with some serious damage; the party sustained material, manpower and more seriously psychological damages during the election. We the leaders of the party have also taken responsible and felt the damages unlike any other times. During the election, we campaigned to our supporters saying that it is possible to win the election; we told them all we needed to win was their support and commitment. However, after the result was announced, the reality on the ground was totally different in a way that the ruling party took all the seats in parliament. So, how can I face my supporters? I don’t want to be called a liar. A political leader should anticipate the situation; in this regard, the overall orientation of the election. If that leader fails to do so, he is not a leader at all. However, the government made it so that we could not even predict the political environment in the country. This is the characteristic of the ruling party. I was expecting that the result in the 2010 election was an embarrassment for the ruling party and hence they don’t want similar outcomes in 2015 elections too. However, they proceeded to clinching all the seats in parliament and it was something I did not anticipate. For this reason, Medrek was seriously damaged. We utilized our resources fully to win a seat at least in the three main regions of the country where we contested the election (Southern Ethiopia, Tigray and Oromia). But, the result was zero. So, how can the public trust me again. The public was asking us “Why are you creating havoc on us in vain?” What makes this election different from the previous ones? And this is why we haven’t met our supporter. Right now, we are working mainly on crisis management, a number of problems have emerged in the country and we are working to follow up and make reports about the matter. However, one thing that should be considered here is that we are not closing all our structures in different parts of the country. The party has structure up to the Wereda level and they are deliberating every week and are sending us reports. The public in the rural areas is still struggling to the extent of making his own home an office of the party. The farmers do not still believe that EPRDF has won the election.

 

What are the strategies designed by Medrek to reach its supporters in different corners of the country after the election?

All the possible strategies designed by the party to meet the public and to gage the situation have been blocked by the ruling party. The government is using a long list of reasons to deny us our right to stage a public demonstration and meetings. They keep telling us that there is a conference or a certain school is located nearby or that there is ongoing construction work on the areas where we want to demonstrate. Although our responsibilities are to notify the powers that be we are going to demonstrate, they keep saying that we don’t have the permission, which is in fact against the law. Since we notified the government, we could stage the demonstration but we don’t want to create another problem. We don’t want to put our supporters in harm’s way. Taking the entire situation into consideration, we refrained from such activities. We figured, on top of everything, we should not be the source of another violent clash; it is not healthy for the political landscape of the country. What if things get out of control? We were really worried that we decided to put it on hold. However, it is not for the lack of strategy and we know how to reach our supporters; but the situation is tough.

There is this concept proposed by lawyers and political scientists called a “shadow government” where the opposition camp organizes its own ministers similar to the government in power so that the assigned personnel will develop a skill of leadership and administration. Is there any effort of such sort on your side?

All this is a luxury for Ethiopian politics. This is a luxury in a situation where we are still talking about the basics. Where am I standing to think about ‘shadow government’ while the government watches every little gathering with great skepticism. Let alone organizing such a system, the government arrests people just because they express their feelings.

 

Currently, the country is witnessing a drought, what are your party doing in this regard? Have the leaders of the party visited the affected areas? Have you made contributions to the cause, no matter how small? What is being done to show solidarity to the affected population?

We are following the issue very closely. Regarding your question about site visits, we didn’t do it; we don’t do it not because it is unnecessary, but because we don’t have the capacity to go and visit the affected areas. Many of the affected areas are dry and somehow remote and hence we can’t reach them. This is because of the lack of capacity. However, we are following the situation seriously through the reports we receive from our members who are actually living in the drought-affected areas.