The issue of incorporating a multi-party system into the political atmosphere of Ethiopia has been lasting as a major contesting topic, particularly among the ruling party and other opposition political parties.
The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), though it calls itself a multi-party system since it is made up of four cell-member parties, the opposition has been labeling it as a party that is totalitarian. Many among the public also question the reason why opposition political parties could not build up their muscles to challenge the ruling party and come forward.
Would it be because they lack good leadership quality and the political and socioeconomic road map to lead the nation or is the EPRDF suppressing them? Merera Gudina (Ph.D.), a lecturer in Political Science and International Relations at Addis Ababa University and chairman of the Oromo National Congress, sat with Merga Yonas of The Reporter to discuss the challenges faced by opposition parties.
As a political scientist, with decades of practical experience in the political atmosphere of Ethiopia, in a nutshell, how do you analyze the current situation in which the opposition political parties find themselves?
The critical problem is the shriveling political space in the country. Unless and until opposition political parties get a reasonable political environment, and relatively comfortably organize people, they remain inert. What we are doing now or could do later is survival in the political atmosphere of the country. What the EPRDF is doing because of the revolutionary democracy ideology it follows, which is the mother of all problems, has huge impacts on tightening the political space. What the ruling party is doing theoretically on paper, allows opposition political parties to operate, which makes someone think that the political space is open. However, the status quo is the exact opposite.
For example, there is a fusion between the ruling party and the state; there is no difference between the interest of those who are running the party and the state. They reflect the interest of their party at government level, so there is no separation between the state and the party. Subsequently, this leads us to believe that there is no separation of power between different branches of government. Again this means that there is no separation of power between the party involvement in the legislative and judiciary branches of government. The current parliament is a one-party parliament with the EPRDF having 99.6 percent of the seats. Thus, being occupied by one party shows a sort of Soviet-era election, not a 21st century election.
Finally, there is also no independence of the judiciary where, in the country, the judicial system is not independent and the recourse to law is not at hand. For instance, on November 1, 2012, our members, Bekele Gerba and Olbana Lalisa, were charged with terrorism. Attending the court procedure, I witnessed the way the court is handling the matter. It is not only bad, but clearly shows that there is no independence of the court.
What made you come to this conclusion or what have you really observed there?
Regarding the witness presented by the prosecutors, I am one hundred percent sure that he is our member from Ambo. He changed his name and location apparently as if he was from Wollega. This shows that the rule of law has been undermined.
Therefore, members of opposition political parties are operating under this sort situation. That means the educated elite don’t participate in opposition political parties. A few of us who are trying to participate in the opposition political parties are paying what is required in terms of consultancy or in other different ways. So there is a lot of pressure, all-round pressure from the government side that does not want opposition parties to grow.
The ruling party wants the opposition political parties to continue as a weak element and not as a real political force that can compete and win elections. This showcase is for the donors to imply that the country has opposition political parties.
And you know that, out of the so-called opposition political parties operating in the country, more than 90 percent are created to oppose the opposition. These 90 percent are on the payroll of the government. These parties are created by the ruling party to oppose the opposition and not to oppose the EPRDF. We know very well that they are paid by the government. To my knowledge, the real opposition parties in the country, out of more than 90 parties, could only be from 10 to 15.
Therefore, the current political environment in the country doesn’t allow the real opposition political parties we are talking about. For example, during the 2005 national and regional elections, there were substantial intellectuals and real opposition political parties. We moved the nation, the type of flood Bereket Simon was talking about, the flood that his party escaped from. During that phase of election, there was relaxation from the ruling party. We had chances to organize rallies, we had chances to organize the youth, we were able to conduct town hall meetings and were able to move around. Then the nation moved with us.
Now that is lost. How is it lost? You know that, for example, the EPRDF took a number of measures like the new political party law, new media law, new civil society law, anti-terrorism law and a lot of laws. And those laws came with actions that narrowed the playing fields for opposition parties.
Besides this action, the EPRDF increased the number of its members from say 760,000 in 2005 election to 5 million in the 2010 election. They brought the youth, women and all sort of people to their membership. They also increased the number of local Kebele officials from around at that time 600,000 to 3.6 million.
So, in the next Kebele election if we are going run against the EPRDF, we have to have 3.6 million candidates to fill the gap of constituency, a number larger than some the population of many African countries. This strategy was meant to deny the opposition political parties the capacity.
The ruling party took back democracy to the days of Aristotle, before representative democracy was created. You know, at that time people in one village come together to consult on different cases and make the decision there at their gathering. The logic of representative democracy in Ethiopia was denied or reversed by EPRDF. You can’t make everybody a member and make a decision but that is what the EPRDF is doing.
So are you saying that it is because of all these factors from the ruling party why many opposition political parties in the past two decades are either out of the game or not functioning efficiently?
There are always the visible and invisible hands of the EPRDF as a cause for the fall or dysfunction of opposition political parties. After the 2005 elections, members of our party were working secretly with the EPRDF. The two people, whose name I do not want to mention, had done this at the time hand-in-hand with EPRDF. Now one is on the run while the other one is detained and is charged with corruption.
The difference between the Derg regime and the EPRDF is that the earlier one tells you “Don’t do this and that”, and you know if you did what was forbidden there will definitely be some sort of punishment. But EPRDF says “Do it”, and they are always behind you and chase you until you go down. That is why the youth and educated elite became so selective by fearing punishment. So they think twice or trice to join the opposition parties, because they know what is going to happen to them once they stand on the opposition block. If one joins the opposition party, one has to pay sacrifices. If you go to Kaliti you can see young and intellectual Oromos in prison. Even the prison house speaks Oromiffa. In that prison, you find a lot of young people from other ethnic groups as well.
I went to the court as a defense witness. I was really shocked when I found on one side of the court-room hundreds of our members sitting and more than two hundreds of the prosecutor defense sitting on the other side in a big hall. It doesn’t really look like a court procedure. At the same time, I found hundreds of detainees and hundreds of defense witnesses, so rather it looks like a meeting hall.
So lack of political space is central again. Unless and until there is a fair game we can’t really solve some of the problems we are facing as opposition members.
Some observers from the public assert that opposition political parties lack leadership quality and a political and economic road map to lead the nation. What is your reaction regarding this?
No…no… In terms of having political and economic program road map we have no problem. This is a question of access to the media. Each of the parties has its own political program. For example, if you take our party, which is an Oromo affiliated political organization, really we have best alternative compared to another Oromo opposition party that is associated with the ruling party. So it is up to the people to judge the programs. We have it, we got elected during the 2005 election, and people supported us back then. So the judgment should be left to the people.
We are not distributing the program widely because we don’t have enough resources. Medrek, which has got a 65-page political program, has detailed agendas for every major issue. It includes the question of human rights, rule of law, media, rural development, industrialization, national security and you can name all the major issues. In terms of disseminating the program, again it is the question of resource.
No matter what, have you ever reached out to the public with this political program to make them understand it?
We do not expect everyone to understand our political program equally as people may have not the same understanding of Ethiopia’s politics and socio-economy. But they know their own interest for the country. At least they know what the EPRDF is doing and they know what we are doing. Thus, they know that there is an alternative for the nation as their daily life is affected one way or another.
If the government allows us, we could quickly increase our membership dramatically. We have every opportunity to surpass the EPRDF across the country. The government knows this and that is why they are blocking us. And that is why they are targeting Medrek as public enemy number one.
Town-hall meetings are almost forbidden and public rallies are totally forbidden, the movement of our members are blocked. Lots of our young members, as I told you, are in prison accused of the anti-terrorism law, which is totally misused against our member.
Does your party have its own research department that studies the political and socio-economic atmosphere of the country?
Yes, we have members at several levels ranging from academics to members in the business community. We also have members with agriculture expertise and others from different sectors. The EPRDF knows we have intellectual elites and we are not inferior to them.
Speaking of the recent transition made within the EPRDF following the death of the late PM Meles Zenawi, the newly-appointed PM Hailemariam Dessalegn has said that Medrek could still come forward to the discussion table and negotiate on matters. How do you see his call? Do you expect that there would be any different approach from the ruling party than its past approach with opposition political parties?
Well, there was actually no transition, but if we call it transition it was from EPRDF to EPRDF. What they are talking about is not encouraging at all. The funny thing is that to everything that has been happening in this country, they are attributing to what the late Prime Minister had done. I think they are making things too far from reality. I have seen that when the Ethiopian National Football team defeated Sudan on the national television, they said that the team won because of the legacy of the late PM. The question is what is legacy and what constitutes legacy? The Ethiopian government is more of a totalitarian state than a democratic one.
Regarding the discussion, they have been saying the same thing for the last two to three years. Medrek never said it does not want to sit down for discussion. Medrek has been saying that we want to negotiate.
In fact, this new procedure of having a code of conduct was copied word for word from the Swedish code of conduct. The international election code of conduct has produced three basic documents.
The first document talks about election administration, how an election could be partial, neutral and independent. The second document focuses on election observation, it says how election should be observed, how the code of conduct of election should be accessible. These documents have been hidden or put aside by the EPRDF. And the third document is on the question of the implementation of the conduct.
If agreements can be reached on the first two points by both the opposition and the ruling party, Medrek could also agree on the third one. However, since the EPRDF’s focus is on how to behave and implement, Medrek has disagreed on this matter. I think the EPRDF is putting the cart before the horse.
Regarding the way forward, we keep on organizing the public. We continue investigating the political environment of the country. We continue to make our position to the Ethiopian people clear. We will continue to knock at the door of the EPRDF for negotiations and meet the demands of the Ethiopian people.