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close this bookThe Courier N 145 - May - June 1994- Dossier : European Union: the Way forward - Country Report: Ethiopia (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)
close this folderCountry report
close this folderEthiopia: Emerging from a long Dark Age
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPresident Meles Zenawi
View the documentAn interview with opposition leader Dr Beyene Petros
View the documentReaping the peace dividend
View the documentMotivating the peasant
View the documentReviving private business and industry
View the documentFreedom of the press - A contribution to the democratic process
View the documentProfile
View the documentEU-Ethiopia Cooperation: the largest support programme in the ACP

An interview with opposition leader Dr Beyene Petros

'To communicate takes two parties'

Three years since the fall of the Derg, democratisation and respect for human rights have made advances in Ethiopia. Though observers at home and abroad say there is still ground to be covered, a sign of progress was the holding in Addis Ababa last December of a Peace and Reconciliation Conference bringing together representatives of 48 political parties and other organisations which oppose the present government. The government rented premises to the organisers but refused an invitation to take part. Indeed, seven opposition delegates to the conference were arrested on a charge of advocating armed struggle against the government, and the government-controlled media portrayed the conference as a shambles.

The opposition has indeed found it difficult to reach consensus on the way forward, but 31 of the organisations attending the conference were able to reach agreement to set up the Council of Alternative Forces for Peace and Democracy (CAFPD), which will act as a political party in the run-up to the elections. Accusing the ruling party of aborting the democratisation process to consolidate its power, they called for the establishment of a new, broad-based government in which all political organisations, including the EPRDF, would be fairly represented, a demand which the government has ignored. The chairman of the conference and of the CAFPD is Dr Beyene Petros, leader of the Hadiya Nation Democratic Organisation, one of the many ethnic groups opposed to the EPRDF. The Courier asked him what united the groups in the CAFPD.

- What unites them currently is the question of democracy during the transitional period, human rights, the drafting and ratifying of the Constitution, and the social and economic issues that seriously affect the lives of millions of people in Ethiopia. In the name of structural adjustment we feel that there is a lot of damage being done in Ethiopia, and that there is carelessness in the planning and implementation of it. Once the question of democracy and human rights is out of the way, then each of these organisations will have the chance to get to their people, and it should simply be left to the people to decide who will come to power. The ground has to be prepared for free elections. That is really the central issue.

· The Transitional Government has announced elections for June 1994. Is that not satisfactory?

- An election can only be based on an accepted Constitution. We challenge the manner in which the government is approaching this question of drafting and ratifying the Constitution.

My organisation was, for example, a member of the constitutional drafting commission. Now we had differences even over how the commission was put together, in that it did not include all the organisations that needed to be included. However, even with that complaint we went in and tried to influence it in its democratic content and to give it professionalism, together with the traditional wisdom which should be in it. But in the end that was not possible. Now, against the guidelines for the drafting of the Constitution, they have come up and put forward what they call the constitutional ideas to be discussed by the people. That is to bypass the basic procedure of drafting. They have this approach of putting very sensitive issues for discussion to a local community where you have ten thousand people and only a hundred show up, and then they say: OK, now, land, would you like it to be under private ownership or government ownership? And they get them to vote. Or the rights of nationalities up to secession. And then they go back and say to the constitutional drafting committee: The people have decided, you cannot write anything else - land should be the property of the government, the government should have a broader influence in the country's economy. This again smacks of some kind of socialistic model for our economy. There are some constitutional issues that should be subjected to referendum, but this is not a referendum, it is only a select interest group which a majority of Ethiopians have avoided being part of because they don't accept the procedure.

The other problem we have is the ratification process, which will require electing the constituent assembly. We have all the proof now that the EPRDF is controlling all the countryside, the regional district administrations, as the result of the controversial or, rather, illegal June 1992 elections. With that now in place, they control the police, the courts, the administration. We don't think the election of the constituent assembly will stand any better chance than what we saw in June 1992.

I can tell you what the outcome of the constitutional process will be. Simply it will be something of EPRDF's liking. They have already established regional commissioners for election purposes, and the law which was passed by the Council of Representatives says these individuals should be acceptable to the regional administration. Now that is a single-party administration, and we have no confidence in it at all. So will this Constitution be a consensus Constitution? We say No, it excludes a lot of us, and the system is full of errors. I think it's simply another drama just to show off to the world.

· So what the EPRDF is doing, in your view, is creating a one-party state?

- That's right, and that's what we want the world to know - but it is too unfashionable for the EPRDF to go and state that outright. They want to pretend that there are some fringe parties who would really not win anything, so they want us to join the game, when we will have a very poor chance of gaining anything from such an exercise.

· But there's one party on their side and more than 30 on yours. Are you going to be able to organise effectively as an opposition?

- Yes, that is what we are hoping. The purpose of this Council of Alternative Forces for Peace and Democracy is to create a forum for these organisations in which we'll get to know each other, work together and also test each other on practical politics, rather than just simply carrying our individual lances and not meeting at all. So we hope, when the conditions are right, perhaps not all of the organisations will come under one umbrella, but at least the majority of them would evolve as a viable sort of Opposition.

· What is your view of the Government's record on human rights?

- One can pinpoint several human rights violations. For example, the natural right of a lot of Ethiopian professionals to serve their country by practising their profession through the Civil Service is being seriously undermined, and this is being done summarily, that is, they are being dismissed from their jobs or pensioned off prematurely. They have nothing to fall back on and their families and all their dependents are living in a very dire situation.

· On what basis are these people retired early and dismissed?

- The pretext is structural adjustment. The Government says: we want to improve the system or make it efficient. So they are expelling professionals and replacing them with junior, unqualified people with various allegiances, be they of party or from an ethnic point of view. And some of those dismissed cannot get employment in the nongovernment sector or international organisations either, because there is always a need for getting government clearance. A colleague of mine who used to be the Commissioner for Water Resources was expelled from his job on no substantial basis and he is a qualified engineer of more than 20 years' experience; now he cannot get any employment and himself and his family are starving. I think that would serve as a very good example of a lack of concern for human rights here.

The other one is that people get imprisoned without charge. This is even more obvious around our political movements, opposition movements. A leader of the Gedeo People's Democratic Organisation has been in prison for the last two years and he has not been charged. The whole executive committee of one organisation, the Sidama Liberation Movement, is in prison at present. There are no court warrants, and they don't appear in court. Even after the attorneys say they don't have any case against these guys they are not released. This idea of the courts and the justice system being independent of the administration is laughable.

· Some of the people who came here as delegates for the Conference in December were arrested on the allegation that they were guilty of incitement to ethnic violence. What is your reaction to that?

- I don't know what the Government brings that kind of charge for. These individuals may be members of a particular political group and that organisation could be responsible but as for these individuals personally, I don't think that that kind of charge could be directly relevant to them. I think the truth is the leadership of these organisations, who may have some apprehension about such charges, did avoid coming to Ethiopia, but those who came are ordinary members who, it is perfectly well known, were acquitted of these charges. It's simply, I think, trying to dissuade such organisations from coming to Ethiopia and operating.

· Are your party activists able to operate freely?

- They are harassed and even jailed, lose jobs, are demoted, in places outside of Addis. In Addis I think we are tolerated, to the extent that we stay in our small enclave and are not visible. When it comes to our movements coming out in the open for mass rallies or other big gatherings, they do their best to undermine that kind of activity by using bureaucratic, administrative measures. For example, we requested a permit to hold the peace and reconciliation conference more than a month before, inviting the Head of State to give us a blanket OK because the conference was of an international nature, involving visas, and we wanted to avoid delegates getting imprisoned and all that. We also approached Addis Ababa municipality, but both of these responsible bodies just kept quiet. So we had to go around and ask the assistance of the embassies, saying: Could you just take this matter up and tell us what the feeling of this Government is - they just don't want to communicate. The municipality only gave us a permit 48 hours before the conference. The purpose was simply for us to get frustrated and give in.

Another incident: we had a big mass rally in December in support of the conference. There again they waited until the 11th hour, so we had serious difficulty because we don't have access to the mass media, we can't announce there is a rally. The media are taxpayers' property and now they are only at the disposal of the Government.

· You can't get your message onto the radio and television?

- No, you can't, you can't even pay, let alone having access as a news item. That would involve visibility, going out and doing big things. As long as we don't do that, we are left alone in these premises and they have not bothered us here, honestly speaking. But I think their concern is any serious act that will undermine their edge, and they are very sensitive about us going to the countryside. Their belief seems to be that they have the countryside in their hands, they don't care what we do with these little petite bourgeois in the cities - these will not make a difference when it comes to the vote. It is that kind of calculation they seem to have in their minds. So the only place really we can be active currently is in Addis.

· Do you have a base in the countryside, in fact?

- We do have bases - we operate through our regional offices. Our frustration is that all our formal offices are closed so our movements unfortunately have been pushed into a clandestine kind of situation. They closed all our offices after the June 1992 elections. They saw the kind of challenge that could be presented.

· What is your forecast, frankly speaking, for the outcome of the elections in June?

- My organisation was in the Council of Representatives until we were illegally driven out - that's another important aspect of the undemocratic nature of this Government: as a minority organisation in a parliament we had every right to hold different views, but on the basis of that the EPRDF voted to expel us. So I think what will happen is the EPRDF will run as a single party but probably it will face-save: they will do all in their capacity to force all dominant or significantly popular organisations out of the game and have some tiny nominal organisations which they will create for this purpose, so they can say this is a multiparty contest, and they will carry the whole thing. It's going to be a one-party show and one party winning.

Also they have made it extremely difficult to register. Any organisation which wants to be a national organisation, if it wants to register in Addis, must have registrations in four other regions as well. And you need to have the signatures of so many thousand individuals from each of these regions. They know perfectly well that most of these organisations will have serious difficulties in doing that because it will be difficult or too expensive for people to associate with the Opposition - because of the risk of loss of job, demotion and all that.

· To organise the Conference you had to appeal to the embassies. Do you still have to rely on that sort of help for your activities now?

- We want to avoid that. We should be talking to our Government straight, but to communicate takes two parties.

On the other hand the President has said: Instead of running around the embassies, why don't you come out to the countryside? We go to the countryside and the local stooge gives an instruction: You must leave this place within one hour. That has happened to a colleague of mine who was a member of the Council of Representatives, who was a Vice-Minister of Information. These young guys wielding guns tell you to leave the place within an hour, and the Government just sits and says: Now why don't you go into the countryside? They simply want to put us in a situation which would be personally dangerous, and we are not here for some kind of martyrdom, we just want to make a serious contribution to the political transformation and our approach is not that of wielding guns or testing our might along those lines.

The essential message is that the Government is not open to opposing views or dialogue.
Interview by R.R.