The Reporter: Is there a genuine concern in Ethiopia that now the people to people relations are guided only through the lines of ethnicity?
Lidetu Ayalew: Well, it is very difficult to say that the relations of the peoples of one country are determined by only one factor. In the Ethiopian context, there are so many other factors that determine the relations both positively and negatively. These factors have existed since ancient times. However, in the last 25 years, the system’s propaganda especially when it communicates with people through the mass media highly focus on ethnicity. As a result, it makes people to see their relations through the lenses of ethnicity as the propaganda of the government and the political system mainly preaches the importance of ethnicity. People are told the fact that the unity of the country was kept only through use of force, that Ethiopia was a prison house of nationalities, and now the main political agenda of the country is identity politics. The government-owned media has kept telling people their differences from the other people. For this reason, the propaganda that has been made in the past 25 years intensified the problem in this regard.
Now, the issue has become dominant with regards to the relation between peoples of the country. Currently, I believe that many people consider their relations with others based on their ethnic identity. But I believe that people in the country are related with other issues as well. The Ethiopian people have lived together for ages. When they move from place to place due to trade, war and job, they intermingled. They are connected through religion and culture as well. So, these linking points are not eroded all in all. However, they are gradually fading and ethnic identity is becoming much stronger instead.
The Amhara protest seems to be initiated by the Wolkait identity question. What is your take on the matter?
I don’t believe this is the major reason for the unrest in the Amhara Regional State. It might be a triggering point. The issue was there since the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in 1991. Some people think that the Wolkait land was illegally and incorporated to the Tigray region from Gondar. This stand manifested itself in an organized or disorganized way in the past. So, it is not a new phenomenon as some people may think. As far as I know, there is no new process of demarcation of border that took place recently. What makes the issue unique now is the establishment of the committee to oversee the question. I think what happened to the committee members has intensified the issue. The major factor that initiated the Amhara protest is the desire of the public to liberate itself from the suppressive and authoritarian regime. So, the Wolkait identity question is not a single governing issue to cause the protest. The major issues are the suppressive nature of the government, lack of political space, freedom, good governance and the question of democracy. If people are not happy with the administration of the country, they may raise different issues to express their anger and frustration. Unfortunately the arrest of individuals who raise this question of Wolkait and the wide coverage of the matter by the media makes the issue to be a bigger one. Whatever the case, I don’t think it is the sole reason for the recent unrest.
The constitution of the country has a solution for such kinds of questions like that of the Wolkait case. It is clearly stipulated how the question of identity is addressed. I don’t believe that violence and death of people is necessary to settle such question of identity. There are different ways to settle this problem. No one is in a position to judge to whom Wolkait belongs. The issue should be judged according to the procedures outlined in the legal system. Whenever there are such kinds of questions, it should be submitted to the House of Federation. Then the House of Federation will examine the case and if it finds the question has the public support, it will pass the issue to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to conduct a referendum. And, according to the referendum, the decisions of the public will be implemented. However, there may be difficulties to conduct referendum. In such instances, we can consider other alternatives. For example, depending on consent, part of Wolkait can be included in Gondar and the other part in Tigray. There is also another alternative. The special Wolkait administration may be established at the kebele or wereda level if it contributes to the peaceful resolution of the matter and ensure the peace and stability of the area. Therefore I don’t think it is impossible to settle the problem by applying all these ways. However, even if this problem is addressed, I don’t think all the problems that we have witnessed in the Amhara region will be solved. Because the main cause of the problem is related with the fact that the government and the public are not on the same page.
The protests in Oromia and Amhara seem to be going on without having clear leadership. What do you think is the end game? The recent agreement between the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) and Ginbot 7 to work together is taken by some as an attempt to fill such a gap. What is your view?
You have asked me a couple of questions; let me start by replying to the first one. Political parties in exile are entitled to agree and sign an agreement to establish partnership and all sorts of activities; I don’t have any problem in this regard; however, I don’t think parties in exile will fill the gap in the country right now. The parties in the country should fill this gap. If we want the struggle of the public to achieve its goals, that struggle should be lead by the parties who are registered in the country. The oppressor regime and the oppressed citizens are here. I don’t think one can solve the problems of Ethiopia from the other side of the Atlantic.
However, it is a fact that there is a leadership gap; currently, I don’t think there is an organized political party that can lead the question of the public. It is mainly due to two reasons; the first one is that due to the suppression form the ruling party in the opposition camp in the past twenty-five years, the second one is that the weakness of the opposition parties themselves and their supporters. One political party is considered as a strong opposition party when it maintains all the pressures from the ruling party. Equally, the public, apart from following the opposition parties, contributes its own share by supporting the parties financially and in time to strengthen the parties. Therefore, due to this, the issue of leadership is raised and for me it is the major reason in this regard. If everybody becomes leader of its respective area and raised its own questions in this regard, what worries me most is not only the process but also the result. We might end up in statelessness and civil war situation. Therefore, both the public and the opposition parties should focus on this issue. There should be strong political parties that will address the struggle of the public and understand the identity of the ruling party. For this all should work together. For this reason I don’t think the solution is in the hands of parties residing in Europe or America the solution is in the hands of local parties. Parties in Europe and America might elevate the problem that’s how I think.
How do you see the inputs and outputs of the scholars, elders, opinion leaders, religious organizations, civil societies and professional associations in such testing times?
I don’t think they provide all the necessary input and output. Groups and individuals played a significant role in settling down conflicts in different parts of the world. It was also practiced here somehow. However, their role in the current unrest is not vocal. They simply looked at where this country could head towards. They are in the sphere of fear and prefer to remain silent. I don’t see any group that takes the case seriously and try to provide a solution for the problem. There are efforts from individuals but not from various professional and civic associations. This is mainly because when political parties in the country became weak all these institutions are also weakened. This is mainly because the ruling party considers these institutions as a contender. In order to strengthen this, all segments of the society should contribute its own share.
To transform the Ethiopian economy, the role of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is very important. How do you evaluate the impact of the recent conflicts in the context of attracting many FDIs?
It has a huge impact. The impact will be not only on the FDI; it also highly affects the tourism sector of the country. For example, am in Lalibela town and witnessed the chilling effect of the conflict. Let alone now, tourists who have booked to visit the area by next year are now cancelling their bookings because of this unrest. The impact is not easy, not only investors who want to come and invest in Ethiopia but also investors who have already started working here are highly worried because of the situation. This might lead them to refrain from investing in this country by saying that the fate of this country is uncertain. Similarly, local investors are refraining from any involvement of development and investment. Even prior to the recent unrest in Amhara Regional State, following the unrest in Oromia, majority of investors have refrained from investing even on land and houses. This will hamper the general economy of the country.
Personally, this is not the question of economy or the question of being rich or poor but it will also impact the question of the future of the politics of the country. Sustaining the economy of Ethiopia is very crucial for the survival of the country. If poverty is widespread in the country and the development process is hampered, the political problem will also be much more complicated. I don’t think Ethiopia will afford poverty any more. The collapse of the economy resulted not only in poverty but also in political unrest in the country. The development and growth of the country is a must irrespective of this dictatorial leadership in power. By simply engaging in political struggle is impossible to unify the country and bring democracy in the country. Development played a major role in bringing democracy and unity. When middle class economy and educated citizens are created a developed and matured political systems will be in place in the country. Therefore, just because we oppose the administration we can’t say the development should be smashed.
What is the ideal role of the opposition in such troubling times? Do you think that the Ethiopian opposition forces presence is felt by the public and its alternatives recognized?
They are trying but it is not like it is expected. As I have mentioned earlier, while we were talking about the leadership gap, there is huge weakness in the opposition camp. The opposition group is not strong enough, according to the political situations in the country. There is no strong opposition political party including my own party. There are lots of problems in the country and hence the country requires a wise leadership unlike any other time. Of course, there are some political parties trying to do something but there activity is limited due to lack of resources. Some parties, rather than understanding the problem correctly, are intensifying the problem. Therefore, the problem that revolves around the opposition parties is widely realized now. However, this problem is not the only problem of the opposition parties it is also the problem of the public.
By the same token, if the ruling party is worried about peace and stability in the country, it should also come down and think about the opposition parties because the weakening of opposition parties will also affect the government. Even during the recent unrest, members of the opposition were the first to be detained and intimidated. Therefore, from time to time, the role of the opposition is diminished. Opposition parties are there only in paper not in practice. When the government heralded the 100 percent win in the last election, it manifests the end of a multi-party system. It also showed that the concept of multi-party system is only on paper to appease ambassadors and other countries but not for the public. But this has a problem, and the problem is not only for the opposition parties of the country and the public, the danger is also for the ruling party too. Today the security and defense of the country might control the problem but it will not stay forever. When things get out of the control, the situation will be more complicated and will result in more chaos and mayhem in the country. Therefore, the situation of the opposition in Ethiopia is very worrisome. The existing political parties, let alone impact the struggle, they themselves are struggling to survive due to the reasons I mentioned earlier. Hence, this agenda should be the prior agenda in the politics of the country and all of us should exert our efforts to strengthen the opposition parties of the country. The recent unrest is mainly lead by the hearsays, Facebook information and so on and this is not appropriate and not benefitting the country. We should learn from others or from our own history that chaos did not bring peace and security. We had revolutions and wars but didn’t bring peace in the country.
Some seems to find it difficult to make a distinction between the people of Tigray and the Tirayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The opposition is partly blamed for the emergence of such attitudes. Do you agree?
Some how yes, but equally responsible is the regime itself since it does not want to see TPLF and the Tigryan people separately. The regime wants to portray that there is no any problem in Tigray region and all Tigryans are supporters of the party. To some extent majority of the opposition parties don’t want to see the Tigryan people and the party separately. In my view, both attitudes are wrong and I believe the Tigryan people and TPLF are separate. TPLF is just one political force while the Tigryan people are millions. There are so many poor and opposing views in Tigray too. Not recognizing that group is a big deficit and a major problem. It is not all political parties but majority of the parties have this sentiment. This will not help their political struggle. Considering both TPLF and the Tigryan people as one benefits none except the TPLF itself. Therefore, first of all, it is not a fact that TPLF and the people of Tigray are one; secondly if we look at the issue from the perspective of political tactics, such kind of move is not appropriate. However I don’t think the oppositions understand this situation.
Do you think that the roles of the regional police forces, the military and defense forces, the federal police and other security forces are specifically outlined when they are involved to arrest and calm down conflicts in the different parts of Ethiopia?
No it is not practice accordingly. Let alone performing their role, according to the legal framework, it is not known who orders them. The situations that have been witnessed in different parts of the country in this regard are confusing, because the defense force interferes on some minor issues that can be addressed by the local or the regional police forces. In some places, in the absence both the police and the defense, local militias with outdated arms try to restore order. Of course the role and the hierarchy are clearly stipulated on the law; however, I don’t think the practice is in line with the law and the reality on the ground is different.
It is not clear that leaders in the government structure are performing their tasks properly; it is also not clear who is the leader and who are the followers. It is not clear where the decisions come from as well; therefore, for me, it is a very big danger.
One of your reform agendas is ethnic federalism. Considering the fact that it is the fundamental pillar of the system, do you think that the government or the ruling party would heed it?
It is very difficult, because it is the major agenda that was propagated by the regime in the past twenty-five years. In fact it is not only in the past twenty-five years, it was there since the armed struggle time. I don’t think the ruling party will easily change this agenda, eventually it has been propagated in the past and the ruling party argued that the ethnic federalism and the agenda of ethnicity will unify the nation, enable the society to love each other and brings peace and democracy in the country. On the contrary, groups that oppose the system have repetitively argued against it but no one was willing to listen to us. However when we see the result it is proved that it is not working and worsens the problems in the country let alone providing solutions to the problem. And due to this danger, challenges are coming on the overall survival of the country. It is very difficult; its difficulty is not only for the ruling party, it needs a prudent solution.
Therefore, there should be discussions to address questions such as what are the problems and the gaps. We are always talking about the politics of ethnicity and identity while we are losing a common ground that binds us together. Ethiopian unity and survival is endangered, the society is becoming antagonistic to each other than loving and caring for one other. Therefore, we should talk on what would be the solution for this problem. A solution should come from the discussions of the society at all levels. I don’t mean that it is easy; I can understand it is difficult but if there is a problem there should also be a solution for the problem. It is difficult to get a different result or solution by thinking only in one way. We should think outside the box. If a certain administration fails to entertain reform, it will usher revolution and armed struggle. Therefore, before we are heading to such problems, the government should think critically and come up with a long-lasting solution. Walking through a similar road will not take us anywhere. This issue is dreadful for all of us.
The government is now talking about reforming its approach of governance. If it is assumed to be a genuine reform process, what issues should be considered as priorities other than ethnic federalism?
It is necessary and good they are discussing over the issue; however, what they are always saying when you present them a question is that we will discuss and solve it. They don’t want to accept any change and idea that comes outside of the EPRDF but this is incorrect. This is the basic problem of this regime. The party always says that my way is the only way, but there is no single party in the world that survives forever through this way. Am not saying that they don’t have to discuss, of course they should discuss to have a position in a party level, but thinking that we are the only way for the solution is incorrect. The current problems in the country need a broad-based discussion, which includes all concerned bodies in the country. The search for the solution should be participatory. This country belongs to all of us therefore a forum to entertain all of our ideas is required.
Well, it is very difficult to reconcile all of our differences. Differences exist whenever because it is natural. It should also be there because if it is entertained properly it will help the country. But the major point here is that when the EPRDF took power, it incorporated its own ideas in the constitution and through the constitution makes its own ideas institutionalized. This is the basic problem; from the very beginning there was no massive discussion to make a common constitution. There was lack of participation form the very beginning. A program of a party changed into a constitution and hence the constitution marginalizes the questions that are raised by many groups of the society. This should be revitalized critically. When we consider this we don’t try to change things chaotically. The constitution itself incorporates articles to amend the constitution and we should follow that procedure. As I said earlier, everyone should participate in this process. Since it is very difficult to avoid differences, the key issue for reform should be opening the political space for all of us equally. There should be a forum that entertains both the EPRDF as one party and other parties, establishing independent institutions that govern the political space and free media. If we agree on these issues the public will decide whose idea is the winning one. What is expected from all of us is accepting the decisions made by the public. For me the major agenda should be creating a political space that accommodates all of us equally, reforming the institutions and put multi party system in practice not only on paper.
Some claim that members of the EPRDF have started to assert their autonomy and deviate from party discipline. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Well I have heard the information, but I don’t have any evidence that the rumor is true. I don’t even see sufficient signs for that matter; some parts of the society suggested what heshe intends to be occurred. Such kinds of information’s are gathered from the media and as far as my assessment of the information from different media outlets is concerned, I don’t see sufficient signs for this to happen. However, I don’t believe that the collapse of the EPRDF is something joyful and I also don’t think the key question is that. What I believe is that the EPRDF, as one party, should continue. It is the biggest party in the country and should be part of the solution to the problems in the country. Without making EPRDF part of the solution I don’t think we will reach to the point where we want to be. Therefore, our main target should be making efforts that EPRDF ought to respect the rights of all of us and respect the equality of other parties. Its fragmentation and collapse might escalate the cause not brings solution.
Lidetu Ayalew, the founder and the longest-serving president of Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), rose to prominence in Ethiopia’s opposition politics during the highly contested 2005 general elections. The aftermath of that election, although it won Lidetu and his party seats in parliament, alienated him from a strong support base due to a split within the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). The impact continued during the 2010 general elections as EDP failed to win a single sit in parliament. And in 2011, Lidetu stepped down from his party’s presidency and virtually vanished from active politics since then. He then traveled to the UK to do his MA in Developmental Studies at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. As the country warms up to the 2015 fifth general elections, Lidetu, a member of EDP’s Central Committee, has resurfaced with a new book titled Tiyatre Boletica (Theatre of Politics). Since then, he has openly expressed his personal ideas on affairs touching the national interest of the nation in different platforms. Solomon Goshu of The Reporter got a chance to talk about the current protests in Amhara and Oromia with Lidetu. Excerpts: