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Saturday, November 26, 2005

"We are living under dictatorship"

Interview with the former President of Ethiopia, Dr. Negasso Gidada (Der Spiegel 47/2005, November 21, 2005 - translated by Getachew Robele)

Thilo Thielke talked to Dr. Negasso Gidada, 61, about the causes of unrest in Ethiopia, the war clouds in the Horn of Africa, and Germany foreign policy in the region. The interview has a title that reads as: “we are now living under dictatorship”, a quote from Dr. Negasso. Der Spiegel is a weekly magazine that is widely read in German-speaking countries. A portrait of Dr. Negasso, an Ethiopian map, a partial view of a big demonstration in Mesquel Sqare and a picture of Meles Zenawi while casting ballot in Adwa are glued inside the article. Note about translation: though a maximum effort has been made to make the translation in as sound as possible, the translator would like to apologize to Dr. Negasso and Der Spiegel if some inconsistencies or oversights are made in the course of the translation.
Spiegel: Mr. Gidada, we hear about weeks of shooting in the streets of Addis. How come that the state which you served as a minister for four years and president for six years resorted to this?
Gidada: The situation in Ethiopia is very serious. In Addis, it has become commonly routine to imprison people and throw them in jails and concentration camps on daily basis. Young people are routinely beaten and the police are literally plundering the private houses of the people they suspect. Most of the concentration camps are located in malaria infested areas of the country. The great majority of the opposition leaders, including artists, journalists and professors are under arrest. Although the official figures of those imprisoned are about 8000, the numbers are definitely much higher than this and may reach about 40,000.
Spiegel: How come that all these have happened?
Gidada: The incumbent regime has never thought and believed that it would lose so horribly in the May election, which is the first democratic election ever held in the country’s history. The opposition parties won in almost all bigger cities and all the more so in Addis with a landslide. When this became clear in the process of ballot counting, the government led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi resorted to a massive ballot rigging and fraud by either forcing the opposition party representatives in the polling stations to sign on the rigged results or by deterring their presence in the centers where ballot counting was conducted.
Spiegel: Like for instance the mayorship office in the capital city
Gidada: Yes. Naturally, the government resorted to blackmailing. Given the fact that the conscience of most of the opposition party members couldn’t come to terms with reality, they opted to distance themselves from the parliament. It has now become crystal clear that we are living under dictatorship.
Spiegel: You have also won as individual candidate in your constituency and opted to join the parliament with few other opposition members, why? Gidada: I am of the conviction to respect people’s voices/votes.
Spiegel: The official press in Ethiopia compares the opposition activists with the Taliban rebels.
Gidada: The Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) called on its members to conduct strikes and demonstrations which is allowed by the constitution. The government considers any protest action against the rigged election results as a coup attempt. Anybody that is engaged in further demonstration and other forms of civil disobedience has been threatened with treason charges, which can culminate in life imprisonment and death penalty. Any refusal or abstention to go to work is also becoming a court case.
Spiegel: In the recent unrest, policemen have also been killed which implies that the opposition parties are not prudish.
Gidada: I am against any form of violence. The question is: do the police have a right to shoot randomly or to further beat children who have got head wounds for nothing but holding stones in their hands? Official sources put the number of dead from the most recent crisis to 61 but I am sure the figures would elevate if all of the fallen victims are counted. We don’t get lots of information now simply because independent newspapers are prohibited to publish or have been the victims of the government’s crackdown. The chief editors and directors of the newspapers are now either in prison or forced to go underground.
Spiegel: Has the protest spread widely throughout the country?
Gidada: I hear about riots in Oromia and Amhara regions. More and more rural people are now siding with secessionist guerrilla forces who are giving them access to firearms. The hope, belief, and dreams of Ethiopians for a lasting solution to the conflict seem to be shattered all the more so when the government opted to rule the country by force. We are now threatened by civil war, a growing chaos and anarchy.
Spiegel: Do you think that things have escalated as a result of the multi-ethnicity nature of the country?
Gidada: For instance, Tigrai region where Prime Minister Zenawi comes from, makes up only seven percent of the Ethiopian population. That is relatively a setback for him. We have to be very careful not to indulge in an ethnic conflict. Notwithstanding these state of affairs, there are movements that are fighting for autonomy, the best example being the Oromo Liberation Front. They are fighting in the name of the Oromo people who make up 40 percent of the country’s population. Ethiopia with its 75 million people has the second largest population after Nigeria. There are about 80 different languages spoken in the country.
Spiegel: You had been the President of Ethiopia till 2001. These had also rarely been times of peace in Ethiopia.
Gidada: It was actually a period in which Eritrea attacked us. The war which claimed the lives of about 100,000 people came to an end after the UN brokered peace between the two countries was enforced and both were told to acquiesce to the peace initiative. The threats of sanctions and the cancellation of credits and development aids were used as sticks to bring both warring parties into the negotiating table. Premier Meles acquiesced to the pressure irrespective of its consequences and has ironically resorted to oppressions internally.
Spiegel: How do you evaluate things in retrospect?
Gidada: It is now clear to me than ever before that Ethiopia’s democracy has stumbled and fallen flat. This stands in contradistinction to our expectation not to have a repeat of the decades of authoritarianism under Emperor Haile Selassie and the Red Terror years during Mengistu. We thought that these chapters have been closed once and for all, albeit wrongly. Now more than ever before, human right violations and anti-constitutional moves by the regime are becoming the norms than exceptions. Any critic of the government will be liquidated. That is why a rift between me and PM Meles occurred. All these things should be seen in perspective: the prime minister had a vision to stay in power until such a time Ethiopia attains a level of development reached by South Korea. He had in mind a twenty years time to reach that level.
Spiegel: More than 20 percent of Ethiopia’s annual budget is financed from EU and the US and the relationship between Zenawi and the West is in its highest form. The premier is a member of Tony Blair’s Commission and not long ago he was with the German President, Horst Köhler. How do you see these?
Gidada: Sadly, all these at a time when people were murdered on the streets of Addis and other towns. I felt extremely sad about all these bizarre things. The Africa Conference in Bonn has damaged the democratic movement in my country. Day-in and day-out, the government-controlled Ethiopian presses are bombarding us with Zenawi’s recent German visit. We really feel betrayed.
Spiegel: Amazing! You know the present-day German politicians from your previous stay here in Germany while studying Anthropology and Social Psychology in Germany in the 1970s.
Gidada: You are right. I went to the streets with many of the then Leftists and Greens, including with some who belonged to Gerhard Schröder’s government. We all demonstrated then against Third World dictators such as the Mobutus and the Bokassas. Most of the present-day leaders in Africa, which belonged to the leftist-oriented liberation fronts, promised us a heaven on earth. Think of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda. Power corrupts people and these same guys who promised us a lot have become real dictators. None of the aforementioned countries have a functioning multi-party system. Surprisingly, however, these same states are considered as favored-kids in German foreign policy.
Spiegel: You are critical of the West’s silence against the horrible things that are transpiring in your country. Don’t you think that this is related to the fact that your country is considered as a partner in the Americans fight against terrorism in the troubled Horn of Africa region? Two of your neighboring countries, viz.. Somalia and the Sudan, are considered as breeding grounds for terrorism.
Gidada: This really reminds me of the Cold War where the superpowers had been closing their eyes to problems related to human right violation and violence. Meles Zenawi and Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, have been one of the very few African states who supported the war in Iraq. Internally, however, both of them have been terrorizing their own people.
Spiegel: Now-a-days, we hear of troop remobilization in and around the conflict-laden borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The movement of UN soldiers, who have been patrolling the buffer zone between the two countries, has been curtailed Is there a possibility for a renewed war between the two states?
Gidada: Nobody likes to see another blood bath. I feel that the Eritrean government intends to exploit the internal strives in Ethiopia to its own advantage. By so doing, it also likes to draw the attention of the international community to resolve the border issue. None of the parties can shoulder a war and both of them will find themselves on the lose-lose side.

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