New Internationalist

‘The Ethiopian people can no longer be passive’

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Opposition leader Negasso Gidada talks to Edward McKenna about his hopes for his country’s nascent pro-democracy movement.

Ed McKenna
Protesters in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia. Ed McKenna

Ethiopia is witnessing the beginnings of a rapidly growing pro-democracy movement. The first major demonstration against the government took place in June, when 10,000 protesters marched through the streets of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. It was the first demonstration of anti-government sentiment since post-election violence in 2005.

During those elections, thousands of protesters poured onto the streets of the capital after the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) disputed the results of the election. The demonstrations resulted in almost 200 people being killed and 30,000 opposition supporters, journalists and civil society leaders detained.

Protesters are now demanding the release of journalists and politicians from jail as well as urgent action to combat Ethiopia’s high inflation and high unemployment. A series of major demonstrations around Ethiopia is being organized by the country’s leading opposition group, the Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ) demanding that the government revoke its controversial anti-terror legislation, which they say is being used to crush legitimate dissent.

Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega and UDJ Vice-Chair Andualem Arage were both jailed for life last year under the government’s anti-terror legislation. They were accused of conspiring to commit acts of terror.

The US and the UN, as well as human rights groups, have also criticized Ethiopia’s ruling party for using the anti-terrorism legislation to stifle and criminalize the exercise of constitutional rights of freedom of expression.

The government has dismissed these accusations, insisting that the anti-terror law is needed to fight terror groups and protect the country’s citizens.

In July, 40 campaigners for UDJ were arrested for distributing leaflets advertising forthcoming demonstrations. Meanwhile, UDJ says it will continue to hold demonstrations across the country over the coming months until the government responds to their demands for change.

Negasso Gidada, leader of the opposition, the Unity for Democracy and Justice party, and former President of Ethiopia, spoke to New Internationalist about the growing movement for democratic change in Ethiopia.

New Internationalist (NI): This will be the second major political protest since the 2005 elections, the first being just five weeks ago. Why have opposition groups waited eight years to stage demonstrations on the streets of Ethiopia?

This country has been waiting for somebody to dare to show them an alternative future is possible

Negasso Gidada: We have always been hopeful that the government will allow us to demonstrate. We have been waiting, but the government has consistently blocked us. After the 2005 elections, when many Ethiopians took to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to the government, there was such an extreme crackdown – resulting in many deaths and thousands indefinitely jailed – that the people of Ethiopia became scared and intimidated to speak out. People were too scared even to attend our political meetings. The intimidation, combined with [then President] Meles Zenawi’s authority over the people which convinced them that there was no alternative to his reign, meant that people resigned themselves to the status quo, they submitted out of fear, they gave up on the idea of a political alternative.

This country has been waiting for somebody to dare to show them an alternative future is possible. And that is all it took for the people to come out on the streets last month.

NI: Why do you think we have reached this point where Ethiopians no longer want to be passive towards the country’s ruling party?

Negasso Gidada: The success of last month’s turn-out, when 10,000 people protested on the streets, has empowered millions to believe that we can no longer be passive and sit on our hands while this country’s government behaves so tyrannically. Yes, we have impressive economic growth, but only a few are benefiting. Poverty is expanding, inequality is rising, the cost of living is increasing, too many people are in jail for being a journalist or for being a politician with views that differ from the ruling political class, and there is corruption at the heart of this government. The country’s wealth is ethnically biased. There are major infrastructure projects underway in Ethiopia and this is causing thousands of poor farmers and semi-pastoralists to be evicted from their land without compensation. The government’s interference in the affairs of the country’s Muslim community, which stands at approximately 40 per cent of the population, is also creating a lot of opposition. All these factors are now coming together to create a momentum that will be difficult for the government to stop unless there is a militant crackdown. Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of aid on the continent; therefore the international community should not tolerate that sort of response. Dissatisfaction across the country is the highest it has been for a long time.

NI: There were many different demands made by anti-government protesters last month, including the release of journalists and opposition members from jail. What are the demands of your party on the government?

Our main interest is to demand the government abolish the anti-terror law. This law is being systematically abused by the government to take away our civil liberties

Negasso Gidada: The focus of July’s nationwide protests was the government’s widespread abuse of human rights. Our main interest is to demand the government abolish the anti-terror law. This law is responsible for too many people being sent to jail with life sentences due to their political persuasion. This law is being systematically abused by the government to take away our civil liberties. Journalists who express some form of dissent are being accused of treason and conspiring to commit acts of terror. We are asking the government to release journalists and the country’s opposition from jail.

NI: There has been a lot of international opprobrium directed at the Ethiopian government for its use of the anti-terror legislation to silence dissent in the media and in the country’s opposition. Ethiopia was the fourth-largest recipient of official humanitarian aid in 2010. Do you think that the international community will support the momentum for political change behind these protests?

Negasso Gidada: The international community is always telling us about the importance of democratic and human rights, but when Ethiopia’s government jails its journalists the international community routinely falls quiet and fails to demand accountability or speak up for the victimized. The opposition of Ethiopia is very disappointed with the international community because of this. We have been crying out to the world about the violation of our democratic rights since the crackdown in 2005. Two hundred protesters were shot on the streets when they demonstrated against the government’s theft of the election.

NI: Why do you think the international community has been so quiet when it comes to criticizing the Ethiopian government’s violation of human rights?

Negasso Gidada: Chiefly because Ethiopia has become an important ally for the West in its fight against Islamic extremism and terrorism in the Horn of Africa. This has led to Ethiopia becoming a geostrategic partner of the West in its ‘war on terror’. Ethiopia borders two ‘failed states’: Eritrea and Somalia. Ethiopia has allowed the US to install many airbases here. Also, Ethiopia has many ethnic groups so there is a fear of ethnic implosion leading to civil war if Ethiopia does not rule autocratically. The West has a fear that leads to its unquestioning support of Ethiopia. If there is instability in Ethiopia then there will be instability in the Horn of Africa.

NI: What are you hoping for from this new era of post-Meles Zenawi politics?

When Ethiopia’s government jails its journalists the international community routinely falls quiet and fails to demand accountability or speak up for the victimized

Negasso Gidada: Meles Zenawi [who died in 2012 and was replaced as prime minister by Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe] set a strong precedent for the ruling party. It will take a long time for this government to give up his ghost. The objective is still the same: it is in blind pursuit of becoming a middle-income country. Meles said there are development forces and there are anti-development forces. According to his perspective, if you are agitating the government for change or criticizing its policies that makes you anti-development. The new leadership is fiercely loyal to the Meles ideology of governance. It has vowed to stay in power and stop at nothing until his objectives have been achieved. Unfortunately, many Ethiopians are suffering because of this obstinate reign of power.

NI: Do you think that the pro-democracy protests in North Africa are empowering the diverse grievance groups in Ethiopia to form an enduring coalition for change?

Negasso Gidada: Our Vice-Chair, Andualem Arage, was telling Ethiopians to learn lessons from the pro-democracy movements in north Africa. He was telling people that the conditions in Ethiopia are worse than the conditions in those countries and that Ethiopia is ready for a similar movement. Andualem is now in prison serving a 75-year sentence. We are advocating that the different groups come together and form a coalition that represents formidable democratic change in this country. We are agitating for this and we will continue to hold demonstrations until this has been achieved.

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