Merera, who is also a political science lecturer at Addis Ababa University, has been a constant figure in the opposition politics since the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power. But his active engagement in Ethiopian politics dates back to the 1960s student movement against the imperial regime of Haile-Selassie. Merera’s biggest success in the opposition politics came when he and members of his party won seats in parliament. He was a Member of Parliament between 2005 and 2010. Merera is set to run in the upcoming election in the constituency of Ambo for a seat in parliament. Solomon Goshu of The Reporter sat down with Merera to talk about his long political career, his party’s election manifesto and his expectations of the upcoming election.
The Reporter: Medrek and its member party OFC are participating in the upcoming election. What are your expectations of the outcome? And, specifically, what do you expect in the Oromia region?
Merera Gudina (PhD): Although EPRDF keeps cutting down the number of our candidates, overall, we have fielded an adequate number of candidates especially in Oromia. We have some 140 candidates in Oromia. If the election is free, fair and democratic, as EPRDF keeps telling us day in and day out, we will win Oromia without a doubt. In truth, EPRDF, through the pressure it exerts on OPDO (Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization – a member of EPRDF) and the misguided Addis Ababa master plan – is helping us win Oromia. The main goal of the master plan is to sell land by evicting Oromo farmers from their land. The master plan not only eroded OPDO’s already small public support in the region but also created tension within the party [OPDO]. Instead of smoothly resolving the issue, the manner the government dealt with the student and youth protest in Ambo and other places last year is still sensitive. And last time, Abay Tsehaye, in a leaked audio, was heard threatening to implement the Addis Ababa master plan whether the people liked it or not [Abay had denied making the threat]. Things like these are alienating OPDO from the people even more so and that will play to our advantage.
Staying on the master plan issue, the government insists the master plan is deliberately misconstrued to incite protest for political gains and that the master plan is not aimed at expanding the territory of the capital. What is your response to that?
I doubt it. I was in the US back then and I heard the issue was first raised by OPDO cadres themselves who know the issue from inside. I believe the decision about the master plan was made without consulting the public or even OPDO. It seems the OPDO simply took the assignment to enforce the master plan. It could be that some members of OPDO in the leadership were aware of it but the opposition began within OPDO members in the lower rank before it spread to the public. The protest came from within to begin with, which means even OPDO officials felt that the interest of the people was not protected by the party. So, the argument that the master plan is misconstrued and the blame thrown on other political forces do not hold water.
What alternatives does the Oromo Federalist Congress, whose chairman you are offer the electorate in Oromia?
We offer true federalism. This has two elements – shared rule within the central government and self-rule at regional level. In our view, currently there is no shared rule. It is clear that Oromos do not have adequate representation in the central government’s leadership positions. We aspire to create a democratic Ethiopia jointly with other political forces in the country. So, our focus is not just about addressing the question of Oromos but also ensuring Oromos participation in the quest to realize a democratic and stable Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s political landscape is characterized as highly polarized. What do you say is the root cause for this, and who takes the blame?
The ruling party takes the lion’s share both as the source of the problem and the solution and revolutionary democracy has become the mother of all evils in the country. The root cause of the problem, however, emanates from two points. One is the political culture of the state. We need to distinguish this from the political culture of the society. For example, the Geda system of Borena, where power changes every eight years, is very democratic compared to the ruling party’s, although these days the government is interfering in the system and turning Aba Gedas into cadres. For many years, power changes hands in Ethiopian politics through the use of force. For over 150 years, even during the imperial regimes, no king transferred power to his heir. Tewodros II, Yohannis IV and Menelik II all assumed power through force. Even when imperial bloodline was the rule of the game, it was the gun that brought power. Haile-Selassie came to power through a coup d’état, probably the first in Africa. The same is true with Derg and EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front). We are still in that culture. The other is that the generation that is aspiring to bring about change have not changed. Back then [during the military rule] we were all socialists and now the same people are democrats. Almost all political forces when the Derg was in power proclaimed to be socialists. Yet there was no consensus between the two political forces. And now the political elite in power, day and night, is concerned about prolonging their stay in power, and not about bringing change to the country. You cannot lead a democratic process without being democratic. That is the biggest problem with EPRDF. For example, despite our reservations in some aspects, the Constitution guarantees all conceivable human rights. But in implementation, even the smallest rights are trampled down.
Some blame the leftist attitude espoused by political parties, the ruling and opposition alike, for the polarized political landscape. They say it is that same generation which is running the country’s politics. What is your take on that?
Indeed, the politics of the generation of the 60s was divisive and bent on eliminating the other. That was wrong. It is the same to this day. But the problem is that even those who criticize such political culture are not doing anything better. They repeatedly criticize that generation, but I doubt that those who criticize have the capacity or the knowledge to create a better Ethiopia for themselves. At least that generation has made sacrifices to extricate the country from backwardness and it was not for personal gain. And currently the youth is also participating in the struggle to realize a democratic Ethiopia. The youth has always been in the center. Mengistu was in his 30s when he assumed power, Haile-Selassie was in his late 30s and Meles was in his 30s. Putting age aside, the question is whether there change in the attitudes of our political culture. Age should not be considered as a factor for the political chaos of the country. Every age group has a role to play. For example, within our organization, we have the Advisory Council, headed by Bulcha Demeksa and comprising individuals of the older generation. Then there are individuals like me in the leadership as well as the youth league. So the door is open for all and everyone is playing their role. Over 80 percent of the candidates we have fielded are under the age of 40. But I fear the youth might use politics to serve their personal interest. You know what happened to Kinijit (Coalition for Unity and Democracy). You know what Tolossa Tesfaye did to our organization [the then Oromo National Congress]. So the problem in our politics is not lack of opportunity for the youth.
Recently, Medrek has released its election manifesto. The manifesto tends to focus more on pointing out failures of the ruling party instead of offering clear alternatives. Why is that so?
We have offered alternatives. For example, if we assume power we would create a national unity government as opposed to EPRDF’s complete control. We will work to protect human rights, conduct free and fair elections, establish an independent electoral board, an dependent judiciary and free civic societies and associations like the youth, women and teachers – in all areas the EPRDF is failing. We will stop eviction of people from their land. We will reduce tax for farmers. Under EPRDF there are business people marginalized in favor of those who side with the government. We will ensure fair treatment of all in the business community. We have listed all this down on the manifesto.
In the manifesto, you stated that the nation’s political economy is under complete control by the EPRDF. What are the major impacts of such control by the ruling party?
Well, as I said the mother of all evils in the country is revolutionary democracy. EPRDF is neither revolutionary nor democratic. There is a fusion of party and state. Government institutions are becoming enforcing agents of one party. In political science parlance, this is what is called the privatization of the state. This is what revolutionary democracy has created. Wealth is concentrated within one party and one has to be a member of that party to have a share. In revolutionary democracy, the public could at least have some share of the wealth. But that is not the case either. EPRDF runs a business empire but bars other political parties from operating businesses. EPRDF prevents other political parties from owning media; but it owns and operates its own media.
In any democratic system, there is separation of power and a check and balance. There is no such thing in Ethiopia. The executive branch is the legislator, the interpreter and enforcer of the law. Democratic institutions like the media and civic societies are under the stranglehold of the EPRDF. Many magazines and newspapers have gone defunct and many journalists have fled the country. Without free media or civic societies, there will be no pillars of democracy. EPRDF claims to have established federalism, but in reality what we have is a central government which operates like a communist party. This is like providing meat and denying the knife. For example, how many presidents have come and gone in Somali or Gambella region because of the central government? Neither did the people of Tigray vote out Gebru Asrat and Co. So, what we have is an undemocratic caretaker government which is taking us nowhere.
In your manifesto, you claim that the constitution and the system in place protects the interest of EPRDF members and leaders. You say the question of nations and nationalities is not addressed. Are you backtracking from your previous stance in which you acknowledged EPRDF’s effort to address the questions of nations and nationalities? Is this an implementation issue or a question of normative framework of the constitution?
We are saying there is a sliding back. EPRDF is failing on their promises to the people when they assumed power. The last election result was announced to be 99.6 percent [for the ruling party]. That is one indication of the slide back. It is similar in many aspects, including corruption. There is regression and not progression. Many are of the same opinion, including former members like Tewolde [Gebremariam], Seyee [Abraha], Gebru [Asrat] and Aregash [Adane]. The political system is narrowing down instead of being inclusive especially since 2005.
The manifesto states that there are opposition political parties organized and supported by EPRDF. Who are these parties and what is your evidence for that?
They are known and I do not wish to mention names. For example, in 2005 our party was infiltrated by an individual. We know he was backed by EPRDF and we know how much money he was given. We have thousands who can testify to that. There are many similar situations like that. This is no secret. We know. EPRDF knows.
You question the independence of various government institutions, including the judiciary and the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. What would you do differently to ensure the structural independence of these organs specifically?
There are lessons we can draw from other countries. Take for example the electoral board. There are two ways. Appointing impartial professionals versed in the knowledge of administering elections who are chosen by both the opposition and the ruling party. We proposed this in our negotiation with EPRDF. The constitution says the prime minister recommends members of electoral board which are appointed by parliament. It does not say the premier elects the members. So, we could jointly come up with a shortlist to be recommended by the prime minister. But EPRDF officials did not want that. If this is not possible the other option is establishing a board supervised by representatives of political parties from both the opposition and the ruling party. The international practice is either one of the two. But the reality in Ethiopia is such that one party is the player and the referee. There is no way you can win in such a game. When you come to the judiciary, judges had relative independence even during the imperial regime. There are a lot of ways to ensure the independence of the judiciary. Judges should be guaranteed to abide by the law and the law only and it should not about being a member of this or that party. Currently, there is no such thing.
In the manifesto, your party has stated that the fast economic growth is not translated into transforming the living conditions of the public. What led you to such conclusions?
The gap between the poor and the rich is becoming extreme. Some are living in luxury while others are feeding themselves off garbage. Behind the rise of buildings, there is a scary rise of cost of living. There are a lot of people falling off the poverty line. I always say that a starved people will eat its leaders.
But even international financial institutions credit the government for its pro-poor development approach. You do not agree with their assessment?
Who provides the data for these institutions? Who is cooking the data? The data the government provides is not credible. We have debated with institutions like IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank. And what the international institutions do is to conduct sample surveys of a few weredas. They do not do a wider-scale survey.
Your manifesto also promises that there will be an alternative official working language other than Amharic on the basis of the number of speakers. But it fails short of mentioning a language. Which languages stand a change of becoming a working language?
Considering the reality on the ground, for example, Oromiffa and then Tigrigna and Somali languages could become the working language. But making Oromiffa the official language also has added benefits, including ensuring better stability and unity in the country. It will also hasten the effort to create a better, what EPRDF calls, one political economy because about 70 percent of the population speak the two languages (Amharic and Oromiffa).
Some studies conducted abroad suggest that additional working languages create economic burden on the state. For example, South Africa, although they declared 11 working languages, only one is widely used as a working language due to the economic burden. Have you analyzed the economic aspect of introducing more working languages?
No doubt it will crease some economic burden. But the current state of the nation requires that. Otherwise the nation is heading towards building a country where the people do not even speak with one another. So we might pay an even higher price. In fact, we urge groups who advocate the unity of the country to seriously consider addressing the issue of working languages.
Much of the promises on the manifesto appear to follow a revisionist approach to what the EPRDF is already doing. And the solutions your party offers seem to require huge financial resources. How do you intend to raise the necessary financial resource to achieve your goals?
The problem with EPRDF is failure to fairly and properly utilize the nation’s wealth. They also get substantial amount of aid. But they abuse it. There is no trickle down benefit for the public. The International Integrity Fund has said USD 11.7 billion has gone out of Ethiopia in illicit financial flow over the last ten years. This could have built three Grand Renaissance Dams without the need to beg for money. Where did the money go? How did it go? It is the Ethiopian government that can answer it. We are also squandering money in the name of regional politics and security. I recall we begged former Prime Minister Meles [Zenawi] not to send troops to Somalia. We can defend our boarders without the need to send troops to Somalia. Thousands of troops have been stationed in our boarder with Eritrea for over ten years. You spend a lot of money for that. There is also a huge potential within the diaspora; we can tap into that with better engagement. So, money is not a problem. With the resources at our disposal we can do a lot more. What it needs is getting our politics right.
You have been in politics for long and you are also running in the upcoming election. How do you evaluate your political path?
The ups and downs, personal and as people, over the years were not as such easy. Especially our generation, over the last 40 years, has been striving to bring about a better Ethiopia without much success. The attempt is foiled by people of the same generation. Even the course we are chartering on at the moment does not seem to take us anywhere either. The fundamental problems of the nation need to be addressed with the participation of all. Everyone may be blamed for the failure, but now the ball is in the hands of the ruling party. But the ruling party, even after 24 years, espouse jungle mentality. We are participating in this year’s election despite our difference with the ruling party on the basic tenets of a free and fair election including the rule of law, the use of media and independent electoral board. In all, Ethiopian politics will always remain in danger if the Tigray elite cling to power at whatever cost, the Amhara elite are bent on reviving their past hegemony and the separatist urge of the Oromo elite. Otherwise the politics will remain chaotic and we are currently at a dangerous crossroads.
What do you say is your biggest contribution in the political struggle?
In the political struggle against three regimes, I never gave up for over 40 years. I feel that is my biggest contribution. I have opposed the imperial regime in the Ambo students’ movement, I was a representative of Meison (All Ethiopian Socialist Movement) at the Addis Ababa University [during the Derg regime]. I have lost my brother. I was imprisoned for seven years. I am still in the political struggle for a better Ethiopia because I, and many Ethiopians, do not believe the current regime is any better. Putting aside the success or not, I have also contributed in bringing together Ethiopian political forces – right, left or center – comprising different ethnic groups to the middle ground for the realization of a democratic Ethiopia.
Finally, what sort of scenarios would force you to say ‘I have had enough of politics’?
I will not be displeased if I retire now. But there are a lot of people, particularly young ones, who believe in me and some of them are rotting in jail. I cannot abandon them because I felt too uncomfortable with politics. I have a moral obligation. On the basis of my performance, the party or myself could come to a decision to retire. But as long as one is willing to contribute for the party, there is a place. Bringing young people to the leadership has been difficult. If it were not for EPRDF’s continued undercutting activity that prevented us from grooming young people to the leadership, I could have retired.