Nigussu Legesse (PhD)
Executive Director, CCRDA
The year 2019 was deemed by some civil society watch organizations as a new beginning. This attribute was given mainly because of the annulment of the infamous Charities and Societies Proclamation in that year and its subsequent replacement by the more laissez-faire Civil Societies Proclamation. The revocation was part of the bigger national reform agenda pursued after the coming into power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) in April 2018. His sweeping reforms in the realms of democratization and opening up space for the media and civil societies won him hearts and minds both locally and internationally at the onset of his rule. The main bottlenecks for civil societies emanating from the repealed proclamation are restrictions of these organizations to strictly engage in development issues as well as the cap placed on their finance from foreign sources. Following the revocation of the proclamation, in the first half of the budget year 2020/21, 1805 civil societies were re-registered while 1300 new entrants joined the block. The total number of CSOs operating in the country has now reached 3200. Hopes were high with the repealment as well as the influx of these civil society organizations (CSOs) especially when it comes to creating awareness among the society about democratic culture and being voices to the voiceless. With their legislative bottlenecks removed and left for themselves to watch each other’s activities, these organizations are now faced with challenges ranging from finance to capacity and human resources. They are also required to play significant roles in the upcoming general elections the country plans to hold on June 5, 2021. In this exclusive interview with The Reporter’s Brook Abdu, the executive director of the Consortium of Christian Relief and Development Association (CCRDA), Nigussu Legesse (PhD) reflects on the legislative environment since the amendment of the proclamation, the role of civil societies in voicing societal concerns, as well as the preparations of such organizations to actively engage in the upcoming elections. Nigussu is also the President of the Council of Ethiopian Civil Societies, the member of the board of directors for the Coalition of Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations for Election (CECOE) as well as the Ethiopian Civil Societies Agency. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Following the repealment of the Charities and Societies Proclamation in 2019, it was hoped that the new Civil Societies Proclamation would open the door for the enhanced engagement of civil societies in the socio-political affairs of the country. This had led to the registration of a huge number of CSOs in the country. Considering their number, do you think these CSOs are doing what is expected of them?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): As we all know, the former Charities and Societies Proclamation had paralyzed all of the civil societies and limited almost every aspect of their activities. It is also recent memory that many civil societies, especially those working on human rights, had closed their offices and fled the country as a result of the proclamation. Now it has been about two and a half years since the enactment of the new proclamation. The new proclamation has brought significant changes to the country and it has given space for civil societies to actively engage in their areas of interest. But, despite the proclamation’s openness, such organizations would inevitably take time to enter into action in full force as they were confined for ten years. Their employees had left and they have to build back their capacity through training so that they can effectively carry out their activities in areas like human rights and empowering the public as these are expected from us. Overcoming the problems in a short while is a challenge for many except for the few who have that capacity. For instance, CCRDA has 436 member CSOs and we mobilize financial and other resources for these members. We don’t compete in project implementation with them. Most of our engagement is in training their staff in areas where there is demand so that they can build capacity. Many are new entrants in the sector. Now many are starting to be active.
In the past, our roles were limited to service delivery to help the destitute. But now we can engage in human rights protection as well as empowerment of the society to be able to ask questions and know their duties and rights. Hence, to do so, many are preparing themselves in areas of human resource and training as this is new for civil societies in Ethiopia. All things including service delivery should be linked to rights. But because of the limitations in the past 10 years, civil societies have taken time to adapt to the new situation. We are getting into the line now and I hope the time ahead of us will see active engagement from civil societies. It has been a time to prepare so far like re-registering according to the new proclamation. For instance, more than 3000 CSOs were estimated to be operating in the country but only 1800 re-registered. Where did the rest go? No one knows. If they went bankrupt, they should declare it to the Agency. Many fled the country and their whereabouts are not known. When we held our 248th general assembly, we notified our members to register to be members of our consortium. Currently, they are organizing offices, recruiting human resources, and carrying out other activities of the preparation phase. But the proclamation has opened up the space for civil societies and even went to the extent of allowing the establishment of the Council of Civil Societies on article 85 of the proclamation. Accordingly, we established this Council on December 31, 2020, and elected 21 executive committee members.
The Reporter: CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil societies, recently released a report that designates the situation of civil society organizations in Ethiopia as “repressed”. With this in mind, can we say that the proclamation has brought a new horizon of hope for civil societies in this country, or is it because of the presence of previous challenges that the CSO situation is designated as repressed?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): To tell you the truth, we don’t have the previous challenges that haunted us for the past 10 years. We have no limitations now. In case there is any limitation we face, it comes from our side. We never have complaints on the Civil Societies Agency or other relevant government entities. The challenges now are related to the capacity of CSOs both in human and financial resources. These organizations have to reposition themselves with the new working environment. This took time for many CSOs. I can say that we have no limitations and we must exploit the opportunity we are given.
The Reporter: So, are you saying that such assessments are based not on the limitations emanating from legislation and bureaucratic red tapes?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): Yes, there is no legal framework or bureaucratic process that limits us. As I have said, we have limitations capacitating ourselves in human resources and align our activities with the new legal framework. This requires some time to do. These are the things that delayed our activities and now many are getting on track. We are also training members of our Consortium on how to communicate with the locals, what to do, and so on by employing technical assistants.
The Reporter: Civil society organizations in the country have formed a Council, which you are a president to and they also had a forum that they formed years ago. To what extent are these establishments helping CSOs solve their problems by themselves?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): Members of the Forum are consortiums and we are 52 consortiums that formed a forum. It is meant to help the members gather and work together for common interests. It had a board of 13 members. The Board helped as a transitional interim institution until the foundation of the current Council. The Forum had issued various statements on national matters and it functioned at a higher level. Following the enactment of the new proclamation for civil societies, it grew into the current Council. This required the preparation of articles of association, code of conduct as well as a strategic plan which took a while to deliver. Members of the forum formed three task forces to prepare these documents. After these documents were reviewed, we established a joint committee with the Civil Societies Agency as they are the ones who should call civil societies for the initial assembly required in forming the Council. The articles of association were scrutinized jointly with the board. But because of various interests that even led to conflicts, it took longer than expected to form. But only 300 of the 3000 CSOs could become members of the council. This was easy for consortiums as they are given quotas for participation. There were also 1750 CSOs that were not part of any consortium. We were expecting to get about 1000 representation from them; however, only 250 of them responded to our calls. This led to the transfer of the Board’s activities to the Council.
The Reporter: What were the major differences observed in this process of phasing out the Board and establishing a council to take over its roles?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): The Forum was formed to coordinate civil societies under one umbrella so that they can stand for their common interests in times of need. Prior to the forum’s establishment, it was CCRDA that used to coordinate civil societies. We also became members of the Forum. As there were civil society organizations that were not part of the Forum, they were not engaged in decision-making. But the council embraces all civil societies whether they are members of the forum, consortium, or not as stipulated by law.
During this transition, questions started to arise regarding the possible fate of the Forum after it gave birth to the Council. The plan from our side was to slowly phase out the Forum within one year after it completes projects at hand, which are financed by different entities. Until then, we proposed for the forum’s director and finance head to assist the council in various aspects. However, some demanded its immediate liquidation. But we have to officially gather and decide on this.
The Reporter: The council is a dream come true for civil societies in Ethiopia as they have been nudging the government to be allowed to form it. In what terms could it be helpful to alleviate the challenges of CSOs that you have mentioned above?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): This Council was formed in the spirit of the proclamation and it was controversial in many aspects especially with the Civil Societies Agency. As there was no oversight of the Council’s activities, the Agency feared who would watch on the activities of the Board. This is something that took time in the process of establishing the Council. The agency was also concerned whether the relationship with the Council would be parallel or top-down. We argued that the spirit of the constitution does not allow a government oversight over the Council as it would result in the lack of credibility in the institution. If it is a must to have that oversight, we demanded the House of Peoples’ Representatives take over that role. That was a point of departure during the process. The concern is how the members could be held accountable in the event of wrongdoing, which the code of conduct already addresses.
The Council will engage in national matters and it will not participate in the implementation of specific projects. But we will provide protection to the members and deal with the government whenever disputes arise. It has the authority of dealing with government bodies at any level. This helps us to conduct advocacy works both for our members and the society. So this will be a huge support for civil societies to resolve the challenges they face especially in terms of capacity.
The Reporter: The main roles of civil societies are two: creating awareness among the society and being voices to the voiceless. But there are limitations from the side of civil societies in executing these roles. For instance, while civilian deaths have become common in this country and armed conflicts are raging on many fronts, condemnations from civil societies and voicing the concerns of people at risk is seldom heard from very few civil societies. What exactly is holding civil societies from doing this?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): In order to be a voice for the voiceless, we need to move to those spotlights and make assessments. I believe in research and I lived in it my whole life. Blanket blame on a certain body is not helpful. You have to be objective. If civil societies get into this without information, they would add insult to injury. I can’t make a statement unless I can send my people to those places and gather information on the ground. It would be problematic, if not done that way. There is also a lesson I learned from the World Council of Churches where I worked at for ten years and a half. I was the director for Africa and one of our challenges was Boko Haram in Nigeria. Although we did frequent prayers on mass graves there, our reports had to be corroborated with information the people give us and they should be what people believe in. That kind of report is used to do global advocacy. We hugely rely on research.
We understand that civil society should be neutral and closely watch matters to report on such incidents. We don’t have the reach to tell what is happening in where. Such problems are hindrances for civil societies when it comes to being voices to the voiceless. It is possible to condemn the killings of civilians but we can’t present details. Details require doing assessments on the ground; I don’t think we have civil societies with such a capacity. The Council could come to their aid by capacitating them to play such roles in the future.
Undeniably, what is happening in this country is saddening. We have seen a lot being done with regional police giving protection to the youth. I have said this straight at the Prime Minister’s face. If the regional police in Oromia give protection to the Oromo youth and let other citizens die, it is difficult to say that we are leading a country. And even if you try to go and do assessments in those areas, who would give us proper information? This is a problem we see everywhere. We could create problems, if we try to say anything amidst this vacuum of information.
Let alone this, we had tried to deliver humanitarian assistance as soon as the war in the North broke out. We partnered with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Catholic Church. This was in one part intended to get more information as religions have grassroots access to the society. But it did not succeed because of their stretched engagements. On the other hand, the prohibition of civil societies from engaging in humanitarian assistance had crippled these societies and they can’t immediately resume now. CCRDA had been one of the three institutions in the country that transported grains from Asab Port in Eritrea. But later civil society organizations were banned from engaging in humanitarian services.
The United Nations under its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) delivers assistance but they said local CSOs are not allowed to work with them because they don’t have the capacity. I asked them what they are doing here; ‘isn’t it to be capacity for us?’ This was a big challenge for us and took us six months to convince them to work together. Now we are part of their mission. It used to be a whites-only club. I was forced to tell them that we don’t have a colonial farm in Ethiopia.
The Reporter: Understandably, there are areas difficult to reach for humanitarians, journalists, and other concerned bodies. But some areas like Tigray are starting to open up for access. We are now hearing lots of reports of civilian atrocities, rape, and so on. Is it because of limited capacity or lack of interest in engaging in such activities?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): No, it is not lack of interest at all. Civil society is not to the level it can carry out such tasks. But speaking of CCRDA, we have regional chapters led by steering committees. We communicate with the chairpersons of these committees to get information. We have a strong chapter in Tigray. I repeatedly asked the coordinator of the chapter to do some assessment so that we can prepare a proposal for donor support. But we were told mobility is a challenge. Some agencies like Oxfam, Act Alliance, and Action by Churches have mobilized resources to deliver relief for the affected people in coordination with the Orthodox church. What we could have done at CCRDA is gather information through our staff there but they had security concerns.
The Reporter: You mobilized resources for people affected by the conflicts in Oromia in the aftermath of the killing of artist Hacaalu Hundessa. Although you launched the support program, you did not give updates on how many people benefitted from this scheme. What’s the status now?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): The initiative started earlier in October 2020 when 86 people died because of reports that the security protection of Jawar Mohammed will be removed. I communicated with various people and formed a committee of 20 people. We then met with the federal Police Commissioner-General Endeshaw Tassew. We met with the Prime Minister and discussed ways of calming down the conflicts through a committee we formed. It was that committee that took the initiative to support victims following Hacaalu’s killing. But the Orthodox church wanted us to be a sub-committee which we declined arguing that they did not care to go and visit these victims. For instance, I took a delegation of 50 people on the route to Bale, and two groups headed to Shashemene and Harar. We had the upper hand at that time. Finally, we formed a committee with 14 members with equal representation from both sides. Through this committee, 40 million birr was collected from various sources. In the mean time, the Association of Priests of North America was fundraising to support the victims. They brought in two million dollars which went to the needy around Oromia through CCRDA. The 40 million dollars that the church distributed to these victims was deposited in their respective accounts but they did not access it as they were not given the pass book. But our support came to the rescue of these people in urgent need of support. We included the victims of the conflicts in that year on the list of receipients. It was also a lesson for us about how to do humanitarian support.
The Reporter: As I can understand from your explanation, the support that you provided seems to have focused on Christians only. Is it not discriminaroty?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): Not at all. The problems happened in Oromia region and when we specifically look into the post Hacaalu’s death violence, the victims were Christians, especially Orothodox Christians. But that does not mean the Oromos were not targeted. For instance, a report from the Oromia Police Commission at the time indicated that out of the 35 people killed in Arsi, 22 were Christian Oromos. Hence, it is not questionable that the Christians were the targets. The Orthodox church alone reported the killing of 67 people. The rest 100 could be casualities from law enforcement measures.
The Reporter: Such humanitarian activities are more or less not time bound. And once in a while, time bound events such as elections come demanding your active involvement. Civil societies in the country have formed a coalition to observe the elections and provide civic and voter education. Do you think civil societies are playing the roles expected of them to their level best?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): A lot is expected of civil societies when it comes to elections. Unfortunately, elections are sources of problems in our country and they have led to the detention of our members in the past. The current commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Daniel [Bekele (PhD)] was detained in the aftermath of the 2005 elections. We were also interrogated day and night at that time. Civil societies were pushed aside because of an interest to stay in power for eternity.
Although the law has been repealed and replaced by another one, it is not easy for civil societies to immediately reorganize themselves in a manner that fits the kind of engagement the elections require. Based on the previous electoral schedule released last year, we formed a Coalition of Ethiopian Civil Societies for Election (CECOE) which brought together 170 CSOs that put electoral roles in their objectives. The Coalition was hosted at the European Center for Electoral Support (ECES) office and started preparing for the elections. Later, the elections were extended. Apart from ECES, National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute were here to support the elections. Their presence was helpful in building the capacity of civil societies in the country. When the election was postponed, some staff hired to do so were given opportunities to take trainings.
CECOE is a legally registered entity that mobilizes resources and provides technical assistance for election observation and voter education. I have observed elections in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Congo, Burundi, the South Sudan referendum and others. My experience from these elections helped us in building the coalition. It has started to be noticed. The Board invited us to observe the Sidama referendum and we sent out about 220 people to observe the referendum. Although it was suddenly announced that there would be a referendum in five months, we managed to deliver observers. This was highly helpful for experience. We will have 3000 people to observe the sixth general elections. The huge task ahead of us now is voter education for which the National Election Board gives accreditation. Out of more than 400 we have at CCRDA, 33 were accredited by the Election Board. We have mobilized financial resources for these members and gave them orientations to launch activities.
The Reporter: Aren’t these initiatives and efforts coming a little too late. Candidate registration was completed weeks ago and we just have two weeks to go for the conclusion of voter registration according to the electoral calendar. Isn’t it concerning to you that the elections lack vibrancy?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): To tell you the truth, there were also problems from the side of the Election Board. Voter education comes first of all activities in an election. Civil societies registered to provide voter education need to get an ID from the Board. The provision of this ID was delayed and many are getting it this week, delaying their activities. This is a situation out of our control. We should have even been observing the process during the voter registration.
The Reporter: Well now we are left with just two weeks for the conclusion of voter’s registeration. But civil society organizations that should be working to initiate the public to register and vote are not visible. Aren’t they failing the public?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): I told you why it was delayed. We should have started voter education a week or two ago and we could not do it before the Election Board gives us the access IDs. It was because of matters out of our control. It is undeniable that we are doing less than what we should have done.
The Reporter: What do you think of the security situation in the country. Some say that the country should prioritize security and provide protection to its citizens dying week in week out. Do you think there is an atmosphere that would enable the country conduct an election?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): If the elections are not conducted, this would be a problem by itself. We have seen the kind of problem we faced at the national level because of it. We could have been safer, had we conducted the elections then. But the novelty of the virus complicated issues. It will be problematic not to hold elections because of security issues. But when we look at the situation in general, there are concerns of mobility.
The Reporter: Can you say that CCRDA will be bold enough in this elections like you were in the post 2005 elections?
Nigussu Legesse (PhD): No doubt! We will be bold in every aspects. Thirty five CSOs under CCRDA initially planned to observe the elections in 2005. But just 13 were left at the end. But these 13 managed to deploy observers. But things changed course and many were detained for about two years. Now we don’t have that kind of limitation and we will deploy our observers to follow the process. We are trying our level best to play the role expected of us.