Tsion Engidaye, Head of Youth Affairs and member of the National Executive Council of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice
Born in Addis Ababa in 1996, Tsion Engidaye attended her primary and secondary education at Lideta Cathedral School, and later joined Addis Ababa University in 2014 to study Law. Currently, she is studying Constitutional and Public Law for her second degree.
Earning her first degree in 2018, Tsion immediately stepped in the political arena, joining a local political group the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (ECSJ), which was under-establishment, to contend with the then ruling coalition [EPRDF], which later rebranded itself as EPP (Ethiopian Prosperity Party).
Tsion was one of the active participants engaged in various activities and responsibilities during ECSJ’s long establishment process, which was made up of a coalition of three political parties in 2019. The newly unified political party, later named Ezema, is highly credited for its belief which prioritizes the promotion and active participation of youth and women both at the party membership level and in the leadership ladder.
In line with that belief, Tsion was chosen for the party’s top leadership position. Currently, she is the Head of Youth Affairs, while she is also a member of the party’s National Executive Council.
Ahead of the upcoming General election, Yonas Abiye of The Reporter sat down with Tsion Engidaye to talk about her political career, experiences working with senior political figures, pre-election process, and the upcoming election. The young politician also spoke about her role model Birtukan Medeksa (Chairwoman of the National Election Board of Ethiopia). Excerpts:
The Reporter: Your political career began three years ago when you joined ECSJ immediately after graduating from university. How difficult was it for you to join the opposition camp at an early age with the then political environment that did not welcome the active participation of the youth?
Even if I was very young, I followed the ongoing political crisis closely while I was still in college. I was extremely concerned about the issues of gender affairs, youth mistreatment and the prevailing injustice across the nation. That’s why, immediately after graduation, I decided to join ECSJ, which in fact, had not been officially established at that time. I have been participating in the parity’s overall activities during its pre-establishment. As I tried to explain earlier, for me, the major driving force that led me to take part in politics is mainly, the existing political system under which the nation languished for long, while there were some political figures, who inspired me a lot especially while I was studying law at the AAU.
Could you share with us who those role models were or those senior political figures that garnered your attention and inspired you the most?
Of course, apart from the country’s situation which was the primary cause that pushed me into politics, there were some key figures that inspired me. I can mention a few of them including senior politicians who currently serve in ECSJ leadership. I used to admire them before I knew them and still do after I have come to know and work with them. Similarly, I had also been so passionate and motivated by the courage and commitment of Birtukan Mideksa, who is my role model.
Basically, the existing situation in the country could be taken as the number-one factor for me to join politics. The justice system, the political repression and gender related setbacks are the driving factors that brought me to where I am now. I believe women have not been properly represented in Ethiopia’s political landscape. For quite a long time, I have considered myself a feminist, which in itself also contributed to my decision to join politics and fight for female’s political representation.
Ethiopian politics is seen as a hostile place where even speaking against injustice is considered as playing with fire. With that in mind, was it difficult for you to come to a decision to join a political party? Were you afraid of reprisals for having a different political view?
As I said earlier, the political situation was deteriorating. It was indeed too hostile for females and youth as well. Like women, the youth have not been well represented and are the immediate victims of that system. Both of them have suffered from that brutal system in every corner of the country. So, all these factors kept me determined to fight from within the political group. I realized it was not simple to join a struggle for democracy in that situation. But I had to do it that way.
However, you cannot escape from the impact of that political system simply by attempting to distance yourself from political participation and locking yourself behind your door.
What is your take on your party’s current shape and level of determination in addressing the pressing challenges and meeting the demands of women and youth for equality and fair representation?
I joined the party at the early stages of discussions to form a unified political party. But my personal aspiration for politics was born earlier while I was a student at the AAU. While I was at the AAU, I was in close contact with some politicians in the opposition camp and took part in various events and conferences which were organized by different political groups, rendering services and assistances during the establishment period even before I graduated. And, I consider myself as one of the founding members of Ezema.
I joined them with an invitation from some of the individuals who convinced me that they plan to establish a party that would go in line with my area of interest and struggle for democracy. If you see the basic or core philosophy of the party, it avails itself to social justice, which focuses on youth, female, disabled people and marginalized section of our society.
With elections fast approaching, campaigning has gone up a notch. Ezema is trying to be a real contender to the ruling party, EPP, with the second highest number of candidates registered for parliamentary and regional seats. Since you are in a leadership role in the party, can you shed light on how you are assessing the overall preparation being undertaken by the election board and participating parties? As a main contending party, how do you see the progress made so far?
As a party, our priority was to get our job done before registering for the election. Hence, we have done our job effectively and efficiently. These jobs I referred to include the likes of party structure, leadership arrangements, recruiting of members and leaders in the country, and opening of offices at respective levels and regions. As you know, we have conducted several activities transparently such as on how we organized our offices, how we elected representatives and leaders, and who were responsible for the party’s activities in each woreda and in every locality. We have not been working only just to maximize the number of our members and representatives, but also to bring out members and representatives or the right manpower that would meet what Ethiopia requires most at this time. So, what we have so far done is a very encouraging activity, which has achieved in bringing the right representatives, who not only suit the desires of Ezema, but rather effectively meet what Ethiopia requires.
When we claim that we need to build a strong democracy, it also incorporates building a strong political party, which can compete very well. So if we are to build a strong institution at a country level, we have to first show the ability and efficiency of building an open institution first at a party level. Our plans to build other institutions have to first begin from our own. We have been doing that the past few years.
From the NEBE’s side, we have witnessed that a lot of things have been done. At the same time, there are a lot of difficulties and challenges despite the efforts by the Board. We had several candidates who found it hard to register and in some places, our members suffered from attacks including killings and harassments of some of our members.
Even with these prevailing challenges, we came to the election process focusing on four basic requirements. Of course, there are more standards set internationally in addition to the four requirements. At least, once we insure the four requirements are fulfilled, we will accept the upcoming election results no matter what.
The first requirement is to get public institutions and the electoral board to treat every party equally and fairly. The second is facilitating a favorable environment that enables the public to vote without any fear and pressure. Third is to enable political parties to move freely and conduct their campaign without any intimidation and harassment. The forth requirement we have laid down is the need to ensure proper counting of votes at the closing date without any fraud and rigging. Nevertheless, there are still ongoing challenges that our members and supporters encounter such as harassments, killings and displacements in some places. Of course, we do not believe that this election is a key or the ultimate solution to address all the problems in the country. But we take part in it with a belief that it will serve to be a milestone to form a democratic system through time. So, we keep doing, at least, our own part, focusing on these issues.
Ezema has put forth the second largest number of candidates next to the ruling PP. With that in mind, how many seats are you expecting to win?
At this stage, I find it a bit difficult to give such figures or data. But we have provided candidates from all localities, where we have so far organized offices. We have already around 1,561 registered candidates, making it the second largest with Enat Party ranking third. We are ahead of Enat party by more than two folds.
If you also look at the way we recruit our candidates, we have done it carefully on the basis of a democratic process. In addition to candidates, we have designed around 45 policies. But only 42 of them have been approved by our party conference. I don’t think there is any party with this amount of policies. We have already prepared and released our own manifesto. Considering all these activities we have so far achieved, we are confident that we will win the required number of seats that will enable us form a government after the election.