The author of ye’ ewunet Mirkuz, and a lawyer, Wondimu Ibsa was born in 1947 in Arsi. Having survived the 1969 revolution, he joined Wez League and then started teaching. In his career as a former politician, Wondimu had gone through several challenges as a former politician before becoming a lawyer. He survived the 1969 revolution in Ethiopia and was arrested in the famous Maekelawi for 150 days. When he decided to become a lawyer, his first task was serving political prisoners facing terrorism charges. Lately, he is more known for sharing his political views on main stream media outlets. The Reporter’s Selamawit Mengesha sat down with him, as he reflects on current affairs and his journey in politics of Ethiopia.
The Reporter: can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Wendemu Ibsa: I was born in what is considered a large family. I had 17 sisters and brothers and my father had 47 children from 3 different women. When I was growing up the schools in Arsi used to encourage us to learn Amharic. And some people associated it with racist remarks but it was purely to help us learn other languages.
I was amongst the students who survived the 1969 revolution, I was in ninth grade and I remember crying to my mom when soldiers would beat us senseless. When the ‘edget behibret’ campaign started, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP), wez league (ወዝሊግ) and All Ethiopians Socialist Movement (AESP) were wreaking havoc across the country.
I joined senay leke’s party Wez League. Students whose average was above 90 were selected to give after class courses back then, for which I was selected. I started working as a teacher starting from 1969 to 1971 with a 180 birr salary. Through all of this, we were running the revolution on the side.
I’ve went from having my parent’s religion to having no beliefs but I eventually got baptized at 40 years of age and became an orthodox Christian. I then worked as a money collector at the church for four years.
I was also detained in the famous ‘Makelawi’ for 150 days, when EPDRF took power in 1983.
I’ve also worked as a supervisor and a director in Hawassa. As a lawyer in Adama, I joined the Oromo Federalist Congress in 1998–2002. In 2006, when more than half of OFC members, including Merara got arrested, I decided to give my services as a lawyer. Back then, lawyers used to charge more than 300,000 birr to represent people accused of terrorism, because representing people accused of terrorism could label them as terrorists as well. Knowing this, I offered my services at makelawi for free, and since then I have represented 600 people accused of terrorism.
When I was serving free of charge, I faced a lot of opposition from people including my family. I remember a judge telling me that I can’t defend people charged with terrorism anymore, but 17 of my colleagues had already decided to represent those accused of terrorism.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has said they will not arrest anyone without due diligence, yet we are seeing a lot of people arrested abruptly and detained for several days without cause. What do you think changed?
“We don’t arrest without due diligence,” is just a political way of speaking. Currently, the parties in Ethiopia including the incumbent follow a party politics system, meaning it is the top executive’s playground. A political party stands for justice for those that are with it or against it. The parties in America, the republicans and democrats, are political parties, while Prosperity Party, Ezema, ABEN, Enat, amongst others, look like they are trying to shift from party politics into political parties.
A lot of Ethiopians were involved in the green legacy campaign. But out of the 53 parties, not more than 10 were involved. Why weren’t the rest involved? The legacy is not for the PM but rather for generations to come. They could have contributed to something that made a difference but the only objective of party politics is to obtain power.
When Abiy said that, it was in the essence of party politics. To whom does the PP belong to? Is it for the prosperity of the city, the rural area or the farmers? It should have been called “Ethiopia’s prosperity political party.”
Political parties care about the country, its people, history and culture. Even if political parties try to gain power they still stand for the people. The Civil Code, which has been in action since 1952, says that people can be arrested based on suspicion with or without a court ruling. Back in the feudal days, it was only allowed to arrest suspects from 6 in the morning till the sun sets but not after even if they were guilty. Police can surround him but they can’t arrest him, no matter who the person is. If Abiy does not practice this law, then the EPRDF and Derg’s plague hasn’t quite left his system yet.
The practice that is becoming normal these days where they hold people in prison for eight or nine days is not acceptable by law. Statements like “We don’t arrest without due diligence” are said with a political intent. Politicians and political parties think about what to say to get more applause instead of thinking what would actually benefit the people.
What is the cause for the killings of innocent people in Ethiopia? Who do you think is responsible for these acts?
The instability in Ethiopia has its roots dating hundreds of years back, back when colonizers had their eyes on Africa. The victory at Adwa was not just a victory against Italy but against the whole of Europe. Ethiopians used to unite to defeat these outside forces. When the west found out the secrets to Ethiopia’s victory happened to be in our unity, they needed to dismantle this unity through civil wars and parties. These parties who have a budget from the west have the sole purpose of creating conflict and rift between ethnicities.
Controlling the source of income was also a measure used by the west since the country is dependent on donations. After the 1945 World War, Japan was forced to adopt a strong military system. Within 30 years, Japans capacity was just as good as the UK, after changing the policies they were forced into. The donations are an indirect attempt at colonization.
The crimes we’re witnessing today is a result of years of planning by the west. There is this thought process circulating where people think their ethnicity came first or that it is better.
Even banks organize themselves based on ethnic lines; they have the “divide” mentality. People that are losing their lives are Ethiopians and there is no need to classify them based on ethnicity. Being proud of your ethnicity only validates Ethiopia more, because our ethnicities are found within Ethiopia.
If we take the religious approach on how humans originated, it started with Adam and Eve. They were human beings and not Amhara or Oromo. We are Ethiopian’s first then ethnicity follows; so, to refer to the atrocities in Wollega as atrocities committed on Amhara women is accepting the narrative pushed by colonizers.
Amhara’s policy is Oromia’s policy and vice versa; we can only salvage Ethiopia when we stand all for one and one for all. Being Oromo, Amhara or any of the other 80 ethnicities is natural but claiming one is superior over the other is immoral.
How do you think this can be mitigated?
Parties and politicians that stand for terrorism should be dealt with to make way for the people to have an active role. The government feeds 1.7 million students in Addis Ababa and its surrounding. It provides books, uniforms and bags. The only thing families worry about is providing the dinners. This is not something to overlook. When I say this am not saying prosperity party or Dr. Abiy are without flaw, all governments have flaws.
The community’s outlook on laws and courts is relatively better than it was before. Do you think this has anything to do with the organizational change? If there is change since most organizations are individualistic, how can that be mitigated and continue long after the individuals have left?
Prosperity Party asks organizations to help it achieve democracy. A strong military can only be formed when there is a strong organization. Law enforcement is the government’s duty while respecting the law is everyone’s responsibility.
In a meeting amongst 1000 lawyers in Oromia held by the Oromia Lawyer’s Association, a lawyer said “there are no courthouses in Oromia, or judges. The only place where judges and courthouses exist is at the Oromia Supreme Court.” But there are Oromo judges and courts in Ethiopia. If we’re accounting for injustices, then every other supreme court could come into question. The acts of a few lawyers and judges that are deeply intertwined in ethnocentric beliefs do not dictate the profession as a whole. Even the PM has no right to misjudge the profession because there are honest judges and lawyers.
What should be done to promote accountability? Would people who have violated human rights be questioned in the court of law?
The current atrocities are due to terrorists, whether they are Oromo terrorists or Amhara terrorists. Both cultures have their own way of justice that involves forgiveness. The involvement of the elderly is needed.
Political parties are creating a better life for their children while condemning the innocent. Those responsible for these acts of terrorism shouldn’t be judged in court. All the region’s religious leaders and elders should judge and reconcile things themselves.
The newly formed National Dialogue Commission plays a vital role for this, but political parties have been skeptical since its inception. If all Ethiopians come together, it will help the national dialogue to be successful. As politicians put it, the dialogue is not one carried out between parties but one that involves farmers that make up 85 percent of the population. As of now racist politics and ethnocentric politics have spread.
The current problem will not go away easily. It will take several years of working together.
There is a noticeable change in courts after Meaza Ashenafi took power, but there are also a lot of problems at the same time. Just like how a teaspoon of poison could ruin a barrel of water, the acts of a few taint the entire institution.
How can we stop the problems in all the regions of Ethiopia? How can the region’s questions be answered while maintaining peace?
The people should give information as a way of solidarity with the government. The 547 representatives at the Parliament represent 120 million people. For a parliament member to talk about their own ethnicity alone is really shameful, they are not there to represent the Wereda that put them there but to represent the people of Ethiopia.
If there are people in Parliament that spread fake news, then prosperity party is negating its own progress. There are a few that are openly opposing the death of fellow citizens. When a citizen is hurt in wollega, there should at least be an opposing brief against it from the Parliament. If prosperity is leading the country, a region’s Special Forces should be able to help another region’s army. The defense force alone cannot save the country.
The TPLF is the enemy of Ethiopia and the people of Tigray point blank. The government says that it would make peace with the group but as Ethiopians we can’t forgive that party even if the government fulfils its diplomatic responsibilities. I did not say the people of Tigray, rather just TPLF.
The role of Ethiopia’s government should be identified; the election board should not be giving out certificates for parties that work with terrorists. If they get a certificate, then the TPLF would need one as well.
The country is on the precipice of prosperity now. Our current state could be depicted as a nine month pregnant women ready to give birth on any day. It is always darkest before dawn, Ethiopia’s people come together even stronger when there problems pile up.
We should be careful with parties that try and create the gap between ethnicities.
How can the government enforce a justice transition? What should be included?
Justice transition means the world did not get civilized through a revolution, but rather through reforms. Reform means averting the negative impacts and carrying on already started projects.
Justice transition implies those that refuse forgiveness and acceptance from the recently started national dialogue and the people that are being accused. Each one of the perpetrators will not be brought before court but instead will have to reconcile their differences in the regions customs, which is according to justice transition.