Mesfin Erkabe joined the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) two years ago. He is elected from the central Gondar Zone. He is a member of the Legal, Justice, and Democracy Affairs standing committee at HPR. He has degrees in law and history.
Mesfin says the current Parliament is exercising freedom and strongly criticizing the failures of the executive body, undertaking a major departure from the past. He also reflected on the peace agreement with the TPLF, border issues with Sudan, the power structure, challenges in the justice sector, and the current status of the nation.
The Reporter’s Ashenafi Endale conversed with the Parliamentarian. Excerpts;
The Reporter: Lately, the Parliament has strongly criticized the executives, including the heads of ministries and federal institutions, for failing to meet their first quarter performance goals and lagging behind the annual plans for their respective sectors. Seeing such strong and active criticism from the legislative branch towards the executive branch is becoming the norm, compared to the dormant Parliament in previous times. Is the parliament starting to exercise its power now?
Mesfin Erkabe: The Parliament before the sixth round was not inclusive and democratic. Parliamentary members who reflect unique ideas are summoned and warned by the government. If such a member is from the Amhara regional state, the government labels them ‘Ginbot 7.’ If the member is from Oromia, they are labeled OLF. The punishment goes up to expulsion from the HPR.
During the previous parliament, for instance, Abiy Ahmed was a member of Parliament. But he was not allowed to be a member of any standing committee at the HPR. His speeches at the Parliament also cannot be aired.
The party structure and government bureaucracies had mechanisms in place to weed out any parliamentarian with independent ideas and a desire to speak out. In the current parliament, fully participating in the legislative process democratically is allowed, and the right environment for the free flow of ideas in the parliament has been set now. The Speaker of the House and government representatives are reversing the past trend.
For instance, I am a member of the ruling party, the Prosperity Party. Last year, I strongly opposed the State of Emergency (SOE). Nobody tried to suppress my idea. I argued that lifting the SOE was essential to building the nation’s image for tourism and FDI inflow. But at that time, TPLF controlled five Woredas in Afar. There was a social crisis. OLF/Shene was killing officials and civilians in the Wollega zone.
During the EPRDF, the parliament was inactive, partially because the house was 100 percent controlled by the EPRDF or self-censored. Again, the ruling Prosperity Party currently holds the majority of House seats. How can a free parliament exist if the majority of members are still from the same party?
For instance, previously, a proclamation is tabled to the parliament after it is already approved by the Council of Ministers. Then, the role of the parliamentarians is just to pass it through. Nobody questions it. Parliament members can approve, reject, or improve a bill. However, in the past, no one had the three options other than approval.
Currently, members of opposition parties like NAMA, the Gedeo Peoples Democratic Party, Ezema, and others are represented in the HPR. They are even chairs, co-chairs, and members of standing committees. This was never done in the past. They are free to exercise their power fully. This is a very good beginning.
There are three ministers in the Council, and there are also state ministers from opposition parties. A plan is underway to celebrate “opposition Parties’ Day,” to deliberate on opposition parties’ ideas specifically.
This government is working to bring about a paradigm shift, which is also creating change in the parliament. There is no segregation between opposition and ruling party members in the current parliament.
Do you think Ethiopia has attained a system where the three organs—legislative, executive, and judiciary—balance each other?
Yes. The parliament is discharging its major duties, which are legislating, oversight, the representative role, and public diplomacy. As per article 55 of the constitution, the HPR has three key activities and one additional objective.
Introducing new laws, amending or repealing existing ones, and approving international agreements are categorized under the legislative objective. The second role is monitoring and following up with the executive. This is the major role of the standing committees.
For instance, the Legal, Justice, and Democracy Affairs standing committee oversees 28 institutions. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), ombudsman, NEBE, anti-corruption commission, EBC, ENA, the three courts, sharia courts, Ministry of Justice, federal police, INSA, and others are under our mandate.
We assess and evaluate the government’s programs, policies, expenditures, and progress in these institutions. Whenever we see gaps and constraints in these institutions’ planning and performance, we give them corrections. We evaluate their plans against the Ten Years’ Perspective Plan (TYPP). We evaluate their quarterly performances and give them feedback.
The third activity is representation. We always have to observe, listen, and collect complaints and grievances from the public that elected us. We coordinate discussions and give directions. HPR members are required to visit the people who voted for them twice a year. They discuss these issues with the public, monitor project progress, and respond to public demand for development.
We have a poor country, and there is much need for development work. We have also deliberated on good governance complaints, starting with Kebele. For issues that have to be solved at the regional state level, we discuss them with the speaker of the regional government councils. For federal issues, we deliberate with federal government representatives.
Unfortunately, for the past two years, the government’s focus has been saving the country from an existential threat. As a result, many projects are delayed or stopped. But the public understands.
The other mandate of the HPR is parliamentary diplomacy. This aims at building Ethiopia’s image using bilateral and multilateral platforms. This includes economic diplomacy. But the war has cast its shadow on us. The west has been trying to create pressure on Ethiopia. But we were forced into this war. Peace is now revealing itself. So parliamentary diplomacy will resume now.
Ensuring the perfect check and balance among the legislative, executive, and judiciary needs a lot of work. We are working tirelessly. It is not simple. There are a lot of gaps, and many things have to improve. But we are on the right track.
Which countries are the best examples of the right check and balance power structure?
In my view, Great Britain has the best experience with the check and balance system. The US is presidential. Of course, it exercises the right federalism. Check and balance, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, and judicial review are well practiced in the US system. But Great Britain has the best system. Despite the fact that the country has been under monarchy, the active parliament is led by the Prime Minister.
The powers of the three government organs are well balanced and transparent. Whenever there is a problem, the PM is forced by the parliament to resign immediately. Of course, Great Britain has exercised democracy since the Magna Carta in the 12th century, which was the cornerstone of their democracy. Since then, their parliamentary democracy system has evolved.
Do you think the HPR can take more serious action?
The standing committee can take serious measures against the executives to correct serious failures. Standing committees force the heads of executives to discharge their duties properly and efficiently. It is constructive.
Standing committees are powerful, and the executive has respect for us. If there are serious failures, standing committees can go to the Speaker of the House to take more serious action.
The Prime Minister previously stated in parliament that the Federal Supreme Court is the most corrupt system. But the HPR did nothing while it could summon the court president and ask questions.
True. Many officials objected to the statement. Of course, there are genuine judges and prosecutors, but many are trading justice for money.
There are a lot of grievances we, at the Legal, Justice, and Democracy Affairs standing committee, are collecting from the public. We are also practically witnessing corruption, bribery, and nepotism. There are services that cannot be accessed without corruption. The public is crying out for justice. We cannot deny this.
We have evaluated the Supreme Court, federal high courts, and first-instance courts. We diagnosed malpractice. Brokers are working with lawyers. We have collected many grievances from prisons and police detention centers. We told all the respective institutions to correct these issues.
The parliament has the authority to summon and investigate the PM. Is it exercising its power?
Our parliament is just at the beginning of everything. But we are trying to hold the executives responsible for their failures. For the past two years, the parliament’s focus has been saving the country. Now the parliament is back to discharging its duties. We can now look into the responses provided by the executives.
Do you think the reforms in the country are on the right track?
There were several reforms in the past four years. The CSO law, the terrorism proclamation, the mass media proclamation, and many other laws have been revised. Most of the crippling laws introduced by the previous regime have been repealed. Economy, defense, intelligence, and justice reforms are being undertaken.
Economic reforms are underway, including deregulation and privatization. Foreign telecom companies, banks, and others are now coming to Ethiopia. These reforms were underway while the country was at war.
The political reform is also visible. Opposition parties are contributing to nation-building. Regarding Ethiopian unity, political parties are working together despite ideological differences.
Of course, the rule of law and human rights protection are not progressing as fast as we would like. But there are changes. Reform is also taking place in the justice and defense sectors. The government is reestablishing Ethiopia’s navy, which was demobilized by the previous regime. Ethiopia needs space on the Red Sea to protect the region from sea pirates. The air force is reinforced in many ways. We have seen the results during the war.
What are the major challenges the standing committee identified in the justice sector?
Bad ethics, bad governance, and malpractices are rampant. There is also a lack of professionalism in the justice sector.
Justice delayed is justice denied. There is also a lack of inclusiveness and facilities in the justice sector. For instance, police, prisons, and other law enforcement agencies lack facilities.
Typically, police have far more authority than courts. The police may detain someone without informing the court. A draft proclamation that limits governments’ use of power is also delayed. Are you aware of these issues?
Definitely, we know about these issues. The police usually refuse to implement court orders. But the legal tool is in the judge’s hand, who lacks confidence. When a judge commits a mistake, you cannot ask because judges have judicial protection.
Judges are accountable to the public and their conscience. Unless there is an informally networked system, judges can solve many problems if they use their power wisely. Ethiopia has many good laws. But they are not implemented.
Ethiopia’s criminal law, which has been in place for six decades, is under consultation to be revised. We discussed it twice last year. Once it is approved by the parliament, many problems in the justice sector will be solved. But it is difficult to ratify it soon. Law experts from universities, non-governmental organizations, human rights organizations, senior lawyers, and other legal scholars must first deliberate on it. I hope it will be ratified this year.
Do you think human rights crimes that occurred during the two-year war can be solved under Ethiopia’s conventional court system? Other scholars recommend that an extra-national court system be established to hear human rights cases in line with regional and international human rights court systems.
Serious human rights crimes were committed during the two-year war. Criminals should not escape from justice. The international human rights system would rather criminalize Ethiopia.
Ethiopia was forced to go to war because the TPLF attacked the northern command of our defense force.
No western country has condemned TPLF atrocities. I was in the zone of administration where mass killings happened around Maicadra. In Gaint, Nefasmwecha, Galikoma in Afar, Wollo, and many other areas, children and women were killed.
All these crimes will be punished now. The Ministry of Justice established a team and sent them to these areas to assess the damages. We expect the Ministry of Justice to identify war crimes and crimes against humanity and deliver justice.
Since peace has been restored, international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch can observe what happened on the ground and work on it.
After the peace agreement in South Africa, the government agreed that the TPLF can participate in the Tigray election after the disarmament. How is the parliament considering delisting the TPLF from its terrorist designation?
We will see that in the future. For now, peace is the burning issue. We appreciate the peace negotiations. Ethiopia has finally won. We have to make sacrifices for peace.
The first and second world wars were concluded with peace agreements, though the allied forces won. The second ended with the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. The Derg and Shabia (EPLF) negotiated at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Derg also negotiated with the TPLF in Rome, Italy. Both groups failed because they were anti-Ethiopian. However, many wars are ended through negotiation and peace treaties.
Regarding the negotiations in South Africa, the TPLF came to the peace table because it had completely lost the war in Tigray. They lost the war, and Mekele was surrounded when they went to South Africa. They would not sit for negotiations if they did not lose the war.
Every day that has passed without peace has cost Ethiopia. Both sides that have been firing at each other are from the same country. It was unfortunate. But it was a sacrifice paid to protect Ethiopia.
Tigray people are the most affected now. Even before the war, they survived on the Safety Net program. Tigray deserves peace.
Many people argue that the constitution has to be amended to solve the political crisis in Ethiopia. So they advise that the national dialogue underway must be inclusive of political forces from all walks of life.
The constitution was designed by the TPLF. It is a backward, ethnic-based federalism. It shattered the fabric of a long-established society. The TPLF is the reason behind the crisis in Ethiopia. The Constitution is not a religious text like the Quran or the Bible. The US has revised its constitution 27 times.
Ethiopia’s constitution has to be amended. Ethiopia’s population must conduct a referendum. There are many articles in the constitution that the public does not want. The ethnic-based articles, in particular, must be removed from the constitution. We will struggle to this end. Since peace and stability have been restored, the constitution must be amended.
The PM stated this repeatedly. The parliament is ready to revise the constitution.
Do you think the national dialogue will end by amending the constitution?
The national dialogue commission is preparing to start its work. They are also willing to talk with the Tigrians. Tigray is the cornerstone of Ethiopia. The plan of the Great Tigray is a false agenda.
I believe the inclusive national dialogue will solve many problems in Ethiopia. There are many border claim issues, among others. Peaceful discussions should be the only solution for disagreements.
For instance, currently the Tigrian diaspora and pro-TPLF activists are opposing the peace agreement. For those activists, the war is a business.
You stated that the TPLF went to negotiations because it lost the war. Why did the federal government go into negotiations if it has already won?
Ethiopian coalition forces controlled many areas in Tigray at the time. The reason the coalition force did not enter Mekele was to avoid doing any damage to the civilians. The ENDF was cautious not to affect any civilians when they controlled many towns in Tigray. However, the TPLF intended to play offense by inciting genocide.
However, whether you won or lost the war, a peace treaty is essential. The federal government had to reach an agreement to resume basic services in Tigray. But there is no doubt the war was concluded by an ENDF victory.
Eritrean forces reportedly participated in the war. How do you think the Eritrean issue will be solved?
I do not believe Eritrean forces participated in the war. Ethiopian forces are sufficient to liberate all of East Africa, let alone Tigray.
Eritrea did not violate the Ethiopian border. The TPLF said so to attract international attention, close the airspace, and allow peacekeeping missions in the area.
Sudan has also occupied Ethiopia’s border since the war began. How can it be solved?
Ethiopia has a constant non-intervention policy in other countries, but Ethiopia’s border has been violated several times in the past. Sudan controlled Alfashga, taking advantage of the TPLF’s attack on the northern command. Sudanese forces have also been attacking Ethiopian residents and commercial farmers in the area, taking their properties and land.
The land Sudan is claiming now belongs to Ethiopia. Britain delimited the area while colonizing Sudan. It was not a demarcation but a delimitation.
By the way, Sudan and Egypt are Ethiopia’s historical enemies. They have been plotting since time immemorial to control the Nile source. They signed the 1929 and 1952 agreements, which left Ethiopia with zero share of the water.
As a result, Ethiopia remained a museum of backwardness while these two countries kept growing. They have been creating chaos in Ethiopia with hidden hands. Egypt also worked with international financial institutions to stop Ethiopia from getting finance for electricity, irrigation dams, food security, and other projects.
If we go back in history, Ethiopia’s ancient border stretches to Yemen, the Indian Ocean coastal area of Mogadishu, Madagascar, Meroe (current Sudan), south Egypt, Chad, and central Africa. Historically, the Atlantic and Indian oceans were referred to as Ethiopique oceans. Ethiopia’s vast ancient border shrank over time to what it is now.
So it should have been Ethiopia that could claim its old borders up to Meroe. But in reverse, Sudan is claiming Ethiopia’s land.
I know every border area between Ethiopia and Sudan very well. I worked in the area as a soldier. In north Gondar, I also worked as an administrator. Sudan now occupies territory that was previously part of Ethiopia.
Even if Ethiopia wants to give a plot of land to a neighboring country, it should have the consent of the Ethiopian people. Governments are always temporary and have such power. I believe Abiy has an unwavering commitment to protect Ethiopia’s border and will solve it.
The border issue should be solved through discussion. It is a matter of time. We know Sudanese forces can’t hold off Ethiopian forces for more than two hours. It was wise that the Ethiopian government did not confront Sudan while fighting with the TPLF. Even the local militia can clear Sudanese forces from the area.
Sudan did a big injustice to us. However, it should be resolved peacefully. The Benishangul, Gambella, and Kimant rebels are being trained in an area called Demazi in Sudan. We know they are supported by Sudan and Egypt. We will not give an inch of land to Sudan.