The rise and fall of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (also known as EZEMA) reveals deep divisions within Ethiopia’s political landscape— but also hope for honest dialogue and unity.
Habtamu Kitaba co-founded EZEMA and served as head of the policy committee and shadow cabinet member. Habtamu says that he noticed issues within the party from the beginning, and that its political formation was imbalanced.
The Prime Minister and his Party, according to him, aim to create a new Ethiopian identity, and that his party, EZEMA, is no longer viable, resulting in the collapse of the party.
He sat down with The Reporter’s Abraham Tekle about the country’s general politics, the PM’s vows and broken promises, the cause and effect of the war in Tigray, the party election and divide, the lessons they have learned, and what the future of Ethiopian politics should be. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Tell us about yourself.
Habtamu Kitaba: I’m just a politician and my position in the party is determined by my participation in various roles.
Ethiopia has witnessed numerous political changes over the last five years. What are your thoughts on this?
The political change in Ethiopia is similar to previous changes, as the government is not used to listening to people’s ideas or allow democracy. This results in oppression and sudden power shifts, leading to conflicts between opposing forces. People will pay the price in between.
Society often seeks change when it is oppressed.
In Ethiopia, power has shifted from imperial to Derg period, a result of the same political transformation experienced in the last five years. This shift resembles the rise of the dictatorship. The same is true with the current regime, highlighting the need for change and a shift in power dynamics.
When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) took office, he pledged to implement a number of reforms. How much has he achieved?
Due to the wide scope of the Prime Minister’s promises, it is challenging to assess his progress. However, two political issues stand out. Under his leadership, he and his party are attempting to create a new Ethiopian identity. Previous rulers have pursued this goal without public consensus. It is contrary to the Prime Minister’s pledges and the public’s wishes.
The second issue is societal reaction. Every time the PM addressed the public, people and political leaders expected fundamental changes and pledged full support. However, losing that support shows an inability to deliver. Those who initially misunderstood him were the first to leave his camp.
In my opinion, the PM has not changed the fundamental principles of his political ideology. I see what I expected to see now.
If you had seen my pre-election speeches for EZEMA, you would understand my current position. The Prosperity Party (PP) initially aimed to garner public attention with impressive rhetoric. Now people are beginning to see through the rhetoric and understand more clearly.
This is tied to Ethiopia’s political traditions. As I noted, previous rulers have pursued a new national identity without consensus. This practice has become commonplace.
Are you arguing that the majority of chaos stems from political structures?
Yes, that is one of the reasons. However, there’s not a single set of structures or ideology that governs the country today. For example, I no longer believe that the terrorist-designated group commonly known as “Shene” is primarily to blame for the ongoing violence in the Oromia regional state. I feel there is also an ideological split inside the PP.
Furthermore, the two-year war and destruction can be ascribed to ideological disagreements between members of the Amhara and Oromia PP.
The end of the war, its goal, and the war discourse were all outcomes of the country’s ruin. The party won the last national election, but its program’s uncertainty remains. Thus, the ruling party’s weakness is the root cause of Ethiopia’s problems.
During the conflict in northern Ethiopia, some political organizations were criticized for not adequately representing public interests. Can you objectively summarize EZEMA’s stated policy positions on the conflict at that time?
I addressed the consequences of the war before it ever started. There were numerous indications that the war was unavoidable. Some of my colleagues and I traveled to Mekelle, on behalf of the EZEMA, to interact with the society. During our visit, we also had the opportunity to meet with the president of the regional state to explain our concerns. However, we understand how the situation has aggravated over time.
My position was initially aimed at resolving the heated situation peacefully. But after hearing about the attack on the North Command, my opinion shifted to support the federal government’s offensive attack. As a result, various positions were taken regarding the progress of the war, particularly after Tigrayan forces took control of the capital city. The party discussed the war’s outcome and sought a better solution before the election, aware of the administration’s hidden agenda and the unnecessary costs the national army incurred on the battlefield.
The two groups considered opposing ideas: supporting the government’s ultimate annihilation of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and advocating for a peaceful resolution, allowing the people of Tigray to settle matters through elections or other means.
EZEMA’s lack of a clear stance on important issues is a problem, as evidenced by their support for the government’s war propaganda and negotiations with groups like the TPLF and Shene. The party’s division was a result of positional imbalances, leading to internal conflict.
As I see it, the conflict was not between the Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions, but rather ideological disagreements within the ruling party itself. This led me to begin my struggle against my old party and the ruling government.
When EZEMA opted to work with the government, 73 members voted against it. What was your stance on the decision? Why?
I was opposed to the decision. I even wrote my doubts to the party leaders and higher-ranking officials. I also addressed the general assembly. First, I want to address the distinct attitude of the PP. The majority of our party members see prosperity as a means of achieving nationality.
However, in my opinion, the PP is a classic instance of a party that will execute the country’s ethnic-based political system.
Secondly, there was no written format to back up the decision. The partnership should be governed by a well-structured and acceptable agenda. In the absence of this, the general assembly had opted to collaborate with the ruling government. But without a formal decision-making process and written format, the partnership could be undermined.
However, I suspected it was a political strategy implemented by the ruling party. During its reign, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) jailed important political leaders, and now the PP is recruiting elite members of opposition party leaders as part of a strategy to destabilize them. The appointment of Commissioner Girma Seifu indicates the plan’s success, resulting in the party’s collapse.
The recent departure of several EZEMA party members has drawn both praise and criticism. Can you summarize the main reasons cited for this leadership decision and why it happened now?
In our press conference following the breakup, we outlined the explicit reasons behind our decision. Ideological divisions had emerged within the party several months after its formation, and we had been working hard to bridge these gaps for the past three years.
We raised concerns about the party leader’s collaboration with the ruling party during the party’s one-year evaluation. Over the past three years, the power dynamics within the party shifted dramatically towards higher officials, including the leader.
Our intention in creating the party was to add a new dimension to the country’s political landscape, not to be annexed by the ruling party. However, the party has now become a mouthpiece for the PP.
We left the party in order to promote national goodwill and uphold our beliefs. Many others have followed our lead, and we believe that spending any more time with the party would be a waste of energy.
This decision was not a sudden one, but rather a well-considered and evidence-based one. If the party still has 15 percent of its membership, we welcome anyone to prove us wrong.
We believe that the party has become a tool for the ruling government’s propaganda, and we urge other party members to make the same decision. It is impossible to entertain different points of view while living in the shadow of EZEMA.
[This interview was conducted on June 16, 2023. Between this publication and the interview date, significant number of EZEMA party members from the Amhara and SNNP regional states have resigned from the party.]
In the coming days, the Amhara regional state party structure will also depart, and this process will be repeated in other regions, including the south regional state party structure.
During your party’s election, you expressed that you would remain with EZEMA despite any challenges that may arise. What led to the division within the party that pushed you to leave? Was it related to the outcome of the election?
Most of those who left the party did not participate in the election. The accusation that we left the party due to losing the election is not surprising, as defamation is becoming more common. During the election, our manifesto called for a peaceful resolution to the Tigray conflict, but the PP labeled us as TPLF supporters. Such defamation is outdated and has no place in the twenty-first century.
I firmly believe in the power of ideas and the democratic process. If the election result was the only reason for leaving EZEMA, then why wait a year to do so? It has become clear that the party is losing popular support. Before the election, we were aware of the strategy of trying to persuade and bribe individuals for their votes. Despite this, we chose to participate in the election to improve the country’s political situation and change the party’s mindset.
Today, even though EZEMA may not have enough power, it has emerged as one of the parties for which I should struggle to promote the goodwill of the country.
Winning the party election is not important. Our manifesto clearly stated our position during the election, and it can provide a better understanding of our situation. We continued to work towards our goals despite knowing that the party would never be able to regain its position as a viable candidate.
EZEMA’s strength has eroded to the point where it can only serve as an educational resource. In short, EZEMA no longer exists and can be considered a walking dead.
EZEMA was formed through a merger of multiple parties. Without asking you to comment on claims about the party’s breakup, can you describe EZEMA’s founding objectives and the thinking behind bringing different parties together at that time?
The Patriot Ginbot 7 was one of the parties that joined to form EZEMA, although most of our current supporters come from their side. This group includes former top-level party executives. The question is not about merging, but rather about building a viable philosophy that can compete in Ethiopia’s political arena.
The PP, like the previous EPRDF, has emerged as the dominant party structure in control of everything. As an opposition party, we should not support such party domination, but rather work to expose its flaws and any wrongdoings to the public.”
You left EZEMA, alleging that the party had lost its way. Was it the party or the leader who lost its way?
First and foremost, it was the party’s leader who lost his way. The leader is responsible for everything and has complete control over the underlying party organizations. This is exactly what happened.
When the party leader deviated from the established pattern, the party structure became disoriented. If that had not happened, I am confident that EZEMA would be in a different position today.
Some members of your party have suggested that they may form a new party. If this were to happen, what kind of political structure would you envision for the new party?
We have not made a decision yet, so I cannot comment on this. However, I want you to know that we typically assess our actions with an eye toward the future. Our evaluation will determine our next steps. When the time comes, we will reveal the outcome of our discussions within the next two to three months.
What have you learned from your experience with EZEMA?
We learned a lot from our previous party structure.
However, the most important lesson is not to repeat the same mistakes that EZEMA made. As I mentioned before, EZEMA has transformed into an institution for education. Following the party’s collapse, literature such as books and essays will be produced to educate future generations.
Finally, how can we prevent future threats to the nation if political complexity continues to persist?
There should be a comprehensive discussion held throughout the country. To my knowledge, Ethiopia’s political problem is not inherently complex or difficult to resolve. What makes it complicated is our unwillingness to sit down and discuss our differences. We need to begin negotiating with each other for the good of the country.
People should not have to pay the price when politicians fail to normalize their disagreements.
What I advocate for and strive towards is the creation of a country where wrongdoers are held accountable, where the rule of law is respected, and where leaders prioritize dialogue instead of violence.