Yared Hailemariam is a champion for human rights, dedicating his life’s work to advocating for justice and conducting research that exposes inequalities.
As the Managing Director of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Centre, Yared fights for the rights of activists and journalists who push for change.
Since opening its doors two years ago, the Centre has made waves, gaining recognition as a voice for the voiceless.
According to Yared, the political changes in 2018 merely rearranged the deck of cards, doing little to improve Ethiopia’s fractured political landscape. In an interview with The Reporter’s Abraham Tekle, Yared touched on a range of issues facing Ethiopia from conflict to government policies and the link between poverty and human rights, among others. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: Five years after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s election in 2018, Ethiopia still grapples with mob violence and internal conflict. Is the country still in transition or has stability eluded the state?
Yared Hailemariam: It is imperative to grasp that the political shift witnessed in our nation in 2018, commonly referred to as the “political reform,” did not constitute a genuine political transition. Typically, a political transition involves a comprehensive overhaul of the government structure. However, the reform we experienced five years ago unfolded in a markedly different manner.
Members of the ruling party emerged from within, challenging the existing framework and garnering public support, ultimately giving rise to what we now know as the “reformers.” The manner in which Ethiopia’s political change unfolded significantly influenced the current negative outcomes. The power shift was propelled by groups, lacking a coordinated effort to chart a clear path forward with well-defined strategies.
During this uprising, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) acknowledged the necessity for change and pledged to reform the party internally. In response, the people behind the movement suspended their actions, hopeful for progress. Unfortunately, subsequent events have unfolded and are now a matter of historical record.
Regrettably, certain members of the party chose to resist the prospect of change, leading to internal conflicts. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) then opted to break away from the party, while the advocates of transformation assumed leadership, forming the Prosperity Party (PP).
I don’t see much political change. It is disconcerting that individuals accused of wrongdoing remain in power.
It is crucial to be mindful of the fact that the political transition in the country served as the primary catalyst for the political tensions that ignited the violent conflict in Tigray, which persisted for two years. So, when discussing the changes that have taken place, we must bear this in mind. The transition did not entail a peaceful reform leading to a complete restructuring of the government; instead, it contributed to destruction, conflict, and instability within the country.
Overall, it appears that the current government has exceeded its transitional period since the last national election. The ruling party has been unable to bring peace and stability to the nation, unlike the previous administration, which ruled for 27 years through tyranny and abuse.
Does the escalating use of armed conflict and acceptance of violence in Ethiopia imply a more repressive political climate, leaving certain individuals to adopt violent means as their sole recourse in pursuit of their goals?
As alluded to earlier, navigating change in Ethiopia often involves disregarding past experiences, which can result in erroneous decision-making. Ethiopians have a tendency to abuse opportunities for democratic improvement, perpetuating ongoing conflicts and discord.
The recent political shifts could have been approached differently. While the incumbent released political prisoners and allowed political parties to operate, it failed to foster constructive dialogue essential for cultivating a democratic political landscape. Moreover, maintaining authority seems to take precedence for the government, resulting in the withdrawal of individuals with diverse political beliefs from the 2021 national elections.
For instance, a majority of opposition parties in the Oromia region opted out of participating in the electoral process. This can be attributed to our failure to seize the crucial opportunities presented during the transitional phase. Consequently, conflicts swiftly erupted across different parts of the country, lacking a platform to regulate the nation’s destiny.
It is regrettable that we didn’t capitalize on the optimal chances available. If we had established a platform that facilitated equal participation, our nation would not be grappling with the multitude of issues it faces today.
A significant contributing factor to these challenges lies in government measures that curtail political freedoms, ultimately fueling instability and dissent. Most importantly, this has resulted in a dearth of robust and competitive political forces that champion consensus and democracy.
Does Ethiopia’s turbulent journey through transition serve as a testament to the arduous and intricate nature of transitioning towards democracy and peace following a period of conflict, replete with numerous obstacles and setbacks along the way?
Undoubtedly, the path to democracy and peace is riddled with setbacks, particularly in countries undergoing a comprehensive transition. Ethiopia’s own tumultuous journey serves as a vivid illustration of this reality.
The nation endured significant challenges leading up to its political transition in 2018, burdened by political and administrative imbalances that had accumulated over time, igniting widespread unrest.
Following the transition, expectations for an immediate political resolution under the new government were tempered by the manner in which the transition was executed and managed exacerbated an already volatile situation in the country. Extricating oneself from a troubled state is a protracted process.
In my view, the government under the Prime Minister’s leadership has not adequately addressed the longstanding political complexities that have plagued Ethiopia for over two decades, but rather exacerbated them.
Nonetheless, it is never too late to rectify these underlying issues. Initiatives such as national dialogue and transitional justice can serve as crucial starting points. However, it would be unrealistic to expect these efforts to instantaneously resolve all challenges.
The National Dialogue Initiative, for instance, can initiate discussions and deliberations to bridge differences, while the implementation of transitional justice, following the framework set by the Pretoria Accords, can pave the way for long-term solutions.
To navigate the current turmoil and safeguard the future of the nation, other swift and additional measures are necessary. Recognizing the imminent risk of ongoing conflict and unrest is a vital step that must be embraced collectively. Acknowledging and addressing these realities are pivotal for Ethiopia’s sustained prosperity and stability.
So, first, peace must take precedence, with a focus on establishing law and order on the ground and reaching equitable agreements for all.
Your previous analysis delved into the fascinating interplay between politicians and traditional elites to further their agenda, a relationship that has become increasingly pronounced in the last four years. Could you go deeper into this subject and provide further elaboration?
In discussions about our country’s elite, I often highlight their shortcomings, as the term “elite” is widely understood. These individuals possess exceptional skills and influence, often regarded as superior in terms of knowledge, wealth, power, and leadership abilities. Various types of elite groups exist in every field, including politics.
Traditional elites encompass religious and tribal leaders, community figures, and elders. In societies like Ethiopia, where religious and cultural traditions hold strong sway, traditional elites often wield more influence than political leaders, scholars, or researchers. This is due to the emphasis placed on tradition and religion, resulting in religious leaders and elders commanding larger followings and audiences than political figures.
However, the ruling power of traditional elites has diminished in modern, science-based societies that prioritize knowledge and research over faith. In these societies, trust, respect, and following are more often bestowed upon researchers, professors, and politicians rather than religious leaders.
In instances where politicians lack the influence and acceptance of religious, tribal, or traditional leaders, the use of force becomes a common tactic. Unfortunately, many politicians lack the necessary knowledge and leadership acumen, resorting to brutality to control society and instill fear. This creates a perilous environment where people are afraid to voice their opinions, and transgressions are met with severe punishment.
In Ethiopia, a society deeply rooted in religion and marked by social divisions, one potential solution to break the cycle of oppression is to incorporate traditional elites into the governing structure. These elites could be assigned roles such as ushers, emissaries, or executors, positioned alongside the political elite.
Alternatively, many people may choose to remain in hiding out of fear, while their leaders assume nominal roles, unable to protect their followers or speak out against injustice. Without their active participation, the country becomes vulnerable to tyrannical politicians, leaving the people at the mercy of their oppressors.
Regrettably, in many instances, traditional elites align themselves with the government, reproaching the people and providing solace to their oppressors in an attempt to forget the wrongs committed. They often become tools employed by those in power to prevent people from protesting for freedom or expressing their anger against the regime.
During times of war, politicians often seek blessings for their conflicts, presenting them as collective endeavors. Conversely, when advocating for peace, they actively promote peace. Recent wars have shed light on the troubling role of traditional elites and religious leaders. A future documentary will likely feature contentious speeches by these leaders who directly participated in the Tigray war and contributed to growing tensions in various parts of the country.
We are undoubtedly facing a social crisis when people only align themselves with their own ethnic or party groups. This highlights the lack of leadership and the failure of the elite. These issues are apparent to all.
However, if traditional elites can break free from the grip of political elites and ethnic influences, it could herald a renaissance for Ethiopia.
You emphasize the failures of society for the absence of a politically exemplary elite and leader. Is it fair to blame the public for Ethiopia’s ‘rotten political culture,’ or should we not place the fault squarely on the shoulders of these politicians themselves? After all, ordinary citizens bear minimal responsibility for the actions of political elites and politicians.
The politicians and elites in power are not separate entities but rather a reflection of the wider society. Their behavior and actions are shaped by the norms and values of the society they represent. It is crucial to acknowledge that these leaders cannot act as oppressors without the implicit permission and acceptance of the society they serve.
When individuals in positions of authority abuse their power, society’s collective refusal is essential. In this regard, the societal issue can be identified through the governing style of our leaders, which has a reciprocal effect on us. Although our politicians may mirror society in terms of knowledge and capabilities, they should have been the catalysts for progress and transformative change while changing public perception.
Therefore, it is crucial to scrutinize the role of all elites, including political ones. The collapse of Ethiopia is exacerbated by the actions of all elites, not solely the politicians. Some people blindly follow politicians without fully comprehending the conflict or its consequences. These same individuals may perceive politicians’ attempts at reconciliation and making deals with society as insincere or a mockery.
It is unjust to solely criticize political leaders in a country where social elites play a significant role, without fully grasping the reality. This sense of moral superiority has led to a two-year war and widespread violence, resulting in immeasurable losses and humiliation for the nation.
If the ruling system is filled with individuals driven by political vendettas, the consequences can be devastating, as we are currently witnessing in our country. Such actions at the national level bring immense shame to the nation.
It is vital to emphasize that society bears a significant responsibility for the challenges the country faces, and politicians are accountable for perpetuating a culture of hatred and animosity throughout the population.
In the realm of politics, politicians often shift blame onto the public, accusing them of failing to grasp their perspectives. They have a tendency to trivialize legitimate concerns and demands, either by politicizing the issues or dismissing them outright. This begs the question: Is the “I know everything for you” brand of politics becoming the new normal in Ethiopia? Or should the government be justified in labeling the public as ignorant?
It is absurd for politicians to assume that the general public is oblivious to their surroundings. Such categorization reflects a profound lack of understanding of the masses they are meant to lead. Throughout Ethiopia’s history, governments have consistently disregarded the opinions of society, denying citizens the opportunity to engage with those in power on matters of state.
In essence, a participatory form of governance has never taken root in Ethiopia. Citizens have always been neglected and deprived of any meaningful role in shaping the state. The refrain of “I know everything about you” has been the hallmark of Ethiopian administrations.
In my view, it is unjust for politicians, who have evaded public participation in nation-building, to label the Ethiopian people as ignorant. We reside in a society capable of foreseeing and comprehending the perils and opportunities inherent in any given situation.
Undoubtedly, throughout the history of this country, particularly in modern Ethiopia, the public has been misunderstood and oppressed by its leaders.
How can it be claimed that the public has lost confidence in the government when it has secured a resounding victory in the 2021 election, obtaining a substantial electoral mandate? Your assertion of waning public confidence appears to be overstated, considering the recent triumph at the polls. Could you elaborate on the reasoning behind your perspective?
The concept of an election can be subjective, particularly when there are limited options and a lack of meaningful political competition. The recent national election serves as an example of this. Despite initial hopes that the election would address the country’s problems, it was conducted under circumstances where political parties were barred from participating and their leaders were detained, ostensibly to ensure a peaceful process.
While the outcome may be portrayed as positive, it is important to acknowledge the inherent unfairness of the election.
The ruling party utilized its extensive resources, including control over the media and financial power, to influence the outcome and secure over 98 percent of the vote. Parties of equal standing did not have the opportunity to contest, and the voice of the public was effectively silenced.
Despite winning the election, I contend that the current administration has failed to protect its citizens from challenges across various domains, including political, economic, and social spheres. Many of these challenges stem from government policies that rely on maintaining peace, upholding the rule of law, and ensuring stability in the country.
Presently, the government is teetering on the brink of losing complete public trust and acceptance due to inefficiency, corruption, policy violations, lack of coherence, dedication, and the presence of untrustworthy politicians.
Consequently, I believe that the public’s confidence in the government has eroded significantly.
Given the media’s role as the fourth estate, often entrusted with the responsibility of upholding peace and stability within a nation, it raises the question: Could the Ethiopian media have made greater efforts to prevent conflict and foster peace? Has the media fallen short in fulfilling its duty by not prioritizing de-escalation, which could discourage the acceptance of violence as a viable solution?
What astonishes me at present is the dire state of the country and the government’s misplaced priorities. Local reports reveal that the government has allocated significant funds and employed additional contractors to complete the construction of the presidential palace, amounting to billions of dollars. Meanwhile, global media highlights Ethiopia’s staggering number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), exposing one of the unethical practices within the sector.
For instance, due to the destruction of schools in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar, approximately 2.3 million students remain unable to return to their studies. The war’s impact on educational institutions has been left unaddressed, forcing millions of citizens to flee and seek shelter in camps.
The high cost of living, lack of peace, and political instability further exacerbate the situation. Citizens face persecution, displacement, and even loss of life, curtailing their freedom of movement and endangering productive members of society. Yet, the government seems preoccupied with other matters, while the media focuses on the number of trees planted as part of the annual green legacy project.
It pains me to witness the government’s prioritization of lavish resorts and palaces, which come with exorbitant costs. This misalignment of priorities reflects the current state of our country and government.
In this context, I view the role of the media as no different from the aforementioned issue of priority disorder. While they have been targeted by various administrations in the past, they have also played a significant role in fueling the Tigray war and ongoing conflicts in other parts of the country.
Rather than reporting objectively and assuming a constructive role, they have contributed to the escalation of disputes through biased reporting. This misguided practice underscores the absence of well-informed and well-organized media institutions in the country.
The question that arises is whether we, as a nation, as individuals, as the media, and as a government, possess a clear and consistent priority list, and whether we aspire to have one in the future.
Lastly, delving deeper into the intricate relationship between human rights and the scourge of extreme poverty: Do you believe that the dire economic circumstances resulting in extreme poverty can be viewed as a violation of human rights? What is your assessment of Ethiopia’s standing in relation to this issue?
In my perspective, poverty should be recognized as a blatant violation of human rights in Ethiopia. It has silently wreaked havoc, with little attention or action taken to address its devastating consequences. This can be attributed, in part, to the media and other relevant entities, who have failed to give sufficient coverage to this pressing issue.
While I acknowledge the existence of various incidents that result in death, displacement, and other dire situations in our country, poverty stands out as a primary driver of human rights violations.
I draw a connection between famine, poverty, and human rights due to the direct correlation between Ethiopia’s poverty levels and the mismanagement of resources within the country. The absence of appropriate policies that ensure equitable resource utilization has had a profound impact on the lives of individuals, leading to widespread poverty and famine.
Addressing poverty requires not only targeted interventions but also comprehensive policies that promote fair resource distribution and uplift the most vulnerable members of society.