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InterviewReliance on violence, scarce moral integrity, incompetent politicians: the sorry state of...

Reliance on violence, scarce moral integrity, incompetent politicians: the sorry state of Ethiopian politics

Desta Dinka is currently the chairman of the Joint Council of Political Parties and holds the posts of Secretary General of the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity (Medrek) and Audit and Inspection Secretary of the Oromo Federalist Party (OFC).

Desta began his political journey in 1991 with the advent of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), though he was also involved in political activities while attending Addis Ababa University in the years prior.

He has since worked as a zonal prosecutor in the Oromia region, as a lawyer, and later in the banking industry, but his full immersion in Ethiopian politics did not come about until 2014.

Desta observes that the country’s political leadership has traditionally been, and continues to be, in the hands of incompetent politicians. He sees that political parties and their leaders have long faced considerable obstacles in conducting peaceful activities, but, despite this, Desta says he and his party have chosen to embrace peaceful methods for attaining meaningful political change.

Abraham Tekle of The Reporter sat down with Desta for an exclusive look at his political career, the challenges within Ethiopian politics, and his views on potential paths forward for the country. EXCERPTS:

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The Reporter: You have been involved in politics during both the EPRDF and Prosperity Party regimes, witnessing the fall of the Derg and the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed following the political transition in 2018. Could you describe the state of the country’s political landscape during these two periods?

Desta Dinka: Having actively engaged during both the Derg regime and the EPRDF administration, I can provide a detailed perspective on the political environment and structure during these periods. The Derg era’s political ideology revolved around “Ethiopianism,” which was ingrained in us from childhood through primary and secondary education. Political lessons and ideology were taught as part of the educational curriculum from the 4th to the 8th grades, with additional reinforcement through sports and music that promoted values like socialism, Ethiopian unity, and a national identity. These formative experiences influenced my interest in politics.

When the Derg took power, it implemented significant reforms, transitioning from a feudal system to socialism. The “Land to the Tiller” (Meret Larashu) slogan epitomized this shift and was a central rallying cry for the student movement until Emperor Haile Selassie I was overthrown in September 1974. While the Derg promoted socialism and Ethiopianism, political rights were not a focus. Political parties lacked a solid foundation, making them easy targets for a regime that ultimately became a military dictatorship, effectively eliminating the multiparty system until its fall in 1991.

The Derg’s military approach prompted the emergence of armed resistance, leading to the rise of ethnically based groups like the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The TPLF formed a strong alliance with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), then known as Jebha, which had started its armed struggle during the feudal era. Due to the restricted political landscape, these groups resorted to armed struggle to pursue their goals.

In 1991, the alliance between the TPLF and the EPLF, along with other resistance movements, succeeded in toppling the Derg regime. The EPRDF took power with widespread public support, suggesting a hopeful era of political transformation. However, the EPRDF’s political strategy was less straightforward. It created the OPDO from captured Oromo fighters, sidelining the OLF, and formed the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) from former Derg members.

Consequently, a transitional council was established with 87 members from 27 ethnic-based political parties. The EPRDF secured 36 seats, while the OLF won 12, indicating the emergence of a more inclusive political process. However, some critics noted that parties with a more nationalistic perspective, like the Derg itself, EDU, and EPRP, were excluded, marking the beginning of a narrowing political landscape.

Then came the 1995 FDRE Constitution, which established a federal system with power decentralization and a multiparty system. Yet, the EPRDF gradually tightened control over the political sphere, limiting genuine political competition. This suppression, combined with the entrenched ethnic-based political ideology, contributed to the political unrest that ultimately led to the collapse of the EPRDF’s dominance in 2018.

Following the political transition, there was initial optimism about the changes in the country. However, I had reservations because many of the same individuals from the EPRDF retained power. My skepticism was validated as the anticipated reforms took a different direction, leading to the centralization of power in a single political group. As a result, the country’s political landscape, despite initial promises, became dominated by one political entity, curtailing genuine political diversity and inclusivity.

What is the state of democracy in a political landscape dominated by a single, powerful political group?

The same is true here. Democracy fundamentally involves the right to participate in various groups without being under the control of a single dominant political entity. Additionally, it means governing without resorting to the use of force or military power.

In the aftermath of the 2018 political transition, Ethiopia is grappling with a surge in violence at a scale not witnessed for many years. This is evident in the ongoing conflicts in Oromia and the more recent hostilities in the Amhara region after the two-year northern war was brought to a halt with a peace agreement. What, in your opinion, are the consequences of all this unrest?

In my view, the current conflict and bloodshed in Ethiopia can be attributed to a profound lack of moral integrity. If you’re wondering who is responsible for this immorality, it traces back to failures in ethical conduct and deficient moral leadership within the political sphere. The ruling party, which swore to govern the country justly, has not only misdirected the reform process but also constricted the democratic and political landscape, contributing to the present turmoil.

On the other hand, the opposition parties that fiercely opposed the EPRDF prior to the 2018 political transition share some of the blame. Despite advocating for democratic reform and political freedom, these parties, once powerful forces for change, ultimately capitulated to the ruling party, becoming its passive followers rather than agents of accountability. This shift allowed the administration to consolidate power without significant resistance.

Adding to this, political activists, media organizations, and various informal groups, which were once prominent in the struggle for change, have also played a part in the current unrest. Their inability to maintain a consistent commitment to moral values has led to a chaotic political environment. This collective failure to uphold ethical principles within Ethiopia’s political and social systems has contributed to the violence and instability that we see today.

Armed struggle is evolving into an increasingly common strategy in Ethiopian politics. Would you say this shift is driven by the issues mentioned earlier? What underlying factors are pushing these groups toward armed conflict instead of a more peaceful approach? Is armed struggle more likely to produce political change than non-violent methods?

Political changes can occur under different conditions, and history shows that these scenarios have materialized in various ways. The first type involves democratic and peaceful struggle, while the second involves armed conflict, as demonstrated by the 17-year-long struggle that ended with the EPRDF toppling the Derg regime. A more recent example of a peaceful political transition was the 2018 shift, following protests that ultimately led to changes in leadership. Both cases represent significant milestones in our country’s political history.

However, while political changes can take place through both methods, the key question is about the outcomes they produce. It’s a complex issue. In the case of armed struggle, it indicates a troubling trend where violence is used to achieve political objectives rather than resolving issues through peaceful means. This suggests that our political practices have not evolved, and we continue to rely on violence and conflict to bring about change. This reliance on force reflects a failure to establish a stable political culture that embraces dialogue and peaceful resolution.

As an opposition party, what steps has your organization taken to help discourage these practices in the country?

As mentioned earlier, three key groups are primarily responsible for the country’s political turmoil: the ruling party, opposition parties that play major roles, and political activists, media organizations, and various informal groups have contributed due to their lack of moral integrity and inability to stand up for their communities. It’s sometimes said that the general public is part of the problem, but it is always subject to the ruling government’s actions.

Thus, as a political party, we must acknowledge our share of responsibility for the current state of affairs. Even though our party, the OFC, has strong support in the Oromia region, we are still accountable for contributing to the country’s problems. What’s most unfortunate is that the Oromo people want democratic political change, but the political scene is controlled by those who act without regard for the greater good.

How would you evaluate the current government’s commitment to democracy? Could you share your party’s official stance on this issue?

In my opinion, every government entity in Ethiopia acts out of fear. They fear democracy, they fear the rule of law, and that’s why they resort to force to govern the country. To bring about true democracy, a government must be daring and confident enough to lead without resorting to violence or repression.

Additionally, leaders should have the knowledge, skills, and awareness to prioritize the interests of the public and genuinely care about their country. I often say that the government should act more like a reformer, rather than like the rebels they claim to oppose. The current administration isn’t authoritarian but it is scared and unprepared to meet the demands of the modern world as well as those of the country.

It is debatable whether any ruling government in Ethiopian history has ever enjoyed as much widespread public support as the current incumbent. Do you think it has effectively utilized this level of support and taken full advantage of the opportunities it presents?

A golden opportunity is just that—an invaluable chance. This government witnessed the people’s discontent over the years due to repression, lack of democracy, authoritarian practices, and violations of the constitution. Despite this, they didn’t learn from the mistakes of the past. The suffering endured by the people for 27 years helped the current ruling party gain power, providing them with a unique opportunity to bring about change and leave the past behind. However, in just five years or so, they’ve managed to repeat the same oppressive behaviors that took the previous regime. Essentially, they squandered the golden opportunity the public had given them to make things right.

What is the impact of increasing extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and lack of accountability in Ethiopia?

It feels like everything has gone off the rails, with chaos turning everything on its head. A small problem can grow into something much bigger if it’s not fixed early, and that’s exactly what’s happening here. In our country, you see people acting like they’re in charge just because they have guns, while wealthy individuals seem to be driving the increasing chaos. Like I mentioned before, the three factors are all part of the problem. There’s no accountability for the violence, kidnappings, and other crimes that have escalated to this point. It seems like the government and other authorities are unable to hold the perpetrators responsible, allowing the situation to spiral further out of control.

But what’s really causing the widespread killings taking place throughout the country?

The root causes, aside from the factors that I’ve already mentioned, are poor governance and restrictive political practices.

In general, what actions do you think Ethiopia could take to fundamentally and sustainably address its current problems?

It’s straightforward: instead of focusing solely on yourself, it’s better to consider the well-being of your people and your country. Once you do that, be ready to engage with others who have different ideologies or interests, fostering open dialogue and discussion without resorting to violence. Prioritize peaceful, public-focused solutions, as this approach benefits everyone, whether they are armed groups or the government itself. To resolve conflicts, stop being self-centered, and focus on the common good through conversation and mutual understanding, keeping in mind the nation’s broader political context.

[speaker]
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