Wednesday, July 17, 2024
InterviewPolitical regression and the “breeding ground for conflict”

Political regression and the “breeding ground for conflict”

Abraham Himanot (PhD), is the vice chairman of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP).  He joined the party five years ago after more than a decade living abroad. Abraham describes the EPRP as the people’s party, committed to re-entering Ethiopia’s political scene to foster peace and stability where it navigates a political landscape that is still beset with significant challenges.

Abraham and his peers must contend with an exceedingly narrow  political space––a situation exacerbated by escalating conflicts in various parts of the country and growing and widespread discontent over the government’s failure to address the underlying fundamental concerns.

Abraham sees this dissatisfaction mirrored in the exclusion of his party from the current national dialogue, which is criticized for taking place against a gloomy backdrop of unresolved national crises and for lacking inclusivity.

He criticizes the initiative, which looks to address past abuses and foster reconciliation, arguing that it is fundamentally flawed in its implementation without a framework of accountability. Abraham notes that the absence of mechanisms to ensure justice and redress for past wrongs diminishes the credibility of the initiative and undermines its trust.

His skepticism is compounded by the frequent detention of journalists and political figures without due process, which fuels perceptions of a government intolerant of dissent and critical voices.

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Contrary to the ongoing national dialogue process that is taking place in the country, the Vice Chairman warns that the country is veering in the wrong direction, with political volatility threatening to unravel the social fabric. He cautions that the lack of a genuine, inclusive dialogue and the suppression of political freedoms are major obstacles to achieving lasting peace and stability.

In an interview with Abraham Tekle of The Reporter, Abraham addresses a myriad of pressing political issues and political space in the country, including the ongoing situation in conflict-ravaged regions, the National Dialogue process, the Transitional Justice Initiative, and other critical matters. EXCERPTS:

The Reporter: Give us an overview of the general political landscape in the country. How does your party perceive the current political space in Ethiopia?  

Abraham Himanot (PhD): The political landscape in Ethiopia is notoriously restrictive, posing significant challenges for political parties to operate freely. Both political figures and their parties, along with journalists and human rights activists, face direct harassment and imprisonment by the ruling government. This repression has intensified over the past six years, despite the government’s initial promises to liberalize the political environment and grant greater freedom to journalists. Instead, the government has reneged on these promises, targeting dissent at every turn.

The situation has further deteriorated since the state of emergency was declared over ten months ago. Journalists have been arrested, media houses shut down, and political figures regularly detained and threatened, undermining their ability to represent and speak for their constituents. When political parties issue statements on current affairs, the government employs various tactics to silence them, including offering positions within the government or bribes. Refusal of such bribes often leads to threats and coercion, posing a severe challenge for political figures.

The ruling party views the growing strength of opposition parties as a significant threat and works diligently to undermine them. For instance, the EPRP party faced marginalization after calling for a peaceful demonstration over seven months ago, demanding an end to the war and the establishment of peace. This call was disregarded, resulting in the arbitrary arrest of many party members, including the party president and myself.

The crackdown did not stop with our party. Collaborators who helped organize the peaceful demonstration have faced similar fates, such as the imprisonment of former EZEMA party member Yeshiwasse Assefa and others. This highlights that peaceful struggle and the organization of peaceful demonstrations have become criminalized. The current political environment in Ethiopia is one where normal national dialogue is no longer viable.

What are the underlying causes for the political malpractice? Do you think there are any clear justifications for such practices?

The reason behind such practices is evident. In Ethiopia, advocating for and engaging in peaceful struggle has become extremely challenging because the ruling government opposes the presence of strong political parties. As the EPRP party, we recognize that the government deliberately works to undermine party movements and weaken peaceful resistance in the country. The government does not want robust parties, active party members, or influential media organizations to thrive in Ethiopia.

In the absence of these elements, the country becomes a breeding ground for conflict and war. The current conflicts in the Oromia and Amhara regions, as well as the bloody civil war in the Tigray region, are direct outcomes of these political practices. The mistrust between armed groups now fighting the government stems from these conditions. These groups resorted to armed struggle because they lost the opportunity to engage in peaceful protest and because there are no strong political entities to compete with the government.

It is clear that these groups have significant public support. As long as these conditions persist, no positive change can come to the country, and conflict and unrest will continue. This scenario is unacceptable for our generation, yet the ruling party, PP, aims to remain the sole leading party in the country, marginalizing others and collaborating with weak and opportunistic parties that sacrifice their identity and the interests of their people for personal gain.

Are you suggesting that all previous and ongoing armed struggles are a result of these political practices?

Yes. The path to peaceful struggle in Ethiopia is essentially blocked. Those currently fighting the government include former political party members, individuals who were active within the country, and others who came from abroad to engage in peaceful resistance. According to their testimonies, these groups express deep regret over the lack of a conducive political environment, which forced them to take up arms. Consequently, the absence of a peaceful platform has led to the ongoing chaos in the country.

However, as the EPRP party, we have chosen to persist in our peaceful struggle despite the significant costs. Although we were compelled to engage in armed struggle against the Derg regime, which limited our ability to exercise our political will, we continue to fight for better political practices in our country. Unlike the pressures exerted by the governing body, we are not repeating our past actions. Instead, we utilize the limited opportunities available to us to pursue our political will and ideology through peaceful means and that’s why we call for peaceful demonstration time after time.

You mentioned ongoing conflicts and unrest in the country. As an opposition party, what do you believe would be the lasting solution to end this crisis?

To achieve lasting peace in the country, there must be a peaceful and inclusive dialogue, avoiding arbitrary arrests and intimidation of political parties, members, journalists, and activists. The government must create a conducive environment and invite armed groups to participate in the dialogue, as they are essential to sustaining peace. Our party, along with the ENAT Party and others, has expressed this stance and called for inclusive dialogue and negotiation in our recent press release. We believe that the long-term solution lies in round-table discussions with the presence of independent organizations to address the persistent issues threatening our country’s existence.

The federal government has recently initiated the National Dialogue process. Do you think this initiative will provide a lasting solution to the country’s issues?

As a party, we are questioning whether the right kind of national dialogue has been initiated in the country. We have emphasized that, as a precondition, the government must release those who have been unjustly imprisoned and involve armed groups currently opposing it in the dialogue process. Based on our understanding, this is not the appropriate national dialogue initiative that our country needs at this time. This approach is not new; more than 17 countries have successfully applied it, but with the right mindset and conditions. To initiate a successful national dialogue, it is crucial to create the appropriate conditions, which are currently lacking in our country. We expressed our dissatisfaction with the current initiative process in our recent party press release.

Is this the reason why EPRP announced its withdrawal from the national dialogue process?

Yes, our decision to withdraw from the process stems from our belief that the right national dialogue is not being implemented in the country. After two years of participation, we concluded that the process is not on the right track. We requested a political dialogue, but the government chose to pursue a public dialogue, which is heavily influenced by the Prosperity Party (PP). Therefore, having noticed that, we have chosen to step away, as the ruling party holds too much influence over the proceedings.

What about the joint council’s involvement in the dialogue? Doesn’t that make the process inherently inclusive?

We believe the joint council is not truly part of the dialogue. Despite there being over 55 parties in the country, the exclusion of even one is a significant oversight. Unless a swift remedy is applied to address this issue, the involvement of the joint council remains irrelevant.

What are your thoughts on the government’s planned Transitional Justice initiative?

Similarly, EPRP asserts that Transitional Justice cannot be implemented effectively without the establishment of a transitional government in the country. How can Transitional Justice be achieved when those responsible for crimes also hold roles as interrogators, investigators, and judges, all while being participants in the crimes themselves? This scenario renders it impossible. EPRP advocates for a different approach: starting with national discussions and dialogue, followed by reaching a consensus at the national level. Then, either a transitional government or the next elected administration can oversee Transitional Justice.

Therefore, our party has drafted and released a document outlining our stance. True Transitional Justice can only be realized once the current government’s tenure ends or when an independent body is established to oversee the process. Without ensuring accountability, the current administration cannot fulfill the expectations for Transitional Justice in the country.

Does your party believe that both initiatives are viable while the country is contending with ongoing conflicts?

In our view, both initiatives are unlikely to succeed while conflicts persist and before achieving the anticipated national consensus. This is particularly evident in the national dialogue, which has already shown signs of faltering during its progression. Therefore, to realize the desired change, it is imperative to listen to all voices and fulfill everyone’s demands.

What role does EPRP envision for itself in addressing the country’s enduring issues? As a party, what are your forthcoming strategies and objectives?

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) has upheld strong and beneficial ideologies since its establishment decades ago. Initially, the party advocated for “land to the tiller,” aiming to redistribute land from landlords to the peasants who actually worked it. Additionally, the EPRP supported the recognition and equality of Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups. Today, as the party has returned to the political landscape, it remains committed to these same principles, striving to contribute positively to the country’s political scenario and resolve disputes peacefully. And again, the EPRP continues to stand firmly for the country’s integrity and national unity.

Furthermore, we are dedicated to promoting inclusive national dialogue to achieve peace and reconciliation among Ethiopians. This has been our mission for over 50 years, and we remain committed to it. Our involvement in the national dialogue process exemplifies this commitment; we were fully engaged from the start but had to withdraw due to challenges that rendered the process destructive rather than constructive.

As an opposition party, our primary goal is to foster national consensus and reconciliation. We are committed to ensuring that proper transitional justice is implemented in the country, bringing justice to the forefront and holding wrongdoers accountable. We are also prepared to be held accountable for any of our own misdeeds. Our diligent efforts aim to ensure that genuine transitional justice and social justice prevail, both now and in the future.

What roles should the government, opposition parties, political activists, journalists, and other stakeholders in the country play to achieve long-lasting solutions?

To achieve long-lasting peace and stability in Ethiopia, all stakeholders, including the general public, human rights activists, and political members, must play an equal and united role. Everyone must work together to steer the country in a peaceful direction. Failing to do so will have equal consequences for all and hold everyone equally responsible if the country veers into a dangerous situation. And again, peaceful struggle should be the guiding principle in all aspects.

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