Merera Gudina (PhD) is a prominent opposition political party leader and a renowned scholar. He is the chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), one of the parties that make up the front: the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum a.k.a. Medrek. He is an active political actor in the country and was in prison for more than a year before his release two months ago. He says he is currently working to strengthen his party. Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter sat down with him to discuss the various issues including the State of Emergency, the implications of the ongoing meetings of the ruling party and others. Excerpts:
The Reporter: In spite of passing a State of Emergency decree, it is well known that it has not been easy for the government to restore peace and stability in the country. The condition in the country is still far from stable. So, what is it that your party OFC and Medrek doing so as to ease the tensions in different parts of the country?
Merera Gudina (PhD): We are repeatedly requesting the government for a genuine negotiation and dialogue; the state of emergency decree is not restoring the peace and stability of the country as promised; it is rather exacerbating the situation. Therefore, we keep asking the government to engage in a genuine negotiation with genuine stakeholders in the country. We have been proposing swift dialogue and negotiation to get out of the current political tension, chaos and unrest; and as for OFC and Medrek, we keep calling for real negotiation with the government in the interest of finding a lasting solution to the current political predicament.
The country is now under a state of emergency, and as it is well known it is very difficult to conduct political activities at this time. Therefore, how do you describe the challenges the state of emergency posed on your party?
It is very clear that we have almost stopped every political activity throughout the country. As a political party, it is really unquestionable and undeniable that it has impacted our political activities. For example, in western Ethiopia, we had to cancel our town hall meeting in various areas. In fact, what happened was as we were making our way to the area, and after conducting half of our planed meetings and public gatherings, we were forced to stop our activity and go back to Addis. It was evident that when the public marched to the streets to greet us following our release from prison, all went very peacefully and that not even a single stone was thrown. What the public was doing was simply singing and celebrating. Now we are not allowed to do so and therefore we are really suffering; and our supporters are also suffering in different forms including the loss of life.
The current political problem brings anxiety and frustration to many Ethiopians and in this regard, what is to be done both from the government side, the opposition political parties and the public, so as to address the unrest from its root and provide a lasting solution?
The public has already expressed its concern and demanded its freedom. However, the major issues are within the government and the opposition parties. The ball is in EPRDF’s court. It has been two months since my release from prison. Before my release, the PM was saying that one of the major reasons for our release was to widen the political space and to sit for a discussion. So far it is just a mere promise, no one has approached me to discuss and negotiate over the political situation of the country. Not only me but also no one has been approached from the leadership of both OFC and Medrek. I also didn’t witness any political negotiation with political parties, which have an established public support in different parts of the country. The ruling party is looking at everything from inside its own box; they still think that the solution to the current problem will and should come out from EPRDF’s own structure. But it is a vicious circle; if they are really committed to address the problem of this country what they need to do is to look out-side the box and consider different viewpoint from the public and the genuine opposition political parties.
The major source of the current unrest throughout the country is the failure of the leadership. In the past 27 years, the ruling party has failed to provide basic democratic and human rights. That’s why the public is expressing its frustration in different forms in all corners of the country. EPRDF and each party in the front also accepts that fact; they have admitted that the unrest is a result of lack of good governance and in that regard the party conveyed it’s apology to the public. This in turn means that the ruling party takes the lion’s share for the current unrest and turmoil that rocked the country. Therefore, to provide a long-lasting solution, the party should open-up and negotiate with a real motive.
As a political scholar and opposition political party leader how do you evaluate the series of meetings undertaken by EPRDF’s Executive Committee and Council in recent weeks?
The major evaluation is up-to the EPRDF itself. However, one of the major issues here is that, what would be the outcome of these meetings in terms of addressing the questions and demands of the people of Ethiopia. Here the question should be, are they going to come out with a solution that will safeguard the nation’s stability and address the demands of the public? That is the major question. If they failed to come out with a political solution that will satisfy the question of the 100 million Ethiopian people, it really doesn’t matter whether they sit in a meeting room for weeks or years; it really doesn’t matter. Here, we have to be very careful as to what we might want and what the ruling party wants; the party also moves towards what it wants, but the question needed to be addressed is what does the public want? Every political decision should center the public. If we don’t know what the public needs and what it is trying to get out of the current situation and come up with a cosmetic reform, the problem will remain with us.
The ruling party is expected to elect a new PM this week. In light of this, what do you think is the major challenge that the incoming PM will face? And what is also expected from him to restore peace and stability in the country?
The major challenges that the incoming PM will face are mainly two; the first one is putting EPRDF out of the box, which is the major problem for the ruling party. Therefore, the incoming PM should work tirelessly in putting the party out of its box. The second challenge that awaits the incoming PM will be working on the agenda of national reconciliation through real negotiation with the real stakeholders of the country. This will lead the country into the creation of democratic political system. If the incoming PM passes these two challenges, I think it is possible to restore peace and stability onwards and better prosperity will also materialize in the future.
How do you characterize your relationship with other opposition political parties especially in the context of addressing the current political unrest and contribute your own share in the process of restoring peace and stability in the country?
Medrek is a front of four parties. We are trying to work together with parties like Semayawi a.k.a. Blue party. However, in light of Blue’s recent split, it is hard to say where this party is heading. Here we have to keep in mind that, there are three types of opposition political parties in Ethiopia; the first ones are those either strong or weak but always try to approach the public based on their own limited resource. The second ones are those parties that have large public base in different parts of the country irrespective of their strength or weakness. The third ones are those parties who are nourished by the EPRDF. The ruling party is talking with such political parties in the past one year in the guise of real negotiation; but I don’t understand why they are wasting their time and energy.
These parties have been in the so-called negotiation for the past one-year, but they don’t have any role in restoring peace and security in the country. Therefore, I don’t see any importance of such negotiations. The government might try to appease the westerners by saying there are more than sixty political parties in the country and that it is engaging in negotiation with them. However, the public is well aware who is who. Therefore, the opposition camp is diverse; yet again within this framework there are some alive and dead opposition political parties. And I urge the ruling party to negotiate with the alive ones. At least it will contribute some concrete alternatives to the political discourse that in turn will benefit the country and its peoples. Negotiating with those dead opposition parties especially nourished by the party itself is nonsense; it is like negotiating with oneself it doesn’t add anything to the political and other discourse in the country.
In order to get the country out of the current unrest, some political commentators are suggesting the establishment of an independent commission that will serve as a care taker administration until proper elections are conducted, what is your reaction to such kinds of recommendations?
If the ruling party is willing to get out of its box, this could be one of the solutions to the current unrest and instability. However, according to my observation and discussion with many diplomats and party members, the first alternative to get out of such problems should be conducting an early election. This has been tested in different countries and has brought changes. Hence, many recommend that pulling back the schedule of the election is a solution, this is also allowed by the constitution of the country. Since the country is in crisis in my view, this is among the solution to the problems that the country faces, currently. However, it is very important to arrive at an agreement over this issue and on the independence of the election board because the proposers of the recommendation were saying that the board would play the role of facilitator. What matters most here is that the willingness of the ruling party to sit and negotiate over issues. However, it is early to say this is good or bad but this could be one of the solutions among many others.