Eskinder Nega is the founder and chairman of Balderas for True Democracy, a recently formed political party, a noted political activist as well as an award winning journalist. Here he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on his activism, his recent social media exchange with the Deputy Mayor of Addis Ababa, his many years spent in prison and on his brand of politics and on what he wants to achieve in the years to come. Excerpts:
The Reporter: There is a growing interest with your targeted social media attack of Addis Ababa Deputy Mayor, Takele Uma (Eng.), in recent weeks. While the attack might be two way, some say that you are making yours personal. How do you explain that?
Eskinder Nega: If you are referring to the recent Twitter messages I posted, it is in reflection of the actions of both the Prime Minister and the Mayor, who have used the recent coronavirus pandemic activities as a political tool to benefit them politically. I felt that needed a reaction.
Look at the Mayor for instance. Most of the people who come to his political shows are paid cadres and the rest is a theatrical show. And there are what we call his “paid internet police,” working from both inside and outside the country, who serve his political interest. They are meant to win him public support.
In my opinion, the fact the election has been prolonged is like winning a lottery for the Mayor. It has prolonged his eventual defeat. I have no doubt the incumbent will be defeated in Addis Ababa. They will lose 23 – 0. Remember the 1997 (2005) election, that was what happened.
We have a mayor that is not wanted by the people of Addis Ababa. That is what I highlighted on Twitter.
I have to ask you. You were once a celebrated political prisoner, a prisoner of conscience. You were honored by many institutions and your voice, even in prison, mattered. Many people respected you. You were imprisoned for nine years. What is the ultimate goal for you?
The ultimate goal is to promote liberal democracy in Ethiopia. Democracy as understood by Hegel. Democracy as the end of history. The kind of democracy that exists in the US, Europe, Japan, India and South Africa. I believe that is what is most needed in Ethiopia.
But you are running for Mayor of Addis Ababa, whose goal is much more localized. Can you, as Mayor of Addis Ababa bring liberal democracy? Don’t you think that is a farfetched dream for you and your supporters?
Our problem originated and hovers around lack of democracy, whether locally or nationally. Remember, Addis Ababa is not being governed by a Mayor that it deserves and wants. Engineer Takele made his name fighting Addis Ababa’s Metropolitan master plan in 2016. He fought as an Oromo nationalist and built his support base there. We cannot forget that.
After change came in 2018, he did not come to Addis Ababa as a freedom fighter, but as a conqueror. This goes to show you, we have no democracy. We have no democracy with checks and balances in the nation. In a democracy, you cannot bring a man who fought against a city and put him in charge of it. Out of necessity, we need a democratic system that will not allow this to happen in the future. We cannot leave this job for others.
When you say the Mayor will lose 23 – 0, do you think you have that overwhelming support in Addis Ababa?
That might not be. Others may win. But I am certain the party of the Mayor, the old EPRDF with a new name, will not be able to win one seat of the city’s 23 seats in the federal parliament. It will be rejected overwhelmingly.
Eskinder, you once had a uniform like support while you were in prison. It seems you have now embraced ethnic politics. Is that a fair assessment of yourself and your activism?
Well, I do not think so. The intention of Balderas is to make Addis Ababa the home of everyone, not just the few. Addis Ababa should belong to all of us, whether one was born in the city of Nekemte, or whether one was born in Zalambessa, Moyale, Benishangul-Gumuz or at the border of Somalia and Ethiopia. We are a multicultural, multi-ethnic society but citizens of Ethiopia, the land belongs to all of us. Where is the ethnic politics in this?
However, it is a fact that we have a considerable support from the Amhara community. Some people feel we should deemphasize that support. We disagree. The will be blatant discrimination for us. We will not take any support for granted. We are grateful for the support we have from the Amhara community as we are grateful for the support we have from other communities. We treat everyone equally. We are proud of all and refuse to deemphasize anyone.
For you, what is the difference between Qeerroo and Fano?
Let me tell you what the differences are to me. The abuses by the extremist Qeerroo have been recorded by international human rights organizations. Since 2018 they have taken ownership of most of the abuses in Ethiopia. There is no such record about Fano.
One might assume I am biased because I am an Amhara but the findings of credible human rights organizations support what I say. There lies the fundamental difference between the two for me. I am absolutely against any kind of violence, no matter where it comes from.
Any reforms in the era of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that has impressed you so far?
There is no real reform, just re-shuffle. The Prime Minister has not just failed as a person, but more fundamentally it is the system he leads that has failed. There is no checks and balances. The PM has just embraced the status quo.
If the Prime Minister had worked as hard in his own country as he did to build a transition government in Sudan, Ethiopia would have had a better future.
Do you think Ethiopia is capable of holding a fair and democratic election?
I doubt it. But we will use what little space there is and defeat it in the next election. That was what happened in 2005.We shall repeat that history.
Eskinder, you have not talked much about your time in prison. You have not written much on it nor been reflective on it. Share with me the highlights.
You know, there was much I wrote in prison, however, it has not been published. They did everything to stop us from writing, but we kept on writing. Some of those writings were smuggled out of prison but not much has been published.
I do not want to come out as a hero based on my prison experience, as there are many who suffered more than I have.
Some even lost their lives and the hardship of many has made mine insignificant by comparison. It was more a humbling experience for me than anything else.
But above all else, the spiritual dimension was transformative for me. I had time to read the Bible and the blessing to understand it. I found my God. I prayed. And through prayer I persevered by the power of Christ.
In reflection, prison gave me a chance to find Christ, my savior.
How did you find out you were freed?
I did not think I would ever be freed, to be honest. That was because we refused to sign any document admitting any guilt. We were not guilty of anything. There were many who signed in exchange for their freedom. I was part of the few who did not.
In the end, prison officials came to us and said we were free to go. And then at the gate they asked us to sign again. We refused. We assumed we were going back to prison because of that. They said it was for record keeping, for administrative purposes, but we did not oblige.
We said we did not trust them, in case they wanted to use it as an admission of guilt in the future. They ultimately opened the gate and showed us our way. But I have say, our freedom was something willed by the Almighty. I believe that.
What did you feel when you left the prison gate to crowds who had been waiting for you and anticipating your freedom for many years?
It was a long time coming. I was overwhelmed. Remember, it was a longtime since I spoke or seen my wife, Serkalem, and Nafkot, my son. And I was looking forward to interact with them. Serkalem had left to the United States while I was in prison with the assumption, she would be re-arrested if she had stayed in Ethiopia.
As soon as I got in the car, she was on the phone and I was happy to hear her voice. I screamed her name and told her I was no longer in prison and she said, to my utter wonderment, she had been watching it all live on television, through a live transmission on YouTube.