Bezabih Demessie (PhD) is the president of the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP), one of the major opposition political parties in Ethiopia. He earned his masters and PhD degrees from Russia, in History and Economics. Prior to joining politics, which is before the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in Ethiopia, he has served his country in different ministries including the then Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Foreign Trade Ministry and Ministry of Finance for more than 20 years. Bezabih was also one of the founders of the Ethiopian Democratic Movement Group. Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter sat down with him this week to discuss the ongoing negotiation between the opposition political parties, including AEUP, and the ruling party, the planned merger with Blue Party and their recent political tour to the US. Excerpts:
The Reporter: The ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is negotiating with some 15 national opposition political parties which so far resulted in the amendment of the political parties’ registration law and some legislations pertaining to the electoral system of the country aiming to expand the political space in the country. Your party AEUP is among the parties participating in the negotiations; therefore, how would you assess the negotiation process so far and its contribution to avert the current political problems in the country?
Bezabih Demesie (PhD): The negotiation has been taking place for the past one year. As far as AEUP is concerned negotiation is very vital to address critical political issues in the country. Our party believes that negotiation is the only way out for our current political predicament. For this reason, our organization has been urging the government and the ruling party to come to the negotiation table over many issues that continue to cause political instability and unrest in the country. For example, on the onset of the wide-range public uprising in the different parts of Oromia and Amhara regional states we were repeatedly wrote a letter and requested the government to sit down for negotiation. We were requesting the negotiation because we know and understand the underlying problems of the country and sources grievances for the public; and we truly believed that the problems will go away if and only if the government is willing to listen to the public.
We still believe that if the government fails to listen to the demands of the public the problems observed today will not get a lasting solution. Apart from that, if the government is to address the questions of the public, the opposition political parties should be part of the process. Therefore the ongoing negotiation is the result of our tireless efforts and agitations to negotiate with the government. Our party also espouses a strong belief that if the deep-rooted challenges of Ethiopia are to be solved the government and the ruling party should be part of the process as well; surely we can’t expect to address out national problems by talking (praying) to our deity. That’s why we are part of the ongoing negotiation and remained there until today. Though we negotiated different electoral regulations and got results, our negotiation over the anti-terror proclamation is currently in deadlock situation. This is because we believe that many individuals who has played tremendous role in the peaceful political struggle are detained through this proclamation; and these individuals are detained not because they were terrorist but because of their political views. Therefore we demand the release of these individuals and significant amendment to the proclamation. It is the major objective of our negotiation.
During the negotiation over the anti-terrorism proclamation most of the articles that the opposition parties proposed to be amended or discarded from the proclamation were rejected by the ruling party. So do you think the negotiation will continue in this situation? Or will proceed to the next item on the agenda? And what is your guarantee to continue negotiations over the remaining issues if the ruling party rejected your proposal?
What I want to say, first of all, is that the negotiation over the anti-terrorism proclamation is a very important one and almost all opposition political parties including ours have placed greater weight and priority to it. Our party wants the anti-terrorism proclamation to be amended and demands the release of those individuals who are detained by this proclamation. The government has said that it needs some time to think over the issue and to give final response; and we are waiting for that response now. In my view officials of the government who are taking part in the negotiation will come up with a better response soon.
How long are prepared to wait for that response? Am asking this because when the negotiation started it was said that the negotiation would be finalized within nine months of time but so far discussing more only four agenda items the negotiation has taken a year and hence what would be your action regarding this?
According to our party, it is not up to the president or other individuals to decide whether to continue in the negotiation or not. It is rather decided by the executive committee of the party, which has 19 members. Therefore, it is obvious that the negotiation over the anti-proclamation is in a deadlock and hence we will wait for some additional times and that executive committee will discuss and reveal its stance and its action over the fate of the negotiation. This could happen in week or two weeks or even month. But, I don’t think the response from the ruling party will take that much time. However, if the executive committee of the party decides over the mater we will take our own measure. Generally speaking, since our proposed ideas to incorporate opposition political parties as members of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), to amend the proclamation and to release all political prisoners were rejected by the ruling party; it might be very difficult for us to continue with the negotiation.
The negotiation is still ongoing but did you have a specific body to deal with the issues that are covered in the negotiation thorough conducting researches or consulting prominent individuals so as to get relevant inputs?
Before we started the negotiation we established a committee that is assigned to come up with ideas and propositions in the negotiation. The committee presents its findings and propositions to the executive committee of the party and the executive committee discusses over the proposed issues before going in to the negotiation. In this regard, therefore we as AEUP has identified some 15 detailed issues, which we believe, are very important to negotiate over with the ruling party. Apart from this, other opposition political parties also presented their own ideas and hence the negotiation is based on the summation of ideas both from the AEUP and other opposition political parties.
Many have criticized the ongoing negotiation claiming that the opposition political parties don’t have anything to offer to the platform. They also allege that the role of the opposition parties in the negotiation is simply to escort the ruling party, what is your reaction to such criticisms?
Our party has not joined the negotiation to escort the ruling party; as I have already mentioned, since we believe that negotiation is the best way to bring change in the country and we were urging the government to sit for negotiation, we believe that the ongoing negotiation is the result of our tireless effort to negotiate with the government over various issues. Therefore, I personally don’t accept that we are in the negotiation to escort the ruling party; such criticism comes from those who are not part of the negotiation. However, in my and my party’s view the negotiation should have incorporated other parties and groups and so that they can contribute their own share in the democratic process of the country. I believe any one that is concerned about Ethiopia should be part of the negotiation; because this negotiation is over the fate of all Ethiopians, Therefore, it is not proper to negotiate while others remain bystanders of the negotiation. And all parties, groups and individuals that believes in the peaceful struggle both from the local and abroad should be part of the negotiation.
The negotiation between the ruling party and the opposition parties has been taking place for the past solid one year. However, the country is rocked by instability and unrest in that year, therefore, why do you think the ongoing negotiation will bring tangible solution to the current political instability?
As I have already mentioned earlier, in order to provide tangible solution to the problems in the country, all stakeholders should be part of the negotiation. Therefore, without incorporating all stakeholders I don’t think the ongoing negotiation alone will bring the desired and tangible solution to the current instability the country.
Your party has recently announced that it has started a process to merge with Blue Party. So what is the current status of the merger and when do you think the parties will be unified?
Well, we are working with Blue Party for the past almost one year. We are working together in different matters that are very important for all of us including in the forces of unity. Therefore, our major goal is to work together. From this point, we will consider other measures according to the process of the electoral law of the country, which recognizes coalition, front and mergers. Therefore, our current status is that we are working together; in the future we will consider all the possible process that might be conducive to coalition, front or merger. Currently, we are going through that path. Right now, we are working together with the party. And I am hoping that this would have a better result in the future.
Though you have asserted that there is no problem in the relation between Blue and AEUP, Blue is not part of the ongoing negotiation between the opposition political parties and the ruing party. Therefore don’t you think this will hamper the future relation between the two?
Other concerned Ethiopians have also raised this concern in our political tour to US. However, now, AEUP has its own executive committee and Blue also has its own; therefore it is up to leadership. In our part, our presence in the ongoing negotiation and Blue’s absence don’t pose any challenges to our day-to-day political activity. And I don’t think it will create any problem in the future too, because they respect our stance and we respect theirs. If we really achieve something positive from the negotiation Blue is also the beneficiary; therefore it is very wise if you look at the whole picture.
Recently you and chairman of the Blue Party were in a political tour to the US and stayed there for about four months, what was the purpose of the tour and what are the achievements that you registered during the tour?
We went to the US by the invitation from the Shengo a group that comprises different NGOs. The Shengo extended this invitation tto AEUP and because of our strategy to work together. Prior to the invitation, Shengo sent us a letter appreciating our effort to work together and then the invitation materialized and we were able to tour in different part of the US. During the tour, we were able to echo our voices to the diaspora and senior government officials in the senate and US congress.
The credibility of the Ethiopian opposition parties in the US has dwindled especially after the problem that occurred within the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). However, I felt that we were able to restore some of the trust and acceptance in the diaspora. Additionally, we were able to meet government officials in the senate and congress and brief them on the current political, human right and other related situation in the country and received a very satisfactory response from them.