“I won’t give up on the CUD” Birtukan Mideksa – CapitalEthiopia
Few Ethiopians and for that matter the rest of the world could forget the exhilarating atmosphere of collective accomplishment that surrounded the campaigning, run-up and conduct of the now historic May 2005 elections. Alas, without repeating what is known to all, Ethiopia, for better or worse, has never been the same ever since.
The political scene, particularly but not exclusively, has been dominated by the emergence so it seemed of a strong opposition in the form of the CUD. The EPDRF, it recalled had publicly been wishing for and had long lamented the absence of such strong democratic opposition.
The CUD is or was a coalition among Rainbow, Ethiopian Democratic League (EDL), EUDP -Medhin and All Ethiopian Unity Party and although hastily assembled by individuals of disparate views and even generational gaps, not to mention the now obvious power struggle, the CUD managed to garner millions of votes.
Among the most earnest and charismatic of the CUD top echelon is Justice Bertukan Mideksa. She was kind enough to give Capital’s Kirubel Tadesse an exclusive interview on the past, present and future of the CUD. Excerpts.
Capital: Tell us about your life before you entered politics and what inspired you to do so?
Birtukan: I grew up in Addis Ababa around ‘the Ferensaie’ area. After completing high school I joined Addis Ababa University Law School. All the basic rights you fight for in politics like a free judiciary system, the rule of law and others, you will come across when you study law. When I was student, especially in the last year, I was considering the ways in which I can contribute my part so that we could all enjoy and see a free justice system. I believed that I could achieve that by becoming a judge and serving the public.
Even if I knew that some of my decisions would result in threats to my career and even to my life, I did my best in accordance with the country’s laws. I saw some very troubling conditions in which I learnt that the rule of law and freedom of judges is very much limited by the executive body. I started to see the whole thing as one system; we have a parliamentary system which is responsible to the judges’ appointment, budget allocation and also to their freedom. I decided to contribute to this system hoping that it will at the end, offer the judiciary all the freedom it needs. I joined politics as a private (independent) parliamentary candidate back in 2000. It was totally my own decision and I can say that almost every one around me didn’t support the idea. Friends and family, especially my Mom tried to convince me not to enter politics but that didn’t stop me from doing what I believed in. I didn’t win in the election but it was a chance to observe what is really happening there.
Capital: How did you become a member of an opposition party?
Birtukan: When I lost the 2000 election I returned to work as a judge. That was the place where I learned how far the government takes matters in its own hands, greatly influencing the decisions of judges. The entire system was very limited and worked against the rule of law. For instance, the case of Siye Aberha; I learned great lessons from such cases. When I say it was great, it doesn’t mean good but rather, explanatory of how with out evidence of any kind, the government can influence the judiciary system and take control of it. I didn’t have to collect evidence or travel to other parts of the country; I could easily see the injustice from where I was. I firmly believe how unjust or undemocratic any system or government is, the good will and peaceful struggle of its citizens will prevail. Some of the founders of the Rainbow party talked to me, inviting me to join the party, but I couldn’t do so in the first months because I had other commitments in life and career which I should resolve first. After a few months I joined Rainbow.
Capital: Most of the founders of Rainbow had no prior record of participation in Ethiopian politics. Why did you choose to join Rainbow from these?
Birtukan: When I joined Rainbow, the Coalition was already underway. Among the four parties which formed the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, I chose Rainbow because I had a better knowledge of its programs and believed that that it is a common program put in place with agreement of the member parties. It was simply a matter of convenience to choose Rainbow, and through that, the Coalition. I found my beliefs and wishes in the new political tradition of the CUD, which resides in peaceful means to bring about any desired changes. For me to join Rainbow was to join the Coalition.
Capital: How well did the member parties of the Coalition discuss their unity because, in few months time after the election some parties didn’t agree to give up their status and fall under one party. What went wrong? Most critics today are suggesting that CUD was just a front to oppose the ruling party and not out for sustainable struggle. It seems correct when we see your current reality…
Birtukan: The pillars which founded CUD, the basic human rights and equality of citizens which is in no way influenced by sex, ethnic background and other natural divide, was expressed in the member parties program. The stage in which it is expressed in the member parties could vary but we were all committed to it and planned to work with it as one party. If there are any dissimilarities of the Coalition and the member party’s program, as any democratic party, we put in place a mechanism by which changes to the party’s program could be made. We all agreed that the existing difference in statements and expressions won’t create any significant problem.
Capital: EUDP-Medhin didn’t take time to withdraw from the Coalition. That and what we are witnessing today give a different picture from what you explains about the CUD formation…
Birtukan: The Coalition from the early days of the election planned to unify the members into one large strong party. We knew the minor problems we had and we believed that they were too minor not to allow us from working together and achieving the much bigger goal. We had opened the door for any possible changes but unity was shown in every document the parties signed. Claiming that the parties from the start were with different agendas is very wrong, we had all the possible common ground to work together and more importantly, the wished to unite and stand as one strong party. The case of EUDP-Medhin can by no means be used to justify the claim. One individual and few others who support him caused the chaos. It wasn’t the decision of EUDP-Medhin. Most of the leaders of the party including the chairman supported unity; they signed on the documents and had the unity accepted by the party’s general assembly. Indifferent to the party majority members and leaders decision and wish , a few followed other paths probably to gain personal benefits.
Capital: When the CUD entered the 2005 election, there were various expectations and predictions by its members. What was the real target CUD wished to accomplish at the end of the election?
Birtukan: One of the things I appreciate in the CUD is that ideas are freely and openly discussed in the party. That is why we are all aware of the different ideas and predictions about the outcome of the election. Few were convinced that we could change the government with the votes we get and few others had different expectations. It is common even for small agendas from the leader of one democratic party to stand in opposition, leaving alone election results. What we decided as a party with majority support was that we could change the government. Looking to the qualified candidates and the alternatives we presented at the election, we knew that the amount of support we get would allow us to form a new government. What we shouldn’t forget here is that the ruling party did relax a little bit at the start of the election period. Even if it wasn’t , the steps the government took gave hope that there could be a peaceful transition of power. And the efforts we made believing that, really helped us and if it weren’t for the influence of the government, we could have achieved that.
Capital: After the election period the government banned public meetings and demonstration and serious disterbances occurred in the country. By then wasn’t that a time to change expectations of the election and to target another goal, for the future ?
Birtukan: Our target at the end of the election was subject to change not only because of the result disclosed but also to the beliefs we first started out with. If the election process were free and fair, and some major institutions of the government were democratic enough to allow citizens to move and work freely, we would have settled for it. If we could have had assurance that such changes will occur, it would have meant fulfilling some of the major visions of CUD. But what we witnessed was, starting from the election day onward the government starts issuing statements and decisions without basing them on the constitution. It was an act which taught us how the government wished to proceed. Even if we had known what was done during the recount and that we had the truth, we chose to avoid confrontations. We only wanted to get some kind of assurance that at least if not now, in the future there will be democratic institutions where citizen votes will be counted in the proper manner. We wanted the government to work in securing free courts where when disputes arise we can take our cases to them and receive justice through them. We wanted the government to let go of the media and all the institutions so as to work according to the constitutional mandate. We wanted to continue the political process through dialog and reconciliation. All of our proposals showed that but it wasn’t acceptable for the government. Let alone restructuring of the institutions, the government couldn’t even include the ideas as a discussion agenda. Rather, it continued to take measures such as imprisoning political leaders, which made the country’s democratic process stuck in one position and forces citizen to abandon hopes of democratization.
Capital: If you had taken the parliamentary seats you won, wouldn’t that give more weight to your demands? Especially by establishing an exemplary administration in Addis Ababa, wouldn’t that prepare you for future elections?
Birtukan: We didn’t decide not to join parliament in essence of boycotting. The measures taken, such as agenda setting by majority vote, the same with the final decision, the transgression by the government, especially in the recount, as stated by the Carter Center, was narrowing down the little hope we saw. We presented an eight point proposal hoping to reverse that, stating simple and constitutional steps the government should take in order for us to join parliament. If the federal government won’t play fairly, there was no room for us to establish any kind of exemplary administration in Addis Ababa.
Capital: Now, even after being freed the CUD can’t stand together and obtain legal status. Isn’t this time to give up on the CUD? There are reports that Dr. Berhanu Nega already has quit politics and has decided to stay in the USA. Will you follow suit?
Birtukan: No, I won’t give up on the CUD or the peaceful political struggle. Though I am very pessimistic on any future with Engineer Hailu Shawl and a few people he is working with, we will continue to work as the CUD and we will continue in the peaceful struggle. We wished Dr. Berhanu could come here and help in this crucial period and we did ask him to come but he told us that he will remain six months in USA on a scholarship. We are working with the group of CUD parliamentarians led by Temesgen Zewdie so that CUD can obtain legal status. We have elected six people from both sides and people are working on obtaining a legal certificate for the party.
Capital: Finally, if Engineer Hailu leaves quits, who will lead the CUD? Are you ready to take up the role?
Birtukan: It is not up to me to decide I may not be elected as executive member, but for me, what matters is to keep up the peaceful struggle and work to achieve a democratic system for the country. We will remain as the CUD and stay in the peaceful political struggle.