Interview: Beyene Petros Sees Beauty Contest amongst Woyannes – Addis Fortune(Interview)
The ruling party claimed a landslide victory during the recent local and by-elections, and is in control of all local administrative structures across the country. Opposition parties, in particular the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), say there was no election, but rather the elections were a “beauty contest” held among members of the ruling party. (more…)
The ruling party claimed a landslide victory during the recent local and by-elections, and is in control of all local administrative structures across the country. Opposition parties, in particular the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), say there was no election, but rather the elections were a “beauty contest” held among members of the ruling party.
A few days ahead of the elections held two weeks ago, it withdrew its over 10,000 candidates from the contest, before it was joined by the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), which did the same in the second week of the elections with 6,000 of its candidates. Endale Assefa, staff writer, sat down with Beyene Petros (Prof) to get an idea of why opposition leaders resorted to a politics of boycott instead of electoral engagement. Beyene also has a message for members of the public.
Is it true that you withdrew from the recent local and by-elections because the international community paid little attention to them in contrast to those of May 2005?
The international community has its own understanding and assumptions. As donor members of this community, they have an agenda of ensuring that democratization is well practiced in Ethiopia. Elections are, ultimately a question of democracy. They invest a lot of money in this regard to the parliament, mass media, and the electoral agency. We lobby for them to enhance fair elections in this country so that all political parties and the people can move freely before, during and after elections.
They asked us whether we were comfortable with the present election environment. They frequently ask us if we would proceed with the elections. What we have learnt in the process was that the diplomatic community was also frustrated because the administration was blocking them from supporting the democratization process.
For instance, the administration told them that foreign observers were prohibited from monitoring the current elections. It has to be emphasized that observers are crucial in creating consensuses among eligible political parties in any electoral process.
The international community later on came up with the idea of giving training to the civic society organizations and NGO members who could serve as observers. The NEBE remained ambiguous about this suggestion, sometime giving a positive signal and at other times claiming that NGOs have not been registered to monitor elections. The issue was kept hanging in the air up until two weeks before the election when they decided that donors could not deal with them. These civic society organizations and NGOs were deliberately denied registration.
NEBE had previously held the view that diplomats residing in the country could observe the election process, yet subsequently changed their mind during the latest elections. Diplomats were told not to come within a 500m radius at any of the polling stations. This indeed was a deliberate manipulation of the election procedure, as without observer monitoring its credibility cannot be endorsed.
We withdrew from the recent elections because of the illegal and unjustified measures taken by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) and the ruling party. The situation of our withdrawal accidentally coincided with that of the international community, although we had different reasons for our respective actions. The way the elections were managed was illegal. We appealed to the NEBE to stop this, and its implementing bodies shut the door on us. They did not register our candidates for the elections.
Tesfaye Mengesha, secretary general of the NEBE, told this newspaper last week that over 10,000 people were registered from your party?
He is just a government assigned person; it is a pity that he says many things that are far from the truth. At one point, he had said that they had given ID cards to 15 observers, and this was not true. We have records that show how many candidates of ours registered, where and when. But the number of people given ID cards compared to that posted in the election paper by the NEBE was quite small. Registration has preliminary steps: There is what they call Volume 03 to be filled, and then comes Volume 04 and 05. At 06, the final step, candidates are given ID cards.
NEBE has not registered all our candidates. For that matter, it did not need to register all candidates presented because they should answer some basic questions. But, the administration continuously erased names of candidates on allegations and pretexts simply meant to justify their ‘righteous’ acts. For instance, they registered a young man and refused to register his father, claiming that he was not older than 18. Here is the worst example: A father of 10 from the rural areas where there are no ID cards was denied registration as he was considered under age. Testimonials from three people in such places where there are no ID cards should have worked as references for potential candidates.
In these unfortunate circumstances, they have cut down the number of our candidates by almost half.
Although we tried to find out the number of our candidates who had actually been registered by the NEBE, we were not told. Yet they told the diplomatic community that 10,115 people had been registered from UEDF, despite the fact that what we presented were 11,143 people. Of these, only 6,495 people were actually registered by the NEBE.
Most of our candidates were registered in Southern Nations, Nationalities and People (SNNPR) State. In Oromia, they blocked our participaton in the elections as candidates who had letters of endorsement from us were either arrested for a week, beaten up or simply disappeared on us. Four of our members of parliament were beaten; their public address system was taken away from them when they were campaigning. This was what happened to Merera Gudina (PhD).
You have said to the press, a day before the end of the recent elections, that your goal in this election was to claim power. You have even accepted the nomination of your party for the country’s presidency under the EPRDF administration. Is every move of yours motivated by a desire to gain power?
I find this question to be rather ingenious. I do not know why you ask this question. First of all, every political question is a question of power; period! Otherwise, what would be the reason behind the political game? There is a saying in the locality where I was born: If you have an unwieldy bull, you should take it with the handy ones to the market. After you sell the difficult one, you take all the good ones back home.
Yet, we cannot be part of the drama that the ruling party is enacting. We are serious, professionals, and busy people. We are not in armed struggle to overthrow the ruling party, nor do we believe that it is the right way of struggle in Ethiopia today. Neither is abstinence from taking part in any of the political struggles. We are here to make a difference from within the system. But, to say UEDF has a strong desire for power is a cheap shot.
I am not posing this question to your party; it is directed to you?
I want to be a symbol for others and that would be my best achievement. Yet, I do not live by benefits obtained from political leftovers. I earn my monthly income from the Addis Abeba University; I am a full time member of staff there. What I obtained from Parliament is an ID, which gives me nothing more than an easy passage to some areas where there is tight security. I do not live in the house that is given to members of parliament by the state.
I was persuaded by my colleagues to bid for the presidency; it was a group decision though I knew supporters of the ruling party would not have supported it. My colleagues started to ask why they could not nominate someone who was well educated, credible and experienced [from the opposition]. The idea was to test the EPRDF in such a way, too. All the opposition parties in Parliament said no to this proposition of presidency but I accepted that role. That was all.
As a politician, one should be in a position to predict the outcome of a political process. I knew that supporters of the ruling party in Parliament would not have voted for me. However, it was important, in terms of history, to tell that oppositions have gone that far in the political struggle in Ethiopia. We should learn to swallow our pride for this important political stride and at the same time, expose ourselves to those who raise such cheap questions. But, my intension was really symbolic.
You may want to know how I was planning to work with the EPRDF. But I knew the constitution, which says that a person has to be neutral and not affiliated to any political party. Perhaps, I might have resigned from my position in my party. But that would indeed create trouble, not for me, but for the EPRDF because I would try to be fair, balanced and independent.
I do not have a lust for power. I resigned from a ministerial position in the Ministry of Education during the transition period without any pressure to do so from the ruling party. The day I begin to use my political position for personal gains will be one of disgrace to me. What is true at this time is that, presidency in Ethiopia is just nominal. Tell those who raise this question that they should not be bothered about me. As long as we have to play this political game, we have to play it well.
Many say there is no strong opposition in Ethiopia today. What will be the future of the country’s politics in the absence of a formidable opposition coalition?
This is cliché and idle talk. What you just said is another lazy and dangerous way in which people talk. Those think-tanks and opinion makers are really lazy. We are a peaceful political movement; we do not promote armed struggle against any party.
I do not know how our strength could be measured other than in fielding candidates and winning. And we were winning in a situation where the NEBE acted as part of the ruling party, having gone through many ups and downs. I have a seat in Parliament. You can do nothing more than what we are doing today if you are a peaceful political fighter.
Do we have to face bullets so as to be a strong political party? Is this how our strength can be measured?
We are trying to operate under the law.
The ruling party always says that opposition parties do not come up with policy alternatives, but instead it alleges that they [opposition parties] simply oppose [its] policies. We were tired of this simple-minded pettiness arising from ignorance.
Coming to the current election, EPRDF claims to have won the recent elections in a landslide victory. How did it manage to reverse history; after bearing heavy defeat in 2005? Is it because the people lost trust in the opposition parties?
You guys have a serious problem with your choice of words. Who did win against whom? Who were the contestants? Did the ruling party win an election or a beauty contest held among its members?
We did not participate in the election; we did not lose. We also do not know whether the EPRDF has indeed won. But there was a lot of wastage. This is my first time to call a spade is a spade; this was an illegal election management. There was no transparency and the elections were poorly managed.
But how about peoples’ frustrations with the opposition parties and their loss of trust in them?
As I said before, if the people have lost trust in the opposition groups, it means that they prefer to stay under repression. Members of the opposition parties are not aliens; they are part of the public. If the people feel that they have lost trust due to incompetence of the leaders, then they should participate. This is what I want to tell the public; we do not want to stay at home in despair. This does not, however, mean that parties do not make mistakes. If the first bullet fired fails to hit the target, it does not mean that there won’t be another.
The people of Addis Abeba took part in these elections for fear that they would not get rations of wheat. Voters’ lists from the elections have gone to kebelle administration. This is illegal. The number and names [of voters] should be kept a secret.
How can you be so sure? How do you substantiate this claim?
I cannot tell about Addis Abeba. But, the regional experience is like that. They [voters] were told that the sheep and the goats they had been given through safety-net programs would be taken back if they did not register.