Ethiopia: Interview with Lidetu Ayalew (Reporter)
Lidetu Ayalew, the founder and the longest- serving president of Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), rose to prominence in Ethiopia’s opposition politics during the highly contested 2005 general elections.
The aftermath of that election, although it won Lidetu and his party seats in parliament, alienated him from a strong support base due to a split within the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). The impact continued during the 2010 general elections as EDP failed to win a single sit in parliament. And in 2011, Lidetu stepped down from his party’s presidency and virtually vanished from active politics since then. He then traveled to UK to do his MA in Developmental Studies at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. As the country warms up to the fifth general elections, Lidetu, a member of EDP’s Central Committee, has resurfaced with a new book titled Tiyatre Boletica (Theatre of Politics). Solomon Goshu of The Reporter sat down with Lidetu to talk about his new book. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You seem to have vanished from the political scene. What have you been up to?
Lidetu Ayalew: I was studying in London for two years. Prior to that, I finished my term as president of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) and a successor [Mushe Semu] was appointed. Although I am no longer in the Executive Committee, I am still a member of the Central Committee. And in that capacity, I am carrying out what is expected of me. The day-to-day task is performed by members of the executive committee. So, I am still active and will remain so in the future.
Recently, you released a book titled Tiyatré Boletica on hearsay and Ethiopian political shenanigans. You say hearsay has a bigger role in Ethiopian politics than conscious and rational reasoning. Why do you think it is so?
I never considered hearsay to be a big concern in politics prior to and after joining the peaceful struggle. I believe most people still think so. But in the course of my long political career, I found hearsay to be my biggest challenge. I now believe hearsay is deeply embedded not just in party politics but within the society. For instance, opposition parties with common agenda have failed to join forces because of hearsay. Yes, there are differences between political parties but the major obstacle was hearsay. One party hates another without any appreciable reason. It is mostly influenced by defamation and hearsay. This has greatly impacted the struggle. Frictions between the top leadership of political parties are mostly founded on hearsay, thus preventing parties from resolving their internal issues to take the struggle one step forward. I hear opposition political parties blaming the ruling party on their own internal divisions. If the ruling party is to divide us, it would be by arousing suspicion between one another, spreading rumor to turn one party against another. But beyond that, a rumor spread by one individual eventually grows to become the party’s biggest problem. I have seen hearsay souring a party’s relation with the public. It has prevented parties from amicably resolving their issues and come out stronger. It has exacerbated the extremely polarized relation between the opposition and the ruling party. It has disrupted the healthy relation between those in the diaspora keen to engage in the country’s politics and those at home. I have come to understand that the opposition’s peaceful struggle will reach nowhere unless hearsay is tackled. I wrote the book so that people can understand the problem. Anyone entering politics should be aware of it and be prepared to deal with it effectively.
You have singled out the media as the main propagators of hearsay. In your 22-year active political engagement, have you seen an improvement?
Journalists, as members of the society, are also victims of hearsay. But when the media falls in the traps of hearsay, the problem is magnified because it reaches a wider public. The media is expected to fact-check false allegations, expose and present the truth to the public. However, most of them, although they are no longer in the business now, have been spreading hearsay. And the society, new to democratic culture and the press, takes whatever the media says as fact. Some journalists have manipulated this limitation of the society and have caused plenty of problems. The general environment was encouraging for some in the media to spread hearsay. I still believe there are some in the media engaged in that practice. In my book, I have mentioned the names of many media outlets to showcase the defamation against me. Some were not just spreading hearsay but also fabricating them. But over the past 15 years there have been improvements. The society does not take everything the media says as a fact. But to get here, we had to pay a heavy price.
In your book, you acknowledge political extremism as the main problem in the country. You cite generational gaps as a factor and a failure to engage the youth. Your party’s, EDP’s, recently released manifesto also lays emphasis on the youth. Why, do you think, are the youth marginalized?
We have to understand the source of political extremism first. In Ethiopia, there seems to be no culture of examining the past to understand how, why and when a certain problem occurred. For instance, we repeatedly talk of EPRDF’s dictatorship but we do not examine how and what caused it. The same goes for opposition politics. We talk of Ethiopia’s long history of state structure but this is marred by hatred and bickering. People were being killed for their political beliefs over the past 50 years. It is only natural to have a differing political opinion but a generation has been wiped out because of that. The problem has continued to this day even when we are claiming to have a multiparty system. Some political forces would still prefer to take up arms to kill one another had current circumstances allowed it. I have examined why it is so. It is all due to the leftist political thinking of the 1960s. The forces back then are still active in politics. There are different political ideologies and organizations but the individuals are still the same. These people are found both within the ruling party and the opposition. You also find them among the society that supports the opposition or the ruling party. There are also influential personalities in social affairs. These are the generation of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP)-Meison (All Ethiopian Workers Movement). The leftists have prevented us from having a healthy political culture by being an obstacle to the principles of tolerance, deliberation and give-and-take. They do not tolerate alternatives other than theirs and do not work to abolish it. That has affected not only the past but also the present. Unless it is put to a stop today it will also continue to affect the future. Secondly, when you look at the demography of this country, 70 percent is below the age of 30. But those playing the key roles in politics are of the generations of EPRP and Meison. The founding members of Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) were between the ages of 18 and 22 at the time. These are still the people in government positions in their 60s. But this generation has not been able to become a political leader even at the age of 40. It is still a follower. It has become a worshipper of ‘that generation’ from what is told or written about the time. I am not saying ‘that generation’ is bad altogether. It has a lot of attributes to admire such as one’s commitment to sacrifice oneself for one’s belief. But we need to differentiate the good from the bad. We have to ask whether it is wise to follow the ideology of the time. That generation had determined its own course while this generation has not. That generation is still determining the terms for the current generation. They are undermining the current generation by giving it different labels. I believe this generation should be given an opportunity.
You say the diaspora is influencing politics to the point of affecting the independence of political parties at home. Why do you think it has been difficult for parties to withstand such interferences?
Most political organizations in the diaspora are leftists. Many of them fled the country during the Derg regime and some left after the EPRDF came to power. Our society esteem highly those abroad because of a belief that the diaspora are well educated or that they uphold democracy and human rights because they live in such systems. It is also of the belief that due to better job opportunities they are financially better placed. So, the public’s view of political organizations in the diaspora is way too favorable than it should be. Hence, their influence in politics at home is huge although they may not be as influential as they were in the past. But the majority of the political organizations abroad have greatly contributed to the political problem at home using their financial capability. The public’s culture of financially supporting political parties at home is very limited. So, political parties at home establish relations with political organizations in the diaspora to curb their financial constraints. And that money does not come without strings attached. It comes with an agenda and an ideology which affect the independence of political parties at home. EDP has a firm stand on this; they may support us financially but they cannot impose their political orientation on us. Because of our stand, the financial support we used to get from the diaspora has substantially declined. Unless all these issues are addressed, the interference will remain. The forces abroad should only play supportive role- not assume the leadership.
You have been calling for major reforms in Ethiopia’s political landscape. What are these reforms you speak of?
Democracy cannot be achieved through the barrel of a gun. Once a regime assumes power after an armed struggle, the chances of that regime relinquishing power through a democratic process is very slim. Election should be the only avenue to assume power. Ethiopian political forces do not have a clear stand on this. There are a considerable number of political forces, with public backing, who disregard peaceful struggle as a means to assume power in the country. The peaceful struggle cannot flourish when the public is divided on the means to assume power. Our problems cannot be achieved with regime change alone. Had that been the case Ethiopia’s problems would have been resolved long ago. Independent institutions that protect the interest of the people must be built for a sustainable democracy. The current regime has its limitations, but we do not believe that it is the source of every problem in this country. Some of the problems will remain even if the regime is gone. So, instead of viewing the regime as the source of every problem we should accept it as part of the solution. But what the opposition camp wants is for the regime to be wiped out to establish a new system, draft a new constitution, set up a transitional government. That will not be the solution and might even create another grievance and rebel group. On the other hand, the ruling party blames the opposition camp as the source of the problem and labels it anti-peace and anti-people. They regard themselves as the only force that can provide a solution to the country’s problem. This is wrong. During the 40th anniversary of TPLF celebrations recently, we have been hearing how the party has always been on the right course with a clear path. We have been told that those who stood against TPLF had nothing good to offer and labeled as forces of destruction. If this sort of political thinking is correct, then there should be no place for a multiparty democracy. There is no such thing as absolute correctness or wrongness in political processes. Everything is relative. If the ruling party persists with such attitudes, then there will be no multiparty democracy in this country. That attitude has its roots in jungle politics. So, it should welcome the vital and irreplaceable role the opposition camp plays. The public should be politically conscious and avoid being driven by emotion. An opposition party should solely be judged by the policy alternatives it offers. So, each of us should avoid pointing fingers at others. We need to look inwards and accept that we are also part of the problem and work to be part of the solution.
You said the opposition camp views EPRDF as a force that works against the interest of the country. You also believe that the ruling party is intolerant of plurality of ideas and wants to remain in power. However, you do not go as far as others in the opposition in your accusations against the EPRDF. You believe the ruling party’s aspirations to bring about economic growth are genuine. Can you explain that?
Before the EPRDF assumed power, there was a massive propaganda that labeled it as a force that wants to weaken and disintegrate the country. That propaganda had a profound impact on the public. That agenda continues to persist even after 24 years and, despite massive achievements of the regime in socio economic aspects such as infrastructure, education and health. EPRDF is a dictatorial party jealous of its political power. However, it works to develop this country as much as its capacity and circumstances allow it. It does not have democratic tenets and does not want to share power. But it has offered solutions to millions of economic and social problems. Some parties have not accepted this reality and complain to the international community as if the ruling party were destroying the nation. That is political suicide. That is an assault on your own credibility than a score against the ruling party. That is one contributing factor for the opposition to grow weaker than stronger.
How do you evaluate the ideology the ruling EPRDF subscribes to?
I do not believe EPRDF has a clear ideological path. They claim to be proponents of a developmental state but I doubt they know what the ideology means. It is arguable if there is a government in the world which is not developmental? EPRDF never claimed to be a developmental state prior 2005. It had good track records in development but not so much in democracy. So, they had to call themselves developmental. Because they have not properly implemented democratic values, they could not claim to be democrats. Neither could they boldly claim that development, as opposed to democracy, should come first. So, they started claiming that they are proponents of a democratic developmental state. One time they say democracy is an existential issue, only to come back and say that development should come first even at the expense of democracy. As I see it, the EPRDF has struggled to have a clear ideology since assuming power. Yes, the ruling party fares better in its effort to realize what it preaches about development. But their talk of democracy is not more than lip- service.
In your book you expressed your worry about ethnic and religious tensions in the country. You go further and say that it could escalate to a scale of Rwandan genocide. But on the contrary, the nation is hailed as a beacon of peace and stability in the region. Where does your fear stem from and what should be done to avert it?
Yes, that keeps me awake at night sometimes. I have been in the political process and have come to witness the hatred and tension. I am not too confident that this will not lead to a Rwandan-scale genocide. You still see the strong suspicion between one another and we have seen it erupt from time to time. There have been political and religious motivated clashes that had caused the loss of life. In my view, the relative peace we see now is springs from EPRDF’s strong security apparatus and not because a culture of tolerance is rooted in the society. EPRDF cannot contain this through intimidation and force forever. If this strong grip weakens for various reasons, the tensions will pose a danger to the nation. The security apparatus is important but what EPRDF should truly rely on is the politics of national consensus and tolerance. I do not wish my fears to be a reality. There are those who do not agree with me and say that Ethiopia is a nation of peace and will continue to remain so. That is what I want the reality to be. But I do not want to deceive myself; and we should not cover it up.
Let me take you back to the 2005 general elections, what was the source of the friction between you, your party, and CUD? How much of that has affected your subsequent political path?
There is usually a strong desire among the public for political parties to form coalitions. CUD was a coalition formed without properly examining the pros and cons of joining forces and pressured by the perceived importance of coalitions. That was the fundamental problem. Members of CUD did not have similar political goals. Instead of understanding such differences, the coalition was formed due to the perception that joining hands is always advantageous. There were no genuine deliberations to identify a core common agenda that can unite us. The coalition was further lauded by the media. Questioning that will lead to suspicion and expose oneself to hearsay. As I have said in the book, joining the coalition was a mistake. We knew all along that it was impossible to work together with some of the forces in the coalition. In spite of that we joined the coalition fearing the pressure and consequences of not doing so. That was a mistake.
But some question EDP’s timing to leave the coalition. They say EDP could have been patient instead of leaving the coalition in times of crisis. What is your response to that?
We did not leave the coalition. We were forced out. We were determined to resolve the problem with deliberations. That did not happen and we were forced out. The beginning of the end began when CUD said they had expelled me and Mushe Semu [then number two figure at EDP and who succeeded Lidetu as the party’s president until 2013]. But there is no legal basis for that. We represent EDP in the coalition and it is only EDP that can expel us. And EDP can no longer stay in the coalition when its representatives are expelled. CUD never had the culture of resolving differences democratically. Instead they wanted to impose their ideas forcibly by spreading hearsay. So the timing was not our choice. Also the change they wanted was solely regime change. They wanted nothing less. They did not want to take parliamentary seats but the EDP did. That was the division.
Much like the role of Meles Zenawi in EPRDF, people find it difficult to differentiate Lidetu from EDP? Are you the product of EDP, or is EDP your product?
Ideas emanate from individuals. Gradually those ideas develop to become popular. But the reality in EDP is different from that. The core political beliefs of EDP emerged in 1999. We established the party after clearly identifying our path of political struggle in deliberations that lasted a year. I may have played a role in that process. But what the party stands for is also shaped by others. People might have found it difficult to differentiate between me and EDP because I represented the party in many of the public debates. But that has changed and I am no longer in the leadership. But people still hold that view.
In your book, you have stated that hearsay is more directed to you than your party. In line with that, there were reports that some members of EDP have asked you to play a role behind the scenes in order to protect the image of the party. How much of that is true?
I am not aware of that. It is actually to the contrary. I wanted to step down from the party’s leadership 12 years ago. There was a time I literally cried, begging to step down but I was denied. I was the one who asked for a diminished role within the party. In fact, others opposed because they thought I wanted to step down because of hearsay.
You have been playing an active role in Ethiopian politics for over 20 years. At a time when opposition politics is struggling to play a meaningful role, your decision not to contest a seat in this year’s election has baffled many. That has been construed as an indication that you have not recovered from the defeat of the 2010 elections and a sign of frustration in the system. What do you say to that?
It is wrong to give up when you lose elections. I had also lost a local election 12 years ago. In 2000, EDP had contested a seat in parliament and Addis Ababa City Council and won seats. I was not a candidate back then but I led the campaign. I took part in the debates. You do not necessarily have to be a candidate and have to pick your role based on the circumstances. If I had to give up, it would have been in 2005. Winning and losing is the rules of the game in elections. If I say I cannot accept losing in elections then I do not understand politics. It is true that there are a lot of discouraging factors but that actually propels me to contribute more in the peaceful struggle. I have come to realize that the struggle needs a lot more effort and sacrifice. No matter what, I do not intend to back down. But sometimes you might want to give priority to personal matters.