Capital: Your decision to join UDJ came as a surprise to many; people expected you to join your former colleague, Gebru Asrat’s Arena Tigray for Democracy and Sovereignty. Why UDJ?
Siye Abraha:Why should it be a surprise? That Gebru and I were in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) doesn’t mean that we will stay together in an ethnic or national party forever.
There was a time when I felt it would be better that I pursue my political dreams through a national front like the TPLF. I feel that time has changed and the order of the day demands we Ethiopians come under an umbrella to move the democratic struggle forward in a united, all Ethiopian party. Of course being in a national or ethnic based party doesn’t make one less or more Ethiopian than someone who joins a multinational party, but I feel the time has changed, that’s why I joined UDJ.
Gebru and I still remain good friends and it doesn’t mean that we have major disagreements.
Capital: It is a very rare case for senior ruling party members to join the opposition; I imagine there could be a lot of issues to work out on both sides. What has been your relation like with UDJ ordinary members; has it been a smooth one as you expected it and were you welcomed by all?
Siye:Yes I was welcomed by all UDJ members at all levels. In fact before I decided to join UDJ I was asked to join the party both by the leadership and the youth. So when the request came, I said I thank you for the respect you have for me but I need time to take my decision. I took my time and made the decision. I was welcomed and I still remain a welcome member of the party… I am happy with my relation within the party… I am satisfied with my decision.
Capital: Tell us about the five year plan UDJ recently announced it has outlined; what are the major tasks and targets set to be accomplished?
Siye: I would like to treat the matter in two separate groups as it is composed of two distinct parts; one is the strategy and the other is the plan [the five year plan].
The strategy defines how we align our core political base and where to base oneself; this requires we approach the social strata in our society based on their interests and on their matters of concerns. We are all Ethiopians, and one can say we all want the integrity and sovereignty of our country protected. We want to see a democratic system in the country that everybody has a right to express themselves and vote. We want to see institutions that facilitate power through elections. Governments that leave voluntarily when they do not have the ‘Yes’ vote of the people; all these are general which all Ethiopian are keen to see happen in Ethiopia.
Beyond this, however, are many policy issues; what matters to Ethiopian farmers may not be of much concern for an Ethiopian investor for example, or what a burning issue is for intellectuals may not be a concern for workers at factories. So we have to clearly articulate our policies so that Ethiopian voters in all social classes could see themselves voting for our party. To have that, we have clearly defined where the party entrenches itself and how. This is one aspect, an issue of getting the majority votes. There is another aspect; we have a situation where there is a one party system, and no independent institutions. We have a situation where the party controls everything and there is no independent judiciary. One cannot confidently say that we have a neutral army or security institutions and there is not a vibrant civil society; it is very important that we secure the neutrality of these institutions. It is very difficult to guarantee a political transition without having these, even in the presence of a majority of votes. So we had to elaborate our vision and strategy in relation to securing the neutrality of these institutions.
There are a lot of issues: what if the ruling party refuses to relinquish power even after having lost an election? There could be an element of fear; they can pull some nasty cards in the last hours. The history of politics in this country is full of reprisals and discriminations and for the country to have a peaceful transition to a democratic system we have to plan in such a way that there won’t be any bloodshed that could be precipitated by a sense of fear from the other side. These are among the issues we have to address in our strategy. There is also the dynamics of rural and urban politics as well.
Our strategy is the one that takes us from where we are now to establishing a popular elected government. When we come to the master plan and how to go about it; the five year plan clearly articulates what we should do [cascaded in timetable] between 2003 and 2007 Ethiopian Calendar. We have a year by year plan; it is a big document…about 140 pages long. So this will be something we will be working on and we will introduce it to the public and all other stakeholders so they can know that they have an interest in realizing this plan.
Capital: The Addis Ababa City election is only two years away…is that something your plan covers?
Siye: We understood the extent the ruling party went to narrow down the political space in the last five years prior to the recent elections [May, 2010]. We only participated in good faith and to show the public that we are ready and it was clearly demonstrated that the ruling party was in no way prepared to give space to the opposition. The 99.6 percent so called victory of the EPRDF is very telling of the political landscape we are in.
There is no point in participating in elections if there is no level playing field. We will work to stay put in the political map in this country, whether there is election or not, but we are not yet sure whether the obstacles that have been created by the ruling party will be cleared so that we will be able to participate in another election. So until then, we don’t have a definite commitment whether to participate in any election or not. But we will prepare ourselves internally to win an election in case the obstacles are cleared.
Capital: Is there any chance where your party can build popular support to force the government to have the obstacles you see cleared for fair elections?
Siye: The best way to do that is to consolidate one’s political base and emerge as a strong political party with capable leadership and structure and to build bridges with other parties and civic associations, clearly articulated plans and policies and communicate them to the public and engage the international community. By doing these we will, to the best of our capability, try to change the political ground so that the ruling party will open space up for free and fair elections.
Capital: As you said you need capable leadership; UDJ recently faced dissent within the party and it fired some senior members and Birtukan Midekssa herself [UDJ chair] is suspending active political participation for an unknown period. There was a crisis right before the May election, hurting the party’s image. Given all these factors how do you plan to change this image and have strong leaders?
Siye: The most important thing is to build a democratic party. In a democratic party there will always be differences, but they can be solved through dialogue. That is what we will try to do. With regards to those who have been in this party and are out now, this happened over a year ago. It is unfortunate, I like to see this rectified. But that is not the end of everything. A party cannot be defined by these types of ups and downs, the most important thing is how the party tries to position itself in the public and that is what we are trying to do.
I think we should look into the Ethiopian public at large; there are a lot of educated and capable people. These people, many of them, want to see change in the country but they want to see a credible political party and to overcome their fears about participating, because participating in a political party is becoming a dangerous enterprise in this country. So we will do our level best to emerge as a credible political party, and by that we will contribute to helping the Ethiopian people to overcome their fears and concerns. I think the issue you raised will be overcome.
With regards to Birtukan, I wish she had stayed in the party and shouldered her responsibilities. But I also appreciate and respect her decision and it is not a consequence of what happened in the UDJ. Her actions have more to do with what happened to her.
Capital: Let me share with you an assessment I heard from a senior EPRDF official in the Adama congress, it was briefly mentioned recently by the PM himself. The EPRDF says the hardliner Ethiopian opposition has been marginalized by the latest elections and since they are disappearing and after an economic transformation there will emerge a liberal ideology advocate party supported by the private sector and EPRDF will evolve [possibly to a social democratic party] and the two will be contesting for power after that in elections. Basically they expect you to disappear in few years’ time but here you are coming out with plans; what is your take on this?
Siye: Let me give you my counter assessment; the EPRDF will fail to deliver, even in economic transformation. The EPRDF will be burdened by its science. And given the direction [strategy] we are heading we will create a strong, solid opposition and the EPRDF will leave office by the will of the Ethiopian public. This is another, credible assessment and it is time that will decide [tell] which one will prevail sometime down the line.
Capital: Is there any time table you expect this to happen in…five years…ten years?
Siye: There are a lot of factors I cannot predict at this time, but it could be short. Nobody ever imagined Mubarak would leave power in a matter of two weeks, the Russians never expected the Berlin wall would collapse… so the world is sometimes fast changing. Rulers can dream… Mubarak was planning to pass on power to his son, Ben Ali to his wife… but what happened occurred in a short time and nobody expected it. So it is very difficult to put these things in a time table.
What the EPRDF thinks will happen is delusionary, it is better that they open up their mind, open up their eyes and speak to the people and come to their senses instead of talking about these delusionary offspring of power and arrogance.
Capital: When you and other opposition figures say popular revolt in Ethiopia is inevitable, EPRDF is saying that Ethiopians are currently enjoying economic progress and the nation is embracing a democratic system that only the opposition can’t appreciate?
Siye: What else can they say? They cannot say what happened in Cairo would be repeated in Ethiopia, they cannot speak of their own doomsday. Everybody would say that; Mubarak was saying this isn’t Tunisia, and Ghadaffi is saying this isn’t Cairo… so any dictatorial group thinks it is different… this is one of their problems… they are out of touch. But I can tell you, given my knowledge of these people; they must be very worried about what is happening in North Africa. They must be planning all dirty, evil things – planning for such a scenario… not a positive plan but a negative plan; but publicly they cannot admit of a dooms day happening here. I don’t want to see bloodshed and damage of property happening in this country, this [change] can be achieved in peaceful way. Such democratic changes could better be served through nonviolent means than by violent means and they have a chance to avoid any such occurrences; it is in their hands. The best thing for them is to act proactively and learn from others.
Capital: One of the major elements in the popular revolts in other countries has been the involvement of the army; in countries like Egypt the army remained neutral; in other countries it aided the public protests, while in places like Libya its involvement led to a civil war. Given your experience, leading the army from early days of TPLF itself, how do you expect the army to react if such revolts occurred in Ethiopia?
Siye: First of all there have to be people coming out in the hundreds of thousands demanding change. What we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia is that people overcame their fears and came out to the streets; I think it is the most important factor; the role of the army came later. The massive turnouts, people overcoming their fear and having the resilience to stay put, are the most important, decisive factors. They overwhelmed all the institutions and the rulers. This is the issue and the most important factor for a successful peoples’ movement. The second thing is the movement has to be peaceful; it should never get in the trap of the leaders and turn itself into a violent struggle. The Libyans, I would say, were tricked into resorting to violent means; they should by no means have entered into. The rulers want to turn a nonviolent struggle into violent one; there were similar attempts in Egypt but the people didn’t drag themselves into the mess and paid sacrifices to keep the struggle a nonviolent one and this is a very important thing. You need to keep to a nonviolent movement where even kids and women and intellectuals can join; better not to do anything than to engage in a violent conformation.
The army staying neutral is a third and very decisive factor; Mubarak would have turned the fight in the streets into a civil war, which could have pulled the army into the game. But there were two factors; the protesters didn’t go down the drain [stayed with nonviolent strategies] and the army didn’t want to intervene even under this critical situation and it is good to have this type of army. The fourth factor was the whole world watching what was happening, there was Al Jazeera… and the rulers were under abig radar. Ordinary people in America, London and Brussels, were watching it and they were making statements – the capitals, White House were hearing those statements and the leaders too had to make statements. The Diaspora was also making a strong effort; parties weren’t the ones that made it possible; a well connected youth is the one that made it possible. The youth took over; the old people with grey hair came later, some from Europe. Where are the young Ethiopians? They are victims of unemployment and denial of freedoms. Unless the society starts to release the might of this interconnected generation transformation is going to be difficult; Egyptians and Tunisians have demonstrated that.
Capital: Yes these are important factors…but can you share with us how you think the Ethiopian army will react in such events?
Siye:It depends on how we see them and how we treat them; we have to change our perception. I think the Ethiopian public has to change its perception. Yes, the generals [a big majority of them] are Tigrayans, they were ex TPLF combatants. I would say, so what? They are Ethiopians after all. To be a Tigrayan is also to be an Ethiopian…. Tigrayans should not be stigmatized; they should be embraced and take them as ours. What if we alienate them? Then they will be used by the ruling elite. What if we embrace them? They will be part of the Ethiopian public. After all these people fought to bring about change in this country; they fought the Dergue regime and they paid a huge sacrifice, we should give this due credit. They fought for the sovereignty of their country during the Eritrean invasion, give them due weight and embrace them.
Is it good to see that about 90 percent of the generals are Tigrayans? No, this has to be changed. But, maybe it is not their fault and it doesn’t disqualify them as Ethiopians by any means. So, we have to change the language and the mindset. The fact that Meles is a Tigrayan doesn’t mean that all Tigrayans support Meles… I am Tigrayan, I have been a TPLF leader. It is with hope that we are standing together. We have a stake in this country; we have to work with all, to change for the good of all of us including Tigrayans. And every Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan and everybody has to be happy about a positive change; it is only when we work together, embrace each other and when we trust each other and when we change the mindset and language that we can bring unity among Ethiopians. Short of unity among Ethiopians- this change will not happen. We should go out of talking about them and us – and think in term of us all Ethiopians. Fear and suspicion will serve the rulers. We have to free ourselves from this trap or we will remain in chains. People are worried about the army and possible ethnic strife, but we should talk about what we can do about it. Every Ethiopian should discuss these issues. This should not create a sense of helplessness inside us… it should create a sense of rising to the challenge and doing something constructive, positive about it. And we can and we should. If you love your country, you should love all Ethiopians… you should embrace all Ethiopians. You may disagree with them but you cannot deny or disqualify their Ethiopianism – this is very important