Ana Gomes: free election under Meles impossible in Ethiopia

By Yeroo Newspaper

Ana Gomes, Member of the European Parliament and Head of the European Electoral Observation Mission to Ethiopia. She gave the following interview to a Yeroo, an Oromiffa publication which has ceased publication due to repressions.

Hon. Ana Gomes, member of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament and the Head of the EU Observation Mission at the Ethiopian Elections in May 2005, has been praised by many activists and opposition supporters in Ethiopia, but denounced by Ethiopia’s ruling party. She spoke with about the state of democracy in Ethiopia, OLF, stability in the region and about Ginbot 7 organization established by her close friend Berhanu Nega living in exile.

Yeroo: European Parliamentarians called for “targeted sanctions” against the Ethiopian government almost three years ago after 193 protesters were killed during the post election period. Why has the European Commission ignored this call so far?

Ana Gomes: Well, I think, initially, the commission did not ignore it. And they really shifted the way the European aid is given to Ethiopia . But it is true that overtime, it has been, ironically, business as usual, with Europe actually, recently, increasing aid to the Ethiopian regime which we know has breached the Ethiopian people in need, because this state is being absolutely controlled by the ruling party. And this is because in the European commission, in the European government, there is a lot of hypocrisy about Ethiopia, a lot of inconsistency about what are European values and objectives in promoting democracy and human rights, mainly in Africa . This is not in favor of the people of Ethiopia. This is not in favor of the credibility of Europe in the eyes of the Ethiopian people and Africa in general and I very much regret it

Yeroo: Doesn’t this [European hypocrisy] you mentioned exist through out the world; in example, there are many African leaders talking about basic human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and other countries the WEST is very close with. Meanwhile, we have known about the problem in Zimbabwe where Mugabe is being targeted [by the West] more than other more oppressive African governments where there are no elections or elections are stolen or where more people are killed. So, isn’t this more widespread?

Ana Gomes: Yes it is. And I must say that human rights is a very serious casualty of the Bush administration, the weakness of European governments and institutions and this is diverting from international law in the protection of Human Rights. And that is why you see more and more serious contradictions like the ones you mentioned and the ones we see happening towards Ethiopia. It couldn’t be more glaring than the last meeting of the G8 in Hokkaido [ Japan ] where you had the world leaders, including several European leaders, calling for sanctions against Zimbabwe because of the regime of Mugabe – sanctions by the way very much deserved and necessary to bring about change and to bring an end to the dictatorship of Mugabe. But at the same time they were doing that, they were hosting – as if he was a respected world leaders or African leader – Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He might be still the Prime Minister of Ethiopia but he has no credibility among the people of Ethiopia , as I watched in the elections of 2005. And he should not be rewarded by world leaders when he is indeed a dictator, illegitimate and actually invaded a foreign country, like the case of Somalia. So there is indeed this glaring contradiction, a glaring inconsistency in the world.

Yeroo: In general, has the state of – or perhaps the transition to – democracy in Ethiopia improved or worsened during the last 3 years?

Ana Gomes: Well, in the world in general you have different situations but in Ethiopia, definitely, it has not improved. On one hand, the Ethiopian people want democracy and they are reaching for change, they participated peacefully in the election of 2005. But then their hopes were dashed by the regime of Meles Zenawi, by the oppression. And the situation has not improved at all in Ethiopia. And the world powers are very much responsible for that because they are helping a regime like that of Meles Zenawi. But this is no reason for those who are fighting for democracy to give up. On the contrary, it is a reason to re-double our effort, and, because we will also finally see an end to the Bush administration and we will see a new era in the United States, hopefully under President Obama, who has African roots. And we will definitely see change in the United States in respect to democracy and human rights.

Yeroo: Before the start of Bush’s administration, his officials declared that they will not put stability over human rights and democracy. But many observers and human rights groups are saying it [the Bush administration] has done the reverse. So, are you really expecting change with Obama and how much change are you expecting?

Ana Gomes: Well, I think whichever candidate is going to win the election; we are going to see an end to the Bush administration which has brought so much sorrow to the world. Of course, I think this change will be more clear if it will be Obama who wins the election, for all he has said during the campaign, for all what he stands for and the democratic party as well. I believe in the case of Obama, his personality and his roots in Africa and in other parts of the world, Indonesia, makes him understand better that the US needs to dramatically change its policies in the leadership and that this will put the basic values of democracy, human rights and justice, before stability. In this world, we don’t want stability if that stability means more dictatorship, more oppression and more undemocratic ways. More important than stability is, indeed, democracy and human rights.

Yeroo: In many forums, you have been telling the opposition to unite against the ruling party, but that doesn’t seem to happen. The UEDF, OFDM and EUDP opposition parties are in parliament while executive members of the CUD, who have boycotted parliament, have recently changed their name to Andenet – Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ). Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has remained outside the elections. Yet factions of the old CUD are reportedly divided in more places, including two more CUD factions led by Engineer Hailu Shawel and Ayele Chamiso. Some opposition groups are meanwhile working with the government of Eritrea , including the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) that is currently in a state of war with the Ethiopian government. What are you now doing to unite the opposition?

Ana Gomes: I can support and I do support Ethiopians and their effort to restore democracy, but I am a foreigner. And nobody from abroad is going to bring the change Ethiopia needs. This is the job for Ethiopians themselves. So people from abroad can support by their action, by calling for the responsibility of powers such as European Union government, the commission. But it is a limited responsibility because, mainly, this responsibility lies with the Ethiopian people. And that is why, because of my solidarity with those who are fighting for democracy in Ethiopia , I have been calling for a union. I believe one of the reasons why you are oppressed by such a despicable regime that does not represent anyone, not even the majority of the population in Tigray, is because Ethiopian people are divided with all sorts of reasons. Ethnic groups, ideological point of views and other sets of agenda. And that is a pity, it is a pity. Only if Ethiopians can unite despite all their difference – ideological, political, ethnic – if they can unite, exactly on fighting for an Ethiopia which is democratic, they can achieve success and get rid of the Meles regime and install democracy. If they go on with a different agenda, with some people preaching Amhara supremacy or other people feeding on the fear of the Oromos, who are the biggest ethnic group; if they don’t bind together in a common agenda for a democratic Ethiopia, of course, then, this is the best way to allow the dictatorship to continue. So this is the reason why I have been calling for all Ethiopians to unite and to unite around an agenda for bringing democracy, good governance, justice, respect for human rights and economic development in Ethiopia. So I can not, in any way, replace the work that Ethiopians themselves need to do.

Yeroo: Before the 2005 elections in early May of that year, you gave an interview for UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). And you said that you “hope that all parties will work to actually calm the expectations and emotions of their supporters so that everyone will accept the result as genuine.” Did the opposition parties and the ruling party succeed in achieving what you hoped for then?

Ana Gomes: Well before the elections, I had hopes, and they were confirmed, that the people of Ethiopia would come and vote and use this opportunity to show their willingness, their preparedness, their faith in democracy. And the people were wonderful and they did it clearly. At that time, I must say, I said that [sentence] because I was worried that some groups, namely on the part of the opposition, were already trying to call into question the voting. And I think this had to do with the suspicions that were there from the beginning – in some respects, they were right. They had fears from the beginning; they had told me that the regime would manipulate the process. After the results were known, the landslide in Addis Ababa was known and that is when they started manipulating the results elsewhere. But it is clear that it is government manipulation and I think it was important that the people had the chance to express their wish, to go and vote. Despite the fact that the results were later on manipulated by the government and the hope for democracy as the result of this election were shattered, I think that was bad for the regime that the regime had to actually manipulate the results to overturn what were the will of the people. The will of the people was massively expressed that day and there was a result the government could not conceal and that was the result of Addis Ababa , which is, indeed, quite reflective of the results through out the country, with, of course, some variations from area to area. So in my opinion, that is the reason why I made this appeal so that the opposition would not send a message to the people that would discourage the people to come to vote. In the end, the people came to vote. I think this was very important. Meles can not claim that the people are not ready for democracy. The people of Ethiopia are ready for democracy and want democracy, and showed it by coming to the election massively.

Yeroo: Many critics say that Ethiopians were voting for the “better of two evils” in the last election in 2005 and even if free elections and fair counting was done, there won’t be real change in the country unless OLF participates. Is there any attempt by the European Parliament to bring Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) into future elections and also improve the conditions necessary for this to happen?

Ana Gomes: I don’t believe… if the counting was fair, that would have of course meant a big change in Ethiopia, a different government, even with the participation of the EPRDF, possibly as a result of an agreement, but a different parliament and a different government. And I hope that this new government would extend its hands to all the organizations that have been out of the political process, who have been ousted from the political process, such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as the result of the current ruling party’s policy. I think this, indeed, would have changed the situation. But the issue is that an election was manipulated and you don’t have democracy in Ethiopia. You have a regime which has stolen the elections, which is oppressing the people of Ethiopia. So I think the OLF, all organizations need to get together with all those who are fighting for a democracy in Ethiopia, who are fighting by different means, some outside the country, some inside the country. In any case they must have something in common; they must strive for the same objective, which is to create a united, democratic Ethiopia. This is something people in Europe, here in the European parliament, support but we can not replace the Ethiopian people and organizations, those who are fighting for democracy.

Yeroo: Some observers say that the private media in Ethiopia faces big challenges, more recently from financial hurdles put by the government. After the sudden rise of publishing costs a couple of years ago, some of free press that is not financed by ruling party members started falling down. In addition to the widely reported 2005 government crackdown on journalists, a new media law passed this year allows the state to randomly seize publishing materials prior to distribution, which critics say is a new method of government repression. Do you think the EU has specific plans to assist private media in Ethiopia?

Ana Gomes: This is indeed a crucial question. We don’t have much private media operating in Ethiopia because of the regime who obviously cracks down on them. And I could see it happening in several stages in Ethiopia , mainly right after the election; the government does not allow free press. And to my knowledge, they are more than ever cracking down by other more sophisticated means, even preventing people in Ethiopia to get information, namely through the internet. And they are getting support from several governments, namely the Chinese I was told, to actually use the most sophisticated ways to jam communications because they are afraid that the citizens will be informed. So it is indeed a major question, a major question for democracy. And I believe that in Europe, funds for assisting democracy in Ethiopia should indeed target supporting the media – independent free media – in Ethiopia, either inside Ethiopia but most likely outside, and of course broadcasting into Ethiopia . This is very important. And I would say radio is probably the most important, most likely to reach through out Ethiopia. Radio could be broadcast from anywhere, in Amharic and in other Ethiopian languages, to reach the people of Ethiopia and to break this wall of silence and misinformation that the ruling party is trying to create. This is something that should be a priority of the European Union, and the European parliament to support and promote this effort. If you want to really promote democracy in Ethiopia, we need to support the free information flow in Ethiopia and not the censorship of the government to remain unchallenged.

Yeroo: On Somalia , the international media reported in 2006 about the advancement of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and about ICU’s irredentism plans to annex Ethiopian territory, like the Ogaden. The UN then blamed Eritrea for supporting the ICU and accused ICU leadership of having links with Al Qaeda but some observers blamed the Ethiopian government for playing a destructive role in Somalia and Human Rights Watch (HRW) now accuses the Ethiopian army of war crimes. Did the Ethiopian government make a big mistake by intervening in Somalia?

Ana Gomes: Yes and it is a big mistake the people of Somalia and the people of Ethiopia are paying for very dearly. First of all…[it has been] bloodshed, outrageous killing and death, both of Somalis and Ethiopians. And that can actually fuel resentment between Ethiopia and Somalia in the future. Mr. Meles Zenawi needed a war to divert attention and of course he made himself dear to the Bush administration, pretending they were going to Somalia to fight terrorism and fundamentalism. I think as many it will backfire. And here we see, this operation has made these people, fundamentalists, more strong and they have not eliminated them in the country. And in the meantime, the bloodshed for the Somalia people is unimaginable. The UN, which of course is now very weak as well as the result of the outrageous behavior of many of its members, starting with the United States under the Bush administration, has not been able even to send to Somalia the force that were supposed to be there, to allow the Ethiopian army to withdraw. So the Ethiopian army is bogged down there and is going to commit even more war crimes like those that have been documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty international (AI). I am very, very sorry for what is happening and for the way most of the world is neglecting the situation, including the European Union who is a secondary actor totally allowing the US strategy to continue. I believe we have not seen the end of the terrible crisis in Somalia and much more suffering is to come to the Somalis, to the Ethiopians and to other people in the region.

Yeroo: Do you believe the ICU and Al Shabaab would have stopped advancing to pro-TFG regions and stopped being a threat to Ethiopia if Ethiopia did not intervene?

Ana Gomes: Well, the TFG is a fiction and all I know is that the Islamic Courts are stronger than ever. And of course I believe the solution for Somalia depends on all the Somali parties to getting together, working out their differences and they can be helped by an outside observer. The UN and a future US administration under Obama and Europe can play that role in the future. I don’t see this happening now. And I don’t see that Ethiopia , at this moment, under the ruling of Meles Zenawi, is a player in a positive sense in Somalia . And after these war crimes and after this invasion, Ethiopia is going to be in a much worse situation regarding Somalia . I generally hope that a future Ethiopian democratic government will be able to heal the wounds, tremendous ones, that have now been created.

ICU declared that it wanted to take Ethiopia ’s Ogaden part. Perhaps TFG might not have a lot of base; however [ICU] that threat is an old threat where Ethiopia and Somalia went to war about before. Was Ethiopia’s intervention a mistake in that respect ?

Ana Gomes: Yes I think it was a mistake and I think that, indeed, not just because of this action, this invasion and the war in Somalia . But also because of the tremendous oppression that the current Ethiopian regime is launching in Ogaden, is actually making the situation worse and increasing the demand of the Ogaden people for independence from Ethiopia . While this is not a matter for me to…I think Ethiopians have to agree to work for a united Ethiopia and a democratic Ethiopia . That should be the priority now. Then, how they workout their differences, their different status, the way each region of Ethiopia moves itself, or if they will actually go away, in the case of the Ogaden, it is something for a later stage. Its something that should be achieved by peaceful means, if indeed the regime in Ethiopia is democratic. The way I see the situation now, I don’t think anyone is really advancing. I know there is fighting in the Ogaden but it is true that fighting has not much [moved] outside the area and aside from the military situation in the Ogaden, there is a political fight to consider.

Yeroo: The Ethio-Eritrea stalemate has continued. What do you think is the solution?

Ana Gomes: Despite the pain this means for many in Ethiopia , they should respect to accept the arbitration about Badme. And [they] should try to workout a different relationship with Eritrea. It mostly depends on Ethiopia but it also depends on Eritrea. I know that the regime in Eritrea is a very oppressive regime as well. Its keeping, perpetuating this war with Ethiopia, perpetuating a state of war, and by interfering in many other problems in the region. But I believe it is outrageous that Ethiopia did not live up to the commitment to accept the arbitration and it is outrageous that the international community, with the US government at the forefront, actually in a way, encourages Ethiopia to procrastinate, not putting any pressure, really, on Ethiopia to live up to the commitment. That’s one of the reasons, the main reason, why you have now a situation of a state of war..

Yeroo: The Eritrean government says the UN’s sudden shift of focus toward the problem between Djibouti and Eritrea is an attempt by the UN to vilify Eritrea and to cover-up UN’s failures to end Ethiopian “occupation” of Badme. Do you agree with these accusations by Eritrea or is Djibouti another war front of Eritrea ?

Ana Gomes: Really, what I can say is that the first step is for Ethiopia to accept the arbitration. I don’t excuse the Eritrea government of its tremendous responsibilities in many problems in the Horn of Africa. First of all, the Eritrea regime is as despicable as the Meles regime in oppressing the people who want democracy in Eritrea . And he uses the excuse of the war with Ethiopia to perpetuate the suppression. The Eritrean government is a government which interferes in a very destabilizing way in many other countries. We see this interference in Sudan , we see this interference in Somalia , we see in this interference in many other areas. So, I am not in a position to concur with the Eritrean government at this accusation against the UN. The Eritrean government has also to account for many, many human rights violations at home and abroad.

Yeroo: Going back to democracy in Ethiopia, according to Ethiopian media reports, you said that your country Portugal also once fought against dictatorship from both the “inside and outside” fronts. In those statements, were you promoting peaceful activism and diplomatic pressures from the outside OR were you encouraging the armed Ethiopian opposition groups to continue while the peaceful opposition works from the inside?

Ana Gomes: First of all, I don’t encourage opposition groups. This is not a question for me…its for Ethiopians to decide [which way] they need to bring about democracy. And in many situations, you need a combination of methods. But I don’t encourage armed opposition activity although I can understand why many Ethiopian groups resort to it. But that said, the sentence I said was actually not about armed or non-armed opposition. I said that sentence because I was being questioned by a firm…this firm, DLA Piper, was questioning Dr. Berhanu Nega and other opposition leaders, Human rights organizations why they were working outside the country and not inside Ethiopia . While he [Berhanu] gave his answer, then I gave my complimentary comments, that when my country Portugal was under dictatorship, we had many people fighting inside by all possible means, legal and clandestine. But we had also many people who could not be inside the country, they were in the Diaspora, in exile, were also working outside. It was a combination of all these forces, inside the country and outside, working for democracy, really had succeeded in overthrowing dictatorship and establishing democracy. So I made that point to react to… [DLA Piper statement] that those who were outside Ethiopia , namely the Diaspora in exile, forced to leave Ethiopia were not as legitimate as any other Ethiopian to fight for democracy. I think there is indeed a very important role that the Ethiopian Diaspora and the Ethiopian leaders in exile can play to unite, indeed, to campaign diplomatically, in other means, to peacefully organize. To organize, namely media, to broadcast into Ethiopia , to join forces, to indeed, overthrow the dictatorship.

Yeroo: Should CUD, which recently renamed itself Andenet – UDJ, boycott the next election in 2010?

Ana Gomes: Until the Meles regime will be in power, I will never believe in an election in Ethiopia. I think the experience in 2005 shows that despite all the commitment, despite all the rhetoric, clearly Mr. Meles Zenawi did not hesitate to manipulate the election and to steal the election, to perpetuate the party in power. I don’t believe that the elections that took place were minimally democratic and fair. So I don’t believe the current regime will be able to organize free and fair elections. I believe that you have to see a transitional government in Ethiopia to be able to organize free and fair elections.

Yeroo: Unless there is an armed change of power, the peaceful transition to democracy might have to come through the current regime. Considering your statements on the state of democracy today and considering the assessment of the current government that you have said, are you, in a sense, saying that democracy in Ethiopia is hopeless?

Ana Gomes: No, on the contrary. This current regime is not going to stay in power forever. No dictatorship stays there forever. In my country, It took 48 years but [eventually…] we were able to join forces and overthrow the dictatorship. I am sure this will happen much sooner with the dictatorship of Meles in Ethiopia . It depends on Ethiopians to unite and fight by all means, political, culturally, by all means, to indeed get free of this regime. There are many ways this regime can fall. Not necessarily through armed fighting. It is one way but it is not the only way. It can fall because of economic hardship, status of the people on the streets and so on. There are many many ways, in any case, whenever this regime will fall, obviously Ethiopians will need to have some kind of transitional regime to help prepare free and fair elections. Because, of course, its with only free and fair elections that you can have a legitimate, democratically elected and representative government. This is what will happen not just in Ethiopia ; this is what I hope to see happen in Zimbabwe . It is clear that the Zimbabwe government is not going to stay long. Either through a negotiation or through a violent ousting, it is clear that this [ Zimbabwe ] regime is near its end. And before there will be new elections, there will have to be some kind of transitional government to prepare this election. And then, indeed, democracy can be established. I am a firm believer that democracy is possible in Ethiopia . It is probably going to come sooner than many people expect. That depends on the Ethiopian forces and citizens to unite on an agenda which places democracy and of course the unity of Ethiopia at the heart of its objective. And in this expect, I must say that I am quite heartened that this movement GINBOT 7 is established and I am quite heartened with the agenda that Dr. Berhanu Nega explained here in the European parliament. I feel, if they can indeed succeed in uniting all Ethiopians for democracy and justice in the country, Ethiopians will see it happen much earlier than many people expect. This has happened in other parts of the world. This has happened in my country. It has happened in South Africa , where it was much more difficult. It has happened throughout Eastern Europe . And it will surely happen in Ethiopia . And I am pretty sure that I will be then back to Addis Ababa to celebrate with everybody this democracy.

Yeroo: Thank you very much for participating in this interview.

Ana Gomes: You are welcome