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The interview: Every society has to have some kind of moral compass to exist. Our moral compass has been lost: Berhanu Nega

Professor Berhanu Nega’s interview with Addis Standard

Having acquired his PhD in economics from the New School for Social Research, in New York City, Berhanu Nega is an accomplished economist and author of a book ‘Yenetsanet Goh Siked’ (“The Dawn of Freedom”), which he wrote while serving time in prison as a result of the post 2005 contested-turned-deadly general elections in Ethiopia. But as someone who participated in politics as way back as mid ’70s students’ movement, when he was a freshman university student, Berhanu commands as much knowledge and involvement in Ethiopian politics as his impeccable track record as an economist who, among other things, played a vital role in establishing the Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA) and serving it as its president. As a leader of the opposition party Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), the party that took EPRDF’s hegemony to the task during the 2005 elections (it won 137 seats of the 138 seats in the Addis Abeba city council), Berhanu came to dominate the public sphere in Ethiopia and paid deadly for it. First he was jailed and convicted for treason, then he was forced to live his life in exile in the US where he took up a teaching job at the economics department of Bucknell University. But his commitment to what he elaborates in detail in this interview as ‘democratic principles’ means Berhanu’s journey for freedom was not about to come from his teaching job at Bucknell, rather from an armed resistance group he founded and called Patriotic Ginbot 7.  After years of armed resistance from its base in Eritrea and following a wave of political liberalization in Ethiopia which began in March this year, Patriotic Ginbot 7 announced that it was ceasing all armed struggles and moving back to peacefully operate from Ethiopia.

Members of Patriotic Ginbot 7, led by Berhanu himself, are now preparing to arrive in Addis Abeba this coming Sunday. As part of his last leg tours to Europe, Berhanu traveled to Germany in mid August where our editor Tsedale Lemma had a chance to meet him and conduct the following interview. Excerpts: 

Addis Standard: I don’t want to delve too much into the post 2005 election tragedy. But there is one question that kept dividing Ethiopians across the board: your decision not to join the parliament and its lasting impact. I am asking this because many Ethiopians have continued looking at the Patriotic Ginbot 7 through the prism of what happened in post 2005. In short, do you regret your decision?

Berhanu Nega: It depends which decision you are asking me about. There were so many decisions at that time…

AS: Your decision not to enter the parliament…

This was just one decision that the ruling party at the time thought it was convenient for it to talk about it more by deliberately controlling the kinds of issues it wants to raise. If you ask me was our decision not to go to parliament legitimate? In fact our decision has never been not to go parliament; part of the overall misinformation in this issue is that nobody is interested in listening to what actually happened and think about the process in which those decisions were made. We decided that we will go to parliament insofar as X, Y, and Z happened. These were the eight issues that we raised that even if we were absolutely confident that the EPRDF has lost and that it has literally stolen the election, we were still willing to go to parliament insofar as we know that the next election five years later would be free and fair. The questions that we raised at that time were entirely related to the independence of institutions: election board, judiciary, military apparatus – every issue that we are now talking about as part of the ongoing change. And unless otherwise these issues were settled, unless otherwise we sit down and agree on the establishment of independent institutions that would lead to a meaningful democratization process five years from then, then it has no meaning; it becomes absolutely meaningless and it would give a wrong signal to the people that democracy is just a joke. To decide not to play, not to agree to this kind of open and egregious circumvention of the political process, I think, was a legitimate decision on our part. We were not there to get positions here and there; that was not our interest. Our interest was to usher in a real democratic change and to be a part of the process. In that sense our decision was very specific; in fact we coached it and even the term we used was a very positive in the sense that we will go to parliament, but we need to negotiate on these issues, on the future of our politics. When it became absolutely clear that the ruling party was not at all interested in this whatsoever, then we decided that other than joining the parliament and making noise, there was no purpose in being there. The only thing that we would have achieved would would have been being a party to cheating the public.

The other and one that always amazes me is this decision that we refused to accept Addis Abeba, where people say we have refused to accept the city despite the fact that we have won close to 99% of the seats in the city. It was the strangest thing that came from the ruling party and its supports because they know, we know, the election board knows; they were there when we went and asked to accept the responsibility of running the city. They even called me and we went there, they were there; the election board official [Tesfaye Mengesha, the deputy head of the election board] was there; and the EPRDF officials from the city were there. But after discussions they said ‘no, we are not going to hand over the city to you’. This is what they said; the CUD never decided not to accept the city it won 137 out of 138 seats; that is how absolute it was; we never said we were not going to take over the city. So this rubbish that you hear about the CUD not willing to accept the city is nonsense. So the decision not to go to parliament, I think is, proven. But what people don’t understand is also over 90 percent of the elected CUD members have gone to parliament. They have been in parliament. What change did take place? They changed the rules of parliament just immediately after that; they just circumvented the whole process.

Read the full interview on Addis Standard

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