Unrest in Ethiopia "We Live in a Dictatorship"
Negasso Gidada, the 61-year-old former president of Ethiopia talks about the unrest in his country, the crackdown on dissidents and journalists and the threat of war in the Horn of Africa.
Opposition politician Negasso Gidada: "We are threatened with civil war
Mr. Gidada, for weeks, there has been shooting on the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa. Why isn't there peace in the country where you served as minister for four years and president for six years?
Gidada: The situation is very serious. Every day, people are arrested in Addis and taken into camps. Young people are beaten and the police rob the homes of suspects. There are detention camps in malaria-infested areas. Most opposition politicians, writers, journalists and professors have been arrested. The official figure of those detained is 8,000 but you can be sure that this figure is much higher -- possibly up to 40,000.
SPIEGEL: How could it come to this?
Gidada: The government didn't really believe that it would do so badly in the parliamentary elections in May -- which should really have been the first democratic elections in the country's history. The opposition won in almost all the big cities, in Addis with almost 100 per cent. When this became clear, the government of the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, massively rigged the poll results and forced the opposition to acknowledge the official figures or stay away from those positions which would have been theirs despite the manipulation.
SPIEGEL: For example the mayor's office in the capital.
Gidada: Yes, but that was of course blackmail. Many of the opposition couldn't accept positions because their conscience didn't allow them to and so they preferred to keep away from the parliament. We are living in a dictatorship and we are aware of this now.
SPIEGEL: You won as independent candidate in your constituency and took up your parliamentary seats with a few from the opposition. Why?
Gidada: We must give justice a voice. But I understand those who say that they don't want to play this game. It's frightening to see how the government is demonizing several members of the major opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).
SPIEGEL: The official press, meanwhile, even compares their activists with the Taliban.
Gidada: The CUD has called for strikes and demonstrations, and that is, according to the law, totally within their rights. Yet the government perceives their protests against the election results as a coup attempt. Those who continue to demonstrate are threatened with a possible high treason trial which could result in life imprisonment or even the death sentence. Those who don't go to work may also be charged.
SPIEGEL: Police have also been killed during the unrest -- the opposition also has no qualms about getting tough.
Gidada: I am against any form of violence. But do the police have the right to shoot into the masses or shoot down children in the head only because they have a stone in their hands? According to official figures, 61 people were killed in the most recent unrest and this figure is certainly much higher. Yet not much information gets out -- independent papers are banned or brought into line and their editors are put in prison or have gone underground.
Ethiopian protestors are threatened with high treason.
Gidada: I have also heard of riots in the regions of Oromia and Amhara. More and more farmers are joining separatist guerrillas and turning to weapons. The belief in a peaceful solution to the conflict is gradually disappearing to the same extent that the government is turning to violence. We are threatened with civil war and may again slip into chaos.
SPIEGEL: Is the situation intensified by the fact that Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state?
Gidada: The Tigray people, for example, to which Prime Minister Zenawi belongs, only make up seven percent of the Ethiopian population -- which is a relatively minimal backing for him. We must be careful that we don't end up in an ethnic conflict. Independent of this, autonomous movements, for example the Oromo Liberation Front, are gaining in strength. It claims to represent the Oromo people which make up almost 40 percent of the country's population. Ethiopia is, with around 75 million inhabitants, Africa's most populous country after Nigeria. Eighty different languages are spoken here.
SPIEGEL: You were president until 2001 -- it was hardly any more peaceful in Ethiopia then.
Gidada: This was during the time when Eritrea attacked our country in 1998. There was a war about disputed areas with almost 100,000 killed. It ended with a compromise negotiated by the United Nations which was forced upon Ethiopia -- not lastly under the threat of cutting credit and development aid if it didn't accept. PM Zenawi got into this horse-trading and, in doing so, came under strong pressure internally.
SPIEGEL: In hindsight, do you see this as the turning point?
Gidada: It became clear to me that the country is not developing as democratically as we had hoped for after the years of tyranny of Emperor Haile Selassie and the Red Terror of the successor Mengistu Haile Mariam. Breaking the constitution and violating human rights were suddenly the order of the day, the critics were muzzled. That's why there was a break in the relationship between prime minister Zenawi and myself. He has now announced that he wants to stay in power until Ethiopia is on the development level of South Korea for which he has estimated will happen in about 20 years.
SPIEGEL: Over 20 percent of the Ethiopian budget is provided by the EU and the Americans. The relationship between Zenawi and the West could hardly be better. He sat on the Africa Commission of his friend, Tony Blair, and he recently also met the German federal president, Horst Köhler.
Gidada: At exactly the same time that our people were being shot on the streets. That made me very sad. The Africa Conference in Bonn damaged the democratization of our country. For days, the Ethiopian state press exploited the German visit of Zenawi for propaganda purposes. We feel we have been abandoned.
SPIEGEL: That's surprising as you seem to know all today's German politicians already from years ago. At the end of the '70s, you studied ethnology and social psychology in Frankfurt.
Gidada: I even joined many, at that time, left-wingers and Green Party members who later belonged to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government. We went on the streets to demonstrate against dictators in the third world -- the Mobutus and Bokassas of the time. Many of the current African rulers belonged to left-wing freedom movements and promised us heaven and earth -- especially co-determination and prosperity. Just think of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda or Rwanda! Yet power corrupts and these people have now turned into dictators themselves. None of the countries affected has a working multiple-party system. Yet, grotesquely, it is precisely these countries which are the favorites of German foreign policy.
SPIEGEL: You complain that there are too few critics abroad. How much of that has to do with the fact that your country has become an important partner of America in the fight against terror in the Horn of Africa? Two neighbors of Ethiopia -- Somalia and Sudan -- are seen as breeding grounds for terrorism.
Gidada: This is reminiscent of the time of the Cold War: for reasons to do with power and politics, you turn a blind eye to the violation of human rights and violence. Meles Zenawi was, together with Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, one of the few African supporters of the war against Iraq. But at home he terrorizes his own people.
SPIEGEL: Now, once again, troops are being deployed along the disputed border area between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The "blue helmets" who are supposed to guard the buffer zone between both countries were restricted in their freedom of movement. Is another armed encounter looming?
Gidada: No one wants renewed bloodshed. I assume that the Eritrean government is using the current uncertainty in Ethiopia for its own purposes and wants to steer more international attention onto the unsettled border question. Neither party would dare risk a war, they have too much to lose.
Interview conducted by Thilo Thielke
Translated into the German by Andrea Edwards