Interview: Berhanu Nega
German Foreign Policy | October 5, 2010



Dr. Berhanu Nega
Dr. Berhanu Nega
German-foreign-policy.com spoke to Dr. Berhanu Nega about Western support for the Ethiopian regime. Dr. Berhanu was elected as mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005. He was prevented from taking office, put in jail and released after 21 months. Dr. Berhanu who works today as Associate Professor of Economics at Bucknell University (Pennsylvania) was sentenced to death in Ethiopia in 2009.

german-foreign-policy.com: In 2005 you were elected as mayor of Addis Ababa. But you were not allowed to take office. What had happened?

Dr. Berhanu Nega: Well, 2005 is really unique in Ethiopian history in many ways. The most important is that it was the first time that there was a relative political opening. There were open elections which provided the Ethiopian people with a choice, a choice about the future direction of the country. The ruling party at that time was so confident that it would win that it had opened for the first time even the media to have a public debate on television and radio to discuss the various policy proposals of the opposing parties. For the first time people listened to these different choices and participated very, very actively in the political process. The election day was probably the most electrifying experience because it showed a lot about what people thought about freedom - that freedom is not a special gift that god gives to westerners but that it is a very fundamental inherent condition of being a human being. To be human is to be free, and what we saw in Ethiopia in 2005 was exactly that people who never had had democratic elections started to really exercise freedom, exercise it with incredible civilised behaviour. I remember that a week before the election there was the first independent demonstration by the opposition. Over two million people participated and not one glass was broken.

gfp.com: Who won the election?

Berhanu: The opposition. When the possibility emerged in the evening of the voting day that the opposition could have won the prime minister Meles Zenawi immediately went on television and declared a state of emergency. In fact the voting was not even finished when he came out and said: No demonstration, no public meetings as of today in the capital. All the basic rights that were granted by the constitution were simply abrogated. The next day before the votes were counted the ruling party came out and declared victory. After that we tried to see if we could put some pressure to make the government accept people's verdict. We tried to convince western diplomats to pressure the government to accept people's vote. Unfortunately western diplomats were not willing to push the government, and the government finally crushed the opposition by killing over 200 people and imprisoning over 50.000 people including all the opposition leadership. The whole democratic experiment was gone out.

gfp.com: You didn't get any support from the West?

Berhanu: Not really. One of the most disappointing aspects of the 2005 election was precisely that. The Ethiopian people really believed that western governments would be true to their principles - that they were all for freedom, for democracy. What was happening to the Ethiopian public was that western powers said for two or three days when this brute force was implemented by Meles: This is not right, this is not acceptable. After two weeks this was gone, the West was giving more money to the government. That was a clear signal to the Ethiopian public that in their struggle for liberty they are by themselves, they can not count on the west for democratization. Since then the western governments have been significantly increasing the money they give to the Ethiopian government. The German government has doubled its foreign aid since 2004 following the massacre. The European Union increased it from some 400 to about 750 million dollars. The international community was pouring money while in fact the government was further and further away from respecting human rights and democracy. By 2008, the first local election took place after 2005. The ruling party declared victory over 99,9 percent. In 2010, when the most recent parliamentary election took place, the government got 99,8 percent of the seats. This is ridiculous.

gfp.com: How was it possible under such circumstances that you were elected as mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005?

Berhanu: You see, at that time, the European Union had an observation mission in Ethiopia; in the urban areas it was very difficult to deceit. When the votes came out in Addis we won 137 out of 138 seats, and I was chosen as mayor for the opposition party. In fact, the government had to nearly accept the results in Addis; they accepted 109 seats in parliament for the opposition which is much lower than what the opposition had won. Additionaly the government felt that the opposition was in such number in parliament that they would be able to debate issues the government didn't want the public to hear. So it immediately brought back the old parliament and passed a new parliamentary rule that says that you need 51 percent of the parliamentary vote to put an agenda for debate. Before that all you needed had been 20 seats. They just made absolutely meaningless whatever parliament. The day that the power was to be transferred to the opposition in the city the election board told us that the ruling party had refused to hand in the power. So we could not even take Addis which we had won. Within just several weeks I was put in jail and imprisoned for about two years.

gfp.com: Why could that happen?

Berhanu: In Ethiopia there are no courts as such. The government accused us of treason and genocide and all crimes that you can imagine. The courts declared without hearing any meaningful evidence that we were guilty and sentenced us to life in prison. There is no independent judicial system in Ethiopia at all, especially when it comes to political matters. The whole society is controlled by the ruling party. After 21 months of imprisonment when the government felt confident that it had completely crushed the opposition it said: We will pardon you and let you out of prison. And this was what happened.

gfp.com: Did the West look after you when you were in prison?

Berhanu: No. In fact, one of the most fascinating experiences that I have is that at that time I completely lost any hope that the West would do anything to Ethiopian democratization. After the government had put the leadership in prison, they said to the opposition: The ones of you who are not arrested can now take Addis Ababa. Of course the people who were elected with us refused. They said: No, we can't do that, our leaders are in prison, even the person elected as mayor is in jail. At that time the American ambassador and the French ambassador representing the European Union came to prison to ask me to officially abrogate my mayorship so that the government would have its own people to be mayor. That is what the West has done. At that time I essentially said: You know, there should be no hope that the West would be a force for democracy in Ethiopia. For me that is clear until today.

gfp.com: Why does the West support prime minister Meles?

Berhanu: There are two ways of thinking about it. One is about the official arguments of political realism - western diplomats essentially say: We have to engage even if there are brutal dictators, we still have to work with them to influence a government. The second is that Ethiopia has a very dangerous neighbourhood, that it has to be stable therefore - even if the government is brutalizing its own people we need to support it to keep stability. That policy is wrong, it's even a disaster. First: The so called engagement to the Meles regime doesn't bring human rights. In fact since 2005 things have gone actually worse. For example, the Meles regime has passed two laws in the last two years. First, the Charities Act which is a law against NGOs. It essentially says that NGOs can't participate actively in human rights, democratization, women's rights and so on. Any office that get's 10 percent of its budgets from international support can't operate in Ethiopia. This literally killed all the civil society movements. Second, the government passed a Press Law that essentially makes it illegal to write about anything that has to do with opposing the government. You see - the engagement has not made Meles softer or more democratic. In fact it made things worse. It made Meles believe that the West needs him more than he needs the West.

gfp.com: And the second argument?

Berhanu: The second concern, the assumption that Meles would be a force for stability in the region, has been proven to be absolutely wrong. The best example is Somalia. As you know, Meles invaded Somalia with the support of the West to get rid of a moderate islamic regime. What we have now is that the most extremist organisations in Somalia are the most powerful. The president of Somalia the West and Meles got rid of in 2006, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is now leading the so called Transitional Government. He in fact hasn't the forces to run the country effectively. You can imagine what disaster that policy is. Even Ethiopia itself is becoming increasingly unstable. As people start to feel that there is no room for peaceful change they start to say: This is our fight. The only language the government understands is force. If we want our rights, if we want our freedom, we have to fight for it. Struggles in Ethiopia indeed are moving increasingly towards an armed conflict. This is dangerous because Meles in order to rule by dividing communities has established an ethnic based dictatorship. It is the only African government that has made ethnicity the basis for identification. The Ethiopian identity card tells what ethnic group you come from. The regions were divided according to ethnicity alone. There are nine regions in Ethiopia, all of them ethnic ghettos. Ethiopia has been deliberately divided into ethnic regions, and so - you know, it's a powder keg. The argument that Meles would be a force for stability is totally wrong. Conflicts in Ethiopia will indeed increase. Both arguments that come from the West why they support dictatorships - that they will lead to stability or that it is important to engage - have no merit whatsoever. So the question is: Why are they doing it?

gfp.com: What do you think?

Berhanu: Deep down - I don't want to believe this but I think western policy makers do not believe that Africans deserve democracy. I really think that there is an inherent racist attitude that essentially says that freedom is for Westerners. The idea that Africans are not ready for democracy, that it will take hundreds of years to democratize Africa - for me, that is a very deeply rooted racist attitude. I really believe that whether you are black or white, freedom is an inherent condition for any human being. I believe in the universal value of freedom. But I don't think western policy makers believe seriously that it is a universal value.

gfp.com: Don't you think the increasing Chinese influence might be the reason for western support even for dictators?

Berhanu: I think China is now the whip that dictatorships in Africa are using to show the West: If you don't support us, we can always cooperate with China. I remember Meles openly saying to the West: You can take your money and go because I can cooperate with China. What is strange about this is that is so obviously wrong. The Ethiopian government receives some 3,4 billion dollars from western aid. Not from China! This comes to some 46 percent of the government's total budget. If the West stops giving him money Meles will crawl and beg. He can't survive without the western aid. The West at least could tell him: Look, we are giving you our taxpayers' money. Our taxpayers believe in freedom. You don't have freedom, you don't have human rights respect, you don't have good governance. If the West says that, Meles will not cooperate with China because China doesn't give him that amount of money. He is going to change his behaviour. That is true for all African countries, maybe with the exception of those who have oil. China might invest here and there, in construction and infrastructure. China is not giving a budget support to the Ethiopian government like the West is doing.

gfp.com: What are the consequences?

Berhanu: African people are not going to sit down and let these dictators stay in power forever. So African dictatorships are unstable. That's for sure. I think the West is losing a very good opportunity of using its financial influence to the good. Why don't western governments do that? This is what I don't understand and why I come to believe that the real reason is a racist attitude - the opinion that freedom and democracy for Africans are impossible.

gfp.com: What would you propose to do?

Berhanu: A message I want to convey to the public in the West is: Your tax money is being spent to shore up dictatorships all over the world. I don't think this is consistent with your values. I don't think that this is what you really want to see. I think you want to see people in other countries to live in freedom, in the same way as you do. The second thing that you need to know - and this is from your own experience: Development is about freedom. People who are free have a better capacity to develop their economies than people who live under tyranny. This logic should apply to us. The so called western experts have been giving us lots of solutions from the right and from the left. Where did we go? Nowhere. There is no magic word. The problem of poverty in Africa is the problem that Africans have no freedom. Freedom is at the center of development. At least give us a chance to solve our problems by ourselves!

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Source: German Foreign Policy


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