July 06, 2009

"We don't want our country to become a police state" Obboo Bulchaa Dammqsaa

"We don't want our country to become a police state"

Bulcha Demeksa, OFDM, chairman

Bulcha Demeksa, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), is one of the fiercest critics of the anti-terrorism bill floated in parliament a few week ago.
His party, like other opposition parties, has also come under severe criticism from the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), itself an opposition party. Bulcha spoke to Bruck Shewareged about next year's election, the anti-terrorism bill and the "real" and "not real" opposition parties. Excerpts:

Donor countries through the EU delegation office have held consultations with you and other opposition parties. What topics did you discuss?

They have told us not to talk about it in the media. A few days ago, somebody talked about it. They called us and asked who had leaked the information. They said that since the discussion is at a very elementary stage, we can't make any official statement about it.

According to them, only the chairman, the Norwegian delegate or the co-chair, the German delegate, can make official statements.

Opposition parties and the ruling party had held a TV debate this week although it is not yet aired. What did you discuss?

It was a free debate. Nowadays, many diplomats, journalists and opinion makers speak of the ever-shrinking political space in Ethiopia. We basically discussed this issue.

Among the participants were the so-called parliamentary group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) led by Ayele Chamiso, the EDP and the government on one side.

From the opposition group, I mean the real opposition parties, the OFDM and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) were present.

The former ones are often angry that we don't consider them as real opposition. They say that they are real opposition parties. But the truth speaks for itself.

Why don't you classify them as real opposition parties?

Well, if you see their track record, their stand is to support both sides, i.e., the opposition and the ruling party. Their formula is to support any idea raised by either the government or the opposition.

Or, they may say that both the government and the opposition parties make mistakes. They don't even explain the reasons why the opposition parties are wrong on certain issues. They just say both sides are wrong or both are right.

They sometimes say that it is not only due to government pressure that the political space is getting narrower but also due to the actions of the opposition parties. They don't take a firm stand and point out which side was wrong. They try to reconcile the two sides as if they consider themselves to be elders who want to establish peace between two parties.

But we say that if they are real opposition parties, they should demonstrate that with action. If not, we label them as pro-government parties.

Senator Fangol, chairman of the US senate sub-committee for African Affairs, once held discussions with opposition parties at the US embassy. We listed out our grievances. But the EDP delegate finally came out and said that we in the opposition camp are also to blame for the problems in the country, and contradicted what we had been saying for more than an hour.

The way the Americas think is that politics in Ethiopia is ethnic-based. So the accusation coming from the opposition could be due to ethnic hatred rather than government suppression.

How do you define real opposition?

We tell Lidetu Ayalew, EDP chairman, that if he is to head real opposition party, he has to tell the public all the mistakes made by the government.

He has to be able to say that his programme is good, and it is better than that of the government. That's what you do in politics. You have to have the desire to replace the incumbent as a political party. If an opposition party lacks the desire to replace the incumbent, then I say that party is not a real opposition party. This is the point where we differ from them.

During the by-elections last year, you complained of increased number of harassments. Now that the election is over, have the intimidations stopped?

The next election is 10 months away. We don't know what the government is going to do. We have both hope and fear. The previous Tuesday, we held a TV debate at Ghion Hotel with the government, which is a good sign. We hoped it would have been televised. If such a trend continued, we would have been engaged in the election. But if the government changed its course of action, I don't know what we are going to do.

Unfortunately, the debate about the narrowing political space was not televised live. What we had said was edited. Moreover, the order of our speech was changed when presented on TV. All the focus was on government people. They were given much more coverage. This is totally unfair. It should have been aired live on TV so that the people could hear what we said without any editing.

For instance, I said that because the government has withheld the money which parties should receive, we couldn't hold political activities as we had desired. This is one of the factors that have caused the shrinking of the political space. The other is that our offices were closed. Local officials threaten those who want to rent their houses to us for office use. All these things that I said were edited out.

In addition, the ruling party had practically started campaigning a year and half ago by using government facilities like cars and meeting places. But we are barred from campaigning because the official time for campaigning has not come. So it is totally unfair, and really disappointing.

Well, my question was whether the harassments that you had been complaining about have abated or not, now that it is not an election time?

The harassments are there. There is not let up. Any person in Oromia region who openly speaks of his support to our party, OFDM, will be arrested.

Are there recent cases?

Yes, there were in Wollega, Illubabur, Arsi and other districts. Our offices have been closed.

How many of your offices have been closed?

Since 2005, we are left with only two offices in Addis Ababa and Dembi Dollo out of the originally 35 offices. The ruling party claims that we closed down our offices for lack of funding.

We may lack funds but we could have managed to raise money to run the branch offices. But local officials prevent us from opening our offices. They try to isolate our members from the community.

Couldn't the electoral board intervene and order local officials to let you open your offices?

According to the law, yes, they can. But the police are not keen on responding to such requests. They will simply claim that this is a criminal case and the electoral board doesn't have a say in this.

You're left with only 10 months before the next election. Are you recruiting candidates?

We are practically barred from recruiting candidates. Holding a meeting is difficult. If three or four people sit together and discuss anything, the police will come and ask what they are talking about. And they will be accused of subversive action and most likely would be arrested. Maybe in some cases, they will let them go with verbal warning.

Aren't you afraid that the anti-terrorism bill, if enacted, could be abused and used for suppressing political dissent?

We are really afraid that it could be abused. The police can apprehend anyone, any time if they claim that that person is a terrorist. If any individual tells the police that he thinks somebody else is a terrorist, the police will arrest him. Mind you, there could be animosity between the two individuals and one of them can accuse the other, and the accused could really be in trouble.

Somebody can be accused of having a link with OLF, ONLF, Ginbot 7 (all of them accused of trying to topple the government) by anyone. The law gives plenty of power to the police.

This is our concern. We don't want our country to become a police state.

The Americans had passed laws which suspend civil liberties following the 9/11 attack. But now they are revising those laws. President Obama is restoring those liberties. He is dismantling Guantanamo Bay prison, for instance.

But our leaders are enacting laws which the Americans are abandoning.

One of the basic rights in human history is the Magna Carta which prevents law enforcers from arresting any person who is peacefully walking by. He could have committed a crime 10 minutes ago without anyone seeing him. But as long as he is peacefully walking on the street, the police cannot automatically stop him without any cause. The anti-terrorism bill breaches that right.

If the bill is enacted, local bosses or heavyweights will surface everywhere. Local officials could become dictators overnight.

Asmelash Gebre-Egsiabeher, chairman of the House legal committee, argues that Ethiopia doesn't have the necessary legal framework to try terrorists in a court of law while you are saying otherwise.

We have thoroughly reviewed the law. We have hired lawyers to look into the matter. I also have studied law. I can tell you, Ethiopia has laws for every possible criminal offences. Can you imagine that a country with a long history had existed without having a law for crimes.

We have a law addressing hijacking. There is almost no crime which is not addressed by Ethiopian law.

Why do we have to panic because the 9/11 incident took place in America? Conditions here are very much different. It is not right to grant such a big power to the police.

One of the scenarios that we fear might happen is that the police can round up members of an opposition party who are holding a meeting. They can simply claim that the police had caught them red-handed while they were conspiring to topple the government.

The Government can label anyone as a member of the Ginbot 7 group and arrest him. Historically, leaders of the major ethnic groups like the Amharas, Oromos or Tigrians vie for supremacy. This law gives people the power to take vengeful acts against members of other ethnic groups. Ethiopia's problem must be solved through democratic dialogue, not suppression.


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