A committed politician that demonstrates integrity, masterful economist

January 4, 2019 Africa , Interviews , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , OTHER , POLITICS

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“…Otherwise we are going to lose the country, not the election”



Ambo Mekasa interviews Berhanu Nega



Today’s guest is Professor Berhanu Nega who stands shoulder high when it comes to the sacrifices paid in the democratization pushes of Ethiopians. As one of the pioneers of the country’s change, he is well known for his unforgettable contributions for the socioeconomic and political development of Ethiopia.


He was born in 1958 in Bishoftu and raised in Addis Ababa. He earned his BA in economics from State University of New York minoring in politics and received his MA in New School Social Research and earned his PhD in Economics, both in USA. Currently, he is associate professor at Bucknell University.


Berhanu has worked in different positions here and abroad. He is one of the finger-counted masterful economists in the country and a committed politician that demonstrates integrity. Love for one’s motherland permeates his political orientation.


In 2005, his party Kinijit had won the election but the leading party refused to let go of the reins of power. But the tragedy did not dampen his mood of trying to oust tyrants by all strategies—even picking up arms.


Berhanu received several awards for his outstanding performances from different universities and research centers, including Frieda Wunderlich Memorial Award for outstanding dissertation, Adolph Lowe Dissertation, Fellowship in Political Economy, New School for Social Research, Tuition scholarships, New School for Social Research, Dean’s Honor List, State University of New York, New Paltz, Outstanding Student Award, Department of Economics, SUNY, New Paltz, Best Delegate Award, Mock United Nations, Harvard University.


In addition, Berhanu has authored several books and written articles both in Amharic and English languages. Democracy and Development in Ethiopia and When Freedom Dawns are among Berhanu’s books. Now, he is the Chairman of Arbegnoch Ginbot 7, and Movement for Justice, Freedom and Democracy Party. He is the member of American Economic Association and was also president of the Ethiopian Economic Association.


This journalist had the opportunity to speak with Professor Berhanu Nega:



When and how did you start political participation?


Berhanu: I started political participation during the large Ethiopian student movement in the 1970s. That was my first participation in political activity to the period when socialism and socialist ideologies were adopted in Ethiopian politics. We were part of that. Of course, what happened after that was bad. The student movement was divided into different groups among the then scholars.


Due to this, the students group who fought the feudal system started fighting each other. This tragic unfolding allowed the military wing to come to power. After that I joined Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and I went to Tigray state to fight the Derg regime. After a little while, at the TPLF Congress, I realized the absence of a genuine democracy within the party.


My first opportunity came in 1974 and the second in 1991 for democratization.



How did you assess the change underway in the country?       


Berhanu: The brutal system that gripped power for the last twenty seven years in the country had created so much havoc. Owing to this, many protested saying “Enough is Enough!” So, youths’ movements taking place in different parts of the country challenged the leading party. Especially, the protests across Oromia and other Ahmara states became a pain in the neck on Tigray People Revolutionary Front (TPLF) for the last four years.


This made clear that, unlike in the past, citizens stood against TPLF’s rule. I think that had pressurized EPRDF to achieve some kinds of change. Few smart people within the party started to say “No!” and brought this marvelous change that aims at democratization. For us, when this force got the upper hand changes became palpable. The question that attended the change was a question of trust. People cannot help asking: Are these people saying what they mean? Are they after a genuine democratic change? Or are they just trying to find ways of prolonging the life of EPRDF.


The following doubts and questions were coming in and out of citizens’ mind. “Stopping suspecting the TPLF or EPRDF is foolish.” “How could we be sure whether the change forces are serious?” “We have to take with a grain of salt the claim that the change is a harbinger for democratization.”


But, the people who were leading this change, within EPRDF, proved to be committed to democracy. With conviction as they are working for the country, we bought their idea of accretion.


We are here to bolster the democratic process now afoot. We trust they meant a genuine democratic change, crucial for the country.



What do you think are the challenges for the ongoing changes and what solutions do you recommend?


Berhanu: The challenges are innumerable. The economy is a tattered one. The weak educational system has been producing hundreds of thousands of people without adequate skills for employment by others or to be self-employed. There was a significant income inequality. Few were accumulating wealth as never before in different ways and through corrupt practices, while others found survival an uphill battle. There were several problems related to the environment and agricultural productivity. There were a whole host of problems at micro and macro levels, and a series of foreign exchange shortages.


But, the formidable challenge was the political one. It involves a series of issues including whether there is a clear commitment to what democratic politics entails. But are we committed to democracy and real change? Are all political parties in the country committed to change? Do we have a real culture of having meaningful democratic politics?


It was a kleptocractic system that we had during the last twenty seven years. It divided society into basic ethnic cleavages agitating against one another. Everybody began considering his/her own identity as the most important one. Ethnicity trapped citizenship. How can we fix this within a night? It takes time to organize and make things conducive for all. We have to be patient on how to ensure a democratic system without having sense instability. It is very difficult to achieve democratic politics.


In addition, the democratic institutions should work and stand independently. Military and security apparatuses must focus only on their jobs rather than being members of any dependent political group. In addition, we have to create an ideology-based political movement in the county. The truth is everybody is trying a shortcut to get whatever s/he needs. We are found in a country where even churches and mosques are suspected of corruption. Such a trend is eroding our values. Nowadays, business people do not believe they will be successful without participating in corruption.


In this kind of polluted environment and with all these challenges, how could we ensure democracy? It will be a very difficult thing. It requires a special wisdom and higher passion rather than achieving political benefits. We have to work on how to create a political stability. The generation to come is going to benefit from it.



What do you think are the reasons for the breaches of law in the country, what should be done?


Berhanu: This is the result of political problem created during the last twenty seven years. In the previous systems, there was national identity rather than ethnic identity.


Now, national identity seems to have failed. Citizenship became of little value with ethnicity dominating the political landscape of the country. That is why we are witnessing conflicts and displacements in different parts of the country. Now, every ethnic group wants to evolve into a state to kick out others from its territory.


Such ethnic identity and corruption are reasons for the breaches of law in the country. In addition, everyone who was mistreated in the past needs justice overnight, which is impossible. This offers opportunities to groups and elites who want to abort change. Without stability, we cannot create a modern political platform for all.


It would be better for the country if all of us exercise patience to settle things with a cool head. Politics should be conducted through peaceful ways. Via violence or using arms justice could not be served. In such away, a question mark hangs over the success of the change. We know that many people have lost their lives in the change process. There are people who have amassed money through corruption. They are creating havocs in different parts of the country by outlaying huge amount of money. In addition, there are other ethnic groups who want to fulfill their ethnic questions using the moment. These kinds of inclinations have created breaches of law in the country.



What is your view about the forthcoming election and the task government is taking to make the ground level?


Berhanu: That is what remains to be seen. As an initial exercise, a discussion was held among different political parties. Hopefully, discussions will continue. Agreement will be reached among the parties on this regard. Expectedly, the first agreement would actualize a sense of stability, peace and code of conduct on how to conduct our political activities.


That is meaningful to any political organization. Once, we have that we are going to the next conversation on the kinds of reform that we need on election. The strength of democratic institutions is key to make a free and fair election. Such issues are not going to be given by Prime Minister Dr. Abiy or anybody. These will be the outcomes of serious negotiations among political parties.


If the democratic institutions function well, may be, we will have an unprecedented genuine election in Ethiopia’s history. But the most important thing is this election is not going to be a window-dressing like the elections we had. The political parties who lose the election must be witness for the fairness of the election and admit their loss.


We should not rush to conduct the election; rather we should run to  strengthen the democratic institutions like the judiciary, electoral board and others. If all these institutions are working freely things are going to be alright. My view is we should not rush to observe the deadline. But we should be committed to make the institutional reforms are done. So, then we can have election. Otherwise, it is going to be a total loss not only for the parties but also for the nation. Tragic conflicts and different rallies could attend it.


For me, what matters most is not about who is going to win but how to sustain the changes and institutional reforms in the country. We have to focus on long term effects rather than looking the short term ones. This is a historic juncture. We have to use the election carefully. Otherwise we are going to lose the country not the election.



What is your say on the political parties’ discussion held recently?


Berhanu: It was good. It is a very good starting. The Prime Minister did discuss how the discussion should be held. The government thinks discussions should continue. I think the presentation was good. The ball is on the legs of the political parties.



What is your take regarding strengthening democratic institutions, such as electoral board, human rights commission and judiciary?


Berhanu: There are lots of things that have to be done. The first thing that has to be done is seeing to the separation of power. Up to now what we have is a domineering executive branch. It runs the judiciary, legislative and what not?. Look at our rubbers tamp parliament, most parliamentarians just meet once in a while to raise their hands and leave. In the course of the last twenty seven years this trend was an unwritten law. They simply accept what the executive organ gives them.


The Judiciary was a laughing stock. Often defendants go to court but the verdict was passed from the Prime Minister office. This kind of interference was a total disrespect for the institutions of the law. This way whatever one does one cannot fix the system. Here, the country needs committed judges and investigators to strengthen institutions. It needs reforms in the all institutions and the cooperation of the public.



What is your take on the advice on reducing the number of political parties in the country? Is that plausible when it comes to the Ethiopian political landscape?


Berhanu: I think it is possible and should happen. Of course, you cannot force any one to buy cooperation; it should be done based on the interests of the parties. We cannot have eighty or seventy parties in the country that have constituency and significant membership. Instead of a large number of parties, it is better to have a few and strong parties. That would be better for the advancement of the country and building a democratic system.



What is your reflection on the PM’s statement about politicians who have two passports?


Berhanu: I think it should be a topic that should be discussed and debated. As a country, we need the diaspora’s money and knowledge to be channeled towards investment in the country. But in terms of politics, it is not good to avoid them. For example the Turkish in Germany vote in Germany, Israelis and other countries have laws that allow dual citizenship. The issue needs discussions, we can’t avoid.



What do say about federalism, is it appropriate for Ethiopia?


Berhanu: A meaningful decentralization of power is important for the country. I think this is a big country. It is hard to run things from a central body. So, people should lead and choose their representatives. Federalism is a system that gives more freedom to the local administration. The big question is what should constitute this federalism- ethnicity, language, religion or other criteria.


For example in Ethiopia we have more than eighty languages. So, in that case we are going to have more than eighty states. Here, the point is we cannot build an enhanced democracy in the country if states are designated in such a fashion. This also limits the rights of the citizens to live anywhere they want. Federalism should be exercised in such a way that strengthens bonds among ethnic groups in the country.


Now, we are seeing conflict here and there. This is one attendant ill of the type of federalism we pursued. On the other hand, many are requesting to be states, while others Woredas. The trend opened ways for separation and hate. Here, the issue of debate is not embracing federalism. The question rather should be what kind of federalism we must adopt and the criteria it should include. We have to discuss on the way it should be implemented. The choice must be left for every Ethiopian.



What is your party’s mass base?


Berhanu: Ethiopians.



What is your opinion on the controversy revolving around ownership of Addis Ababa/Finfine?


Berhanu: Addis Ababa is a city that has six million inhabitants. Addis Ababa is their city. Anybody who lives in Addis could claim this is my city. During the Emperor’s regime, Addis Ababa was the capital city of Ethiopia as well Shoa province. In the same fashion, it could belong to both the Federal and Oromia State. There were Shoa and Addis Ababa administrations that used to run their respective tasks. Addis Ababa should be managed in such a way that provides benefits to the people who live in it and who also pay tax. Things should be run in such a way that serves all Ethiopians who live in the city as well as foreigners that resides in it. For me this is meaningless. It is not very far from saying as Lucy was found in afar every Ethiopian is afari. It doesn’t make a sense.


I am perfectly aware of why the Oromo youths are raising this question. We made a mistake when we allowed the government to be the owner of the land in the country. The natural expansion of the city should benefit people in the peripheries too. If the land ownership belongs to the people, they are going to be rich more than anyone in the country. Regarding the benefits of people in the outskirts of Addis, the question should be the question of all Ethiopians, not only Oromos.


This is not the issue of ethnicity rather the issue of securing property. This happens everywhere, when cities expand. We should work on how people displaced in this natural process get compensated.





Ambo Mekasa

EPA reporter, earning his BA in English Language and Literature from Arsi University.

Editor review

1 Comment

  1. Biyansa Desisa January 04, at 18:33

    Am so happy if the next your interviewer is Dr Abiy Ahmed; Ethiopian pm


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