Action speaks louder than words

Addisu Gebregziabhier (PhD) is the deputy chairperson of the Nation Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). Addisu was born in Adigrat town of the Tigray Regional State and studied international, civil and state law in various universities in Europe. He also conducted various works of research in areas of conflict resolution and federalism. Currently, the NEBE is undertaking the necessary preparation for the fifth round of general election in Ethiopia which is scheduled to be conducted on May 24 next. With a few months remaining for the upcoming general election, Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter sat down with the deputy chair to discuss the preparation process and issues related to the opposition parties and the recent dispute with the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ), the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) and Blue Party. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Can you take us through the basic steps that the board has taken in preparation for the upcoming general election?
Addisu Gebregziabhier (PhD): First I would like to start by pointing out that an election is a major occurrence in any nation's political life. The reason why I say this is that the stakeholders of an election process are far too many and pooled from each section of the society. In the first place, citizens have direct involvement in the election process together with various political parties and independent candidates. Apart from that the citizens also play a major role by participating as election observers and election executives. On the other hand, others like the civil society and the media also are a principal part of an election. So, to prepare for such a big event, one has to be fully equipped and ready. That is why we had started the preparation process as far back as last year (in Ethiopian calendar) by providing a range of civic voter educations and training. Right after the conclusion of the 2010 general election one thing we did was to evaluate the whole election process. In that evaluation we had come to realize that one area that we needed to work on was availing civic voter registration for the wider population. We noticed that apart from the nation-wide civic voter education and awareness creation programs that we rolled using various media outlets across the nation, we decided that we have to go down to the grassroots level to reach each voter. For instance, in this regard, in Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Region (SNNP) we have managed to use community radios and offer the civic voter education in 32 different languages. We have also gone to other regions like Afar, Tigray, Benishangul and so on and availed the civic voters education using various languages that are spoken in the regions. I can say that we have covered almost all of the languages that are spoken in the country. On the other hand, we have approached many youths, women and teachers associations in all the 9 regions and two city administrations and offered them training. Here, we did that in the hope that these sections of the society would have a better chance of reaching the people on a grassroots level. Now, I can say that we have already witnessed the fruit of our labor, since the voter registration as of Wednesday has passed 12 million. Furthermore, we have also delivered various trainings to members of the media recognizing their role on the process of free and fair election. Another group we have included in our training program is political parties. We have offered training to political parties, specially focusing on their leadership, the election code and various modalities of conflict resolution should they arise in the election process. In general, we can say that we have offered vital training packages for essential stakeholders of an election process focusing on general principles of free and fair elections, apart from subject matters mentioned above. Finally, we also recruit independent election executives to consolidate the election executive body and toss them into training before they were ready to take on their assignments in the upcoming election. We also have another as part of the election preparation process which is in fact one of the biggest tasks that has to be accomplished, the issue of logistics. To manage a national election in a country like ours with 45,000 polling stations, the amount of logistic work that is required is immense. It requires availing election cads, millions and millions of documents and forms that will be used by the voters, candidate and election executives. Now, let alone the printing, packing and assigning these documents to the 45,000 polling stations, commuting these documents to each polling stations, mind you some of our polling stations might even have proper access to transportation, is a painstaking task. On the side the political parties, over 60 of them, have been registered for the election and have taken their election logo. Now, they are in the process of registering their candidates. So, evaluated from both sides from both voter and political party registration, the progress so far can be said to be in a fairly good pace.
From what you have just explained the logistic and other preparations would require a significant amount of financial resources. Can you tell us on what kind of budget you are working with? How does it compare with the last election's budget?
As to the details of the financial expense that we have so far, I am afraid I have to say I do not have the right figures and information. Of course, our finance personnel can offer the right kind of data your inquiry. But, I will say this, compared with budget we had worked with during the 2010 election this year's would definitely be bigger since we had seen a big surge in the number of voters who are registering to take part in the election.
For some elections the opposition parties in Ethiopia has been leveling a strong criticism against the board especially regarding its independence and integrity as a body that would oversee the election process. The board, time and again, has downplayed such allegations on the ground that it is not backed by concrete evidence. Now, as a higher official of the board, if you have to defend the independence of the board, what would you say to the general public?
By the way, we have tried time and again to defend our integrity to the political parties and to show them that this board is in fact an independent body. Well, we have to do it again. I would say that independence can be measured by nothing else but by our actions and the work we have been doing. If we go back to the law that led to the establishment of the board, it clearly states that this board is independent. Furthermore, the law says that all 9 members of the board will be proposed by the prime minister of the country as per the stipulation of the constitution itself and be approved by the countries lawmaking body. However, before the prime minister makes the proposal, there should be ample consultative platform for opposition and independent MPs to deliberate on the independence of would-be board members. When we see board members who are working at this time, back when we were approved, the parliamentary committee that deliberated on the independence of the candidate members of the electoral board was actually chaired by the ex-MP and an opposition politician, Bulcha Demekssa. So, a committee had to check our independence from any political organization, that we respect the constitution, have professional competency and good discipline. So, the committee, before the PM makes the proposal to parliament, had to approve all this; and it did. Now, this is on the basis of the principles. But when we come to our work as well we function not by our own will but by the guidance of written rules and regulations. For example, one of our tasks is to register and give legal accreditation to political parties in Ethiopia. Here, too we make our decisions based on the political parties’ registration law that is passed by the lawmaker. We do not have our own private criteria with which we force political parties to comply. On the other hand, we also apply the same rules and regulation to all parties during election time, that is in the process of registering their candidates. When we offer trainings, we give an equal chance to all political parties. In fact, we make announcements of this sort in the mass media where all parties have an equal access to and can come and take part. The same goes for finance support, and campaign air time allocations. If you remember, all political parties, including the ruling party, did not use their allocated air time in the mass media 100 percent. When it comes to resolving their differences as well, we are doing the same thing. We go down to the kebele and wereda levels to address their concerns. So, action should speak louder than words at emd of the day. If you remember back when the parties election code was being drafted, the parties were given the opportunity to choose any independent body to lead the discussion forum that came out with the final code. Back then, they all voted to say that the board is independent and that it should be the one leading the discussion. So, the problem is that when they claim we were not independent, it would be productive if they can come up with clear showcases where we failed our independent mandate. For one, it would be clear for the third party observers if a case by case argument was made to show our failure in becoming a dependable and neutral body. On the other hand, we would also benefit from it in such way that we can deal with cases where we failed to be independent as a board. For instance, you can consider the formula we apply to apportion financial support to parties. Unlike the trend in other countries we tried to reduce the percentage that is assigned for parliamentary seats down to 35 percent. So, why is that? one should ask. It is just to encourage the participation of opposition political parties that do not have majority seat in the House. What I actually observe is that it is not all the parties, or not all members, of the parties that are claiming the board is not independent. I wish even these people would come up with concrete evidences and justifications for what they are alleging.
Regardless, come election time, most political parties or politicians criticize the board on its shortcomings in being an independent body and mediating disputes. Apart from the validity of these claims, do you think the board is open and receptive of such claims and allegations?
One of the issues that we emphasized during the training package that we delivered to political parties is the modalities and the way of resolving disputes and discontents, especially in election times. Why? Because it is clear that complaints and disputes tend to multiply during election periods. It not that actually there are more concerns and complains during election times, rather it is the time that parties come out of their shells. In fact, we have detailed rules and regulations on how to resolve disputes and address concerns during elections. For instance, we have rules on how to redress issues in voter registration, candidates registration, the polling process and concerns regarding vote counting and result announcing. So, we are not saying that political parties should not raise concerns and complaints but why can't they do that in the manner that is proper and appropriate. Second, we are saying that when complaints come forward they should be backed with hard evidence. Accusations without enough evidence would be very hard to accept and decide upon. For instance, some parties claimed that 250,000 public observes that were elected last month were not all independent and that they demanded a repeat of the whole process. Now, are we saying that all election observers elected across the nations are not independent so that they all have to stand for reelection; it is absurd. Ok, if that is so, is there any hard evidence that would cast a shadow of doubt on one or even all the 250,000 observers elected. We can keep repeating election whenever we want to We have a strict time time to adhere to. The other thing is that all parties were invited in mass media to come and observe the election of public observers; that was one of the claims they have that they were not given access to the election process. All in all, we found no legal substance in the claims that are through from opposition parties during election periods.
But, if we say, recent internal problems with AUEP and UDJ, where groups made up of individuals in these parties come forward to table their complaints, you have taken the concerns of these individuals and ordered the parties to call general assembly meetings. Since, the parties, not the individuals, are actually registered bodies with the board, why did you decide to take words of these individuals rather than the parties themselves?
First of all, all political parties in the country ratify and submit their own bylaws which will govern their internal conduct. Now, once it is submitted to the board, we will follow them based on their own bylaws and see if their action is consistent with this law. So, when passing decisions regarding political parties, we will consult the political party registration law and other is the bylaws of the parties themselves. Now, based on that, when we see the situation in the two parties, as to UDJ their own bylaw states that a president is elected only by the general assembly of the party. So, what they did is that they disregarded their own bylaw and their national council announced that it had elected a new president. So, when they come to the board for approval, we automatically reject it because their own bylaw had sated otherwise. We have a responsibility when we give approval to new elected party official that it is done according to the rules and regulations. In this situation, they accuse us of not being independent. What is absurd is that we did not even have anything to do with the bylaw they have ratified and submitted to the board. It is their own. But, when we ask them that they should respect their own laws they say it is an issue of independence. UDJ also came up with another bylaw which they claim to have ratified recently. But, there is no way that one bylaw can replace the other before the former is repealed properly. If one law is not properly repealed by another one, it stays valid; this is just the elementary principles of law. Indeed, as you have said, the people who have complained are individuals; but there is no argument against addressing legal and proper concerns of individuals, just because they are individuals. Now, these too are members of the party. But, what they have protested and what we have noticed as a fault is not about the legal personality of the party as a party. The party is still legally recognized and there is no issue on that. But,the problem lies with the leadership they claim to have elected. It is elected in clear violation of their own valid bylaws. The case is fairly similar with AEUP too. One thing that must be clear is that it is the responsibility of to monitor the activities of the party as stipulated on the establishment proclamation. But, also says that the board does that using the parties' own bylaws.
Professor Merga Bekana, chairperson of the board, has recently made a statement regarding Semayawi (Blue Party) and AEUP saying that the election of presidents in both parties violated the legal procedures. Following that, an ultimatum was given to the two parties. But still there is no change. Time is running out for the parties to register their candidates. What would be the measures the board would take next?
You wouldn’t simply differ to be different. We must focus on the substance. We are governed by laws. We were dealing with the two parties based on the rules of the game. The two weeks ultimatum is established to give more space for the parties to adjust themselves. The orders of the board need to be respected and if they comply, the board would reconsider. They need to strictly abide by the rules of the board and their own bylaws and memorandum of association. Hence, we have ordered the parties to resolve their internal issues. However, the way the new leadership is elected is questionable. We strongly disapprove of the election procedures. According to the bylaws of the party, presidents should not be elected via a national council. The board will send representatives to observe the parties’ general assembly which will take place. They claim that the board has interfered in the parties, affairs. But we have the obligation to check rules and regulations are respected and that everyone abides by them.
The board has repetitively issued orders to the parties to abide by the laws. On the other hand, you are telling us that the board would prefer to tolerate the parties. How would these two go together? How do you define tolerance in this case?
No one is violating the principles of the law. We speak the same language: that is to respect the rules and regulations. We are not violating any rules. Rather, we are extending the deadline to give more rooms for the parties to reconcile and resolve disagreements. We were extending our tolerance by going more than half way from what we supposed to do. That is to help nurture democracy to evolve.
To avoid allegations and persistent complains in the twilight of election, are there any forms of open discussions with political parties? If that is the case, what are the outcomes?
The board has arranged a common forum for the parties to discuss issues. Last year, we had discussed many things. We are doing that to assist those parties in a way their activities be directed towards the national election. Most of the parties are acting accordingly. Out of 75 recognized parties on the national level, 60 have already collected their symbols. The board is established to address issues of rallying parties. We welcome any sort of questions directed to us. However, there are a few parties which are making commotions out of the normal course.
On January 28, the board has made announcements against Semayawi Party requesting apologies in relation to the party’s actions. However, the party remained defiant. What are the legal grounds for the board to request apologies from parties in question? It might appear natural for the board to take legal actions when there are incidents or violations of rules and regulations. But requesting apologies is something which is subjective, is that not?
A party which strives to establish a democratic government by the consent of the people has to be friendly to accepting fault plays. Hence, looking for apologies from such a party would not be a surprise. Rather, it should have become the norm and behavior of parties to look for clemency. Since its inception, however, we had been patiently waiting for Semayawi Party to behave normally and to correct their wrong doings. But we knew what was going around. In the recent meeting, they not only boycotted the meeting, but the officials of the party also tried to buy others to follow suit. Such an act clearly violates both the code of conduct and political parties’ registration proclamation. Hence, we wrote to this party in accordance with such laws. Since its creation, the party was playing foul; prior to its recognition and registration, the party disseminated information unlawfully. We need not forget that. The same thing went on even after the formation of the party. We were patient in the face of all misgivings of the party. For instance, last year, on December 12, Semayawi was involved in dissolving a meeting regarding election dispute resolution mechanism and other trainings. It went on provoking the apportionment of financial support the government provides for the fifth national election. They tried to obstruct the procedures. They have defamed and labeled the board on its roles on that regard. We would have warned them and if necessary would ban the party from taking part in the election. These are all lawful acts that we could have taken, but did not. But, rather we preferred to give them a chance at least to try to get them to apologize. We are on the verge of an election; hence we sought to give more opportunity to the people who are supporting the party. Previously, we did have accepted apologies of parties which were violating the normal course of the election process. However, Semayawi preferred to remain defiant. On our side, we would be forced to issue warnings. If that could not change anything, we would consider some bold measures. We are hopeful that the party would adjust itself before we proceed for legal actions.