The name Girma Seifu was added to the Ethiopian political discourse five years ago. Securing the majority of votes from among candidates contesting a seat in constituency five (Merkato area) in Addis Ababa, Girma became the only opposition member of parliament after the 2010 general elections. Back then, Girma contested under the ticket of the coalition Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek) whose constituting political parties included Girma’s Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ). However, following a lingering dispute, UDJ left the coalition just a year ahead of the 2015 general elections. But as UDJ started preparation for this year’s election, an internal rift within its leadership gripped the party. The fraction saw dozens in the leadership, including Girma, and scores of members leaving the party. Solomon Goshu of The Reporter sat down with Girma to discuss the outcomes of this year’s election, the friction within the UDJ, the fate of opposition politics and his personal reflection of his years as an MP as well as future plans. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Preliminary results from the fifth general election have been disappointing for opposition parties. The same goes for your former party, UDJ. Even in popular votes, the party scored a very small percentage. What do you think is the reason for this?
Girma Seifu: I would say this is not a result the UDJ we established would register. The candidates the party fielded in Addis Ababa and elsewhere were not fit to represent UDJ or address the needs of the people. The result also shows that the electorate is aware of what the government is doing to UDJ. I believe even the votes the party got in this election is probably from people who are mistaken about UDJ.
Has the former leadership, including yourself, done anything to prevent such a grim result for UDJ?
We have no regrets in terms of doing what we can for the party on our part. Because UDJ was feared by the government, the party started to face problems. There is nothing I, personally, and the former executive committee members in general, could have done to prevent the problems. We sacrificed ourselves for the party. We were determined to devote our money, knowledge and time for UDJ. As a result, we had relative success. But that did not please the government, which is why they created problems. The ruling party knows which party is a serious contender. Because they know they would lose, they divide and destroy such a party. They have no shame in doing that. Breaking laws is customary for them. What they did to UDJ holds a significant place in history.
Even before the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) passed its decision over the crisis within UDJ, there were nagging leadership and membership issues within the party. This has led some to question the party’s internal discipline and democracy.
In the first place, there were no major disputes within the party. I will not deny that there were various interests at play. UDJ was handling these issues in accordance with the party’s bylaws. UDJ was capable of resolving problems in a democratic manner. There would have been no problem within UDJ had Gizachew Shiferaw (Eng.) [former president of UDJ] continued to lead the party. But the party would not have achieved the desired result. Similarly, UDJ would also be all right had it not left the Medrek coalition. Because, the friction within Medrek plays to the advantage of the ruling party. UDJ did the right thing on both issues. Having UDJ under Gizachew’s leadership as well as a UDJ within Medrek were both disadvantageous for the party. For UDJ to renew itself on these issues did not give comfort to the EPRDF. That is why they nipped it in the bud. Especially after they realized that there is a new breed of young and determined UDJ leadership with new ideas, they decided to act. Even if its capacity to mobilize the public, UDJ had the potential to at least the protest votes. It would not have been possible for EPRDF to win 100 percent, had it not caused the split of UDJ.
As a regulatory body, the NEBE is mandated to investigate and pass decisions on issues such as financial management of political parties, membership grievances and conflict within the leadership. NEBE had repeatedly called on UDJ to rectify what it deemed to be a violation of electoral laws. Why did UDJ fail to comply?
At no time did the NEBE tell us to rectify a violation of the electoral laws. UDJ never contravened the law. But we have refused to heed NEBE’s suggestion for us to break the law. Indeed those aggrieved by the leadership change within UDJ had appealed to the NEBE. But any aggrieved party could have used channels within UDJ to address these concerns. This is not the business of NEBE. There is no legal basis for the board to entertain such issues. The NEBE said they wanted to mediate. But for that to happen both parties should agree to seek the board’s mediation. Then the board told us to hold a general assembly including those aggrieved whose number does not exceed ten. That is tantamount to breaking the law. We chose not to. The NEBE cannot order us to hold a general assembly. A general assembly can only be called by UDJ’s national council or through the audit and inspection after a petition by one-third of the party’s members.
But the NEBE is still mandated to investigate upon receiving a report on the election of new leaders.
Yes, the board is mandated to investigate the appointment of new leaders after receiving our report. But it didn’t. After we submitted our report on the outcomes of the general assembly, others also claimed to have conducted a general assembly and submitted another report to the board. But the board could have investigated which general assembly members of the party attended.
Are you saying those who attended the other general assembly were not UDJ members?
The general assembly we held was attended by members of the party. The other general assembly was attended by people drawn from the intelligence and various leagues of EPRDF. They are not members of UDJ.
Have you made an appeal on this?
Who do we appeal to? The board refused to recognize the general assembly we conducted and accepted the others. We were evicted from our office by the police. We go to the board to submit our report but if they refuse to accept then we are not going to start a brawl.
You question the current UDJ president’s, Tigistu Awelu’s, leadership capability and motives. He is also accused of being an infiltrator. But Tigistu has been with UDJ and the leadership all along. Why did we not hear these accusations against Tigistu before the NEBE’s decision?
Tigistu was not in the leadership. He was appointed as head of external relations about a month before Gizachew’s cabinet was dissolved. He was merely a member before that.
Tigistu and others have raised concerns regarding the party’s source of finance and utilization. What do you say to that?
Our source of finance and utilization was transparent. But the board never sent an auditor to audit the party. But Tigistu and his group have accused us of embezzling money. A party with such allegations should collect evidence and take the case to court. But this issue was raised as an agenda on Radio Fana. Radio Fana has no interest in seeing a strong UDJ because it is a mouthpiece of the ruling party. Besides, the few UDJ members who talked of alleged financial irregularities are those who do not even make monthly membership contributions.
Following the NEBE’s decision, have you taken your case to court?
We would have regretted not taking our case to court. But the court rejected our case stating that we do not have a legal standing. It held that only Tigistu can challenge the board’s decision on administrative matters regarding UDJ. Tigistu had become the president of UDJ. Why would he sue the NEBE? Unless we are able to sue the board as [a party] UDJ, there is no use. We do not have personal issues against the board. So we abandoned it.
After these decisions you seem have become too emotional. That is reflected in your Facebook posts particularly against Tigistu. Why choose this path?
There is nothing wrong with being emotional. We are not going to conduct voting on whether the things I said with emotions were good or bad. Many people advised me to just ignore Tigistu and his group. I do not agree. I cannot ignore such people who pour cold water on peoples’ political alternatives and drag us backward. So, it is necessary to inform the people to take the right course and marginalize them. You can see the outcome of my emotions in UDJ’s result from this election. As people should be rewarded for the good they do, they should also be blamed and criticized for the wrongs they do. There should be accountability. Some people accuse me of dismantling UDJ. Those who allege this can produce their evidence. I will criticize those who destroyed the party with evidence.
Some say that individuals who put their interests before the party have weakened UDJ due to personal grudges. They partly hold you accountable for the party’s current state of affairs.
Every free person is entitled to their free opinion. It would have been good had it been possible for us to show how we put the party before our [personal] interests. From the outside, people may say we should have given in. But no, we refused to budge. Surely, when you budge they would pile on the load and UDJ would never stand straight.
One problem you mentioned was infiltration. How careful was UDJ in its recruitment of members and its other working mechanisms to prevent such infiltrations?
We can accept that as our weakness. But this is not solely the party’s problem but a problem in Ethiopian politics. First of all, not everyone who opposes is an infiltrator. But people could be deceived by small benefits and create friction within a party. People who want recognition, who wish to be acknowledged as leader of a political party, could create friction. So, membership recruitment should be done very carefully. But this is also a problem within the EPRDF. I do not personally believe in simply recruiting huge number of members.
After the outcomes of the fifth general election, you remarked that opposition political parties should be dissolved and re-established anew. How can that be achieved?
There are infiltrators and personal interest seekers in every political party in the country including EPRDF. There is no party in the country that cannot be dismantled the way UDJ was dismantled. Opposition parties to join forces should all first return their registration certificate [to NEBE]. Then there will be no issue regarding who is the chair and who is the follower. I do not believe Medrek should continue the way it is going. They did not field a single candidate in Amhara region, for example. Their candidates contested seats with the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in Tigray, the Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO) in Oromia and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Movement (SEPDM) in the south but they failed to field candidates that can compete with ANDM in Amhara. One of the reasons UDJ left Medrek is that they wanted UDJ to field candidates only in Amhara because they considered it to be an ethnic-based party. This became evident from the election. At this point in time, opposition parties are at a cul-de-sac. They should not present any more excuses. None of them are, currently, in a position to take the Ethiopian politics forward.
There have always been suggestions for fragmented political parties in the country to join forces. In your assessment, why have they not succeeded so far?
The main reason is that everyone wants small thrones. When we joined Medrek we thought it would reconcile Ethiopian nationalism and ethnic-based politics. But in due course, we realized Medrek viewed UDJ as a party for the Amhara people. That chemistry did not work. But in order to start from scratch, all the leaders of current opposition parties should resign. Or they should simply come together without any preconditions. But the parties that are in existence today are not capable of forming unity.
You have been the sole opposition member of parliament over the last five years. How do you assess your stay in parliament?
When I was declared winner five years ago and I was to join parliament, there were those who said I should not do so. They said a decision to join parliament would mean giving recognition to the EPRDF. I do not regret for a day my decision to join parliament because I have raised many issues [in parliament] which history can judge. What is expected of me was to raise those issues, addressing them was the responsibility of the government and the ruling party. History will judge as to where the problem is. Is it in the contents of what I raised in parliament or their unwillingness to listen? I had a belief that a consensus can be reached in debating and understanding one another. That was not to be. But the ruling party has no interest in that. For them, power comes before national interest. I realized that very late.
After the death of the former prime minister and the appointment of Hailemariam Desalegn, you said that the new prime minister is incapable of bring about reform on his own. But following the problems within UDJ and NEBE’s decision, you said, in parliament, that you hold the Prime Minister personally accountable. Had your views changed in due course?
Even in collective leadership, I believe individuals can play their own role. While Meles Zenawi was the prime minister, leadership was all him. But now, collective leadership is in place. Prime Minister Hailemariam should play his individual role even in collective leadership. It was because I had such belief that I supported Hailemariam’s appointment as the Prime Minister of the country in parliament. But he is still saying that he does not have a vision of his own aside from executing the vision of Meles. Let alone a leader, followers should have a vision of their own. But I am certain that the Prime Minister was not aware of what was being done to UDJ. And I did not hold the Prime Minister accountable. But not knowing when all this happened under his leadership and simply coming to parliament to repeat what he was told should be made clear. Not knowing does not absolve one from accountability. If there comes a time where one can be held accountable, then he would be held accountable.
Following NEBE’s decision on UDJ, you seemed to have abandoned parliament altogether. Any reason?
I have not abandoned parliament altogether. But I have refrained from voicing my opinion. There is no point in speaking where you will not be heard. In fact, it was starting from a year before the election that state media outlets began to completely cut out my remarks when they air parliament sessions. That is because they feared my remarks would be used for election campaigns. What is the point of speaking if it will not be aired? The position of EPRDF cadres in parliament is clear.
Would you still pursue politics?
Politics is what I do with passion. I will pursue it. Some people are in politics not to give but to take. They will perish when there will be no stealing or when people stop giving. When the political space improves, we are there. This is our country too. If we give up when bad things happen on us, then we are not cut out for it in the first place. I have always been doing what I could. We continue to do so. Some within the ruling party may think that we negotiate with external forces or terrorist groups over the interest of our nation. That is never the case. We believe bad government is better than no government at all.
How do you intend to pursue politics: with a political party or as an independent?
Under no circumstance would I consider contesting a seat as an independent. I do not advise that to anyone. I am in politics because I want to hold power. That can only achieved through an organized party politics. However, does the space we have now allow an organized political activity? Are the foundations for an organized politics in place? These issues need to be addressed. In my view, there is no space for organized politics now.
Are you going to wait until the space is created?
I will work to have the political space improve. Otherwise, I will not pile bricks on sand hastily so that I can get to the roof. I am ready to build concrete foundations on the sand, however deep that may be. That is why I maintain that we have to start anew.