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IRIN’s Interview with Berhanu Nega

Monday, December 12, 2005

“I deserve and Ethiopians deserve as much rights, as much democratic government as anyone else. In fact, we need it more for our development.” – Berhanu Nega, Ethiopian Prisoner of Conscience.

On May 30, 2003 the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) posted an interview it conducted with Berhanu Nega on its web site. I feel that this interview is a must read interview for any serious observer of Ethiopian politics and all who care about the well being of Ethiopia. I have posted below excerpts from the interview that dealt with democratic reforms. When you read it, please bear in mind that the interview was condcted more than two and a half years ago. The good news is, in the two and a half years since Berhanu refered to the attitudes of Ethiopians as “docile”, Ethiopians have proven him wrong by exhibiting extreme courage in standing up for their God-given human rights. On the other hand, the bad news is the state terrorism perpertated on its own citizens by the regime in power has increased dramatically since Berhanu’s interview. Hopefully, Ethiopians will once again prove Berhanu wrong by overcoming the reign of terror that is imposed on them by the Meles regime. Now to the interview…

IRIN: Donors argue that the country is democratic, or at least moving towards it?

BERHANU: What I have been hearing from donors when this is raised is that the country is moving in the right direction. They acknowledge there were irregularities here and there, but by and large for a country like this it should be acceptable. Then you find yourself in a difficult position, because you don’t know what a country like Ethiopia deserves, what is our package of democracy – 20 percent, 30 percent?

My assumption is, there is only one process: that the election is free or is not free. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but at least we shouldn’t see state functionaries making it difficult to have a free and fair election. Nobody in their right mind in Ethiopia can tell you that it is not perfect but not even acceptable when you have one party winning some 90, 95 percent of parliament. It just doesn’t happen. We should not fool ourselves.

IRIN: So you are saying the donors authorise the government rather than the people?

BERHANU: There is no mechanism for the actual population to give any approval. The dynamic link that ought to exist between state and citizens is broken, and in between are donors. We face a situation where the state is much more interested in pleasing donors and will tell them what they want to hear; and citizens, because they have no means of reaching their own government in an organic way, they put their complaints through donors.

At the end of the day, development is what individuals do, not what the state or donors do. It is what individuals do to improve their lives that will improve long-term development. The issue of freedom and democracy is important. It always amazes me that donors are not interested it that aspect.

IRIN: How responsible then are donors for undemocratic systems?

BERHANU: The general cliché is if there is going to be democracy it has to come from our own efforts. But if that is to mean – would donors have a contribution to democratisation, they certainly would. Are they effectively using their partnership with the state to pursue a clear democratic agenda – then they haven’t shown it unfortunately. That is why the pressure for a genuine democratisation process in this country doesn’t seem to come from anywhere.

Citizens are so docile and terrified that they wouldn’t do what is needed. Donors are not pressuring them to do it, because they have other interests: they are essentially comfortable with what is going on. If you want to be more radical, you can say to a certain degree they are racists, because they really don’t believe that Ethiopians deserve the kind of democracy they are enjoying in their own ountries. They think that countries like Ethiopia are so backward they only need a small amount [of democracy]…

I deserve and Ethiopians deserve as much rights, as much democratic government as anyone else. In fact, we need it more for our development. We need it desperately, because we need to liberate the individual, because the individual has to fight to improve his or her own lives. It is that feeling of freedom, to struggle to improve your own condition that is going to bring development in this world.

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