The Reporter Ethiopia
Ana Gomez is a Portuguese member of the European Union (EU) parliament and is well-known for her severe criticism of the Ethiopian government, and the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in relation to the May 2005 election. Back then she was head of the European Union Election Observation Mission in Ethiopia. After nine years she has returned to Addis Ababa to participate in the 26th ACP-EU joint parliamentarians assembly.
Neamin Ashenafi, of The Reporter, sat down with Gomez for an exclusive interview to discuss various issues, including human rights, democracy and elections. Excerpts:
The Reporter: The relationship between you and the Ethiopian government deteriorated due to your critical comments after the May 2005 elections, and now you are back here. How was the visa process, any problems?
Ana Gomez: No! Not at all. Actually, when there was a parliamentary delegation visiting Ethiopia last July from our subcommittee on human rights, the Ethiopian ambassador (Teshome Toga) asked me whether I was coming or not, and I said, “You wouldn’t give me a visa, so what’s the point?” And he said, “But we would.” OK, so I will leave it for the joint parliamentary assembly; I want my colleagues to go now without any problems to see for themselves, and I will ask for a visa for the joint parliamentary assembly taking place in Addis Ababa, then we will see. And yes, no problem, I submitted my request and I was given the visa without any condition, without any problem at all, and I am very glad, because I believe that there is a different atmosphere, the fact that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is gone, and that you have a new prime minister. Change is trying to be introduced to the country, as we see already with this very important move fighting corruption, with every member of the government, and top officials of the regime put in prison.
I just would want to see more change, because I think Ethiopians want and deserve it and am heartened that am here, and able to speak to many people, and find out how the situation is evolving, apart from participating as a member of this assembly.
In 2005 you were here in Ethiopia as a European Union (EU) election observer, and you were able to find out the situation in the country relating to human rights, democracy and so on. How do you assess the current level of human rights and democracy in the country?
I think the situation post 2005 election got worse in terms of democratic space, we saw the massacres, all the opposition arrested, a shrinking space for the civil society and human right development activists. I think that the law on charities is negative, and we see also the abuse of antiterrorism laws. They are given an extremist interpretation, which targets anyone with this terrorist tag to silence political dissidence; therefore the situation has definitely got worse.
But we saw in 2010 another colleague of mine, Thijs Berman, came here to lead the election observation mission by the EU in Ethiopia. Of course, the people were not as interested as they were in the 2005 election, because in 2005 there was a massive turn-out to vote, and people believed that the election would be genuine. The problem was with the counting, which people felt, and I felt, had been manipulated. In 2010 the situation was not much better, rather it was worse; people didn’t even want to go to vote, by noon everything was finished. My colleague was not even able to return to deliver the final report, because obviously he had criticism, constructive criticism, but criticism anyway, and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi could not take that very mild and constructive criticism. I think the situation changed dramatically, and is still changing, as a result of the fact that the leadership changed. The new prime minister is trying to bring about change. We want to see things delivered in Ethiopia, we want to see this fight against corruption strengthened. He is already being associated with rule of law, the independence of the justice, and democratic practices that, of course, allow political space and the freedom of media, of expression, and for the function of the opposition, no matter how weak and fragmented; you need a proper opposition, as well as to liberate the political prisoners. In my opinion this is an essential question, one I have already raised, regarding the political prisoners, and I even proposed that this assembly would send a joint ACP-EU mission to visit them. We were told that they were not arrested because they were journalists, but that they were convicted for a terrorist act; I don’t believe it. Now the word terrorism is used to silence dissidence, as in the past in my country for instance, in the days of dictatorship the word was subversion. Now it is terrorism, but I don’t think this trial was fair, I don’t think concrete evidence was produced proving they were involved in an act of terrorism. Calling for an Ethiopian spring cannot be a terrorist act; it’s a genuine act of democracy, which any democracy should be able to accommodate.
How do you compare post 2005 election Ethiopia with the current situation?
Don’t forget I was here from March to May for the election, and at that time there was little opening up of space. And the most important thing that really caught the imagination of the people was something that I guess Meles Zenawi later came to regret; the fact that he allowed five debates to be broadcast live, and they allowed a lot of people to speak up and understand alternative agendas for the country. I remember the aftermath, the night after the election, when the prime minister, without reason, decided to impose a curfew. It was already a terrible sign; why, if the election had passed in an orderly and peaceful way, why order a curfew? Why not address the people? It was obviously because he was intending to manipulate the result as it occurred. So, I can probably compare the present situation now with the period that preceded the May 2005 election. While there was some opening of space, now there is no functioning opposition, because now the opposition in the parliament is only one, which is ridiculous, only one member!
But definitely, some people suggest to me that there is some opening in the media, not the official media but alternative media, like social media, and I think this is because technology has evolved. People in Ethiopia are resorting more to social media, and you cannot control social media. I mean, no matter how many Israeli or European technology companies you hire to help control Twitter or Facebook, you cannot really do it. So I think this makes the authorities more realistic; they will have to open up the space, because if they don’t open it up legally, people will find a way.
Have you raised and discussed the issue of democracy, human rights, and prisoners with any high-ranking Ethiopian officials?
Yes, obviously. The speaker of the parliament, Abadula Gemeda, invited me to lunch, and we were joined by Teshome Toga [former speaker of the house and now ambassador at Brussels]. We had a very good and frank exchange. I raised my questions, my criticisms about Ethiopia, and it was never about anyone personally. There is nothing personal, I don’t have any personal interest in Ethiopia, I don’t have any economic interest in Ethiopia, but, of course, I have a commitment and the obligation to speak up. So, the discussion was in very, very frank terms; I had a very intense discussion with these members.
What was their response?
Well, I will not tell you the details, because, of course, the purpose of our discussion is that we keep it private, as it was a private discussion. But I can assure you, it was a very, very frank exchange, and we touched upon opening the political space, the crucial question of releasing political prisoners, allowing the space for NGO activities, and for the opposition to be strengthened.
But are you satisfied by the response that you got from the officials?
I think it’s a good sign that they wanted to listen to me. It is an Ethiopian process; nobody can impose any one thing in Ethiopia. So it’s a process, but I think it is a positive sign that there was an interest to hear my view.
You are always critical of the Ethiopian government regarding the prisoner issue, so have you asked the Ethiopian government to go to Kaliti and visit these prisoners?
I asked that formally, here, in the political committee of this joint assembly last Saturday. I have made that request, a visit by the delegation, and it is still in the process. (This interview was conducted on Monday, and a joint assembly made a visit to Kaliti on Wednesday.)
I know the line we often hear in Ethiopia, not just by Ethiopians but also some European representatives, is that these people were arrested not because they were journalists, but because they were convicted of terrorism. I don’t buy that line, I don’t accept that line. The Swedish journalists were convicted of terrorism and were released, also Birtukan Mideksa, at one point she was convicted of many crimes, yet there was the wisdom to release her. So I hope this will be the case here too, because these people are the new generation of Ethiopia. The young generation of Ethiopia cannot build on any existing political system here.
If you don’t trust the government’s opinion that they were performing terrorist acts, what is your counter argument to prove your view?
I believe, and am not denying, that Ethiopia, as well as European countries, face the threat of terrorism, but I don’t believe that shrinking the democratic space and silencing dissenting voices, who claim democratic rights, is a way to fight terrorism. It’s actually the way to breed more terrorism, so I am not diminishing the threat of terrorism against Ethiopia. I know by people attending those trials that they were not fair, there was no evidence that they committed any act of terrorism. I don’t accept the line that they are terrorists.
But could you please give me a specific counter argument?
I don’t know; I personally don’t even know them. The case of Birtukan Mideksa, I know her personally; the case of Birhanu Nega, I know him personally.
However, now Birhanu Nega has changed his ways, and aims to change the regime by means other than elections. So if you know him personally, did you expect that he might change his direction?
I know Birhanu Nega from the election in 2005, and when I told you about the debates that were broadcast live in 2005. Due to that debate, if there was one name that represented the opposition camp, it was Birhanu Nega. There were, of course, people who were known in their communities, like Beyene Petros, Merara Gudina, Bulcha Demeksa and the like, but throughout the country the name that came to represent the opposition group was Birhanu Nega.
By the way, he should have been mayor of Addis Ababa, if he had not been arrested and fled to exile. Probably that is what radicalized his speeches, his friends, because all their attempts to play the democratic peaceful role in Ethiopia were jeopardized by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
You were known for criticizing both the Ethiopian government and the European Union (EU) for not working for democratic development in Ethiopia. Are there any developments or changes to your viewpoint?
I have often been very critical of Ethiopia, and I have been even more critical of the EU, on many issues, but mainly on its relationship with Ethiopia. The EU has a very strong relationship with Ethiopia, and has a very strong influence in Ethiopia, namely through the development assistance. I think the EU has often been too silent in Ethiopia when it could make a difference. Some people tell me it’s better for discrete diplomacy, and I can do it, and I know how to do it. But sometimes there is also the need for megaphone diplomacy. I was very upset when the EU, namely my colleague Lewis Mitchell, came here to secure the release of the Swedish journalist, and completely forgot about the Ethiopian journalist. I criticized them publicly in Europe, what kind of message are we telling the people of Ethiopia, and African people in general, that we care only about our citizen. It is outrageous, it is double standards.
While you were here as an election observer you had a good relationship with the Ethiopian opposition party leaders, have you met with any of them yet?
I have not met them yet, but I hope to be able to meet them in the next few days or so. You know what, there is also a generational problem in the opposition here; I believe interaction between the opposition and parties abroad would be very important. I would hope that this dialogue, even with the antagonists, would eventually open up the space here to resume a genuine democratic process.
How do you describe your relationship with the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in relation to his attitude towards you after the 2005 election?
Until June 8, the day of that massacre, I had actually developed a very good relationship with him. I had frank exchanges with him and could see he was shrewd, very smart, and at the beginning I believed him. But little by little I came to see he was trying to fool me; he was very perverse, he had a very perverse mind, very smart but very perverse. And I will never forget the long letter he wrote to the editor of the Ethiopian Herald newspaper; he attacked me personally, and accused me of taking money from the opposition and things like that, which was outrageous, all lies and fabrication; I never had any personal gain. I never had a personal quarrel with him, but he made it personal, by attacking and accusing me of taking money, which is outrageous of course. From my side it was not personal, but, of course, I became very, very upset with him, and now he is gone.