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Democracy First Responders: Ethiopia, Mesud Gebeyehu

COVID-19 threatens not only lives and livelihoods, but also governments and democratic institutions. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is profiling our partners and other leaders who have been the “first responders” in our global fight to protect and strengthen democracy.

In this new series, #DemocracyFirstResponders, we spoke with an anti-corruption activist in Nepal, a journalist in Zimbabwe, a former government official in Georgia and others to discuss their efforts to prevent democratic backsliding in the time of COVID-19.

For the seventh episode of this series, our host Travis Green spoke with Mesud Gebeyehu, the executive director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations. Since the onset of COVID-19, Mesud’s consortium has called for Ethiopia’s government to both implement prevention methods while also respecting democratic freedoms.

You can listen to this conversation and others by subscribing to the Global Podcast on SoundcloudApple PodcastsGoogle Play or wherever you get your podcasts. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Travis: Mesud Gebeyehu, thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with us today and give us some of your insights on how the coronavirus is impacting democracy in Ethiopia. Even before COVID-19 reached the crisis levels in Ethiopia, the Consortium [of] Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations encouraged the government to put clear guidelines on the potential restrictions to civil liberties.

Ethiopia postponed elections [that were supposed to be held on] August 29, and declared a state of emergency on April 8, to fight the coronavirus. While Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed warned of grave legal measures against anyone who undermines the fight against the pandemic, what has your perception been of the government’s response to your call for respect for human rights, during this period?

Mesud: I would like to say thank you. My name is Mesud Gebeyehu. I am the executive director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations. Before [COVID] was an issue in Ethiopia, in the middle of March we had been discussing [what] possible scenarios would have [implications for] our democracy, because we have a scheduled election [and civil society is] very weak. The government wanted relations with [civil society] during the past couple of years.

But, on the 27 of March 2020, we [released] a press release on how the government should manage [its] COVID-19 response. [Civil] and political rights [should] be given [emphasis], and we made a very strong messaging so that [no] demonstrations would be restricted. Freedom of association would be even at risk; freedom of expression would be at risk.

So, our Constitution under Article 93 provided that all legal rights are [inaudible]. The others would be given in times of state of emergency. And then, that time when we issued a press release, only one region [declared] a state of emergency, and the other regions at that time [inaudible]. But there has been [a] high probability that the federal government would have a state of emergency.

And in that statement, we emphasized that the government should give [emphasis] to civil and political rights, and the purpose of the state of emergency is just for public health issues, [to secure] people like they used to do. In the past couple state of emergencies that we had, they should outline [that] this is [a very cautious] state of emergency [with] a human rights-based approach.

Yes, maybe in relation to the election, actually it is to be noted that [the] Ethiopian reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed [came] to power [in] 2018. That was really [a] breakthrough for us, because many human rights defenders, many journalists [and] almost all opposition parties [had either been in exile] or in prison. So, most people who have been imprisoned because of their dissent, were released.

And many people [were out of exile and] back to Ethiopia, and they formally started to register and function as a local political party. So, that was really very fantastic, and even for human rights organizations, it was very difficult for the last couple of years. Those civil society organizations working on human rights and democracy generally [were] our focus.

So, this was really a very amazing change that we didn’t have in our history, and this election is something that we all were eager [to see]. So, civil societies, we have a very reformed National Electoral Agency, all civil societies have been very eager [for] voter education. All political parties, we have more than 100 political parties, but all have been trying to reach [their] constituencies. The lead party made many adjustments.

So, [all these] preparations have been underway, and the election was scheduled for August, but unfortunately it was very difficult for the National Electoral Board to conduct some preparatory work, like registering voters, registering candidates, voter education, and self-preparatory work. And for that, the National Electoral Board has submitted a recommendation for the House of Representatives, the National Parliament, to decide. And it its only two day before that, the National Parliament referred the decision of the National Electoral Board to a standing committee, to come up with recommendations.

And very recently, the government also discussed with political parties, and some civil societies with alternative mechanisms, because the election is already postponed. It is unfeasible to have it before September, and by the last week of September, the term of the current government will end. Unfortunately, we don’t have even constitutional clauses. Vacuum of clauses in the constitution, that warranted existing government to continue.

So, political parties and the ruling party are discussing [how] to fill this constitutional vacuum. In relation to the state of emergency, actually we’re really worried that most of the restrictions, for instance if [a] lockdown comes, then many of Ethiopians are very poor, so they can’t afford [food]. So, they need to have something to eat, and the government can’t provide that. So, this was what we have been asking the government to take [seriously].

And indeed, there is not the total lockdown so far, but transportation and other public transport services have been decreasing the number of people, the number of service users. So [even] if we wanted the government not to use excessive force in the implementation of this state of emergency, so far more than five people were killed in relation to the implementation of the state of emergency.

Many people were arrested, including a very [well-known] human rights defender and political party leaders. So, [the] way they tried to manage the problem [was] not that human rights-friendly. But what we see generally [is] how COVID brought about danger to our democracy. [It is very] obvious that COVID has brought about a [challenge] for us.

Because, it is only for the last two years that civil society, political parties and the ruling party [have] come together [to] discuss the national agenda issues. So, our democracy is at a very infant state. And the election was pushed to August, because the National Electoral Board and other preparatory workers were too late to make early May, or around [then].

So, postponing the election [will have many] consequences [for] the fate of the country, the fate of our democracy, the fate of the civic space which is opening. So these are some of my reflections on these issues.

Travis: There’s a couple of things that I want to follow up on. You talked about the state of civil society, and like you just mentioned, Ethiopia in the last couple of years has been going through quite the transition, and how do you see this crisis specifically impacting CSOs across Ethiopia? Is this weakening civil society do you think? Or weakening the position, and the ability of civil society to be more engaged at the national level?

Mesud: Yeah, as I forget to mention, civil society in the last couple of years, for more than 10 years, is the old Civil Society Law, which was repealed in 2019, which prohibited local civil society organizations from receiving foreign funding, [not even more than] 10 percent. And provided that, it is very difficult for civil society organizations to raise funding locally.

This civil society’s capacity is now at a very, very weak level. But provided that we have that reform, the Civil Society Law amended, many donors who are working on democracy, working for humanities, have been very interested in the Ethiopian reform, and have come up with some support. And we have been also [doing] some preparatory work, for [voter] education for the election, some organizing, some deals with [the] government, with the political parties, civil societies, as well as social movements.

[Since] 2012 in Ethiopia, [it has been a] very difficult for the civic space. And the old EPRDF [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front], the old ruling party, which actually the party has not yet changed. Only the old one, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, now changed its name to the Prosperity Party. But, the old party, which is a coalition of four nationalist parties, was not able to keep up with the resistance from the public, and it kept intensifying from time to time.

And by 2018, the collaboration of [the] diaspora community, the previous plurality that would be representing the government is going through different diplomatic opportunities. They used university students, this all [has] been together, so that the old regime was forced to come up with reforms.

So, we have been in this situation. So, civic societies have been trying to survive and reclaim their position that they lost for the last couple of years. But, now after [COVID], now the election is postponed, even this election was very contentious. I mean, there have been three alternatives proposed by political parties. One, to have the election as scheduled by August. Two, to postpone the election, and either the current government to continue for some time upon consensus of the stakeholders, the political party and the local party.

And the third was to establish a transitional government. But the day Abiy came to power, he never agreed with the concept of transitional government. And so, [with] the remaining two options, the ruling party and some political parties opted [for] the election to happen in August. Even for August, civil societies were not [ready], political parties were not ready. There have been challenges in security in different parts of the country.

There is no rule of law. People have been killed, people have been arrested in different parts of the country. So, this insecurity stuff [has] been challenging political parties, [societal] organizations and social movement leaders for the last time. But, now [that] this election is to be postponed, [there] is another headache. Even two days before the government introduced four alternatives, [people wondered], how [should the election be managed? what [will] be the fate of the country after September 30?

Because, after the end of September, the government’s term will end. Then, even the date [started] discussion [among] the political parties, the civil society. Some political parties are coming to the media, and stating that after September 30, the ruling party and the opposition parties [are] equal, which means that they in no way [do they] accept the legitimacy of the ruling party to continue, despite the fact that the ruling party came up with four options.

Either to declare a state of emergency for some time or [to] dissolve the Parliament. And already the Executive Committee of the Prime Minister [continues] to amend the Constitution, and to interpret the Constitution. This state of emergency, and early dissolution of the Parliament, as well as the interpretation of the Constitution, have been [very] much criticized. They don’t talk that much, except also by March 31, some political parties and some civil society activists have been arguing that the constitutional amendments shall be the best way, so that we can solve our issues, for [once and for all].

But, provided that we have [COVID], and provided that we don’t know when we [can] control COVID, [it] is very uncertain for us to put some time in it, like six months or five months. We don’t know [when it] would happen. But we have to decide [before] September that we need to have some mechanism. So [is] the ruling party going to continue the coalition of the ruling party [or are] the opposing parties [going to] come together [to] rule the country maybe for one year, until the elections take place? We don’t know.

So, COVID has really brought about a very serious challenge for the Ethiopian democracy. And bear in mind that the election that [was] scheduled for August was the first ever democratic election that we [anticipated]. Because all the oppositions are now here. All civil societies have got freedom of [expression], and many more democratic actors [are] working on voter education, electoral verification, post-election conflicts.

They had consultants that [trained them] in this. And so, we had a very [credible] National Electoral Board, so [the] commitment of the ruling party to have a very fair and credible election [was] something that we all were eager to see, but [COVID] has brought about this challenge in our democracy.

Travis: Could you maybe tell me a little bit more about, between the closed borders, the closed schools, you’ve mentioned some of the challenges to human rights that people are experiencing, can you tell me a little bit more about how this crisis has impacted every day Ethiopians?

Mesud: Ethiopia is a third-world country. So, beneath our economy is really growing fast. I mean, we have the fastest growing economy in the world. But, provided that we are more than 100K, the economy cannot feed us. So, we won’t have [stable] income. So, everybody is making their livelihood on a daily basis. And because of [COVID], especially [during] the first two, three weeks of [COVID] when some people were found positive in different regions of the country, some regional governments, or counties passed some kind of legislation, [saying] that travel [from] one region to the other region [was] prohibited.

Even from one town to the other town was prohibited for the control of the COVID. And even now, many people are advised to stay at home. We have many people who are jobless, we have many people who are street people. Those people [are] working [for] some very small businesses on the street, and even those daily laborers, and many more people are really in [a] difficult situation [trying to] feed themselves.

And the government didn’t come up with a lockdown, provided that it would bring another unintended consequence [other] than controlling [COVID]. Like, if everybody is obliged to stay at home, they’d have nothing to eat. The news even explained that. “It is only for me if I die of COVID, if I die of ISIS. If I went through the [inaudible], or if some security people come and kill me,” because they don’t have something to survive on.

So, [these have] been some of the challenges. And the other challenge is also, after [COVID], many people are staying at home, so there are many reports of gender-based violence, including rape and these kinds of challenges. The schools are already closed, so every school aged [child], university student, everyone is back to their home, which is really another burden. [Many], many, many youths who were in [school are now] coming out of [school].

The challenge with this is the fact that most [public] schools have been supported by the government. For instance, the government provides lunch [and] breakfast [to] students who are poor, whose families are very poor. So, when these students are staying at home, there is nothing that they could have for lunch or breakfast, which was covered by the government. And the government didn’t come up with a mechanism [so] that this support could go to the families of these students.

And this plus some restrictions, and the fact that we have been for instance in a state of emergency in 2016, 2017 and even when Abiy was coming to power, there has been a state of emergency declared. So, the fact that this emergency [was] managed by [what we call] a command post, has brought about [a] bad perception [of] security people. And people don’t need to see security people wearing some police uniforms and [having] guns.

And to change that attitude, the government came up with another mechanism, another organ, with another name, Ministerial Committee. The Ministerial Committee is the state organ to follow up [with] the implementation of the state of emergency. But, when it comes to implementing some of the requirements under the state of emergency and the directives, then it requires the interference of security people. But those security people are [of] the old mind. They are [of] the old mind, and they consider that because it is already under a state of emergency, they feel that they can take whatever measure.

Even if you see some of the people who are being killed in connection with the implementation of the state of emergency, it is because of lack of awareness of the mandate of security people. And this really has brought about a challenge of human rights, where we are not able to freely travel, and they commit human rights violations. [These] all are great big [challenges] for our workers.

Travis: You’ve talked a lot about the upcoming elections and thinking through what then might happen. Are you hopeful, or are you anxious about the future of democracy in Ethiopia, as you see or look to what happens after COVID?

Mesud: We have all the political parties, we have the very credible National Electoral Board. Civil societies are being given freedom. The government, unlike [past] experiences in Ethiopian history, is very much internationally accepted. [For instance], our prime minister was [awarded] the Nobel Peace Prize [in] 2019, which really has [implications].

We have a very good [relationship] with neighboring countries — with Eritrea, our long-term enemy. We took every player, some people who have been friends, have been families, who have been living together, and somewhere we came to resume [those] honored family relationships. We have good [relations] with Sudan. We have good [relations] with South Sudan, good [relations] with Guinea, Somalia and many more, which means we have a very conducive environment. And the very challenging fact, was the fact that the incumbent governments were not either ready [for] or are not committed [to] change.

Or even, they don’t create [a] conducive environment, so that we [can] have some credible elections. So, now we already agreed that we will have [an] election by August. It was the decision of the majority, even if we [tried] to lobby the decision-makers, [so] that the election [is] postponed to [November] or October, because from June to August is the summer season in Ethiopia. [There is a lot of] rain.

We don’t have infrastructure. We need to see each polling station as civil society organizations. Political parties should freely travel to each district and communicate with their constituencies and their voters. So, provided that we have this very poor infrastructure, making the election in August was the challenge. But, if we push it [until] after September, [it will] bring about [a] constitutional dilemma.

So, we agree on this. Which means, we have [a] large consensus [that the] election [will] happen in August. Then, what if the election is pushed to maybe [six] months, or one year after August? It is because of the force majeure. And, when this state of emergency was declared, the government [consulted] political parties and civil societies [about] what kind of mechanism we should do.

And almost all political parties consented that we need the state of emergency to contain COVID, because it is an international crisis. So, now had it been for the government’s interest [in] the election was postponed after September, it would have been a challenge. [This] means that, the postponement of the election has the support of the majority of Ethiopian people, civil society organizations and political parties.

Then there is COVID, then the government came up with four scenarios, on how to have a government after September, because by September 30, the term of the ruling party will end. Then there should come some mechanism that we have a government. In no way the government shouldn’t be out of office, because we need some organ. Who is that? Then, a dissolution of the Parliament is not something that we recommend. Declaring a state of emergency, is also another challenge, because if a state of emergency is declared, then how can civil societies really move, how can political parties do campaigning? Because political rights would be suspended.

And then the third option was amendment of the constitution. But, the day this reform came, and even one of the causes for this reform to come, was the fact that we didn’t have [a] consensus on the constitution. So, how can we come up with some kind of consensus on the constitution in this very short time, between September? This is very unthinkable. We need to have a very independent, credible commission to come up with the views of all, and the views of everybody who has a stake in the Ethiopian democracy, and the Ethiopian fate, should have a say. And everybody should be considered, for that amendment of the constitution is something that is not [very] feasible.

And also the interpretation of the constitution is also another scenario, where [we are] looking at the experience of other countries, how they were able to interpret their constitutions, even if they [didn’t] have any kind of complication. For example, the constitution is clear on this, the term of office of a government is five years. Elections are periodic, every five years. So, it is very clear.

But the problem is the constitution doesn’t have any clause pertaining to matters like [COVID], the challenge that we are in. So, [it would be] better [to] interpret the constitution. But, constitutional interpretation has also another challenge, because in Ethiopia, constitutional interpretation is the power of the House of Federations, which is the representative of the Ethiopian nation, nationals and people. Bear in mind that the House of People’s Representative[s] is composed of 100 percent the ruling party.

The House of Federation [is] composed [100 percent] of the ruling party, with [not even a] single individual opposition party, or an individual candidate in the House of Federation. And it is not the courts who interpret the Constitution, it is after all, that the issue is going to the ruling party to decide in a way it likes. This is the argument and the fear of many political analysts and civil society organizations. But, the constitutional inquiry, which is under the House of Federation, is composed of the Supreme Court president and vice president, as well as very renowned lawyers.

Which means that because the Constitution is a political and legal document, we anticipate that these very renowned lawyers and the president and the vice president and the Supreme Court [can] come up with a very commendable recommendation. And the first challenge with the constitutional interpretation, is the fact that we don’t know what kind of recommendation [they would] come up with. We don’t know what kind of interpretation they could give, after September.

But it is basically in terms of resource, in terms of timing, and what we have been trying to discuss [about] this issue. And to date, we have been discussing what kind of position we [civil society groups] should have in this law. Because [with] the Constitution that we have, [there is] this constitutional vacuum now. And we have [these] discussions [about] equal weight with the election. We need the election for this, we need the election for our prosperity. And [if] this is not smoothly transitioned to the upcoming long-awaited election, it [will] be a mess for us.

But generally I don’t have that negative impression [of] the election, because we already pushed [it] to August. We were supposed to have it [in] May, but we pushed it to August with [a] consensus. Even if it is not under [a] present consensus, [the] majority of the political actors have [an] almost similar understanding on why they did [it] this way. So, we pushed it, and it is under rational phenomena. Even we don’t know how much [COVID] could continue, maybe for the coming five months, six months. Maybe a year, we really don’t know.

We are now in uncertainty. So, many political parties are now focusing on the fight against COVID, they’re making the political discussions secondary matters. And for me, I don’t see any bad and it is also even a good exercise for our democracy. We really will test how much our government is committed to democracy. So far, we are very good. As these discussions are on the table, different actors are turning up with different opinions. But [these] all are okay for now. So, for me, I don’t anticipate any kind of conflict or post-election crisis.

Travis: Around the world, Ethiopia is very much seen as a potential democratic success story, for all the reasons that we’ve talked about back and forth here. What kind of support do you feel Ethiopia needs at this time, and what message would you send to others that want Ethiopia to succeed democratically?

Mesud: Well, we’ve seen this very problem exactly two years before. We had been [on] the verge of statelessness exactly two years before. Now, the scenario is different. The prospective international community, the international donors and many more democratic actors see Ethiopia is now completely different. So, Ethiopia is now [a] land of hope. [We have taken] very progressive measures so far, even if there are lots of limitations [and] it is this always because of inexperience — inexperience in democracy, inexperience in human rights.

So, it is something that progresses from day to day. And we don’t expect the government to fix everything overnight. We understand this. We know the limitations. And the good thing that the government has towards the international community, towards the citizens, as well as civil society organizations, and political parties, is that the current government [considers] that everybody counts. Everybody counts. So, they try their best to consult every stake holder, civil society organization, opposition party [and] the international community.

And also, as you know, Ethiopia is the host of the African Union. The [United Nations] Economic Commission for Africa is based in Ethiopia, so Ethiopia is also the sub-diplomatic center, next to New York, and Geneva, which means the international community watches what is happening in Ethiopia very consciously. And we [also] have to look [at] the geopolitics, the life, the job, the politics around [East] Africa, the politics around [North] Africa, the Middle East, and [North Africa], the Arab world.

And also the Ethiopian position towards the Western Desert, [these] all have been amazing developments. So far, we have a good international image, so far. And we wish this will continue. Even in this time of COVID, many international partners are showing solidarity to the Government of Ethiopia, they are supporting local civil society organizations, and what I would like to show to the international community, and any actor who would be interested in what is going on in Ethiopia, is to support any way that they like.

So, Ethiopia could be one of the best laboratories of democracy in Africa, and even in the world. The diplomatic relation to bring economic integration of the East Africa, and Africa, led by the prime minister is really amazing. The diplomatic relation with different ideological countries, is really amazing. We have a really good [relationship] with the Western, the Eastern, the Middle East and wherever.

Even in Africa, Ethiopia is also [one of] the top countries in terms of recognition, and reputation. So, what we need from the international community is to provide any possible support, so that Ethiopia could be an example of democracy, and so that other countries could learn from Ethiopia.

I’ve tried to mention that, we have been almost on the verge of statelessness [for] two years, now we are becoming almost [a] world model in terms of transition. That was unthinkable. This is really critical that the Ethiopian Government, the Ethiopian people, the Ethiopian civil societies, the academics, everyone who has a stake, and including the international community has contributed [to] this situation. So, this is what I would like to say.

Travis: Mesud, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us. Thank you so much for all the work that you’re doing supporting Ethiopian civil society, and we wish you all the best during this very trying time.

Mesud: Thank you very much.