Interview: Lidetu Ayalew

Lidetu Ayalew was chief of the Public Affairs Department of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). Following CUD's sweeping victory in the May 15 elections which, among others, enabled it to claim all 23 seats in Addis Ababa, Lidetu was placed under house arrest after the June 8 killings of unarmed demonstrators and detentions of thousands of people. Shortly, he announced his resignation. Surrounding this issue, the Reporter interviewed Lidetu, which Ethiomedia presents here in English:

Reporter: CUD had sued both the ruling EPRDF party and the National Electoral Board. It lost both cases in court. Was the defeat due to CUD's misguided strategy or there was a problem with the courts?

Lidetu : We've been trying to voice our concern over the problems surrounding the judiciary system and the National Electoral Board right from day one of our struggle. The National Electoral Board is not free. We've reiterated our worries that unless NEB is changed, there would never be a free and fair election in the country. We have talked about this issue with the prime minister. We decided to compete in the elections not out of the belief that problems have been resolved but out of CUD's commitment to help build a democratic governance. The case of the justice system is not different from NEB's. We have time and again tried to make it public the justice system has never been free from the influence of the ruling party. Many of the judges are political cadres of the ruling party. Still worse, the ruling party is training its own "judges" in an institute exclusively set for such purpose. Despite this grim situation, we have not stopped filing our cases with the courts. For instance, there were two strong charges CUD filed with the courts. In all fairness, we thought justice would prevail and win over our cases. Instead, we lost in both.

Reporter: You know the problems around the National Electoral Board. But you also took part in the elections. How come?

Lidetu : As you may heard recently, there has been a problem between CUD and me. I don't want to go into details. The ongoing "complaints investigation" process on the part of CUD would not be fruitful. I don't believe we would achieve any result. If CUD had the mandate to play it fair, there was no need for CUD to place complaints in the first place. We would have waited with patience until election results are announced. But it was not. The CUD should be alone when investigating complaints. International and CUD observers must be deployed as well. This was our initial proposal which was also entered into the first agreement. Later on, however, the proposal was reversed; now it is only NEB and its legal advisors investigating election complaints. I don't agree on this one. My differences with CUD revolves around this issue, and that was the case which prompted me to step aside from my job as a spokesperson of CUD.

On the other hand, the political situation in the country right now is not conducive to carrying out fair and free inquiries into the charges of election fraud. CUD members are in prison. Over 400 CUD offices have been shut down. Our party's leadership is unable to move freely. If you take my own case, four security groups have been following me whereever I go. Radio and TV (state-controlled) do not broadcast factual information to the public. The door to inform the public under what conditions we are living, under what conditions we are going into the fraud-investigating task is slum shut. On the contrary, they are (the ruling party) raining denunciations on us. CUD supporters are being dislocated everywhere. The present situation is such that security agents are given full rights to take measures as they please. The people cannot express their feelings in public because the prime minister has imposed restrictions. Such challenges first need to be resolved, and the country be governed by law and order that a free investigation could be carried out. This would not happen when the ruling party has controlled everything by force.

Reporter: When you signed the June 10 agreement, there were statements that sound similar to what you've told us now. What happened such conditions never materialized in the follow-up agreement?

Lidetu : I can't answer that. I can't go into the details.

Reporter: But the public would like to know.

Lidetu : The public itself must ask why such measures were taken. The public has to exert pressure to know the inner-party differences within CUD. I don't believe the current process would lead to the respect of the people's poll results. This is because the process gives a legal cover-up to the ruling party's alleged poll victory. I also don't believe the current process would help resolve the volatile situation we have been living through.

Reporter: At the time when university students along with city residents came out en masse to the streets, CUD leadership role was missing. What happened?

Lidetu : As I said, measures imposed by the ruling party had arrested our activities. However, before the people took to the streets, a strategy could have been put in place in which the public can exercise their rights. I believe we failed to do that. I believe we've made a mistake in that regard.

Reporter: Instead of the parties concerned trying to resolve the crisis, was it necessary that third parties are involved?

Lidetu : The country is in a serious situation. The key question is not who is the winner in the elections? How can we pull ourselves out of the crisis gripping the country, and move on? is what is most pressing. No one dislikes when the international community suggests that the parties concerned must sit around to resolve the crisis. Though I don't know how much the mediators have taken the issue seriously, what is discomforting is the talk about forming a coalition government. The question of forming a coalition government shouldn't be done for the sake of political expediency. It comes following elections: winners and losers must be identified in the first place. If any party failed to win over 50% of the votes, contending parties have an impasse, which makes forming a coalition government a necessity. Before the question of which party won what has been answered, heading into talks about forming a coalition is prone to questioning. If we don't give priority to establish the fact how the votes ended up, then where is the people's sovereign powers? The coalition idea has been raised in an inappropriate way, thereby spreading confusion.

Reporter: The issue is now being handled by the National Electoral Board (NEB). If you are not satisfied with the outcome, what's your next move?

Lidetu : If the process continues under NEB, the outcome would be like the Algiers Agreement for both the people and the opposition parties. Later on, they would be trapped in a political predicament from which there would be no escape. The people have the right to know what's going on. The people have to exert pressure as well to know. The outcome that would be announced to the public as "election results" may not please the people. It may not resolve the crisis as well. The government's tight control over the media, and the dissemination of news reports by acts of omission and commission constitute a real political danger. Undistorted facts must come to the fore of public attention; we've to discuss and the people have to make their own informed decisions.

Reporter: What's the cause of the differences within CUD?

Lidetu : It's a difference of principles, as far as I'm concerned. There is no transparency. The crisis, as I see it, is taken as an agenda set to please the concern of the international community and not as the Ethiopian people's agenda. The international community has a role to play, and that's true. The role, however, should base the Ethiopian people's agenda, not vice versa. The prevalence of the international community's role over the people's agenda may have worsened the crisis. The people are forgotten. The people do not have the means to get factual information. I believe there are conflicting ideas among the opposition. The question of which to prioritize, the question of who should come first, the people or the international community, has been the major cause of our differences.

Reporter: How do you feel as someone who defeated the Education Minister, Ghenet Zewdie?

Lidetu : I don't harbor any feelings that I've beaten the Education Minister. My understanding is the people have discarded the government's education policy.