The Nick name Abebe Kesto is more popular than his legal name Kinfemicheal Debebe. For the last 26 years he has been working with Ethiopian Democratic Party and the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJP) or Kinjit but before he was arrested six years ago he was actively engaged and lead the All Ethiopian Democracy Party. A week ago he was released from Kality. “Politics, freedom for democracy is my life, I can’t be out of it,” is something he often says. Capital’s Reporter Tesfaye Getnet went to his home to learn more about his prison life and the current Ethiopian political situation.
Capital: What was the last six years in prison like?
Kinfemicheal Debebe: When I was first arrested the security officer took my clothes off in the street near my village. I was ashamed because I did not expect it. It is true we called for a demonstration but the government said they allowed opposition parties to work in here. Then I stayed in a small police station and the charge which was filed against me was that the demonstration we called was not legal. Later, however the charge was changed to terrorism. I went to Maeklawi prison for two months. I was not permitted to see my family or lawyer. I received food from the outside but I did not know who brought me the food. Then I spent the rest of the time in Kality which was filled with many bad situations.
Capital: Do you think releasing prisoners will help the situation?
Kinfemicheal: We got out from prison not because of the good heart of the ruling party but with the pressure from our people that challenged the government’s long rigid stand. If the government had a good heart it would have created a better platform for democracy and freedom of expression instead it narrowed the space. The recent deep reform is a positive step but it does not negate how it has handled opposition parties i.e. intentionally blocking them. Releasing prisoners by itself is not the solution. The government should hold negotiations with opposition parties with a pure heart and come up with a true solution and should listen to people’s questions to make a long lasting peace in Ethiopia. If you see the recent protest, it is not lead by parties, it is led by people who ask for better democracy, justice, economic independence and life situation. The protests should show the opposition parities the importance of working together.
Capital: Some says the fragmented protests across the country should come together in a peaceful way to make change in the democracy building process. How do you see the current protest?
Kinfemicheal: Though the protest came after many economic and political problems it is not well organized. As Lenin said those who are denied justice will organize and the organized will win but in here one protest happens in one region today and the other after one week in another place and this way of doing things makes it difficult to bring change to the country. The struggle should be organized. It should have a leader, plan, strategy and agenda. I see that unlike the 2005 election parties are not leading the current struggle and sometimes I see that ethnic based attacking is occurring in the protest which is dangerous for Ethiopia because it disturbs its peace among the people which has been kept for many years. Some people are forced to move and they end up begging for food and money in their own country. It is painful to see people hurt in one region because of the language they speak, the culture they follow. The fighting between groups or borders goes against our religions and cultures, norms and ethics. We should avoid the tribalism mindset because it is the opium of the society. It is a pain for us for those who struggle, and were arrested and tortured to make good things for Ethiopia.
Capital: How can opposition parties become stronger?
Kinfemicheal: We have to look one thing before we answer the question. Can we blame the parties for all the challenges they face? No, there are outside pressures from the government. Of course a party should overcome inside and outside challenges by properly organizing its members with clear policy guidance. And if it does not do that it is not a party. Working together in the 2005 election with two strong parties made by Kinjit and Hibret was a good start. When I was in jail 33 parties called for a demonstration that was so good but they are not singing together now. I believe that opening a party is not like the commodity you get on the market, it is a big idea to administer a country. I don’t believe in creating a new party every week to fight for democracy. The thing we share is so much bigger than our differences.
To reiterate though we cannot get strong opposition parties if we jail people for being part of the opposition.
Capital: Do you think the new state of emergency will stop the unrest?
Kinfemicheal: The government should negotiate with all the parties that are operating here and abroad and should hold wide public discussions to get better solutions. The government is leading negotiations for South Sudan opposition parties but what about here?
Capital: What about the Diaspora?
Kinfemicheal: I appreciate their help but again we must be united and should fight for change here. For example in the 2005 election the problem came about when local parties were not unified.
Capital: What will your next job be?
Kinfemicheal: Well I want to start a family since I don’t have one and I want to continue to work in a party and help to change my country for a better future.