Andualem Aragie was the Vice President and Press Secretary for Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJP) party and he has two children named Nolawi and Ruth from his wife Dr. Selam Aschalew. He was serving a life sentence on terrorism charges and was imprisoned on September 14, 2011. It was his second time in prison. A couple of weeks ago he was pardoned by the government and set free from the prison in Kality.
He argues that the current political protests in the country will stop if discussions occur between the government and other stakeholders both here and abroad. Capital’s Reporter Tesfaye Getnet talked to him at his home about his time in prison and the current situation in Ethiopia.
Capital: What was it like to be in prison for six years?
Andualem Aragie: The years in prison were long and were filled by many ups and downs. It was a harsh environment.
Thanks to God my strong wife properly took care of our two children who had to grow up without a father during the years I stayed in prison. She visited me regularly and brought me food and other things like she did when I was imprisoned for two years for the things I did for UDPJ in the 2005 election.
And my two kids visited me so often by challenging the gravel road that brings you to the prison. The treatment I got in prison was very bad, much worse than my pervious prison life. In ’Meaklwai’ Prison I was put in a dark room in Kality for two and a half years with 18 people who had committed terrible crimes.
The room we were in was small. There were no mattresses we slept on an uneven floor. Soon I developed a problem with my back bone, which is a medical condition where a person feels as if they or the objects around them are moving when they are not. I did not receive the necessary medical treatment for this. Prisoners would often fight which was disturbing. Eventually I was transferred to the so called White House cell for eight months. I was housed with the journalist Eskinder Nega.
Then I was moved to another ground room with no window. My cellmate was Melaku Fenta, the former director of the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority.
I began to experience problems with my mental health. I wrote two books in this room which were sold on the market along with many poems.
Capital: The Government says they are releasing people to help foster sustainable peace what is your opinion about this?
Andualem: I believe that the releasing of prisoners did not come from the will of the government but the pressure of the people. However, it is a positive starting point. I see that the pressure from the mass have been a contributing factor in convincing the government to change some things.
It is a positive start but it is a spark not a full light. There is always a struggle to get a government powered by its people. If a country is not governed based on the will of its people it does not matter if you build roads, railways, apartments or other infrastructure because people are great when they take ownership of their nation. They want to keep their dignity. The recent protests were a testimony that people were asking for their rights. They were asking for democracy. However, I strongly advise people that they should not burn buildings, damage property or act violently when asking for change. With peaceful dialogue radical change can come.
Capital: How did you feel when you found out UDPJ was fragmented?
Andualem: I don’t deny that I felt sorrow. The problem stems from the party’s weakness and outside pressure. However, it is a natural process. We must ask ourselves, however, if the playing field is level. After the 2005 election the government did not mind the opposition until it gained traction. It is a common practice by the government to oppress, jail and disturb when opposition parties get attention. Now, however, many young activists are asking for democracy which makes me happy. Like I have written before if the government does not allow opposition parties to join the public square then people should work without parties and that is what we have seen.
Capital: Do you feel the PM’s recent resignation will make a difference?
Andualem: It is not the first time a PM has resigned. In the late 1960’s Aklilu Habtewold also resigned during the time of Hailelselassie. I don’t know if it will do much or not if you do not make systemic changes you usually end up with the same issues. For example the late PM Meles Zenawi is gone but we have similar problems. We need an inclusive discussion where everyone can participate regardless of their political views.
Capital: What do you think about the state of emergency?
Andualem: It is a paradox for me. The government should open wide discussions with the people to understand the reasons behind the protest, the logic behind the unrest. Without providing a solution applying a state of emergency is moving the people from the dark to another dark place. It is about time to call all stakeholders who are concerned about their country to provide solutions.
Capital: What about the ethnic tensions?
Andualem: In the country there are several parties who want democracy and now they are working together which is very important for Ethiopia. It is very bad to have an ethnic mindset, we must work together for our country. Dictatorship is inhuman but racism is worse. We must fight this kind of barbarism to make a peaceful country. We are not human if we attack somebody based on the languages they speak or the tribe they belong to. When we slaughter an animal there is pity in our heart so attacking people is wrong. One hundred years ago our fore fathers who spoke different languages and came from different areas and fought foreign aggression by uniting themselves and they did not attack each other and after 100 years we who are living in modern times must not attack our brothers and sisters. We should love one another.
Capital: What do you think might happen if the current unrest continues?
Andualem: People want to live a better life with a better system. The government should accept the reality and come up with wise solutions. I am sure that if the government is responsive to people then people will not protest. We have a great opportunity to write the history of Ethiopian democracy.
We had great civilizations in Axum and other fantastic histories in Adwa and Lalibila but we don’t have yet a peaceful power transition and the current government has the opportunity to do that. It is about to do big things like Lemma Megersa who is doing good things for the country and other ruling party leaders should follow his example.
Capital: Why do you think there is no a strong opposition party?
Andualem: Frankly speaking most of the opposition leaders give more priority to self-centered thinking instead of the nation, if we work on a national agenda we can come together but we divide each other and the reason for this is self-centered thinking. We cannot create a strong nation by continuously being divided. We should be inspired by those that have sacrificed before us and do things to benefit the next generation. We should not care about our status as long as we are serving the people.
Capital: Do you think the Diaspora needs to get more involved?
Andualem: We all are working for our country. I appreciate the work of the Diaspora but we need to work together more.
Capital: What do you plan to do now?
Andualem: I spent many years in prison so I don’t have enough information about all the aspects of the country. I want to read books, meet my friends and understand the atmosphere. Then I will announce what I will do for my beloved Ethiopia. I want to spend a lot of time with my children who did not get their father’s love when I was in prison.