Interview with Eskinder Nega, Leader of Addis Ababa Baladera Council

By Staff Reporter

Eskinder-Nega-Baladera-CouncilNovember 11, 2019 ( -- Eskinder Nega, born in 1968, is an Ethiopian journalist and a blogger based in Addis Ababa. He is known for founding the Addis Ababa Baladera Council, an organization meant to protect Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, from special claims and interests by regional parties.

Eskinder Nega has a long history of activism protesting the Ethiopian government as far back as 1993 when he founded his first newspaper called Ethiopis. Since then, Eskinder has been in the crosshairs of the Ethiopian government, and he has been in and out of prison numerous times.

Since 2005, Eskinder has been jailed eight times. As editor of the newspaper called Satenaw, he was arrested on November 28, 2005, following demonstrations against the results of the Ethiopian general elections held that year. Eskinder Nega was charged with treason and sent to Karchele prison, which human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, characterized as politically-motivated. Eskinder Nega was found guilty and served seventeen months in prison before he was pardoned in 2007. He lost his license to practice journalism that year and his newspaper was closed.

On September 14, 2011, Eskinder Nega was arrested again along with four other politicians after publishing online criticizing the Ethiopian government for the continued detention of journalists. He and his co-defendants, including Andualem Aragie, who is currently Deputy Leader of Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, were charged with involvement in terrorist organizations, including Ginbot 7, and found guilty on January 23, 2012. Eskinder Nega was subsequently sentenced to 18 years in prison, a sentence which a United Nations panel found a violation of international law in 2013.

He was freed on February 14, 2018, along with several other political prisoners, as part of political reform measures taken by the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed.

Eskinder Nega was born to foreign-educated parents - his father from Rutgers University in the USA, and his mother from the American University of Beirut. His parents eventually divorced, leaving Eskinder to continue living with his mother while attending Sanford School in Addis Ababa. Eskinder then went to the United States in the 1980s where he attended high school and then studied economics at American University in Washington DC.

Eskinder returned to Ethiopia in 1991 after the Derg regime was ousted by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forces.

Often described as 'tenacious,' 'tireless' and 'fearless', the Ethiopian journalist and activist Eskinder Nega has been recognized for his work by several global organizations, including receiving four awards since 2012, the latest being the 2018 Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for his writings despite the consequences.

Ezega News interviewed Eskinder Nega recently to talk about his work, his dreams for Ethiopia, press freedom in Ethiopia, his activities as leader of the Addis Ababa Baladera Council, and his opposition to ethnic politics in Ethiopia.

Ezega News: Journalist Eskinder Nega, thank you for taking the time to interview with us. Let’s start with what inspired you to become a writer and journalist.

Eskinder Nega: After I returned to my country from many years of living in the USA, I noticed the exposure I had and the freedom I experienced was nowhere to be found here in Ethiopia. People were living in this country under a system of oppression and fear. I wanted my country and my people to have the same freedom and opportunity I had in the USA. My exposure to other democratic countries inspired me to speak for the need to have basic rights in Ethiopia. And this is what made me join the journalism profession.

Ezega News: Through your writings, you have been struggling against the EPRDF rule in Ethiopia before Dr. Abiy Ahmed came to power and you are still critical of the current leadership and its reform plans. What were your expectations?

Eskinder Nega: Following the changes that brought Dr. Abiy Ahmed to power, the Ethiopian government said a transitional government was needed to take the country on a path to democracy by instituting the necessary political reforms to remedy the damage done by two decades of divisive and discriminatory policies of the previous EPRDF government dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). However, as it turned out, the transition has been a change from the TPLF-dominated government to Oromo Democratic Party (ODP)-dominated government.

I believe justice and democracy has been hijacked by radicals from within the ruling coalition and from outside. It did not take long for the government to renege on its promise made to the Ethiopian people.

Real transition cannot come by continuing tribal politics. We must remove all the impediments put in place by successive oppressive regimes to open the road to true democracy. The way I see it, the reforms that started last year by Dr. Abiy Ahmed has not changed the true nature of the government in Ethiopia – the ethnic-based leadership in Ethiopia.

Ezega News: How do you view the release of the political prisoners, the return of exiles, and the greater engagements of political parties in the country’s politics?

Eskinder Nega: The Ethiopian people have been struggling to bring change and the government had no choice but to bring a bit of change to avoid further protests and perhaps a revolution. The people of Ethiopia have had enough of the government’s misguided, divisive, and cruel policies. All indications are that the majority of Ethiopians want change. If this regime continues to ignore the grievances of the people, it will only increase their resolve to seek change, possibly by violent means as it happened last year. I fear this may happen in the coming years.

Of course, the government had to release political prisoners and call political exiles back home and allow them to open offices. However, once the dust settled, things went back to the same old repressive system that existed for more than two decades.

Speaking of governmental bodies, there is no properly functioning judiciary system in Ethiopia. There are inconsistencies in the country’s legal framework. We have not seen concrete reforms within the Ethiopian legal and judicial system. This must change.

Throughout this process, regional governments have become more assertive and strengthened their autonomy, which I believe poses a grave danger to the continued existence of the central government. The federal administration is now struggling to assert its power over all regions. In this environment, it is very hard to have free and fair elections in the country. Police forces are not free to act as police officers. The realization of freedom of expression is increasingly becoming questionable. Overall, the system is failing to implement its basic functions. That’s why I said the transition isn’t really a transition, but a shift from one dominant group to another.

Ezega News: The Broadcast Authority of Ethiopia has recently accused the media of posing a danger to the stability of the country. As an owner of a media house yourself, what is your take on that statement?

Eskinder Nega: Both anti-Democratic as well as pro-democracy groups have been using their media outlets to disseminate their views. In this regard, there are some anti-democratic personalities and groups who are on dangerous paths and disseminating divisive and hateful propaganda. These groups are using the media to spread anti-democratic views, whether they are strategic or not, to further their agendas. However, in my capacity as a journalist and as one of the voices of the people, I would only reflect the interests of the people and promote democratic views. I believe many media outlets are also doing the same, reporting real news, the good and the bad.

Ezega News: What is your reflection on the upcoming Ethiopian general elections?

Eskinder Nega: If the elections are held free and fair, I believe EPRDF shouldn’t continue ruling Ethiopia following the elections. In particular, Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, should have an independent government that protects its interests following the elections. I believe we must struggle to realize that outcome.

Ezega News: There are many critics who question the need for a federal system in Ethiopia. What system do you believe is best suitable for Ethiopia?

Eskinder Nega: Ethnic federalism has proved to be a venomous project designed to weaken and disintegrate the country gradually into smaller states as we have witnessed over the past quarter of a century. Since the EPRDF took control of Ethiopia and implemented ethnic federalism, the country’s unity and territorial integrity has been seriously threatened and hatred and mistrust among various ethnics groups has grown.

Before going deep into any structure, there is a need to craft a national framework and answer every question around sustainability mechanisms for our country’s sake.

There is no unique democracy for our part of the world. I believe democracy is the same everywhere. What matters is the way we use an established mechanism to ensure we have democracy. In this regard, we should not try to create a new political philosophy without a strong ground for it; that will lead to institutional failure. We should focus more on spreading democratic norms and stabilize the structure within the existing principles of democracy, rather than making the country a research ground for new political philosophies. This has already cost us a lot in the past.

Ezega News: What are your plans as a journalist and as the leader of the Addis Ababa Baladera Council?

Eskinder Nega: Ethiopians have paid a heavy price and sacrificed a lot. However, they continue to be mistreated by officials and anti-democratic forces. Therefore, as a journalist, I hope to be one of the voices of the people.

As a leader of the Addis Ababa Baladera Council, I will follow up on issues affecting Addis Ababa, including attempts to alter the social and cultural identity of this Ethiopia’s most multicultural city. I will continue to speak about the violations of human rights in the city by those claiming special rights over Addis Ababa, a capital city that belongs to all Ethiopians and is the seat of the central government and that of the African Union.

Ezega News: Thank you for your time with Ezega News.

Eskinder Nega: My pleasure. Thank you for your time and interest in our movement.

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