Ana Gomes is coordinator and spokesperson of the foreign affairs committee for her political group, the Social-Democrat. With 200 members the Social-Democrat is the second largest group within the European Parliament. For Ethiopia and Ethiopians though Ana Gomes is best remembered for her role as the leader of the EU election observers’ team during the 2005 crisis-induced general election in Ethiopia. She has had a troubled relationship with Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who she still calls “a dictator,” after she published her report in which wrote the election was massively rigged. Eight years later, Ana Gomes came to Ethiopia to participate in the just concluded 26th ACP-EU parliamentary meeting. Her arrival in Addis Ababa caught many, who thought she would never be allowed to set foot in Ethiopia, by a surprise. Addis Standard’s deputy-editor-in-chief Tesfaye Ejigu met Ana Gomes during the meeting and held an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
AS - Your question to the development commissioner Andris Piebalgs was on Ethio-Djibouti road project funded by the EU. The commissioner replied EU no longer funds road projects in Ethiopia because construction work is given to companies without auction or given to friendly companies. What happened to the Ethio-Djibouti road project at the end?
Ana- Gomes - I don’t know if it was the auction. I raised the issue because some very concerned European friends told me about that because there is a lot of money from the European taxpayers which was supposed to be directed to development that was diverted. I only talked about the road. But I just confirmed with the EU commission representative that it’s indeed two contracts; one, a railway between Addis Ababa and Djibouti; the EU funding was around 45 million Euros, and two, 50 water tunnels project, by the same company worth 20 million Euros. The company was an Italian company called CONSTAT. That company adds Ethiopian Contractors/subcontractors. Obviously it was chosen by the ministry of finance with EU agreement. It’s a project that has gone very wrong because nothing has been achieved, and the money has been deviated. EU has started investigation, arbitration is going on; it also involved your government. And support has been cancelled. They are apparently trying to recover the money from the company. But the money has gone, so the investigation goes on. I was promised for the details by the European commission. It doesn’t mention road. It’s a bit weird however that the EU development commissioner mentioned road construction. And the EU signing new agreement to fund road projects in Ethiopia is contradictory. I think it’s important to clarify all these contradictions for the sake of taxpayers in Europe and also for the Ethiopian people. I am heartened by the fact that PM Hailemariam [Desalegn] has started taking measures even against the high officials who are involved in corruption. So I have to find out. In fighting corruption the main element is transparency. So this element has to be put out for the people to know. There are some things to be checked.
AS - EU funded hydropower project-Gilgel gibe 3 was given without auction to Salini Construction, an Italian company. A few months after it went operational part of it caved in and was closed. The EU criticized openly the handing out of the construction without auction. But it didn’t decide not to fund hydropower projects.
Ana Gomes - I am very interested to learn about that. I need to note down that information. I will find out about it and ask the EU. I am glad you asked this. I have not been able to follow in detail all this development processes because I was not in the EU development committee.
AS - ACP-EU joint parliamentary assembly has democratic agenda. The speaker of the house of people’s representative of Ethiopia Abadula Gemeda said, “we have achieved a lot in building democracy, peace and good governance.” Do you buy that? Do you think a lot has been achieve?
Ana Gomes - No! In many respect I see a lot of the old ways. Meles was an expert in using jargons such as good governance, the rule of law, democracy, sustainable development, but in practice doing just the opposite. It was a smart leadership which uses politically correct languages for Europeans and Americans consumption. But the practice was really oppressive. What I saw during Meles Zenawi was a dictatorship. I have lived in dictatorship in my own country. I believe this persists in the mind set of many authorities.
But at the same time, I realize there is indeed some opening, some realization [that] Ethiopia can’t continue this way. Ethiopia needs change. Even some of the people who have that politically correct speech that everything has been achieved in Ethiopia in public, in private conversation with me they acknowledged that Ethiopia needs change, and that it is the time to really promote important, drastic changes. In that sense I welcome the move that the PM Hailemariam has initiated the prosecution of high officials, even a minister charged with corruption. I hope this will be the first step in the right direction. At the debate we were discussing the independence of the judiciary. I used the debate to say that Judicial Independence doesn’t exist in Ethiopia, although it’s stated. I recalled the judges who flee the country in 2005 because they refuse to tamper with the conclusion on the inquiry about the massacre in 2005. They were pressed by the [late] PM and the government to do that. These were very courageous people who put all their lives and their families [at risk]. I also highlighted that trials of all political prisoners but in particular journalists Eskinder Nega, Wubeshet Taye, Riyot Alemu and others like DebebeEshetu; [political] leaders Andualem Arage e.t.c. were not fair; all the people [including] Europeans who were able to be present at some of these trials said they [the prosecutors] never produced any significant evidence against them and indeed the trials were not fair. So I hope I have made this appeal today here.
AS - But they faced terrorism charges…?
These terrorist charges are not credible, so I appeal for their liberation in the spirit of openness. You have now a sort of dual register. In public it said one thing in private it acknowledges that Ethiopia must change. Or Ethiopia needs support to change. In that context, indeed bold decisions should be taken to liberate these people, because some of these people are icons of the younger generation. Very educated, qualified generation which Ethiopia needs to develop itself. I receive a mail, a standard letter everyday from an Ethiopian who manages to flee the country and who is somewhere in Kenya, Uganda ….Nigeria asking me to write a letter to the UNHCR saying they need political asylum. So I know Ethiopia looses the best, most qualified generation not only because of lack of jobs but because there is politically closed environment with which these young qualified people cannot live. I know Ethiopia faces serious terrorist threat as we all do, Ethiopia in particular because of the neighborhood and the tension that has been built up by Meles Zenawi between Muslims and Christians inside Ethiopia which was not an issue in 2005 but in the meantime became a big source of concern. If the government continues the old ways repressing this bright, younger people who are now connected to the world in a way the regime cannot control them via the twitter, and facebook, and so on. Obviously many of these young people will be driven into the hands of radicals and extremists. Even to be recruited by terrorists. It is what we see happening in other countries in the region. So, it is very important to open up democratically for the security of the country.
AS - in 2015 Ethiopia will hold a general election. Do you think it will be democratic, free and fair given the situation now?
Ana Gomes - I don’t know, but I hope it could be good. Meles died, he was the source of the repression;his own supporting group are divided. They are fighting with each other. There is indeed an opportunity to see Ethiopia change progressively, peacefully. Nobody wants to see Ethiopia destabilized. But to create the conditions for the election to be held democratically it requires the opposition to be allowed to operate, which is not the case in the moment. In the moment you have only one member of the opposition [in the parliament]. I recall in 2005 at least there were some results that were not disputed. And these are the results of Addis Ababa where all the 23 seats went in a shocking landslide victory to the opposition. Well, where are these people? In exile.
They say the opposition is weak, of course it is weak. “it is weak, it is fragmented, it is not loyal…” are the same kind of things that I used to hear in 2005 from Meles Zenawi. But any opposition in that condition in any country would be weak. In my own country do you think the opposition in the days of the dictator was stronger? No! Most of it was underground. In order to have the conditions to operate I believe it is important to allow the opposition to operate, not just those inside the country but also those forced into exile. They need guarantee to operate. There is no media freedom, only an opening seen. I read the Ethiopian herald and it’s all the same thing only better because PM Meles Zenawi is not writing now. There is no condition for NGOs or civil societies to operate. I believe EU will not accept to come back and observe election and give its temp of credibility unless basic elements are met; such as liberating political prisoners or allowing the judiciary to operate independently.
AS - “Europe could definitely make the difference for democracy in Ethiopia. Instead, current European leaders are choosing to fail it. In doing so they are not just failing Ethiopians. They are also failing Europe.” This is taken from a letter you wrote to AP. By this do you mean Europeans aren’t trustworthy? They don’t like democracy to thrive in Ethiopia?
Ana Gomes - No! European citizens, European taxpayers, European Parliamentarians care about Ethiopia, democracy, development in Ethiopia, the efficiency of development assistance but the problem is they don’t know what happens in Ethiopia. They are fooled by the leaders; leaders in the council of ministers and in the European commission. And also the development industry prevailing should continue without trouble. That is their vested interest. The tragedy is many people don’t understand what is happening in Ethiopia. I was very happy that finally EU human rights sub-committee came last July. They are very serious, knowledgeable colleagues of mine. It was eye opener. They asked to visit Kalite Prison and the PM allowed them but was rudely treated by the Prison administration. That is an eye opener.
AS - EU and Ethiopia are development partners today as well as then. When you were not on good terms with the regime in 2005 did EU stand by your side?
Ana Gomes - The then commissioner in charge of foreign affairs and human rights stood by me always. She was not from my party but very serious. I appreciated. But the then development commissioner Mr. Louis Michel didn’t support me. Some people from his services in Brussels even tried to rewrite my report to water it down. I didn’t accept that. Several moments, my views were attacked. They supported the campaign against me which the government of MelesZ enawi spread. But Meles has gone! This is a new timing. I am pleased I was granted visa without preconditions.
AS - You were lobbying with the EU member states accusing the Ethiopian government of violating human rights. Do you think the situation has improved now?
Ana Gomes - I know it was not easy for the new PM to assert his role as PM. I know there was a lot of internal fighting within the power. He is not a Tigrian. I value the visa I was given. I value the move against corruption. I sense some change.
AS - I saw you with the speaker of the house of people’s representative, AbadulaGemeda and Ambassador Teshome Toga. You had lunch with them may be. But you were not on good terms with them?
Ana Gomes - There was nothing personal; even with Meles Zenawi. Even these professionals who were instrumental, I have nothing personal against them. I don’t pretend to know well this country. Ethiopian people really marveled me. Ethiopia has a great resonance in my country. My ancestors 500 years ago were looking for Prester John. However, Ethiopia has a magical resonance in my childhood. Ethiopia is special. Ethiopia is a civilization; not any country. It is a civilization.
AS – You said “the EU is not only misusing European taxpayer’s money, but supporting an illegitimate status-quo, letting down all those who fight for justice and democracy and increasing the potential for conflict in Ethiopia and Africa.” But conflict in Ethiopia rises sometimes due to terrorist threats. Do you agree?
Ana Gomes - Not only the Muslim-Christian conflict Meles Zenawi fueled by trying to interfere in the Muslim community leadership but also in Ogaden. All the report we receive in the EU are disastrous, horrendous and I am very sorry to see the Ethiopian army involved in all of that. Terrorism is an excuse; subversion was in the days of the dictatorship in my country. Now the buzzword is terrorism. It serves to excuse, and to erase any rules, principles and values. I don’t accept it. I am very conscience of the terrorist threat. It is strong democratic societies who are better empowered to fight terrorism, not those with high level of poverty, unemployment and of internal conflict. That is the situation in Ethiopia now. I hope this can be sorted out.
AS - “Western leaders resist speaking up against Zenawi’s regime by invoking stability interests. Besides attempting to depict Ethiopia as a success story of development assistance, EU and the US like to portray their ‘aid darling’ as a partner in the fight against terrorism and a crucial actor for stability in the horn Africa,” do you still believe in this statement of yours?
Ana Gomes - I hope Ethiopian people will be able to make the distinction between this bankrupt leadership in Europe which brought us into the big economic crises which is also political crises and the people of Europe who really are serious about democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
AS - Do you think the EU and the USA still see the regime as a partner and a crucial actor for stability or do you see any change in their position?
Ana Gomes - I think they do. But on the other hand they also appreciate the limits of that partnership in the sense that they understand the big tensions that have been developing in Ethiopia and in the region; namely lack of effectiveness in fighting terrorism and deterring terrorism to infiltrate. I think the Americans understand it better.
Within the Obama administration there is a realization that you cannot have security without real development, not fake development and numbers but without democracy. The Americans were much more effective in getting people out of jail. The American’s pressure had political prisoners freed; opposition leaders and Birtukan Medeksa and others. They realized these three elements are linked, although they have their own flout in fighting terrorism. I was told the new American ambassador to Ethiopia is outspoken about human rights. I hope it translates into a more principled approach on the part of the Obama administration.
AS – a lot of Ethiopians respect you. They gave you an Ethiopian name. Ethiopians like honesty. Are you aware of your name? Do you know what it means?
Ana Gomes - Yes! I am aware of it. Ethiopian friends told me about it. They told me “Ana Gobeze” I am flattered, I don’t deserve it. They told me that ‘Gobez’ means brave. I have been happy meeting Ethiopian community in different countries and also received fantastic ‘Kaba’ as a gift from Ethiopians inSweden.