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Former Ethiopia PM: Labeling me 'dictator' is wrong

Alan MacKenzie
October 23, 2019

​​​​​​​Having resigned after several years of unrest in Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn left behind a questionable human rights record. He tells DW's Conflict Zone he began reforms and wasn't aware of secret prisons.

Äthiopischer Premierminister Hailemariam Desalegn beim Interview mit Reuters in Addis Ababa (Reuters/T. Negeri)
Image: Reuters/File Photo/T. Negeri

Hailemariam Desalegn on Conflict Zone

The former Ethiopian prime minister told DW he could apologize to victims of human rights abuses in the country.

"If there is a need [to], I will," said Desalegn, suggesting this could follow the conclusions of a recently established reconciliation commission, of which he is a member.

Hundreds of protesters were killed in widespread demonstrations beginning in November 2015 and many who were arrested reported being tortured. Opposition politicians were also charged under counterterrorism laws and the government declared a state of emergency in October 2016 that lasted 10 months.

Ethiopia State of Emergency Merkel
Human Rights Watch warned in October 2016 that Ethiopia's state of emergency contained "overly broad and vague provisions" and risked "a human rights crisis"Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Hailemariam told DW's top political interview show Conflict Zone that he had begun the reforms now taken up by his successor and resigned in February 2018 to make way for "deep renewal" in the country.

"I have done my share to bring this change," he said.

When asked about the attorney general's discovery of corruption and abuse, including alleged torture by security services at secret prisons, the former prime minister said he had initiated the investigations that had resulted in 63 arrests nine months after he left office.

"I am ashamed that this happened but I didn't know those things and if I knew those things I would have corrected them," he said.

'You don't utter a word'

Hailemariam said it was his government that admitted there had been human rights abuses and refuted Conflict Zone host Tim Sebastian's contention that he had ignored what was really going on in the country.

The former prime minister said there were "historical issues" that had to be understood: "When there is a communist mentality and there is a Marxist mentality, there is centralism where you don't utter a word after your party decides on issues, even though you have differences."

When asked if this was simply an excuse, Hailemariam said this was incorrect.

"The whole thing is that we believed, in our party and the government, that we need to reform our system, we need to bring about changes and we need to democratize our country."

He denied that his successor was now fixing a broken system that he had left behind and highlighted that the current prime minister was also "there with us."

"Prime Minister Abiy has not come from a blue moon," he said.

Abiy Ahmed, a former science minister who took over from Hailemariam in April 2018, was recently awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his "decisive initiative" over the country's border conflict with Eritrea, though he has not been immune from criticism for authoritarian behavior.

Ethiopians have experienced internet blackouts and messaging services have been blocked, including following an alleged coup attempt in June. Abiy warned at a press conference he would impose such measures "to save lives." The internet was "neither water nor air," he said.

Award-winning premiership?

Hailemariam was awarded Ethiopia's highest medal of honor at his farewell function in 2018 by the new prime minister. Sebastian asked him whether, in light of the human rights abuses he has discovered since leaving office, he should give it back.

"Why should I? Because I have a number of positive things I have done for my country."

'This is rude'

Returning to human rights, Sebastian confronted Hailemariam over alleged abuses under his regime. Had he created a conducive environment for torture and disappearances?

Hailemariam Desalegn, ehemaliger äthiopischer Ministerpräsident
"I made room for this prime minister [Abiy] to act. I struggled very hard to bring him to power," Desalegn told Conflict ZoneImage: DW

"I didn't create this conducive environment for them. It is a deep system, which I was not able to look into because of my background and because […] I am outsider coming into the deep system, so I couldn't see that."

Asked how Africans could protect themselves from dictators like him, Hailemariam rejected Sebastian's description.

"Labeling me 'dictator' is wrong. This is yours. It's not my people's," he said. "This is rude from your side."