Q&A: ‘Power in Ethiopia to come through voting, not violence’

Samia Zekaria, Ethiopian ambassador to Qatar, discusses recent instability, human rights and regional mediating efforts.

Ethiopia ambassador
Ambassador Samia Zekaria, Ethiopian Ambassador to Qatar [Al Jazeera]

A failed coup bid last weekend in Ethiopia’s Amhara region was orchestrated by people seeking to forcefully seize power against the will of the population, the Ethiopian ambassador to Qatar has said, adding that the situation has now returned to normal.

In an interview with Al Jazeera this week, Samia Zekaria said the attempted power grab “came completely unexpectedly given the ongoing political and democratic reforms” undertaken by the government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since he came to power in April last year.

Ethiopia‘s government accused General Asamnew Tsige of masterminding two separate attacks on June 22 in Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa that killed several people, including the president of the Amhara region and the national army’s chief of staff. The government referred to the killings in Amhara as an attempted coup. Asamnew was shot dead on Monday by security forces.

Al Jazeera spoke to Zekaria, who assumed the position of Ethiopia’s ambassador in Qatar in February, about the recent instability in Ethiopia, the state of human rights in the country and its mediating efforts in neighbouring Sudan. The interview below has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Al Jazeera: What is the current mood in the country following last weekend’s events?

Samia Zekaria: The people of Ethiopia want peace. The coup attempt came completely unexpectedly given the ongoing political and democratic reforms undertaken by the government.

It is a national tragedy. People are condemning what has happened all across the country. Power in Ethiopia will come through the ballot box, not through violence.

Al Jazeera: Many have attributed the recent violence to ethnic tensions. Do you think Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has managed to help defuse ethnic tensions in Ethiopia?

Zekaria: Ethiopia is a country of diversity in terms of religion, language, ethnicity and culture but known for centuries to live together peacefully.

There are more than 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Some have tried to use the differences such as religion and ethnicity to cause trouble and conflict. I believe these tensions will settle down as time goes by.

The recent coup attempt was orchestrated by those who want to acquire power forcefully against the will of the people and in an unconstitutional way. The situation has been normalised now.

Al Jazeera: What does the attempted coup say about the state of human rights in Ethiopia?

Zekaria: Ethiopia today is different from the past in terms of human rights and freedom of speech. There is no reason to kill. Unfortunately, the killing was orchestrated by a former prisoner who was given amnesty by Prime Minster Abiy’s initiative of political and democratic reform. He abused the fact that he was granted amnesty.

Al Jazeera: The prime minister says he is committed to human rights reforms. What is the current state of human rights in Ethiopia?

Zekaria: It must be remembered that before Prime Minister Abiy came to power, the nation was not in a good state.

As soon as he became the prime minister of Ethiopia, the political space opened up, all political parties – both in and out of the country, even including the armed groups, were invited for peaceful political discourse. All political prisoners were freed. Freedom of speech and press is blossoming now. Ethiopia is a country that has no journalist behind bars currently. So, the air of freedom is blowing.

Yes, Prime Minister Abiy is committed on human rights reforms and he is already delivering on that. And democratic and human right reform is a process, isn’t it? Of course, there have [also] been some challenges. Prime Minister Abiy has, after all, been in power only for one year.

Al Jazeera: Ethiopia has acted as mediator in conflicts and upheaval in the region, including in Sudan, South Sudan and Djibouti. Why is Ethiopia playing this role?

Zekaria: Based on Ethiopia’s foreign relations policy, Ethiopia gives priority to ensuring the neighbouring countries’ peace and stability.

In the case of Sudan, it is our immediate neighbour. If your neighbours are not at peace, then you are not at peace. Ethiopia wants to see a stable Sudan. Our position is always one of neutrality. We do not take a position in domestic affairs of sovereign countries. 

Our foreign policy is completely neutral. In fulfilling the role as mediator, Ethiopia is proposing the two sides keep what they have already agreed and tried to bridge their difference. Ethiopia’s peace plan for Sudan has support from the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and other parties.

Source: Al Jazeera