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Opposition party elects new leader

Gizachew Shiferaw

Ethiopia’s largest but struggling opposition party, the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), elected Gizachew Shiferaw, 59, as its leader, as the country builds up to an election scheduled for next year.
At meeting held last week here in Addis, the new party chief replaced Negasso Gidada, former president of Ethiopia, who served as president the UDJ for the past three years.
Gizachew beat three other candidates to the position in a poll of party members, even though Girma Seifu, the only opposition member of parliament, made a campaign on social media indicating that he would be a strong contender to win the party’s nomination.
Saying that decision has yet to be made over whether to boycott upcoming elections or not, the new party president promised to work on the proposed merger between the UDJ and other political parties such as Semaywi (Blue Party) and the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP).
Gizachew, an engineer by training and an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the Addis Ababa University, is a low-key politician who doesn’t enjoy grassroots support. Fans say that Gizachew has demonstrated a commitment to some basic principles that may inform his current role. Foremost among them are a belief in the power of diplomacy to persuade one’s adversaries, and his resoltion to stay in his country amid harassment by security forces, and lambast in the pro-government media.
Others are disappointed that UDJ leaders failed to choose a more dynamic and high profile personality to represent the party in bid to bring a power change after more than two decades of consistent rule by one party. Gizachew’s lack of charisma notwithstanding, many of Ethiopia’s pro-democracy activists resent that he is someone with a reputation for conciliation. Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, a long-time human rights campaigner and the party sympathizer, said he was “extraordinarily disappointed” in Gizachew’s election. He couldn’t make out how the party leaders voted for someone who has brought down the party in previous years, he wrote on his Facebook page.
Gizachew already served as vice president of the party under the presidency of Birtukan Midekesa. The UDJ was formed after the dissolution of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), which had been the main opposition alliance in Ethiopia. The UDJ’s first chairperson, Birtuakn, had been the chairperson of the CUD.
In a related story, Negasso Gidada, has resigned from the UDJ party on January 8 because of “health problems”. The former president of Ethiopia and the UDJ chief handed his resignation to the party, hours after the assembly had voted in the new president.
The 71-year-old politician took over the party leadership in the 2011 election, two years after he joined the party with another veteran politician and former TPLF fighter Seeye Abraha. Today Negasso said he was forced to take early retirement because of deteriorating health condition. He would stay completely neutral, though saying that he would not withdraw from politics completely.
“I will watch the politics of this country closely and will continue expressing my opinions through different mediums,” he said.
Negasso clashed repeatedly with other members of UDJ over decision to join Medrek coalition, made up of six political parties and several times threatened to resign when he felt circumvented, according to sources.
It was said that Negasso wanted the UDJ to continue within Medrek as a separate organization, but other members of the UDJ requested total unity, especially the cabinet led by the new president Gizachew Shiferaw.
Negasso, who holds a doctorate in social history from the Goethe University in Frankfurt-am-Main, has been involved in Ethiopian politics for 45 years, and has represented many parties throughout his career. He was minister of information in the transitional government and the president of Ethiopia from 1995 until 2001.
Ethiopia boasts a fastest-growing economy but the government is often accused of using state institutions to stifle dissent and silence political opposition. Opposition leaders are also criticized for being elites who cannot be bothered to too much time to forming and re-forming myriad small parties rather than joining forces in a few large ones.
(photo courtesy of the Reporter)

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