The future of democracy in Ethiopia
By Yohannes Berhe | July 19, 2012

Recently, reports have been floating about the ill health of dictator Zenawi. There is, of course, a strong element of wishful thinking attached to the rumours a reflection how reviled the regime is. Emotions aside, however, the situation calls for a sober assessment of our current situation and what is to come should a sudden change of event occur in Ethiopia. In my previous commentary -- Are we condemned to repeat history? -- I lamented the lack of purposeful and coherent leadership that will guide the country through the all-important transitional period.

The “Arab Spring” that signaled the emergence of democracy in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and a number of Middle Eastern countries currently faces severe challenges. It seems overthrowing a dictatorship is much easier than building a functioning democracy and a stable society to replace it. The main reason is, of course, the absence of a democratic culture.

In order to mold an obedient and docile citizenry, a totalitarian political system encourages a culture of passivity and apathy, therefore purposefully discourage free thought and suppress the emergence of various institutions -political parties, civic associations that would have created a culture of civil participation and with it the practice of peaceful negotiation and compromise.

In the case of Ethiopia, the regime deliberately sowed the seeds of hatred and paranoia, and discouraged any active civic participation in public life as well as dissent. Therefore a carefully crafted transitional plan is of paramount importance.

If we want to avoid past mistakes in our history and chart a path to a prosperous and peaceful future for our embattled country, there are several factors we should consider

Election is not an instant panacea

Elections are the inescapable sin qua non of democracy and a key component of legitimate power, but without democratic institutions prior to and after elections to operate, elections will only produce the shell of democracy without the benefits of a truly accountable government. As we have seen in many institutionally weak countries elections have the potential to compound the existing problem and create a fertile ground for an increasingly disillusioned population that will opt for stability over more decisive democratic changes. The graveyard of history is full of betrayed revolutions and democratic aspiration by clever demagogue spouting populist rhetoric, while forging new dictatorships. That is what we witness in almost all postcolonial regimes in Africa, Asia and Middle East. Even in the Western World where constitutional liberalism is a deeply rooted tradition to protect the individual from coercive powers of the state, populist rhetoric can be appealing. After all, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany via free elections. Close to home, who doesn’t remember the accolades and even kisses bestowed upon Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam by none other than the hyperactive and progressive students of Addis Ababa University, who would later on become his primary target for elimination?

An election without the safeguard of the basic “rules of the game” and firmly entrenched democratic institution (i.e. independent judiciary, free press, civic groups, etc.) does not produce a lasting result. To get elected, populist candidates appeal on instincts and emotions. And, the easiest emotions to address are those of envy and hate.

Populist candidates typically present clear pictures of the “enemies”. They often are elected on the basis of what they oppose, not of what they support. Such agendas typically false are not in the best interest of those governed because the assumption is always that only others will suffer from the hate policies, and that the individual supporter of a populist will not be affected. This indeed is a dangerous error, because governments that are popular because of their opposition to certain "enemies" of society develop their own momentum. When they get rid of one enemy, they will need another and sooner or later even the initial supporters of a populist will suffer. No one can deny the current situation in Ethiopia is emotionally charged-a fertile ground for hatred and manipulators. Therefore, coming up with a creative solution to deal with this quagmire is a tall order.

The ethnic factor

TPLF started as a parochial struggle for the liberation of Tigray, not as a broad based movement with a vision for a complex nation such as Ethiopia. It had neither the capability nor the foresight to administrate the country. Therefore, resorting to populist rhetoric is the predictable outcome. Initially the bogeymen to blame were the Amhara. They were the easy target, but it didn’t stop there: the Gurage, the Eriterean, etc. were further stigmatized to secure power. This foray of TPLF exclusionary politics finally resulted in the creation of ethnic enclave or Kilil. This policy has been in place for the last 20 years. During this period boundaries have been redrawn and resources reallocated in an arbitrary manner; mainly, to reward its allies and punish the “enemies”. Most of all the policy has created an entrenched view of identity and entitlement, not to mention suspicion and hatred among the various groups.  The fact that the high echelon of power is held by TPLF loyalists adds another layer of complexity and puts Tigrigna speaking population in an unviable position of being seen as beneficiary of largesse at the expense of other group despite their minority status, or even worst being a collaborator of an unpopular regime. Whether these are true or not is irrelevant once the genie of ethnic hatred is out of the bottle. Moreover, Melese and his cohorts have done everything, but dispel this suspicion. In fact they actively fanned the hatred and created insecurity among the Tigrigna speaking population.

Sociologist Charles Tilly makes a compelling analogy between the authoritarian regime and a racketeer. He defines racketeer as someone who creates a threat and then charges for its reduction in order to gain control and consolidate power. In this regard,  the Melese regime differ little from racketeers, to the extent that the threat against which they claim to protect the Tigrigna speaking population are mainly the consequence of their own action, and in some cases imaginary.

The military

The regime has consolidated its power through ethnically defined institutions as well as from interlinked set of TPLF-affiliated businesses. The pervasive control of the economy has enabled the regime to extract loyalty by threatening to deny service or public-sector jobs to its opponents, or simply using violence as a means of coercion. Similarly, the military has been organized along ethnic lines. While the lower levels of the military are multiethnic, its top officers are overwhelmingly members of TPLF; according to Center for Strategic & International Studies (2011) “As many as 58 of the top 61 officers are members of the TPLF”.  Organizing the army along ethnical lines deprives the country a national army with a unified national character needed to confront its numerous security threats. Indeed, it’s a callous disregard for the security of the country and treason of very high order unparalleled in the nation’s history. Despite much touted military strength of the regime, the centre dominated by TPLF is holding only because of the mixture of threat and largesse. If there is a crisis, however, the military might unravel and breakup into ethnic factions allowing the regional power brokers to strengthen their position in various regions, a dynamics that might put the unity of the Ethiopian state at risk.

Regional factors

Ethiopia is Africa’s second largest populated country and a significant player in a region where political instability, civil strife and interstate conflict have been defining features over the last few decades. Any change in the Ethiopian political landscape will be viewed in the region at best with apprehension and at worst with suspicion. The most troublesome borders might be the ones with Eritrea and Somalia. Eritrea and Ethiopia are still technically at war (having never signed a peace treaty after the 2000 war). Any political changes in Ethiopia would be closely followed by Asmara, and potential miscalculation on either side is real. As for Somalia, there has been no effective government since 1991, the threat is more an Eritrean proxy war through ONLF or an OLF sprinter group to weaken Ethiopia or exert some influence in the ensuing power struggle.

On the positive side, Ethiopia occupies an important position in the volatile and strategically important Horn of Africa. It has used its position to its advantage, offering its assistance as a security partner with the West.  As a result, the West –mainly the United States- has a stake in seeing the country united and stable. It’s a trump card that can be used to leverage diplomatic as well as sorely needed financial assistance.

The opposition

The spaces for dissenting voices and alternative views have effectively been closed. Those who have challenged the regime have been harassed, killed, forced into exile, and had their property seized and jobs taken away. Barring some dissenting voice here and there, the latest by Ethiopian Muslim, well organized domestic opposition is virtually non-existent. Disengagement and cynicism have for now replaced the remarkably energetic participation witness during the 2005 election. This apparent capitulation, however, may be pragmatic and tactical retreat. It could evaporate quickly if the regime’s power seems to be weakening. The diaspora community on the other hand, has been growing steadily more vocal. In spite of its clout and potential resources at its disposal, however, has yet to make inroads in influencing events in Ethiopia. The movement (if it can be called such) has to evolve beyond protest and present an authentic political agenda. By this I don’t mean an agenda to assume power. Diaspora communities tend to adopt more extreme positions to compensate for being removed from the realities at home. Instead, the challenge for the Diaspora, as John Holloway once put it, is to “change the world without taking power”. That is, to build and strengthen the alternative institutions of democracy, such as human right organization, media, civil society. Institutions providing the foundation for liberal democracy and are defined by their own autonomy. 

Humanitarian concern

Ethiopia has been the largest recipient of foreign aid for the last twenty years. Most of it is in the form of food aid. Despite the massive injection of aid, food security in Ethiopia has been an elusive goal. At any one time upwards of four million people are affected by famine or food shortage. If the country becomes unstable, the situation can easily degenerate into serious humanitarian crisis with potential for civil strife spreading in large areas of the country.

Ethiopia is a complex country in a complex region where an intolerance of dissent and acrimonious issues are deeply rooted in its history. Despite a history marred by tragedy and injustice, the country has projected the outward appearance of deceptively calm nation relative    to the rest of Africa. This might have created a sense of complacency and a belief the country will once again emerge from the current crises with its unity intact. I would love to be proven wrong, however, this time around the circumstances and the difficulty facing the country are much more pernicious and  its effects can be far-reaching and with sweeping consequences. This is not to say we have no control on our future, on the contrary we have all the resources required to shape our future. In fact, as I will argue in my follow-up commentary, albeit its risks, our recent past might even present us a unique opportunity to forge a union based on equality and respect for each other.  

In this commentary, I tried to touch on some of the issue we should consider in the event the situation in Ethiopia changes drastically. It’s not, by all account, an exhaustive list of issues the country could face. My aim is quite modest –to elicit discussion and remind us anew that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

In my follow-up (Part II) commentary I will try to suggest some solutions that might be considered to tackle the various issues herein presented.

Based in Ottawa, Canada, the writer can be reached at - An African-American news and views website.
Copyright 2012