What does it take to create democratic political institutions in Ethiopia?
By Lemlem Tsegaw | May 27, 2010

"A fundamental aspect of institutional design is how much society chooses to delegate unchecked power to its leaders. If, once elected, a leader cannot be restrained, society runs the risk of a tyranny of the majority, if not the tyranny of a dictator.  …Classical political theorists were well aware of the importance of the trade-off between delegation of power to leaders and the need to control them to avoid tyranny.” Philippe Aghion, et.al (Endogenous Political Institutions, nyn.edu, Quarterly Journal of Economic, 2004).

The primary purpose of this article is twofold:

1)      To raise various questions for all contending Ethiopian political groups, intellectuals, and scholars to ponder and challenge them to take the concerns of the Ethiopian people seriously in building institutions that outlive the governing body; and

2)      To warn the same group that having an election process without a thoughtful, forward-looking political infrastructure in place will result in an ideal Ethiopia remaining simply a dream.

Since 1974, the Ethiopian people have experienced drastic changes due to the nature of governance, which in general exposed them to interethnic conflict, dictatorship, and the often life-threatening hazards of forced immigrant labor.  The current government, opposition political groups, and even bystander individuals often cite the past as a cause for their political headaches, but no measurable solutions for building enduring institutions are clearly articulated.  There are some who argue that “market economy” is the answer.  For instance, Fekadu Bekele asserts:

More or less the situation seems like this, and the Ethiopian people are frustrated by the vulgar nature of the system. They are longing for a system which transforms their lives and make them self-reliant. It is our duty to show the road to true civilization. In this case we have to challenge the neo-liberal economic paradigm which is presented as the only panacea of solving economic and social problems. Over the last 30 years many African countries have been practicing the so-called structural adjustment program of the IMF and the World Bank. None of them could build a dynamic and free economic structure. All countries that have applied this program could not transform the lives of their people. I think this must be a lesson to us. The history of nation building proves that poverty, hunger and underdevelopment cannot be eradicated by market economic instruments, but only through conscious state economic policy. We can eradicate poverty and hunger if we accept this fact and open our mind to new ideas. The experiences of Western Europe after the Second World War, the great efforts of Japan and South Korea are good examples which help us to draw lessons. All these countries could build strong economies not by applying a pure market economic policy but through the combined activities of state intervention and private initiative. (Fekadu Bekele, April 14, 2010, tecolahagos.com) 

There are others who do not dismiss the past as a factor for the objective political conditions but assert that using history as a justification for bad behavior is not correct.  For example, Sisay Asefa argues, “The magnitude of the economic and political problems of post-1974 Ethiopia cannot be equated with the pre-1974 period of Emperor Haile Selassie.  Pre-1974 Ethiopia, in spite of a system of absolute monarchy and a lack of democratic governance,  scored some major achievements both domestically and internationally that the current and future generation of Ethiopians should be proud of and take appropriate lessons”(Sisay Asefa. "Developing Democratic Institutions in Ethiopia: The Challenge of Building Enabling Institutions for Economic Growth and Development, [p. 71-72] muse.jhu.edu/journals/northeast_african_studies/.../10.1.asefa01.html). 

There are others who have a similar outlook.  In order to build the Ethiopia of our future, we need to be cognizant of our past and current history in order to learn to avoid similar mistakes of our predecessors. We need to use history in a creative manner to solve future problems. We should not be held hostages by our history or put in a straitjacket of history. “Tecola Hagos - (repost, April 14, 2010), http://www.tecolahagos.com/

Before raising those challenging questions, defining some terms is needed:

1.        “A political system is one that ensures the maintaining of order and sanity in the society and at the same time makes it possible for some other institutions to also have their grievances and complaints put across in the course of social existence.”

2.        Institutions are structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human collectivity. Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intentions, and with the making and enforcing of rules governing cooperative human behavior. The term "institution" is commonly applied to customs and behavior patterns important to a society, as well as to particular formal organizations of government and public service. As structures and mechanisms of social order among humans, institutions are one of the principal objects of study in the social sciences, including sociology, political science, and economics. Institutions are a central concern for law, the formal mechanism for political rule-making and enforcement” (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_system).

3.        Democracy is a “government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected.”(dictionary.reference.com/browse/democracy)

Given the above definitions as a contextual framework, the following are challenging questions that require dialogue in order to arrive at plausible answers beyond political reactions:

·      Who ought to define and articulate Ethiopian’s shared national vision?

·      What do human rights mean beyond ethnicity and economical status in the context of the objective conditions in Ethiopia?

·      Should development and poverty “eradication” come at the expense of human rights?

·      How does corruption violate individuals human rights, and is it possible to solve corruption without an independent judiciary system?

·      What does it take to create democratic political institutions in Ethiopia given the current regime that does not even uphold its own judicial decision (e.g. the case of Birtukan Mideksa’s visitation rights).

Although the above questions are admittedly loaded, they are crucial to the Ethiopian people in order to resolve their crisis and determine their own destiny.  It is understood among Ethiopians that, since the 2005 election in Ethiopia, a lot of articles and opinions by Ethiopians and friend of Ethiopians have flooded the various media.  However, all seem to be reactions to the current undemocratic political system.  In general, those reactions characterize the current system as follows:

1.      Prevalent of corruption and cronyism

2.      Controlling the means and ways of production

3.      Ethnic monopoly of public institutions and infrastructures, including the media

4.      Mistrust of the ruling party by the majority citizens, apparent tension, and conflicts among various groups

5.      Politically motivated court system


Thus, it is critical that the Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora must decide what they want for a nation beyond tribalism or “ethnic ghetto” (“Ethiopia’s Notorious Campus Wars: Causes, Goals, and Impacts,” Jawar Siraj Mohammed, May 15, 2010).  Furthermore, political dialogue and creating a transparent and democratic political system should not be left to men alone.  The following are necessary to such ends:

1.      A court system that is independent – as a third branch of government must be to avoid being instrumental for political harassment, intimidation, and persecution. 

2.      A free press with the highest professional standards, whose role is to inform (e.g., the case of Awramba Times, Addis Neger, etc, – May 17, 2010, Ethiomedia.com), educate the citizens, and challenge the governing body when it threatens the human rights of its citizens.  

3.      Public education must address the importance of telling the truth, self respect, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and challenging each other with a pen rather than with the barrel of the gun.

4.      Dialogue between all political groups to present alternative approaches to deal with differences, either using the South African truth and reconciliation model or other conflict resolution methods.

5.      Women’s issues must be addressed simultaneously and not postponed until a given political group comes to power.  Women also must take the initiative to articulate their issues and raise their children to think differently in areas of anger management, conflict resolution, self respect, treating women, and how to coexist with those whom they dislike or disagree.

Those who want to take a leadership role in Ethiopian politics must understand that they cannot govern a society without providing emotional, financial and physical safety to all citizens.  Furthermore, those who aspire to be leaders must demonstrate by their deeds and words the democratic principles.  Additionally they must be cognizant that people without enough food to eat do not have the energy to dialogue or even dream about democracy. 

To conclude, my wish for the Ethiopian citizen is that, for them to have equal opportunity to be educated, be free from poverty, governed by their elected representatives without duress, and be adjudicated by independent and impartial court.

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