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Ethiopia: The prototype democratic state in the making

Conventional wisdom  says that democracy has been a Holy Grail that generations of Africans have been pursuing. And yet, it is very difficult to tell with certainty what African intellectuals and politicians mean by democracy. In the Western social scientific discourse, there are two diametrically opposite conceptions of democracy: the Linconian and the Schumpeterian types of democracy. Abraham Lincoln is known for having defined democracy as a government of the people, by the people, for the people. But a government of the people, by the people, for the people has existed no where in the world. Nor is it likely that it will ever exist in the future. What we have had in the Western world since at least the French Revolution is a Schumpeterian type of democracy, where the role of the people is limited to choosing only between what they are told to choose. The people  don’t have the possibility to  take a political initiative. For example, although America prides itself on being the locus of democratic wisdom, the American people don’t have any choice outside the Democratic and the Republican party. The existence of two dominant parties is not  however a bad thing in itself. The problem is that since the priority of both parties is to serve the capitalist class (i.e. the four hundred thousand richest Americans), no fundamental change can occur in the lives of the broad masses despite the power shift every four or eight years.

Indeed, the Schumpeterian type democracy is a fake one (because it is a rule by an elected oligarchy), but it is also the most inappropriate for Africa. The Schumperterian democracy is a false democracy since, for Joseph Schumpeter, democracy is only a question of procedure and never of substance.

One of the main reasons why the Schumpeterian democracy is inappropriate for Africa is that it is based on the paradigm of homo economicus. The hypothesis of disincarnated Homo economicus assumes that a human person is only interested in the maximization of his personal interests. Homo economicus does not belong to a tribe, to a linguistic, religious or cultural group. He does not have a regional or a national identity. He is devoid of any patriotic feeling since he does not belong to any nation. He does not obey divine will for he does not believe in the existence of God. Being autonomous vis-à-vis God and the society in which he lives, all he is interested in is the pursuit of his personal interest.

The problem is that homo economicus does not exist in the real world although the philosophical world view which underpins it has become the foundational basis of Western modernity and science. What exists in the real world is what Hassen Zoual calls homo situs (the man on the spot).

Needless to add, neither the Schumpeterian nor the Linconian types of democracy sits easily  with the world view of Africans. According to the political world view prevalent in many parts of Africa, political decision making is a process which involves the participation of the dead, the living and the unborn. This means that the living cannot make decisions which run counter to the desire of ancestors or to the interests of future generations. From this point of view, it goes without saying that the Western concept of popular sovereignty is strange to African world view. Neither do Westerners understand the idea that the dead can have a role in a decision-making process.

What is strange is that the way African intellectuals and politicians understand democracy is not African, but Western. Let’s say a spade a spade: a good number of African democracy activists are Trojan Horses of Western intellectual and cultural imperialism. This is particularly the case of Ethiopian intellectuals whose cognitive colonization has led them to consider that neo-liberalism and liberal democracy are respectively the royal road to the economic and political modernization of Ethiopia.

One can wonder if diaspora-based Ethiopian politicians have adhered to neo-liberalism and liberal democracy out of conviction or if they have been chanting the virtues of neo-liberalism and liberal democracy with the objective of getting the support of Western politicians and mass media in their attempt to topple  the current regime by violent means. This question is very important all the more since both neo-liberalism and liberal democracy are big impediments to the effort being exerted by the Ethiopian people to pull their country out of under-development. Unfortunately, mentally colonized intellectuals such as Alemayehu Gebremariam have been moving heaven and earth with view to imposing on Ethiopia an alien Western ideology and to thwarting the national effort  to fight poverty and underdevelopment.

On the other hand, the Ethiopian regime has been saying rightly that it would fight to the end against neo-liberalism. It claims that Ethiopia’s salvation lies in revolutionary democracy. The concept of revolutionary democracy may lead some to believe that Ethiopia has been ruled by unreconstructed communists. That is wrong. When the Ethiopian regime claims that it has been trying to build a revolutionary democratic system in lieu of liberal democracy, it is in reality saying that an Ethiopian is necessarily homo situs, i.e., s/he belongs to a tribe, a linguistic, religious or a cultural group. These identities are not in any way at variance with Ethiopian national identity, since Ethiopians believe that the Ethiopian nation is a common identity transcending regional, religious and linguistic differences. It is another way of saying that  although Amharic is the national language,  Ethiopia is a multi-linguistic and multicultural nation. There are about two hundred languages although the most known are about 80. The government says rightly that since the two hundred languages are also Ethiopian languages, it is the  duty and the responsibility of the government  to preserve and promote them on “equal” footing .

To that end, the government has put in place what some political pundits call “linguistic federalism”. One can have misgivings with the way linguistic federalism has been conceived or with its implementation. For example, it is a moot point whether the bearer of the right to study in one’s language, to preserve and to promote one’s culture, etc., should be the  individual or  the group. Unless it is handled very carefully, there is also a risk that linguistic federalism can give rise to an us vs. them mentality.

But the objective of “linguistic federalism”  is a noble one since it aims at guaranteeing the equality of all Ethiopians. Let’s not forget that although Ethiopia is one of the few ancient independent nations of world, it was the only country in Africa where there was the highest number of “national liberation movements” in the 1980s. With the exception of neighboring Somalia, no state’s legitimacy in Africa had been so highly contested as the Ethiopian state of the 20th century. The current government has always said that neo-liberalism and  liberal democracy do not address this problem, which has plagued the country for several decades. It believes that only can revolutionary democracy guarantee fair representation of all Ethiopians at all levels of the national administration from communal to national levels.

It is too early to say whether such a system would be viable in the long-term. What is certain is that linguistic federalism has enabled Ethiopia to be at peace with itself. Today, there is no more national liberation movements. Ethiopians have been saying “there is no time to waste; let’s work hard to make for the wasted time between 1900 and 1991″. One can argue that fighting poverty and underdevelopment would not become the priority of the Ethiopian people if the current regime pursued the policies of the previous regimes.

Despite that the government’s policy of preserving and promoting all Ethiopian languages and cultures and guaranteeing fair representation of all Ethiopians at all levels of the state administration have been unpalatable for a minority of intellectual elites most of whom hail from the capital city, Addis Abeba,   and its environs. Alemayehu Gebremariam has been one of the outspoken opponents of linguistic federalism and the government’s policy of ensuring fair representation of all Ethiopians at all level of the national administration. In the early 1990s, Alemayehu was the first to use terms like “ethnicity”, “ethnocentricity”, “apartheid”, “Bantustanization”, etc., to descredit the new political dispensation. He and others of his ilk pretend they have been fighting for the installation liberal democracy, in which the state should respect such bourgeois formal rights as freedom of speech, association, freedom of religion, etc.etc. Economically speaking, they stand for the privatization/commodification of rural land. In brief, they want to Westernize Ethiopia.

The problem is that freedom of speech is of no utility when you don’t have the right to speak in your mother tongue; press freedom serves no useful purpose if you are obliged to speak English or French as is unfortunately the case in many parts of Africa.  That is why no Ethiopian has been opposed to the government’s policy to enable all Ethiopians to study in their mother tongue, to preserve their culture and tradition and to enjoy regional autonomy.

It is essential to know that behind the recognition of the right to regional autonomy, there is one important message: mutual respect and consideration among the sons and daughters of Ethiopia.

In the past it was only Lij Eyyasu, who ruled Ethiopia between 1911-1916,   who realized  the paramount of importance of mutual respect and consideration for the national cohesion. For example, he used to go on visit to the area inhabited by Somaligna speaking Ethiopians. He is remembered for having said that Somaligna speaking Ethiopians were very brave people who deserved to be respected and given due recognition by the Ethiopian government. But he was overthrown by Haileselassie with the help of Western imperialism.

From the foregoing, it is clear that the current government of Ethiopia is unique in Africa; it has understood that a state which is not a reflection of the society which it is in charge is bound to fail sooner or latter. The Ethiopian state had been reflective of the social reality of the country until 1889. Power had never been held exclusively by one regional elite. Although Amharic had been the national language as of the 12th century A.D., Ethiopians were administered by their regional elites who spoke their respective languages. But that started  to change after the coronation of one of Ethiopia’s greatest kings, Menelik II. Neither Haileselassie nor Mengistu did try to rectify the huge damage inflicted on national cohesion by the Menelikian policy of exclusive power monopoly to the benefit of the Addis Abeba elite.

After 1991, the current regime  has tried to rectify the past political mistakes. It has also mapped out an appropriate national development strategy. Unlike previous regimes, the current government’s developmental effort is not limited to Addis Abeba. Today, Ethiopia has bustling modern regional towns such as Hawassa in the South, Bahrdar in the West, Gondar and Mek’ele in the North, Adama in the center and Dire Dawa in the East. This points to the government’s desire to ensure a balanced national development.

Indeed, were it not for the competent and sound economic leadership that the government has been able to deliver, linguistic federalism would be a recipe for disaster. The regime does not have any other choice but to continue to work hard to make the current economic growth durable.

It seems that after hundred years of misrule, the Almighty God has forgiven his chosen people. Thanks to the government’s able leadership, Ethiopia has been able to grab head line news for its blistering pace of growth albeit it being endowed  with no resource bonanza.

Far be it from me to say that the current regime is perfect. Like any government, it has many defects; But one cannot deny that the regime has been doing its level best to build the first truly democratic system in Africa, nay, in the world.  Of course, the regime has never boasted that it is building a prototype democratic state in Africa. It may not even know that it is the only truly democratic state in the making. But the present writer argues that although it is not a full-blown democracy yet, Ethiopia is in the process of building a prototype democratic state, it being understood that a full-blown democratic state cannot be built with out economic and social equality among citizens. This means that Ethiopia will never be a full-blown democratic state until it becomes an economically developed society.   This writer argues that ensuring the economic and social equality of Ethiopians  necessitates that every  Ethiopian should fight against any foreign attempt to impose neo-liberalism on Ethiopia. The Anglo-Saxon system is the least democratic in the developed world. But it is also very dangerous for Ethiopia’s national cohesion. So long as Ethiopian opposition parties don’t abandon the anti-patriotic idea of imposing the unegalitarian Anglo-Saxon system (i.e.  modern version of European feudalism) on Ethiopia, I don’t see how peaceful power shift would be possible. Patriotic Ethiopians would be obliged to resist by all means against Western cultural imperialism. Ethiopians have learnt enough lessons from the huge damages inflicted on the nation following the forced imposition of scientific socialism in 1976. Neo-liberalism is not that much different from scientific socialism. On the contrary, it has Marxist roots.

The idea that Ethiopia is a protoype democratic state in the making contrasts sharply with the argument of some mentally colonized intellectuals, who describe the current regime of Ethiopia as a “police state”. The expression police state is the English translation of polizeistaat, a concept developed by 19th century German lawyers in opposition to what they called rechtsstaat (literally, law-state). The police state is not a state ruled by police men or by a military junta. It has nothing to do with police brutality. Police brutality can happen in any bourgeois constitution state of the Western type. The concept of police state refers to a state where the administration acts with full discretion. Put differently, the administration, in a police state, can take any decision, which it thinks is susceptible of promoting  public good. Unlike the rechtsstaat, the police state is not supposed to act according to and in accordance with a specific pre-established law.

Is there such kind of state in Africa today? The answer is a definite no. I argue that the problem in Africa has never been a police state. The problem is that the African state is not truly African. It is a post colonial state. So long as the post colonial state has not become an authentically national state, it will continue to be a strange entity grafted on the African political body. It will continue to be foreign to African history, culture. It will not reflect the sociological reality of African societies. It will never be a developmental state.

In theory, the African state resembles the ideal type of the Western nation state or the rational state à la Max Weber. But in reality, it is neither African nor Western. This had been also the case of the Ethiopian state until 1991.

The current government seems to have chosen to return to the source, i.e., to pre-1889 Ethiopia while ensuring at the same time that the new political dispensation is a propitious platform for effecting a rapid transition to industrial modernity.

The other Copernican revolution that we have been witnessing since 2005 concerns Ethiopia’s foreign policy towards its neighbors in general and towards Somalia in particular. There is a firm conviction in today’s Ethiopian elite ruling circle that Ethiopia cannot develop economically unless Somalia and Kenya develop too economically. But for Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia to develop together, Somalia must be peaceful. That is why Ethiopians have been dying in Somalia for the well-being of Somalis although Somali nationalists have labored under the mistaken belief that Ethiopia wants to occupy and weaken Somalia. They seem to live in the 1960s.

Be that as it may, it seems fair to say that the Somali problem is no more a foreign problem for Ethiopia. The choice for Ethiopia is clear. Either Ethiopia and Somalia develop together or they fail together. It remains to be seen if this sea change in the Ethiopian diplomatic attitude towards Somalia will be shared by the Somali political and intellectual elite.

Before closing, it must be said that the current regime of Ethiopia has one disturbing trait which militates  against it being called an Ethiopian regime let alone to be described as the builder of a prototype democratic state. Namely, not only has it helped Eritrea in annexing illegally the Assab region of Ethiopia, rendering thereby Ethiopia the largest landlocked country in the world, but it has been waiting for the right moment to give away Ethiopian land to Eritrea. Why give away the  land for which Ethiopians paid huge life sacrifices in 1998-2000 war? Thirty thousand Ethiopians and more than seventy thousand Eritreans perished when the Ethiopian army launched the counter-offensive to liberate Ethiopian territory from occupation by the Eritrean army. The decision of the current government of Ethiopia to give to Eritrea the land for which Ethiopia’s beloved sons sacrificed their lives amounts to committing a political suicide.

Despite the current posthumous hero-worship, Melles Zenawi will  undoubtedly go down in the annals of Ethiopian history as the first leader who not only deprived Ethiopia of its military victory, but who also rendered it landlocked. It is  just a matter of time before Ethiopia recovers the maritime outlet which has been rightfully hers  for two thousand years.

When Siad Bare decided to invade Ethiopia in 1977 taking advantage of the confusion and civil war that had rocked the country following the overthrow of Emperor Haileselassie in 1974, Ethiopians were obliged to take a counter offensive. They liberated Eastern Ethiopia from occupation by Siad Bare’s army. But unlike Melles Zenawi, the dictatorial regime of Mengistu Hailemariam did not give away Ethiopian land to Somalia? Why is that the current government of Ethiopia behaving towards Eritrea in a different way? How does one explain that the  militarily victorious country, Ethiopia,  was obliged  in 2001 and 2003 by Melles Zenawi to give away its land and its sea outlet to Eritrea  and to pay annually close to one billion dollars in port fees to Djibouti?

This is unprecedented in registered world history. Is it normal to go Algiers and to sign a “peace” agreement  by accepting all the demands of defeated Eritrea at the expense of Ethiopia’s territorial integrity? I urge the post-Melles Ethiopian government to denounce  the Algiers Agreement. The government knows that Melles Zenawi concluded the Algiers Agreement in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Ethiopian people. It is an agreement based on the preposterous claim that Eritrea was an Ethiopian colony. This is in stark violation of the various resolutions of the United Nations’ General Assembly and that of the Organization of African Unity. Eritreans will continue to be our brothers, but the Ethiopian government has the duty to defend Ethiopia’s territorial integrity against the policy of territorial expansionism by the terrorist regime of Isayas Afewerki.

By Ethiopiawi


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  • adisweqt

    Democracy is not about Max Weber’s described society nut about one man one vote issue and that vote not being tampered by no one. Actually democracy checks and balances the misbehave of any power structure (including Weber’s).The rule of law is what it makes the fundation of a society. For example the indgenous people of the Omo river basin (in fact any citizen) could have taken the government to court for confiscating their ancestral land on excuse of progress. That is the way people check their government misbehave and also get resolved the conflict of interests between government policy (well intentioned but some times just pure corruption plot) and individual and community interests. Saying that the Ethiopian in practice model is the solution because the government policies intention is always good no matter what is naive as is naive to have only one lone opposition parlament member. Please do not be naive yourself and spend your ‘valuable’ time trying to justify the unjustifiable.

  • TechnicalInstofBurao

    If Ethiopian would be a prototype for Somaliland, then Isaq will be minority and will NEVER win presidential/PM position because it will minority. This echos to 1960 –SNL VS USP. The USP representative (ALL Non-Isaq Northerners) were the majority.

    • mohamed cheers

      Keep dreaming of that useless echos of 1960s—SNL VS USP? Do you mean SNL+USP vs NUF?
      If Ethiopian would be a prototype for Somaliland… is not understood and makes no commonsense.
      Somaliland and Ethiopia simply share mutual bilateral peaceful relationships on all policy and
      political affairs of both countries. It is that Simple. Who would be majority or minority in Somaliland
      governance depends on who wins free and fair democtratic prototype multiparty systems already
      in place..Kulmiye,UCID,Wadani etc etc. Living in the 1960s misleading echos have no place in
      todays contemporary realities on the ground.



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