Do we need Democracy in Ethiopia?
These days America is awash with elections. Over the last two weeks, local elections for county council seats, mayoral, attorney general, governor and lieutenant governor positions are being held in many of the states. Even more, the primaries for the November congressional election have already started. Election ads, posters, placards, souvenirs, fundraising events, TV debates are being held for the thousands of local, state level and Federal level government positions. If America is a democracy, elections are the pulse beats of that democracy. Of course, comparing Ethiopia with America requires a stretch of imagination. But for once, compare these with the five year national elections we conduct- ‘elections’ in Ethiopia (for that matter most of Africa) are nerve wrecking, violent, marred and always controversial. Nevertheless, they are becoming regular affairs in our political life. Are elections worthy? To be blunter, do we need democracy in Ethiopia?
Readers would obviously think that these are questions with foregone conclusions. I disagree. Despite the occasional outcries for democracy or it being tagged in the acronyms of the incumbent and opposition parties; democracy does not have a central place in Ethiopia’s political discourse. From the early 70s on, the Ethiopian student movement introduced two major political questions around which the entire political discourse of the country revolved; the land question and the national question. Pressured by the student movement, to gain popular legitimacy or somewhat inspired by the tenets of socialism, the Dergue endorsed the Rural Lands Proclamation on March 4 1975. The edict abolished the infamous ‘gabar’ tenure system, nationalizing all rural land and redistributing it to the tillers. The consequences of this radical reform, its virtues and flaws are still a subject of hot intellectual and political discussion in Ethiopia. The issue is such a flogged horse but still alive and kicking. A victim of its own success, however, the land question is now relegated to a secondary position outflanked by the ‘national question’ in Ethiopia.
The ‘national question’ is a meta-problem with auxiliary questions like: how did Ethiopia emerge as a modern nation-state? What forms of economic, political and cultural injustices prevailed in this state formation process? What could possibly be done to redress past grievances both in the state architecture of the country and its socio-cultural affairs as a nation? Here again, democracy was not a central agendum of Ethiopia’s political discourse up until the 1990s. Consider the names of major political actors: TPLF, OLF, ONLF (post facto; let us exempt the EPLF from being considered as an ‘Ethiopian’ insurgent group). The raison de etre of these organizations was ‘liberation’ that entails self determination up to and including secession. Democratization has never been the main stay of these organizations. It is ironic that TPLF still retains its title of ‘liberation’ after being in power for nearly two decades! I guess the task of ‘liberating’ others is so arduous that you just can’t finish it. You need all the time in the world. Reciting all versions of ‘liberation theology’, the ‘national question’ has now succeeded to single handedly determine Ethiopia’s political spectrum. On one extreme are the Ethiopian nationalists and we have ethno-nationalists on the other.
In fact, history tells us of bad blood between nationalism/s and democracy. Nationalism in pre-WWII Europe, and post independence Africa brought regimes which ended up muffling dissent, furnishing autocracies and fueling violent conflicts, state-sponsored or otherwise. Closer to home, the blues of nationalism in post-independence Eritrea reinforce my case. Even more, turning “liberation fronts” (e.g. TPLF, EPLF) and “national congresses” (e.g. KANU, ZANU, ANC) into democratic parties is proving to be an uphill struggle. Upon incumbency, many of these nationalist parties deferred the people’s dream for freedom. The price they pay for ‘liberation’ ends up becoming the bride price for domination. As such, the people of Africa are undertaking a second generation struggle for democratization against their own ‘liberation and nationalist fronts’. Ethiopia is no exception.
Given this background, I argue that the case for democracy would and should be the next important question in Ethiopia’s politics. Let me explain the “would” part before concluding this first section of the article. In my opinion, the May 2005 election was more than an election. The regime took the election outcome not as opposition wins but as ‘protest votes’. The logic of this argument is flimsy. Of course, the opposition wins when there is disenchantment against the incumbent. Others took the unprecedented wins of CUD- a pan Ethiopian coalition- as the demise of ethno-nationalism and the victory of Ethiopian nationalism. One wonders what the outcomes of that election would be if all entities that have exited (notably the OLF) were fielding candidates. Hence, one should take the earlier argument with a pinch of salt. For me, the May 2005 election was a referendum! It was a referendum for democracy! It was democracy that won its lot in Ethiopia that very day.
Having witnessed those live and engaging debates between parties; attending gatherings and rallies; hoping for some peaceful and democratic transition in the country; Ethiopians have reached the verdict. Gone are the days where politicians want to rule by the muzzle of the gun and impose their will on people!! The election made one simple, powerful but understated point- democracy is the only way through which the right of people to self-determination is actualized! Why should the quest for democracy take the front seat in Ethiopia’s political discourse? I have a proposition- Only democracy guarantees an everyday form of self-determination for the people and by the people. The next part of my article will grapple this proposition in more detail exploring the link between self-determination (my proxy for the national question) and the apparent need for democratization….I have a proposition- Only democracy guarantees an everyday form of self-determination for the people and by the people.