This way Ethiopia : Constitutional Monarchy or Liberal Democracy? Or Developmental State? By Tecola W. Hagos

June 22nd, 2011 Print Print Email Email

I. Introduction

I am reposting this article with some modification from two years ago because of the fact that our concern and needs have not changed; our political and economic situation has worsened a thousand fold and yet not much by way of structured and effective opposition has materialized. I have made few adjustments to the original in order to update and upgrade my presentation. I have also removed some statements that would correspond to what is identified in American Football jargon as “unnecessary roughness.” There is no need for me to use abusive language in any circumstance. Words that describe a situation or the characteristics of a leader accurately, even if they may sound vulgar, are not abusive or inappropriate to use in the right context. One must be prepared to call “a spade, a spade” to use an old cliché.

What is the point in discussing “Constitutional Monarchy” at a time when we are struggling to establish a democratic form of government fighting against Meles Zenawi and his one-man rule? The problem that is often overlooked is the idea that elections on its own is a democratic process and meaningful. Election in our type of society is a polarizing process for it often is fog-screen of fundamentally flawed society due to horrible economic and cultural distortions, anomalies that need first serious considerations and fixing. At any rate, what ever we do politically we are at the risk of having our nation disintegrate especially if we do nothing about Meles Zenawi and his destructive anti-Ethiopia Government and methodology of government and national structure. He has effectively divided us in a prelude to complete fragmentation with the possibility that he is aiming to get away with a chunk of territory [Tigray] and billions of dollars worth of looted Ethiopian wealth. It is this single most concern of disintegration and losing our Ethiopia that made me consider the unthinkable of reinstituting a constitutional monarchy for Ethiopia and to rally all of our resources around such already existing institution.

Although Meles Zenawi was a member of a party that came into town as a liberation movement, which proved to be anything but a liberation movement, his government has proven to be the most destructive to Ethiopia’s Sovereignty and territorial integrity. Professor Teodros Kiros, a philosopher of considerable depth, in his recent article [“Which way Ethiopia: Constitutional Monarchy or Participatory Democracy?” January 29, 2009.] has engaged us, almost provoking us, to focus and even debate such elemental issues comparing and contrasting “constitutional monarchy” with “liberal democracy.” I believe, Teodros’s concern and effort to focus our attention on the types of governments appropriate for Ethiopia is farsighted and timely. We ought to discuss such issues at some depth and scope before we make up our mind on the form of government suitable for Ethiopia. Is there any merit reestablishing the old Monarchy of Ethiopia with limitations set out by a liberal constitution? Why must we choose one form of government in preference to another? Do we have choices? If so, are we making rational choices?

While reading Professor Messay Kebede’s book [Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960 – 1974, Rochester, NY: Rochester University Press, 2008.], I noticed that Messay seems to have simply assumed the inevitability of the demise of the old system of Monarchy (as a government structure) in the 1960s and 70s targeted by Ethiopian students and their movements. Messay’s critical analysis of the Ethiopian students’ movement dealt with the “reasons” for the movement, but did not challenge whether the movement was justified to begin with. However, I did not write down my observations in my review of that book. It is later when discussing the article Messay wrote as a critique of an article written by Seeye Abraha that I brought out the question of the necessity of political change not necessarily resulting in the establishment of liberal democracy, and raised the issue of the reestablishment of a constitutional monarchy for Ethiopia as an alternative.

Messay wrote clearly that the old system of Ethiopia’s monarchical government is kaput—finished and done with. He stated, “The latter is gone for good and we have no reason to wish its resurrection. To try to revive it is to ignore the present reality and force on people an idea of national existence that they are not willing to accept, thereby driving the country into even greater conflicts.” [See Messay Kebede, “To Seye Abraha: the Center is One Step Further,” January 10, 2009.] [] Here is where I start my challenge to such assumption that preemptively seems to bury the system of monarchical government for Ethiopia. There are a series of assertions both in the recent statements of Messay and the long standing views of many of Ethiopia’s scholars and intellectuals that assume without proper justification that the old Monarchical system of government must not be reinstated. It is precisely such assertions that I challenge. And now I add to that challenge my argument for any form of collaboration as part of the “developmental state” paradigm, because of the simple fact such process would lack a stabilizing political rudder. Meles Zenawi and his Government are at the very top of a wave that is a point of the most instability.

Of course, I hesitate to discuss the issue of “constitutional monarchy” as opposed to “liberal democracy” for fear of diverting our attention from the serious issue at hand facing all Ethiopians on how to change the violent and often brutal Government of Meles Zenawi. Avoiding a fundamental question will not help us solve any problem, and least of all important ones such as the form and type of government for Ethiopia taking into account its unique history and social development. Thus, I ask what Ethiopians should have asked since the 1970s: What are the main reasons against the Ethiopian Monarchy? My only recorded references, in order to answer that question, are the writings of Ethiopian students especially those who were involved in the student movement in the United States and Europe. Of course there were writers like Abe Gubegna, with his mostly plagiarized fiction [from Dostoevsky] titled Alwoledim that had oblique criticism of the Government of Haile Selassie, but not of monarchical government as a generic institution. Often, Ethiopian students and others make the same error of assuming a criticism of the regime of Haile Selassie is a criticism of monarchical government system(s) too. It is not.

II. Challenging the Ethiopian Students Revolutionary Movement (1963 – to date)

A. Anachronistic Left

Almost all of the literature generated by the students’ movement against the Government of Emperor Haile Selassie did not seem to include scholarly critical discussions of that regime, but was mainly rhetorical and one-sided diatribe against Emperor Haile Selassie and his aristocratic government. The best of such writings may not be more than polemical. Even the gifted economist Eshetu Chole’s writing was polemical. The favorite subjects often discussed in student publications, other than the subject of the corruption of Haile Selassie and the aristocracy, were the huge number of farmers of Ethiopia. The description of the miserable life condition of the Ethiopian peasantry as presented in articles written by student writers was not a social or economic study meant to illuminate the sources of poverty, deprivation, ignorance, lack of hygiene, et cetera of the Ethiopian peasants. It was riddled with assumptions with silly generalizations putting all the blame of underdevelopment on the Ethiopian Monarchy and nobility. It was mainly written to agitate rather than inform or enlighten the public. It was mainly aimed at other students and maybe meant to enlist the sympathy and active support of the Ethiopian Army and Civil Servants and the miniscule labor force around the country.

The literature of the Ethiopian students’ movement was a disembodied cursory rhetorical work that used the peasantry as a caricature to show the suffering of a people under Haile Selassie’s autocratic rule. It was never truly about real people and what ailed them. The reference word to identify the poor of Ethiopia that was used often by student writers was the phrase “the masses,” which seems to speak about some amorphous and indistinguishable blob. The term “the masses” did not make much of a psychological connection between students and the common people of Ethiopia for it meant nothing, except to degrade individual human beings into an object, for its members are not recognizable individuals. In fact the worst form of writing was the pretentious diatribe of Walelign Mekonnen immature ranting in pseudo Marxist attempt to cast Ethiopia as a state in turmoil due to antagonistic conflict between “tribes,” or between “nations,” or between “nationalities.” All such terms borrowed from the leftist literature of the time, without proper critical analysis, and at any rate irrelevant for the Ethiopia of great history of long standing process of Statehood.

It seems to me that we all simply followed the agenda set by the student movement without examining or challenging it. Thus, we all end up with our rough-shod treatment of a subject matter, which should have been examined carefully and debated thoroughly with serious scholarship, which resulted in a series of mediocre leaders and chaotic systems of governments of the last thirty years where millions of Ethiopians lost their lives either through direct actions of government forces and government sponsored clashes or due to famine because of mismanaged economy. The impact of the last thirty years mess (of a political process) on the lives of Ethiopians in every walk of life, ethnic group, class etcetera is beyond quantifications. It resulted in unimaginable sever loss of life, destruction of property, and missed opportunities for improved government and social and economic lives for millions of Ethiopians. Now, we find ourselves, after such very costly social convulsions, which lasted for over fifty years from the 1960s, on the verge of disintegration across ethnic lines?

B. Democracy and its shadow

The idea of establishing American or European type democracy is as difficult or is as far removed as establishing Marxism-Leninism in our Ethiopian setting. To state the obvious, either system requires certain degrees of economic, educational, and technological advanced base. Either system requires a well established literate culture. A high degree of social cohesion pulling toward the same goals would also make such social programs viable and possible. The infrastructure of both human networking in associations and public activities and the physical material infrastructure of roads, railway systems, air transport systems, in inland navigation water ways et cetera are all vital for such advanced political development.

When we consider the social and economic situation in Ethiopia, we find absolutely dismal social conditions, and a starvation-economy, a kleptocracy of the worst kind. There is no way a viable liberal democracy or Marxist-Leninist systems of governments would work under such social and economic conditions in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is far too barren to grow seedlings of any foreign democratic or Marxist-Leninist government system. I think the best solution is to work with the system that had been with us for centuries and creatively improve and adopt that system to meet modern demands—namely the institution of monarchy adjusted to fit our modern needs, i.e., a form of constitutional monarchy.

There is much to be done at the ground level in acknowledgement of the sheer existential demands of the public that political ambitions of individuals need be shelved for some time. Most people are in great need of improving, to an acceptable degree, honing their social interactions. In particular there is great need to learn simple hygiene, elementary level of reading and writing skills, simple craftsmanship in carpentry, pottery, and in building comfortable and sturdy homes et cetera. Sanitation has been the least concern in any emerging village or town in Ethiopia. Ethiopian urban centers are all shoe-string constructions, the cheapest you could find in the world—that ought not to be the case.

Mitiku Adisu, my favorite writer whom I greatly appreciate for his many articles that display great maturity, succinctly identified our national problem thus: “Indiscriminately adopting a Western Constitution and its democratic institutional sensibilities where the requisite economic and informational infrastructures are barely in place may do more harm than good in the short term.” [Mitiku Adisu, “A Case of Misdirected Zeal,” February 6, 2009.] The tenor of Mitiku’s article is about religious fanaticism, and yet he has made some remarkable observations about social and political life in general in Ethiopia. In my crude way, that was precisely what I tried to say in many of my articles, for the last ten years.

III. Constitutional Monarchy for Ethiopia?

A. Legitimacy and authority

My challenge to our current infatuation with democratic ideals (of the liberal democratic persuasion) or to the earlier Marxism-Leninism of Mengistu’s era to the exclusion of everything else is not per se an objection to the tenets and principles of those democratic ideals themselves, but is directed at the fact of the complete absence of a healthy debate on the types of choices we are making preemptively discarding our traditional system of monarchical government system. I am not convinced that the government system that is currently in place or its predecessors reflect the aspirations and wishes of the people of Ethiopia. I need to hear from those who champion liberal democracy over monarchy the detail of their reasons supported with particular instances from our past history with particular attention to the political and social history of the last thirty years. At any rate, one of the edifices of democratic ideals, the so called “wishes of the people,” is meaningless in a poorly informed society that is in abject poverty.

We also tend to forget or misunderstand the fact that democracy is a compromise reached by the elits of any given society now identified as a democratic state, and examples abound in that, such as the United States, India, Canada, et cetera. Mere labeling of events or situations with high sounding words will only polarize the truth and does not illuminate problems or enlighten us. Mengistu Hailemariam claimed to be a democrat, so did Meles Zenawi. The many constitutions of the world’s most oppressive governments speak of human rights and democracy in glowing terms. However, life in the trenches for most of mankind is dreadful, short, and nasty. The statistical figures, if they are believable, paint a grim picture about the human condition all over the World. The infant mortality rates, the death toll from famine, the illiteracy rates, the rate of demographic displacement of both internal and external refugees et cetera are all staggering in scope and the sheer number of individuals affected by such turmoil.

The current Ethiopian politicians who are in power and those in the opposition do not seem to realize the fact that they lack the most important attribute of power, which is legitimacy. Without legitimacy no political leader or political organization would have authority to carry out the business of governing or of administering a people. No amount of display of raw power will bring about legitimacy. Legitimacy deals with the psychology of being accepted by a people as a leader: Such acceptance results in the people entrusting their sovereign power in a leader thereby creating a legitimate structure directly beholden to them, the people of Ethiopia. I have not seen any such political investiture by the people of Ethiopia, and yet the closest institution that seems to have some such acknowledgement of legitimacy is the Ethiopian Monarchy.

Mengistu had power, Meles has power, and yet both lack legitimacy. Therefore, no matter how often dictatorial leaders go through election rituals, registering even 90% of voters’ support, they still remain illegitimate. No matter how hard they tried, those two leaders, for example, are not accepted as leaders by the people of Ethiopia. When we listen to our learned politicians speaking about the matrix of their program and their ambition and what they aspire to do, it is no different than the ideas of any of Ethiopia’s rulers for the last one hundred years. The way opposition leaders handled dissenters within their respective group is no different than the ways of dictators. They all practiced a system that was reminiscent of the technique used in leftist governments in Asia or Europe or Africa or the Americas.

One method used all over the world to confer legitimacy on a leader is to go through the process of elections. This practice is very old, indeed. Usually, the ancient Greeks are given credit for practicing direct democracy. However, the fact of the matter is that all human groups at their earliest stages of organized life had practiced such direct democracy where individual members in a group debate an issue and jointly decide what to do with a form of consensus that is the genesis of democratic elections. I contend that some form of monarchy, be it constitutional or ritualistic, would have far more legitimacy in our current situation than any system of elected government in Ethiopia in the foreseeable future.

B. Election Rituals

Elections are the simplest and most direct method of establishing and conferring legitimacy on a particular leader. But elections are riddled with treacherous hurdles that drastically undermine the very purpose of holding elections in the first place, in all developing countries. In fact, elections create unrealizable expectations and shift the attention of the population from the fact of the struggle for existence to focus on political demonstrations and short-cut schemes. In Ethiopia, I think the tendency of people is to preserve asset and their energy, which translates on the political stage as dormant population incapable of fighting back or bushing back when squeezed by brutal governmental forces. Such degree of social narcissism undermines any sustained stand against government abuse. The opposition to government oppression and abuse is episodic and erratic in Ethiopia.

It is important that ordinary Ethiopians participate in the political life of Ethiopia. There can be no meaningful discourse without the input of such Ethiopians. That may be true as a guide and principle. However, in reality the task of meaningful participation is enormously difficult. We watched millions of Ethiopians going to the polls to vote in both local and national elections in Ethiopia during three distinctively contradictory governments of the last fifty years. The real question Ethiopians ought to ask would be what form of significance should be read into such activities. In general, I am not convinced about the value of going through such ritual of elections as a democratic right. However, I find one profound argument in support of such processes, ritual or not. In our local setting, the relevance of election is not so much that it produces immediate tangible results, but that it confirms the idea that citizenship has a serious role in government. In all early stages of democracy, elections are mere rituals. A great example that supports my statement is the Indian experience with democracy, which confirms now the real value of voters.

The error here is the identification of election with liberal democracy, for elections can have meaningful utility in other forms of governments, for example, in constitutional monarchy. What I just stated is not far fetched, considering the many elections conducted in the USSR, and currently in China, Cuba and several of the dictatorial governments around the world. And such periodic election is not organic but decoy, and as long as we understand the distinction between these two contentions, the better prepared we are to understand elections and use elections effectively.

C. State Succession and National Continuity

No less of concern to Ethiopians is the status of the nation during transitions from one government to the next. Ethiopia is at its most vulnerable state during transition period from one leader to another leader. It is very rarely that there had been a peaceful transition or transfer of power in all of Ethiopia’s long history. Liberal democracy might prove too dangerous in holding the nation together under the current political atmosphere with a Constitution (Article 39) prodding people to secede as independent states. It is doubly dangerous when transfer of power occurs in the next election of 2010.

Meles Zenawi is doing his very best to continue his treacherous and divisive government putting obstacles and more and more divisive structures to insure that there will not be a solid opposition to his leadership. The illegal imprisonment of Meles is building himself an edifice with the old Ethiopian adage: “Kemayawqut Melak, Yemiawqut Seitan Yishalal.”

It may be necessary to establish a transition period government for a limited period of time in order to smooth out political wrinkles and level the political field for all participants in order to have a fair and freely held political competition. I believe that political development at the grassroots level will eventually lead us all and challenge us all to come up with the right modality to preserve the territorial integrity and Sovereignty of Ethiopia, and at the same time put a demand on us to implement a smooth transfer of power from the existing totalitarian regime of Meles Zenawi to a government that will be democratically elected and fully answerable to the people of Ethiopia.

I am aware of the fact that all of our past “transitional governments” have changed into antidemocratic “permanent governments” thereby plunging us again and again into dictatorial and brutal governments in our recent national history. I have witnessed similar phenomenon elsewhere in the World as well. Thus, our approach must be carefully designed not to repeat the errors of our past. The individuals who are to be leading the Transition Government must be individuals who will not be running for office or be involved in any political leadership position in the election process for the permanent Government after the transition period. The transition government leaders must not be actively engaged in any political party running for political office. They must be patriotic in their words and in their deeds with great pride in their Ethiopiawinet. They must be individuals with great integrity. They must be well versed in the history of Ethiopia and its diverse culture and people.


Taking into consideration our Ethiopian peculiar predicament being home to diverse ethnic population and as many diverse cultures, it is to be expected that we will have serious conflicts on both individual and societal level. It is only reasonable to seek alternative government structures other than “liberal democracy” to meet the challenges from such diversity being the reality of our existence. The most important question for all of us is the question of national survival. Is it possible for us to find a system of government that will protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity and at the same time promote and safeguard to the maximum individual personal and civic rights? I hope no one accuses me of trying to turn the wheel of history backward, for my effort is simply focused on finding solutions to our serious problems.

Here is where I disagree with Messay, on his decisive dismissal of the possibility of reinstating the old Monarchy as a form of Ethiopia’s government. Messay categorically rejected the reestablishment of the Monarchy without giving us the rational for his conclusion except mentioning that there will be hostilities from every corner of the Ethiopian society against any such attempt. He summed his thoughts by saying, “This does not mean that I reject ethnicity and sponsor the return to the structure and culture of imperial Ethiopia. The latter is gone for good and we have no reason to wish its resurrection. To try to revive it is to ignore the present reality and force on people an idea of national existence that they are not willing to accept, thereby driving the country into even greater conflicts. It is also to overlook that, like any other human concerns relating to identity, ethnicity craves to be recognized so that the lack of recognition turns into a fanatical attachment.” I think there should be more than mere fear of twitting nerves of a people to discard a tradition that held sway for couple of thousand years in the life of the nation of Ethiopia and its diverse people. [Tecola W. Hagos, “To Messay Kebede: the Center is One Step Closer” January 13, 2009.]

In contradistinction to Messay’s views on the future of Ethiopian Monarchy, I believe that there are very many good arguments and reasons worth taking seriously in support of reinstating the Monarchy albeit with limited power under a constitutional arrangement. One main reason in support of such bold move is the undeniable appeal of the Monarchy to several groups around the country, groups with ideation of separatist political goals. Thus, I believe it is far better suited to maintain the territorial integrity of Ethiopia than any other form of governmental structure. For that reason alone, I would support opening such idea for debate. I do not think the idea in support of the reestablishment of a Constitutional Monarchy for Ethiopia is an outrageous or wayward idea. It is a legitimate idea worth discussing. Of course, there is a risk involved here of diluting our concentration in fighting Meles Zenawi’s divisive and often treasonous leadership. At any rate I want my suggestion to be considered as another option to be considered along the may political programs already in the field including the recent suggestion by Messay about reexamining our state of being.

Tecola W. Hagos
Washington DC
[First posted, February 19, 2009]

NB: My apology for having released a piece in haste “Messay Kebede and his “Manifesto” that was not edited for clerical errors of spelling and grammar. Thank You. TH

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