ETHIOPIA’S DEMOCRATIC DILEMMA by William Davison

November 22nd, 2013 Print Print Email Email

Ethiopia is a definite success story in expert opinion about post-cold war Africa. The civil strife that wreaked havoc and made headlines in the 1980s has disappeared. Investments in roads, health, education, and water have improved the daily life of millions.

Yet Ethiopia’s ruling coalition seems intent on maintaining a tight grip on power until its project to transform Africa’s second-most populous nation into a middle-income country is complete.

That authoritarian control makes any opposition difficult – though of late a group called the Blue Party, made up of young Ethiopians who describe themselves as progressive, have attempted to move, if not shake, the nation’s politics in ways not seen here for a decade or more.

Last week the Blue Party tried to organize a protest outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Addis Ababa, feeding off widespread public outcry over the treatment of Ethiopian migrants and laborers in the Saudi kingdom. Some 1,000 Ethiopians a day are being deported back home and migrant clashes with police in Riyadh are hitting social media here.

Still, instead of allowing Ethiopians to demonstrate their anger, the government forcefully broke up the protest, upsetting even those normally supportive of the government.

What remains unclear is how much repression the rising educated middle class in cities is willing to ignore in the Horn of Africa regime.

Ethiopia enacted a liberal constitution in 1994 that promised a free press, autonomy for some 80 ethnic groups, and multi-party politics. Yet dissenting journalists have still been jailed, minority groups complain of oppression, and elections are uncompetitive.

In the last vote in 2010, out of 547 seats in parliament, the opposition won one.

Ethiopia has been governed by the multi-ethnic Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front since 1991, when rebel groups overthrew a military regime.

In 2005, the opposition, led by a group called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, won 173 seats in the first competitive election. But months later some 200 people were killed by police when the opposition protested the outcome was rigged. Opposition leaders were jailed en masse.

But now there is some resurgence of opposition against the ruling (EPRDF) coalition.

The Blue Party held the first large demonstration by a political party since 2005 in July, when several thousand supporters marched in downtown Addis Ababa. They demanded the release of jailed politicians and journalists, as well as action against corruption, unemployment and inflation.

Another more established opposition group peeking its head out of the bunker is the Unity for Democracy and Justice. UDJ held a moderately successful demonstration in the capital as part of a “Million Voices for Freedom” campaign. They demanded the release of “political prisoners” and the repeal of the anti-terrorism law used to convict them.

With new voices now emerging the government is taking a two-track approach: Last month Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that multi-party democracy is constitutionally protected and that his administration wants a “constructive, progressive, opposition.”

Yet he issued a warning: If opposition parties mix with banned groups, they will be prosecuted. “Anyone who plays with the fire, then that fire will burn them,” Mr. Hailemariam said.

And there is evidence little has actually changed: Both the Blue Party and UDJ complain of harassment, with offices raided, members arrested and police arbitrarily preventing activities such as distributing leaflets.

Still, Blue Party leader Yilkal Getnet, in his thirties, believes his party will win a majority of the vote in 2015. He is counting on young people that want more freedom and want to move past the divisive ethnic politics of the past and embrace national unity. Mr. Yilkal also thinks another bleary and non-competitive election will lead to increased frustration and instability.

Merera Gudina is a leading member of the Oromo Federalist Congress. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s most populous ethnic group and frequently allege that they have remained excluded from power under EPRDF rule.

Mr. Merera has raised funds in the US but thinks the Blue Party optimism is misplaced. He digs out a cardboard box from beneath his desk at Addis Ababa University, where he is a political scientist, and shows an uncounted ballot from 2010 elections. He says that thousands of votes for the opposition were discarded by the ruling party cadres.

But Merera allows that if the ruling coalition does a fair election they may suffer a shock greater than 2005.

“If they open up they are going to lose easily in less than one month of campaigning,” he says.

There are latent frustrations brewing in the current dynamic in Ethiopia, analysts feel, where construction profits are accruing to a corrupt elite tied to the ruling party — while the cost of living for the masses rises.

“Even if they open a small window they know there’s going to be a repeat of 2005,” one senior analyst who could not be named, argues.

Merera says Ethiopia’s political stagnation is also due to divided challengers that can’t agree on a “common agenda,” a analysis detailed in book “Ethiopia: From Autocracy to Revolutionary Democracy, 1960s to 2011.”

In Ethiopia, parties only emerged after the downfall of absolute monarch Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and they have primarily been vehicles either for rivalry between traditional ethnic elites, or among different Marxist revolutionaries. “Sectarianism, conspiracy and political intrigues have become the hallmark of the Ethiopian political parties and their leaders,” leading to public disillusion, Merera writes.

Ethnicity is a key fault-line among the nascent opposition. Oromo activists argue that in practice, the focus on national unity or universal values by the likes of the Blue Party will bring more of the exploitation that Ethiopia’s minorities historically experienced at the hands of traditional rulers.

  1. mesfin
    | #1

    I just wondering is this the same Christian monitor journalist who wrote “Ethiopia steal water from Egypt”a while ago in support of Egypt.If he is the one, not qualified man to talk about Ethiopia.since he is aganist black African interest!

  2. what is new?
    | #2

    a. Your assertion that ‘Ethiopia is a success story in experts eye’ is not true

    Who are these experts? The experts that give such rosy pictures of the country are the ones who work for foreign companies, governments, institutions, ….

    For example, WB, IMF and related institutions and their experts have vested interest in the Ethiopia politics and resources. It is they who supported ethnic based politics through recognizing, training, funding, giving legitimacy, publicizing, glorifying, magnifying its success but at the same hiding its failures…

    May be some local elites that also benefited by working for these foreign organisations could brag about the successes of the government.

    b. Party politics, ethnicity and traditional rulers

    Party politics and parliamentary politics are supported by foreigners without taking into consideration the economic, social and political situations and cultures of Ethiopia.

    Even in developed countries, party politics is facing problems.

    Big business and rich individuals are funding political parties to get the best deal for their businesses.
    For example what is happening in Greece and Italy politics shows failure of party politics in representing majority of its people.

    The developed countries political parties failed in bringing down the gap between the poor and rich; fighting corruptions; prtocting democracy and peace in different parts of regions of the world;

    So I do not see party politics in its current forms helps Africans.

  3. Nathan
    | #3

    I think Mr. William Davison of Bloomberg asked the right question: “how much repression the rising educated middle class in cities is willing to ignore”. My view is that TPLF maintained grip on power not only through naked repression but through a proportionate mixing of coercion and carrots. As Rene Lefort, a long time observer of Ethiopian politics, has persuasively argued, TPLF dramatically increased its reliance on co-opting potential trouble-makers to its grip on power, especially after the 2005 post-election turmoil. Those targeted by the TECHNIQUE OF CO-OPTATION were the prominent members of the ‘rising middle class’. By effectively buying-out those who potentially stand on the frontlines and steer the demand for social/political change, TPLF was, and is, able to silence the majority who disagree with the status quo. The developmental state creed that served as a justification to expand the state machinery in two angles – the civil service on the one hand and the state-owned public enterprises on the other hand – as well as the massive state investment in various infrastructure projects highly increased the leverage of the ruling party to decide who gets the spoils of the Developmental State venture. Until TPLF is crowded out of resources to co-opt this class on the rise, it will continue to enjoy the the fruits of this political marriage of convenience. Put differently, as long as the economic incentives TPLF distributes to this class continues to subsist, the group will be willing to co-exist with the prevailing state repression because much of the cost of this repression is borne by the lower middle class and by the poor significantly. Add to this the deliberate deployment of ethnicity as a political tool to sow division among elites yearning for change and the falling prey of the opposition to such a Machiavellian ploy. In short, Tigrean elites are determined to maintain a tight grip on power because they have made sure that THEY HAVE SUBJECTED THE REST OF US to ‘death by thousand cuts’ since WE ARE ALREADY DIVIDED INTO THOUSAND GROUPS.

  4. TPLF not EPRDF
    | #4

    “…Ethiopia has been governed by the multi-ethnic Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front since 1991, when rebel groups overthrew a military regime…”
    Mr. Davison,
    With all do respect, Ethiopia hasn’t been governed by EPRDF for the last 22 yers. EPRDF is a name Tigrea People Liberation Front(TPLF)use to fool Ethiopians and the rest of the world. Yes, there are a few EPRDF in TPLF regime, but they are completely powerless puppets that do whatever they are told to do by TPLF, including the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia. For the last 22 years, Ethiopians have been under TPLF dictatorship for the last 22 years with guns pointed at them 24/7.

  5. Dawi
    | #5

    [[..Ethnicity is a key fault-line among the nascent opposition. Oromo activists argue that in practice, the focus on national unity or universal values by the likes of the Blue Party will bring more of the exploitation that Ethiopia’s minorities historically experienced at the hands of traditional rulers...]]

    I think the focus on “national unity universal value” is or should be our aim. How to get there from where we are now is the question?

    We should not have overthrown the Derg until an agreement was reached on the the future all inclusive government but, that is the past.

    Now we have EPRDF with a strong state power that controls the economy and the key state owned enterprises. The Ethnic Federalism is a system based on Ethnic based parties coalition with a core vision to create a developmental state. That vision is going to end up to be a national unity or based on universal value down the line.

    Such a path will allow the ethnic pimps in power today or those that aspire to be a war lord like Jawar or others to shut up for now but, the developmental state path Meles designed is going to catch up with the corrupt ethnic pimps or the aspiring ones sooner or later.

    That is my understanding of Meles’s vision and the fire that burn the corrupt officials has already started.

  6. Somu
    | #6

    This article is a simplistic view of the complicated political situation in Ethiopia. The country has improved it’s economy by leaps and bounds and it is not time to distract attention at thus time just to “experiment” multi party system and things if that nature. Democracy is very important but we have seen through the years that you have to feed and provide health care to your people so that they can have a better life and education and eventually make informed choices regarding their political leadership. I think we are not ready for thus and the country is just doing fine right now. Let us not shake the boat if it is not necessary. Thank you!

  7. Anonymous
    | #7

    Somu said,
    “I think we are not ready for thus and the country is just doing fine right now. Let us not shake the boat if it is not necessary. Thank you!”

    You are the classic case of woyanes’ mindset. Simply laughable!
    The boat has been shaking ever since Woyanes has been sitting on it.

  8. what is new?
    | #8

    Somu
    After 20 years or so on the helm, the TPLF/ERDf still is guided by its ethnic ideology and principles.

    The belief that there won’t be judgement day by the Ethiopians is wrong.
    I think you forget who is paying the bills for construction projects and salaries officials.
    It is MDG fund and donations from bilateral and multinational agencies …remittances,
    Aid money and money from diaspora are main contributors.
    Get your facts right before lecturing foreigners.

  9. Kato
    | #9

    I SEE SAID THE BLIND MAN TO HIS DEAF DAUGHTER
    OH YES THE WAVES ARE RISING

  10. what is new?
    | #10

    If you believe party politics works then my question to William Davidson are:
    Why the party politics in USA failed to narrow the gaps between rich and poor?
    If party politics is functioning then why do we see in UK , Scottish independence party?
    If party politics is working then why did elected governments failed to avert banking crisis through legislation and institutional mechanisms?
    If party politics is representative of its citizens then why do we see demonstration against governments austerity measures through out Europe?
    We are witnessing failure European governments in dealing with unemployment and economic stagnation.
    Are you saying that this it not linked with party politics failure to deal with social and economic issues?

  11. aha
    | #11

    If the platform of Mederk mirror images that of TPLF/eprdf with ethnic agenda and support of the constitution as is, what common agenda is Dr. Merara is talking about with regard to the opposition parties, when he states , ” the opposition do not agree on a “common agenda”. Does that common agenda refers to ethnic agenda: respect for ethnic rights, human rights and democracy along with the campaign for political space, and yekilil mengistats iqulent mebit mekeber or the national agenda for unity, territorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians, where the last item refers to individual freedom, liberty and equality to have precedence over ethnic and secessionist rights as the only path to democracy rather than ethnocracy of either minority or majority ethnic rule.

  12. Worku tesfaye
    | #12

    Each and individual citizens hv known ze value of Democracy and good governance.
    In Ethiopia ze way we demand ze democracy and how we exercise;issue is more and more need examine carfuly.why our opposition always preferred and waited hot and sensitive time for calling demonstrations.
    Let take,blue party,ze were arranged protesting rally last June when leading party and some Muslim community(extremist) on dialoge.also repeated ze action 15 days considered ze Saudi illegal migrant of Ethiopian.c.
    85 % of country side communities hv no concept or about ze blue party or ozers.most opposition party except formed CUD are no based ziers agenda in to ze majority.
    When i wrote zis comment,i hv considered my living in very remote area.opposition partys struggle eizer peacefully or forcely against regime seemed illegal seeking of power.

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