The Democracy Paradox

By Genet Mersha, 5 March 2010— The stage for this article was set by two events. Firstly, at the forefront triggering the writing was the second round inter-party debate of March 2nd in preparation for the May 23rd national election. Secondly, coincidentally in the background was The Democracy Paradox (Project Syndicate Sept 14, 2009), an article by Dominique Moisi, a respected French commentator on international issues and visiting professor at Harvard University that I read moments before watching the debate on video.

Prof. Moisi engages his readers in a conversation with a view to enabling them see the potential divorce between elections and democracy that is assuming a new dimension in a globalized world. Much as he has made reference to improved techniques in election rigging and stealing that despots employ these days, he also admonishes “the West to reassess its policies in a fundamental way.” He urges Western countries to see that they cannot switch as they like “from ‘activism’ at one moment to abstention the next.”

I would return shortly for reflection on Prof. Moisi’s observations. In the meantime, I leave behind his main thesis: “Elections stolen in Iran, disputed in Afghanistan, and caricatured in Gabon: recent ballots in these and many other countries do not so much mark the global advance of democracy as demonstrate the absence of the rule of law.”

Federalism and devolution of power

I cannot hide my disappointment on this subject of the second round debate on a number of levels.

   First the topic of the debate is too complex for the average citizen to make determination of who to vote for and why, if at all the choice of the topic and its purpose is to help voters, assuming that their votes count.

   Secondly, understanding of the subject might have been rendered even more difficult by interventions of at least one representative unfamiliar with the topic and his shifting stand on issues he could not articulate.

   Thirdly, nor did representatives of EPRDF stood on solid ground regarding theory and practice of federalism and devolution of power. They repeatedly moved in and out of slippery paths of confusion between realities on the ground and efforts to give it acceptable face, which made their salesmen’s pitch mostly notable for misrepresentation. That is why, at one point they even theorised why Ethiopia is spared of disintegration like Somalia, although the issues the two countries contend bear no similarity, not today not in the past. 

Having stated these, I must hasten to add that overall the discussion, if we could call it that,  was revealing in a way, even though the rule governing the forum was so controlling that the rigidity of its set up has rendered it coldly sovietesque, thereby severely affecting its quality and content. In spite of that, Medrek, EDP, Berhan and Kinjit were sterling clear in their presentations. They explained well why they thought the current federal arrangement and devolution of powers is unworkable and fake. While all opposition members in principle supported federalism, they were unanimous in saying that the present arrangement is designed only to serve the interests of the TPLF.

Therefore, if the debate is to be taken as a measure of what the country has achieved and the governing party’s contributions in the past two decades, expectations would become a source of frustration to its authors. True, common sense dictates that, at least, after fifteen years of experience in federalism and the devolution of power, one would assume there may be a few areas of common understanding between the two sides. Clearly, it is in the scheme of such things to expect the EPRDF to garner some support for its much-vaunted instruments of governance and decentralisation of power, not from novice, but from well-placed witnesses to Ethiopia’s reality some of them as parliamentarians, public officials and as citizens, even if they were standing there as contenders for power.

The truth of the matter is that opposition representatives have contacts with the people in their respective regions. They said they do not like the hush-hush complaints they get from constituents. Hence, what they did in this debate is to take to task efficacy and relevance of the federalism and devolution of power. Their judgement is that these instruments of empowerment have been found empty and wanting in many respects, which they said the fault is in the implementation process, characterised at it is by disloyalty to the promises of the constitution.

The outcome of this debate tells us that there is need for greater awareness of the difficult path before our country. Of all issues touched upon so far, the 2nd March debate has shown that the country still has many unfinished businesses on the drawing board, especially regarding democracy, federalism and empowerment of the people in real ways at the lowest kilil (unit of administration). To put it mildly, it is an injurious verdict, indicating the seriousness of the problem awaiting Ethiopia in the years and decades to come. Many see the question of Assab a thorn on TPLF’s side.

Opposition parties hold inflexibility of the governing party responsible for all the problems of governance Ethiopians have encountered. They attribute this not to inadequacies, but to TPLF’s sole interest in centralising and consolidating its powers at the centre.  A couple of opposition parties saw what the governing party proudly sees as its proudest achievements as an explosive problem waiting to happen.

In the circumstances, the task of the representatives of the ruling party was on one hand to scold people in the opposition how “distorted their perception of the reality in the country is” and their “incapability to see and understand federalism the bright prospects before Ethiopians.” On the other, they spent their time allotted praising their achievements in bringing about the democratic devolution of power, the first in the country’s history. It should be said that, in spite of these efforts to mount a vigorous defence, the fact that not a single point of agreement between the two sides emerged is in itself judgement against the fifteen-year old governance arrangements and its institutions thereon.

To avoid the dangers before the country, some opposition members suggested constitutional revision and a flexible approach that takes into account the needs and interests of the local people. This was greeted by the ruling party with scorn, dismissing it as an attempt by the opposition to get a backdoor to power. Medrek aptly responded to this by saying there was no need for a backdoor, since they were already there openly contending to take power. 

The core issues setting the two sides apart

The opposition sees devolution of power in Ethiopia as counterfeit. EDP started right from the centre, saying that the division of powers itself in the centre is not a true constitutional division between the three branches of government. It equated the present reality to cooperation between the powers. It accused EPRDF of hindering the true devolution of power to the regions through such an arrangement. It said that is designed for the TPLF to ensure its hold on power. The guise used for this is ethnic issues and group rights, which contradicts the rights of the individual citizens. Instead of addressing the nationalities problem honestly and ensuring the unity of the country, TPLF’s approach is said to deepen differences between people and cultures.  This position was supported by other opposition parties.

Similarly, Light (Torch) for Unity and Democracy Party focussed on problems of democracy in Ethiopia, which it considered obstacle to a genuine federal arrangement and the devolution of power, based on the interests of the people. In its view, without democracy, federalism by itself cannot provide opportunities for people to be able to administer themselves effectively. It rejected EPRDF’s claim of being democratic, which it said is false claim, sham by a centrist party, obsessed with consolidation of its powers at the centre.

In the views of the representative of Medrek, the federal arrangement is not the true expressions of constituent entities within the country. For this, it cited instances whereby a single ethnic group has become a kilil arbitrarily by a memo from the prime minister, whereas at the same time as many as over fifty ethnic groups are lumped together as a single kilil. This he said has become cause for many conflicts, with efforts to solve it through demands for adjustments of structures rebuffed by government, and which eventually sent its forces to massacre protestors in Awassa, Gambella and elsewhere when people started demanding their constitutionally provided rights.

This he presented as evidence of the fact the self-administration has not been translated into practice in many parts of the country, especially in the south and south west, in keeping with provisions of the constitution. In addition, true to the nature of top-down structures, Medrek accused the federal government of endless meddling in the affairs of regional administrations. He added that often regional leaders and officials elected by the people are removed by signed memos and replaced by whomever the ruling party chooses, which he said is typical problem of archaic revolutionary democracy. This view is also shared by Kinijt and Berhan.

In brief, Medrek’s view is that there is no desire on the part of central government to enable regions to address problems the centre has created for them with a view to facilitating their inherent rights to self-government. Medrek’s charge is that the central government is deliberately keeping the regions dependent on it, as a means of controlling them, systematically limiting their ability to collect taxes to land leases only.

Medrek traced the problem for all this to the current legislative system, which he said is not capable of supporting a country with federal structures and federal system. Medrek saw two sources for this problem. Firstly, the election process of members to parliament has been unfair and unjust. Secondly, the two chambers ought to have the same legislative powers. In that regard, he complained the house of federation in particular is powerless denied of ability to legislate laws, because of which it could not help strengthen the legal basis of devolution and decentralisation.

Once again, EPRDF was left alone to defend its achievements. On the question of rights of individual citizens, it was categorical in saying they have been fully ensured and respected as the rights of nations and peoples. It added that the rights of individual citizens and ethnic groups are inseparable. Those who problems with the current arrangement are only those hungry for power.

All said and done, the opposition side was more civil and united.



Prof. Dominique Moisi feels that the democracy front is not well fortified. He sees major evolution in the continued attempts of election hijackers around the world to hoodwink domestic and international opinion. There are more and more instances of subtle ways of ‘claiming victory.’ Moisi observes, “With instantaneous communication and access to information, the less legitimate a regime, the greater will be the temptation for it to manipulate, if not fabricate, the results of elections.”

 However, the new new electoral victory claim by despots that Prof. Moisi speaks of, like everyone else, frowns upon “near-unanimous Soviet-style electoral “victories” as vulgar and old fashioned.” It is in light of that one has to see Ethiopia’s constant drumming of its commitment to democracy, a country caught in the transition between traditional ballot box stealing and violence on one side and jamming international radio and internet transmissions on the other. That is why in this debate there was total split between the governing party and the opposition. Recall that in other countries, even in those aspiring for democracy, there are certain things and principles all sides defend as a common. From that point, this debate has exposed the Ethiopian leadership that nobody has anything in common with it.

A few months back, the ruling party signed a code of conduct agreement with a few parties saying that it wanted an end to election related problems. Non-signatories were battered with propaganda campaigns to make them look like disinterested in peaceful election. Nevertheless, not surprisingly in the countdown to this election, just less than a hundred days from now, it is already foreshadowed by the first signals of bloodshed by the murder of an opposition candidate in Tigray, homeland of the TPLF, core of the governing party. 

Not many independent journalists are left in the country for the government now to imprison. Therefore, it has chosen to jam the Voice of America (Bloomberg, 4 March). German radio Amharic language programme is also complaining about interference from Ethiopia. A spokesperson for the VOA deplored the jamming. As usual, spokesperson of the government dismissed it as a baseless allegation. He added, “Ethiopia has a constitution which outlaws any act by any official organ to restrict the dissemination of broadcast material from abroad.” This continuing practice has also been confirmed by shortwave radio monitors (so says VOA)), further discrediting government credibility.

The traditional electoral rigging is simple, and not anything unknown to Ethiopian experience. Suppression of the media, open violence, threats, murders and imprisonments of opponents and withholding of items needed for survival by the poor are far too common, although refined electoral rigging has been slow in coming. Just from recent memory, however, recall what happened in the April 2008 local election, which was preparatory for this forthcoming 2010 election. The ruling party claimed victory taking 137 of the 138 seats in the capital city. Regarding that loss of one seat, government spokesperson Bereket Simon, EPRDF’s campaign manager, said in a telling interview,

“It was simple coincidence. As you can imagine, we did not know we would win all the seats prior to the results. As any party we competed for all the seats; the gains could have been 90pc, 95pc or any percentage. It just happened that one of our candidates was not up to the standard that had been set by EPRDF, so we withdrew his candidacy, thus leaving one seat up for grabs”

(Addis Fortune, Interview with Bereket Simon, May 4, 2008)

Opposition parties cried foul to no avail. As usual, there were charges and counter-charges and then more imprisonments. The West turned a blind eye. In fact, in its business as usual mode, it turned to shoring up the regime, its driving motives being strategic, economic and security interests. The first one basically is to win the competition, at least, if not to leave the field wide open for China, an act that has led to pumping more money into the country. The second one is the West’s security needs, with Somalia, as home of terrorism because of it turning from rubbles to training grounds for fundamentalist killers bent on disrupting international life.

The flow of aid increases

Politically and economically, this situation has become a blessing in disguise for the Ethiopian regime, which otherwise has been dogged internally for its undemocratic nature and its violence against citizens. Already, for a while now Ethiopian stories of widespread imprisonment of opposition candidates and supporters, intimidation of the electorate and adoption of new laws that disadvantage opposition parties and barring civil societies have either moved to the back of news pages internationally, or ignored totally. The TPLF is making sure that this changing now.

For instance, The New York Times, which has literally ignored developments in Ethiopia for a long time, picked up Jason Maclure’s story in its March 2nd issue about the murder by six persons in Tigrai, home of the ruling party. So did The Washington Post. Perhaps both papers sees this as sign of what is in store, coming less than two weeks after the prime minister attacked opposition candidates form Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigrai, on the 35th anniversary of his liberation movement’s founding likening them to ‘dirt’ and remnants that represent the past he hates.

Interestingly, the country has received more money in aid now since the stigmas of the bloody 2005 election. It is increasing even more with every passing month, as it is preparing for another round of election in May 2010. Besides direct development aid, a few days ago UK committed itself to cover part of the running cost of the productive safety net until 2014, setting aside 200 million sterling pounds. There is also the PBS, which the British say is not direct budget support but for all intents and purposes is.

This helps the country to remain afloat. The negative consequences of the recurring droughts are also staved off, i.e., the dangers of death by famine and popular uprising, two decades of efforts under this regime not enabling the country to become food self-sufficient to overcome hunger and poverty through its own seats. The American aid is also very significant, as is that of a number of European countries. This has generated some anger in the development community against donor largesse to unaccountable governments.

Prof. William Easterly, a former World Bank hand and now professor at NYU and Laura Freschi, associate Director of the Development Research Institute (DRI-NYU), wrote that European donors, the UK leading the charge, are moving towards increasing direct budget support, irrespective of whether there is “country ownership” of the aid money and the development it is supposed to fund, in an environment where a government is not democratically accountable to the “country”, as measured, among others, by international indices such as Freedom House. They tried to seek the answer to this dilemma by reading the purported intentions of the aid givers that forces that compels them to collaborate with the corrupt and undemocratic governments. They observe in this connection,

“Of course, low income countries have lower ratings on democracy, human rights, and corruption than richer countries, so poverty-alleviation aid has to face the tricky trade-off of directing aid to the poorest countries while trying to avoid the most corrupt and autocratic ones. Unfortunately, a recent article found that the UK was one of the best (least bad) official aid agencies in doing this, so most of the others are apparently even worse. This study did not consider the issue of direct budget support. There is nothing that says you have to give aid meant for the poorest peoples directly to their governments, if the latter are tyrannical and corrupt. With the examples above, which side are UK aid officials on, on the side of poor people or on the side of the governments that oppress them?”    

Why Does British Foreign Aid Prefer Poor Governments Over Poor People? Aidwatch  (March 20, 2009)

Prof. Moisi’s admonition to the West

Prof. Dominique Moisi says,

“The distance that separates the West from countries that rely on sham elections is not only geographic, religious, or cultural; it is chronological. Their “time” is not, has never been, or is no longer the same as that of the West. How can they be understood without being judged, or helped without humiliating paternalism or, still worse, without an unacceptable “collateral damage,” as in Afghanistan? The West’s status in tomorrow’s world will largely depend upon how it answers this question. It cannot afford to ignore the issue any longer.”

Courage monsieur le professor! Tomorrow is struggling to be here and now, as far as the United States is concerned. There is some movement within academia, the Congress and even in the administration. The US Congress  made today public a letter to President Barack Obama by Senator Russ Feingold, chairperson of the Senate’s sub-committee on Africa, dated March 5, 2010. It is asking the president to ensure “that Ethiopia’s democratic process moves forward, not backward.” The Senator’s letter closes stating,

“There is no way that elections can be fair, let alone credible, with opposition leaders in jail or unable to campaign freely. At the bare minimum, the international community should push for the release of these political prisoners ahead of the elections. And if nothing changes, we should not be afraid to stand with the Ethiopian people and state clearly that an election in name only is an affront to their country’s democratic aspirations.”

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Posted by on March 6, 2010. Filed under NEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.