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A ‘Democratic Front’ at odds with democracy

Taye Negussie (PhD)

Few rhetoric terms have so pervaded as the term democracy in the political discourse of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that controls the Ethiopian government since 1991. Far too often, the front proclaims that the very cause that drove it into armed liberation struggle was its firm resolve to carry through the much repressed Ethiopian people into a democratic system where freedom, justice, equality and the right to self-rule will unconditionally and fully prevail.  

Hence, EPRDF’s ascendance to power in 1991 was regarded in some quarters as a triumph of democracy. This was more so when the constitution ratified in 1995, under its auspices, explicitly pronounced the dawn of a democratic Ethiopian state founded on the “rule of law”, and that fully respects “individual and people’s fundamental freedom and rights”.

This said, however, two decades down the road one may rightly ask as to what extent these lofty promises have really been delivered to the people.

To the surprise of many, all recent political moves and trends not only testify the promises to remain unfulfilled, far worse than that, they point out to the grim reality of the EPRDF regime well nigh to slip into a state no less authoritarian than the one it toppled – as has been argued in many previous articles published in this magazine.

This can be further evidenced by the damning reports on the country’s poor record on human rights and democracy frequently released by international human rights and advocacy groups whom the regime often ridicules as the devil advocates of “neo-liberalism”. 

Consider the recently released 2013 Human Rights Reports by the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which reported Ethiopia’s human rights problems as comprising, among others, arbitrary killings, allegations of torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces; reports of harsh and, at times, life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention; a weak, overburdened judiciary subject to political influence; infringement on citizens’ privacy rights, including illegal searches; allegations of abuses in the implementation of the government’s “villagization” program; restrictions on academic freedom, freedom of assembly, association, and movement; alleged interference in religious affairs; limits on citizens’ ability to change their government; police, administrative, and judicial corruption, and the problem of immunity. 

The quick descend to authoritarianism

Many political commentators trace the turning point in the regime’s open move to authoritarianism to the 2005 infamous national election.

A general overview of events in the post-2005 election period vividly reveal two major trends: First, the many draconian laws and manipulative government measures which increasingly diminished individual freedom and basic democratic rights ultimately effecting the multiplication of largely disillusioned, alienated, disempowered and subservient individual subjects. Second, the same laws and administrative measures having substantively enhanced the power and capacity of the security apparatus to scrutinize and control over the activities and affairs of citizens by providing the legal and moral framework as well as the resources needed to carry out the job.

Thus, it will not be hard to estimate the net effect of these complimentary political processes yielding to the classic “police state”.

Normalizing and naturalizing authoritarianism

Apparently, with the purpose of normalizing and naturalizing authoritarianism, the regime has now embarked on such puzzling ideologies of developmental statism and dominant party system, both of which contravene the essence and spirit of the largely democratic constitution.

The ideology of Developmental statism seems to be highly appealing to authoritarian states for it readily entitles them a license to undermine the highly-cherished democratic values with the excuse of waging rapid economic growth. Subsequently, holding high the agenda of economic growth, EPRDF has endeavored to rationalize authoritarianism by portraying democracy as mere luxury and secondary issue that should come only after the achievement of some economic growth – ironically, a u-turn from what was proclaimed to be the front’s initial cause for the struggle.

Likewise, the rhetoric of a single dominant party system – a de facto liquidation of the constitutionally guaranteed multi-party system – largely appears to be yet another pretext for implanting authoritarianism.  

The prime rationale underpinning EPRDF’s claim to the status of a dominant party is ostensibly its long and unrivalled election triumph in many consecutive election rounds that enabled it to stay in power for relatively longer period. The trick with this claim evidently lies in the portrayal of seemingly fair and unbiased election environment that equally favors all competing parties. To the contrary, however, the fact of the matter is that all those government institutions and organs directly or indirectly involved in executing the election process implicitly or explicitly fall under the influence of EPRDF.

The episode of the 2010 general election that allegedly gave EPRDF a sweeping victory to the tune of wining more than 96 per cent of the seats of the House of Peoples’ Representatives – that  put it at par with the notorious communist party of North Korea – could serve as an illustrative example  of the rather unhealthy election environment.   

Subjects of the government or citizens of the country?

More than anything else, quite a telling signifier for the EPRDF regime to slide into cold and naked authoritarianism is its recent campaign to set up a military prototype structure – the “development army”– that forces each and every individual citizen to be organized into “five-to-one” social control groups that subtly deprive citizens freedom of consciousness, thought and personal dignity.

In fact, history well informs us that this was a mind-body controlling device widely employed by those classical totalitarian regimes in their attempt to make all aspects of individual life absolutely subordinate to the state.  

As is often the case, the sweetening rhetoric for imposing this repressive strategy is purportedly the government’s desire for enhancing the productivity and quality of the tasks and activities that individual citizens regularly engage in.  

Needless to say, the simple fact that the strategy has been imposed from the top grossly packaged in a straight-jacket form without any scant attention to discrepancies in nature and type of tasks and activities people engage in will make it highly suspect to be an ideologically motivated ploy to transform citizens to passive subjects of the government.

In closing, what now seems to be grossly overlooked with the EPRDF leadership is the fact that the reproduction of subjugated, disempowered, alienated, and subservient herds of individuals will not make the government any stronger. Instead, the surest way towards establishing strong government and strong nation is by way of making some allowance for the real functioning of a true and vibrant democracy that reproduces millions of well-informed, critical, confident, responsible and independent citizens who resolutely stand for truth, justice, freedom and prosperity.  

The writer can be reached at  



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