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‘Old habits die hard’

Taye Negussie (PhD)


Very few would doubt that the period between the late 1980’s and early 1990s was indeed one of the most remarkable periods in recent history of world political economy as it set the demise of the Eastern communist camp, thereby heralding presumably the end of the notorious Cold War.

The ensuing ideological mood in the wake of the tumultuous change that engulfed quite a significant part of the world by then was well echoed in Francis Fukuyama’s best seller but controversial book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ published in 1993.

Francis Fukuyama’s central argument was that with the demise of the contending communist political ideology and centralized planning economic system, the Western neo-liberal democracy and free-market economic system has proved itself to be the sole universal path towards a higher level of human civilization.

The extent to which this sentiment prevailed at the time could well be revealed by the fact that with very few exceptions nearly all formerly communist-oriented regimes went to enthusiastically embrace the Western neo-liberal democracy and free-market system as their official ideology.
Alas, after some two decades down the road quite many of these countries seem set to slide back steadily to their authoritarian repressive past. In some cases, they do so by recycling a quazi-communist style authoritarian system – though flavored with a little bit of economic liberalism –that goes by the name ‘developmental statism’. This trend may be typified by Ethiopia’s recent move along that direction.

Probably, this phenomenon might suggest – in line with quite familiar psychological insight–an instinctual resurrection of old communist mentality long buried in deep-consciousness of those politicians implicated with communist ideology; also, reminiscent of the adage ‘old habits die hard’.
Let me briefly illustrate the circumstances and examine some of the possible factors that might have led these countries to relapse to their repressive past with some focus on Ethiopia under the ruling Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) taking its root as communist guerilla movement and Russia of Vladimir Putin, formerly a pivotal figure in the infamous Communist Soviet Union security apparatus, the KGB.

Half-hearted choice
To begin with, whether one would stay loyal to an earlier decision will all depend on the circumstances surrounding the decision making process and whether the decision was indeed made out of one’s full conviction.

Looking back on the circumstances of the late 80’s and early 90’s in which those countries in transition embraced en mass the ideology of Western liberal political economic system, one would notice the fact that for many of them the decision to go democrat was not so much a decision made out of heart-felt conviction and commitment to democracy as it was to dance with the tune of the time for it was the only game in town. So, it’s not surprising to see a lot of foot-dragging in these countries on the issue of democracy in some latter years.

Add to this, the presence of some element of imposition in the introduction of democracy to these countries – as it was a pre-condition for them to qualify for badly needed financial and economic assistance – may, in my view, also have its own share in not taking democratic values and principles to heart.
In any way, whether the liberal democratic ideology was accepted heartily or not, each country then had to show a good amount of liberal human and democratic right provisions in their newly re-written constitutions.


Failing to walk-the-talk
It goes without saying that once these countries have put those lofty democratic values and principles in their supreme legal document, then they are bound to face the daunting task of translating them into practice sooner or later.

I think it is just at this point that we come to witness today’s much lamented and deplored gap between rhetoric and practice of democracy in many of these countries.

As a matter fact, the measure of true democracy lies not in the beautiful phrases and statements put in the constitution as it is in the presence and active functioning of genuinely impartial judiciary and electoral board, a disciplined police, security, defense and a vibrant independent media among others.

Yet, on that account, the track record with many countries transited to democracy at the end of the Cold War is deeply disappointing, if not disturbing. Consider the rather frequent accusations labeled against the Ethiopian and Russian governments by both domestic and international human and democratic right advocacy and monitory agencies concerning their governments’ absolute control over public media, restriction and intimidation of free private media, use of law and law enforcement bodies against political opponents, restriction of free assembly and peaceful demonstration, and manipulation of elections to extend the rule of the regime in power and what have you.

Still worse, as of late even those lofty democratic tenets and principles well placed in their constitutions are now being unabashedly overridden by derivative laws and regulations often with the excuse of ‘fighting terrorism’– apparently the political fad of the time. Witness the recent deeply controversial Ethiopian anti-terrorism law, press law, societies and charities law.

In this connection, this magazine, in its January editorial (Vol.5 No.46. Jan. 2015), entitled ‘Human Rights Day in Ethiopia: Make it count please’ passionately illustrated why Ethiopia’s 20 year constitution is “failing the very people it is supposed to protect.”


Un-civic democracy
Many social scientists and political commentators believe that democracy is not so much a periodical election event as it is a total way of life. After all, democracy as a ‘rule of people’ based on choices presupposes possession of certain set of civic virtues and capabilities on the part of the people that would enable them to embrace and nurture a democratic culture.

According to the noted civil society scholar Edward Shills, these civic virtues include, among others, trust, tolerance and cooperation that moderate particular, individual or parochial interests and give precedence to common good.

As a thumb of rule, people learn these civic virtues and acquire the tradition of commitment for the cause of freedom, justice and equality only when they are allowed to organize and operate in their own truly independent and autonomous civil society organizations.

Sadly, the current state of civil society in the countries under discussion seems extremely deplorable for there exists hardly any space for civil societies to operate on the political landscape. Apparently, operating within the framework of lingering communist mentality, the governments in many of these countries are literally addicted to co-opting and manipulating existing civil societies, not least recreating their own puppet ones. Hence, the existing so-called civic organizations are occupied not so much in enhancing the democratic consciousness and capabilities of members as that of serving as channel to deliver the policies and directives of the ruling regimes.

Needless to say, where vibrant civil societies and genuinely impartial government organs are seriously lacking, it comes as no surprise that abuse of the rule of law, gross violation of human rights, meaningless periodical elections, unparalleled dominance and control of the ruling party on all aspects of people’s life prevail unhindered – realities not in short supply in the countries discussed above.

So, in the face of all these, it would be much tempting to conclude – as against Francis Fukuyama’s prophesy of ‘the end of history’– what the end of the Cold war has indeed bestowed on citizens of these countries is rather a continuation of undemocratic rule albeit in somewhat changed form and style. Of course, there is no denying that in the case of Ethiopia like most others, it only involves a change in the face of rulers.


Ed’s note: The writer can be reached at

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