Opinion: Does Ethiopia really need democracy? Then it should draw resources from indigenous virtues 

Ethiopia is, once again, in a crossroads. There is a real possibility of heading to the usual authoritarian trajectory. “

By Mohammed Girma (PhD) @girma_mohammed

Addis Abeba, June 04/2020 – I was once driving with my colleague in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. As I took a glance through the window, one massive billboard caught my attention. It was President Paul Biya’s picture with a strapline, “36 Years of Democracy and Progress”. To this day, I could not find a more powerful illustration of how the word “democracy” has become meaningless. So fashionable, even sworn dictators cannot resist the allure of inserting it somewhere in their systems.  Even North Korea calls itself “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. 

Ethiopia is no different. The country has yet to see a fully functional democratic order. Power transitions are typically chaotic and bloody. Politicians promise it when they ascend to power, and deny it when they realize it is a threat to the longevity of their time in power.  Mistrust of the ruling elites (mainly because of aborted hope of better days) is a feeling that captures the popular mood. Nevertheless, the irony persists when it comes the insertion of “democracy” either into name of their political party or the state. The Derg – the Marxist junta – famously named the state “People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia”. After the downfall of the Marxist regime in 1991, the new incumbent, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democracy Party (EPRDF), now converted into Prosperity Party (PP), tweaked the name into “Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia”. And yet, everyone knows the word “democratic” means nothing. 

Marketing Problems

We have to then ask: What rendered this rather important concept meaningless? I would argue manipulative selling of the West and uncritical buying of the rest are the main culprits for the hollowness of the concept. For the Western powers and NGOs democracy is a ready-made outfit that all need to wear regardless of historical conditions. In fact, Francis Fukuyama, one of the best-known salespersons of the concept, has portrayed its liberal version as the apex of the ideological evolution of humankind. Those who could not reach the summit of this evolution live nursing a sense of inferiority inflicted by constant derogation of the Western media. Worse, the West demands democracy from poor countries as a condition for financial handouts. While espousing democracy should have been based on the fusion of two interpretive horizons – the local culture and the universal elements of democracy – countries on the receiving end have not been given interpretive space for gradual adaptation of suitable elements into their life system and call it their own democracy. That explains, at least partially, the reason why it has not filtered down into the Ethiopian consciousness. However, its semblance survives in some Nietzschean version of morality where it is used by the weakest to criticize the powerful. 

Other culprits are political and intellectual leaders. The ruling elites are more attuned to please their foreign friends than their own people. As if to demonstrate to their own people how impervious they are to the very ideals of democracy, they are keener to listen to the Western hegemonic powers than their own constituencies. For intellectual leaders, emulation from abroad is a sign of being cultured. But then, it would be unfair to deny them a credit on their diagnosis. Both Derg and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) diagnosed the Ethiopian ill as class system and ethnic marginalization. That is beyond contention. The search for remedy, however, took the Derg all the way to Chairman Mao’s communism, while TPLF went to Albania of all places to model their ideology on an exotic version of Marxism. This was before TPLF took a half-hearted ideological swing to the West on the realization that the cold war has ended. Some positive steps, for sure, have been taken. However, the human price of the emulation outweighs the change they brought. 

Risky Choices

Ethiopia is, once again, in a crossroads. There is a real possibility of heading to the usual authoritarian trajectory. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been vocal about vacating his position through democratic process. It would be tragic, and morally repugnant, if he reverses his promise. Authoritarianism, however benevolent it might be, breeds injustice and undermines the evolution of the nation towards a more free society. He needs to be on guard as there is very little in him to suggest that he is immune from the corrupting nature of power. The fact that he is already losing close allies – such as Lemma Megersa – from his own circles and ploughing ahead on his own is an ominous sign. Seeking consensus both within his party and beyond needs to be his second nature if he has to avoid a relapse into a one-man rule. Moreover, Ethiopians deserve democratic culture in decision-making.

But also you have to ask a reverse question: Can Ethiopia, as a society, manage democracy? One would almost be forgiven for sharing the same fear that Socrates harbored during the birth of democracy – rule by the people – in Athens. “If you were out on journey by sea”, he asked a rhetorical question, “who would you ideally want to be in charge of the vessel? Anyone? Or people with skills and experience in seafaring?” Eventually, he became the first victim of the kind of democracy he feared as he was killed for “corrupting” the Athenian youth.

The argument here is not that Ethiopians are immature; neither do I dare to claim democracy is bad. The point here is that, for one, democracy involves making informed choices. Making an informed choice is a skill, not a random intuition. I doubt that Ethiopians have been given the tools and time to make informed and rational choices. For another, the moral pillars of cohabitation and sharing borders, which were invented and maintained by ordinary citizens have been challenged by those who benefit from chaos. Social wisdom embedded in everyday life (that used to tie Ethiopians together) is wearing thinner by the day. The (social) media, politicians and activists were largely busy peddling partisan ideas, instead of educating society into taming freedom with a sense of responsibility.  Ethnicization of politics has reduced the country into a collection of hostile groups consumed by mistrust and fear of one another. During the struggle, the youth might have been equipped to demand their freedom; but there is very little to suggest that they are equally equipped to manage it. It is reasonable, therefore, to fear that the collapse of moral horizons could be more tragic than the lack of democracy.

This, however, is not a good reason to abandon the democratic project. However, the cost of democratization can be minimized by way of inculturation (adaptation) of democracy and by revitalizing indigenous virtues.  Concerted efforts needs to be made by politicians of all spectrum, media, civic organizations, religious institutions and schools to realize this. Revitalization of indigenous virtues must start from understanding what Ethiopia has within its culture. 

Untapped Indigenous Innovations

What are the examples of indigenous virtues?

 – Shengo and the virtue of listeningShengo is a traditional dispute resolution system in northern Ethiopia. While sessions are held under trees, the careful listening and adjudication is done by local Shimageles (elders). Elders are deemed to be impartial and closer to the truth, because they are considered to be closer to the divine. In older days, Shengo is never tedious. It combines administering justice with entertainment. Its “bela-lebeleha” genre helps both victims and defendants present their cases and evidence through witty poesis akin to ancient Greeks. This is because poesis is an important truth-seeking method.

 – Safuu and the virtue of respect and harmony – Safuu is an Oromo cosmological order cascaded into an ethical framework that helps people to guide their everyday life. There is a divine order connected to Waqqa. This order governs – and connects – not only human life, but also the totality of the created reality. However, there are unique (and individualized) orders to each individual known as ayyaana. Every creature needs to live in harmony with its ayyaana – internal logic. However, peace and tranquillity at both individual and societal level depends on the degree to which people are willing to observe the cosmic order, stay true to their own ayyaana and respect that of other’s.  

 – Afersata and the virtue of inclusion Afersata is an indigenous method of collective court proceeding in Gurage culture. The event usually takes place under oak trees. When crimes take place in the community, all the stakeholders would come together, first for awchachinge (investigation) and then for adjudication. For individuals to take part in Afersata is both a privilege and civic duty. Even clay makers and blacksmiths, traditionally marginalized groups, are invited to take part in this decision-making process.

Blessing in Disguise

These indigenous social innovations are not perfect; but they are perfectible. They depict a similar ethos to polis – a life of city-state – in ancient Greek. They bring a unique kind of richness to social life and political exercise i.e. a sense of belonging (people can see themselves in it), unassuming simplicity, appreciation to aesthetics, sensitivity to moral values, and participatory decision-making.  What is common for all of them is that they appeal to the divine horizon as the source of order, justice and fairness – a significant value on which modern culture is loosing its grip. The ramification of this is that the omniscience of the divine is used to overcome lies, deceit and biases. 

For intellectual leaders and academics, it is not enough to engage with, quote from and allude to the Western intellectual ancestors; they also have to be equally, if not more, conversant with their own.  Ethiopia needs solutions for its political gridlock; but we need to look for solutions from within as well as from abroad. A better future is a must; but we have to be willing to accept if Ethiopia’s way to the future could be via the past. Academics need to do the work of piecing together the prized assets in the culture and mainstream it in a life-giving way. It takes a willingness to understand, modernize and tweak them when needed. Such a move would have double benefits: firstly, a democracy adapted in such a way appeals to cultural sensibilities, and secondly, the revitalized virtues would serve as moral receptors for democracy.  

In the end, the meaninglessness of the concept of democracy could be a blessing in disguise for countries like Ethiopia. It would create an opportunity to fill in the hollow concept with its concrete cultural elements and decorate it with colors that come from different nations and nationalities. AS


Editor’s Note: Mohammed Girma (PhD) is Visiting Lecturer of Intercultural Studies, London School of Theology. He is the author of Understanding Religion and Social Change in Ethiopia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and the editor of The Healing of Memories (Rowan & Littlefield, 2018). He can be reached at girma.mohammed@lst.ac.uk

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