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The scramble for legitimacy

Taye Negussie (PhD)

Ever since its assumption of power in 1991, the current ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been persistently coining varied rhetoric and discourses apparently with the view to validate and sustain its unremittingly single-handed reign ad infinitum. And, these rhetoric and discourses come in different forms and guises.

‘Liberator and guardian’ of the state

From the outset, the EPRDF regime proclaimed itself as the sole ‘liberator’ of those formerly much neglected and alienated ‘nation, nationalities and people’. The 1995 Ethiopian constitution–the brain-child of the front–was often invoked as an epic that marked the said ‘liberation’.

The EPRDF regime has then basked in self-made image that this ‘liberation’ would only sustain in so far as it stays in power, and without it being in the ‘guardian’ position of a ruler, the newly crafted Ethiopian state is doomed to disintegrate for good.

Hence, when the front occasionally faces relatively stronger challenges from some opposition groups, it tends to accuse them of being either reactionary elements bent on reviving the old repressive system or subversive forces that threaten the integrity of the state. Then, each and every move of the dissenting groups would be criminalized as an attempt to overthrow the ‘constitutional order’.

Then on-negotiable stance of the regime concerning matters of political power can be easily observed while implicitly or explicitly conveying the message–in desperate circumstances such as during the infamous 2005 election–that its victory was not an easy victory that one would simply surrender for it was won at the sacrifice of the precious life of thousands of its heroes and heroines–as if it was an insurance for their losses.

The contest against ‘the dead’

The ongoing vigorous endeavor by the regime in constructing monuments of alleged ‘victories’ in some regions appears to be among the numerous attempts it has contrived to magnify the ‘sins’ of past regimes and thereby entrench its ‘liberator’ image amongst the population.

Moreover, a persistent claim of achievements in almost every arena of life also seems to be in line of the common strategies that EPRDF employs to vindicate its totalitarian rule. The euphemism ‘YeGinbot 20 Frewoch’, which literally means the ‘outcome of May 28th’(its victory day against the Dergue regime), is invoked to demonstrate the superiority of EPRDF regime over the long dead ones.

The fallacy in this claim is quite evident in that, for one thing, it entirely overlooks the inherent natural law of evolution of phenomena into a better and higher state; for the other, the mistaken belief that everything which has coincidently happened during the EPRDF’s reign–say the worldwide development in information technology and the subsequent socio-economic changes–must necessarily be the outcome of EPRDF’s ‘prudent’ policies.

Politicization of the economy

The insistent claim of fast and double-digit economic growth is definitely yet again one more strategy to justify the hitherto uncontested grip of power by EPRDF   and its will to continue with the status quo as rationalized by the lately coined ideological rhetoric of ‘developmental statism’.

The dominant role of party-affiliated mega business empires in the economy, the discourse of the growth and transformation plan, the strategies of associational businesses and micro enterprises, the enhanced role of the military in the economic arena, among others, well testify the ever increasing politicization of the economy so as to assist with the continuity of EPRDF’s hegemonic rule.

The politicization of the economy is also quite vivid in the relentless media propaganda about ‘development’, an exaggerated publicizing of some mega-projects like the ‘Millennium Dam’, the occasional talks about the necessity of EPRDF being in power in order to bring the already started infrastructural projects to full completion and  a trend whereby the commencement and completion of infrastructural construction activities are systematically made to coincide with the unfolding of some major political events, say when election is around the corner.

 Sustaining ‘Meles’s legacy’

The unexpected and sudden passing of EPRDF’s legendary leader, Meles Zenawi, two years ago clearly sent a shock wave ranging from the rank and file members to its top leaders. The uncharacteristically too long mourning period – presumably to come to terms with the grave shock – was also used to thwart an imagined political crisis owing to the departing of the ‘brain’ of the party.

The subsequent bombardment with the slogan of ‘sustaining Meles’s legacy’, the establishment of ‘Meles’s Foundation’ and the renaming of innumerable parks and public institutions after him are but to further sustain the hegemonic political and socio-economic framework.

All being said, I feel a brief look at Weber’s insight on legitimacy may help us better appraise the strategies employed by EPRDF to justify and validate its unparalleled dominance in the current power structure.

According to Max Weber, there are two principal sources of state legitimacy: citizens’ expectation of specific external effects resulting from the regime’s actions–‘interest-motive’; and an emotional belief of citizens in the regime as an expression of ethical, esthetic, or any other deeply-held human values–‘value-rational’.

At the core of the ‘interest-motive’ legitimacy is the presumption of egoistic human nature as typified in the ‘utilitarian principle’ of the classical English Political philosopher–Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes held that people are mainly motivated by ‘pleasure-seeking’ and ‘pain-avoidance’. He proposed that all human actions are caused by material phenomena–meaning humans are inherently materialist. Evidently, this ‘animal-person’ paradigm views humans as fearful and greedy ‘body-beings’–as opposed to ‘spiritual beings’–who can easily be motivated, controlled or manipulated by externally imposed physical or psychological tools.

Here it is not hard to see EPRDF’s manipulative ideological rhetoric, Hippocratic and opportunistic politics, and materialistic-oriented discourses very much fitting into Weber’s ‘interest-motive’ legitimacy theory.

But, no matter how much external force one exercises, there is always a room for choosing an internal response inherent in human nature. As the imminent leadership theorist Stephen R. Covey has convincingly stated, “human beings are not things needing to be motivated and controlled; depending on how they are treated, people can make a choice ranging from rebel, malicious obedience, willing compliance, cheerful cooperation, heartfelt commitment, to creative excitement.”

Thus, without doubt, the most viable form of government that one should ever look forward to is one that is human-centric; one that draws on Weber’s ‘value-rational’ legitimacy and that accords greater value to human life and dignity, individual and collective rights, freedom and happiness. As the saying goes, “The best government is the one that governs the least.”

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