AfricaSocial Affairs

Understanding Ethiopia’s vicious cycle of authoritarianism

Taye Negussie (PhD)

Despite its renowned long-history as a state, unfortunately Ethiopia has so far never been able to see any semblance of a democratic regime. All the hitherto reigning regimes have been bluntly autocratic varying only in their ideological discourses; though, now authoritarianism is in its worst state as the current government combines it with the perilous ideology of ethnocentrism.

All the present government early promises of democracy, justice and freedom seem to come to a dramatic end particularly after the 2005 election. Most recently promulgated legislative and administrative acts and those in the offing sufficiently testify to the authoritarian nature of the incumbent. One hardly needs to mention the belatedly coined rhetoric of ‘developmental state’, glorification of the Chinese communist system and the admonition of liberal democracy are but attempts to rationalize its authoritarianism.

On the other hand, the unremitting bickering, rivalry, betrayal, and fragmentation within and among opposition parties leave one to wonder: what has fundamentally gone wrong with this country? what conspires against the inception and growth of democracy in this ancient land?

In this connection, the concern so far both in the academic as well as popular press has been confined to describing and admonishing autocratic regime. However, any serious attempt to address the problem of authoritarianism must go further than this, and examine its possible causes and means of sustenance.

I believe that authoritarianism is not merely an incidental rise to power by a single psychopathic tyrant; rather it is implicitly or explicitly linked with the prevailing familial, communal, societal values, norms, attitudes and practices that produce the personal characteristics and the social infrastructure that give rise to and sustain an autocratic regime.

In this regard, a brief explanation of how the established structural, institutional and cultural frameworks in Ethiopia provide favorable conditions for an autocratic political regime to surface and thrive is in order.

 The family system

The typical Ethiopian family (particularly in the Semitic culture) is a highly stratified system in which each member is accorded a distinct social position. The notion of Awaki (adult) versus Lijje (child), implies a hierarchy of knowledge endowment whereby the adult figure is invariably assumed to be an embodiment of ‘absolute’ and ‘complete’ knowledge whilst the child figure represents ‘incompleteness’ and ‘ignorance’, thus, resulting in one-way mode of communication between ‘unquestionable’ adult and passive child. Complete obedience, submissiveness and quietude are among the highly cherished virtues that a child is expected to acquire. There is hardly any tradition of candid and genuine discussion among family members. Therefore, the family barely allows the development of democratic disposition and capabilities; instead, it tends to breed either dominant or submissive personality well-fitted to authoritarianism.

 The school environment

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Likewise, the teaching-learning process in the school takes place within a highly restrictive and authoritarian setting. The teacher is often considered to be the alpha and omega of knowledge who deposits some ‘fixed’ ideas and principles in the ‘empty’ heads of the passive students. There scarcely exists opportunities for free exchange of information, ideas and knowledge between the teacher and student-body. The evaluation system typifies a ‘Darwinian’ world that glorifies the biting of one by the other. The ideal relationship between teacher and student is that of impersonal and unsympathetic type. Thus, no wonder such a rigid and hostile school environment produces citizens far more attuned to authoritarian than a democratic system.

 The work place

In the world of work, the notion of ‘Aleka’ (the chief) and ‘Minzzir’ (employee) presupposes the ‘bossy-showy’ vs. ‘submissive-hypocrite’ characteristics that renders the chief-employee relation a lord-vassal characteristic. The boss is viewed as embodiment of the rules and regulations of the office; and law enforcement agencies count more than rules and laws. Often employees await orders from their employers to accomplish their regular duties which are regarded as occasions for pleasing bosses. Open discussion and exchange of ideas is rarity; and the words of the boss are final and binding. Here again, the working environment represents another dreadful authoritarian monster–an ideal vehicle for authoritarian regime to thrive.

 Other cultural liabilities

In addition, such widespread traditions of servitude,  opportunism, passiveness, fatalistic attitude (i.e. the belief in ‘divine providence’), and now growing sentiment of ethnocentrism and reprisal, the cult of hero, secretive and suspicious characteristic, ironic and ambiguous expression (think of ‘kine’ tradition’), low political consciousness, excessive veneration of leaders, exaggerated fear of authorities and established institutions, poverty and illiteracy are but few of the cultural impediments or liabilities for promotion of freedom and democracy.

The upshot of the preceding arguments is that the problem of authoritarianism in Ethiopia as a whole appears to take a vicious cycle whereby authoritarian socio-cultural framework, dominant and/or submissive personalities and authoritarian political regimes feed into each other so as to create and perpetuate authoritarian political regimes. The saying, “a government is what a given society deserves”, thus, rings true here.

Now the biggest challenge remains to be that of breaking this vicious circle at some point. Of course, historically all today’s advanced democracies had initially emerged out of authoritarian social system. Here the transition to democracy was effected by those democratic groups of personalities who took the “leap of faith” from autocratic to democratic disposition. Likewise, the only way to break Ethiopia’s vicious cycle of authoritarianism is by those exceptionally democratic personalities or forces who dare to take the “leap of faith” from authoritarian to democratic disposition by mobilizing the whole population to promote democratic culture at all levels in the society.


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