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What’s dragging Ethiopia’s democratic governance?

Semahagn Gashu Abebe (PhD)

One of the most enduring features of the political system run by the ruling party in Ethiopia is the chronic problem of good governance. The rhetoric to achieve good governance in numerous variables has failed to match the reality on the ground.

When the EPRDF regime took power in 1991, it adopted different legal reforms essential to realize good governance. These reforms included, but not limited to, the participation of opposition parties in the political discourse, the introduction of independent media, and decentralization and adoption of the federal and parliamentary system of government. Furthermore, periodic general elections have taken place for four times in the past (1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010). From formal perspectives, it seems Ethiopia is an emerging democracy and departing from its authoritarian past. Impressed by such rhetoric, many international organizations such as Freedom House and most western states (at least until recently) referred to the country as an ‘emerging democracy’.

Nevertheless, the reality on the ground remains diametrically opposed from the formal rhetoric provided under official documents. In light of major variables of good governance such as legitimacy, accountability, transparency of government activities, and respect for the rule of law, the Ethiopian governance performance stays at a dismal bottom of almost every index even by some African countries’ standard known for their authoritarianism. According to the 2013 Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, Ethiopia ranked 33rd out of the 53 African countries surveyed. Ethiopia also ranked 111th out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s 2013 corruption index.

One too many to count

The factors that are dragging the progress of good governance in the country are structural and ideological in nature. First, what could be considered as one of the major structural problems is the absence of democratic culture in the country’s political history. The considerable part of the country’s political history had undergone through traditional feudal rule that was characterized by absolute loyalty that legitimized the exploitation of the poor. And in the last four decades the repressive political culture has been manifested under the banner of promoting the rights of nations and nationalities and ensuring socio-economic advancement through communist revolutionary polices. Despite the claim by both the communist Derg and the current regime of enjoying popular support, the old patriarchal top-down power relations have been systematically and firmly maintained in a harsh manner, if not harsher than it was during the imperial period.

The second is ideological – the adoption of leftist Marxist ideology into the country’s political discourse and its undeniable implications on the policies of the powers that be. As is known globally, it is an ideology strictly attached to undemocratic practices such as extreme loyalty to party discipline, restricting rights of citizens and economic freedoms, and the enriching of a few party elites who are more powerful than formal governmental institutions. In such controlled system of governance run by the few decision making process is secretive and there is total absence of effective mechanism to hold government officials accountable. At present, the ruling party in Ethiopia is governing the country in asoviet-style system of democratic centralism that continues to seriously undermine the progress of democratic institutions.

The ballot scapegoat

While elections are considered as one of the mechanisms used by the electorate to hold their leaders accountable, in Ethiopia they are used as a scapegoat to legitimize power players who are voted out of office. Since the fall in 1991 of the Derg and the so called dissolution of the single party political system, Ethiopia has undertaken four general elections. But it is widely believed that all have been marred by alleged vote rigging and have failed to reflect the genuine will of the people, increasingly undermining the ability of citizens to change their leaders through the ballot box.

For about a decade starting from the end of the 1990s to 2007-8, the major ideological policy pursued by the EPRDF regime was the doctrine of revolutionary democracy. But it was a mere cover-up used by the power players to obliterate independent institutions and separation of power out of the political space and accumulate private wealth. It proved that it neither recognizes competitive elections as a source of political power; nor it considers opposition parties as vital to the democratization process in the country.

The Soviet-style governance shaped by percepts of revolutionary democracy has not changed with the honey-creamed rhetoric of a developmental statism ideology that replaced it either. Irrespective of these jargons the ruling elites have continued paralyzing any prospect of the emergence of checks and balances among the three branches of the state.

The strict application of the principle of democratic centralism within the ruling EPRDF mean members of parliament often adhere to party loyalty than accountability to the electorate or to their conscience. Such extreme dominance of the parliament by a single political force has left the executive organ virtually without any effective oversight for its actions. Not only is the parliament unable to control the executive, it has become a mere rubber-stamp for all the misdeeds and abuse of power committed by the executive organ.

The highest executive powers of the federal government are vested in the prime minister and in the council of ministers. This has made the power of the prime minister uncontrolled and unchecked by the executive, legislative, judiciary and other federal or regional institutions; important decisions are made in the inner party circle that mainly consists of few party leaders than formal state institutions, too. This has further blurred the state-party separation in every channel of government especially at lower levels. The party network may even pass decisions on the rights and duties of government employees and officials.



Of the judiciary, the civil service…

Across the country institutions remain ineffective and the civil service heavily indebted to political manoeuvring; political elites in the past and present have manipulated the civil service to advance their own agenda. Under the current regime it is an open secret that civil servants are recruited for their political loyalty and patronage than competence. This has in turn deteriorated the quality and competence of the civil service.

It is a cliché to state the obvious that the existence of independent and strong judiciary is essential to ensure the rule of law, hence nurturing the culture of democratic governance. Despite the so called independence of the judiciary under the constitution, there continue to be excessive political interference in both civil and criminal trials, inefficiency and rampant corruption. Former judges and members of the legal community have revealed in various occasions that there have been instances whereby delicate political cases were deliberately assigned to perceived pro-government benches. In addition, the meagre budget allocated to the judiciary and absence of incentives to the judges has resulted in high turnover of judges that further weakened the judicial system.

…and the media

The state of the free media, often referred to as the fourth branch of government in healthy democracies, is in alarming state in Ethiopia. The continued arrest and exodus of independent journalists has deprived the people of Ethiopia of alternative views and access to critical information that helps them make responsible and informed decision in many fronts. In places where there are vibrant media the free flow of information is servingas a “checking function” by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them. Instead, what we are witnessing in Ethiopia is a highly controlled flow of information designed to fit into the agenda of the political elites.

When the ruling EPRDF first came to power it adopted a national charter that recognized freedom of speech and a law was issued to regulate the press. It was followed by the mushrooming of different newspapers, magazines and books. Although some private newspapers have discharged their responsibilities in questionable manners, the trend was very welcoming.

Twenty three years later however, the distribution of the private press remained largely confined to the capital Addis Abeba and a few major cities. Electronics media remain the principal news medium in predominantly rural Ethiopia; save for a few FM stations, shortwave radio and television are out of reach for private individuals. The government gives endless excuses for its absolute control over these media but it is an open secret that the main reason behind is its lack of confidence to meet the demands of well-informed citizens. Ensuring the progress good governance cannot be done in the absence a vibrant independent media which serves as the ultimate checks and balance platform.

In light of the continued repressive culture inherited from past regimes and carried by the present therefore the prospect of ensuring good governance and installing independent institutions in the country looks a faint dream.
For Ethiopia the first and sole avenue for ensuring good governance and institutional development is to make a sharp departure from leftist ideological orientation that is still deeply entrenched within the ruling elite, abandon ideological jargons-in-disguise and embrace ideals of democracy and freedom. Only such transformation can enable the new generation to equip itself with the values of democracy and freedom that are essential for breaking the deep-rooted repressive culture passing from generation to generation.



The writer is O’ Brien Fellow in Residence, Center for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism,
Faculty of Law, McGill University. He can be reached at semahagn@gmail.com

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