Ethiopia is one of the latest newcomers to the wave of democracy that began to roll across Africa in the early 1990s. Impelled by the social protest movement that began in the Oromia region in November 2015 and lasted three years, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has ushered in political reforms that effectively ended a quarter century of authoritarian rule. The reform measures have relaxed the prevailing political tension and removed the specter of impending state collapse. Despite a palpable rhetorical shift, there remains uncertainty whether or not the country is securely on course to make a successful transition to democracy. A sense of drift has spurred interparty frenzy and jockeying for power, sometimes resulting in armed skirmishes.
More than at any time in the past Ethiopia is at the proverbial political crossroads.[i] Democratization seems the only path that can offer a realistic chance to prevent the possibility of a failed state. The viability of the country depends on democratic transition and consolidation. The reward for a successful transition is clear, although the process is likely to be bumpy, arduous and occasionally painful. The prospect of a return to benign authoritarian rule is a distinct possibility; democratic backsliding is not out of question.
Despite a voluminous literature of “transitology”, there is no theory of transition that predicts a sure path to full-fledged democracy. In this article, based on insights from two seminal works on democratic transitions,[ii] I highlight some structural weaknesses that present a fatal danger to the Ethiopian transition and ultimately the hope of a democratic polity. My hope is that Ethiopia’s transition leaders draw on the lessons of successful transitions and adopt policies that can prevent reversals, put the transition on an irreversible course, and lay a solid foundation for a genuine and enduring democracy.
Elections and Transition to Democracy
No other known mechanism exists than free, fair and competitive elections to complete transition from an authoritarian regime to democratic rule. A broad consensus holds that Ethiopia’s case is no exception. Speaking to a convention of Ethiopian Muslims in Washington DC in late July 2018, Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, affirmed the seminal importance of democratic elections: “My ultimate goal in the next two years is to ensure [that] a democratic election takes place in Ethiopia.”
Elections ending authoritarian rule mark the first step toward a more open, participatory and accountable politics. But the process remains fraught with difficult challenges. The existing electoral system in Ethiopia cannot be the basis for conducting credible and legitimate elections. Political parties that have now flocked into the country, hoping to participate in shaping the future of the country are constrained by the Electoral Law (Proclamation No. 532/2007) and Political Parties Registration Law (Proclamation No. 573/2008). Promises have been made to amend these laws. But with district and precinct level elections scheduled for May 2019, no changes have yet been announced. The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), the body designed to ensure the EPRDF’s remaining in power, does not have sufficient public trust to administer and manage free and fair elections.
A clear lesson from other transitions is that elections — even sham elections — can facilitate eventual transition to substantive democracy. Indeed studies[iii] confirm that authoritarian regimes that show initial willingness to open up the political space are more likely to become more democratic if the opposition shows readiness to compromise. The purpose of elections is thus not just to complete a genuine democratic transition but can also help to build a democratic culture for the future.
In this scheme of things, the key aim of reform should be to establish broad acceptance of the basic rules of democratic political competition. Electoral laws must not be a gift of the ruling party to the opposition and the people. It is important that Ethiopians view electoral laws as impartial. The drafting process must be inclusive and the product one that respects the rights of all stakeholders. Overall, laws must be reformed in a way that offers opportunities to strengthen electoral-management bodies as independent, impartial, credible and professional institutions.
Transition and the Role of Courts
Even when elections are conducted successfully, ample experience shows that results might be contested. Courts play a critical role in settling disputes arising from controversial electoral verdicts. The challenge for the courts is to maintain public trust even when they render decisions that may disappoint a large segment of the public or of the political class. In the process, courts risk their credibility and legitimacy and their unique place as one of the three pillars of democratic governance.
In Ethiopia’s case, the credibility of the courts has been considerably challenged. The public perception is that all institutions are defenders of an authoritarian system. To be regarded as impartial arbiters in settling electoral disputes, they must gain credibility. The appointment of new officers would be an encouraging signal of intent to undertake legal sector reform and to establish the rule of law. In this endeavor, nothing is more important and complex than the construction and consolidation of a legal system based on a democratic ethos. The law must be at the service of ensuring a stable democracy, respecting human rights, maintaining social peace and security, and advancing greater freedom for all.
In the transition from authoritarianism to a functioning democracy, the construction of durable institutions is essential. In legal-sector reform, the central concept is the rule of law. There is, however, much more to reform than restructuring the courts, police and prisons. A broader view would ensure equality under the law. Legal-sector reform during Ethiopia’s transition must be undertaken in order to create the foundation for a legal system in a democratic republic. It takes time for the courts and other law enforcement agencies – and their officers – to build trust with the public. A robust legal-sector reform program is already long overdue.
Transition and Security Sector Reform
A successful election and legitimate legal-sector intervention are sin quo non, but they cannot guarantee a successful transition. Candidates and their supporters may not accept Court rulings in electoral disputes. If electoral disputes escalate to disruption of law and order, security forces might be called on to restore order. The Ethiopian security system was always organized, trained and funded to provide security for the regime rather than for the public. In the past quarter century, the command structure of security institutions has belonged to the ruling elite. With this history and reputation, it has limited capacity to act as a national security system designed to protect the public, the constitution and the country.
Experience shows that state security institutions must be reformed, as a precondition for a successful democratic transition and for sustainable peace. The goal of reform must be a strong foundation for a people-centered security framework in which the military, paramilitary and internal security forces, including intelligence and police forces, commit to democratic civilian control, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. A well-thought-out restructuring of Ethiopia’s security apparatus, with the goal of creating forces capable of providing security for the state and its people, should not be postponed..
The thirteen transition leaders Bitar and Lowenthal interviewed emphasize the importance of bringing all the security services under democratic civilian control as soon as possible. Yves Leterme, the former Belgian premier and secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) has underscored the necessity “to act firmly to achieve real democratic [and] real civilian control over … the military, security and intelligence forces, while simultaneously showing their restraint from political activities and partisan involvement.”[iv] Such control cannot be achieved by reshuffling commanders; it requires system-wide change.
Transition and Economic Policy Alternatives
Even in an ideal situation, in which elections are conducted successfully, court rulings in electoral disputes are accepted, and security forces act within the framework of the rule of law, the democratic gains achieved could be endangered by economic shocks that precipitate widespread disaffection. Over the past three decades, many democratic transitions were derailed by such economic crises. Political leaders and stakeholders must manage economic problems and provide solutions that do not derail the transition process.
The demand for democratic change in Ethiopia was set in motion when the authoritarian bargain known as the developmental state—which promised Ethiopians prosperity in exchange for leaving politics to the elite—ruptured when state rent promoted private gains rather than encouraging long-term value creation. The result was unequal distribution of wealth, uneven access to wealth-making opportunities, mismanagement of public resources and, in some cases, adherence to models of growth unsuited to Ethiopia cultural and political realities.
Success of the transition to democracy therefore depends on management of the economy. The “authoritarian bargain” must be replaced by a “democratic bargain” that envisions broader distribution of the benefits of aggregated growth. In constructing a new bargain, transition leaders need to give priority to economic grievances – such as rising unemployment and inflation – that have provoked mass protests. The focus of the “democratic bargain” should be on equity, fairness, and inclusiveness for the most vulnerable in society.
Beyond repairing aspects of the “authoritarian bargain,” transition leaders have done little to promote inclusive dialogue about development and reformulation of policies. The Ethiopian prime minister has made conflicting statements, pronouncing continued adherence to developmental-state theories while making decisions indicating a shift toward a liberal economic policy. Because there has been no discernable departure from the command economy philosophy that has guided economic policy formulation so far, there has been negligible private investment in Ethiopia. As long as there is no policy change, the economy cannot attract private capital to stimulate the economy.
Economic reforms must be instituted at two levels. The first involves long-term strategies for encouraging private and public investment in all sectors of the economy. The second and immediate task is to focus on job creation for Ethiopia’s youth, who for the past three years were engaged in mass mobilization. Reforms have given them liberty and raised their hopes, which could be dashed if their personal economic conditions do not improve.
There is no doubt that the political situation should change to improve the lack of security that scares investors. Because Ethiopia’s debt to GDP ratio is reaching unsustainable levels, deficit financing, even if possible, is not advisable under normal conditions. But the consequence of doing nothing is even worse. If the economy sputters, the democratic transition would be derailed. What the economy needs now is emergency intervention in the form a stimulus package that focuses on small-scale projects all over the country financed through grants, loans, or direct budget subsidies from countries supporting Ethiopia’s democratization. Failure of the transition to democracy would mean state collapse in Ethiopia, which would have catastrophic consequences for the Horn of Africa.
Old Challenges as New
There is a broad national consensus that the goal of the current transition is to create a functional federal, democratic, state in which people of diverse ethnic and religious affiliations enjoy justice, freedom, equality and dignity. In this respect, the transition’s definitive mission is to end not just the authoritarian regime’s excesses but also the hegemonic nature and totalizing penchants of the Ethiopian state. The transition thus has as its greatest challenge resolving the festering questions of the last half century, which revolutions in 1974 and 1991 were unable to address successfully.
The regime change of 1991 in particular failed, not because of wrong diagnosis of the political pathologies that have beset the country since the inception of the modern state. It failed because of the refusal of the group that took power to implement the prescriptions of the 1991 political bargain: the constitution and the federal administrative arrangement. In light of the alternative, implosion and disintegration, the importance of the transition cannot be overstated.
Ezekiel Gebissa has a Ph.D. in History, from Michigan State University. He is the author of several books, peer-reviewed articles, reports and book chapters on Ethiopia’s cash crop agriculture, religious experiences and indigenous knowledge systems. He is recognized as a leading public intellectual and commentator on Ethiopian politics. His political commentaries regularly appear in national and international magazines
[i] There were many occasions in Ethiopian history that authors have described as “crossroads.” The regime change of 1991 was such a juncture for Ethiopia to make a clean break with its autocratic political culture and embark on democratization. In his aptly titled book, The Ethiopian State at the Crossroads: Decolonization and Democratization or Disintegration?.Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1999, Leenco Lata put this choice in the interrogative form, “democratization or disintegration.” Today it is a stark realty. The country is at another crossroads. Failure to democratize now has no fallback option.
[ii] For this article, I relied on two works on democratic transition to identify areas of policy intervention during democratic transition. The first is Isabel Colman and Terre Lawson-Remer Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons from Democratic Transitions. (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 2013, which compares eight countries’ experiences with democratization with a view to compiling certain lessons for newly democratizing countries. The second is Sergio Bitar and Abraham F. Lowenthal’s edited volume, Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, catalogs the experiences of nine countries and thirteen political and civil society figures who led the democratic transitions in their respective countries. In the preface of Democratic Transitions, Yves Leterme, secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy & Electoral Assistance offers ideas for countries in transition.
[iii] Jan Teorell, Determinants of Democratization: Explaining Regime Change in the World, 1972-2006. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
[iv] Santos, Lean Alfred. ‘’10 lessons on democratic transitions and its developmental impact,’’ Devex, September 13, 2016, https://www.devex.com/news/10-lessons-on-democratic-transitions-and-its-development-impact-88738.