Ethiopia’s tortuous path to democratization

There is still a perilous lack of compromise in a contested polity.

“Despite that what I am about to say is contrary to your official mandate, I would like to take a moment to talk to you about circumstances in which you should not hesitate to prioritize stabilization and democratization over elections.” 

These were the words that I exchanged with notable election officials close to three years ago. It was an awkward conversation, especially when it was with election officials, but it was one I had with many actors I thought might have a bearing on the matter—the government, its opponents, and everyone in between.

The crux of my message, a proposition I want to reiterate in this piece, was that if Ethiopia is to democratize, and if we are to learn from the history of democratization and liberal reform around the world, we need to ensure a transitional process which achieves, or at least makes headway, in elite compromise and national reconciliation.

Three years ago, the proposition was that this ought to be achieved before the first transitional elections since the risk was that elections might catalyze an unravelling. Now that much of the unravelling is already taking place, the sequencing of the elections may no longer be relevant.

The need to build a stable structure on which a democracy can stand, however, is still outstanding.

Ethiopia’s failure to democratize is attributable to a collective failure of the major elite groups; a point that is usually lost because most of the focus is on the incumbent which is expected primacy for praise or blame due to its positionality.

I contend that the political elite is likely to fail to achieve democratization in the near future if it continues to fail to establish a system in which its heterogeneous members have mutual assurances that their core interests are secure from being obliterated by the whims of electoral politics.

Currently, members of the Ethiopian elite have been engaged in zero-sum relations in which no one is safe from getting killed, imprisoned, or penalized in other ways—including through wholesale physical threats and attacks on the presumed social base of political actors.

Unfortunately, this continues to be the state of affairs since the 1900s. This kind of politics did not lead to either democratization or authoritarian stability then, and it will not do so today either.

The palace coup—what went right

In 2018, having failed to restrain rounds of protest movements that threatened to unsettle the country, the authoritarian government of Ethiopia found itself in a situation where it had to make efforts to reform the political system. Most in the authoritarian system understood they could no longer rely on coercion and neo-patrimonial co-option and they did make a wise decision by abandoning their style of “revolutionary-democratic” authoritarianism.

During the positive but ambiguous changes, what most had apparently forgotten, amid euphoria one may add, was that Ethiopia was still run by an authoritarian regime. Noting that what transpired was a palace coup within an authoritarian regime is an important analytical starting point that is often forgotten.

It is unquestionable that the new leadership did start a process of democratic transition, and the new leaders were able to garner a high degree of (non-democratic) legitimacy. However, Ethiopia continued to be run by an authoritarian regime that had millions of members with a vested interest in the perpetuation of a system in which they were powerful members of society.

Therefore, the path to democratization was never going to be an easy one.

Following the transition, many things went right. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government began its term by publicly acknowledging and apologizing for its previous human rights violations and subsequently releasing thousands more political prisoners, ending a policy that securitized political and civic opposition, and moving away from a governance model that depended upon state violence and human rights violations.

This change was underpinned by a conviction from the ruling party that repression was no longer a viable way of governance and that the state could/would collapse if not based on the consent of the governed. What was clear then, and what is undeniable even now, is that the regime’s announcement of its intent to democratize was believable, especially because it followed its promises, albeit tentatively and hesitantly, with concrete reforms.

As things stand now, the situation is quite dire.

While it is no longer possible to paint a hopeful picture, with serious atrocities and a man-made (“man” being intentional here) famine on the horizon, it is apt to point out that some of the groundwork for democratization has taken place and one may contend is even holding. The process of legally entrenching “revolutionary-democratic” authoritarian rule has not only been disrupted but the legal infrastructure is now more progressive than the pre-2005 legal regime—a factor which should make a “rule by law” styled authoritarian consolidation impossible.

Key institutions such as the Human Rights Commission, the National Election Board (NEBE) and the Agency for Civil Society Organizations did not just emancipate themselves from the security apparatus, but they have achieved technical gains which could allow them to be professionalized independent vanguards of a democratic order.

The courts have come a long way too. A recent spate of decisions against the government, including decisions against the NEBE, are at least reminiscent of the pre-2005 era of “extended-release” democratization. While these gains are small and imperfect, and although they pale compared to the challenges, they ought to be noted as they can be built upon (as long as these gains are not wiped out in the coming months, of course).

The palace wars—enter the twilight zone

Going into transitional elections in a divided society before agreeing on core constitutional issues was never a good idea. If normal elections are a contentious process, transitional elections in which the “social contract” has not been negotiated risk turning into referenda on constitutional matters.

As processes that can or are perceived to create permanent winners and losers, such elections make political differences sharper and encourage the creation of polarized actors with strong incentives to do whatever it takes to win or to completely reject adverse electoral outcomes. Furthermore, the creation of permanent ‘losers’ can also have serious long-term consequences by leading to a rejection of—and resistance against—the constitutional order.

Imposing a zero-sum constitutional order, one in which either the pan-Ethiopianist or ethno-nationalist elite takes exclusionist ascendency, is also likely to lead to armed conflict and civil resistance coupled with gross human rights violations.

In the weeks and months before and after the 2018 transition, most political actors seemed to agree, at least in principle, that there was a need for an inclusive and orderly transitional process. However, the eventual outcome has been nothing short of a collective failure. Almost all the significant political actors have fallen for the trappings of state-capture and opted for short-term tactical gains in lieu of negotiating with their competitors.

They groped for alliances with the enemies of their enemies to pursue zero-sum victories. Everything they wanted seemed to be “non-negotiable.” Anything, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, was acceptable to achieve their non-negotiable claims.

In this process, elections were mostly through a tactical prism and the major political actors decided and continue to hedge the outcome of constitutional matters on the outcome of the impending polls. This situation came to a head during the postponement of national elections slated for August 2020. Most seemed to be willing to as easily pursue or forego elections depending on their perceptions of whether they are likely to ‘win’ or not all with winner-takes-all overtones.

Ironically, between May 2020 and today, supporters and opponents of the postponement of elections have easily switched sides and alliances without much hesitation. Although the overall context that led to the postponement did not change, what did change was who expected to win the zero-sum game.

If democratization is hoped for in the future, the focus should be shifted from ‘winning’ zero-sum battles against ‘enemies’, to achieving some level of national consensus. If an elite bargain is not attainable, neither a stable authoritarian government nor a democratic political order is likely.

If we are to go by what happened in the last three years, the goals all the major actors seem to be a bit more parochial than both democracy and the attainment of a common future. All political actors need to re-examine their entrenched positions and do so immediately.

In the beginning of the transition three years ago, this would have been easier and may have been achieved through a process of political or even broader national dialogue. Today, what is necessary for stability includes the less stable and much more expensive process of disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and a total reimagination of security.

It is not clear if a point has been reached where it will no longer be possible to go back to the track of democratization, but what is clear is that a significant departure from the current trajectory is required—and it is required urgently.

National reconciliation, not re-victimization, not revenge

The second matter that ought to have got underway before the elections is a process of reckoning with Ethiopia’s violent past and taking structural measures to try and prevent repetition. It is impossible to imagine that Ethiopia’s well-oiled election rigging and human rights violating party-state machinery was going to miraculously transform into democratic doves without serious national efforts to reconfigure the state’s relationship with its citizens.

Therefore, a process of transitional justice that includes some components of justice, truth, reconciliation, lustration, and vetting ought to have been established in order to ensure a transition to anything other than the continuation of the past. Such a process could also persuade victims to choose a mutually safe and just future over revenge.

Overall, the government seems to have been content with doing no more than wrestling control over the neo-patrimonial party-state apparatus out of the hands of the previous state elite and re-establishing control over parts of it that the government had lost control over due to the protests.

In addition, although impunity was offered at will, it was not really offered to all. Many perpetrators of gross human rights violations were penalized but only because they did not toe the line. Most perpetrators of serious to minor crimes who fell in line with the winners of the palace wars were, however, left unscathed. The government also established a mammoth of a “Reconciliation Commission”, but one that was deprived of the legal and technical capacity to attain reconciliation or justice.

The failure to attain reconciliation is a failure of the broader political elite, not just the ruling party. Many of the significant actors outside of the state apparatus were, for the most part, uninterested in transitional justice or truth. The more significant oppositional actors merely sought to, either ally with factions of the state or wrestle parts of the neo-patrimonial apparatus from the ruling party hoping that will allow them to ‘win’ elections.

Similar to the ruling party, many—unfortunately too many—of its opponents showed that they were also willing to exact, sanction, encourage, tolerate, or take advantage of violence against their foes, including when directed against civilians.

Thus, even before a serious conversation on reconciliation over previous atrocities began, new waves of grievances are being created, diminishing further the prospects of a peaceful transition to democracy.

Is there still a pathway to democratization?   

Let’s face it: the coming elections are not going to make or break the chances of democratization in Ethiopia. Even under the best of circumstances, Ethiopia would have needed at least a decade to overcome its authoritarian past and come close to starting a process of democratic consolidation.

Unfortunately, most are stuck in a rut seeking tactical advantages they can derive from each event, including the elections. All parties, including those who are participating in or stepped out of the electoral process have lost sight of the whole point of what elections are about to start with. In order to make any progress, all sides need to learn from the mistakes of the last three years (or even decades) and genuinely re-interrogate not just their tactics, not even just their strategies, but their overall goals.

If Ethiopia wishes to democratize, and it is to learn anything from its own history or the history of democratization around the world, both the government and its opponents need to stop their zero-sum fixation on the upcoming elections. Instead, they should focus on achieving, or at least making progress towards, elite compromise/consensus and national reconciliation.

While elections are one of the important ways in which conflict and cooperation take place in democracies, they are but a small aspect of it. In other words, elections are a necessary but not sufficient condition for the establishment of a stable democratic order.

In this light, the government and those who support it, or more broadly those who support the holding of the upcoming elections, ought to understand that the coming polls are likely to deliver neither broad-based legitimacy nor authoritarian consolidation. Even though it looks clear that the government will proceed with the vote, it ought to propose to its opponents a viable transitional plan with a clear pathway to national dialogue and reconciliation the day after the elections.

Rather than drawing arbitrary lines in the sand on either side of the elections, opposition actors also need to work towards attaining elite bargain as well. Rather than just fixating on the elections, they should at least start serious discussions with parties they agree with and try to hedge towards national dialogue with those they disagree with. All sides need to unequivocally renounce violence against civilians as a political tactic and create mechanisms with which they avert atrocities and speak up against them in unison when they do happen.

The consequences of mishandling the transition, and I am referring here to the failures of both the government and its major opponents and allies, are already adversely affecting the stability of the country. At this point, no region of Ethiopia has been insulated from the effects of the political elite’s failures.

Some parts of the country have already gone through or are currently going through conditions akin to state collapse, un-governability, insurgency, or serious criminal behaviour, including war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the state, its non-state adversaries, and at least two neighbouring states.

Given perilous structural factors, such as the fragmentation of the security infrastructure, an increasingly stressed and weakened economy, high youth population density, and a concomitant rise in youth unemployment, all political actors would be well advised to change course immediately.

As things currently stand, the reversal of Ethiopia’s fate through a political process is attainable. But as time passes, and especially if the security infrastructure deteriorates further and areas in which war is occurring widens, the ability of the civil elite to reach and enforce a compromise will be diminished.

Ethiopia may not collapse in the coming weeks or months—but that prospect is heightened with every mistake that is repeated.

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This is the viewpoint of the author. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Birtukan Mideksa, the chairperson of the National Election Board, at a meeting with representatives of political parties regarding the upcoming elections; 17 May 2021; National Electoral Board of Ethiopia

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About the author

Abadir M. Ibrahim

Abadir (J.S.D.) is an advocate and practitioner of human rights; an experienced legal professional focusing on strategic litigation, legal reform, and transitional justice; and an academic with a background in human rights regimes, civil society studies, and democratization studies.

  • Thanks for what read to me, as an outsider, albeit one from a neighboring country, as an extraordinarily insightful piece.

    In it the reader finds timely advice not only for Ethiopia – a pillar of Africa which we pray goes through this election cycle peacefully – but also for other African countries transiting to democracy from my native Kenya to Zimbabwe etc.

    Thanks again Mr. A.M. Ibrahim

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