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Homegrown democratic reforms are the only solution to Ethiopia’s woes

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Ethiopia’s recent collapse is the result of EPRDF failures to democratize on its own terms which set the stage for Prosperity Party’s disastrous U.S.-styled democratic transition.

The elevation to power of Abiy Ahmed in 2018, the popular liberal reforms he introduced, and his convincing electoral victory in July 2021—albeit without the participation of Tigray and popular opposition parties in Oromia—suggested that Ethiopia was on the road to a momentous democratic transformation.

But Abiy’s efforts to introduce a Western-styled democracy and liberalize Ethiopia’s economy produced multiple wars, economic decline, and one-man rule, seemingly confirming the contention of the former ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF), that Western democracy is inappropriate for Ethiopia.

While the EPRDF went far, at least initially, in meeting demands for national self-determination, made enormous strides in raising living standards, and largely maintained stability in Ethiopia and the Horn, it failed to establish a regime of accountability. These failures set the stage for the rise of Abiy and the ensuing turmoil.

Ethiopia’s democratic transformation is critical to overcoming its daunting problems—as I argue in my recently published book, The Poisoned Chalice of US Democracy: Studies from the Horn of Africa—but, as the EPRDF concluded a generation ago, the model of democracy widely promoted in the Global South by the U.S. will not meet the needs of Ethiopians.

Imposed Democracy

After major controversies about the outcomes of the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections and fears of instability associated with the 2024 elections, it’s evident that U.S. democracy is in crisis. This has important international implications because the U.S. model of democracy has been aggressively pressed on the Global South since the end of the Cold War.

As the world’s only superpower, the U.S. was no longer challenged by the socialist bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Washington’s hegemonic ideas involved claiming free market capitalism to be integral to democracy and maintaining that the kind of state-led development that was crucial to the early development of the U.S., Germany, and the Asian Tigers, as well as the developmental state of Ethiopia, was undemocratic.

Consequently, the crucial need of states in the Global South to implement social programs that raise living standards has not figured prominently in the U.S. understanding of democracy because economic development is to be left to the ‘invisible hand’ of the market.

The U.S. has been ambivalent about the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, and has, in practice, largely rejected UN Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These Covenants consider economic, social, and cultural rights as human rights within the scope of international law and represent a reproach to U.S. neoliberalism, not only because of the rights themselves, but because to realize them involves state regulation of the market.

The U.S. rejects the right of countries to determine their own economic policies and insists that countries accept oversight by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), and Western imposed trade agreements.

Meanwhile, countries in the Global South must ensure their foreign policies are acceptable to Washington. The U.S. conception of democracy requires all countries to adhere to its ‘rules-based’ liberal international order, which is, in many ways, in opposition to international law rooted in the UN.

Never answered, however, is how governments can be considered democratic if they place the interests of the U.S. above those of their own citizens.

Indeed, by following the U.S. diktat, democracy loses its revolutionary character and becomes an instrument for preserving the status quo and ensuring U.S. domination. Should countries in the Global South not accept U.S. domination, they can expect economic sanctions, marginalization, support of opponents, and even military intervention.

Lastly, the right of nations to self-determination and to be free of national oppression barely figures in Western discourse on democracy but is of crucial importance in the Global South. In Ethiopia, this includes not only the country as a whole but also its many constituent nations.

Revolutionary Democracy

It was this U.S.-informed model of democracy, and the loss of national sovereignty it demanded, that the EPRDF rejected.

Upon coming to power in 1991, the EPRDF prioritized the national question, because without a radical devolution of power to Ethiopia’s national components the survival of Ethiopia could not be ensured.

However imperfectly, the Front established a system of national federalism that sought to overcome Amhara domination, raise the status of long oppressed local cultures, and place power in the hands of local elites, even if those elites were linked to the EPRDF.

That some of these new national governments were ill-equipped to administer their territories was not surprising and this necessitated the support of cadres from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), by far the most experienced component of the EPRDF.

The EPRDF also viewed Ethiopia’s endemic poverty as an existential threat and, in opposition to U.S. demands that the market serve as the primary means to ensure economic development, the Front concluded that Ethiopia’s immature markets could not realize this objective, much less provide the enormous investment capital required to ensure rapid economic development.

As a result, the EPRDF looked to the developmental state to serve as the primary means for Ethiopia’s economic advancement, overcome poverty, and provide badly needed services. The EPRDF’s economic and social achievements are widely attested by the World Bank and the IMF.

For instance, the World Bank’s 2015 poverty assessment found that agricultural growth in Ethiopia drove reductions in poverty, bolstered by pro-poor spending on basic services, while rural safety nets produced growth rates averaging almost eleven percent a year.

Similarly, the IMF found that same year that unlike other rapidly growing economies, Ethiopia had not experienced a significant increase in inequality, and that with a Gini coefficient of 30, Ethiopia remained “among the most egalitarian countries in the world.”

In keeping with the U.S. contention that state-led development is antithetical to democracy, both agencies nonetheless continued to oppose the EPRDF’s developmental state.

Democratic Failure

But the EPRDF’s failings must also be acknowledged, and they involve authoritarianism, centralization of power by a small cabal led after 2001 by Meles Zenawi, and the failure to develop a system of representative and accountable government.

The EPRDF never claimed to be democratic as the term is understood in the West. Instead, it promoted a form of Abyotawi (revolutionary) democracy. Its leaders nonetheless viewed the regime as democratic because it claimed to represent the interests of the peasant majority.

The Front’s leaders believed that the interests of these peasants would be undermined by the establishment of a Western styled parliamentary government. This position had some credibility until 2001, because there was a degree of internal democracy in the EPRDF leadership and a strong regional leadership, while between 1998 and 2000 there was a need for government unity during the war with Eritrea.

However, very soon after Ethiopia’s victory in the war internal divisions within the EPRDF came to the fore, largely around the leadership of Meles who opposed the majority in the EPRDF’s aggressive pursuit of the war.

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In response to this challenge, in 2001 Meles carried out what amounted to an internal coup which involved the displacement of the TPLF leadership, dismissal of the president of the country, removal of the leaders of the Oromo and southern components of the EPRDF, and their replacement by leaders whose power was dependent on Meles.

National federalism remained, but with the entire leadership of the Front’s components dependent on Meles, they could not serve as genuine representatives of their peoples.

As a dictator, Meles became pre-occupied with economic advancement and the developmental state, which produced increasing state centralization and undermined the EPRDF’s key commitment to national federalism. Under Meles, the EPRDF’s promotion of national communities became an end in itself and this fostered a destabilizing narrow nationalism.

While the TPLF officially ascribed to the leadership of the nascent working class under the slogan ‘class in content but nationalist in form,’ this meant little in practical terms, either during the armed struggle or after the EPRDF achieved state power.

While using Marxist analysis and slogans to ruthlessly eliminate his opponents in the EPRDF, Meles oversaw a regime that broke from its revolutionary heritage and became increasingly distant from its peasant base, thus undermining its conception of democracy.

Meles did not appreciate that national federalism was weakened by his pursuit of a centralized developmental state and this fostered national tensions. Without the development of truly democratic institutions, neither the government’s achievements nor even its survival could be ensured.

Stunted Liberalization

The crisis was building before Meles’ untimely death in 2012, but his successor Hailemarian Desalgn—whose ascribed role was simply to carry forward Meles’ legacy—was not up to the task and under Abiy the Meles shaped edifice quickly collapsed like a house of cards.

Hailemariam proved to be a hapless leader who could not arrest a rapidly expanding crisis in the EPRDF caused by growing popular dissent and the Front’s response with growing repression. Waves of protests began in Oromia in 2014 and expanded to the Amhara region before ultimately forcing the TPLF to relinquish much of its power within the EPRDF.

Abiy, who replaced Hailemariam as Prime Minister in 2018, rose to power from within the EPRDF’s constituent party in Oromia. Prior to that, Abiy had played a significant role in the ruling coalition’s repression, but effectively packaged himself as a democrat and an enemy of the Front, which he roundly condemned.

Abiy had been a lieutenant-colonel in the intelligence services where he founded and led the Information Network Security Agency (INSA). This agency targeted diaspora-based dissidents with sophisticated intrusion and surveillance software which led to the arrest of many journalists, politicians, and activists who were then charged with treason and terrorism.

Under Abiy, the EPRDF was dissolved and replaced with the Prosperity Party in December 2019, which as its name suggests represented a major break from its predecessor. Only the TPLF refused to join this new party which amalgamated parties from each of Ethiopia’s other regions.

Abiy announced a program of political and economic liberalization, gender parity in government, and, eventually, democratic elections, which he handily won in 2021. Apart from a handful of dissidents mostly associated with the TPLF, Abiy’s reforms were supported within the country, by the Ethiopian diaspora, internationally, and initially in Tigray.

Abiy quickly became an international celebrity and, in 2019, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending Ethiopia’s long-running conflict with Eritrea. He was also named African of the Year in 2018, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, and one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers in 2019.

But it would soon be revealed that the real intent of Abiy’s peace-making with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was to plan a multi-pronged war against Tigray and the TPLF, which he viewed as posing a challenge to his leadership.

The democratic veneer gave way to the replacement of regional leaders with those loyal to him and a system of ‘big man’ governance reminiscent of Meles. Unlike Meles and Hailemariam, however, Abiy is personally corrupt and is spending billions on building a monument to himself.

New World Order

Although the EPRDF rejected democracy as it’s understood and promoted in the West, the Front went far in meeting popular demands for national self-determination, raising living standards, and maintaining relative stability. Especially after 2001, Meles’ dictatorial leadership style undermined much of this progress and put the country on shaky ground after his passing.

Since 2018, the ostensibly democratic government of Abiy Ahmed is endeavoring to re-centralize the state, has crashed the economy, and is involved in never-ending wars. It was the failure of the EPRDF, however, to carry out a truly democratic transformation on its own terms that is responsible for its collapse and Ethiopia’s rapid descent under Abiy.

As contended in The Poisoned Chalice of US Democracy, a viable democratic government in Ethiopia would involve deepening and reforming the commitment to national federalism, ensuring that the developmental state does not undermine the rights of Ethiopia’s nations, and safeguarding the country’s national sovereignty.

Democratic governance would also include genuinely representative institutions that involve the people directly in their governance, ensuring the accountability of government, and guaranteeing fair elections.

An increasingly dysfunctional U.S. democracy cannot serve as a model for Ethiopia. Moreover, a multipolar world is emerging and Washington’s power to impose its will is declining. This was evident when the U.S. was largely shut out of the Pretoria Agreement which ended the conflict between the governments of Ethiopia and Tigray in November 2022.

U.S. weakness is also evident in Washington’s inability to control what had been its client states in the Middle East like Egypt and the UAE, which are playing a largely negative role in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. Hastened by the rise of China, its failing proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, internal disorder, and isolation because of its support of the Israeli genocide in Gaza, countries in the Global South have more freedom than at any time since the end of the Cold War to establish systems of government that meet their needs and not those of the U.S.

Ethiopia’s membership in an expanded BRICS also provides a measure of protection against U.S. interference. Now more than ever, Ethiopians thus have the opportunity to advance the struggle for a democracy that meets their particular needs and not those of the U.S.

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Main Image: American and Ethiopian flags; Ethiopia Insight

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

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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About the author

John Young

John Young has written, 'Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia: Tigray People's Liberation Front 1975 - 1991', books on Sudan, South Sudan, and co-authored a book on the failure of the Western nation-state in the Horn in 2021, and 35 academic articles.

2 Comments

  • Very interesting article I ever read about Ethiopia’s recent governance challenges. I hope to read the Author’s book.

  • Good analysis and interesting read.
    It is true that the Washington’s role as a sole global dominating power is declining, but the Pretoria Agreement which ended the conflict between the governments of Ethiopia and Tigray is not a good example to demonstrate this point. The U.S. was not largely shut out of the Pretoria agreement as claimed. To the contrary, the US was the major architect behind the agreement though it was fronted by the AU. It is difficult to imagine success of the agreement without the US’s active role

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