Ethiopia: Democracy – the Best Answer to Ethiopia’s Questions

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Jan 27th, 2014

By Merkeb Negash,


This is to respond to Tagel Gethahun’s viewpoint headlined, “EPRDF: The Best Answer to the Democratic Question” (Volume 14, Number 715, January 12, 2014). I will try to briefly elucidate the paradoxes and fallacies in Tagel’s assumptions and his premises with which he argued the EPRDF remains to be the only viable alternative to Ethiopia’s democratic questions.

While I might not have a problem with his opinion that the EPRDF is the best answer to the democratic questions, I disagree with the way he viewed the concept of democracy, its necessity in Ethiopia and the relationship between democracy and development.

Tagel quoted a single author and made the presumption that this author’s perspectives on the essential prerequisites of democracy are sacrosanct. In doing so, he argued, since many of these prerequisites do not exist in Ethiopia; therefore, democracy is not advisable in Ethiopia.

He even went as far as concluding “this ought to be clear”! Alas, it is not as simple as that.

Discussion of the relationship between development and democracy has been a long standing topic since Seymour Lipset’s well known dictum that socio-economic development was a precondition of stable democracy. Subsequent academic literatures have been unable to provide conclusive evidence either that development needed to precede democracy or that democracy was a condition for development .

As Amaratya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner economist, argues, “if all the comparative studies are viewed together, the hypothesis that there is no clear relationship between economic development and democracy in either direction remains extremely plausible.”

The ‘democracy first’ view holds the assumption that democracy is not an outcome or consequence of development, but rather a necessary condition for bringing about development. But the ‘development first’ school holds the assumption that there is a deep structural incompatibility between at least some phases of development and democracy, hence democracy is a luxury that poor societies cannot not afford.

On the other hand, the democratic developmental state thesis posits that while development helps the consolidation of democracy, democracy in turn helps fostering economic development. This thesis is premised on two general assumptions.

The first is the idea that the consolidation of democracy depends on progress in social and economic development. And democracy carries the potentials for political reversal whereby a much wider proportion of the population can press its demands on the polity and require satisfaction.

Based on these general assumptions, the democratic developmental state thesis contends that there is a need for constructing regimes that fulfill the ‘twin desiderata’ of broad-based and sustainable development on the one hand, and a legitimate and inclusive democracy on the other. This is crucial to avoid the vicious cycle of economic and political decline.

It is not only because poor developmental performance can undermine the consolidation of democracy but also that unconsolidated and unstable democracy has a high probability of restraining or undermining economic growth .

The bottom line is that the question of democracy and its prerequisites and merits is not simple as Tagel would have us believe. Moreover, the main important point over which we need to have a national consensus over is not who shall govern the nation rather what shall govern the nation. I believe a democratic developmental state shall govern.

Even if we were to agree that the necessary prerequisites for democracy are absent in Ethiopia, it does not mean democracy is not needed nor does it mean that if the prerequisites do not exist then it is imposed.

Even these essential prerequisites of democracies are social constructs brought about by political and social factors. Something is not there does not mean it ought to not be.

Moreover, a homogenous population is not necessarily a prerequisite for stable democracy. Even the largest democracy in the world, India, is as diverse as it could possibly get.

On the other hand, benevolent authoritarianism has worked well in homogenous societies such as East Asian states. In fact, even the architect of the regime that Tagel is defending would beg to differ to his arguments.

While the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi did not believe in what he called “bed time stories, contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy”, he firmly believed that the case for democracy can shine in and of itself. In his speech during the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Addis Abeba, Meles persuasively argued that “democracy is the only option of keeping diverse African nations united “. Arguing otherwise, while defending the ruling party is the best answer to democratic questions, makes one more catholic than the pope.

Of course, I do not personally believe democracy should be forcefully imposed in a society by external forces. I fully agree with what Meles called ‘an inherent contradiction in the hectoring ‘holier than thou’ Western hypocrisy.

“Rights have to come from inside. If people need a big brother, then by that very fact there is no democracy”.

However, this does not mean that democracy is not necessary nor should we wait until the prerequisites are fulfilled.

For me, democracy is like Ernesto Che Guevara’s revolution: it is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. One has to make it fall.

In fact, making this happen is anything but easy. Establishing a democratic system is so risky, messy and difficult that might in turn retard growth and challenge stability.

As difficult as this task might be, though, there is no excuse for avoiding it. Indeed, as Meles aptly argues “democracy is so important that if this is the price to be paid for having it – so be it”.

The author is a lecturer of political science and international relations at Jimma University.

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