Ethiopia: Developing a Democratic Culture and Civil Discourse

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Oct 29th, 2012

The need for a democratic political system is one that we often hear and from different corners. The national discourse on the need for democracy is unanimous but the means of getting to that end is one that is heavily contested. The polarized nature of the political discourse has led to a division between those who lament the absence of the liberties associated with a western style democracy and others point to the structures that are being built to facilitate the evolution such a system.

In essence the assumption is that a properly democratized society engages all issues with a proper respect for private opinions without unnecessarily politicizing issues or becoming defensive in the face of contrary opinions. 

The extreme characterizations adopted by both sides of any debate that exists in our national dialogue raises the issue of whether we are laying the social foundations that can sustain a true democratic system. The nature of the current system is such that something as relatively benign as a commentary on municipal sanitation can excite reaction because it is perceived as a political statement while significant social issues such as prostitution, adoption and abortion rate little attention because of their apolitical nature.

So why is our discourse not founded upon democratic principles? Without making any pretensions to a scientific study I propose that our social structures beginning in the home and including schools, the workplace, the market, social institutions, the media and last but not  least the governing structure are all influenced by a cultural understanding of authority that leaves little room for democratic discourse.

The first area where people learn to apply democratic principles is the home. In our cultural parenting tends to be akin to controlling and micromanaging all aspects of a child’s life leaving little room for the child to exercise independent thinking or to practice decision making. The practice of submission to an authority figure is one that all ‘good’ children acquire by accepting the control of teachers within the classroom setting.

Unfortunately the submission and unquestioning attitude is not only required of students in elementary education but also defines the relationship students have with their teachers in higher education also. Some, not all of course, teachers in higher education play the role of mini despots demanding not reasoning and independent thinking but parroting from their students. The role of the teacher as the father figure to be obeyed without question is re-enforced by the exaggerated reaction that teachers have towards students who challenge them. This tendency to take a difference of opinion as a personal attack can effectively stifle any intellectual creativity or a desire for self articulation.

“Some teachers have this attitude because they are true products of the culture which is inherently hierarchical’ suggests Daniel a secondary school teacher. The need to be respected by students as an authority figure coupled with low confidence in one’s ability cannot only make a teacher defensive but it can also make him or her see any initiative as a threat he added.

The combination of a desire for authority and the dislike for challenge for one reason or another seems to characterize non-academic institutions including social and economic ones. Social institutions tend to be founded and led by singular individuals demanding total personal control of the associations they led while economic ventures seem to be monopolized by the few who have regard for the many.

Ultimately this desire to control and exert authority coupled to outright rejection of opposed ideas and personal animosity to the originator of such challenges end up contributing to an essentially non democratic society which shares a suspicion of independent thinking and tends to take differences personally allowing little room for democratic discourse.

Such cultural characters however have until recently been balanced by the respect and tolerance that have been inherent to a very sophisticated and historical rich society. Commitment to the common good and trust had made up for the less democratic elements of our culture in the past but this balance seems to no longer work in the face of modern individualism and the ever loosening ties of cultural values.  

It is ultimately self defeating when the only voice that we are willing to hear is the one that is in agreement with us and we are suffering this defeat coming and going. We are conditioned to shy away from independent thinking or even from expressing a personal opinion in fear of offending someone somewhere and being characterized as rebellious, losing social or financial advantages. We resent disagreement and are personally offended by differences in opinion when we are the ones in authority and then we become the ones to go on the defensive because we personally identify ourselves and any claim to authority we may have to the idea we have originated or feel we have a stake in.

For those who don’t sense the urgency of the problem. I suggest a simple litmus test. Post something on your Facebook page (it does not even have to be political) some simple social issue and take a position. The animosity your position will attract from those who claim to have a better understanding or are simply opposed to your idea to have an opinion can be frightening.

Such an experiment will serve to show the very limited patience some of us have for dialogue and the effect it has had on the very rules of decency and respect that had governed our social interaction in the past. The urgency of consciously fostering democratic foundations in our society starting from the home and personal relationships extending to all academic, social, economic and political is to limit this intolerance before it becomes even further entrenched.


Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for Ezega

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