Revolutionary Democracy in Ethiopia
The New Trajectory of Totalitarian Thinking
by Muktar M. Omer,
The tyranny of Ideology
In an absorbing book “The Devil in History” Romanian-American political
scientist Vladimir Ismaneau embarks on a comparative analysis of two seemingly
contradictory ideologies of the 20th century – Communism (far left) and Fascism
(far right) – and finds striking similarity between these systems of political
With polymathic virtuosity, Ismaneau illuminates communism’s close affinity with
fascism by examining the “intellectual origins, political passions, radicalism,
utopian ideals, and the visions of salvation and revolution” these two radical
movements espoused and pursued.
Communism and fascism share a dogmatic vision of social re-engineering to be
achieved through a “scientific” political formula. Communism’s ultimate destiny
was the attainment of the dictatorship of the proletariat which supposedly
emancipates mankind from all forms of exploitation. Fascism envisioned an epoch
of racial purity (Hitler) or national splendor (Mussolini). Both ideologies
dehumanized their adversaries. Both are founded on the premise that certain
groups or ideas must be deservedly excluded or obliterated. In Bolshevik Russia,
functionaries of the Tsarist regime, the clergy and rich people were categorized
as “byvshie liudi” (the former people) and were excluded from the “new”
Socialist order. Stalin killed 20 million people in the name of Communism. Nazi
Germany systematically slaughtered or deported Jews and other “subhuman” races.
These two most conspicuous totalitarian philosophies of the 20th century had
lots of similarities but also differences. For instance, while in Communism, the
dictatorship of the party is enthroned through revolution, in Fascism, a
“charismatic and visionary leader” who is elected by voting consensus is the
source of all ideas and guidance.
Ismaneau scrutinizes the two systems’ “absolute commitment to ideology” and
illustrates how the pursuit of a draconian political formula – which would take
mankind to a promised land of justice and purity – paved the way for all forms
of totalitarian thinking in the 20th century; how it led to “a frenzy of
genocide, thought control and a complete annihilation of the concept of the
individual”; and how it justified the orgy of violence that resulted in the
deaths of millions of human beings. The author denounces the “nihilistic
principles of human subjugation and conditioning” pursued by communists and
fascists in the name of attaining “presumably pure and purifying goals”, and
concludes with a poignant refrain: “no ideological commitment, no matter how
absorbing, should ever prevail over the sanctity of human life”.
Ismaneau did not extend his analysis to the mayhem Capitalism which sired
imperialism, colonialism and militarism inflicted on humanity for two millennia.
After all, foisting evil on humankind in the ostensible pursuit of good and
promotion of higher ideals is not exclusive to fascism or communism. Throughout
the history of mankind, mindless tyrants, self-styled revolutionaries, and
religious and political zealots used myriad of ideologies and belief systems as
vindicating motifs and mobilizing planks to unleash wars, to rob, to pillage, to
enslave, to oppress, to exterminate real or perceived adversaries. Predatory
Capitalism actuated slavery. Colonialism underwrote French genocide against
Algerians and the dehumanization of indigenous populations in conquered lands.
Colossal crimes against humanity were committed in Chile, Vietnam, Iraq,
Afghanistan, Japan, Africa – to name but few – in the last fifty years alone by
presumably redemptive ideologies.
Utopia – the dangerous ingredient
Vaclav Havel defined ideology as something that offers human beings “the
illusion of identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for
them to part with them.” Ideologies have potent hypnotizing power. Ideologues
therefore are invariably astigmatic – which means they have a distorted vision
All Ideologies also have the propensity to turn deadly, but as Steven Pinker
argues in the “Better Angels of Our Nature” some are more predisposed to
generate violence and misery than others. One of the things that make ideologies
dangerous is the “prospect of utopia”. Ideologies that propagate visions of
pleasure and plenty can be described as messianic ideologies. “Since utopias are
infinitely good” Pinker denotes, they sanction the-end-justifies-the-means
mentality. For the utopia of these messianic doctrines to be attained, all
obstacles must be eliminated at all cost. Messianic ideologies cannot function
without “enemies”. Most often, these ideologies identify the main source of
societal ills as a “definable group” or thought, which becomes the “enemy”.
The import of these points will become evident as we go into the thrust of this
Having provided a general background on the dangers of messianic ideologies and
the commonalities in their foundational premises, modus operandi and vision,
this article will trace the origins of Revolutionary Democracy – as practiced in
present-day Ethiopia – to past totalitarian projects, and argues that
Revolutionary Democracy is not a new thinking but a synthesis of old ideologies
and systems – Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, Capitalism, Liberalism, etc. –
renovated and re-marketed to rationalize flagrant totalitarianism. The article
asserts that there is no logical or empirical evidence to support the putative
link between revolutionary democracy and recent economic development in
Ethiopia. It further argues that the ongoing national debate on the type of
ideology Ethiopia should adopt is worthless and irrelevant and posits that the
debate should have been about values not nebulous ideologies.
The false national debate
In the last two decades, the national debate in academic circles in Ethiopia
focused on the merits and demerits of Revolutionary Democracy – espoused by the
ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – and the
globally hegemonic Liberal Democracy. The debate replicates the partisan divide
in the country and has rarely been dispassionate.
Without extending the parameters of this debate any further, it is useful to
give a brief description of the core tenets of revolutionary democracy and
Liberal Democracy before delving into the central theme of my argument.
Revolutionary Democracy prioritizes group rights over individual rights,
advocates for strong, interventionist government and the presence of a dominant
political party that stays in power for a period long enough to facilitate
socio-economic transformation. The distinctive attributes of a Liberal Democracy
include free and fair elections, economic freedom, genuine separation of the
powers of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, human rights, a
multiparty system, the rule of law, freedom of speech, free trade and the
protection of private property.
The relevance of a particular ideology to a given country context and the pros
and cons of competing ideologies can be endlessly debated. However, these
debates often produce little more than scholastic perorations. They rarely
create consensus or yield outright winner. Each side argues from a position of
blind conviction and because there are enough ambiguities and variations within
each ideology, the argument becomes circular, tedious, and messy. This makes
debates on ideologies pointless.
A more useful format could have been adopted. First, a set of values that must
guide the practical application of contending ideologies would be agreed on.
Next, the extent to which these mutually agreed moral axioms are adhered to in
the implementation of the relevant ideological theories would be evaluated. For
instance, freedom of speech and thought, rule of law, respect for human rights
and civil liberties could have been identified as the guiding set of values.
These universal moral principles enhance the collective welfare of humanity. Any
ideology that upholds these ethical principles has a higher chance of preventing
violence. Conversely, any ideology that prevaricates on or openly denigrates
these values has a higher likelihood of leading to violence. These guiding
values and their practical implementation should inform what is good for
Ethiopia over and above feeble ideologies.
Therefore, firstly, the national debate ought to have been whether these ethical
principles are respected in EPRDF’s Ethiopia.
Secondly, the efficacy and primacy of revolutionary democracy doctrine must be
examined against its own practice, not against presumed failures and
shortcomings of liberal ideology or professed future returns of economic
Thirdly, Ethiopia registered rapid economic growth in the last ten years. The
ruling party must be lauded and credited for the effective utilization of
foreign aid and for adopting sound economic policies such as
agricultural-development-led-industrialization (ADLI) and state-sponsored
micro-enterprise development initiatives. Researching the causative or
correlative relationship between development and revolutionary democracy is
beyond the purview of this article. But the putative linkage between the two
factors should have been subjected to logical and empirical interrogation. It
is a causative fallacy to argue that because B follows A, A is the reason for B.
Sadly, proponents of revolutionary democracy in Ethiopia frequently engage in
this fallacy; and it seems they have been granted a free pass for long.
It is logical to suggest that recent economic development in Ethiopia has more
to do with the injection of foreign aid into the economy and less with
revolutionary democracy sloganeering. For example,without foreign aid, even such
sensible economic policies as ADLI, micro-enterprise development, and safety-net
programmes that address chronic food insecurity in Ethiopia, may not have
amounted to much. Economic ideas are fine, but to get to fruition, they need
Is the main cause of the present economic growth and infrastructural development
in Ethiopia foreign aid or ideology? Would social, economic and infrastructural
transformation have been achieved without the massive foreign development
assistance that averaged between USD 2 to 3 billion annually in the last decade?
Would the “mixed economy” model – which is paraphrased to “Developmental State
paradigm” in EPRDF political grammar – have brought about meaningful economic
returns without sustained Western funding?
Only a proper research could establish the existence or absence of a
relationship between revolutionary democracy and economic development in
Ethiopia, but these questions must be asked.
Parenthetically, the EPRDF regime which owes its survival to the billions of
dollars of aid it gets from the West ironically accuses opposition parties as
lackeys of the West. It attacks liberalism day and night but beseeches liberal
economies for more aid. How and why it gets away with all these contradictions
should have been probed.
Perhaps most crucially, why a supposedly superior and rescuing doctrine as
revolutionary democracy mortally fears, criminalizes, harasses and banishes
contending ideas should have been at the heart of the national debate.
Revolutionary Democracy: the Utopia and Dogma
There is more to the prefix “revolutionary” in Revolutionary Democracy than a
mere appellation. It is the strand that ties revolutionary democracy to
Communism and in some ways to Fascism. Deflected by miasmic comparisons of the
scale of the damages caused by these ideologies, we should not exonerate
revolutionary democracy simply because it has not inflicted as much pain as the
two other totalitarian ideas. We need to look at the utopia and the dogma
inherent in revolutionary democracy, which makes it as dangerous as any other
The vision of EPRDF’s revolutionary democracy is a “new and prosperous Ethiopia”
where the rights of nations and nationalities are “fully respected”. Granted,
some visions are benign and more realistic than others. Granted, it is unfair
to equate the achievable vision of an economically better-off and politically
inclusive Ethiopia to communism’s romantic pursuit of a proletarian dictatorship
and Fascism’s search for racial purity and ultranationalist grandeur. Yet,
Communism, Fascism and Revolutionary Democracy all have one thing in common:
“absolute commitment to ideology”.
The similarity becomes clearer when dogma creeps into this commitment. EPRDF
believes that it is the sole owner of the ideas that can steer Ethiopia towards
the nirvana of an inclusive, prosperous and peaceful country. It is not this
absolute belief in the righteousness of its own doctrine that makes EPRDF and
revolutionary democracy dangerous. It is its stubborn resolve to destroy rival
ideas by all means possible that makes it as dangerous as the systems that
pursue seemingly more sinister utopias. John Gray – Emeritus Professor at the
London School of Economics – says that “in politics, the other face of radical
evil is an inhuman vision of radical goodness”. Revolutionary Democracy
personified by EPRDF arrests and executes political opponents, harasses
dissenting ideas, strips Ethiopians of all political rights and civil liberties
for the good vision of “a prosperous Ethiopia”. At best, it is a vision of
radical goodness which becomes an inhuman vision because it justifies the evil
Revolutionary Democracy at work
Ernest W. Lefever contends that the defeat of Communism and Fascism has not
eliminated the return of totalitarian thinking and temptations. He was
remarkably prescient when he warned that “out of the rubble of failed systems,
the chaos of defeat, and the agony of alienated peoples, a new totalitarian
savior could again arise proclaiming a new utopia”.
In the foregoing sections, we have seen how totalitarian ideologies crave
adversaries and feed on scapegoats. Examples from recent Ethiopian political
history would help to crystallize this notion.
In 1974, Emperor Haile-Selassie’s 44 years reign ended. Revolutionary Ethiopians
rocked the foundations of the monarchy but the coup de grace was served by a
military junta led by Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam. The junta ordained a
Marixist ideology – the precursor to today’s “revolutionary democracy”. In fact,
“revolution” and “democracy” became the junta’s catchwords. The DERG – as the
junta would later call itself – terrorized the Ethiopian people for 17 years,
unleashing waves of violence under different pretexts.
First, it declared a class war on “Imperialists, the bourgeoisie and
semi-bourgeoisie”. Next came the turn of own ideological allies – The Ethiopian
People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (alias
MEISON) – who started to embrace a different interpretation of Marxism. Then,
Eritrean and Tigrayan nationalists started an armed struggle against the DERG
and the junta morphed into a defender of “Ethiopian unity” and turned its gun on
Tigrayans and Eritreans.
In 1991, Mengistu’s regime collapsed. The triumphant Tigray People’s Liberation
Front (TPLF) arrived as the “new savior”. Revolutionary Democracy quickly found
its enemy. TPLF picked Amharas – who immediately became Ethiopia’s “byvshie
liudi” (former people) – as its focal enemy. TPLF unleashed an unremitting
vitriolic propaganda against Amharas and Unionist Ethiopians. Adjectives with
accusatory undertones such as “chauvinists” and “Neftagna” (armed settlers)
permeated the new political vocabulary. Amhara’s were summarily categorized as
beneficiaries of the old systems. They were identified as the source of all
societal ills in Ethiopia. In Oromia – Bedano (Harar) and Arbagugu (Arsi) –
Amhara civilians were butchered. TPLF did not commit these crimes; but the
massacres were the macabre fruits of sustained TPLF anti-Amhara propaganda.
The Amhara’s were targeted mainly because they were the most vocal opponents of
the secession of Eritrea. There is another theory which paints the witch-hunt
against Amharas as a mere extension of historical power struggle between the two
Semitic nationalities in Northern Ethiopia. The advent of ethnic-nationalism and
TPLF’s iron hand dealt a decisive blow to Amhara and centralist fight back.
The Amhara “threat” was quickly neutralized, but the next enemy did not take
long to emerge. The Oromos – the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia – demanded
their “rightful place” in the new political arrangement. TPLF found its second
enemy, which it destroyed with astounding efficiency. Documentary “evidences”
showing “narrow” Oromo “extremists” slaughtering Amhara settlers in Bedano,
Arba-gugu and other areas started to surface. Evidences, that never bothered
TPLF before it fell out with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)! The atrocities
were real. Extremist Oromos allegedly carried out the massacres. TPLF is
culpable though, because it was the main instigator of hate against Amharas.
The third enemy of TPLF would turn out to be its alter ego Sha’bia (EPLF) – the
ruling party in Eritrea and TPLF’s erstwhile ally and mentor. The May 1998 to
June 2000 Ethio-Eritrean war was not a war of choice for TPLF. Eritrea started
the war. Nonetheless, the TPLF found yet another scapegoat to continue internal
political repression. The war also gave the TPLF a breathing space as most
Ethiopians postponed their anger against the regime and stood by the TPLF-led
government in a show of remarkable patriotism.
In 2005, buoyed by the support it received from the Ethiopian people during the
war, TPLF/EPRDF opened up the political arena and granted opposition parties
some space for competition. It would prove to be a turning point for democracy
in Ethiopia. The consensus is that the EPRDF lost that election to the
opposition. The biggest winner was the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) –
alias Kinijit in Amharic. The CUD competed on a political agenda that emphasized
“national unity” and opposed ethnic federalism. The success of the CUD shocked
EPRDF to the core.
To EPRDF, not only did the CUD triumph represent the revival of the detested
“Amharas”, it awakened it to the grim reality that it can never win a free and
fair elections. TPLF’s coalition partners in the EPRDF – ANDM (Amhara), Oromo
(OPDM), SEPDM (Southern region) – were all routed in their respective regions
because the nations and nationalities they purported to represent veritably saw
them as veritable puppets of the TPLF.
EPRDF firmly closed whatever little political space that existed. So much so,
that in the 2010 elections, it “won” all but one of the 547 seats in the House
of Representatives (the Parliament). Today, EPRDF members and supporters control
all State and religious institutions at the Federal level and in Amhara, Oromia,
Tigray, and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ (SNNP) region. The
Judiciary, Security sector, and economy are firmly in the hands of EPRDF.
Satellite parties allied to EPRDF rule the so-called “developing’ regions –
Somali, Afar, Benishangul, Harari, and Gambella.
More recently, “anti-terrorism” accorded EPRDF a new scapegoat. Centralist
political parties are branded relics of the past. Ethno-nationalists who
embraced ethnic federalism but advocate for a genuine implementation of the
project are labeled “terrorists” and are outlawed. Serious opposition parties
are banned from operating inside the country and operate in exile. Opposition
parties inside the country can issue statements through foreign media or by
organizing subdued events but they cannot freely mobilize the grassroots.
Elections are meaningless because the National Election Board (NEBE) is a
functionary of the ruling party/government.
Revolutionary Democracy has a dual attribute. Like Communism, EPRDF and its
satellite parties control government at federal and regional levels, which makes
the party and the government one and the same. Like Fascism, all ideas in
revolutionary democracy emanate from its “magnetic” leader Meles Zenawi. Up
until and even after his death, he was and continues to be credited as the
originator of all ideas that ERPDF implements; particularly, the ones that
This is the anatomy of a Revolutionary Democracy.
Debating the goodness or badness of one or another ideology is pointless. No
ideology has a silver bullet that would take humanity to a worldly paradise.
There are enough ambiguities in the theories of every ideology. Even if the
theories of one ideology are found more relevant to a given context, it means
nothing unless the practice matches the theory. Practice often deviates from
theory in totalitarian ideologies.
But more importantly, arguing over ideologies is the thing of the past. If the
20th century was the era of ideology, the 21st century is the age of values.
Freedom and justice which are innate human desires matter to humanity more than
erratic ideologies, because these enduring values are the only institutions can
minimize the occurrence of violence. Ideologies by their nature do not avert
violence, they fuel it.
If we have to embrace ideologies, we should embrace only those that accept – in
theory and practice – the inviolability of the sanctity of human life. The
quality and relevance of a doctrine must be judged against this singular moral
principle. An ideology that stifles freedom of speech, suspends human rights and
imposes an arbitrary application of law is an anathema to human progress and a
recipe for violence.
Today, in Ethiopia, systematic and gross violations of human rights are
committed. There is no independent judiciary to uphold the rule of law. The
regime arbitrarily applies rules of natural justice and the rule of law, thereby
turning the avenue of society into a scary chamber where injustice is
domesticated. Plighted by politically correct thinking, the EPRDF stifles
freedom of thought and freedom of expression. The regime is bent on crushing
individual thinking and browbeating the Ethiopian nation into accepting that an
idea could only be valid if it came from “the correct” group, which in this case
happens to be the top echelons of EPRDF.
EPRD’s revolutionary democracy has all the hallmarks of a messianic ideology
with its utopia, dogma and concomitant violence. It is not a new ideology by any
stretch of imagination. It is a revised trajectory of totalitarian thinking
presented as a redeeming doctrine, and has a lot in common with past
totalitarian schemes. George Steiner’s decisive contention in the “Grammars of
Creation” comes to mind. “We have no more beginnings”. How true!
Equally, Liberal Democracy is not a perfect system. Some of its core postulates
such as the relationship between elections and citizen participation in resource
allocation and political decision-making and the validity of some of its core
economic propositions have been criticized since its earliest days by Marxists,
socialists, left-wing anarchists, empiricists, and proponents of “direct”
democracy. However, the consensus is that while not a perfect system, Liberal
Democracy reduces political uncertainty and instability by providing the public
with regular chances to change those in power without changing the legal basis
At any rate, the deficiencies of Liberalism cannot expiate the sins of
Intellectuals who are enamored with the “good intellect and intentions” of Meles
Zenawi and rationalize his appalling human rights records are guilty of either
willful ignorance or disagree with Professor John Gray’s dauntingly erudite
reminder: “radical evil can come from the pursuit of progress”.