The Chinese Influence and the Ethiopian Dilemma

By IndepthAfrica
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Jan 11th, 2013
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Lemam2010@gmail.com
Little is understood in Ethiopia of the concept of ‘developmental state’ (at least outside of
EPRDF leadership circles) and there is no effort to discuss the concept in this rather short
piece. But it will be naive to understand what is going on in Ethiopia (in the last decade)
without tracing the roots of this concept and what is entrenched in the Ethiopian
constitution. There is little doubt that the Ethiopian constitution has some liberal elements
but it also has some leftist elements. To begin with the constitution provides for a broad
range of human rights both for the individual and for groups (labelled as nations,
nationalities and peoples) and at the same time puts a supreme constitution (Art 9). If this
clause is taken for what it is, it means that power is limited and all actors are bound to
respect it, else their actions will be voided for violating the supreme law. An independent
judiciary is established in the constitution, albeit that it has no mandate to resolve
constitutional disputes. This principle has both liberal and leftist elements. On one hand it
does set an independent judicial organ for settling legal disputes in an impartial manner but
at the same time vests the crucial power of resolving constitutional issues to the House of
Federation. So it seems the judiciary is meant to settle only as the Ugandan President
Yoweri Museveni once said ‘judges need to settle chicken and goat theft cases.’ What role
the judiciary needs to play in any political system is surely one of the hotly contested issues
in politics but the importance of an impartial courts in public life cannot be underestimated,
else the powerful will take the law into their hands and sooner or later politics will be in
trouble and whatever developments we achieve can easily be reversed. The rule of law
along with impartial courts gives legal backing to development and ensures some level of
political stability. In the absence of the rule of law and impartial courts one cannot think of
long term investments domestic or foreign. One an investor thinks of investing his/her
money the first thing checked is the legal and policy framework for establishing it and the
next is whether there is an impartial court where if a dispute arises then there will be a fair
hearing in a relatively short period of time.1
More importantly, multiparty party system is installed in the constitution. A party or a
coalition of parties that wins a majority in parliament has the mandate to establish the
government. By any standard this is the core of liberalism that guarantees the political
process to remain democratic. At its core is the presence of choices in the form of political
parties, candidates and policies and for that to be realized, there needs to be many parties
in the game. How many such political parties is a problematic issue but in the long run some
three or four2 bigger and more or less ideologically cohesive3 and with comparable political
1 As the saying goes ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ and the opposite is ‘justice rushed is justice crushed’-
both are dangers that need to be avoided.
2 If we were to talk about politics in real the number could even be less. If politics is merely about ideology (it
surely is not, it is more importantly about grabbing power) then we can only think of liberals, social democrats
and that of EPRDF’s Revolutionary Democracy/Developmental state. One could not understand for example
weight need to exist, if there is going to be a multiparty election with alternative choices to
the voter. Here we see a more liberal element in the Ethiopian constitution when compared
with the Chinese one. The Chinese constitution makes no mistakes. It declares a one party
socialist state with the communist party as a sole and vanguard one but again with its own
interesting characters: in the last two decades the chairman of the party and along with it
the Country’s President has changed several times. The Chinese constitution does not
promise like ours a multiparty system. Yet knowingly or un knowingly, Ethiopian political
leaders have over the last decade adapted the developmental state paradigm from Asia
including China. Yet even in China under one party state the economy is a bit liberal to some
extent. It is not a planned economy to be sure. The government has big role but China also
allows various other actors like private and foreign investors to engage freely in business. So
the developmental state in its economic terms is what seems as well is operational in
Ethiopia right now where the government leads the economy but there is also room for
local and foreign investors to engage in the economy. What seems to be paradoxical is the
promise we have made in the constitution as far as the political system is concerned: a
multiparty system in the books and the actual practice we have right now. Whether the
political system we have right now it is a ‘dominant party’4 as claimed by EPRDF or
‘hegemonic/one party system’5 labelled by its critics is yet to be seen. But there surely is
something in the making. EPRDF’s political vision for the next decades envisages a vanguard
party/awra party. What then is the role of the political opposition supposed to be? And
what is the state of political pluralism supposed to be in this context. Are we moving away
from multiparty democracy to something else owing to ‘developmental state’ and how are
we going to explain that in relation to the constitutional promise of multiparty democracy?
Another area of dilemma one observes is in relation to the role of the media and freedom of
expression. As per the constitution the media including those publicly funded (government
owned media) are required to reflect diversity of opinions (check this under Art 29). Space
does not allow to illustrate details on the role of the media but in brief media needs to
the differences between EPRDF and that of Dr Merera or Prof Beyene’s party (to be honest the name of the
parties fail me! They have changed names several times and the only name that recur despite the changes are
the name of the leaders). The latter two merely accuse EPRDF for failing to deliver as promised in the
constitution and in this respect they both are ideologically closer to EPRDF than Lidetu’s Liberal party. So what
are the current 33 ‘opposition parties’ doing? Does it mean that they have 33 different ideologies?
3 EPRDF’s toughest critic against opposition political parties so far has been that the opposition is united by
their hate against EPRDF and not for their cohesive ideological/political program.
4 As far as we can understand from history for example of Japan a ‘dominant party’ is not necessarily
undemocratic. The idea is that voters continue to vote for the same party in consecutive elections because
they are satisfied with its performance. The Liberal Democratic Party was one such type that ruled Japan for
nearly four decades. Voters do not complain about election rigging or opposition intimidation in the political
process. The rules of the game are well known in advance and are less contested.
5 A hegemonic party as articulated by a well known political scientist Giovanni Sartori is not democratic like the
dominant party one. There is an opposition but the likely hood of winning an election is almost impossible.
Voters and political parties often complain about election irregularities and on the lack of an equal playing
field. The impartiality of those who administer the election is often contested as well or there is a perception
of that sort in the public. In a nut shell hegemonic party is distinct from dominant party system and is found
somewhere between dominant and one party state.
reflect the diversity of opinions that exist in society. As such the media is ideally supposed to
be the ‘market place of ideas’. In a multiparty politics the media is supposed to play a critical
role by serving as a forum for debate for the different opinions of the parties and the public,
in ensuring transparency and exposing maladministration including corruption. Only such a
media can inform the voter better in making its decisions. Yet we hear that what EPRDF
envisages as a role of the media is to serve as an ‘agent of developmental state’.
Abandoning its other critical roles the media is required to be limatawi – reporting merely
the developmental achievements of EPRDF.6 The journalists are nicknamed limatawi
gazetegna reporting only developmental news. I have no problems with the fair coverage
allotted in the news for developmental projects but the problem is ‘is the media merely
supposed to report about development’? is not EPRDF complaining about wide spread
corruption? Is not the public worried about the corruption? Should not the voter know
details about its political leaders both good and bad? So how do we deal with the dilemma
where the media is required by the constitution to play an important and diverse role while
developmental state dictating and requiring only limatawi media? Are we moving away
from ‘the social-political contract’ towards Chinese style of governance? Again let’s not
make mistakes here. The Chinese never promised diversity of opinions in the media as we
did in our constitution and we cannot blame them for what they have not promised to their
people. Ours is different. We have promised one thing and we are delivering something
else! Is this the result of an ideological shift or what?
6 As opposed to those media outlets like wenchif, seife nebelbal bla bla that merely reported about the
negative side of politics and preached now and then about hate politics and probably have contributed to the
state where we are now.

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