Ethiopia: From Dictatorship to Democracy – ALEMAYEHU G MARIAM



Mahatma Gandhi first formulated the iron law of history for dictators: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always.”  Just in the past year we have seen Gandhi’s words come to pass as dictators fell like dominoes in the Arab Spring: Ben Ali in Tunisia got the boot after 24 years. Hosni Mubarak was thrown out and hauled into court after 32 years. Moamar Gadhafi in Libya was literally dragged out of the sewers, paraded in the streets and and executed with his own golden pistol. Ali Saleh ruled Yemen for 33 years and went into exile after suffering disfiguring burns and shrapnel injuries. Bashir al-Assad is running a slaughter house in Syria, and he will surely face the same fate as his brother dictators.

Sub-Sahara Africa has also seen its share of fallen dictators. Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire was collared holed up in his palace and turned over to the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity. Mamadou Tandja of Niger tried to cling to power by ignoring constitutional term limits, but Niger’s military ousted him. Tandja’s principal opponent was subsequently elected president. Recently, the 85 year-old Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal tried to steal a third term in office and faced a firestorm of public protest. He ran but failed to win a majority, and now faces a runoff with the certainty of civil strife to follow should he “win”.

In January 2011, I wrote a weekly column entitled, “After the Fall of African Dictatorships” and posed three questions: “What happens to Africa after the mud walls of dictatorship come tumbling down and the palaces of illusion behind those walls vanish? Will Africa be like Humpty Dumpty (a proverbial egg) who “had a great fall” and could not be put back together by “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men”? What happens to the dictators?” I thought I had a ready an answer to the last question, though not for the first two:

When the people begin to beat their drums and circle the mud walls, Africa’s dictators will pack their bags and fly off like bats out of hell…[Some of the dictators] will hide out in the backyards of their brother dictators… [or] remain fugitives from justice … The rest will fade away into the sunset to quietly enjoy their stolen millions… The fact is that the morning after the fall of Africa’s dictators, the people will be stuck with a ransacked economy, emptied national banks, empty store shelves, torture chambers full of political prisoners and dithering and power-hungry opposition leaders jockeying for position in the middle of political chaos.

Who Could Put Ethiopia Together After the Fall?

What could happen to Ethiopia after the mud walls of dictatorship come tumbling down? Will Ethiopia have a great fall and shatter into pieces? Will Ethiopia face Libya’s fate? Egypt’s? Tunisia’s? Or will she face Syria’s fate? No one can predict with certainty, but one can be sure that Ethiopia’s destiny is not as preordained as her current rulers would like to remind us: “If Ethiopia disintegrates, so be it. It was not meant to be.”

What can be said with absolute certainty is that there is a decisive role to be played by all Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia in shaping a post-dictatorship Ethiopia. Individual Ethiopians, groups, civic society and  independent press institutions, pro-democracy activists, human rights advocates, political parties and grassroots organizations can come together to discuss and spearhead dialogue and debate on Ethiopia’s transition from one man, one party dictatorship to genuine multiparty democracy grounded in the rule of law. If Ethiopians are to have hope of a better future and a fair chance at fulfilling their destiny and secure the blessing of liberty for themselves and for posterity, they will have to come together, work collaboratively, discuss differences civilly, think creatively, deal with each other honestly, respectfully and forthrightly, negotiate unconditionally, bargain considerately, speak candidly, communicate openly, defend the truth fearlessly, approach their differences open-mindedly and accept the  judgment of the people unquestioningly and respectfully.

The Ethiopian National Transition Council (ENTC)

Recently, a group of grassroots advocates has taken the challenge of thinking through and charting possible  transitional courses for a democratic Ethiopia after the inevitable collapse of the mud walls of dictatorship in that country. The Ethiopian National Transition Council (ENTC) seeks to mobilize and engage Ethiopians from all walks of life in the dialogue and debate over how to transition Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy. Its declared aim is to “facilitate the process of collaboration, consensus building, networking and information dissemination” to diverse stakeholders in Ethiopian society. ENTC is not affiliated with any political party nor does it have any political ambitions beyond grassroots advocacy for democratic governance and respect for basic human rights. Its ambition is to become an independent and all-inclusive collaborative forum for pro-democracy civic advocacy and activism with the agenda of helping to establish a free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous Ethiopia.

One of the individuals in the forefront of this effort is Dr. Fiseha Eshetu. Fiseha is an extraordinary young Ethiopian with a peerless record of achievement in Ethiopian higher and technical education. In 1991, he planted the seeds for what was later to become Unity University, the first and largest privately owned and fully accredited institution of higher learning in Ethiopia to be given full accreditation. In 2008, after years of fighting government regulation and fending off official efforts calculated to undermine private higher education, Fiseha sold his beloved university and went into exile. (I have extensively commented on the subject previously in my commentaries “Ethiopia: Indoctri-Nation” and “Ethiopia: Education Unbanned!”.)

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Fiseha is an unlikely person to lead such an effort, or even to be so civically engaged. He openly admits that he was one of those Ethiopians who stayed away from politics because he believed business and politics do not mix well. Though he witnessed corruption, maladministration and abuse of power in Zenawi’s regime, he would hear, see or speak no evil. He says he reached a point where he “just did not care” and even “hated being Ethiopian”. But in time he was gripped with a “guilty conscience” witnessing the suffering of the people every day. He could no longer watch from the sidelines and hide behind a veil of self-serving neutrality. In the depth of despair, apathy and bitterness, he says he found strength in the “truth and his faith in God.” He says he has  taken on this task of helping to transition Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy because he believes he has a moral duty to stand up and speak up and help his countrymen and women to his “last penny”. But he readily confesses: “I would rather be in higher education training hundreds of thousands of young Ethiopians for Ethiopia’s future.”

Listening to Fiseha, one is disarmed by his gentle and obliging candor and openness. His words are plain and unguarded; and he totally lacks the calculated ambiguity of professional politicians and knavish obscurity of pundits. He speaks his mind without mincing words. His public statements  echo and resonate Gandhi’s ideas about “Satyagraha” (truth force). He says, “The reason we are one hundred percent we will succeed in our efforts is based on two things. First, everything we do is based on truth. Second, we believe in God.” There is also something  “Mandelan” about his outlook. He keeps repeating: “For my country, I will work with anyone to bring about democratic change in Ethiopia.” The great Nelson Mandela taught, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” Fiseha says ENTC will reach out to anyone without preconditions or stipulations as long as they are willing to work and help transition Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy. He has the faith of men on a mission: “If every Ethiopian sacrificed 1 per cent, we can bring about massive change in 6 months. We need to develop a mentality of public service.” In the end, he has begun this odyssey out of love of country, honor, duty and public service, not the morbid and joyless love of power: “We have no interest or aspirations for political power. Our wish is to help finish this transition to democracy as quickly as possible and return to our chosen professions.”

Transition From Dictatorship

The road from dictatorship to democracy in Ethiopia will be challenging but not impossible. What will the transition to democracy look like? When the mud walls of dictatorship crumble in Ethiopia and the veil of secrecy and hype is lifted, two facts will stand stark naked. First, the people will find out that their national treasury is empty and the country is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and crushing international debt. Second, they will find out that in the absence of durable democratic institutions and procedures, they could face a period of  significant political instability, tension and conflict. But to better understand the challenges of that transition —  that moment in time between the end of dictatorship and the onset of democracy — one must begin with an analysis of the objective conditions in Ethiopia today.

To facilitate their grand strategy of divide and rule, Ethiopia’s current dictators have carved out the country into ethnic enclaves reminiscent of South Africa’s Bantustans. That is likely to be a source of contention. Political parties are suppressed and neutralized through arbitrary regulations or direct repression and prevented from organizing and campaigning. There will likely be jockeying for power by some. Opposition leaders are jailed, intimidated and/or bankrupted. Dissidents are persecuted as “terrorists” and their exercise of their constitutional and human rights criminalized. A sudden opening up of political space could add a layer of confusion. The rule of law is trampled as citizens are arbitrarily arrested, detained and brought before kangaroo courts for summary judgment.  Torture is commonplace in the secret and regular prisons as has been documented. The call for justice will likely take precedence. There are no personal freedoms– no freedom of expression, press or association. Alternative sources of information are electronically jammed; independent newspapers are shuttered and editors and journalists jailed or exiled. Political institutions are degraded with a rubber stamp parliament, and a judicial system populated by obstuse party hacks lording over kangaroo courts. Executive power is vested in one man who exercises power without any constitutional constraints or institutional checks and balances. Transition from such a state of political affairs will require not only a tectonic shift in the structure and process of governance but also a fundamental transformation in citizens’ attitudes and the civic and political culture of the country.

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Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy: It is All About the Transitional Period!

Dissolution of the dictatorship in Ethiopia does not guarantee the birth of democracy. There is no phoenix of democracy that will rise gloriously from the trash heap of dictatorship. Birthing democracy will require a lot of collaborative hard work, massive amounts of creative problem-solving and plenty of good luck and good will. A lot of heavy lifting needs to be done to propel Ethiopia from the abyss of dictatorship to the heights of democracy. It will be necessary to undertake a collective effort now to chart a clear course on how that long suffering country will emerge from decades of dictatorship, without the benefit of any viable democratic political institutions, a functional political party system, a system of civil society institutions and an independent press to kindle a democratic renaissance.

The recent history of societies that have transitioned from dictatorship to democracy demonstrates that the most important part of the transition is the transitional process itself. There is a narrow window of opportunity between the demise of the dictatorship and the emergence of the new order that has the effect of historical determinism. What happens in that window of opportunity determines whether democracy will rise from the ashes of dictatorship, or another equally virulent dictatorship rises from the ashes of the dictatorship that just ended. Simply stated, the transitional window between dictatorship to democracy is the most important element in the entire democratic process. If the transition turns out to be destructively competitive and conflict ridden because stakeholders distrust each other and are rigidly wedded to their positions, the “democracy” that will result from that will be weak, unsteady and ineffectual, if one emerges at all. If the transition is marked by genuine negotiations, bargaining and compromises, a strong and durable democracy will very likely emerge.

Ethiopia’s history offers the most compelling lessons and evidence in support of this proposition. During the U.S. brokered “transition” in 1991, Zenawi was able to masterfully short-circuit the transition process by outsmarting and outplaying the U.S. and all of the other stakeholders. Herman Cohen, the U.S. official who played the mediator role, recently gave an interview and explained, “The TPLF was at the gates of Addis. We wanted to make sure that the war ended with what we called a soft landing in Addis and there should be no destruction….We didn’t say takeover the government. We said take over Addis. We needed to have somebody takeover in Addis and then start transition toward a new governmental system.” But there was not much of a transition. Cohen added:

I opened the meeting with a statement urging the parties to work out a transition to a democratic form of government and to maintain a single economy of Ethiopia and Eritrea…After my statement, the three parties decided to continue on their own without a mediator…They repaired to a private room for their own discussions, which produced a short public statement. The statement said that a decision has been made to hold an all-parties conference in Addis Ababa no later than 1 July, at which time a transitional government would be debated and launched.

With one communique, Zenawi succeeded in hijacking the transitional process, and with lightning speed managed to consolidate his power and establish his dictatorship. That is why the transitional period is the most critical moment in the passage from dictatorship to democracy. It is vitally important to maintain unrelenting vigilance during this critical period to make sure that no one individual, group or party will have a tactical advantage to hijack the next transition to democracy.

The transitional process itself determines that type of “democracy” that will emerge. It is possible to have different types of transitions with different results, outcomes and reconfigurations in the balance of power among the stakeholders. For instance, if the transitional process is bogged down in ethnic politics, hostility and competition among the major ethnic groups, the chances for a successful democracy will likely diminish. If particular political or social groups seek to engineer another hijacking of the transitional process, the results will be catastrophic.

What does the transitional process to democracy mean? My view is simple. I begin with basic assumptions: Democracy in cannot emerge in Ethiopia by force, trickery or backroom intrigues. It cannot be dictated by one man, one party, one group, one ethnicity or one segment of society. It cannot not come through artificial and expediently formulated consensus and lip service to unity and collaboration. Democracy can be birthed in Ethiopia if and only if the transitional process from dictatorship provides all stakeholders a genuine opportunity to come together to discuss, negotiate, bargain and compromise about the future of Ethiopia. Counter-intuitive as it may sound, my view is that for the transition to democracy to be successful, what is supremely important is not the existence of broad consensus and unity among the stakeholders; rather, it is the existence of divergent interests and the ability to bring the stakeholders of these diverging interests to work through their stalemate at the negotiating table in an environment of awareness of a common destiny. In other words, when all the relevant stakeholders come together with the simple awareness and deep understanding that “we are all in the same boat. We are all rowing against a tidal wave on a sea of repression, corruption, exploitation and subjugation. In the end, we  will swim or sink together.”


What is to be done before the window of transition opens and once it is opened? We have to start with the basics. What kind of “democracy” do we want? For two decades, we have been hoodwinked by a hollow but seductively phrased “revolutionary democracy”. Is a constitutional democracy desirable and timely for Ethiopia now? A constitutional democracy is based on the idea of limiting and defining the powers of government and those exercising political power. The constitution serves as the supreme law of the land and no individual or institution can breach it. Governmental authority is legitimately exercised only in accordance with the constitution and and other laws consistent with it and enforced in accordance with established procedures and in conformity with international treaty obligations. As additional safeguards against the potential of arbitrary government actions, power could be vertically divided between the central and local governments in a system of federalism (“ethnic federalism” is to genuine federalism as dictatorship is to genuine multiparty democracy). Political institutions, particularly the judiciary, will have complete independence from those exercising executive authority and will be vested with full judicial review powers. In a constitutional democracy, political parties are always at risk of losing elections (in fact, they are doomed to lose elections if they fail to listen to the people); and it is impossible for any party to win an election by 99.6 percent in a constitutional democracy. Simply stated, in a constitutional democracy government always fears the people and the people never fear their government. Is it time for constitutional democracy in Ethiopia?

Waiting for a Dictatorship to Fall?

Some are overly concerned about fixing the time when the mud walls of dictatorship in Ethiopia will come tumbling down. Neither Gadhafi, Ben Ali, Mubarak nor Saleh knew or could predict the end of their dictatorship. Even the most sophsitcated intelligence gathering operations could predict the Arab Spring.  But Gandhi’s iron law of history of dictators predicts with certainty that “tyrants and murderers for a time seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always.”

The end of dictators comes when it comes, but the facts hastening the end are plain to see, and could be extrapolated from parallel historical events elsewhere. Dictatorships are internally weak, inherently fragile and unstable. The body politics of dictatorships is poisoned by corruption and abuse of power. Unable to win hearts and minds, dictatorships maintain support by purchasing the loyalty of those from whom they seek support and use force and intimidation against their opponents. Their operating principle is total distrust, including their own supporters.

The answer to the end game of the dictatorship in Ethiopia is written plainly in the faces of the millions who are starving, the toiling peasants and day laborers, those whose lands were taken and sold for pennies to international land grabbers, the masses of young men and women who have been deprived of educational and employment opportunities, the multitudes of the homeless, the diligent businessmen and women who are victimized by paralyzing taxes, the pensioners who have lost hope in the sunset of their lives and so on. But if one were pressed to provide an answer to the question, it would be simply this: Dictatorships are doomed when citizens value their dignity above all else and join hands and stand together to defend their collective humanity. That is the singular lesson and the ultimate truth about the Arab Spring.

Guarding Against the Great Fallacy of Electoralism in a Democratic Transition

There are some who believe that the transition from dictatorship to democracy can be achieved by waving a magical wand of elections at the critical point in the demise of a dictatorship. The impulse to put all of the political eggs in the election basket and hope for the best is irresistible. Herman Cohen said that during the transition in 1991 he had accepted Zenawi’s assurances that there would be elections to sort things. But commenting on the 2005 elections, Cohen said he became publicly critical of Zenawi because the 2005 “elections were stolen, clearly stolen.” After 2005, elections in Ethiopia were not just stolen, they became the stuff of political comedy as the ruling party proclaimed: “Behold our 99.6 percent electoral victory in May 2010!” “Marvel at our democracy in 2008 in local and by-elections in which we won all but four of 3.4 million contested seats!”

ENTC: Carpe Diem! (Seize the Day!)

The idea of having individuals and groups involved in grassroots democratization efforts is heartwarming and inspiring. The idea of engaging individuals and civic groups in activism and advocacy to alleviate human suffering and to defend the defenseless, the faceless and voiceless is priceless. The idea of grassroots organizations spearheading the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Ethiopia opens up boundless opportunities. When hope itself seems hopeless and our faith in the future is swallowed by our present despair, we must replace our outrage with courage  and be prepared to give 1 percent of our time and energy to the cause of transitioning Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy.

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