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Ethiopia in Crisis Summit: Agenda for a Way to ‘True’ Democracy

February 28, 2017

Speakers present analytical thoughts on Ethiopia at Ethiopia in Crisis Summit

Stanford University – Venue for Change

On Saturday afternoon, January 21, in Jordan Hall at Stanford University, two keynote speakers addressed an important topic affecting the African continent and a good part of the rest of the planet: Political Transition in Ethiopia.

Responding to the country’s current political and social turmoil, the Ethiopian-American Council (EAC) had organized a two-day summit – Ethiopia In Crisis – and had invited renowned scholars, human rights advocates, politicians, and media representatives, among others, to discuss the future of this ancient nation on the Horn of Africa.

Thousands Seeking a Way to True Democracy

Dr Larry Diamond

The summit was a success. From around the globe, more than a score of advocates, including the keynote speakers, assembled to express their thoughts, share their visions, and answer questions on how best to promulgate the development of true democracy in a nation now ruled by a tyrannical, oligarchic regime.

Over the course of the weekend, more than 10,000 people attended the summit seeking ways to foment positive change for the people of Ethiopia, including far-flung members of the Ethiopian Diaspora. The roles Ethiopian-Americans could play in the political and social transformation of Ethiopia were also addressed.

World-Class Scholars and Human Rights Advocates

Due to their reputations as scholars and human-rights advocates, with a focus on Africa and Ethiopia, Dr. Larry Diamond and Dr. Richard A. Joseph were chosen as keynote speakers. Professor Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Dr. Joseph is a professor of Political Science at Northwestern University.

Keynote Lessons for True Democracy in Ethiopia

Addressing the issue – Democratic Transitions – Dr. Larry Diamond made some opening points. He explained that Ethiopia is now dealing with an authoritarian regime and that there must be a desire for transition within that regime. Without that transition, none of the other problems that have been addressed at the summit could be solved.

He went on to say that the present Ethiopian regime lacks the self-discipline and courage to offer

transparency and accountability. He opined that it is really open to question whether the regime can appreciate the benefits of transition to a more democratic stance, but that it is unlikely, at best.

Assessing Human Development

Dr. Diamond also questioned how academia measures progress in human development. He noted that a World Bank official had told him that Ethiopia would offer the biggest bang for the buck in terms of human development. Dr. Diamond went on to say that most observers, such as the World Bank official, rely on economic statistics and other abstract measures. Do they really measure progress in human development?

He noted that the Ethiopian regime was not doing too badly statistically, though it had severely deteriorated over the recent past in terms of accountability, transparency, and over-blown corruption. He asked whether measuring education and income was enough to measure human development. He offered that perhaps we need new ways to measure human dignity and human liberty.

Ethiopia in Sub-Saharan Africa

Dr. Diamond went on to point out that the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that are doing well in terms of economic and human development are all democracies or in a more open political situation. No dictatorship in the region, no matter the terms in which they couch their government, is a good example of democratic principles or best use of public resources.

He went on to cite the recent Ethiopian famine, pointing out that no true democracy has ever suffered a famine. Democracies cannot hide the fact of famine or the use of food as a weapon due to their transparency.

[Comments were made about the recent, much sought after, peaceful transition of power in the Gambia. It was noted that this could not have happened had the populace not been unified.]

Four Types of Democratic Transition

Dr. Diamond offered that there are four ways a regime can transition into a democracy:  evolutionary and economic evolution, change from above, change from below, and negotiated agreement. The first, he explained, was a “let nature take its course” path. Eventually everyone will have sufficient income and education that a democracy will eventually evolve. This takes decades and it is not a good bet, he noted.

He believes the negotiated agreement is the best way to change the regime in Ethiopia, but went on to note that right now the political reality is that the circumstances in Ethiopia are conditionally unfavorable for any kind of immediate transition to democracy.

Six Steps to Bring an Autocratic Regime to Democracy

Dr. Diamond has a six-step plan for bringing democracy to a nation ruled by an autocratic regime:

  • Unify the opposition.
    Ethnicity and religion are the dividers of any populace. Political parties and non-government organizations should eschew identification with either of those; change should be in the name of all the people. Groups must have a federal vision.
  • Befriend the regime.
    Forge ties with members of the regime, their friends, and families. Be politically smart – not rude. Don’t treat members of the regime or its officers as pariahs. Speak with ambassadors and officials from other countries. Outside of Ethiopia, appeal to the government where you reside. Talk with business people who rely on Ethiopia for stable markets. A good time to make friends within the regime is when its fall becomes imminent. Lay the basis for defection: prosecution, confiscated assets, imprisonment.
  • Have a unification strategy.
    Ensure that all parties understand that initially they will all have to make some painful concessions when negotiating transition with the regime.
  • Use non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.
    Resistance of all kinds must be used with great caution. As an example: Protesters throwing rocks or firing weapons immediately place themselves as enemies. Act with dignity and respect that implies to regime agents that protesters can be engaged without harm.
  • Plan for constitutional reform.
    A federal vision must be a part of democratic transition. The vision must include all groups. Much thought should be given to the structure of the constitution and the government. Stress was once again made that sustainable democracies could not exist if based on ethnic or religious divides.
  • Wage a battle of information and ideas.
    Disseminating information to the public is a most important move for Ethiopians at this early stage. The people should be made aware of the advantages of democracy and the rule of law and guarantee of rights. A mention was made about  the feasibility of thumb drives being deployed throughout the nation with the recorded theories of democracy translated into the various languages, so regular people could understand the fundamentals of creating and living in a democracy. Activists should be aware that the regime will do all it can to obliterate such an information flow.

Affirming Democracy in Ethiopia

Dr. Richard Joseph took the reins from Dr. Diamond and addressed the topic – Affirming Democracy: Ethiopia and the United States. Dr. Joseph chose “affirming” over “claiming” because it’s stronger.

He recounted a conference in Atlanta in 1994, chaired by former President Carter, that included Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) officers and groups of the opposition. Among them, he met a fighter against the Mengistu regime who believed that only those who bore arms in that struggle were qualified to participate in government. He found it disturbing that some thought armed struggle was the only way to change a government.

Origins of Ethiopian Authoritarianism

Following a historical path, he recounted how during the first Bush administration, it was made clear that the U.S. did not want to be involved in a long civil war. During the struggle against Mengistu, the U.S. allowed the EPRDF to take Addis Ababa, the capitol, under the provision that they create an inclusive democratic government. The E.U. and the U.S. both wanted a democracy but were too lax to enforce that progress. The EPRDF had no inclination to transition to democracy. The deterioration of the government has continued to this day.

Obama to Trump

Dr. Joseph went on to say that with the unfortunate results of the recent U.S. election, the new government will not have human rights as a priority. Then he questioned whether human rights was a priority in the Obama administration. He recounted how Obama has given human rights advocates moments of elation as well as moments of depression. He told how Obama gave a speech in July 2009 when Obama delivered a thrilling address about democracy in Africa, and repeated those sentiments in another speech a few weeks later.

Dr Richard Joseph

Later, however, just weeks after the travesty of the latest May 25th elections, Obama twice declared the elections as “democratic.” Regarding this, Dr. Joseph mentioned an article he wrote for the Journal of Democracy in 1998, “Is Ethiopia Democratic?” He mentioned the term “newspeak,” found in the novel “1984” by George Orwell, wherein governments presented new meanings for words and especially denigrated the meaning of the word “democracy.” He mentioned discrepancies in Obama’s speeches and his use of the term “democracy.”

Dr. Joseph recalled that the Ethiopian-U.S. connection goes back to the time of Selassie. Thousands of Ethiopians have placed themselves seamlessly into American society. Yet, the U.S. government still caters to the EPRDF. He cited at least two reasons for U.S. backing of EPRDF: regional security, a bulwark against Chinese hegemony. The doctor went on to say that he believes that Ethiopian democracy is obtainable as some point, despite the entrenchment of the present authoritarianism.

[As an aside, Dr. Joseph called for another summit: What should an Ethiopian democracy look like?]

Addressing the transition from the Obama administration to Trump and the progress of democracy in Ethiopia, he stated that under Obama, human rights were a priority but were unwilling to confront the fake or “pseudo” democracy the regime had espoused. Under Trump, and with the E.U. facing enormous challenges, help from those quarters for a transition to democracy is unlikely.

Ethiopia and Africa – Citizens in Action

Dr. Joseph went on to explain some questions and affirmations about the realization of democracy in Ethiopia. Dr. Joseph noted that of the seven largest African nations, only South Africa and Nigeria are real democracies. These came about only because the citizens were ready to lay on the line all that they held dear and because of the support of non-government organizations.

He said success in South Africa was due to the citizens themselves affirming democracy. In Nigeria, when the regime strayed from the democratic path, other democracies expressed disapproval, but didn’t follow up. It was only through the tenacity of the citizenry that democracy was achieved.

Posses for Democracy

Regarding the prospects for a democracy in the violence of North Africa, Dr. Joseph said that a few North African countries have managed to set their governments on a more democratic path. He called the citizens within these countries Posses for Democracy as in the American Old West term for “posse.” He said these posses pass on knowledge of democracy, spur people to action, and they can be within a country’s boundaries or span entire regions.

Democratic transition in Ethiopia cannot be dependent of U.S. involvement at this time. Factors to get on the path to democracy could include the desire of some regime members themselves want better than repeated oppressive violence and political malfeasance. Increasingly Ethiopians  themselves are asserting the vision of democracy. With these manifestations, he concluded that he believes democracy is obtainable in Ethiopia.

Question and Answer Session Raises Important Points

The presentations by Dr. Diamond and Dr. Joseph were followed by questions directed at the two. Both the questions and answers raised important issues:

  • The regime may recognize that their government is unsustainable if the nation runs into trouble economically or with eroding support of the citizenry.
  • The EPRDF should liberalize – let people out of jail, start a dialogue.
  • Intelligence community may be among the first to defect, they are seeing the trouble firsthand.
  • Both sides must realize that democracy is the only sustainable outcome. (Susan Rice or anyone else who is trying to construct a “new form” of democracy as promoted by the regime is not sustainable.)
  • Diaspora community cannot just rage against the regime. Could utilize some of the ideas presented in this forum.
  • Don’t base the process on ethnicity. Democracy is only viable and sustainable without ethnic or religious advantages.
  • Political parties should reach beyond those issues, to be more inclusive.

Dr. Joseph once again talked about the conference with Carter (see above). He noted that there was no common ground among the opposition and he wondered if Ethiopians had learned their lesson. Though there are differences among the people, he noted, there are even more similarities.

Other points raised by questions and answers:

  • The diaspora is the result of failure to transition to democracy.
  • Some Africans and Ethiopians feel shame for not taking more responsibility.
  • U. and U.S. have a morally bankrupt policy toward Ethiopia.
  • Obama knew what the real deal was.
  • Ethiopia has been doing some heavy lifting in helping U.S. deal with terrorism and violence, especially in Somalia.
  • EPRDF pressed hard for Obama to say elections were democratic. The regime is very nervous about their legitimacy.
  • Obama is a cerebral man so his head over-ruled his heart on occasion.
  • New U.S. president has militarized the NSC so there is not much hope of action. More concerned with strategic concerns than human rights.
  • Could influence new president, who doesn’t like foreign aid, by showing that Ethiopia under the present regime is a bad investment and is going down – be the realist.

– Ethiopian-American Council

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