Today: July 23, 2024

Shifting from Moralization of Power to Containment: The Idea of Caretaker Government in Ethiopia

June 21, 2024

Messay Kebede
June 21, 2024

The history of modern Ethiopia displays a series of consecutive failures that added up into increasing threats to the very continuity of the country as we know it. To be sure, these failures have their reasons in structural fault lines, but the inability to resolve them invariably points to the non-compliance of the political component, primarily due to the drift towards absolute power and whose inevitable upshot is the institution of the inflexible rule of one man.  Indeed, even though the structural rifts were known and demands to fix them were heard loud and clear, from Haile Selassie to Abiy Ahmed, we see the same trend, namely, the sabotage of the necessary reforms by the existing ruling clique and the enthronement of the rule of one man. To pose the main problem of Ethiopia in this manner provides much-needed clarity as to the direction that Ethiopians must follow to remove the obstacles to reforms. The discrepancy between the required reforms and the political components has its roots in the fact that any viable change depends on the avoidance of absolute power and so demands the gradual democratization of political life as a condition for its implementation. In Ethiopia, however, power absolutely refuses to cede power, even the smallest part of it. This paper sheds some clarity on this stubborn character of the exercise of state power in Ethiopia and on the steps needed to counter it.


The Natural Brutality of Power

To begin with, it would be wrong to assume that the obstinacy of political power is specific to Ethiopia. Power in general and everywhere is reluctant to accept any limitation so that those democratic countries that succeeded in curbing it were able to do so by going around a natural inclination. That is why democracy is so hard to achieve and requires constant vigilance and fighting to maintain it once it is instituted, the reason being that what is natural is impossible to eradicate. As a matter of fact, the belief that human beings are social by nature, what else does it signify but the innateness of the structure of command and obedience in human nature? Moreover, since nature could not rely on the voluntary compliance of individuals to political order, unconditionality had to be part of the structure.

To temper somewhat the absoluteness of the structure, all cultures have, in one form or another, warned against the insatiable nature of power. To limit my illustration to the case of Judaism and Christianity, the unquenchable essence of power is the root cause of Adam’s original sin, to wit, his defiance of God. Though God gave Adam full authority over everything on Earth, the insatiable desire for more power, which grew to the level of becoming equal to God, induced him to defy God’s commandments. Nothing could better express the arrogance of power than this inducement to match with God.

God’s punishment for the defiance has undoubtedly brought about some fear of damnation softening the savagery of power among emperors, kings, queens, princes, princesses, nobles, etc. At any rate, fear was not enough to prevent the calamities that the exercise of power inflicted on human societies since the dawn of human collective existence. For those who have some doubt about my statement, I ask them to go back in history and recall the description of the brutality of power in the slave social system, notably in the more recent slavery of black people in America. Another illustration is the common mistake people make when they think that the moral goodness of a person can soften power. To their surprise, far from softening, power corrupts the good person. Many of us still remember how, during the revolution, decent citizens who were elected to positions of authority in the kebeles and keftegnas turned in a short time into unrecognizable tyrants and murderers. These instances confirm that the obligation to stifle a natural inclination makes democratic societies congenitally vulnerable, a vulnerability confirmed by the appearance here and there of dictatorial rules even in democratic societies, for instance, the rise of Hitler in Germany.

We find a secularized version of the essence of power in Machiavelli’s argument that political power has no moral basis, that the right to command derives from power itself, and that the basis of legitimacy is the monopoly of coercive force. To reproduce a famous quote from Machiavelli: “Power is the pivot on which everything hinges. He who has the power is always right; the weaker is always wrong.” Such a view does no more than provide further incitement to the naturally absolutist tendency of power. In effect, as it is often said, dictatorial rulers draw their inspiration as well as their methods and skills from Machiavelli’s works.


From Nature to Democratic Order

After a series of deceptions, some countries, finally realizing that power does not have any internal restraints, thought that the best they could do was to build safeguards against it by experimenting with democratic order. An important theoretical foundation for this attempt came with the formulation of the contract theory of society by such thinkers as John Locke and J. J. Rousseau. For these theoreticians, we should start with the fundamental attribute defining human beings, which is that, to quote Locke, they are “by nature all free, equal, and independent.” These characteristics entail that no individual has any natural authority over another individual, be it supposedly deriving from some alleged natural superiority, divine will, or the identification of force with right. The integrity of freedom and equality would be discounted if any individual or institution claimed authority without the consent of the members composing society. The only condition by which power over free and equal individuals can become legitimate is through their given consent.

The stated condition of legitimacy acknowledges that the people are the source of power and that those who exercise power at any level are just elected representatives and, as such, are accountable to them. In addition, the notion of consent presupposes that human beings establish government for their own sake and not for the benefit of the rulers. Some such approach assigns to governments the moral purpose of creating the conditions for individuals’ “comfortable, safe, and peaceable living” (Locke). It also determines the limits of state power since the condition of the legality of the state being the free consent of citizens, any decision or enactment that infringes upon the consent becomes ipso facto illegal. Infringement of this nature means that the agreement between the state and the citizens has been breached, and this gives the citizens the right to rebel, which is none other than the recovery of their original natural rights of freedom and equality.

Contract theory has been criticized in various ways. For instance, in deriving society from an agreement between originally independent individuals, critics say that it overlooks the natural basis of society, a view encapsulated by Aristotle’s statement that “the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.” Still, however varied and substantial these criticisms may be, they cannot downplay the delegitimizing impact of the theory on any claim to power that does not emanate from the consent of citizens. The impact makes crystal clear that the only way the natural freedom and equality of individuals agree with social order is through the implementation of the principle of consent, for in the words of Rousseau, “obedience to the law one has prescribed is liberty.”


The Philosopher-King Model

Another form of the moralization of state power can be traced back to Plato’s approach in the Republic. This line of thinking is of interest to Ethiopians with left-wing leanings, be they Marxist or ethnonationalist, because it has some resonance with Leninism. It argues that good governance, that is the one that serves the people, requires true knowledge, and that those who really know also know what is good and what is evil. It follows that the only legitimate form of government is when those who know become rulers, or as Socrates puts it, when “philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one.”

Far from me to suggest that a continuity exists between the Platonic theory that knowledge legitimizes power and Leninism. Still, both claim, through different approaches, that state power should serve the people and that the accomplishment of this moral obligation demands and legitimizes absolute power. Strange as it may seem, Lenin’s notion of a vanguard party intersects with the platonic idea of rule by knowledgeable, dedicated, and select group of people: in both cases, knowledge and moral dedication are necessary requirements, and the fulfillment of these qualities entitles to absolute power. The repercussions of this claim came to the forefront in Ethiopia when students and intellectuals spearheaded the revolution in the name of advanced knowledge gleaned from their exposure to Western education.


The Perils of Ignoring the Natural Basis of Society

Let alone the idea of a vanguard party, even the contract theory’s extremely appealing moralization of the state was fraught with dangerous implications. Indeed, as much as contract theory restores human freedom and equality, it underestimates the stubborn nature of power because it passes over its natural or biological root, as hinted by Aristotle. The theory that makes power a matter of consent has no regard for the natural basis, which alone explains the lack of restraints. Moreover, it is not convincing that human existence in a group form could result from and depend on individual choices. Collective existence is so vital, so characteristic, and constraining that it must derive from nature itself.

One thing is sure: contract theory rejects the biological foundation of society for two reasons. 1) A biological foundation would mean that some are born to rule and others to be ruled. This kind of clear-cut functional specialization among human beings does not exist; instead, humans show the characteristics of being capable of free will and possessing comparable capabilities. 2) To say that society has a natural basis is to consecrate the existing divisions and inequalities as being natural and hence as fixed. Such a position endorses all past and present social systems together with the privileges attached to individuals occupying higher echelons of social life.

The question that comes to mind here is whether acknowledging a similar nature to all human beings does not undermine the biological underpinning of society. It does not if, in place of organic specializations, dimorphism characterizes human nature. The concept means that nature does not assign a specific function to each individual; rather, it implants in each individual a natural disposition that “makes of each of us both a leader with the instinct to command and a subject ready to obey” (Bergson). In other words, what is natural is this dimorphic disposition so that, depending on circumstances and opportunities, an individual may actualize this or that aspect. No one is born exclusively a servant or master; however, it is equally true that the structural differentiation between command and obedience as a unifying force of the social group is not removable. From this differentiation emerges the authority of those who command over those who obey, an authority that readily uses force and even brutality to quell any form of resistance to its absoluteness. In the words of Bergson, “self-centredness, cohesion, hierarchy, absolute authority of the chief” defines this natural society.

Because contract theory ignored this underlying reality of natural society, it presumes that human society can be modeled on the moral imperative of serving and benefiting the people. However, those countries that followed its inspiration, perhaps because of the excesses of the French Revolution, which culminated with the institution of Napoleon’s dictatorial rule, backed down from the notion of perfect society. They replaced it with the humbler goal of controlling power through diverse mechanisms, thinking it was the best that they could do. They thus gave birth to a type of capitalism operating in the framework of a democratic order.

On the other hand, other countries, like Russia and China, taking their inspiration from Marxism, continued the pursuit of a perfect society. They thus engaged in the absolute moralization of power by changing it into an active instrument of the liberation of those who are exploited and excluded. The task of liberation necessitates absolute power and the justifiable use of violence against all those standing in the way. The goal and the means used had a magnetic impact internally as well as internationally. It is impossible not to attribute this magnetic influence, reaching the level where even educated people surrendered rational thinking, to the awakening of the subterranean pressure of the natural society, namely, the structure of unconditional command and obedience and the absolute authority of the chief. The cult of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, despite the many crimes they committed, a cult mixing admiration with fear, cannot be explained otherwise.

Unlike those countries that ignored the embedded nature of the structure and pursued to its end the path of the French Revolution, which was already a radical version of the contract theory, the countries that opted for the humbler task of reforming society focused on building fences against any form of political absolutism. For them, what remains true is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that power corrupts even the most moral of all people. When we lose sight of this fact because we are fascinated by the idea that power can be moralized, we succumb to the illusion of giving more power to power so that it accomplishes its moral purpose. In this regard, the American Constitution provides a viable lesson on what people can and cannot do. Although it still connects the state with the desire for happiness, it makes sure that power never reaches absolutism in any form. Thus, it establishes three branches of government with separate functions, each branch exercising control over the other two.  All three branches emanate from the consent of the people expressed through regular free and fair elections at different levels of the structure of power. They also operate on the principle of making government as small as possible so that it leaves a large social space for the initiative of citizens.


Taming Power through a Caretaker Government

Ethiopia is among those countries that still harbor the illusion of the moralization of politics. Although it went through the phase of a highly destructive and bloody revolution and, as a result, experimented with various forms of dictatorship, it seems unable to learn from these repeated failures. The latest example is the largely shared admiration and hope that accompanied the election of Abiy as Prime Minister. Because he made promises regarding national unity, democratization, and economic prosperity, it was enough for most people, including myself, to fall into the trap of moralization of state power and give Abiy unconditional support. We know what happened: Abiy used this support to craft his own personal power. His true dictatorial longing came to the forefront once he felt confident he had enough grip on power.

If having learned from past deceptions, Ethiopians did not give in to the moralization of politics, their support would have been minimal because they would want to take matters into their own hands, thereby engaging in the fight to build safeguards against political absolutism in Ethiopia. Their reasoning would have been as follows: from what Abiy is saying, there is a slight chance he could be a reformer. But this possibility does not matter; what matters is that whoever occupies a position of power will never use it for any other purpose than to serve the people. This means that power, in addition to being limited, must also be constantly watched by institutions reflecting the wish of the majority of the Ethiopian people expressed through fair and free elections. No matter who is invested with power, the point is that power corrupts. It cannot be moralized; it can only be tamed through constant monitoring in the same way as trainers domesticate wild animals without losing sight of their violent nature.

In light of past and present deceptions, one wonders whether Ethiopians would ever get out of the moralizing illusion and confront the insatiable nature of power and its inherent brutality, regardless of who exercises power and which ideology backs it.  Even now, after repeated deceptions, the prevalent attitude of the people and elites is to expect rescuers when the real issue is to take back power. None of the political parties engage in the fight to build safeguards against absolutism; instead, they all position themselves for either the capture of exclusive power or for cooptation by those who happen to be in power. Political competition in Ethiopia is like a soccer match with no referee and established prior rules. Is it surprising if political parties remain divided and unable to come together to set the rules of political competition?

I do not doubt that a high number of Ethiopians welcome political competition. But they also forget that, prior to the fight, competitors must agree on the rules that enable them to compete in a fair and free manner. If the objective is to capture power without any prior rules, then the one who happens to arrive first at the top will prevent any further competition by instituting absolutism. If, on the other hand, we give primacy to the framing of the rules that provide all a fair chance in the conquest of power, then we would have secured the means for Ethiopians to become the real deciders of the contest.

To know how to secure the means, we must first be clear about the main crack of the Ethiopian power system. I boldly say that the main obstacle does not come from this or that article of the existing constitution, which is always amendable according to the wish of the majority of Ethiopians. It lies in the absence of any mechanism of control dealing with the conduct of elections. The constitution says that the parliament is vested with the highest authority. The problem here is that the ruling party can derail the process of free and fair elections through the unchecked authority of the prime minister. The derailment allows the premier to secure an overwhelming majority in the parliament that readily supports his project of absolute rule, including his choices of the members of the election board.

The only way we can go around this problem is not through the formation of a provisional or transitional government, as many suggest, for we have seen provisional governments turning into settled governments in Ethiopia, as in the case of the Derg or the TPLF. Rather, what we need is the institution of a caretaker government. The concept designs a temporary government lasting no more than six months whose sole purpose and power is to prepare, conduct, and supervise national elections. This government has no legislative power nor any power outside the preparation and supervision of the coming election. Its establishment presupposes that the existing “elected” government resigns at the end of its term: it loses all its power and gives way to the caretaker government. In this way, no existing government has any authority to conduct and supervise elections at the national or state level.

The proposal is not new: such countries as Tunisia and Bangladesh have implemented it. Even without leaving the soil of Ethiopia, we can find a procedure somewhat similar to my proposal. A friend of mine reminded me that Emperor Menilik, essentially to avoid the customary and destructive wars between claimants to the throne, nominated Ras Tessema Nadew regent (ሞግዚት ) to Lij Iyasu, who was then only 12 years old, until he reached the appropriate age to assume full power.

Once the winning party or coalition of parties, according to the set rules of fair and free election, is known, the caretaker government hands over power to the elected assembly and automatically dissolves itself. To fulfill its obligations adequately, the interim government will be composed of people known for their integrity and honesty and representing the various religious, academic, professional, ethnic, military, etc., sectors of Ethiopian society. No member of this government can be affiliated with any party, still less become a candidate in the ongoing election. Since the caretaker government dissolves itself at the end of each national election, a new one must be formed before the next election. The practice must continue until the norms of a free and fair election turn into cultural traits and the fascination as well as the desire for saviors becomes a thing of the past.

The suggestion certainly raises many questions, including those related to its practicality. My answer to all these questions is: What other alternative is there for Ethiopia to circumvent the main obstacle blocking the way to the institution and implementation of genuine democratic prerequisites and procedures? Is it not necessary and most urgent to break the circle preventing Ethiopia from having a level playing field for free and fair political competition? To acquire a stable and truly representative political system, is it not incumbent on Ethiopians to momentarily suspend the exercise of active political governance (in distinction to administrative governance)? Since most people agree that a negotiated settlement is the only avenue for the survival of Ethiopia and the avoidance of ominous consequences that failure to reach an agreement is bound to cause, let us then create the conditions most favoring the true wishes of the majority. Given that negotiations are no longer a choice, the proposal of a caretaker government stands out as the only remedy against the impossibility in Ethiopia of conducting genuine elections under the care of a standing government. That Ethiopians must find a way to sideline it until the termination of elections is, therefore, an inescapable conclusion.


Professor Mesay Kebede is an academic and researcher


  1. I find Prof. Messay’s analysis and proposal as always informed, perceptive and sensible. I have no substantive criticism to counter it. However, I have the nagging doubt that the PM, who has acquired so much power as his predecessors, would be willing to allow under his watch the creation of a “caretaker government”, whose purpose I honestly do not consider to be as such any different from a provisional or transitional government. Moreover, he may think he is justified to wield unlimited power given the fact that the country appears to be more than ever on the brink of disintegration (for which he bears some responsibility). He may convincingly argue also that the exercise of instituting a caregiver government now does not only not solve Ethiopia’s institutional problems – i.e. the setting of a permanent solid democratic foundation – but would ironically, and to the contrary, contribute to the current state of chaos. Nevertheless, the premise of Prof. Messay’s point remains valid: we are bound to repeat the same absolutist trend begun under the imperial regime, unless we first establish a system of government that precludes inherently the emergence of autocratic regimes. The question is, of course, when this could happen. It may be possible for this to take place peacefully only when a fair and transparent election is conducted, and democratic forces prevail to establish first the foundation of a truly democratic state, before assuming the reigns of government. That, in itself, is a toll order for Ethiopia!

  2. Here you again! Transitional government ! Take over the government!

    What is new? Professor Mesfin had been advocating for take over government for 50 years and nothing was materialized. In my opinion, the reason why it is not materialized is because elites like Mesay Kebede just talk and write but do nothing. If elites were well organized and through their strong organization force whoever the dictatorial government may be through public education, international diplomacy, legal team and effective mass media, they could have been effective. Otherwise, talking and writing that cannot be practiced it self-serving, cheap and in fact damaging.
    Thank you.

  3. @ Girma
    Prof. Messay did not suggest a transitional government. What he suggests is at the end of the legislative period of a government, a caretaker government takes over for 6 months to fascilitate and monitor the election. Because the experience has showed that in Ethiopia a ruling party is not interested in a fair and level ground for all competitors to have a fair election.
    Until a materialized institutional and democratic stability is reached, such a practice can help.

  4. A great article.
    Actually this shall be published in Ethiopian language in Ethiopian news papers.
    This idea shall be considered in this national dialogue

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