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Good Governance in Ethiopia with Checks and Balances

by Getachew Begashaw (PHD)

1. Introduction

getachew begashawEthiopia, in its recent history, has gone through three government systems that included a monarchy, a military dictatorship, and a divisive ethnic Federal system without participatory democracy. In each case, the continuity of the system was challenged by popular uprisings; however, thanks in part to the absence of democratic institutions and organizations to realize the aspirations of the people, each system was replaced by another that was as repressive as or more repressive than its predecessor. Furthermore, in each case, the popular movement was hijacked by forces that initially disguise their true form in progressive slogans and reforms, and eventually unveiled their dictatorial, autocratic and anti-democratic nature, once they consolidated power.

Following the successful uprisings against the vicious TPLF/EPRDF regime, we currently have a government in Ethiopia that assumed power with a promise of unity, love, national reconciliation, and democracy.

Despite the unconditional support the government enjoyed in the first few months of its formation, it is now facing considerable challenges from various groups, including its once ardent supporters as well as TPLF sympathizers.

This paper explores what constitutes good governance and what has been missing. Furthermore, it points what the current government has to do in order to achieve a transparent process for free and fair elections, how to assure the existence of checks and balances between the three branches of government (legislative, judiciary and executive), the legal functioning of vibrant civil society to monitor the rule of law, and the use of the appropriate institutions of the state and public forums to unite and harmonize the people.

In addition, the paper attempts to take a critical look at the present system of government in Ethiopia, and addresses steps that need to be taken to stabilize the current uncertain political environment and to transition from an ethnic oligarchy to a secular government derived from a multiparty system and formed through free and fair elections.

2. Good Governance

Although some historians state that the concept of good governance is as old as government itself, it emerged as a widely used development agenda by World Bank about thirty years ago. Currently, the term is broadly employed in many areas of human interactions and endeavors, including politics, economics, international relations, and business.

Broadly speaking, good governance is the process of decision-making and the process by which the decisions are implemented. However, many writers have highlighted different aspects of the concept.

For example, Fukuyama notes that there are two dimensions to be taken in to account to use the term good-governance and thereby to qualify governance as good or bad. They are:
(1) the capacity of the state and the bureaucracy’s autonomy, and
(2) the deliverables and outcomes that are obtained in the society.

On the other hand, Rotberg stresses the activities of a government, such as the provision of public goods to its citizens. Specifically, good governance is associated with deliverables that are demanded by citizens, such as security, health, education, water, enforcement of contracts, protection of property rights, protection to the environment, and the citizens’ ability to vote.

Other social scientists also show that good governance could be measured by additional factors, including the degree of participation of underrepresented members of the population like the poor and the minorities, the presence of checks and balances in the government, the establishment and enforcement of norms for the protection of the citizens and their property, and the existence of independent judiciary systems.

Further, the widely cited World Governance Indicators (WGI) for good governance are:
(1) Voice and accountability, (2) Political stability and absence of violence, (3) Government effectiveness, (4) Regulatory quality, (5) Rule of law, and (6) Control of corruption.

3. Checks and Balances in Government

The idea of checks and balances in government is an issue of constitution and constitutionalism.  It is the principle of constitutional government under which separate branches are empowered to prevent actions by other branches and are also induced to share power.

Checks and balances is of fundamental importance in tripartite or divided governments, such as that of the United States, which separates powers among legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

While the principles of checks and balances are fundamentally the same, the forms they may take could be different from country to country. Just to illustrate these peculiarities we can take the cases of Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States as examples.

In Great Britain, the parliament (the legislature) is supreme, and laws passed by it are not subject to review by the courts (the judiciary) for constitutionality.

In France, a Constitutional Council of nine members (appointed for nine years by the president, Senate, and National Assembly) reviews the constitutionality of legislation.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the government combines features of parliamentary systems (like that of Great Britain) and of federal systems (like that of the United States) and vests the right to declare a law unconstitutional in what it u called the Federal Constitution Court

In the United States the Court is the most important part of government through its Judicial Review power and it has the right to examine the actions of the legislative and the executive and all administrative arms of the government to ensure that they are constitutional. The framers of the US saw checks and balances as essential for the security of liberty under the constitution. For instance, in his letter to Richard Henry Lee, 15 November 1775, John Adams wrote” A Legislative, an Executive and a Judicial Power, comprehend the whole of what is meant and understood by Government. It is by balancing each of these Powers against the other two, that the Effort in human Nature towards Tyranny, can alone be checked and restrained and any degree of Freedom preserved in the Constitution”.

4. Governance in Ethiopia

In one of the recent blogs I was reading, I noticed a writer by the name Dawit lamenting that “the current constitutional adjudication(?) of Ethiopia in general lacks specific mandate of the Judiciary to foster peace, security and democracy in the country” and he recommends that “the system needs a fundamental revision and structural reform”.  Furthermore, he said, “the inexistence of checks and balances in the three branches of the government will lead to a “dictatorial regime and a dysfunction of the whole system to meet the demand of the society at large”. In simple words, Dawit is saying there is no checks and balances in the Government of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, the oldest country in Africa, had four written constitutions in its history. They are those of 1931, 1955, 1987, and 1995. A proposed revision of the 1955 constitution was issued in 1974, but was soon suspended by the Dergue without having any legal effect because of the 1974. Until the adoption of the 1931 constitution, the rules of Ethiopian government had been codified in the Kibre Negest and FethaNegest.

Kebre Negest presented the concept that the legitimacy of the Emperor of Ethiopia was based on its asserted descent from king Solomon of ancient Israel.
Feteha Negest, a legal code compiled around 1240 by the Coptic Egyptian  ‘Abul Fada’il Ibn al-‘Assal, was used in Ethiopia as early as 1450 to define the rights and responsibilities of the monarch and  subjects as defined by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

The 1931 Constitution, without any clear delineation of rights and responsibilities of each branch of government in its seven chapters, just stipulated how the empire was to be administered.The seven chapters were:
(1) The Ethiopian Empire and the Succession to the Throne;
(2) The Power and Prerogatives of the Emperor;
(3) The Rights Recognized by the Emperor as belonging to the Nation, and the Duties Incumbent on the Nation;
(4) The Deliberate Chambers of the Empire;
(5) The Ministers of the Empire;
(6) Jurisdiction; and
(7) The Budget of the Imperial Government (Zewdie, 2001; Marcus, 1996; Keller, 1991)

The 1955 Constitution, beside strengthening the Emperor’s position, however, expanded the purview of the bicameral Ethiopian parliament over the 1931 constitution. Although the Senate remained appointive, the Chamber of Deputies was elected. In contrast to the legislature under the 1931 Constitution, which could only discuss matters referred to it, it now had the authority to propose laws, and also can veto laws proposed by the executive. It could also summon ministers for questioning, and in extraordinary circumstances it could initiate impeachment proceedings against them.

However, John Spencer, one of the three American advisors to draw up the revised constitution of 1955 complained in his memoirs that the Crown Council, dominated by the extreme conservatives like Ras Kassa, forced the authors to stress the prerogatives of the crown, giving the emperor the right to rule by emergency decree, to appoint and dismiss ministers without input from the Ethiopian parliament, and to appoint members of the Senate, judges, and even the mayors of municipalities. While Edmund Keller notes that the constitution had contained a number of ideas from the US Constitution, such as a separation of powers between three branches of government, Bahru Zewde stresses the nature of the executive powers in the document was “a legal charter for the consolidation of absolutism.”(Keller, 1991; Spencer, 1984; Marcus, 1996; Zewdie, 2001)

The third Ethiopian constitution of 1987 drafted under the one-party dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam’s Workers Party of Ethiopia (WPE), “was no more than an abridged version of the 1977 Russian Constitution with the exception of the sweeping powers vested in the presidency”. It’s certain that there is no discussion here about the merits of divided government and its attending checks and balances of powers in a government established by the will and whims of the strongman of the party.

The fourth Constitution of 1995, as described by Assefa Fisseha, has the implicit notion of the separation of powers to the effect that the judiciary has a crucial role in resolving disputes impartially, ensuring the rule of law, and in setting limits to power. In this analysis of the power relations between the three branches of government in Ethiopia, Fisseha concluded that, “… in Ethiopia the legislature has sought to take away power from the courts, placing them in quasi-judicial bodies within the executive. The judiciary has also failed to check that the executive is acting within the framework of the law. The overall assessment is that the judiciary has not yet defined its role; has not properly interpreted the concept of separation of powers; and has not yet become a key organ for enforcing human rights. The judiciary has abdicated its core function of reviewing acts and decisions of the executive and administrative agencies and is in danger of paving the way for arbitrary and unchecked government”.

In general, in a one-party or a dominant-party system the distinctions between the ruling party and the branches of government are often blurred and all are effectively merged into one to a point where one could not understand the difference between the party and the government. That was the Ethiopian reality under both governments Mengistu Hailemaria and Meles Zenawi with its overflow to Hailemariam Desalegn and Abiy Ahmed.

During the Dergue era all opposition parties were banned; and there was no competition at all. During the EPRDF government, where party, ethnicity, and government were fully merged, several methods are used to suppress other parties, especially those organized on a multi-ethnic national platform.

In many cases, state power is used directly to prevent these parties from getting more votes. In addition to vote rigging, opposition leaders have been shot, jailed, disappeared. In most cases, they are prevented from using the mass media at election times while the government party candidates are so closely allied to the state that they get an overwhelming advantage.Therefore, in a situation where there is no well-functioning multi-party system, there cannot be true separation of power and checks and balances.

Good governance, as a reflection of a well-functioning multi-party democratic system, assuring separation of powers and checks and balances in government of Ethiopia, calls for participatory, transparent, accountable, and decentralized government system reinforced by rule of law. Evaluating the practice of the EPRDF government, Moges Zewiddu explains that “there can’t be any reliable evidence other than the government own report that pointed out the absence of good governance in Ethiopia. On every public report, the Ethiopian government has been admitting widespread practice of mal-governance. Corruption, bureaucracy, and weak institutional structures are identified as common causes for absence of good governance.

To the list, Zewiddu adds non-participatory decision making, dubious institutional structure, and wide margin of discretionary power, political partisanship and unaccountable system as the causes of bad governance in Ethiopia. Even Mr. Barack Obama, the US President, during his infamous visit to Ethiopia, said, “[A]bove all, weak and unreliable institutions are the threat for good governance in Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular.

Semahegn Gashu has aptly summarized it when he wrote:” [G]ood governance is established when public institutions act efficiently, providing an enabling environment for economic growth and development. Good governance requires the improvement of accountability and transparency of public sector agencies, concomitant with the effective fight against corruption. The effective performance of democratic institutions, including legislatures, and the fight against corruption, are central elements of good governance”.

5. Looking forward

To conclude my paper, it may be worthwhile to review the current Ethiopian reality vis-a-vis the World Governance Indicators (WGI) for better future.  First, with regard to “Voice and accountability”, there have been some promising measures taken by the administration of Dr. Abiy Ahmed to address the egregious shortcomings of his predecessors.

One widely acclaimed example of the steps taken to promote free and fair elections is, of course, the invitation of opposition parties to participate in the upcoming elections with Ms. Birtukuan Midekssa as the head of the Election Board.

However, there are still many troubling issues that would cast doubt on how successfully the current government can create a conducive environment for the people to exercise their democratic rights. The major problems being the existing divisive ethnic federalism along with the constitution that sanctions it as legitimate form of government for Ethiopia.

The other factors that indeed will adversely affect the implementations of the good promises of the Prime Minister, in fact, are embedded in the other indicators of good governance, namely, absence of political stability and prevalence of unchecked violence in most parts of the country, government ineffectiveness, lack of rule of law, and government’s inability to control extremist media like OMN fomenting hate and ethnic conflicts in the country.

Based on recent events in various parts of the country, the government’s record in this regard is poor at best or tragic at worst. Indeed, it is safe to say that the success of the ongoing reform or the future of the country is heavily dependent on how effectively and genuinely the government addresses these issues.

The prevalent violence, which is perpetrated by various groups with nefarious objectives, is predictably leading the nation to inevitable collapse and disintegration. As reported in major media outlets, the number of people displaced is now over 2million and those needing emergency food assistance are going over 8 million.  In places, such as LagaTafo and Geddeo, for example, human rights abuses appear to be rampant. Certain killils like Tigray are essentially out of the control of the central government, raising their own army and even serving as havens for criminals.
Thus, it is absolutely difficult to associate with the current administration any degree of good governance in the face of lawlessness, brazen human rights abuses, massive eviction of the citizens on ethnic grounds, and a feeble central government that is unable to assert its federal authority on rebel killils.

It is, therefore, critical for the current government to engage pro-reform Ethiopians in constructive dialogue, enable vibrant civic societies as watch-dogs, implement unambiguous and ethnic-blind measures to promote national reconciliation, and clamp down on extremist groups that foment inter-ethnic violence and propaganda campaigns.

The government should be able to muster all government instruments of peace and security and normalize the political environment in the country. All current problems mentioned above are outcomes of the divisive ethnic killilization of the Ethiopian government structures. Although it could be an uphill battle, Dr. Abiy Ahmed must still strive to move the country away from ethnic federalism and its accompanying constitution.

There were no forced displacement and ethnic wars between the Ethiopian people before the ethnicization of the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia, in its effort to peacefully reconstitute and normalize itself, must ban ethnic political organizations, dissolve ethnic federalism, and suspend the current constitution. Ruling by emergency decree for the time being, Dr. Abiy Ahmed should constitute a transitional government composed of multi-ethnic national political organization, civic societies, elders and religious leaders, and women.

Trusting his words and promises, and also since Ethiopia is now under dire emergency of breakup, Ethiopian scholars, elderlies and religious leaders, and women must step forward to help Dr. Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minster of Ethiopia, who very recently declared that we don’t need ethnic political organizations any more to succeed. No other choice, nowhere to turn to.

Selected References

Abebe, Semahegn Gashu, September 16, 2012, https://www.google.com/ challenges-of-good-governance-in-ethiopia

Dawit,  Adjudication of FDER Constitution,  https://www.abyssinialaw.com/component/k2/item/1519,  June 18, 2015

Fisseha, Assefa, Separation of powers and its implications for the judiciary in Ethiopia, Journal of Eastern African Studies, Volume 5, 2011 – Issue 4.

Fukuyama, Francis (January 2013). “What Is Governance?”. Center for Global Development. Working paper 314

Founders Online, National Historical Publications and Records Commission

Grindle, Merilee (October 2004). “Good Enough Governance: Poverty Reduction and Reform in Developing Countries”. Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions. 17 (4): 525–48

Kazi Iqbal and Anwar Shah: A Critical Review of Governance Indicators, World Bank, Preliminary draft, December 10, 2008.

Keller, Edmond J., 1991, Revolutionary Ethiopia: From Empire to People’s Republic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Marcus, Harold G., 1996, Haile Sellassie I: The Formative Years(Lawrenceville: Red Sea Press.


Rotberg, Robert (July 2014). “Good Governance Means Performance and Results”. Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions. 27 (3): 511–518.

Spencer, John, 1984, Ethiopia at Bay: A personal account of the Haile Selassie years (Algonac: Reference Publications.

Zewde, Bahru, 2001, A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855–1991, second edition (Oxford: James Currey).

Zewiddu, Moges, The Role of Democracy, Good Governance and Rule of Law to Enhance Sustainable Development: The Ethiopian Experience. Academia.


  1. Dear Dr. Getachew,

    With all due respect I am very disappointed with your article. You must have borrowed some of your terminologies from the rude and racist Dawit Woldegeorgies. Probably Dawit has baptized you with the spirits of his anti-Oromo sentiments. I used to respect you as a rational thinker and modern academician. Henceforth, you have not deserved my respect and appreciation anymore. How do you dare to condemn the OMN as an extremist media? What is your ground? This shows your biasedness and baseless. The reasons behind your accusation that it is the media of the Oromo people which advocates for the rights of the Oromo people. You have say nothing about the ESAT TV which produces continously fake news about the Oromo people and agitates violence in Oromia. 

    It is pity that you are going to lose your reputation amongst the Oromo. Now you are on your way with your whole heart to join the ultranationalists of the Amahara by giving up your liberal stand on the Ethiopian politics.

    Good-bye, Dr. Getachoo!

  2. I want to say only few words to the given comment on D.r. Getachew Begashaw.

    The comment given by Gamadaa is only a hate comment irrational and narrow thinking so it useless idea, if it is an idea?

    Armachaw Tezegage

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