Impediments of Good Governance in Ethiopia (part 2)

By Semahagn Gashu Abebe ( PhD)

In the first part of the article, I outlined the major policy framework constraints that prevented the emergence of well functioning system of good governance in Ethiopia. The second and last part of the article attempts to sort out the major challenges that have prevented the realization of good governance in Ethiopia during the reign of EPRDF in the last two decades. The most important challenge that has been witnessed in the last two decades is particularly related to the gap between the formal commitment and the practical democratic transformation in the country. Though there have been a number of political reforms made in terms of improving the democratic transition of the country, there has never been any significant transformation to democracy and human rights. When the EPRDF regime took power 1991, different legal reforms essential for the realization of good governance have been undertaken. Some of the initial measures undertaken include the participation of opposition parties in the political discourse, the introduction of independent media, decentralization and adoption of the federal and parliamentary system. Other democratic institutions such as the judiciary, electoral commission, human rights commission, ombudsman and other democratic institution have also been established during the last two decades.

The constitution further provides for the protection of different democratic rights such as the right to hold opinion, thoughts and free expressions, freedom of assembly, public demonstration and the right to petition, right to association, freedom of movement, and rights of citizenship. The constitution further provides for the structure and separation of the three branches of state. Federal law making power is granted to the bicameral parliament of the House of Peoples Representatives and the House of Federations, executive power is granted to the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers and establishment of an independent judiciary. In addition to this, periodic general elections have been taken place four times in the last two decades (1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010). Thus, from formal perspectives, it seems Ethiopia is an emerging democracy and departing from its authoritarian past. Impressed by such formal rhetoric, many international organizations such as Freedom House and most western states, at least until recently, refer the country as an ‘emerging democracy’.

But the actual reality on the ground is quite different from the formal rhetoric provided under official documents. In light of major variables of good governance such as legitimacy, accountability, transparency of government activities, rule of law, competency of government as well as the provision of an enabling environment for economic growth and development in the country, the Ethiopian governance performance proved to be one of the low performing systems in the world.  Independent researchers have confirmed that institutional development in the country is at a very low level. According to the 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance Ethiopia ranks at 35th out of the 53 African countries. Ethiopia’s economic freedom score is 50.5, making its economy the 144th freest out of 183 countries in the 2011 Index. The report further notedEthiopia under performs in many of the 10 economic freedoms. The business and investment regime is also burdensome and opaque. The quality and efficiency of government services are poor and made worse by the weak rule of law and pervasive corruption. State distortions in prices and interest rates undermine monetary stability’. In related report, Ethiopia ranks 120th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2009 corruption index. As recent Human Rights Watch report reveals ‘democracy’s technical framework will remain a deceptive and hollow façade so long as Ethiopia’s institutions lack independence from the ruling party and there is no accountability for abuses by state officials’. There have also been widespread violations of human rights and increasingly silencing of political dissent in the country. In addition to this, the vital political decisions are made in the informal sphere, behind the façade, in circles and networks of a neo-patrimonialist nature rather than official institutions.

There are different factors that contributed for the inhibition of advancement of good governance in the country. The factors that have halted development of good governance in the country are both structural and ideologically motivated government policies that encourage patronage rather than merited principles. One of the major structural problems that seem to have prevented realization of good governance in the country is the absence of democratic culture in the country’s long history. The country had undergone considerable part of its history under traditional feudal rule that was characterized by absolute loyalty that legitimizes the exploitation of the poor. Under the feudal system, Ethiopian social fabric was characterized by gross inequality between the largely aristocratic elite—consisting of landowners, lords, nobles, the royal family, government officials, and elements of the clergy—and the impoverished peasantry. There was  pattern of social interaction that sustains a strictly hierarchical stratification of society, where one is constrained by a large, invisible, but rigid system of collective sanctions, to obey the ‘orders from above’. The patriarchal order was and still visible in every aspect of Ethiopian life, including food and dining.

In the feudal system, there was no any democratic culture and system of accountability. As Alemseged noted ‘Ethiopia is still a paternalistic society where its institutions from the smallest, the family, to the largest unit, the state, are pervaded by authoritarian values of obedience. Orders, however offensive, are implemented. Loyalty is held in higher esteem. Such proclivity to complete subservience is the result of people’s powerlessness’. Furthermore, as an old saying in Ethiopia goes ‘He who does not ‘eat’ while in power, will regret it when he is out’, appointment into public service  sector is not perceived as serving the public rather it is to the advantage of the appointee. Such attitude is still evident at every level of authority. Even though the country has undertaken two revolutions in the last four decades, firmly entrenched feudal power relations and repressions are still well and alive rendering good governance efforts futile.

The other major challenge for realization of good governance is abject poverty and high rate of illiteracy. According to recent Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index, 90% of Ethiopians are poor. Due to high rate of poverty and illiteracy Ethiopian social structure is characterized by lack of a strong and economically rooted middle class that may burden the transition to democracy and good governance. As noted by Tekola :

When we consider the social and economic situation in Ethiopia, we find absolutely dismal social conditions, and a starvation-economy. There is no way a viable liberal democracy or Marxist-Leninist systems of governments would work under such social and economic conditions in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is far too barren to grow seedlings of any foreign democratic or Marxist-Leninist government system.  I think the best solution is to work with the system that had been with us for centuries and creatively improve and adopt that system to meet modern demands.

In the absence of the basic needs among the public, the quest for good governance is luxury and poverty coupled with high rate of illiteracy will continue to taunt the democratization process of the country.

The other major challenge to the realization of good governance in Ethiopia is the introduction of leftist Marxist ideology into the country’s political discourse since 1960’s. As a matter of fact, the ideology is still firmly maintained by the new rulers of the country. The leftist ideology is strictly attached to undemocratic practices such as extreme loyalty to party discipline, restricting rights of citizens and economic freedoms as well as party apparatuses are more powerful than formal governmental institutions. In such controlled system of government, the decision making process is secretive and there is no any effective mechanism to hold government officials accountable. At present, the ruling party is governing the country in a soviet-style system of democratic centralism while formal government institutions are extremely weak and incapable of ensuring accountability of government activities.

The other barriers to ensure good governance in the country are related to the political system and institutions of the country. Primarily, elections are one of the mechanisms used by the electorate to hold their leaders accountable for their actions. Without having a political system that ensures citizens hold government authorities accountable through free and fair elections, realizing good governance remains to be a myth. Since the fall of the Derg and the dissolution of the single party political system in 1991, Ethiopia has undertaken four general elections.  But all the elections that have so far been conducted are marred by violence, vote rigging and failed to reflect the genuine will of the people. Such electoral frauds have increasingly undermined the ability of citizens to change their leaders through the ballot box and hold the leaders accountable.

The other basic foundation for ensuring a system of good governance is existence of effective separation of power and checks and balances between the organs of state. When there is effective system of checks and balances in the system, authorities shall be scrutinized and their activities shall be transparent. In light of such core principle, the absence of effective check and balances in Ethiopia is the other formidable challenge to improve good governance in the country. Though the Ethiopian constitution vests the highest authority with the House of Peoples’ Representative, since the elections held so far have not been genuine, the parliament is largely dominated by a single political party. In addition to this, since there is strict democratic centralism with in EPRDF, members of parliament are always expected to act in accordance with party lines rather than being accountable to the electorate or to their conscience.  Such extreme dominance of the parliament by a single political force has left the executive organ without any effective control for its actions. Not only is the parliament unable to control the executive, it has also become rubber-stamp of the actions of the executive organ.

The highest executive powers of the federal government are vested in the prime minister and in the council of ministers. The constitution provides different powers to the executive, particularly to the prime minister. The prime minister has quite extensive powers, akin to those of presidents in presidential systems. This has made the power of the prime minister uncontrolled and unchecked by the executive, legislative, judiciary and other federal or regional institutions. In addition to this, the most important aspect of the executive is that major decisions are not necessarily made by formal state institutions. Largely, important decisions are made in the inner party circle that mainly consists of few party leaders rather than formal state institutions. This has made the state-party separation vague in every channel of government especially at lower levels of government. The party network may even pass decision on the rights and duties of the government employees and officials that make the government networks obsolete.  In addition to this, due to a high degree of patronage relations in the party network, there is no serious accountability system against the major political actors or to force their secret dealings make public. What may express the degree of secrecy in the system is the prime minister’s response to parliament to the question raised on how many Ethiopian troops were killed during the intervention in Somalia. The former prime minister simply responded that ‘since EPRDF has not tradition of publicly declaring such loss of life, it is not necessary to state the number.’

In addition to the absence of system of accountability and transparency in executive organs, they remain to be ineffective and the civil service is not free from political influence.  All the regimes in the past and present have manipulated the civil service to advance their own political agenda rather than committing the civil service to professional integrity and quality of service. Nowadays, it has become an open secret that civil servants are recruited in light of their political loyalty rather than their competence. Filling civil service vacancies with party members and supporters is in contradiction to the civil service law that provides that the only criterion to fill vacancies is the qualification of the person. In the last few years, the trend of compromising quality for loyalty has been in the increase in the various government departments especially at lower levels that led to the degeneration of the competence of the civil service. The other important institution essential to ensure rule of law is existence of independent and strong judicial organ. In light of this, the FDRE constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary. Despite dejure independence of the judiciary, there are problems of political interference, inefficiency and corruption.  Former judges and members of the legal community indicated that there have been instances of delicate political cases being assigned to perceived pro-government benches and political interference in civil and criminal trials. In addition to this, the limited budget allocated to the judiciary and lower incentives to the judges has also resulted in high turnout of judges that further weakened the judiciary.

The mass media is often referred to as the fourth branch of government because of the power they held in terms of oversight function they exercise. Access to information is essential at least for two reasons: First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation and secondly, information serves a “checking function” by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them. In the Ethiopian context, when EPRDF came to power in 1991, it adopted a national charter that recognized freedom of speech and a law was issued to regulate the press. Soon after the issuance of the law, different news papers, magazines and books hit the market. The trend was very welcoming since the action taken to open up the sector to independent media was a historical moment for this was unthinkable during the past regimes. But the distribution of the private press was very limited to Addis Ababa and other major cities. Radio remains the principal news medium in predominantly rural Ethiopia. But private electronics media is seriously restricted. Only few FM private radios are permitted to operate in the capital. Many of those established are allegedly pro-government or shy away from issues they feel are unpleasant to the government. Licenses have never been granted to short wave radio and television media that could reach the general public in rural areas. The government renders different justifications for the delays, though the main reason behind is the regime’s lack of confidence in meeting the demands of well informed citizens. In addition to this, all government printed and electronics media have continued to be tightly controlled by the regime and they are being used as instruments of propaganda. In addition to this, frequent arrests and trials of editors, reporters and publishers, and the subsequent closure of many publications including journalists fledging the country has seriously weakened the independent media.


Abbink, Jon, 2006 .Discomfiture of Democracy? The 2005 Election Crisis in Ethiopia and its Aftermath. Journal of African Affairs, 105,173-17

Alemseged Abbay, 2009, Diversity and democracy in Ethiopia, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 3:2, 175 — 201

Canadian International Development Agency, 2008, Independence, Transparency and Accountability in the Judiciary of Ethiopia at

Getachew Hailemariam and Common, Richard, 2006. Civil Service Reform in Ethiopia:  Success in two ministries at

Human Rights Watch, 2010.’One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure ‘, Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia at

International Crisis Group, 2009. Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents, Africa    Report N°153 – 4

 Solomon Addis Getahun, Ethiopia in the New Millennium: Issues of Democratic Governance at

Tecola W. Hagos, This way Ethiopia: Constitutional Monarchy or Liberal Democracy?

Transparency International’s 2009 corruption index

Tronvoll, Kjetil, 2011. The Ethiopian 2010 Federal and Regional Elections: Re-establishing the One-Party State. African Affairs, 110(438), s 121- 136

United States Agency for International Development, 2009. The Role of Media in Democracy: A strategy Approach  at


  1. Moses Anengi Atei says:

    think about the future, how is it moving to achieve the goal in life,think twice future as you said, let it not be just only mouth saying it but form mine

  2. Do you think that Ethiopia is being ruled by a normal dictator. Whatever you write is meaningless, Ethiopia is invaded by home grown fascists and in such situation one has to unite and stand against woyane ethnic fascists.

  3. it is True, but we still have to try hard for our Challenges,
    but with hope.

    Bible LUKE 18,27

    And he said,The things which are impossible with men
    are possible with God

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