If we make the Ethiopian Student movement as a starting point, the cry for democracy in Ethiopia is fifty years old and counting. Since then, in pursuit of democracy, the Ethiopian students and the organizations that the movement birthed have made tremendous sacrifices. In the process, Ethiopia lost her best and brightest. Countless were persecuted, tens of thousands jailed, still thousands others fled. Ethiopian also saw three governments during this period. Despite all the sacrifices and changes in government, democracy is still yet to come. As the result, Ethiopians are frustrated to the point of losing hope.
In this write-up, I argue that the reason for the unsuccessful attempt to create a democratic Ethiopia was that we worked on a top-down approach to replace the government from the top with the hope to “trickle down” democracy to the people when the better approach would have been a bottom-up, that is, spread the principles of democracy among the people to empower them to shape their own destiny.
Let’s start with definition. The formal definition of Democracy is that it is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections (Merriam-Webster).
The first version of democracy as defined above was first exercised in Athens, Greece two thousand- five hundred years ago. Considering our first ancestors, the Homo sapiens, emerged about two hundred thousand years ago, two thousand and five hundred (when democracy appeared for the first time) is a very short duration. This means that it took humankind about one-hundred ninety-seven thousand and five hundred years of trial and error to forge the first democratic rule of governance. Yet, even today, two thousand and five hundred years after the democracy was practiced first, only a third of the world’s population are abiding by it. The rest of the world’s populations are still longing for it. Even in those societies where democracy is accepted as a form of governance, the people practicing it are still working to refine it and make it better. This is to say, even in democratic countries, democracy is still work in progress.
In its true meaning, Democracy is an agreement (covenant if you will) reached between people of a nation as to how they should conduct their affairs of governance, economy, education, health care and technological development. An agreement or contract between people (even when the involved individuals are only few in numbers) is an emergent property of the interaction of individual citizens of a given country. That why democracy got the phrase “by the people, for the people”.
Democracy is a pattern that emerges (comes to exist) from people’s interaction with each other as they attempt to work and live in harmony with each other. Developing a pattern of harmonious living requires countless social experiments, trials, errors, success and failures. So before discussing democracy in detail let’s first look at how patterns emerge in general.
Simple rules and emergence of patterns
Society is dynamic networks of many interacting individuals. Each individual’s behavior is governed by a small set of simple guidelines. Despite the limited capability of an individual human being, the interaction of millions individuals can produce much larger complex emergent structures. Examples of complex structures that are built by actions of millions of individuals include, markets, cities, armies, nations and cultures including democracy etc. The individuals produce those larger entities though simple action which are guided by simple rules. At times, it is not even obvious for the individuals involved to comprehend the aggregate patterns that would result from their own actions.
What are simple rules and how do they contribute to emergence aggregate patterns such as democracy? Simple rules are a set of simple (basic) guides to actions performed in sequence to achieve a result. The basic actions that become simple rules initially emanate from individual’s (agent’s) effort to adapt and fit to their environment’s stimulus. These set of actions (rules) come to play as the result of conscious or unconscious agreement between the individuals involved when cooperation between them is necessary for their common good. When these actions are performed by many and become routine, then we call them simple rules. The repeated implementations of these simple rules by countless individuals over long time become patterns which latter become norms and cultures.
For example, through their life experiences (like realizing the ugliness of discrimination), if people of a one community agreed to abide by a simple rule which says “treat every human being as equal” and everybody practiced it all the time and to all the individuals in that community, a pattern that denies discrimination emerges. And if this pattern persists over long time, it becomes the culture of that community.
Note that small modifications on the agreed upon rules of interaction can lead to significant changes in the behavior of what is going to emerge. So the agreed upon simple rules should be consistently practiced until different agreement is made to modify or replace them with agreement by all those involved.
Examples of real patterns in our society
The Sunday and Friday prayers. The fact that Christians go to church every Sundays and Muslims go to Mosque every Friday to pray is a norm and is taken for granted in our times. But this was not the case all the time. Back in the days, when the religions started (2000 years ago for Christianity and 1400 years ago for Islam) the first leaders (innovators) as well as the followers of the religions had to figure out ways as to how to establish the new belief systems (the religions) and make them resilient against the constant attracts from the then strong belief system-paganism. Through many trials and errors, they came up the simple rule which the believers should practice. One of such rules (there are many rules of course) was to go to prayer places once a week to pray together. Repeated over thousand years, and by millions, the rule has created patterns which become the norm and culture we know today.
The Masinko rule. Those of us who like Ethiopian cultural music know this all well. When we are in a wedding or at a party where Masinko (or any musical instrument for that matter) is played, we all try to match our Eskista (dance) with the rhythm of the Masinko. As varied as our individual movements are, the overall movement of the crowed creates an “averaged” the pattern of movements appear uniform to an observer. The simple rule practiced here is “match your Eskista with the tone (rhythm) of the Masinko” One can cite many examples on the connection between simple rules and patterns. But I will stop here. The lesson to take from both examples is how powerful simple rules can be to create patterns.
Democracy as an emergence pattern
Now back to democracy. I said democracy is an emergent social pattern. As mentioned above, it took human kind close to two hundred thousand years of trial and error, which means that thousands of wars, millions of lives and destruction of countless property etc. had to happen for people to figure out and develop the set of the “required” simple rules that helped avoid war and destruction and the emergence of democracy for the first time. One can speculate the following to be the simple rules that would create the patterns of behavior that became democracy. (Note that these are my assumption, true and practical rules are developed through involvement of many and by trial and error).
- Respect and care for yourself and others,
- Tolerate differences,
- Treat everyone as equal
- Stand for your right
- Recognize your destiny is tied to that of others
Note that there is no one individual who designed the simple rules nor they come down from a super power. The members of the community came to them through trial and error. They are the results of people’s attempt to adapt and fit to their changing environment. The other key point to note is that, at least the majority, if not all, of the members of the society have to accept and operate by these rules for the pattern of democracy to emerge. Once this pattern takes root and become the norm of thinking and acting by the people, it then becomes engrained in the culture. Of course this does not happen overnight and a lot of back and forth, failure and success have to happen.
The practice of the simple rules has to be replicated at every level from an individual, to small groups, all the way to national level organizations in self-similar manner. Only then can they cause the emergence of democracy. The simple rules are literally simple and are not significant when practiced by the individual member alone, but when practiced by millions, their collective impact sets the pattern of democracy. So the emergence of democracy is inherently peoples’ business. Only the People make it happen! It does not come from the above particularly from a corrupt government!!
Asking for Democracy
In countries like Ethiopia, where democracy did not yet emerge, it is a common practice to demand (by the people and opposition organizations) the government to deliver democracy. I think there are a couple of issues we need to consider asking democracy from undemocratic government.
First, the groups that is holding power do not know the true meaning of democracy, let alone, to practice it. It is not engrained in their DNA of simple rules that the rulers operate by. The simple rules they follow and the resultant pattern that emerge from it is totally different from the simple rules for democracy. The simple rules the people in power follow is something like this: “Suppress the people by all means possible to guard the interest of the minority”.
The implementation of the ruler’s simple rule produces the pattern of dominance, violence, injustice, unfairness and corruption. The pattern that emerges from the implementation of this simple rule is system of dictatorship. The pattern of injustice, unfairness and corruption is practiced at all levels starting from the strong man of the government, his cronies at highest level, to provincial, regional, and local government branches all the way to individual level. Dictatorship replicates itself from the smallest element, which is the individual, all the way to the center of the government in the same way following the same simple rules for dictatorship. So we are asking what the dictators do not have.
Second, expecting democracy from undemocratic forces is unrealistic because they do not have it to begin with. They operate with a different rule. In doing so the democratic mined people are wasting their meager energy and time when demanding democracy. This is to say that the Ethiopian people wasting their valuable time and resources expecting democracy from the Ethiopian government when we should be building democratic patterns one citizen at a time according to the simple rules for democracy. Democracy is people’s business and we should go to the people and start the foundation of democratic patterns from the bottom up.
The energy and time of democracy promoting agents would be better spent going to the citizens and advocating the practicing of the simple rules that brings democracy. Doing that paves the way for the emergence of a democratic pattern. Advocating for the equality and dignity of people, teaching that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand, that everyone’s voice is as equal as any others’ is tantamount to erecting foundations for the emergence of a society that is free of tyranny, corruption injustice right from the grass-root level.
But this is not to say that demanding democracy from the government in a peaceful manner is wrong. Even if the government does not have it, advocating for democracy will do at least two good things. First, by asking for democracy, it is possible to create awareness among the population. The second is that there may be a chance of converting some members of the government including the army to following the simple rules of democracy.
Democracy is a bottom- up process. This is to say that the emergence of democracy is the business of the grass-roots where individuals discover, practice, and negotiate simple rules and forge them into their everyday working tools. Then, the people would self-organize around these rules to create permanent patterns. Democracy emerges when individual citizens buy into the rules one person at a time and implement them to self-organize and create patterns.
To some democratic forces, the idea that building a democratic system from the bottom up, one person at a time, is too slow of a process and needs to shelved or disregarded. To them, the emergence of democracy in this way takes forever giving dictators opportunity to prolong their time. I say, consider the last forty years that my generation spent chasing political power from the top. What did we get? We got one dictator after another dictator. Had we known and accepted the democratic simple rules approach and worked from bottom up during the last forty years, our Ethiopia would be in a better place.
In fact, once the initial condition is set by the first grass-root group formed on the basis of the simple rules, the principle of self-similarity comes into play and more and more similar groups comes to exist and the democratization process among citizens gets momentum and becomes faster. This is because, people by nature are eager to learn from each other and apply what works to serve their interests. The fact that citizens are networked with each other, before we know it, the experience is replicated by countless individuals and other similar groups formed to become powerful force. For these reasons, working to bring democracy from the bottom up can become much faster than chasing democracy from top- that is from the governments who do not have it to begin with.
Another point that deserves mentioning about the bottom up democratic process is this. Dictators do not come from the sky. They come from among the population. If the population has enough democratically minded members (that is members who have adopted the simple democratic rules) the chance for dictators to be dominant or to have enough followers to pursue their undemocratic behaviors is much smaller or can even non-existent. So by pursuing democracy from the bottom through grass-root movement, to develop fair minded democratically thinking citizens, we can deprive the undemocratic forces the fertile ground they need to flourish.
Lastly but not least we are observing the power of bottom up movement from the current democratic movements of the Oromo people. I think the current grass-root based democratic movement of the Oromo students is a testimony to the power of the bottom-up approach to democracy. A lesson that all who are concerned should register and learn from!!
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org