The passing away of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has once again brought the absence of strong institutions in Ethiopia to the spotlight. Though Meles Zenaw is responsible for masterminding a very radical ideology that has made the Ethiopian political market murky and unpredictable, his sudden departure has gripped the nation causing credible concern including to his detractors. This is mainly due to the fact that the country has not departed from its totalitarian past and political power has never been institutionalized in the country’s long history. In the past, Ethiopian emperors had absolute legislative, judicial, and executive power. Though the 1974 revolution had terminated the legitimacy of Imperial rule, the autocratic form of governance that grants absolute power to head of the state has not been changed.
Though there had been wider application of team decision making process with in Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the major split within the ranks of the party in 2001 led to the emergence of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as uncontested figurehead dominating the country’s political landscape in the last decade. Due to the monopoly of the mass media by the regime, the Prime Minister was presented as a prophet who has brought solutions to the multi-faceted problems of the country. A significant proportion of the population are intentionally led to believe that the country would not survive or there would be chaos if Meles left power or something happened to him. The result of this merciless propaganda has been revealed when his death was announced two weeks ago. The shock and desperation observed in the last two weeks has nothing to do with the achievements or visions of the late Prime Minister but largely related to the uncertainties and fear about the future. As far as the Ethiopian repressive governance that passed from generation to generation is not addressed, the country’s political governance and its destiny will continue to be attached to a single individual that may disappear from the picture at any moment. Unless the country’s power house is transferred from the grip of a single strong man to democratic institutions, the country will continue to experience upheavals when the strong man encounters natural or man-made perils.
Establishing appropriate democratic institutions such as forms of devolution or autonomy, electoral system design, legislative bodies and judicial structures are vital ingredients in building peace for conflict ridden countries. As Obama reiterated in his historic speech during his visit to Ghana, post-conflict countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa do not need strongmen; rather they need strong institutions. This is because a poor governance framework undermines the sustainability of the peace, exacerbates the fault lines, divisions and tensions in society, entrenches conflict-generating electoral or governance models, and provides a basis for contesting against the government. Despite the need for strong institutions, creating sustainable democratic institutions is one of the key challenges of peace-building in divided societies. Poorly designed democratic institutions can inflame communal conflicts rather than ameliorate them and the introduction of ‘democratic’ politics can easily be used to mobilize ethnicity, turning elections into ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conflicts. In countries where democratic institutions have not properly taken root, there is reign of men instead of rule of law which leads to instability, repression and civil war. Thus, wisely crafted and properly empowered political institutions have tremendous significance for countries in transition to realize gradual but lasting building of democracy.
As a country in transition, establishing independent political institutions has been one of the major challenges Ethiopia’s bid towards democratization has faced. During the monarchical system, Ethiopia was the only independent country in Africa where dominant, centralized political authority derives essentially from traditional sources of legitimacy. Due to such entrenched feudal structure, there had never been any strong institutional development. Organized political activities start to emerge only in the 1970s. However, most of the parties established in relation to the 1974 revolution had been largely Marxist parties that were not democratic in nature. Finally, the military regime wiped out many of the opposition groups and entrenched itself with a Marxist mantra. When the country was dragging out of conflict in 1991, there had been expectations that the country would simultaneously pull itself out of its authoritarian past. After it came to power, EPRDF established some form of institutions such as the parliament, judiciary, electoral commission, human rights commission, Ombudsman and regional governments which are formally declared to be independent.
The major challenge in the institutionalization of the Ethiopian polity is, however, the gap between rhetoric and practice. As a 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’. In other words, in Ethiopia, the vital political decisions are made in the informal sphere behind the façade rather than through formal institutional venues. Though Ethiopia’ entrenched repressive culture continue to play its own role, the major factor behind the contemporary dwarfing of the democratization process in the country is closely linked with the ideological perceptions maintained by the party in power rather than capacity related challenges. The central problem that has prevented the country from forming democratic institutions momentarily is the EPRDF strategy to stay in power through applying different ideologically motivated principles that prevent the emergence of independent institutions that would challenge its hegemony. All the principles that are held by the regime such as revolutionary democracy, developmental state rhetoric and the application of Marxist principle of democratic centralism with a severe evaluation mechanism that harasses party members are all responsible for feebleness of democratic institutions in the country. Since these principles presuppose unilateral control of every political apparatus from top to bottom, there is no room for development of independent political institutions that are largely viewed as threatening to the hegemonic power of EPRDF.
Due to the ideology pursued by EPRDF, the development of various institutions has been largely undermined. The primary institution that has become victim to ideological vindication is the parliamentary system itself. Though adoption of a parliamentary system of government in divided societies such as Ethiopia plays an important role in light of representation of the various groups, the system could not bring about effective parliamentary system in the country. The fact that the parliament is dominated by the ruling EPRDF means that all the other political forces are excluded from the political process. In addition, the electoral system that enabled the regime to control the entire political space and the strict party discipline used by EPRDF significantly restricts the role of the members of parliament in formulating policy and controlling the executive organs. Despite the constitutional protection of the parliamentarians to act in accordance with the constitution, their conscience and the interest of their constituency, the voting trend in the parliament indicates that the members of parliament are expected to display party allegiance irrespective of their conscience or the constitution.
The upper house, the House of Federation which is designed in such a way that it does not wield law-making power, has significantly limited the role of the regional governments in the central government decision making process. In addition to being dominated by the ruling party, the House has been entrusted with power to interpret the constitution and this enables the regime to evade meaningful scrutiny by an independent constitutional court. The same problem of independence and neutrality is observable with regard to the judicial system. In addition to the significant role of the executive in the appointment and administration of the judiciary, the role of ordinary courts of law role in the interpretation and implementation of the constitution is very limited. Due to the ideological manipulation of the party, other institutions such as the Electoral Board, the Human Rights Commission and Ombudsman are also criticized for not being independent and credible.
It could be thus argued that all these institutions are directly or indirectly controlled by EPRDF whose ideology does not recognize the independent existence of democratic institutions. Absence of independent institutions in turn has resulted in absence of an accountable and transparent system of government. Lack of transparency is evident at every level of government in spite of the usual reference by the EPRDF leadership to democratic jargons. Lack of accountability has resulted in public distrust in the democratic institutions and engineered sense of fear among the intellectuals, media and the general public. Ethiopian officials often explain the problems of democratization by claiming that ‘this is much better than the Derg’ era. This creates the impression that there is no room for improvement and simply excuses or justifies the non-democratic realities. Thus, EPRDF’s ideological position needs to be revised and replaced with democratic principles in order to facilitate the development of independent institutions that guarantee the rights of citizens as well as bring about political stability in the country.
By Semahagn Gashu Abebe (PhD Candidate)
1. Human Rights Watch, ‘Ethiopia ‘One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure’ Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia’, 2010.
2. International Institute for Democratic and Electorate Assistance (IDEA), ‘Democracy and Deep-Rooted Conflict’ .
3.John Markakis and Asmelash Beyene, ‘Representative Institutions in Ethiopia’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, p. 13.
4. Kirsti Samuels, Post-Conflict Peace-Building and Constitution-Making, Chicago Journal of International Law Date, 2006,