Ethiopian emerging democracy and the recent opposition Alliance

By Ismail Grose *


June 5, 2006 — "DEMOCRACY may have been promoted as the best of all political systems, but it has long been a rare form of actual government", so declared by the late Dr. Abdulmajid Hussein addressing Ethiopian Somali conference in Dire Dawa. This was a transitional period when Ethiopia was moving from the old regime to a new system of governance. Very true. The flamboyant Ambassador then offered an explanation of this problem: "It is difficult for any regime entirely to live up to the democratic ideal". What is this ideal? Abdulmajid’s answer: "That the strong should treat the weak well and that any abuse of power should be genuinely and unreservedly condemned". If we accept Abdulmajid’s thesis, then the "difficulty" could have arisen either from the very nature of the state, political regimes and governance, or the nature of democracy, or both.

When the brutal regime of Derg was overthrown in 1991, the leaders of new Ethiopia such as Prime Minister Zenawi, Ato Adissu Abebe, Majid and others have embarked Ethiopia on a new path that included and welcomed all ethnics group on equal footing. They have achieved a positive result and the burning question of nationalities and nations has been addressed through the formulation of article 39 in the new Ethiopian constitution. Currently, the question that needs to have a plausible answer is then what on earth the recent formation of Alliance for Freedom and Democracy consists of ONLF, OLF, CUD, and other parties and fronts wants to accomplish? What does this coalition want to bring to Ethiopian people?

Who would oppose Majid’s formulation? But one may ask - and this is a core difference between the alliance for freedom and democracy, brain child of dictator Isayas Aferwi and new Ethiopian leaders championed by Meles Zenawi. In the same vein, other Western political and social scientists upheld through liberal and neoliberal understanding of the concept of democracy, and the leftist or Marxist understanding: Why should the systematic and progressive elimination of the weak - strong dichotomy not be an element of the "democratic ideal"? May one not also propose that in a democracy, abuse of power should not only be "genuinely and unreservedly condemned", but also appropriately sanctioned? Abuse of power is, in concrete terms, abuse of power by the "strong" in its relationship with the "weak". And Rosa Luxemburg one of the greatest Marxist revolutionaries after Marx, once said that freedom, which is at the heart of democracy is, in reality, freedom for the "weak". Ethiopian new leadership has understood the weakness created within the old regime and has been tackled properly and genuinely. In a short period of time, Ethiopia has metamorphosed from brutal regime to a country that allows all party to jostling for power on equal footing and embarks the country on a sound sustainable development. The five years plan of Federal system is broad and all inclusive vision that is heading Ethiopia to the right direction.

Whatever image of it we may have - an idea, a system, or a project - we are bound to see that democracy possesses certain essential or irreducible attributes. These are called by various names by various people: pillars, foundations, criteria, etc. The main difference between the various sets of pillars, or foundations, or criteria, is in their inclusiveness and level of abstraction. For example in ancient Greece, the concept of "people", which is central to the idea of democracy, did not include slaves. And in modern times, as some social scientist recalled, democratic states such as Britain or France, "for a long time denied women the right to vote and disregarded the rights of their colonial subjects". Also, while liberal and neoliberal understanding of democracy associates it organically with market economy, the Marxian socialist understanding is that democracy is irredeemably deformed if it does not promote distributive justice and non-exploitation in the sphere of production.

Ethiopia has its own shortcomings and problems to overcome; however, in African standard, she has achieved a good result. In addition, whatever its form and shape, Ethiopian new leaders have come up with a new democratic system that is grounded within the reality of Ethiopia and allows any opposition party to field its candidates through a peaceful process. For instance, in a recent election, CUD has been given the public media and other resources to campaign and defeat, if they will, the ruling party. They have done it in Addis Ababa; nevertheless, the remnant of old regimes such as Negede Gozede and other killers have hatched a coup d’etat to destroy the genuine democracy, which is one of its kinds in Ethiopia and in Africa. They did not succeed. On the contrary, they hindered Ethiopian democracy for a short period.

The criteria of democracy as EPRDF saw them are five in number: "Open elections; the existence of an organized free political opposition; acceptance of the principle that power can change hands; the existence of an independent judicial system; and media freedom". How can we, Ethiopian Somali Democratic Council, vote against’s set of criteria? We can only protest peacefully that the set is not complete fully in some areas. In other words, we would have aim at achieving a higher level of accomplishment, but through the struggle of rule of law, dialogue and communication that is currently in place. Nobody is above the law including EPRDF.

The criteria, moreover, are linked, not simply because they are all contained in a package labeled "democracy". They are dialectically linked since each deals with an aspect of the same ultimately indivisible phenomenon: power.

We believe that "open elections" would include: free and fair elections; the right to form political parties and fight elections on these platforms; the right to contest elections as independent candidates; electoral regime devoid of bogus, prohibitive and exclusionist monetary criteria for the registration of parties and candidates. The criterion of existence of an "organized, free political opposition" is an interesting one. If there is no organized, free opposition in a polity, then we can’t talk of democracy. It does not matter whether the regime can claim that it has not placed any obstacles in the path of the opposition. The point is that the circumstances which make "organized free political opposition" non-existent in a polity constitute an undemocratic climate. Ethiopian Somali Democratic Council believes that Ethiopia has fulfilled this criterion and free and fair elections has been held by the regime of Meles Zenawi. Somali Ethiopian have voted with hands not with their feet as they have not done in the previous regimes. They also use the democratic process of ballot not bullet.

The acceptance of the "principle that power can change hand" would amount to nothing if the only changes envisaged, although through "free and open elections", are "palace changes", changes from one faction or layer of a power-bloc to another layer of the same bloc, from one tendency in the ruling political movement to another. This is typical what is happening in Eritrea. They are not accepting a genuine change that is emanated from people. This is also one of the core differences of current regime in Eritrea and Ethiopia. For instance, Eritrean regime is stabilizing Ethiopia through the armament of so-called opposition group namely OLF, ONLF and CUD. We, Ethiopian Somali Democratic Council, condemn the recent innocent killing in Somali Region and material destruction. This is orchestrated and mounted by the regime of Eritrea. The conference in Holland that is resulted with the ephemeral and died on arrival alliance for freedom and Democracy is also hatched by the Eritrean regime. It seems that the colonial Italian mentality is in its highest gear in Eritrea.

The existence of an "independent judicial system” makes sense only in the context of the other four criteria. The logic goes like this: If elections are free, fair and open, then the result would reflect the will of the people. The winners would assume office and power; they would appoint judges and set or maintain a judicial system which would reflect the interest and will of the people as expressed in their electoral choices. For example, the Ethiopian election of last year has witnessed this entire criterion and the remnant of Derg regime has attempted to kill the true and genuine democracy that is blossoming in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has not had any free and fair elections historically. This is another difference between the regime of Eritrea that is based upon one man and one rule instead of one man and one vote in Ethiopia. No wonder, the tsunami politics of CUD, ONLF, OLF and Isayas Aferwi have surfaced in Horn of Africa. First, ONLF and OLF have been saying that they believe to secede through the gun when the new Ethiopian constitution is allowing any nation to separate if they do so; although, Ethiopian people are endorsing the democratic unity by peaceful means and through dialogue and communication. Second, CUD is against the principle that OLF and ONLF is pretending to uphold namely any nationalities and nations to organizing its own affairs, whether it is using its language, ruling its own state, and running freely its own economic and political institutions. Lastly, Isayas Afrewkei wants to destabilize and destroy Ethiopia and being against article 39 of Ethiopian constitution that is ironically facilitated Eritrea to set up its own independent country.

The general motif appears to run along the lines of cobbling together an alliance of contradictory and unprincipled group who, on the promise of big change in Ethiopia and in Horn of Africa, rule Ethiopia. The Memorandum of Understanding signed in Holland was sold as a "power-sharing agreement". In actual fact, it was a myopic and narrow vision and deal on how to share out the power at the Western capital once Meles’s regime was safely bundled out of the way. The following meeting of CUD and OLF in Washington DC was a chaotic in its true sense. OLF and ONLF have been told to speak Amharic, denounce the secessionist behavior and support the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. In addition, CUD has raised its ugly head by thinking that Eritrea is part and parcel of Ethiopia. Forming political parties (or "movements") is the entire rave. But at some point it will need to be acknowledged that all these empty gimmicks will not take the country forward. For these parties and movements is nothing but vehicles to advance the careers of politicians and offer Ethiopian next to nothing. They have slogans and platitudes but no workable formula for creating a stable polity and generating wealth.

In rallies, interviews and so-called manifestos, politicians issue a torrent of generalities about creating democracy, fighting corruption, improving infrastructure and setting up a conducive and democratic system, environment for investment. Truly, they are not offering any solution. Further, these are sound bites which at the end of the day mean nothing. Besides, they are repeated by every breathing politician. In such a situation politics ceases to be a choir of slogans and becomes a marketplace of ideas and alternatives. Hype is all very well, but it has never ruled a country.

In sum , the latest political formation, Alliance For freedom and Democracy launched in Holland to destabilize Ethiopia through remote and imaginary tactic and strategy a ka Isayas Aferki, will not bring peace, democracy and rule of law in Ethiopia and Horn of Africa. Truth be told, Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, is doomed to failure.

* Ismail Grose is based in the USA, he can be reached at







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