When is a democracy a ‘democracy’?

Kenyan protestors

Prof John Harbeson
It should be widely understood as axiomatic that elections alone do not a democracy make. When an election is effectively a one-party plebiscite rather than a multi-party contest and one party captures all several hundred parliamentary seats, I would have thought the probability that such an outcome could occur in a free and fair election to be so miniscule that it should be dismissed out of hand.  When it has been widely known and reported that in that country the press and electronic media people have been imprisoned for their criticisms of the ruling regime, independent civil society non-governmental organisations have been suppressed by decree, opposition party supporters and leaders and candidates have been imprisoned and officially and systematically harassed before as well as during the election cycle, that country is not a democracy.  Its regime is authoritarian, not democratic.
One such country is contemporary Ethiopia.  It is wrong and even dangerous to characterise Ethiopia as democratic. For prominent, influential individuals to bestow the “democracy” emblem on such a regime is dangerous because it suggests that ruling regimes in other still fragile democracies, and ones at a tipping point between authoritarian regress and democratic advancement, will conclude they, too, can be recognised as democracies, even when they’re not, simply by following the Ethiopian example! That danger is magnified given growing evidence of slowed democratic momentum, and even some democratic regression in Africa and elsewhere since about the middle of the last decade. In that connection I cannot fail to mention that for Kenya, much hangs in the balance depending upon the outcomes of pending legislation on public benefits organisations.
There is another more insidious two-track danger implicit in falsely bestowing the democracy label on a country with Ethiopia’s track record.  One is that while lip-service is still paid to the cause of strengthening civil society, upholding human rights, and deepening democracy, counter-terrorism concerns have at a minimum up-staged democratic advocacy. Counter-terrorism concerns are obviously real and compelling, but they also dramatise the classic dilemma of how to balance freedom and security. I would worry less about the future of democracy in Africa and elsewhere if that dilemma would at least openly be acknowledged and publicly addressed in the present circumstances and some workable balances sought.
At the same time, another even more insidious danger to maintaining and further advancing democracy have been implicit hints that as long as African countries are making significant economic progress, that economic progress is more important enough than democracy, that democratic failings are bearable, perhaps not even all that important. In that model, energetic governments spearhead and pursue rapid economic development, implicitly countermanding three decades of international financial institution promotion of limited government presiding over market-led economies.  The two most cited African examples of “developmental states” have been Rwanda and Ethiopia.
Unlike Kenya and most of sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia has all but completely eschewed participation in democratisation. The core and perhaps surprising reason is that Ethiopia is still in search of legitimate bases for a modern state on the ashes of an ancient empire four decades after the ouster of the country’s last emperor, Haile Selassie I in 1974.  Long story short, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that overthrew the preceding brutal military autocracy of Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-1991) introduced an imaginative and perhaps plausible design for a modern Ethiopian state via a Constitution that established an ethnic confederal state in which all ethnic communities would have a very high degree of governmental autonomy up to an including, under specified circumstances, even independence. EPRDF’s late leader, Meles Zenawi predict specifically that such autonomy would discourage other ethnic communities, conquered a century earlier to form the empire, from following Eritrea out of Ethiopia.
The problem has been that this model has been imposed by the Tigrean-based EPRDF on other communities rather than ratified democratically. Thus, to allow free and fair multi-party elections would be to put the basis of the state itself at risk as well as the tenure in power of the EPRDF. Unwilling to risk the dismemberment of the state, critics of the model have feared that the EPRDF has cracked down heavily on civil liberties, civil society, independent media and political opposition.
Ethiopia’s case establishes the fundamental truth that democratic processes have been required to establish legitimate post-colonial states legitimately, even as it remains the case that democracies are necessarily built upon the foundation of stable states as received theory has proclaimed. Never colonised Ethiopia dramatises this point more clearly than almost all other African countries that have held on to the basic of model of the state bequeathed them by the colonial powers even as they struggle to transform them to meet post-colonial aspirations.
Similarly, democracies are means to equitable as well as strong economic development even as they depend upon those economies to maintain their legitimacy. The great risk in blessing rapid economic and barriers to terrorist-generated instability without recognising the importance of democracy as an end itself as well as to establishing both is that none of three will endure.
Writer is Professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for African Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.


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