The assassination of popular singer and political activist Hachalu Hundessa in Ethiopia on June 29 epitomizes the peril in which the country’s democratization now finds itself a little more than two years after new prime minister Abiy Ahmed electrified the world with his promise to bring democracy to Ethiopia , a country that had known only various forms of autocracy throughout its three millennial history of nearly unbroken independence. Ethiopia’s experience offers important lessons for the study of democratization in African and other developing nations.
In many ways Abiy has acted forthrightly on his promise. He has released thousands of political prisoners and invited numberless political exiles home with the promise of unprecedented free and fair national and regional elections. He has addressed deeply entrenched gender inequality by appointing women to half of his cabinet posts, to leadership of the National Election Board, and to the presidency of the country. He has dramatically if imperfectly rewritten harshly repressive civil society and anti-terrorism laws. Notwithstanding some unfortunate Internet shut-downs, he has generally freed the media. His initiating of a rapprochement to end a two-decade impasse with Eritrea following the end of the 1998-2000 war probably won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
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For a decade and half from about 1990, democratization processes exhibited steady progress following the end of the Cold War in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. In the subsequent decade and a half from about 2005 onward, there has been steady, noticeable democratic regression even in so-called mature democracies as well as newer ones. The reasons are numerous and beyond the limits of one essay to address fully, but they include some design flaws in the way democratization has been introduced and implemented, and crafty autocratically inclined leaders who have learned ways to chip away at democratic processes without frontally abolishing them altogether. We are learning in many countries that ingenuity, vision, and determination by leaders and citizens alike are needed to prevent major crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic from undermining democracy, particularly where it is new and fragile.
Ethiopia’s experience to date has reinforced the point that general democratization principles need to be adapted in practice to take account of distinctive country contours, even as those distinctive features may suggest insights of theoretical importance and potentially more general applicability. Besides Ethiopia’s singular history as an independent polity, what is of fundamental and so far, I suggest, overlooked importance, has been the country’s roots as an African empire, vastly enlarged by the conquests of its penultimate emperor, Menelik II (1889-1913).
For most of sub-Saharan Africa, colonialism was externally imposed by European powers and ethnic communities had no control over how they were thrown together to create the borders of the contemporary states which the then Organization of African Unity declined to disturb, and that determination has remained largely unchallenged in the era of African independence. Today, however, freedom of speech and association in Ethiopia has implicitly allowed its 80 nationalities to revisit their membership in the polity. The country’s fledgling democracy to be has unleashed a torrent of ethnic tension and conflict. Promised a high degree of self-determination by the constitution of 1995, established but routinely overridden by Abiy’s predecessor regime, now there is little but the regime’s persuasive power or resort to renewed autocracy, to prevent democracy-activated ethnic conflict from escalating to an unraveling the geography of the empire.
Centrifugal movements have already surfaced in the Oromia region, home to 35 percent of the population and prime minister Abiy, highly critical of him for allegedly centralizing power at the expense of Oromo self-determination. The former lead party in the predecessor four-party Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime, the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has threatened to conduct elections on schedule in October in defiance of the Constitution which vests power over national and regional elections in the national election board, and despite their constitutionally authorised postponement by Abiy because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ethiopia’s democratic initiative directly challenges a long-held axiom of democratic theory, grounded primarily of the experience of Europe and the Americas, that a stable state is a necessary prerequisite for the introduction of democracy. But for Ethiopia currently and well as for other sub-Saharan countries following the end of the Cold War, this prescribed sequence was not available. All sub-Saharan African states confronted simultaneously the challenges of strengthening as well as reforming weak states while introducing democracy, a situation that continues today in Ethiopia and elsewhere.
Ethiopia’s democratization experience offers several hypotheses of potential wider applicability and theoretical significance. Among the most important is evidence that countries that democratically convene all-party conferences to establish or update constitutional consensus before introducing multiparty democracy have generally made the most sustainable democratic transitions. Ethiopia’s democratic progress may be dangerously imperiled because for whatever reason Abiy has not yet chosen to attempt to establish such a constitutional consensus.
— Author is a professor of Political Science Emeritus as well as a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University.