Prof John Harbeson
For the first time in the twenty-year history of Afrobarometer surveys of African citizens’ political, economic, and cultural views, a survey of Ethiopian citizens’ views has been included, one conducted in December 2019 and January 2020. It was one of nearly forty countries included in Afrobarometer’s eighth round of surveys. The long-delayed inclusion of an Ethiopian survey reflected the organization’s judgment that Ethiopians finally enjoyed enough personal security and at least minimal underlying political freedom that their answers to questions about freedom and democracy could be trusted as genuine.
From the vantage point of nearly two years after the Ethiopian survey was conducted, however, the meaning and significance of the survey’s results remain a far more complicated matter. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took numerous, significant steps on coming to power in April 2018 to open up political space by welcoming home exiles, releasing political prisoners, being more inclusive of women, and allowing more media and associational freedom. These initiatives were the first of their kind in the forever history of authoritarian rule in Ethiopia. Most of the more than 😯 ethnic communities were incorporated into this empire by the conquests of Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913).
Abiy’s reforms afforded Ethiopians a historic but fleeting moment of largely unfettered self-determination at both individual and community levels. It was a unique opportunity to define the future, finally, of a post-imperial state and determine whether and in what ways it would be democratically constructed.
In my view, Abiy missed this best, maybe only, opportunity to create a constitutional process to address these fundamental questions that could have channeled the energies and political momentum unleashed by his reforms. It might have resembled the national conference processes undertaken to good effect in some West African countries in the 1990s. It might have gone some way to pre-empt the violence and might have given substance to calls for “dialogue” in response to the violence that has continually ensued ever since, including the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Tigre.
Against this background, the Afrobarometer Ethiopian survey results were a tease, as they hinted at what might have been the outcomes had Abiy seized this moment of opportunity. The survey found that 89.8 percent of Ethiopians preferred democracy to the familiar alternatives of one person, one party, and military rule. Sixty-seven percent believed it important to secure democratic accountability even at the cost of slowed governmental processes, and 65 percent affirmed a two-term limit for prime ministers. At the time, 79.4 percent believed they enjoyed freedom to say whatever they think, 71 percent believed they were free to join any political organization they wished, and 75.8 percent felt free to vote as they chose without fear of intimidation.
These results were obtained just as Abiy acted instead to create his ruling Prosperity Party (PP) in late 2019 to rule based on merged ethnic parties from many regions, including the Tigre Peoples Liberation Party (TPLF). The TPLF had led the former four-party coalition that ruled the country for seventeen years prior to Abiy’s tenure.
But could 80 or more ethnic communities, united historically mainly by their common involuntary incorporation in Menelik’s empire, find sufficient common ground in late 2019 to co-exist under the flag of one post-imperial Ethiopian state?
If trust is taken as a reasonable surrogate for recognized legitimacy, there remained at least cultivable foundations based on which a constitutional dialogue might have been launched. The survey found that Abiy still enjoyed “somewhat “or “a lot” of legitimacy in the eyes of 67.3 percent of the citizenry, although the legislature and the courts were trusted by only 47.2 and 51.9 percent, respectively. Tellingly, however, traditional and religious leaders enjoyed “a lot” of trust at 61.9 percent and 74.9 percent, respectively.
On the larger question of whether a basis remained for constructively democratically and constitutionally a post-imperial Ethiopian state, the results were at least modestly encouraging. Forty-two percent felt ethnic and national identity equally, 7.2 percent more national than ethnic identity, and 20.9 % only national identity for a favorable total of 70.1 percent. Similarly, 71.8 percent believed more united Ethiopians than divided them.
Of course, it is impossible to know to what extent a constitutional dialogue along the above lines might have been realistically possible, even at the time. With all that has transpired in the country in the last two years since the survey was conducted, the results of the Afrobarometer survey may now seem no more than a distant, vanishing mirage. Perhaps, however, the encouraging results of this 2019-20 survey may at least stimulate the political imagination as to possibilities and potential for mediation and dialogue that may remain as the quests for peace and the rescue of an Ethiopian polity persist.
Prof Harbeson is a professor Political Science Emeritus and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University.