Ethiopian
Ethiopia has seen much physical development and economic growth in the past decade. But the rose tints may be fading. (Photo/Simon Davis/DFID)

Not Long Ago, Ethiopians Said Their Country Was More Democratic Than Botswana, Ghana Or Mauritius

ETHIOPIA has been rocked by months of on-and-off violent protests that started in Oromia region, which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa.

The protests have spread to other parts of the country. In August, Ethiopia’s Olympic marathon silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa crossed his hands above his head as he finished the race in Rio – bringing the world’s attention to a wave of protests in his home country.

Over the weekend, a six-month nationwide state of emergency was declared, with Communications minister Getachew Reda saying the unrest “cannot be handled through ordinary law enforcement procedures”, blaming foreign “enemies” like Egypt for having a hand in the protests.

It is the most robust political opposition the government has faced in a quarter century, especially considering that formal political dissent is all but extinguished in the country.

The state is powerful both politically and militarily, holding a firm grip on parliament, the security forces, news media, and communications networks.

Ideologically, the EPRDF’s doctrine is that of a form of developmental state, where a trade-off is made between economic growth and poverty reduction, in “exchange” for limited political freedoms.

Indeed, under the EPRDF, Ethiopia has registered consistent and rapid economic growth, averaging between 7% and 8% gross domestic product growth per annum for most of the past 10 years.

Under that model, decisions made at higher levels of a vanguard party are transmitted downward to disciplined mass organisations.

What is remarkable in the Ethiopian case is that citizens seem to believe in an interpretation of democracy that is the exact opposite of liberalism, to an extent possibly exceeded in any other African country, says a recent working paper by governance and democracy organisation Afrobarometer.

INCOMPARABLE

In fact, the divergence was so sharp that authors Robert Mattes and Mulu Teka say that the Ethiopian data may be incomparable with other African countries, due to what they describe as the “idiosyncratic” way in which Ethiopians understand democracy.

Afrobarometer has been doing surveys on governance quality in African countries since 1999. The overwhelming trend has been that ordinary African citizens tend to reach the same conclusions about the quality of their democracy as do international rating systems, such as the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Freedom House and Transparency International.

In other words, in those countries that experts rate as democracies, such as Mauritius or Botswana, citizens say the country is a full democracy. But where scholars find abundant evidence of repression and human rights abuses, survey respondents tend to concur, that their country is either not a democracy, or a seriously flawed one.

Ethiopia stands out in this regard. Whereas no external assessment comes close to rating Ethiopia a democracy, 81% of Ethiopian respondents told Afrobarometer interviewers in a 2013 survey that their country was either a full democracy or one with just minor problems.

This positive assessment was the highest in Africa among the 36 countries surveyed, even higher than the democracy ‘star performers’ such as Botswana, Mauritius and Ghana.

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Ethiopian respondents also tended to provide effusive evaluations of many other parts of their political system, including that the most recent election was free and fair, that the executive respects the Constitution and legislature, and that very few officials are corrupt.

Still, in no other African country is the divergence between international expert and local citizen estimates greater.

So the researchers dug deeper, and asked questions that broke down the various aspects of a functional democratic system – such as institutional checks and balances, multiparty competition, and the roles played by rights, laws, courts, legislatures, opposition parties, or the news media in restraining government, and limiting the role of the executive.

THINGS FALL APART

Here, the “democracy” story falls apart. First, Ethiopians are consistently among the most likely respondents across 35 Afrobarometer surveys to say they “don’t know” – sometimes more than one-third of respondents said this – when asked to evaluate the government’s economic and political performance, particularly if the word “democracy” did not explicitly appear in the phrasing of the question.

So, for example, without the word “democracy” to guide them, one in five respondents don’t know where they stand on the issues of one-party rule and big-man rule.

They are also most likely of all Afrobarometer countries – and sometimes by wide margins – to give “don’t know” responses to questions about multipartyism, parliamentary control of law-making, whether the prime minister should obey the law, and whether the prime minister should be monitored by Parliament, opposition parties, and the news media.

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At least four possible explanations may be at work here. One is that Ethiopians’ verdict on the state of their democracy flow logically from their positive evaluations of the economic performance of government — its success in reducing poverty and improving living standards.

It could also be that because of the state control of the media, and low education and literacy levels (seven in ten respondents had not completed primary school), ordinary Ethiopians simply lacked sufficient access to independent information about political and economic conditions and trends in their country to offer valid opinions.

On the other hand, it is possible that fear and suspicion of the interviewers meant that people did not give their honest opinions, but only said what they perceived to be politically correct.

A fourth and final answer might point to the way ordinary Ethiopians understand the word “democracy”, the researchers say. It may be that Ethiopians proceed from a qualitatively different understanding of what the word means than other Africans.

OUR GOVERNMENT, OUR FATHER

Given the exceptionally long history of monarchic rule, the influence of Marxist-Leninist thinking over the past four decades, and the campaign of EPRDF propagandists to promote a “revolutionary” version of democracy, the concept may be popularly understood in terms of a “guardianship” notion of democracy that features a paternalistic provision of material welfare but requires collectivism, subservience, and discipline.

In other words, Ethiopians actually define democracy more instrumentally, (that is, in terms of the provision of material welfare or effective governance) than intrinsically (that is, as the protection of individual freedoms or the observance of political procedures such as competitive elections and institutional checks and balances).

By wide margins, Ethiopians also see political authority in paternalistic terms (71% see the government as a “parent” rather than an “employee”) and prefer a government that “gets things done” to one that follows proper procedures.

The protests in Amhara and Oromia, therefore, seem to confirm the limits of the developmental state. There’s only so much you can “get done”, before people start asking “What are you doing?”

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