Who cares about Ethiopian democracy?

With a wave of democratic revolutions sweeping the region, how eager is the Ethiopian populace to follow suit? The Prime Minister seems to have stopped talking about democratization,but what do the people think?
Ron Singer
10 September 2011

“Democracy is the theory that the people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”  H.L. Mencken.

Is it just a canard that desperately poor people in un-free countries like Ethiopia couldn't care less about the type of government under which they live, as long as it puts the proverbial bread on the proverbial table? And do less-poor people in these countries care more?

With the wave of democratic revolutions sweeping the region, the question has become urgent. Dissidents claim that the Ethiopian populace is dry tinder waiting for a spark. But is that just wishful thinking? According to an Al Jazeera article during last year’s elections, “while the opposition parties are already making claims of unfairness, the public mood does not seem to be in any way as charged as it was in the disputed 2005 poll.” (Unsurprisingly, in 2010, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, the EPRDF, retained power.)

Ethiopia’s non-democracy

Meles Zenawi

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Alavro Isidoro/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Abiye Teklemariam is currently a post-graduate student at Oxford University and Executive editor of Addis Neger, which, until 2009, was a widely read dissident newspaper operating from inside Ethiopia, and which is now a diasporan website. In a 2009 interview, Abiye pointed out that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has ruled since 1991, was in the process of shifting his agenda, dropping talk of democratization in favour of claims of rapid economic development. In a follow-up interview in 2010, Abiye said, “The Ethiopian government has decided to do away with the façade that the government was transitioning to democracy. We had a feeling that this was a stagnating transition. Now it is going backwards… . So now he is trying to project an image of a very efficient leader, meaning that, even though he’s a dictator, he’s bringing a lot of economic development to Ethiopia.”  

As he also shifts Ethiopia’s principal economic partnerships from Europe and the US toward China, Meles has endorsed what is called 'birdcage' democracy: vigorous debate on policies, if not in the country, at large, then within the ruling party. “We’re not like the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo],” said Meles, “we’re like China.” After a recent visit to China, Head of Government Communications Bereket Simon went so far as to suggest that the Ethiopian press should practice “developmental journalism”. In other words, the proper role of journalists is to act as cheerleaders for government economic policies.

While no one argues that Ethiopia is failing to develop its economy, government claims about speed and effectiveness are very much open to debate. In 2010, Abiye said:

Meles claims that GDP growth has been 11.6%. He’s massaging numbers, convincing the World Bank and IMF. Serious scholars, like Stefan Dercon of Oxford, dispute that, questioning Ethiopian agricultural productivity claims. The GDP growth % is really about 6, but population growth is about 3%, and [GDP is] starting from a low base. So the discourse is a lot about economics, about numbers. For now, for strategic reasons, the World Bank accepts his numbers, gives him loans. But, like the discourse about democracy, he will be exposed soon. People will wake up to the fact that he’s not really bringing prosperity to Ethiopia, he’s just making numbers.

Or take the country’s fairly low gini coefficient, the most common measure of economic inequality. By this measure, Ethiopia, with a coefficient of 40, sounds closer to Sweden or Denmark (both around 23) than to the very unequal South Africa (68). Economic justice is - or is supposed to be - a hallmark of democracy. But does the low-ish coefficient prove that Ethiopia is an economically just country, a very poor one, or both?

One could say, then, that keeping Meles honest about the economy points to the need for precisely what he used to claim the country was moving towards: Ethiopian democracy. But to say that there is a need is not to say that Ethiopians are hungry for democracy. And it is not to say that, even if they did want it, they would dare to ask for it.        

The Ethiopian police state keeps a close watch on the populace, especially the country’s small farmers, in their small villages. Having manipulated the last elections so that there is now central control of the kebeles, or local village councils, the EPRDF is able to work its will in the countryside. There is also a nationwide spy network, started by Meles in 2006. Tight press restrictions and a recent law prohibiting political activity by all NGO’s mean that, other than in the capital, Addis Ababa, government control is close to absolute. In regions with vigorous separatist movements, such as Ogaden, control is absolute.

Vox Populi


Nuno Lobito/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

To get an idea, even, of “the people’s feelings” in a non-free country like Ethiopia is notoriously difficult. According to one journalist in Addis, who requested anonymity, the ruling party watches the society down to the family level. Today, most Ethiopians simply won’t talk about politics, except to trusted, close family members. Especially in contested regions, those who speak to journalists, or fail to vote for government candidates, suffer violent retribution from the army and loss of basic benefits, such as food aid.

But what about in the cities, especially Addis Ababa? Does anyone there care about the feeble state of Ethiopian democracy? What about the political Opposition, for instance? Since 2005, when they decided not to take their seats following rigged elections, the Opposition has been virtually moribund.

During a three-week stay in Addis, from January to February, 2011, I tried to get some kind of answer to this question, asking it not only of journalists (whom I was there to interview for a book), but of a range of other people, including students; taxi drivers; pensioners; waiters; people I met casually in shops, hotels, and public vans; and several well-educated, retired professionals with whom I happened to be in contact.

Many journalists do seem to care about Ethiopian democracy, but in different ways. Diasporan websites (Addis Neger, Ethiopian Review) keep up a steady stream of invective against government repression. Internally, all broadcast media are government monopolies, as is the Internet. Print media range from government stooges (Addis Zemen) to mainstream publications that walk a line between extreme caution and measured boldness (Addis Fortune, The Reporter). There also remains at least one dissident newspaper within the country, Dawit Kebede’s Awramba Times.

This is what I gleaned from some of these journalists:

Abiye Teklemariam (2009):

RS: Who is your paper’s audience? your readers? Are you elitists?

Haile Selassie

Haile Selassie. Credit: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection. Wikicommons. 

We write for the literate, not basic literacy, either, and hence the dialogue is among an elite. When Haile Selassie had the first constitution written in 1931, it would be hard to say who, besides himself, wanted it. And he wanted it as a way to centralize power, versus the nobility. Has anything changed since then?... . We are criticized for this [elitism]. Given literacy, education, and the structure of Ethiopian society, yes, we write for the elite. Even the figure 39% given for literacy is not for the kind of literacy needed for these arguments, for which functional literacy is more like 14%. The educated have a lot of influence, get a lot of respect, in a country like ours. If I go to my father and tell him to vote for an opposition candidate, he will do it. So we write for those who have this influence.

Tsigue Shiferaw (born in Ethiopia, raised in France, and currently BBC French-language correspondent in Addis):

The people care. During the two elections [2005, 2010], there were many people in the countryside who were trying to get their opinion heard, which was sometimes different from that of the government. They faced a lot of pressure, sometimes losing food aid for disagreeing. Even in the remote areas, people have their own ideas. A good part of the population.

RS: Would they like it if they opened their daily newspapers and saw a full critique of government policies?

TS: Well, don’t forget, in remote areas, people can barely read. But you’ve got radio. No Internet, of course. In remote areas, funny enough, local bars may have Arab-Sat TV.  … When elections come up and you’re expected not to vote for this or that [opposition] party, there may be consequences.

RS: I heard about some of that in small towns, it sounded ugly.

TS: Everything happens in the rural areas. In urban areas, they are aware that information travels quickly.

Tamrat Georgis, editor of the mainstream weekly business newspaper, Addis Fortune:

RS: Aren’t “the people” [who even read newspapers] a small group?

T: Large or small, I don’t know. I don’t have their numbers. Regardless, there are people who consume what the media give them on a daily or weekly basis. For instance, we print about 10,000 copies. It does not mean that there are only 10,000 readers. We assume that there are seven to ten people who share a copy.

Eskinder Nega, elder statesman of the Ethiopian dissident press:

EN: People deep in the countryside, people who are not literate, even, are now conscious that the government needs their votes to be legitimate. This is a revolution in thought.

RS: And it’s very hard for them, because of the way the kebeles have been taken over by the government. It’s dangerous for them to think that.

EN: Exactly. But the belief that the government, any government, needs the people’s vote to be legitimate is a new phenomenon. This is what democracy is all about.

RS: Perhaps the establishment of ethnic federalism opened Pandora’s box. Not a matter of whether, but when.

EN: Yes.

On the campus of Addis Ababa University, where I went to sightsee and look for a book after a visit to the American Embassy (which does not care much about Ethiopian democracy), I ran into three friendly students. They did not look like the “students” (i.e. scammers) that the guidebooks had warned me about.

“Where are you from?” asked one.

“The US”

“Oh, I like the US”

“I thought you liked China now, instead.”

“No, the government likes China. We like the US.”

From other things I also heard or read, it seems that, as in many other places, Ethiopian students, in the aggregate, are very keen on democracy.

On the other hand, a conversation with an old taxi driver showed the ways in which many people have managed to survive three oppressive regimes, and how little they seem to care about politics. After playing squash at the Hilton one day, I was in a hurry and having to seriously haggle for a contract (private) taxi. After some fuss, an older guy finally offered to take me for that amount in his cab, which was a cut above: yellow (unusual), very well-kept, and, I learned, only ten years old. (The average is thirty to forty.) It was a nice car, and I enjoyed a wonderful trip home.

The old man was seventy-nine, tall, wiry, dark, and aquiline, with bad breath. He was a pensioner, he explained, forced to augment his income this way. He had been born about one-hundred kilometers from Addis, and had been educated in a monastery in the Oromia (southern) region. His Oromo, he explained, was better than his English, which was so-so.

His training had been in the ancient church language, Ge’ez, and his career had been that of a translator-scholar. At one point, he was given an audience with Haile Selassie, who complimented him and the other Ge-ez speakers present that day, saying that what they did was essential to the nation. Identity, that complicated notion, is indeed central to Ethiopian history, or so I have often been told. The Emperor then asked the man if he would like to work in the palace. (This part of the story was not totally clear.)

“Is your character suitable for this?” the Emperor allegedly asked.

“You will have to ask others to find that out,” the old man replied.

The Emperor laughed, and my driver got the job. Later, when the Dergue [“the Committee,” a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship] came in, he had a close call, but an old teacher vouched for him, and they decided he was harmless, so he was permitted to keep working. Then came his retirement, nine years ago, by which time the new regime had arrived. Although he did not say so, I think this pensioner/taxi driver is still an Emperor’s man. In other words, democracy is not a core value for him.

A third conversation took place in the lobby-lounge of the Embilta, a fairly upscale hotel where I often went to use the Internet. A young guy who knew my waiter engaged me in conversation. He said he worked for a German firm of technical advisors to the Ethiopian Ministry of Municipal Development. Despite his poor English, I learned a lot. According to him, 

- The common people prefer Americans to Chinese. The infrastructure built by the Chinese is shoddy - cheap materials, poor workmanship -and they hire only rock-bottom workers. Americans know how to do things. They work eighty hours a week.

- If any taxi driver told me he longed for the days of the Dergue, it meant that he must have been one of their soldiers. Yes, the Dergue did some good things, but, oh boy…  

- He had tried to get a visa to visit his sister in Washington, D.C., but was turned down. After he had cleared every other hurdle, they asked his age, and when he said, “forty,” they said he was at risk of not returning.

- There is no freedom, no choice, in Ethiopia. As an Oromo, if he peeped about anything he could be in serious trouble. He sees the ruling party as a corrupt clique. He knows and admires [Oromo elder statesman and opposition figure] Bulcha [Demeksa]. When I told him the theory of one dissident journalist, Eskinder Nega, that ethnic federalism will eventually make Ethiopian democracy inevitable, he agreed. Meanwhile, though, he keeps his mouth shut.

Two deeper conversations on Ethiopian democracy

Who, then, cares about democracy? A more complicated, interesting response to this question did emerge, however, from separate conversations with two friends in Addis, both very well-educated, successful professionals, both highly cultured, both now retired.

These two septuagenarians could be said to represent Abiye’s target audience, the best-educated people in Ethiopia. They gave me diametrically opposite answers to the question. I will refer to them pseudonymously, as “Gebre” and “Henoch.”

Gebre is a member of the diaspora and a zealous government supporter. He sees no problem with human rights in the country, agreeing with the official position that the alleviation of poverty takes precedence, and that the government is doing a generally excellent job of this. In other words, Gebre does not think democracy matters in Ethiopia.

His own life story, which he told me in great detail, included expulsion from secondary school for reasons related to ethnic chauvinism. (Like Prime Minister Meles, he is Tigrayan.) After completing his education and starting a family abroad, he returned to Ethiopia, just as the Dergue was taking over. His and his family’s escape from that regime was difficult and protracted. He and other like-minded friends in the diaspora now sponsor several educational and agricultural development projects in rural Ethiopia.

In our conversations, Gebre acted as self-appointed Apostle to the Gentiles (me). According to him, the self-proclaimed pro-democrats are driven by Amhara ethnic chauvinism: they don’t like to see power in the hands of a Tigrayan. Also according to him, Amhara chauvinism explains why Meles is unpopular in Addis, but popular in the countryside, even beyond Tigray. Meles has improved the lot of the farmers, who were mal-administered by the lazy, corrupt governors sent by the Amhara Emperors, Menelik II, and, later, Haile Selassie. In Gebre’s estimate, the only good opposition leaders - two of them - are no longer in Parliament.

As for dissent in the countryside, Gebre defended the government’s strict prohibition against journalists’ talking to residents of the Ogaden region, in the east, by saying that this is a war zone, so the journalists can’t be protected. As to another restive region within Ethiopia’s ethnic federation, Gebre opines that almost none of the Oromo are involved in the tiny, sporadic independence protests, just a small, radical fringe.

“Who, then,” I asked Gebre, “is the serious opposition here?”

“Those,” he replied, “who want the Dergue back, the people who call [Dergue leader] Mengistu ‘Menge.’ “

“Are there many?”

“Very many, ask any taxi driver!”

Gebre partly excused the government monopoly of telecommunications, which has led to very slow growth, by claiming that people have to get used to change, which is already too fast for them. But nineteen years, he admitted, is long enough for more to have happened, and he blames poor indigenous management, which last year was finally replaced by a reputable French consultancy.

One reason Gebre may not care how much freedom Ethiopians have, is because of his very high regard for Meles. People, he said, always find fault with those they want to pull down. Why be so critical of Meles when he is one of Africa’s best leaders, and doing his utmost, which is very good, indeed, to deal with appalling poverty and a terrible history of divisiveness? Starting as a Marxist, Gebre explained, Meles soon found his way to realistic, pragmatic, primarily market-driven economic policies, which have produced real growth. The same criticism and defence may be made of China, where an amazing number of people have been lifted from poverty by a capitalist dictatorship. Is there anything that matters more than improving the lives of those in your trust?

As Abiye had told me in 2010, this shifting of the agenda from freedom to development is very much the official Ethiopian party line. Lest I thought he was a government cheerleader, however, Gebre did offer selected criticisms, some of which suggested that he was aware that the government is capable of repression. For instance, regarding a corruption case in which a tax evader was given a draconian sentence, Gebre pointed out that Ethiopians are used to paying bribes, not taxes, so the government should emphasize education, not punishment. He also admitted that some government ministries reserve jobs for specific ethnic groups.

What about the criticism that, without democracy, development is hamstrung, especially by corruption? He answered by suggesting that I visit outlying Addis neighbourhoods, where the government is producing massive amounts of low-income housing (which he called “condominiums”). He said there was also a boom in luxury housing and that many new big commercial buildings were going up all over town. This building boom all over Addis I saw with my own eyes.

Some of the finance for these projects, Gebre admitted, comes from money squirreled away or robbed by Dergue soldiers and other functionaries during their final days in power. The government’s attitude has been “So be it, they can’t get the $$ out of the country, anyway, so it can do some good.”

Implicit in much of what Gebre told me was that this is how things get done in Ethiopia, that life is messy, and that political principles are an unaffordable luxury. But he does have principles. On a drive through town, he commented on the physical ugliness of Addis, especially the billboards. “Why,” he asked, “when we have such good visual artists?” In the cultural realm, Gebre proved himself a democrat of sorts. Chagall or Velasquez? Barber’s Adagio or Beethoven’s string quartets? Both pairs are great, so who can say?

During the two-plus weeks that we spent together, Gebre and I became friends, reaching the stage where we enjoyed teasing each other about our clashing political beliefs. What struck me most about this unusual man’s ideas about his country was the combination of indifference to democracy with deep, caring concern for the lot of the common people and for the nation, as a whole.

My second long-term interlocutor, Henoch, presented what may have been an even more complex perspective. An eminent retired professional who, despite the smallness of his pension, lives a quiet, cheerful life in Addis, Henoch claimed repeatedly to have no interest whatsoever in politics, in general, let alone democracy. One reason this intensely sociable man offered for his apolitical stance is that, in Ethiopia, politics (like religion) divides families and friends. Then, too, he said, discussions of politics (and religion) just tend to go around in circles. Defining himself narrowly in terms of his profession, he also excused himself from political opinions on the ground that he was unqualified and uninterested.

I came to regard Henoch’s stance as an example of the way many Ethiopians turn their backs on politics because they think it is too dangerous not to. Several things he said and did, offered hints that his attitude was not as simple as he avowed.

“It [my apolitical position] is not because I’m afraid of being harassed, or something like that. No way! I’ve never been in prison in my life.” When I asked them both, Gebre did not know who dissident journalist Dawit Kebede even was; Henoch knew. On Ethiopian history, Henoch stated the obvious fact that there used to be a feudal system. Then he opined, “But now it’s changed a bit.” What about change, in general? “Tremendous change, high-rises, roads.” But he disagreed with Gebre’s opinion that too much change can harm the common people. “Change should continue. They should benefit.”

One last reason I hesitate to take Henoch completely at his word stems from a small incident at a restaurant where we ate together the evening before I left Addis. As we waited for our food, reaching into his wallet, he brought out a yellowed newspaper clipping. It was a  photograph of Eskinder Nega and his wife and son. Describing Eskinder as “an acquaintance,” Henoch made me a present of the clipping. In the months since then, I have seen the same photograph on several dissident websites. Among Ethiopian pro-democrats, it seems to be iconic.              



Nuno Lobito/Demotix. All rights reserved.

 Taken together, everything these people told me remains anecdotal. All of them were also educated urbanites, and I never got to put my question of a single person belonging to the Ethiopian majority, the farmers. But I don’t think anyone else has a definitive answer, either. Imagine, if a very well-educated old pensioner in Addis was loath to admit that he cares at all about politics, let alone democracy, what might a peasant in the repressive countryside have said to me, had he dared to say anything, at all? Meanwhile, nothing that I have read about Ethiopian democracy so much as raises the question.

For instance, neither Human Rights Watch reports nor afrobarometer surveys of attitudes toward democracy mention the views of the Ethiopian people. Nor does a collection of essays about Ethiopian democracy co-edited by the pre-eminent historian, Bahru Zewde. Even this book, which cites interesting precedents, and argues a need, for democracy, offers no indication of what the people actually feel about the purported need. Nor does a recent American article about Ethiopian repression mention popular opinion at all.



All un-sourced interviews quoted or referred to in this article will figure in Ron Singer’s forthcoming book, Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press).   

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