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Ethiopia: On the Democratization Process



  09:17:27 am, by admin   , 1662 words  
Categories: Ethiopia

Ethiopia: On the Democratization Process

Ethiopia: On the Democratization Process

By Messay Kebede


Messay Kebede Photo University of Dayton

This is not a response to the numerous reactions generated by my previous article titled “Meles’s Political Dilemma and the Developmental State: Dead-Ends and Exit” Some of the reactions raised serious and legitimate questions; others emanated from misunderstandings of the actual contents of the article; still others drifted more toward  acrimony and malicious insinuations than a civilized exchange of ideas. While I thank all those who came up with serious questions and assure them that I take their challenges as expressions of the real framework of the Ethiopian political debate, I say “grow up” to those who chose acrimony and insinuations, including those who gushed their bravados about popular revolution and armed struggle from their comfortable life in Europe and America.

This paper is rather intended to stress some points that we should keep in mind when we discuss about democracy and the role of elites. Among the serious challengers of my proposal, Abiye Teklemariam Megenta and Eskinder Nega point out that elite driven political change cannot produce democratic outcomes without the active participation of the people. I wholeheartedly agree with them, but insist that the issue of how democracy functions is different from how democracy comes into being in the first place. The shift from functional to genetic perspective brings out the decisive role of elites, more exactly, the potential for democratic change when rival elites give up the path of violent confrontation. Democracy presupposes the stage of civilized behavior through the surrender of violence as a means to defend or promote one’s interest. Once violence is out of the picture, what else remains but the avenue of compromise and agreement to resolve conflicts over power and material interests?

The whole issue it to know what compels elites to seek compromise and agreement rather than domination and exclusion. Studies of democratic changes show that when prolonged struggles over power and interests among various elite groups reach a stalemate or when a common threat endangers their existence, such as invasion by a foreign country or civil disorder and war, competing elites develop a disposition toward compromise. For instance, one incentive leading elites to devise an agreement is the fear of revolutions, which often tend to empower unorthodox and extremist elites (radical intellectuals, religious fundamentalists, secessionist leaders, etc.). Accordingly, it is idealistic to generate democratic disposition from the enlightening effect of progressist ideas or convictions; ideological conviction must be backed by interests for democratic changes to actually occur in practice. In other words, the conditions for democracy appear when rival elites commit to a peaceful resolution of their conflicts, which resolution is itself the outcome of a calculation of the best way to preserve their long-term interests.  

I know that the common meaning attached to democracy is that it is the rule of the people. However, to say so does not mean that the people actually rule. Instead, it means that the people have the power to decide who rule them and that the latter are accountable to them. The control of state power is the concern of political elites, not of ordinary people. Moreover, democracy presupposes not the absence of conflicts, but their intensification, which applies more to elite competitions than to the communalism of the people. As rightly conceptualized by Karl Marx, the day the people control power is the day state power and politics come to an end.

Be it noted that there is an organic connection between the decision of elites to settle their disputes peacefully and the recognition of popular sovereignty. As soon as elites give up the use of force, there emerges the need for a sovereign arbitrator of conflicts, and this is typically realized through a free and fair competition for the vote of the people. Obviously, competition cannot be free and fair if it does not include the respect of basic rights, such as freedom of organization and expression and the fundamental rights of the individual. There is no arbitration of conflicts by the people, either, if the people are not invested with the necessary authority.
The decisive role of elites does not mean that the people passively await for elites to grant them their basic rights. On the contrary, people fight for those rights in conjunction with elites competing to assert their interests. As shown by Theda Skocpol’s statement according to which “revolutions are not made; they come,” it is a mistake to forget the autonomy of popular uprisings from elite politics. What connects popular movements with the latter is not that elites cause revolutions, but that they need the support of the people in their struggle for the control of power and compete for it, often in demagogic terms.

Those elite groups that best articulate their interests with the interest of the masses have a better chance to rise to power through election. Nonetheless, the inevitable divergence between elite interests and the masses offers the opportunity for the rival elite group to conquer power in its turn. This democratic process runs into danger when elite groups appear that claim to represent the masses. Instead of being mere allies, such elites identify with the masses and become their saviors, the typical form of which is found in the Leninist notion of “professional revolutionaries.”
The gist of my previous article is the assertion of a political stalemate in Ethiopia. The 2010 election has resolutely demonstrated that Meles and his followers have moved far away from the idea of free and fair competition for state power and that they are determined to stay in power by all means. This retraction incapacitates the nonviolent opposition and puts an end to the prospect of change occurring by means of free election. The deadlock is thus tangible: neither can Meles succeed in marginalizing the opposition through rapid economic development, as presumed in his defense of the developmental state, nor can the opposition overthrow him through electoral victory.

There is, of course, no impasse for those who opted for armed confrontation as the only means to topple the present regime. In my view, their position is the most consistent response to the drift of the present regime toward repression and one-party system and is in line with the goal of overthrowing the ruling elite. My problem is not that I discard the possibility of its success, given enough time, but that armed struggle leaves untouched the problem of democratization. Far from resolving the problem of democratization, the seizure of power by an armed movement creates domineering temptations, as strongly evinced by the history of the TPLF and EPLF. What remains true, however, is that the existence of such a movement can pressure the ruling elite to negotiate so that the path of democratization would still be found in the idea of coalition. Thus, there is no escaping negotiation and coalition when one wants genuine democratization.

On the other hand, the impasse of Ethiopia’s nonviolent opposition can only lead to one result: popular uprising or revolution, which, in addition to being unpredictable, will occur in a society polarized by ethnic tensions. In view of this stalemate and its dangerous implications for the country, including for the elites competing for power, I thought that an appeal to common sense and the long-term interests of all involved is timely and relevant. Hence the idea of coalition that I framed in such a way that it provides incentives for rival elites to work out a compromise. Those who characterized my idea as naïve simply forget that it is less naïve than those who believe that the TPLF can rule Ethiopia for an indefinite time or those who except democratic outcomes from a popular uprising.

For these incorrigible groups of people, I remind George Santayana’s famous warning: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Emperor Haile Selassie and the landed class lost everything because they refused compromise, thinking that they were invincible. This same belief presently animates Meles and his cronies. On the opposite side, those who pushed for revolution reaped the Derg and a host of tragic setbacks, including a prolonged civil war, economic decline, the ethnicization of conflicts, the loss of Eritrea, and the victory of the TPLF with its ethnic federalism.

What I find questionable is the assumption that genuine democratic forces are already ready not only to lead the popular uprising, but also to institute a genuine democratic government. Nothing is more naïve than this assertion: because people talk about democracy and democratic rights, it does not mean that they are willing to implement them. More often than not, elites use democratic slogans to rally popular support while their real intention is to establish their own exclusive power. All political actors in Ethiopia know this: simply, those who risk losing everything are understandably more suspicious than those who aspire for power. Moreover, democracy cannot happen overnight: it requires a protected process of institution-building, culture change, popular empowerment, and confidence building among political elites. As shown by the history of advanced democratic countries, democracy is made of incremental advances, often interrupted by setbacks.

I may disappoint many people when I say that in today’s Ethiopia I do not see the gathering of democratic forces, but that of resentment, suspicion, and hostility. The idea of a grand coalition is just an attempt to channel these negative forces into a protracted process of mutual accommodation and thrust (in lieu of distrust and dethronement of one group by another). I may disappoint even more when I state that I refuse to posit democracy in terms of either/or, that is, in terms cornering Ethiopians to say “democracy now or nothing else.” With due respect to my critics, as a long and evolutionary process, democracy grows out of authoritarianism. When one thinks in terms of process versus leap into the unknown, change is never either this or that; rather, it is this and that, to wit, a transition.


Comment from: dude [Visitor]

Yes thank you very much leave aside the ideological posturing etc, this is the sort of pragmatic approach i would like to see to break the impasse. I really liked how he drew parallels with hailesellassie govt and how it was thought invincible. This is not about being pro or anti eprdf, its about the survival of our nation. Elites have to do everything in their power to keep the nation from returning to conditions that brought about the 1974 revolution. Further, EPRDF/EPLF victory and the independence of eritrea has parallels with somalia. Is it not better for somalia to accept the independence of somaliland if it offers the opportunity to return to a functional state? Ethiopia could have been in the same situation had it not accepted the independence of eritrea. Even the so called ethnic politics, while its proper implementation has been sidelined due to power politics, the approach can however be historically justified. If we are going to embrace our diversity, this has to be reflected in our laws and governance. Now it seems that eprdf believes it can stay in power indefinitely by subduing and marginalizing the largely moderate opposition. This might be true in the short run, but a new generation with more extreme political views will emerge and reject this political impasse effectively endangering the existence of both eprdf and the opposition, a potential 1974 explosive situation. EPRDF has to recognize it has to better accommodate moderate opposition forces if it is going to survive beyond its time in power. Very pragmatic paper indeed, we need more impartial thinkers like Messay Kebede.

06/30/11 @ 01:43
Comment from: Ezana [Visitor]

The author should be reminded that he is, to equal degree, guilty of “gushing” forth with his assertions, presumably from the comforts of his plush and Air-Conditioned room in the West, just as those he condemns for staying “incorrigible” in espousing a populist revolution.

His “genetic perspective” is but sophistry in postmodern fashion, an attempt at dressing down (or up) the notion of democracy as nothing but that evolutionary process made possible only with a blessing from “elites". All may not be lost for the majority neither–should the people opt for what the author calls “civilized behavior"– a presupposition he deems a necessity for democracy.

This essentialist atomization (democracy vs democratization, civilized vs un-civilized) of categories betrays an underlying bias of psychological nature (self-identification), and one that sits at odds with the emancipatory ideals of freedom. i.e. the author, as all intellectuals, is an elite.

To be frank, one is justified in being fearful of the sort of renewed-dictatorship which more than likely would result from this proposed power-sharing (or the benign coalition-forming) negotiation among the few–as it would unavoidably imagine itself to be representative of the majority–returning us back, with vigor, to the status quo.

06/30/11 @ 14:03
Comment from: dude [Visitor]

nazret needs to put this article in the front page, intellectual discussions deserve public exposure

06/30/11 @ 14:57
Comment from: Ketema [Visitor]

I have read your previous article and also the various responses written to it. I found your articles very rational and pragmatic idea what our country needs at this time. I am on your side Dr. Messay. Do not be discouraged and disappointed by the critics, as they are also helpful for the discussion. Please keep your writings on this issue, and I hope gradually it will be taken/accepted by many of the Ethiopian elites, including the radicals in both side.

Good Job.

07/01/11 @ 02:46
Comment from: JonesHenry [Visitor]

Ethiopia just wasn’t ready when Haile Selassie returned exactly 70-years ago. It wasn’t ready yet for independence. It is the root of ALL our problems!

07/01/11 @ 05:07
Comment from: Imperial Body Guard [Visitor]
Imperial Body Guard

Emperor Haile Selassie did not lose everything, for everything is done for a time and purpose under the mighty heavens, for only what the Lord wills will be done.
‘10 He was in the world, and the world was made by HIM, and the world knew HIM not.
11 He came unto his own, and his own received HIM not.
12 But as many as received HIM, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.’
During the past 37 years of secession the name of Emperor Haile Selassie has not weakened but has continued to grow and strengthen on the international scene, converting many more lost children from the pains and sorrows of this world through to spiritual enlightment by his eternal guidance and blessings. The problems that exist in Ethiopia today are the result of what happens to a god-fearing nation when its members of the house of parliament fail to respect the tradition and culture of the Kebra and Fetha Negast and the modernization of the Constitutional Monarchy, where government servants are peoples servants.

“Ethiopia is a country with her own cultures and mores. These, our cultures and customs, more than being the legacy of our historical past, are characteristics of our Ethiopianness. We do not want our legacies and traditions to be lost. Our wish and desire is that education develop, enrich, and modify them.
You all know the continuous effort that Ethiopia is exerting for the development of a profound and high standard education. We need educated and trained persons for research, for the study and development of our country’s resources, for technology, for medicine, for the law, and the administration for our people according to their custom. These are the needs that constrain Us to provide, at all levels, education free of charge. And students, ever mindful of this privilege, should endeavour to recompense their country and nation.” Selected Speeches of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, page 35

“Ethiopia protests against all subtleties of procedure, the object of which would be to evade the rules of competence which are clearly written in the Covenant.” page 326 of selected speeches of HIM Negus Haile Selassie I

“If we permit ourselves to be tempted by narrow self-interest and vain ambition, if we barter our beliefs for short-term advantage, who will listen when we claim to speak for conscience, and who will contend that our words deserve to be heeded? We must speak out on major world issues, courageously, openly and honestly, and in blunt terms of right and wrong. If we yield to blandishments and threats, if we compromise when no honourable compromise is possible, our influence will be sadly diminished and our prestige woefully prejudiced and weakened. Let us not deny our ideals or sacrifice our right to stand as the champions of the poor, the ignorant, the oppressed everywhere. The acts by which we live and the attitudes by which we act must be clear beyond question. Principles alone can endow our deeds with force and meaning. Let us be true to what we believe, that our beliefs may serve and honour us.” Negus Haile Selasssie, Father of African Unity, Founder and guide of the United Nations, Defender of Faith, Elect of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah!

Long Live the Constitutional Monarchy!
Long Live the Kebra Negast!
Long Live the Fetha Negast!
Fire burn down the corruption star of ethnic federalism
Rise with the Lion of Judah!
Long Live Independent Ethiopia!

07/01/11 @ 05:13
Comment from: AGB [Visitor]

The main question is unanswered and the article has no conclusion !
Should I say it is still another confusion ?

07/01/11 @ 07:42
Comment from: ethiofederalist [Visitor]

I agree with the Professor mostly on his emphases for the need for making compromises and building concessions with the opposing sides. If I am not mistaken, the Professor is against a federal system, whether ethnic or otherwise. If that is the case, in my opinion, he is leaping ahead of time. Yes, if not addressed properly ethnic based demands could become a major source of conflict and fragmentation. However, rejecting or denying the fact of the day is noting more than self deceiving entertainment or a wishful thinking.
Achieving the formation of a grand collusion is a mere dream without considerations of the objective reality of our country. The fact is that the Ethiopian Nation is not a homogenized entity. It takes time & modernization (thru development) for the existing differences in culture, language, ethnic topography, etc to disappear; and only by then that we will witness most of our ethnic based differences and demands to slowly but surely wither away. To think out of the box requires understanding and accepting the basic demands of others. The “mutual accommodation and thrust” that the Professor underlines should be taken in the wider context of the Ethiopian Nation. I can not think of a peaceful, stable, democratic, representative and united Ethiopia without the formation of a genuine Federal System. That is a guarantee for our survival as a peaceful nation under one tent.

07/01/11 @ 09:48
Comment from: Hat off to Wise Man [Visitor]
Hat off to Wise Man

I did not know we have some wise thinkers like Mr. Messay Kebede. Please educate the diasporas now and then by writing this kinds of positive article without being biased..

Thank you for a very thoughtful article….

07/01/11 @ 11:16
Comment from: Zurga [Visitor]

Thank you so much for the good job. is the only truly Ethiopian forum that enlights the public.
God bless you!!
Keep it up!

the great
Jole Sebeta

07/01/11 @ 14:15
Comment from: SOS [Visitor]

Very toughtful and un biased article

Well done!!


07/01/11 @ 14:18
Comment from: Dagmawi [Visitor]


“…However, rejecting or denying the fact of the day is noting more than self deceiving entertainment or a wishful thinking.” you stated

I agree with you because you are damn right!

The professor’s wishful thinking and day dreaming from his secure and isolated ivory tower completely contradicts reality.

“…It takes time & modernization (thru development) for the existing differences in culture, language, ethnic topography, etc to disappear; and only by then that we will witness most of our ethnic based differences and demands to slowly but surely wither away…” You stated.

I disagree with you completely because you are damn wrong!

People are born in to their culture, language (mother tongue)ethnic group, etc. diversities which are part of an individual’s and groups healthy identities to be nurtured, cared for and upheld by all means possible. To nurture and up hold them is human but to try to eliminate them like Nazi Hitler tried to do is not only inhuman but both inhuman and criminal.

What is absolutely right and advisable policy is to treat ethnicity, culture, languages, etc. diversities as equal and deserving equal treatment as sources of creativity and bottomless human innovations.

Modernization and your so called development need not come to take away your identities, languages, culture and ethnicity unless you have gone absolutely mad and lost your brain, self awareness and living in a mental hospital put in place by the misguided and the wrong type of pervert development.

So please keep your language, your culture, your ethnicity as well as allowing others also to proudly keep their own as well. That is the best road to healthy wealthy life of identity and dignity. :)

07/01/11 @ 17:50
Comment from: Mez [Visitor]

Imperial Body Guard!
You have always been a slave, and you will always be. I feel sorry for your permanent suffering.

07/02/11 @ 15:10
Comment from: [Member]

I am left confused after the last paragraph. Professor Mesay should add a solving suggestion. All what I have observed from the writing is his pessimistic view that there will not be a better democratic Ethiopia after meles the shifta is gone. I differ in that regard from Mr. Kebede.

07/03/11 @ 07:36
Comment from: T7 [Visitor]

When I took a Sociology class, the Duke-educated, marathon-running professor used nine different formulated theories that perfectly meshed with one another. You can plug one theory for any given situation, and it works perfectly in identifying and diagnosing the social problem. In other words, the theories are used to solve social maladies like mathematical formulas. This formula for Democracy custom fitted for Ethiopia’s case is not bad at all by the professor. It is the concept of Democracy, very delicate, that must be imagined by the citizens and must be respected, honored and made practical by all means - not necassarily worshiped, like the French for example, who enjoy their cheese, wine, Le Tour de France and Democracy.

07/03/11 @ 15:17



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