Ethiopia: What the EPRDF Really Stands for

 

yesnoI have read two viewpoint pieces in this newspaper about the status of democracy in present day Ethiopia and the EPRDF’s role in this regard. The pieces are – “EPRDF: The Best Answer to the Democratic Question” (Volume 14, Number 715, January 12, 2014), written by Tagel Getahun, and “Democracy: The Best Answer to Ethiopia’s Questions” (Volume 14, Number 717, January 26, 2014), written by Merkeb Negash. My reflection attempts to add a new perspective to this debate.

To start with, I truly appreciate Merkeb’s contribution in critically commenting on the Tagel’s piece. I was baffled by Tagel’s seemingly illogical arguments and simplistic premises about the necessity of democracy and the role of the ruling party.

From my point of view, while Tagel failed to logically argue in favour of the EPRDF, Merkeb also systematically avoided dealing directly with the question of democracy in the reign of the Revolutionary Democrats. He rather presented his position by stating that he does not have a problem with Tagel’s opinion that the “EPRDF is the best answer to the democratic question” in Ethiopia.

Even though I agree that Ethiopia needs a democratic governance system, I certainly do not see the incumbent as being the ‘best’ guardian.

My argument is that the practices and political processes happening under the auspices of the EPRDF hugely contradict the ‘democratic principles’ that are being preached by the Party. The current democratisation process is exclusionary to the major political forces, as well as any process which favours instrumentalist citizenry action and political engagement. I will expound on this position after reflecting on some of the points raised by Merkeb.

In the recent academic debates, most scholars have argued that there is no direct relationship between democracy and development. Particularly within the democratic developmental state paradigm, there is a tendency to go beyond this alleged trade-off between democracy and development – with one being a necessary condition for the other.

Rather, the focus is on the nature and characteristics of the democratic process and the effectiveness of the state to achieve sustainable and inclusive development. It seems that the incumbent has found the appropriate model, in stating that one objective of its current Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP) is for the purpose of ‘creating a stable democratic developmental state’.

There are plenty of arguments that support the effectiveness of the developmental state model, particularly in achieving economic growth. However, there is no simple argument regarding its democratic nature and the features of its political processes. This is particularly true with regards to inclusionary practices of citizenship and political legitimacy.

The emergence of a democratic system in a given society is a function of the socio-historical and political processes within society. These processes quintessentially determine the nature and interactions of actors involved in the system.

The institutional manifestations of these historical processes and the discourses used to set up both the thinking framework and the practices of these institutions are some of the crucial elements to look into. Democracy needs a political system that strictly adheres to institutions.

Adrian Leftwich, one of the prominent scholars in the politics of development, contends that institutions create a political system whereby actors are not afraid of the uncertainties that the political processes may produce. Political process will be governed by agreed principles, legal frameworks and impartial spheres of political deliberations.

In such kinds of political contestations, the winner has less to win and the loser has less to lose. There will not be an absolute winner or an absolute loser.

This is an inherent process of democratic consolidation and the provision of political legitimacy. Once in place, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the political forces to break this institutional setup and to undermine the process.

Furthermore, while asking an illuminating question – ‘Who killed democracy in Africa?’ – the great African scholar, Ali Mazrui, identified at least four “fundamental ends”. He noted that – establishing a system of governance where citizens have accountable rulers; a process where citizens are actively participating; a political economy which is open and transparent and a society where social justice and equality are enshrined, are considered as the most crucial outcomes of democracy.

These “fundamental ends” of democracy cannot be considered as mutually exclusive outcomes; rather, they are elements that reinforce each other. Probably the most contentious point of inquiry is the means adopted to reach such kind of ideally acceptable end.

Some of the arguments around democracy and democratisation also revolve around whether the focus should be on setting up ‘standard practices’, like regular elections with universal suffrage and the rule of law, or prioritising trends that focus on ‘deepening democracy’ to reach and empower ordinary citizens. One of the most important points for evaluating the appropriateness of which course to take in realising democracy is its responsiveness to the developmental needs of society.

The other essential element of democracy is active citizens’ participation. Citizens’ participation and meaningful involvement should not be taken at face value.

It is a complex process of power relations. ‘Who enters into the citizens’ platform?’, ‘on whose terms?’ and ‘in with what kind of authority?’ are just some of the critical questions raised.

Otherwise, only the numerical presence of millions of people will ‘define’ the democratic nature of a political process and the practices of citizenship – this is deceiving and wrong. There are many scenarios where people remain depoliticised and alienated from the main processes of political decision making, in spite of their presence in political systems and structures.

I would prefer to look at the issue of democracy in Ethiopia within these parameters and to see whether the EPRDF really is the ‘best answer’. For me, the EPRDF remains caged within the structural manifestations of the Ethiopian ‘winner gets all’ political culture. It is also sustaining and reproducing this political. culture for the sake of consolidating its grip on power by using different legal, institutional and discursive mechanisms.

The physical presence of the traditional three arms of government, and other offices, is no guarantee for the consolidation of democracy. What matters most is how these actors are functioning in a manner that is enabling for political forces, responsive to citizens’ queries and legitimate, at least in the eyes of the average citizen. The EPRDF failed on many fronts in this regard, on many separate occasions.

I can mention multiple cases. For instance, the political process is under the total monopoly of the ruling party, which has a significant dominance and control over the mainstream platform (Parliament) and the alternative spheres, such as media and civil society.

The meaning of democracy is reduced to the recurrent elections held every five year, the offices that runs the election business and the ‘electorate’ that vote for the ruling party for the sake of keeping hold of the rents they receive from the government. The government is openly engaged in a neo-patrimonial relationship with citizens, where ruling party membership is considered as a guarantee to accessing economic opportunities in urban areas (particularly among youth and women), job related benefits and opportunities among civil servants and inputs of agricultural production in rural areas.

This is instrumentalist citizenship, where politics is perceived only in terms of the material and financial benefits it brings. I wonder to what extent the EPRDF is intending to realise a competent, meritocratic and expert-led bureaucracy, which is a necessary requirement of a developmental state. Obviously, loyalty to the ruling party is favoured ahead of the excellence and expertise of individuals. This is a complete contradiction to what is supposed to happen.

The ‘one-to-five systems of organisation’ in many of the rural areas of the country, the ‘draconian’ laws of terrorism, civil society and press, the political intimidations, and the imprisonments and harEyob Balcha iassment targeting competing political actors simply gives the EPRDF an authoritarian jersey, as opposed to a democratic one. People still fear openly expressing their political opinion and it does not need any serious calculation to know that the government is the major source of this fear. These are just some of the manifestations that prove the fact the EPRDF is mainly concerned with its dominance and prolonged stay in power, rather than building institutions of an advanced political system.

Honestly speaking, the EPRDF deserves recognition for achieving remarkable economic growth and for remaining determined to invest in infrastructure, health, education and agriculture. All of which will have a direct impact in improving peoples’ livelihood. However, this does not make the EPRDF an angel, or indeed the ‘best answer’ in the quest for democracy in Ethiopia. It is seen achieving this in the most institutionalised undemocratic manner.

The author is a doctoral researcher at Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, United Kingdom.