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Ethiopia : An African state’s escape story towards democracy

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Abdi Zenebe

In Africa, the realization of an aspiration to build a functioning democracy has never been limited to the national and regional political and security dynamics alone.  Despite alternation in the rhetoric, over the decades since the 1960s, the West has in practice been undermining through overt and covert activities several African states’ attempts towards democracy.  

Of course, coupled with the ‘deep fundamentalist’(cultural, socio-political and spiritual) imperatives, domestic driving factors connected to political, economic, security and social indicators have a major impact on a country’s transition towards a democratic political order. Because the fragmentation of domestic political actors and external support for despots often remains obstacles to churn the authoritarian political system, notching a breakthrough in democracy requires overcoming anti-democratic forces both at the national landscape and the international arena.  

This is a very brief story of Ethiopia’s journey towards democracy and how it manages to forge ahead its destiny in the 21st century. 

As a background, Ethiopia  embarked upon a period of political transition in mid-2018 following three years of massive and laud public opposition against the preexisting political order that was dominated by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ironically, the depth of the democratic transition and the subsequent novel path the country charted out can be measured by the degree the new course  upsets three actors: the authoritarian domestic establishment, jumbled regional structure and crippling superpower penetration.  

Similar to all political transitions towards democracy since 1820s, the Ethiopian democratic transition has also been experiencing challenges by those actors that attempt to maintain the status quo and strive to return the country back to authoritarianism, on the one hand, and by actors that claim a lion’s share through force in the new democratic Ethiopia, on the other.  Ethiopia has also been experiencing major interference by global players that aim to continue to put it under their yoke through surrogates and its vulnerabilities in connection with aid. Today, the forces of democracy and progress in Ethiopia are fighting all these three actors at multiple fronts ranging from actual battlefields to political and diplomatic forums to social media. 

While the drama is still unfolding,  this African country is moving towards building a consolidated democracy by overcoming its internal and external challenges and circumventing traps of regression. In examining Ethiopia’s unprecedented transition towards democracy, we see the interplay of again three interrelated and accelerating factors. These are the resolve of the people, leadership capacity, and US’ policy of isolation.

The resolve of the people

The Ethiopian democratic transition is by far a people-driven movement that is determined to bring to an end a protracted period of rampant corruption, fear, ignominy and indigence. Since 1991 the TPLF-led regime, which had dominated the country’s finance, security and foreign relations, remained in power by littering division with no clear strategic vision through what appears like a neo-patrimonial network. 

 Like a large number of left-oriented political movements, TPLF had already lost its mojo with the fall of the Berlin Wall well before it entered Addis Ababa. The ‘revolutionary’ ideal and understanding of society, state and governance, which the front happened to adhere to at the onset of its so-called armed struggle in the mid-1970s,  quickly became anachronistic and purposeless with no value to add in the post-Cold War World Order. The only drive left by the elites of the group was to create a pseudo-system to remain in power for the purpose of enriching their pockets. In practice, the state power under TPLF was abused and misused to propagate the front’s nostalgic, narcissistic and totalitarian malice, on the one hand, and to plunder the country’s human and material resources, on the other. In a nutshell, the TPLF’s reign was a period of humiliation for tens-of-millions of Ethiopians. 

Fortunately, the accumulated grievances of the masses ignited a legitimate and persistent uproar that spread across different corners of Ethiopia that finally galvanized the power to transcend the fear barrier and tore apart the regime from within. The people of Ethiopia after nearly three-decades of excruciating pain and shame said enough is enough and brought a new era of reform starting from mid-2018. The people’s determination is by far the most significant factor that brought the demise of despotism in Ethiopia.  

Leadership capacity

Since the early 1990s, Ethiopians had been expressing their political discontent through various ways. In addition, there were numerous resistance movements that were fighting the regime across different parts of the country. It is important to recognize all these movements and the contribution they made in the long process of toppling the despotic regime. It is also vital to analyze the agency that happened to be successful in tipping the balance at the end. 

Even if we find them complementary on several grounds, arguably, the process of dismantling an authoritarian system is one issue and while managing a successful transition towards democracy is another. A transition to democracy demands a leadership capacity that is capable of agitating the masses but also the wit to maneuver across multiple political and security edges in a difficult political landscape, to say the least.   

During the early stages of the persistent resistance against the authoritarian regime, there was no clear political figure that was leading a nation-wide change. Soon enough political figures with mass and wide support started to emerge, which clearly foretold that the country’s current transition is not like the previous (early 1970s or early 1990s) exercises where one authoritarian regime was replaced with another or a certain clique would come in and hijack the victory such that the change would only be  in the name for millions of Ethiopians. 

The current transitional period has, however, brought a leadership with peculiar characters. Firstly, the leadership’s resolve to embrace the cultural ethos and social values of the nation marked an end to the age of mimicry, which was started at the beginning of the 20th Century but became more pronounced in the political realm in the 1950s in Ethiopia. Secondly, the persistent call for forgiveness and empathy transformed the dominant political culture of revolution and bloodshed, which was prevalent in Ethiopian politics since the mid-1960s. Thirdly, the call for unity and harmonious coexistence has alleviated the policy of rivalry and discord among the people of Ethiopia, which was dominant since the 1990s.  

More importantly, the leadership capacity to relate to the people and the ability to applaud what resonates in the minds of the public are rare phenomena that demand attention. Particularly, Abiy Ahmed’s connection to the old and young alike has witnessed the rebirth of African leaders that can speak the language of the people. The pragmatic nature of the leadership is tested at multiple fronts including battlefield, security sector reform, political arena, socio-cultural reorientation, economic resilience, and diplomacy. 

US ‘policy of isolation’ 

In accelerating the dismantling process of the authoritarian regime in Ethiopia the Trump administration’s so-called ‘America first’ rhetoric and less intrusive policy stands out as one important external factor. Seizing the opportunity presented at the international scale that may come through coincidence or otherwise is critical; it will help the African state build democracy following its own natural trajectories with reduced cost. 

More often than not, we have been witnessing the evil genius of the West working in collaboration with dissident groups and bloodsuckers from within to destabilize African states and hamper peoples’ aspirations towards democracy. When we talk about the West, today, we are talking about the US only because for all practical global political and security purposes, European nations, collectively or individually, have lost leverage. Perhaps, especially when it comes to Africa, the EU has largely been doing nothing more than mimicking the US foreign policy as if it has none. In other words, the primary duty of Europe, especially, outside of its immediate vicinity is limited to bandwagoning. Hence, in analyzing the Horn’s relations with the West, focusing on the US should  suffice.  

Before 2016, the TPLF administration was the darling of the West turning Ethiopia into a client state. Since it was brought to power by the architects of the Cold War era, TPLF was cultivated to seek legitimacy from the West and serve the latter’s interests in return. The Western powers rendered political, military, economic and diplomatic support for the protraction of the brutal TPLF regime to last for nearly three decades. The Trump administration and its policy that gave limited attention to the Horn of Africa paved the way for reduction of the superpower meddling at the critical juncture of the Ethiopian transition process, mainly in the process of challenging the dominance of TPLF at the center of power politics at the capital. The TPLF ideologues, which had put the country on the verge of total economic collapse and moral denigration, were not able to cope without the US support it used to get during the previous administrations. The Trump administration’s utter disregard to the Horn of Africa region, at large, and his attempt to shift superpower attention from ‘the war on terror’ to issues connected to Asia Pacific region was a blessing in disguise for Ethiopia such that his administrations’ neglect had dwindled the relevance of babysitting an authoritarian regime in Ethiopia, in particular.  

Following Machiavellian tradition – ‘… act like a mouse when the situation is unfavorable … and act like a lion when the situation is favorable…’ – TPLF  retreated to the provinces and decided to attack the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) position on US’s Election Day, i.e. November 3rd 2020. The return of unrepentant interventionists to the White House forced us to hear all these ridiculous claims about TPLF and relentless effort to undermine the Ethiopian people’s resolve to democracy.  Ironically, we still hear western entities’ continued support to the brutal front via ‘academics’, ‘media’, state agencies, ‘international humanitarian’ and ‘rights’ organizations. 

More worryingly, the interventionists  have been attacking the incipient Ethiopian democracy in a multifarious manner. However, they fail to see that Ethiopia has already escaped, viz. it   has charted its path. The current US administration is highly advised to change course and reorient its relation with Ethiopia. In terms of defense, the US administration has been attempting to hinder Ethiopia from procuring arms critical to maintain  its sovereignty. In typical colonial style diplomacy, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa  J. Feltman have been busy discussing Ethiopia without the presence of Ethiopia with different countries in the continent and abroad, often following the footsteps of Ethiopian officials. At the dismay of the Ethiopian people, the US officials have employed several political forums that attempted to place the rug-tag rebel group on equal footing with the legitimate government of Ethiopia. Some even maintained communication line with a designated terrorist group by the host nation and acted as its mouthpieces. The US also extensively used its foreign policy instruments outside of the state department to disparage the Ethiopian state journey towards democracy. Ample open source analysis has vividly presented compelling arguments the dubious role the foreign intelligence and USAID and their tentacles played to put pressure on the Ethiopian government in utter disregard to the will of the Ethiopian people at large. 

The attempt to derail the Ethiopian democratic course never stops at the political, military diplomacy, and intelligence arenas only. It also bifurcates out to the economic arena and trade relations of the two states. The US administration preferred time to remove Ethiopia from AGOA is so shameful and difficult to comprehend, especially, because for tens of millions of Ethiopians getting rid of TPLF means burying despotism. Thus, the Biden administration’s decision to remove AGOA in order to pressure the people’s government to talk with an entity, i.e. TPLF, is nothing but unacceptable and put the White House and its bandwagons in the eyes of many Ethiopian as the primary supporters of the terrorist group.      

The Ethiopian transition towards democracy is not unfolding in all joy and merry atmosphere. Like all transitions since the 1820s, the Ethiopian democratic transition has experienced several ups and downs including fatal confrontations. Fatal confrontation with anti-democratic entities during political transition, despite variation in degree, is a constant factor in all transitions. What is also prevalent is external actors’ attempt to project their influence directly or through surrogates and agencies established under the guise of international organizations such as media, political forums, financial entities and the like. The delicate period of transition has put the country in a process of dismantling an existing suppressing infrastructure, on the one hand, while simultaneously building a novice democratic system and structure, on the other. In between, the political space is engulfed with high public expectations and various degrees of uncertainties.  All these are markers of a genuine political transition towards democracy, which is often long and complex. 

In comparative analysis, despite considerable challenges facing from within and without, the Ethiopian political transition is by far one of the well managed transitions of our time. The country has charted out its path, i.e. the path of democracy, and has said enough to  unnecessary discord and humiliation. It is ready to limit and withstand the destructive edge of superpower and greater power’s penetration to its identity, economic well-being, regional standing and ethos. The people’s struggle to deepen the incipient democracy and sustain the freedom earned will continue  uncurtailed in this beacon of black peoples’ liberation. It is paradoxical that Ethiopia has escaped towards democracy by the resolve of its people and leaders in an age marred with growing global anti-democratic dictum and praxis. 

That said, the country does not engage in direct confrontation with any western country despite open aggressive gestures from the other side. The Ethiopian government not only keeps its composure against orchestrated attacks and pressures but also grows day by day in its diplomatic maturity to maintain viable international relations and partnerships. The recent Ethiopian government’s diplomatic activities are indicative of the country’s readiness to work with the international community across different areas. The institutionalization and consolidation of democratic values and principles, which are commenced at the domestic level, will be hastened by the constructive support that will come from Ethiopia’s long standing strategic partners and friends alike. 

Abdi Zenebe (PhD) can be reached at abdizenebe@gmail.com

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  1. I rarely come across clearly articulated, well informed, original, and substantial articles that describe the complex reality of Ethiopia so well. Really enjoyed reading this and look forward to more from the same author.

  2. The transition from Fascism (TPLF rule) to democracy has been the aspiration of Ethiopians and needs to forge ahead as the best option. However, the TPLF fascists and racists have been hindering this transition and declared their all out war against it. The first task and priority of the transition should be overcoming the challenges posed by the TPLF and their allies. Tigray under the TPLF will be a fascist entity and staging ground for the TPLF and others intent on destabilizing Ethiopia and the region as a whole. TPLF fascism uses all the methods the internationally known terrorist organizations use and regional as well as wider international cooperation is needed to fight it.

    • We Amhara people are suffering under the terrorist group called fanos, amhara milita and prosperity party soldiers named ENDF. All these thugs are working to let Eritrean soldiers get easy access to our resources and subjugate our country to Higdef top dogs.
      Amhara people should join their hands and eradicate these organized groups in our name. Fanos are stealing our stores and shops and force us to say TPLF did that and this . Two of our neighbors were killed recently for disobeying to play the role of being raped and robbed by TPLF.
      We people from Wollo we have never had enemity with our neighbors from Tigray. Elites are sowing hostility and endless killing among two revered ethnic members for years to come in search of power . They simply sold their souls to the devil. We Amhara people from Wollo , we cannot die for some wealthy and belligrent few men residing in Gonder and hell bent on expanding their territories and makewestern Tigray their farm land and plantation of factories. .
      Thank you for postig this message.

  3. I agree with the previous commentator. This is a distinctively perceptive, concise and readable piece. One of the insights which amazed me is the identification of the “supper power” (read US) lacuna under Trump as one of the factors which facilitated the democratic trajectory in Ethiopia.


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