The 2020 Elections and Institutionalizing Democracy | Maimire Mennasemay, Ph.D.

17 mins read

by Maimire Mennasemay, Ph.D.

Let me frame my text with the wise thought expressed in an Oromo aphorism: “Olkaa’an fuudhan malee olka’an hinfudhan : One takes tomorrow what one puts by today”. That is, the future starts today, which means that the 2020 general elections start today. With this Oromo aphorism as my frame, let me formulate an introductory question to guide my arguments. How do we go from democratic reforms to an institutionalization of democracy that ensures its long term survival in Ethiopia? The answer to this question lies in how we conceive and prepare for the general elections of 2020.

Driven by popular struggles, democratic reforms often arise in non-democratic contexts, as is the case in Ethiopia now. But, as history shows, such eruptions of democratic reforms have a short shelf-life when they are not followed by the creation of democratic institutions and procedures to replace the existing anti-democratic institutions and procedures. Sidelining politicians and dismissing officials identified with anti-democratic practices; appointing pro-democratic Ethiopians to head the armed, police and security forces, bureaucratic structures and reorganizing them to foster the democratic reforms; and rescuing the information services from being used as a tool of weaponized ethnicity are important steps in the first phase of democratic reforms.

However, history shows that such administrative measures, though necessary, are not by themselves sufficient to ensure the long term survival of democracy. The current democratic reforms, if they are to survive and flourish, require more than administrative measures. They need to be strengthened through the creation of democratic institutions and procedures based on universal political principles: individual rights and responsibilities, freedom and equality, and the primacy of citizenship over particularizing identities. But the political institutions and procedures in place now are the creations of the TPLF/EPRDF and do not embody these universal political principles. On the contrary, they flout them. Understanding how they flout these principles helps us prepare the success of the 2020 general elections.

The EPRDF regime is rooted in the TPLF ideology that, to cite a philosopher, “ontologizes ethnicity”. It considers that each ethnie has a fixed essence that cannot be reconciled with that of another. The TPLF-drafted 1994 Constitution gives this ideology a legal expression in Article 8 # 1. It strips the Ethiopian people of their sovereignty and makes each ethnie a sovereign entity. It states “All sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.” Moreover, Article 8 # 2 declares, “This Constitution is an expression of their sovereignty”, which means that the Constitution is not designed to be an expression of the sovereignty of the Ethiopian people as a people. The infamous Article 39 # 1is thus a logical outcome of the ethnic ontology that founds Article 8. It makes ethnicity destiny.

Consistent with the Constitution’s non-recognition of Ethiopians as a sovereign people, the TPLF organized the EPRDF as an aggregate of ethnic parties, made ethnic identity the criterion for organizing the Ethiopian political space into an ethnic federalism, for creating political parties in general, for candidate nomination, and for political participation. It thus arbitrarily excluded pan-Ethiopian criteria for organizing and conducting a pan-Ethiopian political life. Since the divisive constitutional and political structures that the TPLF has built are still in place, one must raise the question: Could the present democratic reforms survive in such a divisive and hostile institutional context? Is there not a serious risk that, if the general elections of 2020 are held in such a context, they could lead to results that undermine the current democratic reforms?

However, one may also ask: Doesn’t the emergence of a democratic leader from within the EPRDF, which is the case with PM Abiy, mean that the TPLF, the core of the EPRDF for more than two decades, has converted to democracy? The question, though ingenious in light of the history of the TPLF, is nevertheless interesting. To answer it realistically, we need to look at the history of the TPLF. It will help us understand why the TPLF is accepting the nomination of Dr. Abiy and paying lip-service to some of the democratic reforms he has implemented.

Historically, the foundation of the TPLF is the Marxist–Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) whose leader and ideologue was none other than Meles Zenawi, the leader of the TPLF, the organizer of the EPRDF, and the PM of Ethiopia until his death in 2012. The MLLT has played a crucial role in the organization, ideology and politics of the TPLF. Interestingly enough, the MLLT was never dissolved officially. This history could throw light on the TPLF’s acceptance of the election of Dr. Abiy as PM and of his reforms. As a political party that is rooted in Leninist ideas, it seems that the TPLF has opted for the tactic of Lenin, who, faced with a political crisis, told his party, “It is necessary sometimes to take one step backward to take two steps forward”. Given its history, one cannot then exclude the possibility that the TPLF’s acceptance of the nomination of Dr. Abiy as the Prime Minister and its muted acquiescence to the democratic reforms he has introduced might be a case of “taking one step backward to take two steps forward”. The TPLF might thus be trying to wait out the crisis it now faces, while in the meantime attempting to undermine the democratic reforms by resorting to its habitual weaponization of ethnicity, engaging in economic sabotage, spreading false news, and creating tensions in various parts of the country.
Recognizing then the necessity of providing democratic institutional frameworks to replace the existing anti-democratic institutions and procedures in order to ensure the future of democracy in Ethiopia has consequences that must be fully assumed. One of these, and not the least, is the elimination of the institutions that weaponize ethnicity and thus subvert the long-term survival of democracy in Ethiopia. The three venues of weaponized ethnicity are: The Constitution, ethnic federalism, and ethnic political parties. I will first consider the first two, and then argue that democratizing political parties is the path that will lead to the liberation of the Constitution and the federal state from the weaponization of ethnicity and its evil consequences.

First is the issue of the weaponization of ethnicity in the Constitution itself. The history of democracy shows that democracy is based on the democratic concept of “the people”, which is indivisible from the concept of the citizen. It is not based on the sociological concept of population which is precisely what the Constitution does by pluralizing the Ethiopian people as the “peoples of Ethiopia”. One cannot have a democracy based on a Constitution that denies the status of “people” to Ethiopians. Consequently, Articles 8 and 39 of the Constitution and all other parts of the Constitution that share or promote the spirit of these two Articles have to be cleansed of their anti-people and therefore anti-democratic content. To recognize Ethiopians as a people is to give citizenship primacy over particularizing and divisive identities, and to ensure free and equal relationships among Ethiopians. The Constitution could guarantee the long-term survival of democracy in Ethiopia only and only if it recognizes Ethiopians as a people and as the sovereign constituent power of the Ethiopian state.

The second institutional embodiment of the weaponization of ethnicity is ethnic federalism. The TPLF crafted federalism is neither ethnic nor federalism. It radically misrepresents and distorts both. There is absolutely no question that Ethiopia, a big country with a population of almost 100 million, cannot be a centralized state if it is to be democratic. Democracy requires a system that pays attention to regional political, economic, social and cultural concerns. Federalism is thus the only form of political organization that offers a venue for democratic life in Ethiopia. To fulfill this democratic goal, federalism must be organized on non-exclusive and inclusive criteria that allow every Ethiopian to participate in all its institutions without distinction of ethnicity and other particularizing criteria. What these non-exclusive and inclusive criteria are, is something we Ethiopians must thrash out. Whatever may be the criteria we adopt for organizing federalism, they have to reflect and respect the primacy of citizenship over particularizing identities.

The third institutional embodiment of the weaponization of ethnicity is the political party. The EPRDF is an aggregate of ethnic parties that the TPLF created to ensure its political hegemony through ethnic-divide-and-rule. The TPLF/EPRDF regime instituted ethnic belonging and ethnic loyalty as the criteria for political party formation, participation, and nomination of candidates. To claim, as one important politician of a kilil said recently, that the ruling ethnic party and the ethnie of his kilil are one and the same is to weaponize ethnicity and set up as a traitor any member of the ethnie who disagrees with the ruling ethnic party. The TPLF/EPRDF regime has indeed imposed ethnic criteria as the only acceptable foundation for political parties such that it has over the last two decades persecuted those who wanted to create non-ethnic parties. Democratizing the institutions of political party, political participation, and candidate nomination means then making these institutions subject to the universal principle of citizenship. The right of the individual to freely choose and join any political party, to run for any political office, and to participate in any political activity without being subject to ethnic filtering should be the foundation of Ethiopian political parties and of their functioning. Voting will then express one’s political choice as a citizen—as a right holding member of the Ethiopian people—and not as an act of ethnic belonging or ethnic loyalty. Establishing the institutions and procedures for citizen-based political organizations, participation, and candidate nomination is essential for the long-term flourishing of democracy.

Since the presence of weaponized ethnicity in the Constitution and the federal state is foundational and part of their structures, liberating them from weaponized ethnicity cannot be carried out without the democratic legitimacy that elections provide. Only the results of an authentically democratic elections provide the necessary legitimacy for democratizing the Constitution, the federal system, and all other foundational political and state institutions. Thus the importance of the 2020 general elections. They give Ethiopians the first opportunity to democratize political parties and organize an authentically democratic multi-party elections. Two options are possible (though there may be others), and both are rooted in the idea of national political parties based on the notion of citizenship and the respect of universal principles in their organizations and functioning.

The first option is the conversion of the TPLF/EPRDF into a national political party, as per the above principles, under the leadership of the PM. Abiy. This means the liquidation of the EPRDF as an aggregate of ethnic parties and its rebirth as a national party based on individual membership of citizens. If, however, the EPRDF prefers to remain an aggregate of ethnic parties, the second option is to form a national political party based on individual membership of citizens and led by PM Abiy.

If the TPLF/EPRDF chooses to remain an aggregate of ethnic parties, it still has the right to participate in the 2020 elections as have all other parties, whatever may be their persuasion. Given the commitment to democracy Dr. Abiy has shown, and given the massive support his reforms have received from Ethiopians, his party, be it a democratized EPRDF or a new national party, will probably win in a landslide in the 2020 multi-party electoral contest. Such a victory will give Dr. Abiy and his party the necessary legitimacy to liberate the Constitution and the current federalism from weaponized ethnicity in all its forms, and replace the existing anti-democratic and divisive political structures, procedures, and institutions with democratic political institutions, structures and procedures.

Whether the elections of 2020 spell the triumph or the defeat of long-term democracy in Ethiopia depends on us. There is no reason why they could not be the occasion for the triumph of democracy if we listen to the wise counsel of the Oromo aphorism—Olkaa’an fuudhan malee olka’an hinfudhan—and start preparing the 2020 elections now. One of the indispensable elements of this preparation is the creation of a national political party to compete in the 2020 elections. And there are only two years left for this preparation.
There is no doubt that the 2020 general elections constitute a watershed historical event for the consolidation and long term survival of democracy in Ethiopia. It is a historical appointment Ethiopians—from Mekelle to Moyale, from Assosa to Jijiga— cannot afford to miss.

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