Ethiopia - Homemade Democracy and Riots
  Haggai Erlich
December 31, 2005

The current chapter in the history of Ethiopia's relatively new parliamentarian system has been a focus of  global attention  since last May. At least 46 demonstrators were reportedly killed in the streets of Addis Ababa. Editorials in NYT and the Economist called practically for international intervention.  PM Meles Zenawi, hitherto a model for an African democrat in the eyes of  Tony Blair and George Bush, is  portrayed occasionally  in terms previously preserved for Muammar Qadhdhafi or Saddam Hussein. Though Ethiopia maintains multi-! party sy stem, free economy, liberties of speech, organization, faith and movement, it is being blamed for falling much short of democratic standards. The regime -- it is widely argued -- falsified the results of May elections, shot and massacred protestors, imprisoned opposition leaders, and prepares to punish  them  as traitors.  Ethiopian communities in Europe and the USA exert pressure on local public opinion shapers, who for their part call for cutting aid and forcing the regime to accept mediation in internal affairs.

The present storm revolves around some credible complaints magnified by rhetoric typical of young democracies.  Both the government and opposition parties  accuse each other in resorting to violence instead of playing by rules.  The  crisis, however, stems not only from lack of parliamentarian experience and from  die-hard  traditions of zero-sum politics. It also reflects a struggle between two old concepts of Ethiopia, that of the Amhara majority, and that of the Tigrean minority, two of the main, old  linguistic groups of the country. 

The Amhara were the rulers of Ethiopia from early medieval times to 1991.  The emperors who represented  their culture worked to fulfill an ethos of unity. They strove to build a centralized political hierarchy, to establish a unifying Christian hegemony, and to spread the Amharic language among  the various groups integrated into their empire. The revolutionary officer, Mangistu Haile Mariam, 1974 - 1991, radicalized and grossly twisted this very approach. He disposed of  the ancient religious cloak and sought legitimacy in Marxism -Leninism. Under his rigidly cruel system he tried to fulfill the old unity ethos by resorting to modern Stalinist methods. All the efforts of the country's young intelligentsia to resist this oppressive mutation of the unity ethos proved  fruitless.

Redemption from Mangistus tyranny came rather from the periphery, from the fighters of the various regional and ethnic “liberation fronts”. They were spearheaded by the young fighters from the northern region of Tigre who managed to topple Mangistu, and build the present regime under the hegemony of their party, the EPRDF. In the eyes of the Tigreans, Ethiopia was never to be a fully unified culture. In contrast to the Amharas, all throughout history  they conceived the country as a linguistically and ethnically diverse system, which had to be politically decentralized and  function  under their leadership.   When the Tigreans led by  Meles Zenawi captured power  in 1991 they rebuilt  Ethiopia as a federation of nine culturally autonomous  “ethnic states” under a parliamentarian, federal system. They thus completely revolutionized the centuries old premise upon which Ethiopia has existed. They did so against the basic concepts of the Amhara elite, the capital’s intelligentsia, the veterans of the old bureaucracies, and the leaderships of the various diasporas. In the eyes of the latter the current regime is a tyranny of an armed minority which works to dismember the country as it robs it  corruptibly. 

The riots and the regime’s tough countermeasures, are therefore not just a struggle over the correctness and functioning of a new  parliamentarian  procedure.  Most of the  opposition parties represent a set of concepts which had led the country for ages.  The demise of the Amhara old ethos is a humiliating experience for many. Though admittedly it was  twisted by Mangistu, whose over-centralization inflicted comprehensive misery, still the legacy of unity is for them the essence of Ethiopia’s identity.  Most of those working to de-legitimize the EPRDF regime seem to be authentically striving for the establishment of a unified, liberal system led by the country’s intelligentsia.  The spokesmen of the government counter their arguments no less convincingly.  It was only through the victory of the Tigreans’ de-centralized concepts – they point out --  that representative politics, a multi-party system, parliamentarian  constitution and various liberties were implemented.  It was only through autonomies enacted to the ethnic diversity that democracy, even still flawed, could be installed.  The intelligentsia of the center was never able to bring about such a change. A resurrection of the Amhara unifying ethos will lead the way back to authoritarianism, endemic internal wars, and total chaos.  The opposition speaks democracy, the government says,  they mean resorting to an old,  disastrous prescription.

Unlike many other young democracies in the world the one in Ethiopia was not imposed by external factors. It is not the result of foreign interference and global atmosphere. It is rather the  authentic outcome of the inner collapse of over-centralizing system, and the victory of de-centralizing concepts. The struggle between the Amhara and the Tigrean theses of what is Ethiopia, its politics and culture, is reaching now one of its peaks.  It created instability in a poor country which badly needs its energies diverted  to economic development.  It also caused many in the West to call for external intervention. Such interference has little moral justification, nor will it help in any conceivable way.

Haggai Erlich is a professor of Ethiopian and Middle Eastern history in Tel Aviv University and the Open University of Israel.
His last book: The Cross and the River: Ethiopia, Egypt and the Nile”, Boulder 2003. His forthcoming book: “Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia Christians and Muslims Across a Sea.

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