On the Democratization Process


By Messay Kebede

This is not a response to the numerous reactions generated by my previous article titled “The fallacy of TPLF’s developmental state” 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 {www:acrimony} and malicious {www:insinuation}s 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 bravado 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 {www:presuppose}s 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 is 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 is 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 {www: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.

(The writer can be reached at Messay.Kebede@notes.udayton.edu)


9 thoughts on “On the Democratization Process

  1. tt7 on

    Translation: Professor Alemayeu G. Mariam, for example, (an elite) has “a better chance to rise to power through election” than say, Professor Birihanu Nega, another elite, who is less articulate and less exposed, given of course, they both do not resort to armed (violent) confrontation with the ruling elite. Democracy, which is the seizure of power in this case, comes on its own when the time’s ripe not brought by the elites or the people, which is probably true. If you still persist on armed struggle, repression et. al, history would definately be against you in that, another TPLF, ELF, OLF, Confusion, Dergue, loss of another province etc., is in your future. Well said, Professor. Consider me a front seat student.

  2. Zere Amlak on

    Just a piece of common sense!

    Let alone in a multinational society like Ethiopia even in a nation state like Somalia elites cannot be so much homogeneous but also heterogeneous group with divergent interests and goals which may lead to conflicts unless a satisfactory mutually satisfying common agendas are found. On the other hand how can one truly devise when a political scientist who is writing and teaching about democracy, its principles and applications is bent of telling lies about ethnicity and religions in a negatively spiced approach. Ethnic and religious pluralities always existed in Ethiopia which in my opinion is a blessing in disguise. But what is very bad is the fact the tyrants past and present essentially benefited ONLY their own ethnic and religious groups from whom they came while discrimination and excluding those ethnics and religious groups remaining outside of their own. These what we should correct instead of endless lying and denial of ethnic/religious exclusions.

    The Dr. is only living in the past traumas which he keeps extrapolating in to the future and cannot see that change can also come about with out the direct static secret of few elites. Power hungry and traumatized divided 20 the century elites may not dare to fight to the finish like the Tunisian and the Egyptians and transform the societies and communities of the 21st century.

    “…The whole issue is 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…” Dr.M

    Such swiping generalization lacks factrual eveidences and remains only at the level of ordinary personal opinion.
    For example the recent conflicts between elite groups in the Ivory coast and Kenya that have only been resolved through uncompromising transformational conflicts testify to the contrary.

    If Odinga of Kenya and his political party establishment did not put up an uncompromising conflict ridden opposition to claim back their stolen votes and stolen voices they should have been exactly in the most miserable excluded loser’s situation just like the current docile Ethiopian oppositions sitting back and only licking their wounds.

    ” …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.)” Dr.M

    This statement suffers from fundamental self contradiction because at first it assumes that elites are some how homogeneous who commonly fear revolutions while at the same time stating that some elites can be unorthodox, extremists (radical intellectuals,, religious fundamentalists, secessionists, etc.) which actually means that elites are in fact heterogeneous groups with divergent goals. Even tyrant Mubarak of Egypt and Gaddafi of Libya have argued exactly along the same line by claiming that their lose of power will only invite unorthodox extremists, and hence only their rule for life can provide peaceful and democratic developments. They were proven wrong!

    “…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.” 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…” Dr.M

    Hmm.. It is also clearly understandably that Derg took over the state power from the vegetating tyrannical medieval ruling class by force. That change ushered in a new era and a new hope regardless of its piles of shortcomings. For their wrong doings they have got what they deserve. That is also ok.

    “…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…” Dr.M

    It is wrong to claim that Meles and his cronies were animated by the examples of Haile Sellassies and Mengistu but rather in reaction to their gross wrong doings. Meles and cronies are animated by the examples of Stalin, Pol Pot, Enver hoxha of Albania, etc.

    Why cry the lose of Eritrea since and advanced multiparty Eritrea was forcefully attached to feudal and medieval Ethiopia losing its vibrant and working federal status? We would have respected the federal statusquo of Eritrea and worked amicably with country on the basis of mutual support and positive interdependence in all its forms rather than incorporating what really does not belong to you by force and also losing the same thing by the same force after years of blood shade and enormous trauma that runs through generation.

    It is NOT at all true also that the Derg caused or created Ethnicization of conflict because ethnicization of politics and state power as a whole simply because of exclusionary politics and state power ethnicization was at its extreme under the feudal rule of king Haile Selassie and Mengistu’s tyrannical rule (the latter to a lesser extent) The professor is repeat lying about ethnicity and blindly denying realities simply due to the conditions and ethnic hierarchies prevailing under Haile Selassie’s rule which he was at the top while the rest of the majority were at the bottom. What a shame!

  3. Lemlem on

    Why is the professor repeatedly beating about the bush providing ideological and theoretical umbrellas and warm blankets for tyrants while demeaning democracy and predicting doomsday rather than clearly coming out and declaring that he personally supports tplf’s tyranny and go back to collect pension money from the rich wayanes or the Stieglitz’s?

  4. Belete on

    I don’t think many Ethiopians live in comfort in a foreign country. I feel I live a humiliating and a demeaning life in the west because of my origin. It is the fault of your generation-the intellectuals that we are in the predicament we are in. Nothing like this happened before AAU existed. Now, you the intellectuals, as the saying goes, “Broke it and you own it”. I say do what ever it takes to fix it.

  5. Assta B. Gettu on

    Please, Dr. Messay, before we go further in our discussion on the “Democratization Process,” why don’t you tell us in a simple term what you mean by “elites.” Do you consider the Oromos are elites? The Amharas are elites? Or the rest of the Ethiopian tribes are elites? Who are the elites in Ethiopia, today?

    According to the Free Dictionary definition, elites are “A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status.” Do we have such group of people in Ethiopia? Yes, we have only one group of people enjoying high economic status, and this group of people is the Tegaru, Meles’ people – the ruling elites. And since there is only one group of elites, there is no rivalry within the same elites; in this case, democratization is an absurd word for these groups of people. Whatever good or bad picture democracy brings about or presupposes (to use Messay’s vocabulary), the elites are not convinced in the future outcome of democracy. The Amharic saying “ካለመዱት መልአክ የለመዱት ሰይጣን ይሻላል” fits properly such unique Tegaru elites. For them, authoritarianism is better than democracy, a form of government “of the people by the people, for the people.”

    I cannot understand you at all when you said: “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.” You have given us a beautiful sentence but full of abstract ideas and unnecessary words such as “genetic” and “perspective.” The Tegaru elites already know their roles under their own one party rule, and their roles are to remain in power by nipping off any opposition that pops up from time to time to challenge them.

    If there were Amhara elites, Oromo elites, and other Ethiopian tribes’ elites, then we could boldly say there are competing elites in Ethiopia; however, Meles has purposely built up the Tegaru elites at the expense of the other Ethiopian elites; therefore, we see only one group of elites in Ethiopia – the Tegaru exclusive elite. And there is no civil war or any other foreign or domestic threat that forces the ruling elites to compromise with nonentities. So far, the ruling elites have nothing to fear, and they are not in a mood to share their political power with a weak political opposition.

    In paragraph two, Dr. Messay writes: “Democracy presupposes the stage of civilized behavior through the surrender of violence as a means to defend or promote one’s interest.” In paragraph four he writes: “Moreover, democracy presupposes not the absence of conflicts, but their intensification, which applies more to elite competitions than to the communalism of the people.” I don’t know what kind of democracy he is talking about. Is he talking about a bloodless democracy in paragraph two, or is he talking about a violent democracy in paragraph four? It may be true the way democracy is achieved varies from country to country and from government to government. In one country democracy can be achieved in a bloodless transition of power while in other country people must sacrifice their lives in order to achieve it. The unfortunate dilemma in 2005 was many Ethiopians gave their lives to bring democracy to their people, but never got it. Therefore, arm struggle or nonviolence does not necessarily bring democracy. Then what else can bring democracy to a country? Educating the people the value of democracy for at least twenty years until every person in Ethiopia understands what democracy is all about is one important first step.

    To bring democracy to our country, we do not need Karl Marx’s or Lenin’s concept of democracy. Karl Marx and Lenin are two failed communist politicians. What we need is a democracy made in the image of the Ethiopian people, a democracy that has the features of the Ethiopian people, not the features of Washingtonians or Londoners.

    Dr. Messay has refused to give up phrases such as “recognition of popular sovereignty, arbitrators of conflicts, free and fair competition…” Dr. Messay must understand the opposition in the diaspora will never recognize the popular sovereignty of the Tegaru’s elites in Addis Ababa. And since there is no conflict of personal interest and there is no a second group of political elites, it is not necessary to have arbitrators of conflicts and free and fair competition in Ethiopia under Meles regime.

    What a confused professor who writes statements like this: “Those elite groups that best articulate their interests with the interest of the masses have a better chance to rise to power through election.” In the 2010 Ethiopian National Election, the Tegaru elites won the election by 99.6%. Does this mean the Tegaru elites won the election because they had met the interests or needs of the Ethiopian people? In 2010, what were the interests or needs of the Ethiopian people? Food, clean water, health care, electricity, fair price on sugar and oil, good education for their children, and a high paying jobs were the main interests of the Ethiopian people, and none of these interests had been met by the Woyanne oppressive government, and yet Meles was declared as the winner of the 2010 National Election.

    Emperor Haile Selassie never refused to compromise, but because of his advanced old age, the army refused to compromise with him, and finally they killed him. It is true revolution, sometimes, brings success and sometimes setbacks; however, Meles’ revolution brought him success, and he cannot comprehend at present that there will be a revolution like his that will bring him down; for the time being everything seems under his control. So, for him, there is peace everywhere in Ethiopia; however, he must listen to the Apostle Paul who warns the Thessalonians: “While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (Thessalonians 5:3).

  6. Dave Goldberg on

    The question is whether “elites” broadly defined or the “masses” narrowly defined can lead a “revolution”, “transition”, “transformation”, etc. that can birth democracy in Ethiopia.

    Messay’s approach to the “democratization process” has an almost Hegelian historicist logic to it. That is to say, one must carefully study the history of the interaction of Ethiopian “elites” and “masses” before contriving a notion of democracy that is appropriate, functional and workable for Ethiopia. On that score, Messay is right.

    Kudos to Messay for taking a stand and defending it with civility, tolerance and respect to those who disagree with him. Beyond the substance of his arguments, that is the icing on the cake.

    The other Ethiopian “elites” could follow in his footsteps and articulate their vision of democracy in Ethiopia. Or is that too much to ask?

  7. Anon on

    We may talk about what past politcal scientst have writtn about evolution of democracy and some of theprescribed preconditioons that will lead its inaugration acrosses some nations.But what direct relevance does this text book teoretical assemption has to do with Theobjective reality in Ethiopia? May be the professor might adress this in another piece.Most people know weyane junta is not in a mood to accomodate any Ethiopian oppostion by granting political space.Since 2005,weyane has caved in,it is operationg under extreme fear.The way out is through proteracted armed straggle involving an army of the Ethiopian people against the junta.Dr.Messay argue that he does not see that armed struggle in the case of Ethiopia is unresonable,but he doubts that after armed struggle ,when the new fighting party takes power,still the question of democracey will remain illusive.
    That is not true.For instance, EPRP has been the leading democratic organization ever surfaced in Ethiopian politics.Members have the right to information,they have the previlage to particaipate in immportant policy issues so when the highest body assembles enacts a policy the bviews of ordinary members is reflected in the decission making body.The point is ,ones Ethiopians chose to confront theregime through a multi national army, there must be a political party that is in charge of the military activity of this undertakings.Under such condition It is will become necessary to nurture democratic principles as members assert their right to speech and debate.We like it or not armed struggle is the webe of the future;because weyane has saidthe Ethiopian people long ago to fight for freedom.

  8. Garo on

    I agree with the professor. The influence of the old guards on Ethiopian politcs is significantly less today than it was in the past and it will continue to be so so long as they refuse to fight for a real change and their cry for democracy is nothing but lie. But I must say he is not a friend of democracy either. Look at his past writtings to see where he stands especially on some historical facts and how he dismisses ethnic issues that still plague this country.To him these issues don’t amount to anything. I am by no means a supporter of the current dictatorial regime led by TPLF and they must go and they will go but only when all sides are able to get a seat at the table to be heard.Then and only then can we chart a new course. All these phony different name dominated by a single ethnic group will not bring real change jus because they are opposed to TPLF.

  9. Anonymous on

    In the Sociology class, the Duke-educated and marathon-running professor, used nine different formulated theories that perfectly meshed with one another. You can plug one theory for any given situation, and any one of the theories work perfectly in diagnosing and solving 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 (July 2 – 22 Versus) and the harmless and the best working form of power sharing and distribution system – Democracy.

    የሀገር ቅኔ
    የዲሞክራሲ መንፈሱ ነው ከላይ ከመቅደሱ

    የሕግ የበላይነት አንግሱ
    የሃይማኖት ነጻነት አሞግሱ
    የሴቶች እኩልነት አወድሱ
    ይሕዝብና የመንግስት መቀራረብን አድሱ
    የመናግር የመጻፍ ነጻነቶች ገስግሱ
    ከዘረኝነትና ከጎሰኝነት የጸዳ አስተዳደር ቀይሱ
    በራስ የመተማመንን መንፈስ አታልከስኩሱ
    ረሃብን አጥፉ ቸርነትን መልሱ
    ሰንበትን አክብሩ በረከት እንዲመጣ ከእርሱ
    የተጣላችሁ ታረቁ ሙታን እንዲነሱ:: ~ልሳነ ኢትዮጵያ

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