Ethiopia: The Bridge on the Road(map) to Democracy

Alemayehu G Mariam

Last week I had an opportunity to address a town hall meeting in Seattle sponsored by the Ethiopian Public Forum in Seattle (EPFS), a civil society organization dedicated to promoting broad dialogue, debate and discussion on Ethiopia’s future. I was asked to articulate my views on Ethiopia’s transition from dictatorships to democracy in light of my recent emphatic commentaries on the subject.

My views on Ethiopia’s transition to democracy originate in and are shaped by my own deepening concerns over the massive, sustained and gross human rights violations in that country. My active involvement in Ethiopian “affairs” and human rights advocacy dates back to 2005 when troops under the direct personal command and control of Meles Zenawi massacred 193 unarmed protesters and wounded 763 others.  Prior to 2005, my interest in Ethiopian “affairs” was academic and involved editorial work in the publication of a scholarly journal and a popular magazine on Ethiopia. The 2005 massacres presented me several stark choices: pretend the massacres did not happen; express fleeting private moral outrage and conveniently forget the whole thing; hope someone will take up the cause of these victims of crimes against humanity, or take an active advocacy role and speak truth to those who abuse and misuse power. I embraced the old saying, “The only thing necessary for the persistence of evil is for enough good people to do nothing.” I chose to become a human rights defender and advocate.

Democracy (at least in its liberal form) is a form of government based on popular sovereignty (supremacy of the people), but it is an empty  shell if it is not infused with the values of freedom (of association, expression, press), and respect for human rights and accountability (rule of law, independent judiciary, transparency and free and fair elections including  competitive political parties and civil society organizations). Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights forges the link between democracy and human rights: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections…” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties which provide the foundation for meaningful and functioning democracies. More narrowly, I regard the struggle for human rights in Ethiopia to be a struggle for democracy and vice versa. That is why I am interested in Ethiopia’s smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy; for I believe that if there is a successful democratic transition in Ethiopia, human rights will be protected, promoted and defended.

The Bridge on the Road  to Democracy

We can conceive of the transition from dictatorship to democracy as a metaphorical journey on the road to progress, freedom and human enlightenment (democracy) or a regression to tyranny, subjugation and bondage (dictatorship). Societies and nations move along this road in either direction. Dictatorships can be transformed into democracies and vice versa. But the transition takes place on a bridge that connects the road from dictatorship to democracy. It is on this bridge that the the destinies of nations and societies, great and small, are made and unmade. If the transition on the bridge is orderly, purposeful and skillfully managed, then democracy could become a reality. If it is chaotic, contentious and combative, there will be no crossing the bridge, only pedaling back to dictatorship. My concern is what could happen on the bridge linking dictatorship to democracy in Ethiopia when that time comes to pass.

I believe Ethiopia is rapidly advancing towards that bridge on the road to democracy hastened by a wide variety of factors: The regime has no legitimacy despite its ridiculous claim that it won 99.6 percent of the parliamentary seats. The economy is in shambles. “Ethiopia had the second-highest inflation rate in [2011], when it peaked at 40.6 percent, according to Addis Ababa-based research group Access Capital SC”. Last month, the IMF reported, “Ethiopia still faces significant challenges, in particular containing still-high inflation, raising savings, and meeting enormous investment needs.” Last year, the IMF warned, “High inflation is undermining poverty reduction efforts. A highly distorted monetary policy represents a severe drag on growth and is undermining macroeconomic stability. Ethiopia’s approach to industrial development is largely ineffective given the extremely low level of manufacturing and industrial development, low productivity levels, and persistent trade deficit.”

The visceral anti-regime attitude is palpable throughout the country and magnified more conspicuously in the regime’s massive crackdown and repression. The displacement of large numbers of people in what some have called “ethnic cleansing” seems to have crystallized definite patterns of antagonism towards the regime from all sides. The complete closure of political space has spawned fear and loathing in the population. The disparity between the ruling regime and its supporters and the masses continues to fuel massive discontent. The regime is completely bereft of any new or creative ideas to overcome the complex social, political and economic  problems proliferating in the society; and the cosmetic PR about building dams and expanding investments to mask basic problems has drawn more opposition and ridicule domestically and from external sources. In sum, the evidence and signs of decay in the regime are manifest and numerous. Whether collapse comes from internal implosion, popular uprising or other factors cannot be predicted.

A Bridge Too Near

If we accept the philosophical principle that human history is essentially a struggle for freedom and against tyranny and dictatorship, then the natural human tendency is to seek freedom and avoid tyranny. Tyrants and dictators believe that they can always stifle the people’s yearning for freedom through the use of force or corruption. But the inexorable march towards freedom imposes its own immutable historical  laws on tyrants. The foremost law of dictatorships and tyrants is that they always fall. As Gandhi noted: “All through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it, always.” Just over the past year, we have seen dictators fall like dominoes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. The impulse for freedom and human dignity could no longer be contained by the secret police and the armed forces of the dictators in these countries.

The second law is that fallen dictatorships always leave behind chaos, conflict and strife. That has been amply demonstrated in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. The third law is that the outcome of the fall of dictatorships is unpredictable. To be sure, the fall of dictatorships does not guarantee the rise of democracy. In fact, more likely than not, it often leads to the rise of another dictatorship because, more often than not, those who seek to dethrone the dictators aim to enthrone themselves and continue to do business as usual. Stated differently, new bottle old wine.

The fourth law is that some dictators will fight to the end to avoid a fall and cling to power; others are more calculating, cunning and rational. When the jig is up, some dictators will fight and others will catch the next flight.  Ben Ali of Tunisia caught the first plane out to Saudi Arabia. Ali Saleh of Yemen fought even after he was singed and disfigured in a rocket attack on his palace. This past February Zenawi granted him asylum after Saleh was denied entry in every other country where he sought refuge. Gadhafi fought to the bitter end until he was captured in a tunnel and killed like a sewer rat. Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire also fought to cling to  power until he was collared like a street thug and turned over to the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity. Bashir al-Assad continues to fight and cling to power as his security forces kill, maim and displace thousands of Syrians.

The fifth law is that the transition between the fall of dictatorships and transition to democracy can be managed to minimize the effects of the first four laws. The fifth law applies to the bridge on which the transition from dictatorship to democracy takes place and is the most critical phase in determining the destiny of Ethiopia for generations to come. The first four laws are historically predetermined, but the fifth law is entirely in our hands.

Chaos Creates Ideal Conditions for (Power) Thieves

On the bridge to democracy, there is often a collision between individuals and groups doggedly pursuing power, the common people tired of those who abuse and misuse power and the dictators who want to cling to power.  The chaos that occurs on the transitional bridge from dictatorship to democracy creates the ideal conditions for the hijacking of political power, theft of democracy and the reinstitution of dictatorship in the name of democracy. There is an instructive Ethiopian adage that helps explain this situation more clearly: “Helter-skelter creates ideal conditions for thieves (gir gir le leba yimechal)”.

On the bridge to democracy, all sorts of actors and players will crawl out of the wood work to jockey for power. All sorts of intrigues, power games and shenanigans will be played out. A probable scenario based on historical evidence in Ethiopia suggests the following: Major outside forces will attempt to control and manage the transitional bridge, the transitional period and the transition itself. They will present themselves as “mediators”, offer their resources to manage the transition by managing the stakeholders. They will likely activate their prearranged “leaders” and groups and stage a transitional drama for the general public who are only too happy to see the end of dictatorship and wishfully hopeful of a new democratic beginning. In such a situation, the “mediators” will be in the driver seat of the transitional bus. They will transport the passengers over the bridge to wherever they want.

The military (at least the leadership) will seek to grab political power with the excuse that there is a need to maintain law and order during the transitional period and with false promises of elections and accountability for corruption and human rights violations in an attempt to win public and donor support. If the military intervenes in the transitional process, there will be no transition, only consolidation of military power over civilians. Political parties will regroup and prepare for a power play. Repressed internal forces will likely resurface after the fall of dictatorship to assert their interests and take a seat at the bargaining table. They will try to take advantage of the transitional chaos to position themselves for power and flex their muscles to demonstrate their intentions. New groups will be constituted and present themselves as power contenders and stakeholders. Regional powers will seek a role in the transition to determine an outcome that is favorable to them. Supporters of the fallen dictatorship will try to regroup and reclaim power, or more likely realign themselves with any group they believe will protect their interests and shield them from accountability.

As the various groups jockey for power and influence, the people will be mere pawns in a gambling game of power theft. They will be mobilized along ethnic, linguistic, religious, regional and communal lines. Historic grievance will be unearthed, threats of secession and acts of insurgency will be undertaken, mutual recriminations, accusations and denunciations will dominate the public airwaves. In the end, the people will be left holding a bag filled with confusion, despair, misery, hardship and heartbreak.

On the chaotic (gir gir) transitional bridge, one thing will surely occur: A power vacuum. It is in the chaos and power vacuum that a few calculating and well-organized groups and individuals will execute a well-planned strategy to swiftly capture the ultimate prize of political power and thwart the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

We need to plan for the inevitable, inescapable and unstoppable transition of Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy. Dictatorship will end in Ethiopia. It is only a matter of when. Democracy will also rise in Ethiopia. It is a matter of how and what type. Let me use another Ethiopian adage to make my point clear: “Sergena meta, berbere kentisu.” (The wedding party has arrived, let us begin to prepare the meal.) The point is that it necessary to begin a purposeful dialogue and plan ahead about the prerequisites for an effective and smooth transition to democratic governance now, not when the dictatorship falls.

I believe dialogue needs to begin now on at least four major issue areas: 1) how to engage and increase the capacity of key stakeholders in identify potential triggers of violence during political transitions and preventing them; 2) identifying and devising strategies and opportunities for reducing ethnic, religious and communal tension and conflict in anticipation of a transition; 3) enhancing the role of civil society institutions in facilitating public engagement and interaction during the transitional period, and 4) anticipating critical constitutional issues that could significantly impair the transitional process.

The failure to plan for an inevitable opportunity for democratic transition is tantamount to planning to thwart democracy and depraved indifference to the reinstitution of another dictatorship. We must learn from recent historical experience. The Libyans failed to plan for a transition and expediently (with the aid of outside “mediators’) united to bring down the Gadhafi dictatorship. Today, Libya appears to be teetering on the precipice of  tribal warfare and deeply beset by political, regional and political antagonisms. Tunisia seems to be doing much better both because Ben Ali left quickly which made the transitional period easier and also because the military was noticeably absent in the transitional process.

Egypt seems stuck on the transitional bridge. After the young demonstrators mobilized to end Mubarak’s dictatorship with great sacrifice, they were sidelined by the very military that kept Mubarak in power for decades. Civil society organizations which were the driving forces of the revolution are now facing persecution and repression by the military. Egypt’s presidential election is scheduled for May but last week an Egyptian administrative court suspended the 100-member constitutional assembly which was supposed to draft a new constitution for post-dictatorship Egypt.

The suspension has thrown things into a tizzy and tensions are growing between the various secular and Islamist groups and the ruling military council which currently holds power. Having a new president without a constitution (worse yet with the old constitution) is like putting the cart before the horse. But there are real problems with the constitutional assembly that is dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Nour party (who hold a majority in parliament). Secularist members and even Islamic and Christian representatives withdrew from the assembly reading the handwriting on the wall.  Women were grossly under-represented on the assembly as were representatives of civil society institutions. Few of the assembly members had adequate knowledge of constitutional law to participate in meaningful drafting of such an important document. Beyond fair representation of stakeholders, there are some deeply divisive issues of constitutional significance in Egypt. The major one is the role of Islamic law (Sharia) in the new constitution. What safeguards will be in place to protect individual freedoms, women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities and other groups? Ethiopians can learn a great deal from the Egyptian transitional experience.

Who Should Lead the Dialogue on the Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy?

Conventional wisdom says the important task of managing the transition from dictatorship to democracy should be left to the elites—the politicians, party leaders, bureaucrats, academics and other institutional leaders. They are believed to have the best and the brightest ideas for developing the “roadmap” and “action plans’ for a transition to democracy. But for there to be a truly a  successful transition followed by a durable democracy, the dialogue base must be expanded to broadly include civil society organizations, human rights advocacy groups, women and the youth. In fact, the likelihood of a successful transition is increased manifold if civil society organization, advocacy groups, women and youth take a leading role. The reasons are self-evident. Civil society organizations are critical to civil engagement and citizen action for participatory democracy. They are important in facilitating broad-based mobilization in a transitional period and in ensuring responsive governance in the post-transition period. They are also most effective in giving voice to the poor, the minorities and the vulnerable.

The youth are important because the future belongs to them. As George Ayittey explains, there are two generations in Africa: the Cheetah Generation and the Hippo Generation. “Cheetahs seek knowledge, innovation and look for solutions to their problems while Hippos blame others, seek handouts and generally drive our continent to the ground… The Cheetah Generation is a new breed of Africans who brook no nonsense about corruption. They understand what accountability and democracy is. They are not gonna wait for government to do things for them… Africa’s salvation rests on the backs of these cheetahs.” Ethiopia’s salvation rests in the palms of these Cheetahs.

Women need to be given a prominent role in the transitional dialogue because they have been historically ignored, discounted, overlooked and forgotten though they represent one-half of the population. There could be no true democracy where there is no gender equality, and that is one of the glaring inequalities in Ethiopia today. The evidence is incontrovertible that Ethiopian women today suffer significant sociocultural and economic discrimination and have far fewer opportunities than men for personal growth, education, and employment. But women’s involvement in the transitional dialogue is vital because they bring their own unique insights and perspectives to the problems. I believe women have special leadership qualities which are vital to democratic transition and governance. On balance, they tend to be more honest, intelligent, understanding and trusting than men. They are more compassionate than men and more likely to negotiate and compromise. But we will never know know the leadership potential of Ethiopian women because few have been given a chance to prove themselves. They must have a major role in the dialogue on Ethiopia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.

From One Transitional Bridge to Many Permanent Bridges

All of the dialogue on Ethiopia’s transition to democracy must serve to build bridges across the ethnic divides, the religious chasms, linguistic and cultural cleavages and geographic differences. The dialogue ultimately must lead to a national consensus on a vision of democracy — which I hope will lead to the creation of a government that always fears the people and a political system where the people never fear their government – which promotes peace, understanding and reconciliation of the people of Ethiopia.

So, let the dialogue, discussions and debates continue in the town halls, in the streets, parks and public squares, the villages and hamlets, the neighborhoods, the newspapers, the offices, the youth and women’s organizations, trade and farmers’ associations, meeting halls, the stadiums, restaurants, schools and universities, courthouses and parliaments and on the radio, television, the webpages, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Skype, instant messaging, blog pages and by email…

Let’s get to work building bridges that connect people all across the Land of Thirteen Months of Sunshine!!! 

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: and

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:   and