Ethiopia: Orwellian Democracy

By Ayenew Haileselassie, Daily Monitor / August 6, 2009
Addis Abeba — Ethiopia's once major opposition party members are once again pitted against each other, and this time they have no plausible scapegoat to point their fingers at. Whether they will survive their conflict and remain one, or break down in to two parties, or even walk out of it all and be content just being dissidents is yet to be seen.

The country finds it self in a distressing economic condition the actual impact of which may not be calculated or felt until months later. That is not to say that the country is not in deep trouble at this moment. No amount of democracy would solve the current economic problem in the immediate future. But what about in the long run? Would the absence of a strong opposition justify the-devil-may-care attitudes and policies in a country of almost or at least 80 million people?

Politics determines who makes the rules and policies, who decides which way we head, how we feel as citizens and as a residents, eventually even how we plan for our future.

After nearly two decades of one party rule, it is our fortune (misfortune) that we look forward to nothing but more years of one party rule and a "symbolic" parliament whose voice is heard when the members laugh at a joke the prime minister has cracked.

As the years role by it is saddening, even disheartening, to see that the EPRDF is still focused on ascertaining its dominance and making arrangements to ensure it in the medium to long term even in the face of weakening opposition party movement.

Years ago when I decided not to join the masters programme of the Addis Ababa University, I considered my self "wise" for refusing to be part of a system that would give me a second degree without the knowledge [my personal feeling at the time]. When the going rate for the master's programme was pushed from 100 Br per credit hour to 500 Br, I looked back on my wisdom and almost regretted it for the affordability of the education was severely endangered. And now no one has to afford it any longer. One is to be granted it as a prize for EPRDF loyalty.

Current graduates and those who have already started studying for their second degrees are heard often speaking of their luck. "We escaped it," the said. By "it" they meant the government decision that not everybody would be eligible any more for further education on the basis of merit, at least the merit that used to be known in academic circles.

So Ethiopia's new government will go into its third decade of rule with political appointees handling the affairs of the government and the country. The Civil Service College, which has mainly been educating civil servants with close ties to the ruling party, was in its early days unable to fail students who failed. Those students quite clearly knew why they were there; whenever they scored failing grades they would come with a letter which would change their F's and D's into C's. They were only wanted to have degrees without the education. Now the higher educational system, already in shambles, will serve the same purpose in all government universities, including the "famous" Addis Abeba University to award second and third degrees to the same kind of people.

At present many in the civil service express frustration because they are made to feel that they have to become EPRDF members in order to gain career advancement. Executive positions are unthinkable for most non-party people. Over the next few years denying such people the higher posts will be easier, because the party will have enough educated members.

Very soon we will have two classes of people: the EPRDF class of leaders and the general public. We are living testimonies that George Orwell was more of a prophet than a writer when he wrote in Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." It is true that we cannot put all the blame for our poverty on our leaders. We have counted several decades when few years of positive development were completely wiped out by one year of drought. We have now the global financial crisis and the local power failure doing the same. The scale of the trouble the economy is in was indirectly indicated by a recent interview of Ato Seku Ture of the EPRDF with a local paper.

The EPRDF is planning to handle land in a different way, but still keeping it public and government property. One of the things is a new registration of all farm land in a GPS based system. Ato Seku said in his interview that the USD 90,000 required for this project was so much that the ruling party is trying to find ways it could be raised. That money, at an exchange rate of 12 Br, is a little over one million Birr. So we have reached the stage where that that much is so much the country of Agricultural Development Led Industrialization cannot afford it.

What is democracy? Is it not an environment that allows all stakeholders to be concerned and involved in the determination of their fate? Does it not imply leaders tapping into the knowledge, skill and patriotism of citizens for national causes? From the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (do you remember it?) to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia we just know the word democracy largely for what it is - just a word. Do not look it up in the dictionaries - they have all got its meaning wrong.

Who needs it anyway? Have we not got along without it long enough? Can we proclaim it loud, but still have our own version of it that relies on the dominance of one group?

We- the "we" of the EPRDF era started out with an Albanian ideology, and a Singaporean economic ambition. The folly of the former and the unlikelihood of the other and the fact that the west seemed to be the one that is there to help us out initiated a difference in thought. We flirted with west until we could no longer tolerate their constant warnings and pleas on human rights and political issues. We continued dreaming of building a middle class economy based on rural development, we veered to the east where China's and India's expansive desires matched our needs for loans, grants and investment.

The rapidly growing Asian countries offer contrasting models both difficult to emulate. China's is an unabashed dictatorship that has successfully challenged the idea that democratic values and economic development go hand in hand. Its persistent problem is the fact that its handling of the two situations is so untenable that in the long run its inability to handle a democratic government structure might destroy all that has been built. That is one reason why the Indian model is considered more tenable; the economy of this equally populous nation is in fact expected to take over China's in a few decades. And ours, they call it a revolutionary democratic developmental state propelling Ethiopia towards becoming a middle income country- that is on paper.

The wide spread poverty in Ethiopia is so deep rooted that whatever development might have been achieved will take time to make a visible impact. The way it is now if the country gains it seem we have the EPRDF class to thank; if the country loses we still will thank the EPRDF class because they say they will handle the problem efficiently.

I once asked a church going person why the church was not declaring a fasting and prayer period-what we at the Orthodox Church call egzota- for the country, at least for the economic problem. The answer surprised me. "The government has ordered that there should be no such prayer period." "Excuse me!" "Yes. The government is said to have told the church that the egzota is a prayer that is to be conducted when things are out of control. It said that the government is at the time handling all problems appropriately, so there is no room for such prayer, causing a popular panic." I have always wondered how we absorbed everything so quietly. In the face of the daunting problem of "the rise in cost of getting by" we remained silent. And I wondered if I probably were one of the many folks who are missing the fact that we are better off now than we were before.

But may be it is also that raising our voices is not something we (our fathers and forefathers included) have been encouraged to do. May be somebody should do a count of how many times Ethiopians have made their voices heard during the past 100 years. They will not be many instances.