The Kinijit split and the birth of democracy

By Maimire Mennasemay / December 23, 2007

Ethiopia was not made in a day; nor democracy. I would like to look at the Kinijit split from a historical and philosophical perspective.

The birth of Kinijit in 2005 was a political earthquake of the like Ethiopia has never known. Its eruption surprised both its enemies and friends. It revealed to all that powerful democratic forces inhabit the interstices of Ethiopian society. And the surprise that is Kinijit is not yet over, for even its internal problems and splits are laying a solid foundation for the emergence, for the first time in the history of Ethiopia, of that indispensable condition without which democracy cannot exist – the public sphere.

In developing my arguments to support this claim, I will take my cues from two contemporary philosophers – the German Junger Habermas and the Canadian Charles Taylor – who have significantly contributed to our understanding of the vital role of the public sphere in the origin and consolidation of democracy. The public sphere, which originated in 18th century Europe, is the locus of discussion potentially engaging everybody in critical debates about issues that concern public matters. It is a space of argumentation, formulation and maturation of opinions, consciously considered as being outside of power. It has thus an extra-political status and carries within itself the notion that it is, in the words of Taylor, “a discourse of reason on and to power rather than by power”. It sustains the idea that power must be supervised and checked by something outside: citizens of diverse horizons, professions and provenance, who, though they do not know each other, converse with each other through the press, radio and other public medias with the goal of scrutinizing, supervising and checking the actions and policies of politicians and of those in power. Has such a public sphere existed in Ethiopia? No. But, thanks to Kinijit, for the first time the seeds of such a sphere have been planted. How so?

Let me step back historically to make the point from an Ethiopian perspective. In the 60’s and 70’s, there was among educated Ethiopians a widely shared consensus that the Imperial regime was oppressive and has to be replaced by a representative government. But the fall of the Imperial regime did not lead to a democratic government, because those who claimed to assume power in the name of the people did not have an already constituted public space that, on the one hand, allowed a peaceful debate regarding the kind of regime that should be instituted and, on the other, acted as an extra-political arena that supervised and checked those pretending to lead. In the name of “democracy”, the differences between the protagonists were settled with bullets rather than with arguments. History repeats itself with the opposition to the Derg. In the absence of a public sphere wherein opinions could be debated, criticized and evaluated, and actions could be commented upon, judged, condemned or approved, political differences became polarized to an extent where the antagonists – civilian organizations claiming to work for the establishment of a democratic regime – gunned each other’s members in broad daylight. What we discover in both cases is that being opposed to an authoritarian regime neither leads to democracy nor makes one a democrat.

Ethiopians are now faced with another authoritarian regime which uses ethnicity for divide and rule. One way of misunderstanding the unexpected emergence of an ethnic based regime is to consider ethnic politics as a return to the past. Ethnic politics is not a return to the past. It is a pathological reaction to decades of exploitation, oppression and homeless modernization that prevented the birth of a public sphere wherein social, political and economic issues could be discussed openly and the causes of unnecessary sufferings aired freely. There was no public opinion to exert pressure to affect the conduct of those in power. Ethnic politics is an effort to compensate for the lack of this kind of public sphere by creating an ethnic sphere where discussion will be limited to kith and kin. But from the perspective of a public sphere, an ethnic sphere is a contradiction in terms, for it is alien to the idea of “a discourse of reason on and to power rather than by power”, because reason cannot be circumscribed by ethnicity, gender or class without loosing the source of its persuasive force: the claim to universality.

It is at this historically crucial moment, with Ethiopia fragmented into ethnic spheres and with no extra-ethnic public sphere, that Kinijit enters our history. Given the lack of a public sphere of the kind indispensable for democracy, the likelihood that, even if Kinijit had acceded to power in 2005, our past experiences of anti-democratic outcomes of opposition to repressive regimes could have repeated themselves could not be discounted. Or, perhaps not. The point here is not to engage in a counter-factual argument and to speculate as to what would have happened if Kinijit had acceded to power. Rather, it is to point out that democracy is not a miracle that happens, but an order that can exist only within certain cultural frameworks, the most important of which is the public sphere. And the great gift of Kinijit to the Ethiopian people is that it has become now the organization through whose travails a public sphere is born, laying the foundation for a durable and vigorous democracy.

For the first time in Ethiopia’s short history of democratic struggles, political differences within the same party were publicly aired and vehemently debated. Those who are pro and anti-Hailu Shawel, pro and anti-Berhanu Nega, pro and anti-Burtukan Mideksa aired their views on the same discussion forums and medias. For the first time, arguments rather bullets were used to score political points. Were some of the arguments outrageous, irrational, flippant, divisive, and dishonest? Sure, they were. Would the debate have been more productive if it were more reflective? Sure, it could. But this is not the point. The point is the passionate participation of so many, with wildly divergent opinions, some of which were well-argued, rational, serious, honest and unifying. We have to disabuse ourselves of the false notion that political debates must always be rational and honest. Politics is the sphere of emotions, interests, ideals, ambitions and power, and inevitably these impinge on the kind of arguments we make. All politics has a “crud” dimension. To try to censure this dimension will undermine the public sphere and, eventually, democracy. To give an example, the public sphere needs both the New York Times and the New York Daily News. We have to meet every argument, however irrational and distorted it might appear to us, with what philosophers call the “principle of charity”. That is, we have to assume that the person who is making the argument is doing so sincerely, until the evidence shows that he or she is not doing so. This evidence arises from the public sphere through counter-arguments and counter-evidence participants offer. What the public sphere does, as a space where public opinion is formed through the clash and struggle of ideas, is precisely sift through these ideas and flush down those that are false and those that do not serve the public interest into the septic tanks of history.

Let me take the example of the petition that was circulating in Addis a few weeks back to illustrate the birth of a public sphere in Ethiopia. The purpose of the petition was to request the leaders of Kinijit to mend their differences and ensure the unity of the party. What is interesting here is the very idea and practice of a petition. Could one imagine a petition campaign in the 1970’s asking the civilian groups who were killing each other to unite, since they all claimed to be socialists and democrats? The very notion of a petition, so widespread in every country where there is a public sphere, signals the birth of a public sphere in Ethiopia where people of various origins and who do not know each other could pool their ideas and convictions and act in a disengaged, rational and non-partisan manner to put pressure on politicians.

We already see the manifestations of the birth of this public sphere in the evolution of the debates surrounding the split of Kinijit. Spirits are calming down. People are stepping back from the various arguments they have made or have confronted and are evaluating them. For the first time in the short Ethiopian history of the struggle for democracy, the members of a political opposition, their supporters and the public at large have used arguments instead of arms to defend their stands and have made possible the birth of an Ethiopian public sphere. This is an achievement whose long-range positive impact on Ethiopian political culture is incalculable, and it will contribute to the erosion of the ethnic spheres so carefully constructed by the Meles regime. It is now the responsibility of all Ethiopians and all Ethiopian media outlets and forum to nourish cultivate and ensure the growth of this invaluable achievement; for where there is no public sphere, there is no democracy.

The ways of history are even more mysterious than the ways of God, runs a 19th century dictum. Kinijit, even in its turmoils, has given Ethiopians something they desperately need to construct democracy – a public sphere. If Kinijit dies, it will be a death with a resurrection announced. We could therefore say: Kinijit is dead! Long live Kinijit.

The writer can be reached at