The dominant executive in Ethiopia

By Magn Nyang / November 24, 2009
In the Western democracies, such as in the United States, separation of powers involves the division of the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of the policy-making process among separate institutions. These three functions are assigned to the Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court. The Congress makes policy, the president implements policy, and the Court judges the fairness of the application of the general policy. The assumption is that governance functions better if individuals who administer or implement policy are separated from those who make policy.

In Ethiopia, the three functions are performed by one institution, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPRDF) with Meles Zenawi as its executive. This phenomenon constitutes what is called the executive dominance.
 vicious dictator "Ethiopians can never be reconciled to a dictatorship that maintains itself by brute force alone." Prof Al

Let me consider some concrete manifestations of the executive-dominant system in Ethiopia. I regard an independent legislature or parliament as the surest check on the power of the executive. In Ethiopia, the legislature provides virtually no real check on the executive (Meles Zenawi) since the members of the assembly do not represent any independent base of power. The Ethiopian less freely elected legislature is so dominated by a powerful EPRDF (Meles Zenawi) that it has few real powers and is reduced to ratifying decisions made by the executive (Meles Zenawi). The prime minister enjoys such power because his party, the EPRDF, hold 430 of the parliament’s 547 seats. From my latest finding, the combine opposition parties hold only 117 seats. Thus, in no instance can I say that Ethiopia’s legislative assembly is an effective counterweight to the executive branch.

Another indicator of executive dominance in Ethiopia is the degree to which Meles Zenawi manipulates constitution by engaging in electoral irregularities to remain in power beyond the end of his legally prescribed term of office. After first telling the whole country that he is stepping aside for the upcoming 2010 election, he pushed through constitutional amendments to only come back and announce that his party had nominated him again to stay in power until 2014. In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi jails political opponents and holds them for years without trial, closes down newspapers, and suppresses public dissent. He censors the press and jails his opponents for simple acts of dissidence. In all, at least 100,000 dissidents are now sitting in jails and in prisons across Ethiopia.

Executive dominance is also reflected in the relatively high degree of administrative centralization that exists in Ethiopia. Even though, Ethiopia has adopted the federal form of government, which supposes certain political autonomy for provincial or state-level administrative units, in most instances, the autonomy of the lower administrative units is more apparent than real. Meles Zenawi dominates the legislative and judicial branches at the national level, and because of that domination he also dominates local, provincial, and municipal governments. For example, in the last three elections in my own state of Gambella, Meles Zenawi acted forcefully to curtail state power and to remove from office state officials who opposed his policies.

In Ethiopia, provincial administration receives their power and resources from the central government in Addis Ababa. The minister of interior in Addis Ababa, with blessing from Meles Zenawi, appoints, removes, transfers, or even jails the provincial governors (in the case of Okello Nygello of Gambella). These subordinate officials are, consequently, responsible to the interior minister in all they do. All major decisions are referred to the minister. The provincial governors are powerful only in a derivative sense; that is, they have no resources themselves but derive power from carrying out central government decrees.

Under the pretext of federalism, the constitution gives provincial governments authority; however, serious lacks of resources prevent them from taking advantage of this constitutional delegation of power. Intentionally, to keep the central government powerful, all the needed resources are made to reside solidly in Addis Ababa, the home-base of the central government. There is no real provincial self- governance in Ethiopia because it is hampered by a lack of locally obtained and locally expended founds. Therefore, the states in Ethiopia live and breathe at the mercy of the central government in Addis Ababa.

By the virtue of his party’s number of seats in Ethiopian’s parliament, Meles Zenawi became the absolute decider of policies. With 430 parliament’s seats in his disposal, he can push through any policy he sees fit for his party and his stooges without worrying about any challenge from the opposition. As it is, he dominates the three branches of Ethiopian’s government: the executive, legislative, and judicial. He is more than a dictator. He is an absolute monarch.

In a closed meeting which I was part of, I posed a question to Dr. Merera Gudina to tell me how many seats his Oromo National Congress (ONC) got in Ethiopian’s parliament. His answer was “44 seats.” Imagine 44 seats challenging 430 seats! Also, as it stands, Medrek, the coalition of opposition parties led by Merera, have “96 seats.” Can anyone in his/her right mind imagines what kind of challenge Medrek will pose to Meles’ 430 seats no matter how many more seats it gains in May 2010 election? Unless, of course, it gains 300 seats. That way, it will have 396 seats to allow it to formidably challenge Meles Zenawi’s absolute power. If Medrek is not going to gain 300 seats in upcoming election, I suggest that they stay away from the election. Participating in upcoming election will not only be a waste of time and resources, it will also give legitimacy to so called democracy in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is a one-party country. Let the world and the donors know that by staying away from the upcoming 2010 election. We do not need to give Meles Zenawi one more reason to keep deceiving the donors by using his so called democratic election in Ethiopia. We all know that there will not be free election or democracy in Ethiopia as long as there is an Executive Dominance in Ethiopia; that is as long as the same institution (EPRDF) and its chairperson (Meles Zenawi) control the three branches of Ethiopian’s government.

Magn Nyang is a son of Gambella and can be reached at