Sovereignty vs democracy

By Solomon Terfa (Ph.D.) / November 12, 2007
In the last few months, there has been a vociferous call for democracy in Ethiopia. This call for democracy seems to give the impression that democracy is what will cure the problems that exist in the country. The denial of democratic rights by the authoritarian regime seems to have relegated the right of the people as the repository of power to a secondary importance. “Popular sovereignty” of the people has been downgraded and or shelved. In this short paper I argue that the paramount demand of the Ethiopian people should be their right to sovereignty. Towards that end, a short historical and theoretical survey is in order.

Since the fifth century, before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Greeks have tried to explore the meaning of democracy. They had tried to democratically govern and administer their societies. They had no compunction about characterizing their government democratic when in fact slavery was legitimate and that women were not allowed to participate in the democratic process.

Plato’s Republic is about the ideal society. Since he did not believe that the citizens were enlightened enough to govern themselves, he advocated for the philosopher King. The King is assumed to have the interest of the people at heart.

Not until the coming of political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau that sovereignty was advocated. (Brian Nelson, 1996). During the middle ages, emperors, kings and queens claimed sovereign power. They ruled their subjects by claiming legitimacy derived from God. The logical extension and conclusion of this proposition is that they were accountable only to the Heavenly father, the Almighty God. This meant therefore that political authority was derived from God and resides in the Emperor, the King, and or /the Queen.

Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1679), premature birth was triggered by the impending war between Spain and England that scared his mother to early labor. He also grew up in a political environment that was ridden with war and chaos on the mainland of Europe and his beloved country. It is therefore assumed that his unequivocal support for a rule by an absolute monarch was influenced by the summation of all his experiences. He felt that only an absolute monarch could guarantee peace and order. John Locke (1632-1704), unlike Hobbes, grew up during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that transformed the monarchic political system into a constitutional government.

Thomas Dye argues that Locke’s influence on the fathers of the US Constitution contributed greatly to the establishment of a limited government in the US that will not threaten the natural rights of people, i.e., “life, liberty, and property.” The objective of the constitution was to make the government strong enough to protect those rights but not overwhelmingly strong as to threaten the same. By so doing, the fathers of the Constitution had “empowered the people.” This is unequivocally and unambiguously stated in the preamble to the constitution.

Power resides in the people. Even though these fifty-five (55) authors of the constitution had their own weaknesses and drawbacks such as constitutionally sanctifying and legitimizing slavery, and preventing women and property-less white men from participating in the political process, they had taken very important steps towards making the people the source of political power. There is no doubt that they had laid the foundation for republicanism.

In the same vein Rousseau also had written about popular sovereignty. In his case, however, power resides in the community. Paraphrasing Rousseau’s argument Nelson said:

“….the members of the community will turn over their natural rights to every other individual…the locus of sovereignty remains within the whole community of which each individual is a part…at the same time all share a portion of that power in their capacity as citizens. If, for example, the state is composed of ten thousand citizens…each has…a ten-thousandth part of the sovereign authority, though he is entirely subjected to it.” (Brian Nelson, 231)

From this argument one can conclude that, at least, to John Locke and J.J. Rousseau the concentration of power in one person or one party is detrimental to liberty.

During the drafting of the US Constitution, the population was only four million people of which 20% were blacks. Thomas Dye points out that “…most concede that only about 160,000 people voted in elections for delegates to state ratifying conventions and that not more than 100,000 of these voters favored the adoption of the constitution” (Dye, 2006). It is this document that the Americans are proud of. It has survived for about 220 years with only twenty-seven amendments. Nowhere in the constitution would one find the word democracy. This was not intended to deny democracy’s importance. However, it must be subordinated to the political system of the particular country. It has no political expression outside of the political system. In this connection the phrase “political system”, in political science parlance, is an independent variable and democracy a dependent variable.

What do I mean by this? There is no other way but to explain how and why democracy is subordinated to the political system prevailing at a particular juncture in the political history of a country. For instance, it is a truism to say that Marxists and communists of all complexions claim that their political system does allow or tolerate democracy---proletarian democracy. This therefore is class based and class bound democracy. It is democracy for the proletariat and the peasantry. A democracy that does not have place for what they call the bourgeoisie. The people in counties led by Marxists and communists have very little or no control over the political process. The communist party and the government are in absolute control of every facet of the society and therefore these systems of government are aptly called totalitarian. This system of government is the antithesis of the republican form of government prevailing in most west European countries, the United States, and India. Scholars contend that fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany were twin brothers and replica of the proletarian dictatorship in the former Soviet Union.

“….Lenin showed that a dedicated minority could make a total effort and that institutions and human rights could be subordinated to the needs of a single group---the communist party---and its leader Lenin. Thus he provided a model for a single-party dictatorship and modern totalitarianism, which reached maturity in the 1920s in the Stalinist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.” (John P. Mckey etal, 2000).

In all these societies democracy had to be subordinated to the prevailing socio-economic and political system.

I am indulging in this expansive discussion, perhaps superfluous to some, to make my point that the plea for democracy in Ethiopia divorced from the right of the people to sovereignty is to miss the point. One has to be convinced that the current regime’s political authority is derived from the Ethiopian people and that the Ethiopian people have consented to be ruled, not governed, by it. One has to also be convinced that the Constitution drafted and ratified by the EPRDF and its puppet parties genuinely reflects the dreams and aspiration of the people.

Yes, the regime might have been masquerading as a government whose power has been derived from the people. It is a regime that is composed of people who, based on their policies, pronouncements, and actions have very little knowledge of the functions, responsibilities, and limitations of government. Outside of Marxism-Leninism, and perhaps Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which they cut their political tooth, writings by John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and other social contractors, are alien to them. And so concepts like popular sovereignty, democracy, citizen participation, freedom of speech and press, freedom of dissent, freedom of political organizations, majority rule and minorities right are, they believe, concoctions by their opponents to undermine their hold on power.

They have substituted the dictatorship of the proletariat by the dictatorship of one ethnic group, the class struggle by ethnic struggle, the abolition of private property by amassing private property. The right of nations and nationalities to self-determination including secession is enshrined in their constitution. They have titled their Constitution “The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia”. I have very little doubt that this pretentious title is intended to hoodwink and mollify Western countries and donor institutions. In the case of this Constitution, the devil is not in the detail but in the exercise of it. The reality, however, is that the Constitution is a cover for an authoritarian dictatorship. The regime’s political power base is its military that is unleashed on the Ethiopian people from time to time with the worst coming at the end of the May 2005 election. Ethiopia’s version of the Bill of Rights are contained in Chapter 3 of the Constitution. Almost all of the Articles, from 17 to 32, have been trampled upon by the government time-and-time again particularly in the post 2005 election era. Governments that transgress their own laws and institutions are called “dysfunctional governments”.

I am arguing here that the fundamental question of the Ethiopian people is not democracy but sovereignty. It is not in the nature of the current regime to democratize Ethiopia. It has to be compelled to accept that the Ethiopian people are sovereign and therefore the repository of political power. Remember, if George Bush could have imposed democracy on Saddam Hussein without having to go to war against him he would have done so. But it was clear to him that as long as that authoritarian regime was in power, its political system will not allow the conception, birth and development of democracy in that unfortunate country. The birth and growth of democracy in an authoritarian political system is dependent upon the metamorphosis and/or destruction of that political system. I hasten to add however that democracy in Iraq is an afterthought.

The primary reason for the war was the claim by Bush that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction.

It is also true that the people of the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries attained sovereign right and began to enjoy democracy only after the collapse of communism and the disintegration of their respective totalitarian governments.

This, I have no doubt, would also be the case with the people of Pakistan who find themselves under military dictatorship. Musharraf, after incarcerating his political opposition, suspending the Constitution and declaring a state of emergency is pleading with the American government not to hold him accountable. He said “….Please also do not demand your level of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties which you learned over the centuries. We are trying to learn and we are doing very well also, please give us time.” (CBS news). Mr. Musharraf needs to know that democracy is not some thing that is given to the people by the good will of dictators. Dictators need to know and accept the fact that the people are the ones who are sovereign. As I was writing this, I came to learn that President Bush and other Western allies have started “….to pressure Musharraf to resign as army chief and hold crucial parliamentary elections in January as originally planned…” (USA TODAY) This should herald the beginning of the end of authoritarianism and the start of parliamentary democracy that will empower the people of Pakistan.

At any rate, does not Musharraf’s plea strike a chord with us? Didn’t Meles and Bereket say that “…democracy in Ethiopia is a work in progress” when pressed by foreign news correspondents? The sad truth however is that President Bush and the Western leaders have yet to realize that the Ethiopian people are in the same predicament as the people of Pakistan. In this connection, I should say that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. If another election in Pakistan will restore political power to its legitimate owner, the people, I believe it could also do the same in Ethiopia. Signing HR 2003 into law would no doubt be a commendable step towards that direction.

The writer, Solomon Terfa (PhD), is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Mississippi Valley State University. He can be reached at