Debates and the 2010 Ethiopian election

By Teodros Kiros (Ph.D.) / March 18, 2010
Debates are by definition cantankerous, although they should not be. The recent debates were not cantankerous. On the surface, they were smoothly organized.

The first three rounds of the recent debates invite an objective analysis, which I modestly attempt. I will organize my reflection on three foundational debates, (1) Is the ruling regime democratic? (2) Is the ruling regime governing well? And (3) My vision for Ethiopia.

Responding to the question of democracy and governance, EPRDF’s Ato Demeke Mekonnen and Ato Redewan Hussein began the third round of debates by asserting that the ruling regime has put the country on the right path and that its democratic agenda is developing and that there are hurdles and obstacles on the way, but the Opposition does not want to recognize them as it is composed of obstructionists. Ato Mekonen dispassionately reported that the ruling regime has introduced an economic development which has put Ethiopia on a modern Economic path of growth, that it has for the first time enabled nationalities to assert themselves as political beings with rights anchored on good governance as the foundational anchor of political and economic democracy, and that an effort is underway to reconcile individual rights and the rights of nationalities.

(1) All the Opposition candidates, without exception, responded by agreeing that the ruling regime is not democratic. The ruling regime, contended the candidate for EFDHG, uses democratic centralism to crush dissent. For the past eighteen years, contended the candidate, the highly centralized party has promised democracy on paper, and delivered no free speech, no freedom of conscience, and no free press. By irrelevantly using the Haile Selassie Regime and the Derg as examples of oppression, it has been misleading the public by claiming that it has introduced democracy to the Ethiopian people. On the ground, what the Ethiopian people see is one and the same, oppression and the denial of freedom. Films are censored; critical books and journalism are not published. Even the limited political space allotted to the debates is not democratic, when measured by the flagrantly unfair distribution of time given to the candidates.

Medrek’s Dr. Murera, candidate as well us Ato Lidetu (EPD) joined forces and argued that there is no actual practice of democracy, and the amount of democratic space that is given to Opposition parties is carefully measured, and that what we have in Ethiopia is a one party rule, that the ruling party is using a single ideology to recruit and sustain its members, that the party bribes followers and appointes cadres willfully without following democratic rules and that it speaks with two ends of its mouth when on the one hand it tells the peasantry that they are the base of revolutionary democracy and on the other hand considers them unprepared to rule themselves since they are considered illiterate and incompetent.

This point is further reinforced by Ato Asfaw Getachew (ERP) who essentially concluded that there are no established rules of developing genuine political competition among parties with different interests in the country. What we have are uniformed voters who are not even voting for their rational interests.

The remedy to this distorted democracy is Liberal Democracy, concluded EPD’s candidate. Medrek’s Dr. Murera forcefully noted that in so far as the ruling regime continues to control political space for the opposition candidates, does not allow the voters to vote their conscience, does not allow free speech and dissent, will not allow the opposition to win the election by democratic means, does not respect the very laws that it has established, does not expect informed voters to recall oppressive public officials, continues to use confused mixture of socialism and democracy, one could justly conclude that there is no democracy on the ground in contemporary Ethiopia. (2) Is there good governance in Ethiopia. All the candidates of the Opposition responded to this question with a resounding no, while the candidates of the ruling party defended their accomplishments with a characteristic orthodoxy. For Ato Lidetu (EPD) the ruling regime continues to be untransparent, unaccountable, undemocratic in its practices versus its claims, obstructs the judicial system with threats and intimidations, underpays judges and employs 15 years old to judicial positions, sustains unclean and unsafe clinics and prisons, and its officials are largely unethical and dishonest.

Ato Gebru Asrat (ARNA) reinforces the above assessments with his own observations and adds that the ruling regime is dangerously using the political notion of foes and friends and has put the opposition as the foes who must be annihilated, that the regime continues to rob banks, and give lands to ministers and ambassadors, and at the same time live with the famished bodies of 15 million Ethiopian people, that corruption is rampant in the country, and the nations schools have deteriorated from previous standards.

Ato Sasahun Kebede (KINIJIT) blasted the ruling regime by arguing that the ruling party is totally undemocratic as well as a corrupt government which uses ethnicity and tribalism to stay in power, that it specializes in creating conflicts among nationalities and ethnicities, that it rewards its blind followers with undeserved positions thereby sacrificing the National Interest, that it micromanages political space through bribes and incarceration of dissidents, that it is a police state, which uses excessive force to intimidate dissidents. Moreover it is blatantly corrupt and HADSO has not renewed any political culture or developed any new economic ideas. The ruling party is more like a business establishment that a justly organized political system of democratic governance.

(3) If Mederek is to lead Ethiopia its manifesto must be propelled by a powerful vision of Ethiopians as self-empowering moral subjects capable and willing to live Democracy, as clear, creative, courageous beings with transformative ideas, a living function of the fact that human beings are creatures of mind, and that they are capable of constructing themselves as creative beings.

I have argued for this thesis in Self-Construction and the Formation of Human Value: Truth, Language and Desire (Praeger, 1999) that humans are value-creating beings under a democratically infused vision of human beings as power generating beings with ideas.

Indeed, clarity, creativity and courage are precisely the foundations of Living Democracy, as the nerve center of a new Ethiopianity.

Years of systematic brainwashing had taught human beings that they are greedy, selfish, unsocial and competitive. Moreover, they were also taught that democracy is nothing more than voting and participating in the market motivated by the profit motive. Even if these narratives of human nature are not true, it is enough that humans believe in them and practice them, as those who believe will inevitably develop these features by practicing them. As Aristotle has correctly taught that virtues and vices become our living features by practice.

What we call human nature is essentially taught through a repeated practice, which then becomes a habit. Suppose, however, that the same human beings are told and taught that they are cooperative, social, sharing and kind. If they were to consistently practice these virtues, they essentially evolve into possessing them. I urge Ethiopians to internalize living democracy as a practice of New Ethiopianity.

The ruling regime’s revolutionary democracy does not encourage Ethiopians to tap into their creativity, master their courage, conquer their fears and change their conditions, when their miserable everyday life requires it. Instead, courage is overwhelmed by fear, hope is conquered by despair, change is silenced by powerlessness, and transforming the human condition is displaced by resignation.

In direct contrast, living democracy builds on the hidden resources of individuals. Clarity, creativity, courage and internal power, the potential virtues of democratic citizens turn toward life.

New Ethiopianity needs Living democracy with new eyes. We need to begin seeing differently, by engaging our clear, creative, appropriately fearful and internally powerful senses. Living democracy as a way of life, demands that we engage ourselves with life’ challenges in a concrete way.

Change is fundamentally an inner experience, which then spills over the external world. A changed individual can then seek to change the external world. The inner world is a world of fear, impossibility, but also hope and change. Living Democracy is dynamic cycle of hope and fear, fear and hope.

My vision for Ethiopia is New Ethiopianity guided by the principles of living democracy as opposed to the distorted democracy of the ruling regime.

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