Ethiopia: Building a Culture of Democracy and Press Freedom - a Long and Complex Process

As we observe Freedom of the Press day this week, it would be relevant to share some reflections on how democracy and press freedom are intertwined and how deficit in one area is reflected in the other, and this interdependence is facing the test of time as we face election 2021 in Ethiopia. It would also be convenient to point at the fact that both freedom of the press and democratic elections are predicated on a culture of democracy that evolve through many decades and endure the test of time.

Basically speaking, why Ethiopia has so far achieved neither the one nor the other may be related to the fact that it has not built a democratic culture either imported from abroad or its own home-grown brand based on its history, traditions and cultures. It would also be necessary to indicate to the bitter reality that democracy and press freedom have a better chance of success in countries where a solid democratic culture is established and exercised while its chance of survival is diminished or ruled out in countries where such a culture is non-existent.

In fact, if there is a most used and abused lexicon of political science, it is obviously the term democracy which is dear to the hearts and minds of millions if not billions of people around the world while it is abused by an equal number of people. Hardly a day passes without democracy being mentioned in the media, in political meetings, in media reports or in the program of so many political parties.

All government around the world loudly proclaim their commitment to democracy although only a few of them have si far succeeded to live up to this promise. It has become an established practice to judge the political system of countries on the basis of their adherence to democratic principles and practices. Many think tanks have been established around the world to monitor the pace of democratic change in countries and categorize them into two groups as countries with authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, democratic or semi-democratic , or political systems in transition.

As we said above Ethiopia has not yet established a solid foundation for democratic culture and democratic governance. The process requires decades of sustainable efforts and systematic adherence to the universal principles popular vote and popular legitimacy. By the same token, Ethiopia's tradition of press freedom is still fragile and not predicated on a democratic culture of tolerance, equal rights before the law impartiality and independence. For this reason and other reasons, the greatest challenge facing Ethiopian intellectual elites at this juncture is to be able to learn from their past mistakes, adopt a more tolerant frame of mind and abandon the usual zero sum politics in which all parties lost in the bargain.

Democracy is also one of the most misunderstood and misconceived ideas in political literature and practice. Even the most successful democratic systems in the world such as those in the United States and Europe still have serious issues with democracy hundreds of years after they proclaimed democratic regimes. The United States has been toying with the idea of democracy and its practical implications for the last two hundred years and the job is not yet finished. Democracy in America has sometimes been used and most often abused and even threatened with reversals.

As early as last year, American democracy was threatened with the authoritarian behaviors and ideas of the Trump administration that often displayed fascistic tendencies and the emergence of a one-man authoritarian regime disguised as democracy. What saved the US from slipping into a new kind of right wing dictatorship is the fact that the system is well-anchored and well-institutionalized so much so no one person however powerful can shake it off, less demolish it with nationalistic or America First rhetoric. The test of a democracy is in fact its ability to withstand the stresses and strains of electoral politics and survive crises born of right wing nationalistic and fascistic tendencies.

Most of all, democracy in the West could survive simply because it has well-entrenched or institutionalized thanks to the existence of independent democratic structures that function irrespective of who is at the top as president or Prime Minister. British democracy has proved strong and irreversible simply because the democratic institutions, such as parliament, the bureaucracy, the army and the media function independently and in accordance with established laws, and rules and procedures that developed for many centuries. As a corollary to this, Western democracies have developed and survived many crises because of the prevailing systems of separation of powers, and rule of law. They have established a democratic political culture.

Political culture, like any aspect of culture develops through time after being tested by history and practical politics. The existence or absence of political culture is what makes the difference between and among countries that have built a vibrant and functioning democratic culture and those that have failed to establish such a system. By the same token, democratic elections are relatively easier to carry out in countries where the democratic culture is developed than in countries where democratic culture is less developed or is totally absent.

For many centuries, Ethiopian political culture was dominated by autocratic political systems based on the absolute authority of kings and military tyrants until a democratic revolution terminated this long and agonizing period in recent Ethiopian history. Some forty years ago, in 1974 to be more exact, Ethiopia experienced a democratic revolution that demanded land to the tiller, freedom of speech, the rights of assembly and organization. Unfortunately the democratic openings that emerged following the revolution were quickly snuffed and an authoritarian system came into existence lasting for 17 years.

Again in 1991, another opportunity for democracy was opened up as the Derg regime was toppled and the EPRDF came to power promising to establish a democratic system of government whereby power would only be captured only through genuinely democratic elections. This promise was unfulfilled as the new system returned to the old autocratic practices in the guise of democracy and the rest is history.

Back in 2005, the EPRDF again held elections promising a fair, inclusive, honest in accordance with universal standards and practices. Yet again, 2005 proved an electoral fiasco and what followed was a regime that was ever more determined to preserve its privileges at any cost. The abortion of democracy was indeed painful. And we had to wait 13 years before the people were fed up of such a system and decided to get rid of it. Another opportunity for democratic election and democratic governance was born again in 2018 and is still uner going serious tests.

Since 1974, the country has gone through two revolutions and a reform program that was launched three years ago. Despite these changes Ethiopia has not been able to build a democratic political system based on universal principles. It has not guaranteed a genuine freedom of the press in practice although the constitution stipulate these rights.

Why is Ethiopia has not lived up to those lofty promises that only remained empty promises for almost half a century? The answer or answers to this question may be complex. There can hardly be a simple answer to the question because the political process that has led to the present impasse has many variables that need to be analyzed objectively and honestly. Democracy is not only about power. It is mainly about building a new political culture. Ethiopia has not yet achieved this in 50 years of political upheavals.

First and foremost, democracy was little understood and less practiced in Ethiopia after the revolution. Democracy meant so many things to so many people and there was no consensus as the ultimate objectives of democracy in the Ethiopian context. We lost precious time and historic opportunities by wrestling with Marxist-Leninist ideology which was not only a non-Ethiopian viewpoint but was also wrongly conceived as a weapon of destruction of the old system without a clear strategy as how to build a new one.

Poor reading of the idea of democracy and the absence of creative application of the concept sometimes led to bitter arguments among the intellectual elites that ultimately led to armed confrontations and mutual extermination. Democracy needs dialogue, tolerance, humility and a long process of debate and intellectual maturity to bear the desired results. The Ethiopian leftist politicians of the 1970s and post-1970s lacked the experience, the vision and the intelligence to properly and creatively understand or articulate an authentically Ethiopian democratic vision.

Those who came to power after the revolution used democracy as a smokescreen while in practice they resorted to authoritarian rule whether under the Derg or under the EPRDF. Pseudo-democratic elections were used as a means of legitimizing their rules and retain their powers forever. They had no patience or commitment to educate the people in the school of democracy so that they could take part in election as informed voters who have clear ideas as to the real stakes. The intellectuals in the opposition spent all their times generating opposing views and not enlightening alternatives as a result of which voters are often duped at elections.

Most of all, the intellectual elites had failed to generate alternative ideas that could take into consideration the objective political realities of the country in order to developed democratic ideas based that are in tune with the needs and aspirations of the people. They did not take traditional democratic practices into consideration in order to develop a home-grown ideological alternatives. They stuck to old notions of democracy that looked either to the West or to the East.

Consequently, the battle of ideas took mistaken directions. Instead of patience, knowledge or learning, what took the upper hands were anger, hate, mutual recrimination and political vendetta that quickly degenerated into an all out war against one another. Lately, the introduction of ethnic elements into politics further exacerbated the struggle for power and led the people into a political impasse. The cleavage between the interests of intellectual elites and those of the masses widened and chaos reigned in the marketplace of ideas. What we are now witnessing is the combined outcome of the mistakes and misconceptions that were not rectified in time before they assumed such a grotesque proportion.

Freedom of the press like democracy needs time to mature and become functional. There were good beginnings during all those years of revolutionary changes. Yet the windows of opportunity for press freedom were quickly closed and old ideas and practices returned with vengeance. The Russians built their political culture on the 1905 democratic revolution. The Chinese based their brand of democracy on the what they call the May 4th movement of 1924. Latin American countries had also their moments of democratic culture on which they based their democratic systems that were fragile while they proved more or less sustainable. Africa was at a disadvantage. Colonial powers shaped the nature of African democracy by putting it in their own mould that did not fit well into the African body politic.

Ethiopia is still wrangling with the idea or practice of democracy and democratic culture simply because the country wasted so much time and energy on irrelevant issues such as the struggle between the political Left and Right and Marxist-Leninist ideology that are completely out of the mark, leading to catastrophic results. It has so far squandered four or five opportunities for laying the real foundations for a functioning political culture. Fortunately, it is now facing another opportunity for correcting the wrong ideas and policies of the past. It should not squander the opportunity this time because the consequences might be too dangerous to ignore.

Ethiopia has waited fifty years to reach the present stage. It cannot obviously weight another half century to make democracy both a culture and a tool of governance. We have what it takes to start building a democratic culture. What we lack is the will and patience as well as the tolerance to work together to reach this lofty national ideal for which the nation and its people fought and suffered for half a century.


The Ethiopia Herald May 14/2021

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