Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below

Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below

Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below

Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below


Democracy is a concept reflecting European philosophies, struggles and concerns. Many Ethiopian ethnic groups have traditions which may offer more satisfactory and culturally acceptable foundations for a Ssovereignty of the people through time-honored ways of voicing political ideas, ironic observations and vital interests. In line with modern urban life Ethiopians also organize and express their interests in non-governmental organizations, the independent press and advocacy groups representing political and social alternatives. The contributors to this book analyze the democratic potential of these movements and practices, their ability to give a voice to the view from below and their potential contribution to a more genuine participation by the majority of Ethiopians in democratic decision making and bringing the sovereignty of the people a step closer to reality.


As the 1960s dawned, Africa re-entered the world stage resplendent in its colours of independence and loaded with promise and hope. With an array of intellectual leaders of global stature (Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Léopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, to name only four of them), the sky appeared to be the limit to the continent's potential for progress and development. Yet, before the decade was out, the promise and hope had been replaced by despondency and gloom. A series of military coups littered the landscape. In many ways, the giant nation Nigeria epitomized both the hope and the gloom. Home of a rich and variegated culture, its very diversity appeared to spell its doom as it was locked in one of the bloodiest civil wars the world has ever known. Thereafter, for something like three decades, military rule of various hues and colours appeared to be its prescribed fate. Elsewhere in Africa, too, dictatorship of one kind or another was the norm rather than the exception. This ranged from the atavistic empire of Bokassa of the Central African Republic, the murderous regime of Idi Amin of Uganda and the proverbially venal order of Mobutu of Zaire to the totalitarian dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia.

A “wind of change” started blowing on the African continent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As the Cold War came to an end, most of the authoritarian regimes lost the external props that had sustained them. The East could no longer bail out the dictatorships with “socialist” pretensions. The West no longer saw the need to prop up corrupt and dictatorial regimes as bulwarks of anti-communism. At the same time, a movement from below (whether in the form of urban mass movements or rural guerrilla warfare) rendered dictatorial regimes into untenable propositions. Battered from inside and shunned from outside, these dictatorial regimes collapsed one after another like a row of dominoes (Hyslop, 1999: 1-3). “Democratisation” became the rallying cry that united internal campaigners for political liberalization as well as external donors.

Yet, how exactly that “democratisation” is to be achieved has been the great challenge of the past decade. There is far from consensus on that point. Drawing on Western models, multi-partyism, along with the interlinked institution of parliamentary democracy, has been a generally preferred medium. But, the experience of quite a few countries has revealed that those two institutions do not necessarily guarantee democratic governance. In other words, one-party rule could flourish beneath the façade of multi-party politics and a parliamentary system. Partly in reaction to this, Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Uganda, which had toppled the dictatorial regime of Obote II, has openly eschewed the hallowed principle of multi-party democracy and opted instead for fostering plurality of views within the Movement (Bazaara 2000: 4-5). This procedure has earned it the label of “movementocracy” from some of its critics.

A slightly more innovative approach to democratisation has been the fostering of civil society organizations and the guaranteeing of human rights. The West has come to make these two developments important conditionalities for financial support as well as for certification of good governance. Partly induced by this external . . .

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