There were some false starts at democracy in Ethiopia – let us make it real this time round!

There were some false starts at democracy in Ethiopia – let us make it real this time round!

By Taha Abdi, founder member of the OLF and former member of its executive committee
February 20, 2020


Change and continuity in Ethiopia:

There is a chain of events that we are living through in Ethiopia with echoes in the past, bringing to mind the wise words of Cicero, Roman Orator, 46 BC: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.”

It has been nearly two years since TPLF stood down from the EPRDF four-party coalition government. The TPLF led EPRDF government was of course in power nearly three decades. The regime succumbed in the face of massive unarmed popular rising of Oromo Protest and withdrew to its home base of “fortress Tigray”.  The popular rising was spearheaded in the main by Qeerroo (Oromo Youth) and their Faannoo, Zerma, and other allies, with Qeerroo paying the heaviest price in thousands of lives. The sacrifices inspired and spurred into action some patriotic members within the TPLF sponsored OPDO bringing to the fore a courageous few known as “team Lemma”, which helped ensure the TPLF chastening retreat. This triumph compelled the emergence of OPDO as the leading corps among the four outfits (TPLF, OPDO/ODP, APDM/ADP & SENNP) that constituted the EPRDF with the new OPDO/EPRDF leader refreshingly apologizing for the mayhem of state terrorism of the EPRDF regime. He in the same breath pledged to uphold the existing constitution and supremacy of the law, strengthen democratic institutions and put the country on a new development path. As a result, on the positive side, political prisoners were set free, freedom of expression upheld and all political parties allowed to openly and peacefully conduct their political activities. This is celebrated as a real “spring of freedom” in the history of modern Ethiopia. The situation contrasts the brief interlude of freedom of expression for major political players between the demise of Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime and the ascendance of the military regime, the Derg. A partial exception now would be the treatment being meted out to Oromo parties including the Oromo Liberation Front, which once again has thousands of its members and supporters in detention without due process of law.

In parallel developments, it dawned that the new OPDO leader felt a need to rename the organization Oromo Democratic Party, ODP, a name it quickly shed yet again in order to join forces with several other parties to form another entity dubbed the Prosperity Party, PP. In the process, the once esteemed and trusted “team Lemma” slowly but systematically sidelined, which did not go down well particularly in Oromia. The prime minister and leader of the former OPDO/ODP now part of PP emerged as the supreme leader in the political sky previously dominated by the now outdated TPLF/EPRDF. His position has since been further enhanced when he won the Nobel Peace Prize 2019 due to his role in ending the 20 year-long state of “no war no peace” between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the circumstances, as things stand now, the PP leader and prime minister, similar to his illustrious antecedents particularly Emperor Haile Selassie and the late PM Mr. Meles Zenawi, now seem somewhat more popular outside the country than inside the country.

Many suggest the trend is partly down to his personal upbringing and convictions (to which he is fully entitled) and partly due to his willful partnership with aficionados of the imperial legacy who still dominate the federal and many regional bureaucracies and other public and private institutions. Some observers argue that these count among reasons why, contrary to his initial promises to uphold the constitution, the PM took time and again to loudly sing and exhibit the glories of “imperial Ethiopia” and appear disinclined to demonstrate tangible sensitivities about the history of the sacrifices of Oromo and other Ethiopian peoples for liberty and democracy, and without making even passing reference to the issues for which thousands of Qeerroo put their lives on the line. His principal associates, allegedly his “new-found” friends after parting company with “team Lemma” appear unabashedly nostalgic of the system before the changes that took root in 1991, the historic event which set the country on multinational federal path. The outcome is intrinsically reflected in the current constitution, even if that constitution was ignored by the TPLF kleptocratic lot. True, on rare occasions, the prime minister and some of his PP associates have stated that they respect the constitution and are in no way pose a threat to or out to weaken the existing multinational federal set up.  However, the mere suspicion about their abhorrence of constitutional provisions that empower the difference peoples of Ethiopia and their ostensible threat of undermining the current multinational federal structure in favor of some sort of whimsical “geographic federation” of their dream is very worrying, to say the least. Hence, it would be worthwhile to draw the attention of the principal power elites a few relevant episodes from Ethiopia’s own modern political experience for them to ponder and to rethink their position and join forces committed to transform the unwieldy and convoluted multinational empire into a new multinational federal state. With this in mind, we now turn to share with the all interested parties: a) some missed opportunities to democratize the country and b) the imperial mockery of political fairness, justice and equality, when some sort of parliamentary electoral process was previously put into practice.

Missed opportunities:

For reasons we need not go into now, the first serious suggestion in Ethiopia at grassroots democratization happen to be at the behest of UN. This occurred some 5 or 6 years after the 1960 G.C. Mengistu & Germamé Neway coup d’etat against the government of Emperor Haile Selassie. Those were the days of the Cold War when the world was divided into competing camps of East and West with the non-aligned forces inhabiting the neutral political sphere between the two blocs. While the government of the emperor was firmly in the Western camp, clever diplomacy maintained good relations with and attained material and moral support from the Eastern bloc as well, particularly the USSR. In addition, smart diplomatic footwork found Haile Selassie’s empire a noticeable spot among the non-aligned movement. It however dawned that it was the “friendlier” Western powers who were worried about the precarious future of their protégé due to the country’s backward and stunted political institutions. Hence, they advised the imperial regime to institute democratic governance starting at local district or awraja levels. It was through the UN that necessary resources and expertise provided in order to carry out the program. Accordingly, the emperor issued the 1966 Awraja Administration Order – a law that meant to effect district council election of about 24 individuals by universal adult suffrage. It was provided that three names of the 24 elected councilors would be submitted to the emperor, so he would appoint one of them district administrator. The advice and funds to carry the recommendation through was duly offered and received but in the end the project quietly consigned into the long grass.[1] Obviously, the imperial regime was simply not ready for change and not in the slightest interested in instating democratic processes in the country. Actually, perhaps unknown to the UN and other supporters, the ruling elites were as far as can be from introducing political modernity and democratic practices. They were actually hard at work undermining traces of democratic elements in one corner of the empire, namely Eritrea, where under international guidance democratic governance has already been introduced and being practiced.

At the end of the WWII when the fate of the Italian colonies in Africa was being considered by the UN, the imperial government laid claim to Eritrea and with US support, that country was federated with Ethiopia. The UN body entrusted with the task drafted a democratic constitution complete with three-way division of power, i.e. judiciary, legislative and executive branches. That constitution also guaranteed supremacy of the law and basic political and human rights. It also provided for independence of judiciary, free press, labor movement, free press and a multiparty system. The official languages and ones taught in school were Tigrinya and Arabic.

It would be no exaggeration to state that the emperor’s regime dreaded the democratic exercise and liberal political climate in Eritrea lest the practice set precedent and modern political thoughts took root throughout the whole empire. Such a development would indeed diminish the dignity and prerogative of the emperor who claimed divine right to govern and it would reduce the power and privileges of the neftenya governing class, which upheld and fostered his outmoded, discriminatory and assimilationist policies. In the end, the emperor and his minions set to dismantle Eritrea’s autonomy. They succeeded in tearing down to pieces the Ethiopia-Eritrea federal exercise in 1960 through corruption, by playing different interest groups against one another and through naked harassment and intimidation of local leaders.  And, the rest is history. A tragic part of that history is thirty years of war between Eritrean liberation forces and the government of Ethiopia which dissipated immense human and material resources but, in the end, utterly failed to prevent Eritrea’s independence. It is in the interest of all interested parties that, the current power elites learn from this disastrous experience and cease and desist tampering with the constitutional settlement since 1991. They should practice tolerance, understanding and cooperation and keep in perspective the interest of peace, equality, justice and above all the very continuity of the country.

Discriminatory parliamentary election exercise:

There were parliamentary elections in the past under successive regimes, i.e. the imperial regime, the military regime called the Derg and the EPRDF regime which continues, minus the TPLF, under a new name of PP. In the interest of brevity, relative to the practice under the imperial regime, the experience under succeeding Derg and EPRDF are not worth calling electoral exercises. This is so because people got “elected” sometimes without ever visiting the constituency they were assigned to represent by the ruling party, and without ever meeting their competitors or, even more significantly, without ever meeting any of their constituents, i.e. the people they are supposed to represent in parliament.  In this context the election to the imperial parliament with warts and all is, at least procedurally, better than the other two.

Similar to the Oromo Protest of three or four years prior to 2018 changes, in the early Seventies, there was an extended mass protest put up by various sectors of the society leading to the demise of imperial regime. The risings dubbed by some writers as the creeping revolution. It compelled the regime to allow the constitution of 1955 to be revised and updated. There was so much hope that the exercise would lead to a democratic transition. Different interest groups endeavored to contribute to what was hoped to be a fundamental law, constitution, to guide the future of the country. On the whole, it was envisaged that absolutism would be replaced by a constitutional monarchy, separation of power into legislative, judiciary and executive, separation of religion and government, parliamentary democracy, liberal/mixed economy, respect for basic human rights, independent judiciary, etc. it was during this period, as part of preparing for representation to the constitutional commission that, Finfinne based Oromo activists commissioned a study into the existing parliamentary electoral practices. The study exposed a horribly outrageous parliamentary malpractice, outright discrimination against specific communities while favouring others, a horrendous imperial policy and typical divide and rule practices.

The study was prepared in Amharic which we hope will be published separately. It was prepared by a committee consisting of distinguished lawyers and various other professionals. The study revealed that the imperial system divided the people of the empire into distinctive categories, some with more rights than others. The stark differences meant, votes of certain categories of the people of the empire was worth more than twice those of others.

Here are some of the stark truths about that process. Under the electoral law in force at the time, a constituency of 200,00 population would be represented in the lower chamber of parliament, the house of representatives, by two deputies (one deputy per 100,000 population). Official census shows that, the six districts of northern Showa, namely Merhabete, Tegulet, Bulga, Menze, Gishe, Yifat and Timuga, had the population of 773, 4000 in 1992 E.C.  This means the six districts would constitute four electoral constituencies and they would be entitled to elect eight deputies to the lower chamber of parliament. In flagrant violation of that law, the electoral authorities created out of the same six districts eight electoral constituencies namely, Mamamidr, Qewata & Maafud, Efrata & Gishe, Geramidr, Deneba, Debre Birhan, Erqee & Furse and Merhabete, with each electing two deputies. This allowed the six districts to be represented in parliament by 16 deputies. Let us compare the remaining seven districts of Showa governorate-general as it was called then, namely, Hayqoch & Butajira, Menagesha, Selale, Kembata, Yerer & Kereyu, Jibat & Metcha, and Chebo & Gurage, which according to official government figures have a total population of 3, 353, 300. These were allowed just 16 representatives. Note that, if one were to apply the formula used for the six districts of northern Showa they would have been entitled to 64 representatives. It is staggering how the electoral authorities manipulated the system to discriminate among peoples of Ethiopia on basis of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious differences.

Similarly, Arssi governorate-general with a population of 850, 800 was allowed just 6 representatives. And, even then, at the most, only half of the number would be allowed to come from member of non-Amharic speaking majority local community.[2] The study also revealed that Hararghe governorate-general with 2, 440, 100 population was represented by 21 deputies while Begemdir, with a population of 604, 300, about a quarter of that of Hararghe, was allowed to have 25 deputies in the house of representatives. In view of this scandalous malpractice, it is little wonder that Ethiopia was dubbed prison cell of nationalities and hence the call for self-determination of peoples. Who can deny the abject discrimination rank among major causes for the numerous national liberation movements and armed resistances that continued up to 1991, when the issue of people’s rights was at least theoretically enshrined in the basic law of the failed transitional arrangement, which heavily impacted on the TPLF sponsored current constitution.  EPRDF non-implementation of the constitution including its undermining the federal structure enshrined in the constitution all but ensured the continuity of the armed resistance and call for self-determination up till the events of 2018, the consequences of which we are living through at the present.


It is worrying in the extreme that the changes started in first quarter of 2018 face any real or supposed danger of derailment, the consequences of which can prove very costly. The false starts at democratization and revelations about abuses in the form of discriminatory practices of the past are something to reflect on particularly by those with superficial grasp on the real history of the empire and the decades of struggles of the peoples of Ethiopia for self-determination, equality and democratic rights. One is tempted to ask what on earth those excessively enthralled by “imperial grandeur” and unabashedly praising the hegemonic rulers make of these experiences that propelled scores of peoples on the receiving end to take up arms to express their discontent and try to put things right. It is indeed astounding that some of the current leaders holding high offices of state are brazenly outspoken blaming the victims not the perpetrators of those injustices. It is something to ponder and learn from at this hour when the country is undergoing changes and preparing for elections.  It is something to learn from when the threat of the country falling once again under authoritarian rule with the backing of minority interest groups is casting a gloomy shadow over the political horizon. We hope those with distorted and self-centered interpretation of the country’s history and the history of the struggle of Oromo and other Ethiopian peoples for equality, democracy and peace should wake up to realize why the “old Ethiopia” of their fantasies failed and will fail again, and why the new Ethiopia, a country where peoples’ right to self-determination is respected, multinational federation implemented, and where law is supreme and leaders are elected, not cherry-picked, self-anointed or fueled by messianic dreams, and they are there to listen to and serve the people who elected them.

For the “children of the empire” whose antecedents used and abused the subject population like every day chattels, they need wake up from daydreams of resurrecting the empire in old or new form as that is no longer feasible in this day and age. They would do themselves and the country a great favor if they reconcile themselves with reality, integrate and respect the culture and law of where they are born and or wish to live. The same goes for converts from among members of the formerly scorned communities some of whom seem to be “more Catholic than the Pope”.

Finally, as Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “great empires die of indigestion.” So is the fate of the Ethiopian Empire, a chronic nostalgia that some find hard to lay off. It is however important that everyone come to terms with the fact that the empire is dead and stop making the funeral more expensive than it should be. In its place, let this generation build a new Ethiopia in which basic human rights are respected and every one of its peoples have full say over their own economic, social and political affairs, and participate in the central government on fair, equal and balanced basis. That is among high aspirations of the famous Ethiopian student movement of the previous century which preceded the lofty call for freedom, equality, peace, democracy and self-determination. These are the very principles for which thousands of unarmed Qeerroo and others confronted tanks and paid the ultimate price with their precious lives. It would indeed be foolhardy not to take note that the acquiescence of the 1970s that led to Derg’s seventeen-year military dictatorship and that of early 1990s which allowed TPLF oligarchy to flourish cannot be counted on today.  We trust that the sacrifices and continued wakefulness of Qeerroo and their allies have put such eventuality to eternal rest. Let everyone focus on making the forthcoming elections fair and free which will be a prelude to a democratic and peaceful country that most compatriots envisage, and which can and should be a foremost guarantor for wholesome growth and prosperity that benefit everyone. //

[1] The author learned first-hand about the project when, as student in 1969/70, he worked as translator and assistant for one of the UN experts.
[2] Other studies confirm that, during the period under consideration, among population groups neighboring the Oromo, none of their members were ever elected to parliament as constituencies in their home areas were forced to send individuals who do not know and have no respect for local language and custom and do not in any way reflect the local people’s interests

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.