Is Ethiopia Democratic? By Paul B. Henze

A decade of energetic effort by Europeans and Americans to promote democracy throughout the world, especially in countries formerly under communist rule, has brought much success, but it has also resulted in much sobering experience. Few would hesitate to admit that the task has proven more challenging than enthusiasts ten years ago expected it to be.

Well-intentioned efforts have not always produced the expected results. Lessons have been learned both by would-be democrats (leaders committed to building democratic systems) and by democratizers (activists who guide, assist, and pressure them, supported by both governments and private groups).

What is democracy?
A decade ago this question was seldom asked or debated. The main characteristics of Western constitutional systems–liberal constitutions, political parties, periodic elections, the rule of law, press freedom, and the presence of civic institutions free of government control–were assumed to be its essential features. If a state adopted them, it would be democratic. Little thought was given to the dynamic character of democracy. Instead it was looked upon as a steady state that, once reached, needed simply to be maintained.

But democracy is an ongoing process in which individuals and institutions interact in complex ways and with unforeseen and often unforeseeable consequences.

Furthermore, although all the elements listed above are essential features of a functioning democracy, they can operate very differently in parts of the world where societies have evolved in ways unfamiliar to the countries of the North Atlantic. In addition, societies in other parts of the world may have priorities for democratic reform that are different from those of the West.

In the initial rush to democratize, little thought was given to the terrain on which democracy was to be planted or the time required for it to take root. The lessons of both recent and earlier history were often ignored.

Leaders, many of whom succeeded communists, were eager to gain international acceptance as democrats. Some simply “changed clothes” and gave their parties new names; others thought more deeply about creating new, open societies. But most were so eager for international acceptance that they rushed to commit themselves to new constitutions, political parties, elections, and the other trappings of mature democratic systems, not realizing how complex these processes could be.

Organizations providing money and advice lost little time in helping to establish political parties, encouraging independent media, supporting new civic organizations, and training activists. Most of these efforts were centered in capital cities; much less attention was devoted to bottom-up or grassroots activities such as teaching people how to participate in democratic processes, or adapting indigenous democratic procedures and attitudes to modern requirements.

Too often, the foundations on which a dynamic democracy must be built-an educated public, a rational economy, a dependable legal and judicial system, and a flow of pertinent information at all levels of society–were taken for granted, until their absence forced the realization that democracy could not go far without them. Ethiopia’s experience in establishing democracy in the 1990s is enlightening for both would-be democrats and democratizers. In some ways, its present leaders’ efforts to establish democracy have succeeded to a remarkable degree.

The administrative structure of the country has been transformed, and a new form of government–ethnic federalism–has been adopted. The peasants who make up approximately 85 percent of the population have been freed to make their own decisions about which crops to plant and when and where to sell their produce.

In fact, Ethiopia’s new leaders have been conducting one of today’s more dramatic experiments in governance. The process has received little attention because it has been comparatively peaceful.

The conflict that has caught the eye of outside groups monitoring democratic progress in Ethiopia centers mostly around intellectuals in the capital and means little to most of the population.