Liberal Democracy – the “Mere Myth” of Ethiopian Elites

Six weeks ago, in an interview with Reuters, Hr. Girma Seifu (the sole opposition MP) lambasted EPRDF alleging that it follows suit to the China’s model in a bid to drag swathes of the Ethiopian people out of poverty by 2025. He claimed that, I quote “…the Chinese model is that economic development is the primary issue, don’t ask about human right issues, don’t ask about your freedom, keeping silent on people’s rights so that a few politicians get the economic benefits.” Likewise, these are the exact claims that were made during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing. The Chinese government condemned the protest as a “counterrevolutionary riots” in a comparable tone with the “anti-peace, anti-development,” which, often, used by EPRDF to categorical condemn opposition groups.

It seems clear that the ruling party, EPRDF is following the Chinese model by prioritizing economic development over democratic and human rights. The success of China during the last two decades justifies the primacy of economic development over democratic and human rights, contradicting claims against the model. The challenge from within was dealt by purging prominent figures like Zhao Ziyang, the third Premier of China (1980-1987) and General Secretary of the Communist Party (1987-1989), who believed that economic progress inextricably linked to democratization. Thus, the experience of china affirms that the pursuit of human rights issues, freedom and other democratic rights are consequential to (or at least, come alongside with) the economic development of the nation.

Since EPRDF took power, for the last two decades, contentions like by Hr. Girma Seifu were/are archetypical to all opposition groups in Ethiopia, which are similar to the one made by the 1989’s Tiananmen Square protesters. Nonetheless, it took less than a decade for the prominent Tiananmen protestors to turn pragmatic and question the wisdom of democratic reform. For instance, it was just in 1996 when two authors who claimed to be protested in Tiananmen Square published a book that gripped the nation: China Can Say No, which urged readers to turn inward and reject the Western construct of democratic reform1. During this time, those who stagnate on the old way of seeing things were regarded as mavericks.2

Often, it astounds me that the vast majority of Ethiopian political elites, particularly the Diasporas are akin to the Tiananmen Square’s “Mavericks,” who are blind to see the existing reality in the country. I bluntly say that the “epistemological crisis” that victimized the educational system as well as political system of the nation significantly contributed for our political elites to be blind folded from the existing reality; to be pragmatic and reject the Western construct of democratic reform.

For Ethiopia to be a democratic state, it must be developed at the bare minimum. History has shown us that democracy has developed only where the dangers and difficulties of human life are reduced to a certain minimum.3 Underdeveloped countries often strive to maintain a democratic system which almost all of them obtain it once their economy is developed. Literally, democracy is the result of a successful development – predominantly, the economic development. Therefore, it is reasonable for EPRDF following suit to the China’s model and the archetypical outcry of democracy by people like Hr. Girma Seifu, and the opposition groups in general is just a myth.

The liberal democracy of the west is not desirable unless it’s achievable. EPRDF’s pragmatic approach in following the Chinese model is amazingly defined by Meles Zenawi. “Pragmatism as I understand it is different from what we are trying to achieve. Pragmatism is going after what is achievable, not what is desirable. We are going after the desirable, but to us the desirable is desirable because it is achievable.”

Seyoum Teshome
1 Mara Hvistendahi (2009), The Great Forgetting: 20 years after Tiananmen Square,
2 Kang Zhengguo (2007), Confessions: An Innocent life in Communist China
3 Pears Back (2008), Democracy in America, Penn State University press
4 Aregawi Brehe (2008), A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991)