March 25, 2008

Personalizing State Power in Ethiopia (By Hadaro Arele)

Personalizing State Power in Ethiopia

By Hadaro Arele

18 March, 2008

Throughout the 1990s, the international donor community supported Ethiopia as a country that embarked on a democratic path almost after 2 decades of socialist military rule. The country’s achievement, so it was said, was both economic and political. Economically the ‘new government’ has taken some steps towards liberal and market oriented system. Politically, Zenawi fooled the world with his rhetoric and thus naively labelled progressive leader.

International community invested in the regime’s constitution-making process that led to its adoption in 1995. The constitution theoretically set up a number of democratic rights for its citizens. Defiant of the absence of separation of power between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary, and omission of the duration of the term of office for the Prime Minster, the constitution has taken a reverse track. Ethiopia today is governed under a system of one-man rule engineered by Meles Zenawi, who has now been in power for the last 17 years by suppressing all forms of democratic voice.

The problem is getting worse by the legacy of international donors’ condone because the regime violates its constitution, bans free press, crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, and rigs national election. By pouring in a huge sum to pay for state spending on military apparatus and infrastructure, these donors has helped the regime to consolidate its power and suppresses the opposition. Moreover, the subsidies from donors allow the regime to direct more of its own revenue into expanding its huge patronage schemes, making Zenawi depend increasingly for his political survival on continued financial and diplomatic support from his foreign donors although his regime has continued dishonouring its promises.

Yet there is a ray of hope in this seemingly hopeless situation. The regime’s corruption, violence and vast patronage ate away economic resources. This undermined its ability to function properly in the long term because it destroyed the economic foundations of the regime’s political survival. To date the regime has been saved from this grim prospect by foreign aid donors. If the international donors pulled the plug, the regime could no longer be shielded from the consequence of its own mischief, and would have to bend to democratic pressure.

The regime has established all-round strategy to personalize its power at the expense of the Ethiopian people. The adoption of structural adjustment---liberalization, deregulation, devaluation, and privatization in the 1990s blatantly served the interest of the regime not of the people. It has created surrogate institutions that appeared to represent private sector, but in reality remained subservient to the regime. As Zenawi’s antidemocratic sentiment gathered momentum, the business class has mostly become a bystander and left the struggle for democracy aside. Such oblivious nature of private sector only leads to personalization of power. As a result, the regime has become the largest owner of industries and businesses as well as its biggest employer. Investment is consolidated in the hands of the regime so much so that the best way to get into business and be part of the looting is to deal with the regime itself. Virtually, the praised programs --- liberalization, privatization, devaluation and devolution are all remained on paper without practice. The reality is that public access to basic social services is significantly diminishing; unemployment is rising, inequality is being widened thus making the poor poorer, and the regime richer.

The educated middle class, instead of opposing the regime like other middle class citizens in other parts of the world, has chosen to flee the country, leaving Zenawi largely unopposed as he consolidated his personal rule. Other professionals who remained in the country are integrated into his patronage network. Some others are employed in NGOs, which is highly censored by the regime too.

Why has this been happening? The answer lies in the regime’s use of force and intimidation on the one hand and its manipulation of patronage on the other. Zenawi has always sought to use the army to build his personal political base. He employs violence sparingly and selectively – as a tacit instrument when the political process fails to yield before his requirements or the opposition appears to need whipping into submission. For instance, the regime waged hefty war with Eriteria from 1998 – 2000, which was responsible for about 70,000 lives and wastage of billions of dollars. The same massacres were extended into Oromia, Gambella, Sidama, and sovereign state--Somalia. Furthermore, Zenawi’s success in consolidating his power and stifling democracy emanates from his knack for integrating large chunks of the ‘political’ class into his vast patronage empire. Patronage, typically in the form of government contracts, tenders, and jobs, to bribe business communities, low skilled personnel and bilateral corporations at the expense of the nation.

In an effort to direct the attention of international donors, Zenawi’s government promised to hold a free and fair election with multiparty political competition in 2005. Nonetheless, many international election observers have proved that the opening of multiparty contest was just the icing on the cake. The government had long been engaged in practices both official and unofficial that rendered constitutional guarantees impotent. The election was rigged and manoeuvred by the incumbent party and its cronies, which revealed the true nature of the regime. The point of change was to strengthen the Prime Minister while enfeebling the institutions that might act as a check upon him. The government manoeuvred the election result by such fraudulent means as bribery, blackmail, naked intimidation, and use of excessive forces. With the skids thus greased, the re-election of constituencies filed for supposed irregularity glided through easily, opening the door for the ruling party to hammer aggressively the democratic voices. Election, in Ethiopia - as in most of Africa – are invariably marred by the executive, and the fact that no definite term is fixed in the constitution for the prime Minster’s term of office, the future of democracy looks bleak.

After his attempt to mislead the world community by holding the so-called free and fair election, the regime launched another weapon to divert the world leaders – ‘robust economic growth as proof that poverty is declining in the country because of good governance’. However, the statistics by which indicators of such economic growth derived were far from being credible. In addition to ignoring social and environmental degradation from the equation, the statistics failed to address the long-term problems.

To improve his chance for success, Zenawi also exploited local councils to build its oppressive organizational infrastructure, cajoled leaders from opposition parties to join its own gambling polity. The decentralization of the budget to a district level to a certain degree gave the local officials an economic reason to work for Zenawi although, armed coercion made them fearful of what would happen if they broke with Zenawi’s agenda of power usurpation.

In conclusion, the worst obstacle to democratic development in Ethiopia has been the personalization of state power. The military and economic aids from abroad were used to selectively suppress dissents. The money sluices through a massive patronage machine that Zenawi uses to recruit support, reward loyalty, and buy off actual and potential opponents. In his effort to personalize the state further, Zenawi has skilfully undermined formal institutions of governance, preferring as he does to use highly arbitrary and informal methods of recruiting and rewarding officials. Above all, the absence of clear separation between the branches of government allowed the emergence of a very strong and an out of control executive resulting in such tyrant one-man regime. The way out could be building institutions that democracy requires, reworking the constitution, and then encouraging mass-political participation and unfettered electoral competition. This demands however, backing and stand staunchly with determined political oppositions as they struggle to empower the people, who should be the sovereign authority in Ethiopia, not the elite that came to power by force and is staying on it against their will by force. When elections are held in an institutional wasteland like Ethiopia, say in 2010 political competition typically coalesces around and entrenches the ethnic and sectarian divisions created by Zenawi as usual. The implication is that, not only is the one- man rule legitimized, but also subsequent efforts to democratize the country will be more difficult and more violent than ever.


The author, Hadaro Arele, can be reached at

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