The West is quick to pigeonhole African leaders as corrupt authoritarians or the “next” Nelson Mandela. Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed epitomizes the complexities of categorizing democratic erosion and democratic consolidation on the continent. Through a closer study of current events in Ethiopia, I argue that we should not always consider democratic erosion and democratic consolidation as mutually exclusive processes.
One year after his 2018 inauguration as prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed had released thousands of political prisoners, lifted bans on opposition parties, ended press censorship, brought record numbers of women into political office, and made peace with Eritrea a decade after a bloody civil war split the countries apart. Capping these radical democratizing reforms, Prime Minister Abiy pledged to hold Ethiopia’s first free and fair elections in May 2020.
Abiy’s reforms covered almost every one of Robert Dahls eight procedural requirements for democracy.[i] In addition to directly strengthening democratic institutions and processes, Abiy championed the philosophy of Medemer, “synergy,” in a country whose “destiny lies in our togetherness.” This rhetoric aimed to strengthen social cohesion—an essential cultural ingredient in successful democratization—in a country with 80 ethnic groups, a federal system overlapping with ethnicity, and a history of violence and exclusion. After a century of monarchy, imperialism, civil war, and dictatorship in Ethiopia, Africa’s second largest country seemed that it may be moving towards a truly remarkable transformation.
Abiy’s rapid reforms and powerful rhetoric captured the international imagination. The outpouring of international praise for Abiy peaked when he was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize just 18 months after first becoming prime minister. The Nobel Committee’s announcement cited Abiy’s “efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation,” including his “reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future.”
The international narrative of Abiy as a visionary democratic leader encouraged greater Western political and economic engagement with Ethiopia. The day after her 2019 inauguration as president of the E.U. Commission, Ursula von der Leyen chose Ethiopia for her first international trip as a “political statement” to demonstrate strong ties with a democratizing African country. Abiy’s political and liberal economic reforms worked together to boost international investment in Ethiopia. From the Western perspective, this increase in international engagement and economic growth may be seen as “rewarding” reform as well as legitimizing Abiy’s agenda at home.
However, a very different reality was unfolding on the ground. Security forces arrested peaceful protestors in Addis Ababa the same week that Abiy accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. A year later, and hundreds of protestors have been killed by security forces, the internet has been shut down repeatedly by the government, and thousands of dissidents have been arrested though a law criminalizing loosely defined hate speech. Most of these violent clashes between protestors and security forces can be traced to mass protests in response to the June 2020 assassination of Oromo singer and cultural icon, Hachalu Hundessa. In May, the government delayed the promised 2020 elections in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In September 2020 alone, the government filed dubious terrorism charges against Jawar Mohammed, Abiy’s main political rival, and the Tigray region held parliamentary elections in defiance of the central government’s order to delay elections. The central government barred journalists from covering the election. Tigrayan officials described the delayed elections as a “power grab” by Prime Minister Abiy; Abiy wrote off the elections as “illegal” and “unconstitutional.”
How does so much change in just one year? Can a country simultaneously democratize and backslide? Should elements of democratic backsliding be seen as unavoidable—even necessary—in radical processes of democratization? Inversely, how are democratic practices used as a tool for stealth authoritarianism?
Democratization and democratic erosion should not always be understood as two discreet, oppositional processes. In Ethiopia, a country with politically entrenched ethnic divides and no history of democratic institutions, democratization was never going to be easy. Particularly on such a rapid, ambitious scale. Particularly at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters—including a drought and a plague of locusts—have threatened the lives and livelihoods of many in the Horn of Africa.
Prime Minister Abiy has framed democratic erosion events during the past months as an inevitability of such rapid change and as a legacy of past authoritarian institutions which he is in the process of dismantling. As he told world leaders during the September 2020 U.N. General Assembly, “we have no illusion that this would be a smooth ride… [however,] we remain committed to the objective of democratization, and we will pursue our reform efforts with all the necessary political commitment.”
While Prime Minister Abiy’s time in office can certainly be interpreted as a process of democratization which has hit some speed bumps, the inverse can also be argued. Ozan Varol highlights the importance of the authoritarian maintaining appearances of democracy and bolstering their domestic and global legitimacy in his examination of stealth authoritarianism.[ii]
Abiy’s government fits Varol’s description of stealth authoritarianism by using democratic legal institutions to justify cracking down on opposition. The arrests of protestors and Jawar Mohammed were justified on the grounds of preventing hate speech and terrorism. This could be argued as a legitimate use of emergency powers in response to sometimes violent protest and discussion of succession.
In addition, Abiy recognizes the importance of maintaining international legitimacy through ongoing democratic backsliding. The international community’s initial outpouring of support—and the economic and political benefits that it brought—bolstered Abiy’s legitimacy. Now, as his democratic credentials are interrogated by those who initially praised him, Abiy is taking the time to explain himself to Western audiences through an op-ed published in The Economist, speeches to the U.N. General Assembly, and the continued use of elegant democratic rhetoric.
Whether you choose to interpret the events over the past two years in Ethiopia in a more pessimistic or a more optimistic light, it is undeniable that the processes of democratization and authoritarian reversion are tightly intertwined in the Ethiopian context. Defining and differentiating these two processes is particularly difficult in countries with recent experiences of imperialism, extreme poverty, and social unrest.
Ozan Varol calls for scholars of democracy to examine regime practices—be they authoritarian or democratic—rather than regime types. This more nuanced approach avoids categorizing regimes—as the West prematurely categorized Abiy by awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize—and allows for natural tensions and variation within processes of democratization and democratic backsliding. Varol’s approach is most appropriate to understand Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopia.
Hopefully Prime Minister Abiy is
true to his word and will champion democratic practices over authoritarian ones.
We shall see.
[i] Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
[ii] Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742.