On April 2nd 2018, Dr. Abiy Ahmed became the 4th Prime Minister of Ethiopia in the midst of growing protests. His inauguration speech sparked a sense of joy and optimism about the future of Ethiopia. He embarked on ambitious reforms that would open the economy and democratize the political landscape. Thousands of political prisoners were released, banned parties were allowed to register and participate in reforms. His determination to democratize Ethiopia was and is admirable but he faced roadblocks because of a missing key ingredient- national cohesion.
National cohesion, a sense of strong national identity among citizens, is an important prerequisite for democratization that is very weak in Ethiopia. Along with national cohesion, the social requisites for democracy, especially education and a conducive political culture as outlined by Lipset are also not fully present. Thus, any endeavor to pursue democratization in an environment where these prerequisites do not exist can lead to a huge disaster from which it is hard to recover, such as the disintegration of a country or even ethnic cleansing. In fact, one could argue that due to the lack of these prerequisites, Dr. Abiy has reverted back to repressive tactics common in authoritarian countries such as internet shutdowns, arresting of journalists, and limiting political organization after protests broke out in June 2020. The necessity or lack thereof for these restrictions is another debate but it goes to show that erosion of democratic qualities occurs when there is no concrete foundation to begin with.
Ethiopia operates under ethnic-based federalism composed of 10 regional states where each regional state has the right to self-govern even to the extent of secession. Meles Zenawi, former prime minister, and architect of this system would argue that Ethiopia survived as a nation because ethnic federalism granted autonomy to various marginalized groups, whereas others would argue that it created a method of “divide-and-rule” that enabled the regime to consolidate power through ethnic division. It is true that ethnic federalism allowed a degree of self-governance that enabled over 80 different ethnic groups the opportunity to use their language and embrace their culture. However, it has also created ethnic polarization fomenting hostility and conflating ethnic with political identity leading to a hyper-ethnicized political discourse.
With this context, Dr. Abiy’s democratization efforts such as restoring civil liberties like freedom of expression, availability of alternative sources of information, freedom to form and join political organizations was much needed, but it laid bare a deeply polarized country with no countermeasures or guidelines to deal with the instability that ensued. Media organizations such as Oromo Media Network (OMN), LTV, and Dimtsi Woyane Television flourished during this time bringing a diversity of thought and discourse that was previously unthinkable. However, some media outlets took advantage of this freedom to disseminate unethical and biased content inciting hatred and undermining the peace and co-existence of different ethnicities within Ethiopia. The blurred lines between fact, opinion, and activism in media outlets is by far the most detrimental aspect of this democratization process that has created a breeding ground for misinformation. This combined with a literacy rate of 52% and a number of unemployed youth provides a ready audience for political mobilization in support of extremist ideologies as hypothesized and proved by Lipset in the case of Egypt.
When mobilized correctly, the youth have played a pivotal role in pushing for democracy, however, the growing use of divisive rhetoric is leading the youth to blindly attack people who don’t share their language or identity. In fact, the Genocide Watch issued a warning to Ethiopia due to an increase in polarization and the number of targetted attacks that are early signs of ethnic cleansing. Following these incidents of ethnically-motivated attacks, the government reverted back to shutting down the internet and arresting political opposition groups to bring some semblance of peace and security. Despite this clear erosion of democratic qualities, the government released a statement assuring their commitment to democracy. Nonetheless, this backsliding can be attributed to swift democratization without the prerequisite of national cohesion and a low literacy rate that is shown to reduce the likelihood of successful democratic transitions.
Furthermore, pursuing democratization in a country with a weak sense of national unity and a system where regional states can self-govern to the extent of secession poses a real threat to the disintegration of Ethiopia. We can see it happening where the northern region of Ethiopia ruled by TPLF conducted elections despite the disapproval of the federal government and are even considering secession. This idea of secession is nothing new, but it is gaining a lot more traction in recent times. Dr. Abiy’s attempt to strengthen national unity through his ideology of “Medemer” or coming together has yet to succeed. His action of dissolving the incumbent party, a coalition of ethnic parties, to create a single pan-Ethiopian party may help promote unity. However, opposition groups viewed the creation of this party as an attempt to reduce the hard-won autonomy of regional states and a way to centralize decision making which may allow Dr. Abiy to consolidate power. Regardless of the intention, “the vast majority of citizens in a democracy-to-be must have no doubt or mental reservations as to which political community they belong to” according to Rustow . In this case, all ethnicities and political elites in Ethiopia must have no reservation about their belonging to Ethiopia while still maintaining and embracing their own ethnic identity and culture in order for democracy to persist.
Moreover, a conducive political culture and participation are requisites that are yet to be fulfilled, and pushing aspects of democratization too soon can further destabilize a country. A prominent Ethiopian poet and author, Tagel Seifu, pointed to a fact about Ethiopians that at a very young age we are raised to think communally, in groups rather than criticizing and having an individual opinion. Although there are multiple benefits to communal or group thinking, it, unfortunately, bleeds into thinking based on one’s ethnicity. As a result, even if there is a free and fair election, people may have a greater inclination to vote based on the ethnicity of the party rather than the ideas and policies proposed. The organization of political parties along ethnic lines further exacerbates this problem as discussions of policies tend to be about how a party brings benefits to a single ethnic group rather than Ethiopia as a whole. Even when Dr. Abiy came to power some people thought because he is Oromo he will treat Oromo people more favorably even though he has rejected this idea. With this environment, “the conflict among different groups which is the lifeblood of democracy may crystallize to the point of societal disintegration” if steps towards reducing ethnic division are not prioritized.
Overall, it is important that Ethiopia democratizes however swift democratic reforms may have grave consequences if the prerequisites for democracy such as national cohesion, a high literacy rate, and conducive political culture are very weak. The case of Ethiopia demonstrates that when the prerequisite of national cohesion is not present, democratization becomes a balancing act of democratic consolidation and democratic erosion. This is a slippery slope that may lead to stealth authoritarianism. But let’s just hope that won’t be the case! Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American Political Science Review 53(1): p. 81.  He, Baogang. 2001. “The National Identity Problem and Democratization: Rustow’s Theory of Sequence.” Government and Opposition 36, no. 1: p. 100
 Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American Political Science Review 53(1): p. 91.
The argument you make here is really interesting to think of now, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive on November 4th to battle forces in the Tigray region loyal to the TPLF. As you analyze in this article, the operative and historical struggle here is how to hold a fragmented country together, and now we are once again seeing the violent conflict arise out of this perpetual issue in Ethiopia. It is interesting to note how the nascent democratic leanings of Abiy, despite some of the contradictions you note in your article, could not repair or sustain his relationship with the TPLF. This brings up interesting questions of how non-democratic leaders respond when their previous power position has been greatly deteriorated with the advent of democracy. Such is the case – to generously generalized – with Tigrayan leaders. The recent conflict and your article point to an important question of the effectiveness of democratic coalition building in historically non-democratic states.