Democratic Deficit Pushes Ethiopia to Dictatorship

Democratic Deficit Pushes Ethiopia to Dictatorship

By Eidmon Tesfaye | Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

In the good old days, it used to be the tradition of dictators to sit at home and never show their faces in the capitals or in most parts of their own countries. They respected the self-imposed isolation in the grand palace prison they constructed and did not pretend to love or be loved.Gagging the Media in Ethiopia

It was a very refreshing condition for their subjects. They listened to the pronouncements of the dictator on the radio, watched the dictator cutting some ribbon surrounded by his security force on television or read about him in the local rag that passed itself as a newspaper.

Modern dictatorships rely on repression and control of the economy, military, media and culture. They also develop nationalistic ideologies and they create groups and mass organisations that build links within the elite and with the masses.

The dictator himself embodies the regime as a whole, inspiring fear and confidence, pride and hope. He must be tough, self-confident and decisive, daring but balanced.

Whether as a vigorous young revolutionary or as a respected and wise elder, he must be capable of imposing his will on others. He must awe the masses to command respect but also needs to appear as one of them to work his populist magic. The purpose of my rule, he tells his people, is to elevate you.

Dictators seek power and glory rather than wealth, but unlimited control can turn the modern dictator into a megalomaniac. Kim II Sung, former Communist leader of North Korea, had a fifty-six-storey tower built to mark his seventieth birthday, with one piece of granite for each day of his life.

North Korean literature is largely devoted to his worship. He made his son the imminent political heir. Kim II Sung’s version of Marxism, juche, studied mandatorily in after-work classes, stresses national self-reliance and is more reminiscent of Third World ideology than of Moscovite orthodoxy.

There is no unemployment, no private cars, and no freedom. People are even marched out of their workplaces in formation at the end of the day.

Most modern dictators prefer to keep their cult of personality under some control. Syria’s Bashir Al-Assad does not drink, has only one wife, and gave up chain-smoking overnight for health reasons. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran ordered his photo removed from mosques and asked the media to reduce the space devoted to him. But the dictator must also be a public figure, the country’s leading celebrity and rock star.

A country built on struggle reverses the proprieties of a long-established stable society. Moderate forces tend to be at a disadvantage, since they are thought to be more willing to compromise with the old system of traditional dictatorship or colonialism.

Similarly, lack of acceptance by the West is a badge of honor, and the opposite can cause shame and suspicion. Politicians find peasant origins an advantage; time in prison is a source of pride. What is deemed moral and proper by the West is often seen as part of an exploitative system, and terrorism often is rationalised by various arguments.

All non-democratic governments supply public goods such as roads, police, public schools and sanitation. But their regimes are characterised by the size of the group controlling power relative to the population.

Both are extremes – dictatorship, rule by a single individual; and ideal democracy, where the entire citizenry shares power. While the extremes are seldom observed in practice, the terms dictatorship and democracy are used as convenient labels to describe less versus more inclusive regimes.

The link between political regimes and public goods provision has a straightforward intuition. In a dictatorship, where political influence is concentrated, a rational government leader will spend the public budget mainly on transfers targeted to politically influential groups. Spending on a nonexclusive public good is unwise because much of a public good’s benefit would spill over to less influential outsiders.

In a democracy, where control of the government requires satisfying a large fraction of the population, direct transfers are relatively unattractive because the large size of the group whose support must be won, dilutes the benefit each member receives. Spending heavily on the public good makes sense in this circumstance, due to the economies of scale inherent in supplying a public good to a larger population.

Ethiopia, a country marred with serious governance shortfalls, is one of the 20 countries with the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) in the world. Some 25 million people in Ethiopia are still living below the poverty line even though billions of dollars have been frequently granted by the wealthiest countries of the world.

Regardless of what is proclaimed by Ethiopia’s ruling elite, the basic purpose of development is to enlarge people’s choices. In principle, these choices can be infinite and can change over time.

People often value achievements that do not show up, or not immediately, in income or growth figures: greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services, more secure livelihoods, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours, political and cultural freedoms and a sense of participation in community activities. The objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives.

Humanitarian involvement of independent civil society organisations (CSOs), in the struggle against poverty is required in the poorest countries, like Ethiopia, as it is vital to achieve the goal of poverty reduction. There are three major dimensions of struggle against poverty: social, economic, and political development.

Respect for human rights and quality governance are the two major elements of political struggle to defeat poverty. Thus, the multidimensional humanitarian operation of independent organisations is one of the positive instruments that, in the long-term, may gain potentiality to peacefully shift a dictatorial regime to a democratic system of governance.

However, independent concern to reduce poverty is against the political interest of the ruling party because poverty is employed as a tool by the regime to protect its anti-democratic system of governance. For me, this is the main reason why we, Ethiopians, have remained in the most wretched poverty, though the ruling party has received a sum of 31 billion dollars in development aid from Western donors since 1991.

Eidmon Tesfaye has a Master’s Degree in Agricultural Economics & Rural Development. He can be reached at