Lessons Ethiopia can learn from the world’s largest democracy

September 14, 2018 Africa , Asia , India , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , POLITICS

Reuters photo



Fanuel Lakew



Countries throughout the world follow different forms of governance systems in accordance with their respective culture, way of life, value, history, diversity and the like. Some countries are successful in adopting the right form of governance system while others are not. Practically, many countries in the south adopted their forms of governance from their respective western colonizers. While few countries had done so by taking their political cultures and contexts into consideration, however, most countries are not successful in this regard due to a number of factors.


It also seems that Asian countries are doing better than their African counterparts. The independence movements also matter in building a democratic form of governance in various countries, in the sense that in Asia they not only relied on elites. The public also had somehow taken part in the movements so that it helped them lay the foundation for building a democratic system. However, that does not mean that it applies to all Asian countries. There are also authoritarian leaders in Asia.


Whereas in Africa, although there were brilliant leaders and state founders, their journey couldn’t last long due to a number of reasons and African countries have continually been snowed with various political problems.


Across the globe, there are a number of countries that have a democratic governance system. But it is not always confined to the western world. Most renowned political scientists argue that the UK, USA, Germany, France and India have established exceptional democracies in the world. India, the only country from the list that does not come from the Western hemisphere, is known as the world’s largest democracy due to the fact that it is the second most populous country in the world next to China, with a population of 1.3 billion. In addition, it is the largest democracy as a large number of its population take part in democratic elections. According to UN estimates, over 700 hundred million Indians are eligible to vote, the country having a young population with approximately 65 percent of them in the age group of 15 to 64 years. The majority of them are able to take part in the democratic process, such as voting.


In the preamble of the Indian Constitution, which was adopted on 26 January 1950, it is clearly stated that India is a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. It is also a secular and democratic state with a parliamentary form of government and federal structure. The Indian government is officially known as the Union government and is divided into three distinct but interrelated branches—the legislative, executive and judiciary.


The purpose of this article is not to describe the form of Indian political government but to draw lessons from which Ethiopia can learn.


Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, has been an independent country from its inception. It crashed European colonial powers at the battle of Adwa in 1896 and was able to defend its sovereignty. When countries in Africa and Asia and other parts of the world were under colonial rule, Ethiopia enjoyed independence. That is why it preserves its independence, unique calendar, identity, and the like.


However, the point here is why we lag behind in building institutions and a democratic system. Following independence, various countries have achieved progress in terms of political and economic aspects. But Ethiopia, which was a beacon of resistance for many colonized people across the world, particularly for black people, has been lagging far behind many countries in Asia, even in Africa, in terms of building a democratic system. We can list a number of reasons for our failure in this regard but it is not the major objective of this piece. Yet, there are lessons we can learn from the world’s largest democracy—India.


The reason I picked India as a benchmark is not only because I have experienced and witnessed their political system firsthand. It is because I realized that we have many things in common. Here, I discuss some lessons that Ethiopia can learn from India, particularly in relation to political and social aspects.





India is a very diverse country in terms of religion, language, identity, race, and caste, among others. It is one of the countries that adopted federalism successfully, its federal system a model for many in accommodating diversity. It has over 200 languages and dialects. Almost all religions in the world exist in India such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, traditional beliefs, etc. India’s federal system accommodates all these differences in a good manner.


India has 29 states and seven centrally administered union territories. The federal government controls the most essential government functions such as defense, foreign policy, taxation, economic planning and public expenditures. Unlike states in Ethiopia, states in India can attract investment by their own effort by offering incentives for investors. The system gives real autonomy for states.


Of course, Ethiopia had taken other experiences of federalism when it adopted federalism in 1991, including that of India. Yet, sometimes the shared rule and the relations between states and federal government are blurred and not clearly drawn in terms of practicality.


Federalism in India was adopted in a better way. State parliaments play a great role in making and passing laws. Comparatively, issues are tabled for discussion before taking cases for endorsement, thorough and deliberative discussions held in state and central parliaments. The media on its part also contributes a lot for building and creating an accountable political system.


At federal level, the bicameral houses are independent and filled with various political parties. Currently in Ethiopia, all seats in the lower house (House of Peoples’ Representatives) are taken by the ruling party. This makes it difficult to accommodate diversity. This makes us question the credibility of our election. Having a periodic election doesn’t mean that we have a credible election. That is why in our lower house, laws are passed or endorsed without any opposition or deliberation. Such trend doesn’t and won’t help if we want to build a democratic system.


Federalism makes governance easy because power is shared among the central government and states. It is therefore not hard for central government to govern a country which is extremely diverse. According to Important India (an online magazine), there are various advantages of federalism in India. The magazine discusses some of the features and advantages of federalism in India. As to it, federalism makes it “easier to give specific directions if you can narrow things down by state boundaries.”


The magazine points out that “the main advantage of a federal government is that in a country where there are many diversities and the establishment of a unitary government is not possible, a political organisation can be established through this form of government. In this type of government, local self-government, regional autonomy and national unity are possible.”


It also says that people take more interest in local and regional affairs because local governments also have separate rights and the councils elected by the people run the local administration. “When elections to the provincial legislatures and local bodies take place, and when the representatives of the people run the local and provincial administration, people take keen interest in the administration.” Unlike in India, local people here in Ethiopia are not interested in the local administration as they take part only in elections.


Federalism also gives rise to big states. According to Political Science Notes, “several Indian princely states could not get any importance in the international field, if they had not joined the Indian Union. They occupy a position of prestige in the international field only because of their partnership in the Indian Union.”


Similarly, the federal system in India is also advantageous to the smaller states. It is because “states or provinces in India could neither defend themselves against expansionist and aggressor foreign powers, nor could they establish their political and cultural relations with other countries of the world, in their individual capacity, as every state lack ample economic resources to meet all the expenses.” In our case, states do not cooperate with one another and share experiences. In Ethiopia, the relations between states are at the elite level.


The federal system is also important for cultural progress in India as tribal people and linguistic minorities get protection from the government. Of course, there are still ups and downs in their federalism.


I discuss this issue not because I am pessimistic about the political landscape and situation in Ethiopia but that we have a lot of issues that need to be improved. However, that does not mean that we should copy all things without incorporating local contexts, and that it should be applicable in accordance with our political culture, values and way of life and the like.



Multilingual Society


There are 22 official languages, 114 languages, 216 mother tongues and 216 dialects in India. When I was in India over the last two years I witnessed that people can at least speak three languages. They speak their native language or mother tongue, Hindi and English. Most people I know are either trilingual or multilingual. What about in Ethiopia? Most of us, especially from cities, speak only one or two languages. We can make some of the languages that are widely spoken working languages of at federal government level. We can even learn lessons from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, among others. Thus, we should try our level best to make some widely spoken languages as working languages in schools and public institutions so that we can strengthen the interaction among ourselves.


It is good to offer as a courses in schools number of local languages across the country so that people can learn the language they want to know voluntarily. For instance, Afaan Oromoo is a language that is widely spoken at least in five states of the country. If a child in Amhara or Tigray States learns this language, it means he/she would be able to communicate with half of the Ethiopian population. The same is true for other languages. It would strengthen our unity. The new administration under Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed should take this step into consideration within the new education roadmap.





Fanuel Lakew

Fanuel Lakew is a reporter at the Ethiopian Herald Newspaper of the Ethiopian Press Agency. He did his B.A. degree in Political Science and International Relations from Addis Ababa University in 2012. He also served as the Secretary-General of the Ethiopian Political Science and International Relations. He as well studied M.A. in Politics and International Relations at the Central University of Gujarat, India. He can be reached at [email protected]

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