Ethiopia: Key for opposition to emerge is to allow them their own particular course

October 11, 2018 Africa , Interviews , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , OTHER , POLITICS

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Fanuel Lakew interviews Professor Ann Fitz-Gerald



Ann Fitz-Gerald is a Professor of international security management at Cranfield University in the UK. Prior to joining Cranfield’s Department of Security and Management, she worked at the Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College, London University. Ann has worked with many African governments on issues relating to national security and security sector governance, as well as supporting peace talks and national security dialogue. She serves as a Course Director for the MSc Security Sector Management programme both in the UK and here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She also teaches issues in international conflict, security and development and strategic planning for security and development, among others. Her research focuses on peace-building, the development of national security strategies, and the reform of national security sectors. I spoke with Professor Ann Fitz-Gerald on democracy and multiparty system, the politics of multiparty in Ethiopia, current political reform and the likes.



Fanuel Lakew: Can you tell me the relations between democracy and multiparty?



Prof. Ann: It was Alexis de Tocqueville writing in 1835 about the transition of politics in the young USA from monarchical (British colonial rule) to democracy which started this discourse. These ideas have continued ever since, particularly about the values and risks of the ‘democratic idea’. De Tocqueville saw democracy as a way of connecting the individual citizen to decisions by governments and other relevant institutions (like clubs or societies) so that individual preferences, wishes and, indeed, prejudices and self-interests, could influence government decisions on a continual basis.


De Tocqueville also recognised the inherent danger of the “tyranny of the majority” under the new democratic system of government. He recognised this as one of the drawbacks to the ‘purity’ of the democratic idea. Other drawbacks were also recognised, including the fact that modern society, where the views of everybody can be taken into account – was too complex for a democracy to exist. Interestingly, technology is now beginning to regain some of this lost ground as it is actually becoming possible through social media for individual views to be registered.


The practicalities of government developed in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries required a system of representative bodies, parliaments, other organs of state power and, most importantly, the organisation of political parties in order to make democracy function. Political parties were particularly important as they provided forums and platforms for like-minded individuals to pool their ideas. Their voting powers were also used to influence the legislatures and, in some countries, the executive arm of government in ways which represented the common interests of party members.


Assuming that there are many and varying opinions on several different subjects, the concept of the political party is a compromise between ‘like-minded’, but not necessarily the ‘same-minded’, individuals. Most political parties have elaborate arrangements, such as party conferences. These conferences are where differences among members are hammered out to produce a common policy, usually published as a manifesto in advance of a national election.


Edmund Burke, the British political philosopher, believed that in order to be effective, two or at most three political parties – with leaders credibly capable of forming a government – was the best way of ensuring the stability necessary for effective government and economic growth. This principle of compromise between stability and representative government is followed by the British, Australian and Canadian systems of Government. Many other countries take a different approach where there are many parties forming a ‘multiparty system’, in which the government of the day is an alliance of different parties. Today’s Italian and German governments serve as examples.


What is clear to Burke and many others is that, whatever system applies, political parties cannot be ‘manufactured’. The prevailing system emerges organically, from ideas being generated and by prevailing conditions which have roots going back hundreds of years. Burke’s view is that it would be impossible for a single individual or even some kind of body such as a constitutional assembly to lay down what party system should apply. Yet although the conditions such as the structures and institutions and their powers and constraints can be set down in a written constitution, it would be impossible to have the types, numbers and colour of political parties set down in the same way.



FL: How do you see the politics of multiparty in Ethiopia?



Prof. Ann: There are two ways of approaching this question. The first is the generic question which is often asked about whether democracy is too much of a western concept and unsuitable for the politics of countries in Africa. The second approach is to study the actual conditions in Ethiopia today. Let me deal with the first question here….


The idea of Africa being, among other parts of the world, a place where democracy in its western form could not take root was closely examined in the mid-1990s when South Africa emerged from apartheid. Since then, the champions of African democracy have seen some successes and some failures, not least in South Africa itself. One of the ideas put forward by those seeking to explain the difficulty of the democratic process in Africa is that, in Africa, the distribution of power is still a top-down process. Too large a proportion of the population is not in a position in terms of wealth, education or communicative capability to be more than the recipients (or not) of the distribution of whatever small benefits of state activity. Democracy in such circumstances becomes a matter of electing those whose stance is likely to benefit the voter at the expense of other groups. The title of Michaela Wrong’s book on the politics of Kenya: “It’s Our Turn To Eat” summarises this well. Other arguments take the view that the colonial legacy, western aid programmes and resource-based conflict challenge Africa’s democratic experiment. These are harsh views but ones which have support, even among African leaders.


The contrary view is that democracy has global universal value and that it is usable and valuable in almost any country, including African countries. This argument is a well-developed narrative in Africa and has been promoted by dozens of countries, often, as in Zimbabwe recently, in very challenging and difficult circumstances. It is not an argument that needs to be rehearsed here. However, one particular new aspect of democracy in Africa deserves being considered.


We tend to think of democracy in terms of parliaments, the franchise elections and, yes, political parties. Democracy in its fullest sense applies not just when, in de Tocqueville’s words, an individual citizen is re-connected to society but also when society connects to that citizen and offers respect for their rights, needs and expectations. Democracy requires and thrives on free communications and a free press. In other words, democracy is about far more than party politics. Admittedly, it is hard to have ‘one’ (a democratic polity) without the ‘other’ (respect for human rights). However, to quote Chinua Achebe, Africa is strong on humanity. Its contribution to the human and ‘non-party’ political aspects of democracy probably has more strength than many parts of the modern western world.



FL: How do you evaluate the stance and quality of political parties in Ethiopia?



Prof. Ann: Turning from Africa in general to Ethiopia in particular, the features just described very much apply in Ethiopia. Humanity is strong. Peaceful mindsets and behaviour are strong. Communities are vibrant and cohesive at the local level. Transformational leadership is enabling a new political culture to unfold, and the trajectory of military reforms of an already internationally-reputable armed forces is in line with, and being guided by, the trajectory of the political transformation. This already sets Ethiopia apart from many of its continental counterparts and also provides a good model which may have the potential to influence change across Africa. We shouldn’t be concerned that the basic conditions exist for democracy to flourish at the community level. Even above the local level, a special form of democratic practice exists in Ethiopia that requires people to discuss with peers and colleagues before decisions are made. It is a precious and valuable democratic characteristic of the humanity of Ethiopian culture. But politics and party politics in Ethiopia at the federal level are not strongly developed.


Ethiopians do not need a resumé of their recent history to explain or even to excuse their democratic immaturity at the political level. Coming from a monarchical system, through a hard fought period of communism, partly imposed from outside and partly as a reaction to external events – all in a state in extreme poverty – it is hardly surprising that the seeds of political democracy in the country have taken some time to germinate. Political violence still remains a bit close to the surface. With this risk in the background, party political discourse is more difficult to settle.


Veterans of liberation struggles from all sides often find it difficult to relinquish the power that their success in combat operations has brought them. Political parties born in conflict tend to take a generation to ‘settle’ into democratic mode where their view and their word may no longer command the respect and attention it once did.  This can result in a bumpy ride and this has no doubt contributed to what we have seen in Addis Ababa recently.


The key is to allow opposition parties to form without giving them the opportunity to emerge as former victims of oppression now liberated to follow their own particular course. A party based on ‘victimhood’ is unlikely to fit into the democratic mould. More significantly, it will realise that its claim of victimhood is short-lived. It will have to look forward to a meaningful policy platform based on achievable and attainable goals. Unless it does so, the electorate will quickly confine it to the margins of democracy populated by single-issue pressure groups and lobbyists with no hope of power and little real influence.



FL: What kind of party system does Ethiopia need? Two-party system or multiparty?



Prof. Ann: Modern western party politics owes its existence to differences in ideology.  Parties tend in the West to gravitate towards opposed ideologies, such as socialism, libertarianism, capitalism or, more recently, environmentalism and a form of nationalism.  It is fundamentally what distinguishes one party from another, although it needs to be emphasised that policy formulated by a government of one party aligned to one ideology often does not run true to the ideology.  For example, we have a socialist party in UK which advocates for workers to have a share of capital; this hardly follows the ideology of the party’s founding fathers.


In Ethiopia the ideological divisions are less pronounced than they are in multi-party systems in the West. Does this mean that the basis for a multiparty, or even a two-party system, does not exist? Would non-ideological divisions such as ethnicity or religion take the place of political ideology? Before we reject the idea as preposterous in a country that declares itself constitutionally neutral on a citizen’s ethnicity or faith, we need to remember that some of the oldest democracies were built around the differences in matters of faith and, regrettable though it may be, questions of ethnicity. You only have to look at northern Irish politics or the regional politics in the eastern part of Germany to see these impulses at work in democracies. It would be naïve to imagine that in the Ethiopian situation the development of party politics in the future could be insulated from such differences.


Regionalism is certainly strong in Ethiopia. Again, this concept is not something that democracy cannot cope with. The governing party of UK at present is formally called the Conservative and Unionist party. That is because it took a stance on regionalism, in its case historic unity with Ireland. Whether we like it or not, the main platform in the UK for the Scottish National Party in the UK parliament is regionalist – the separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom. But this issue does not prevent democracy from working in UK.


There is a characteristic of many western democratic parties to base their credo on one person as leader. In Africa it is sometimes, though rarely, possible to see the same process at work – a party based on one leader without much concern for what ideology he or she supports, and without so much interest in their regional or ethnic background can sometimes be found.


Whatever divides people in Ethiopia – whether it is ideology, regionalism, ethnicity or religion of a particular person – also brings them together. Democracy can flourish even if parties divide along these lines. What must happen is for political parties to publish their platforms, ensure that the wider electorate comprehends the key content of these platforms and allow the electorate to select its choice. Those elected to government must then try to fulfil their declared programme and those not in government but in opposition must oppose. This is the way that a government is held to account. Although the political parties in Ethiopia still have some way to go to reach this point, it is nothing that boldness and determination on the part of its present leaders, and bravery enough to use arguments and logic rather than more forceful means, cannot achieve within this new generation.



FL: Do you think Ethiopia is in a position to install the two-party system?



Prof. Ann: I repeat here what I have said above – that “installing” a party system is not a workable option. It must grow organically.



FL: How do you see Dr Abiy’s move towards letting political parties into the country? And EPRDF’s move from one dominant party to multiparty? Was it genuine?



Prof. Ann: Would you allow me to rephrase the question? I suggest this only because policy is often made for reasons which are not those declared to the public. My own view is that the question should be: Will it happen that opposition parties are tolerated in Ethiopia? But to question whether Dr Abiy’s motives are genuine or not is to miss the democratic point.





Professor Ann Fitz-Gerald

Professor Ann Fitz-Gerald obtained a Commerce degree from Queen’s University, Canada; a Politics degree from Queen’s University, Canada; a Masters of Arts (War Studies) from the Royal Military College of Canada; and a PhD from Cranfield University.

Ann has worked in the financial sector, for the Canadian Government (both in the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre and NATO Headquarters, Brussels) and the North Atlantic Assembly in Brussels.Following the completion of her PhD, she worked for King’s College, London University before taking up a post in Cranfield University’s Department of Management and Security.

Ann Fitz-Gerald serves as Course Director for the MSc Security Sector Management programme both in the UK and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  She teaches ‘Issues in International Conflict, Security and Development’ and ‘Strategic Planning for Security and Development’.  Based on Ann’s academic qualifications and professional experience, she brings both a political science and management science ‘lens’ to the study of contemporary security challenges.  Ann’s research interests include issues in peacebuilding, the development of national security strategies, and the reform of national security sectors.


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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