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Political Culture in the Context of Contemporary Ethiopian Politics

      Ghelawdewos Araia

This article will further discuss the central themes of Coalition Government and Comparative Politics: Meanings for Ethiopia and Humanizing the Ethiopian Political Culture, most recent essays that I presented to the reader. The focus, this time, is on the current Ethiopian crisis, and as the title amply demonstrates we shall decidedly analyze political culture and the problem of power sharing. A macro analysis of political culture will be followed through in order to render a meaningful and critical examination of the big picture that, in turn, incorporates attitudes, psychological make-up (including the psychology of power), and power sharing

                                               Theoretical considerations

: political culture is generally understood as the inherited set of beliefs and mores that are almost always accepted by the larger society. The early harbingers of political culture, also known as civic culture, are major thinkers such as Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Montesquieu. In his two important books, The Prince and The Discourses, Machiavelli forwarded the idea of ‘balance between the powers of the state and the powers of the citizen,’ in an effort to forge a viable political culture. However, Machiavelli contradicted himself in promoting politics that is synonymous with ‘struggle to win, utilize, and contain power.’ On the one hand, he argues, ‘dominion and wealth’ could not be augmented without citizens enjoying liberty, and on the other he clearly glorifies the pre-eminent position of the statecraft and power vis-à-vis individual interests. He further argued, in a somewhat vague and general way, the preservation of society by any means necessary. This line of argument, in fact makes Machiavelli anti-liberal, intolerant, and therefore anti-civic culture.

            In marked contrast to Machiavelli, John Locke (The Treatise of Government) rejected the idea of a gargantuan statecraft that is dominant or pre-eminent in a given society. On the contrary, Locke argues that the state and/or the institutions of government should be viable vehicles for ensuring ‘life, liberty, and estate’ of citizens. In other words, the Lockean paradigm affirms government’s raison d’etre as synonymous with individual liberty. Locke was clearly a major influence in early American political culture, and it is not without reason that the preamble of the U.S. constitution reads ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ It is also not surprising that James Madison, in the Federalist Papers (1788), reinforces the Lockean tradition of “a public power that is legally circumscribed and accountable” to the people.

            Unfortunately, neither Locke nor Madison were introduced into the Ethiopian political culture, but Machiavelli could be said the epitome of the Ethiopian psyche and the embodiment of its civic culture. The ideas of sovereign and dominant statecraft have been in existence in Ethiopia for millennia, that is, long before Machiavelli was born. But the Ethiopian sovereign and his ambitions were deterred by the idea of ‘elect of God’ and ‘fear of God.’ Since the sovereign was an “appointee of God,” he or she must implement justice and order and offer the necessary provisions to their subjects (citizens), and he or she can engage in daily routines of governance with the assumption of moral certitude and ‘fear of God.’ In fact, according to the Ethiopian sacrilegious tenet, ‘the precondition for civilization is the fear of God’ (Kedamiha La’Tibeb Feriha Egzi’Abiher).

            Incidentally Locke’s principle mentioned above, in particular ‘the protection of individual right,’ is a derivation “of God’s will and as enshrined by law,” and very much corresponds to the Ethiopian traditional governance. The Ethiopian statecraft of antiquity and even of modern times, that is, up to the period of Haile Selassie, that incorporated the moral dimension of politics, is long gone. What we have now is a state devoid of elementary moral attributes. In other words, contemporary Ethiopian politics is best illustrated by an almost Darwinian state of affairs as discussed, for instance, by John J. Mearsheimer in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Mearsheimer comes from the Machiavellian school of statecraft who labels his own brand as “offensive realism,” which in effect is “having dominant power is the best means to ensure one’s own survival.” As we shall see later, however, the powers that be, which utilizes “offensive realism” and enters into contradiction with the people, cannot last.  

                              Explanatory Notes of Political Culture

we can now elaborate political culture beyond ‘set of beliefs,’ ‘opinions,’ and ‘attitudes’ and in relation to political institutions and democratic ideals. In The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba engage the reader by their cogent and elegant analysis of civic culture. They define the latter as a “culture based on communication and persuasion, a culture of consensus and diversity, a culture that permitted change but moderated it.” Implied in this definition is that political culture, unlike political ideology is wide-ranging and inclusive. In fact, various individuals and groups that, in one form or another, entertain divergent political ideologies can find themselves in a common political culture.

            In many of my previous writings, time and again, I tried to hammer the significance and exigency of a tolerant civic culture and the importance of unity in diversity, because ultimately homogenous political cultures (heterogeneous set of beliefs + common platform) almost always give rise to a stable and integrated political system. This is what we ought to have done in Ethiopia, but it looks we are doing the exact opposite. In the last decade and half, Ethiopians increasingly upheld divergent ideas that further divides them and dichotomizes their political culture, and as a result Ethiopia suffered systemic ethnic cleavage unparalleled in its history.

            Ethiopia’s political culture was also tainted by animosity and mutual destruction in the last three decades. In due course, we found ourselves in a political quagmire, missed a golden opportunity, and hence we were unable to educate our people as individuals or as groups. Education plays a major role in the development of political culture, but without institutions of political socialization and orientation, there is no hope for democratic ideals to emerge in Ethiopia.

                        Why is Ethiopia Unable to Foster a Democratic Civic Culture? 

The inability to realize a democratic civic culture is of course not unique to Ethiopia. With the exception of Western democracies (and to some extent developing nations like India), the democratic experiment worldwide has now become questionable. Our interest, here, however is Ethiopia, and I like to examine the Ethiopian problem in light of Almond and Verba’s model. The authors made a comparative analysis of five nations (US, UK, Germany, Italy, and Mexico) on the basis of 1) parochial culture, 2) subject culture, and 3) participant culture. Lets examine the three cultures in the context of contemporary Ethiopian politics:

1)      Parochial Culture: Ethiopians exhibit neither knowledge nor interest in politics. These include the multitude of citizens in the periphery and remote corners of Ethiopia, and the depolitisized as well as apathetic elements in major urban areas.

2)      Subject Culture: Ethiopians are dimly aware of politics and political symbols but they understand that their life is touched by government policies. These include the millions of Ethiopians with basic and moderate educational background. This category also includes Ethiopians who perceive the government as an authority (not necessarily legitimate) but is not sure of its role or don’t understand the subtle nuances of politics.

3)      Participant Culture: Ethiopians demonstrate “a keenly developed notion of their own political efficacy and competence as political actors.” These are the highly educated, professionals, political cadres in respective political parties, and the millions who are politically conscious.

Most of the electors (90% of the 26 million who registered or the 21 million who voted) during the May 2005 Ethiopian elections belong to the third category. However, there is no neat divide between the three cultures and in some instances, they can overlap. The overlapping and crossings are mere technicalities! What is important is whether Ethiopia offered democratic institutions to fairly monitor the electoral process and the election results or not!

There is no doubt that the pre-election debates and the election process were impressive until the controversy over election results began. There is also no doubt that Ethiopians celebrated the new Ethiopian political culture that heralded a glimpse of hope. But it evaporated like a phantasmagoria and this is not surprising at all. Unlike other democracies mentioned above, Ethiopians never developed democratic institutions that could quantify political cultures; did not evolve a tolerant and inclusive sub-culture that could have served as catalyst in the sustenance of civic culture; the political system in Ethiopia, as a whole, is close-ended and inaccessible and thrives rather on parochial and subject cultures. The latter two cultures, wittingly or unwittingly, sometimes out of fear and intimidation, marshal their forces against the leaders of the participant culture. At this stage, diversity and toleration dissipate and are replaced by lies and innuendo against the leaders of the opposition. As a result, the victims are further victimized and criminalized and the political culture that blossomed during the pre-election period proved to be that it was indeed evanescent stream of experience that seemingly provided more excitement and a greater effervescence of ideas. But it was truly a mirage!

The dialectical tension between the opposition and the Ethiopian government has now further polarized the Ethiopian society, undermined the relative stability, and brought about unnecessary sacrifice and death toll. Unfortunately, the nation moved from a promising civic culture of electoral politics to threatening the unity and stability of the country. And now, the supporters of the opposition and the ruling party are fostering a demonizing political culture devoid of tolerance and inclusiveness. In a sane political culture, a culture of persuasion and diversity, opposing ideas are welcomed and pro-CUD/EUDF and pro-EPRDF could have sat in a civil-civic round table and could ‘have argued till they agreed.’ But since we lack civil-civic culture, Ethiopians easily resort to attacking and destroying one another, at least in terms of character assassination. Although the EPRDF is responsible for all the mess Ethiopia is in today, Ethiopians’ propensity toward extremism, a manifestation of a lingering feudal bravado and the antithesis of a democratic political culture also fueled the antagonism between the ruling party and the opposition. Historically, the power nexus in Ethiopia had always been accompanied by confrontation politics, and Ethiopians have a special attraction toward power and authority (Shumet). In fact, the psychology of power among Ethiopians is great and a significant majority of Ethiopians are obsessed with power and they go to great lengths to obtain it.

The best solution, however, does not lie with extremes; it lies in the middle of the continuum where political rivals enter a covenant for a greater good of the nation. In effect, they compromise a deal in order to fashion a comprehensive, yet accommodating national agenda that, in turn, secures cooperation, transformation, and stability. ‘Compromising a deal’ is best exemplified by power sharing, but since the necessary ingredients for the latter are not present, dividing up the pie of power politics becomes remote, to say the least. Power sharing also entails fair share in governance, commitment, transparency, and accountability by groups in the coalition.

However, as the modern experience of most African nations clearly demonstrates, the continent is marred by “winner-take-it-all” politics promoted by power-mongers. Although the continent have also witnessed leaders like Leopold Sedar Senghor, Ahmadou Ahidjo, Julius Nyerere, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Swer al Dahab who willingly stepped down from power, most African leaders wanted to cling to power by any means necessary. Because of “winner-take-it-all” or zero-sum game politics, the Somali factions missed golden opportunities several times, and so did the MPLA and UNITA leaders in Angola and the EPRDF and CUD/UEDF in Ethiopia.

Contrary to the parties mentioned above, and surprisingly so, Sudan has managed to forge a coalition government after twenty-one years of civil war. By the January 9, 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the country’s largest government, comprising 30 ministers and 34 ministers of state, was formed. The Sudanese power sharing grants a 52% share to Beshir’s National Congress Party, 28% to the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), 14% to the Northern opposition, and 6% to the Southern opposition. Some of the portfolios like energy and finance also fell under Beshir’s party while that of foreign ministry went to the SPLM.   

Power sharing is a viable tool for overcoming conflict between competing political parties like the EPRDF and CUD/UEDF and allows a modicum of trust among rival groups. This is the type of political culture that I suggested in Coalition Government in anticipation of the current mess and bloodshed that I wished all along not to happen. This is what I suggested then: “if we want to ward off instability and political fragmentation, however, it seems to me that the formation of coalition government is a wise move. Coalition governments are formed during crisis or when election results are disputed and remain unresolved. A coalition government is a government of national unity, an alliance or clustering of various parties for peaceful transition and transformation.” Now we know that neither coalition formation nor humanizing the Ethiopian political culture was possible. What can we possibly do to salvage Ethiopia from slipping further into an abyss?       


What is to Be Done Now?   Since the EPRDF was unwilling to compromise, share power with the opposition and peacefully resolve its differences with the contending forces in Ethiopia, it found itself in direct confrontation with the people. A government that employs sheer force to resolve contradictions in a given society turns itself to a police state and accelerates its own demise, as has always been the case throughout history. But what is to be done now?

            If at all Ethiopians want to forge a forward-moving cultural evolution, they must wake up in the morning with a specific goal of addressing the Ethiopian national interest (a more greater and long-term agenda) than a short-term pro-CUD/UEDF and pro-EPRDF politics. The latter is ok in terms of promoting a certain political agenda, but it could also trap its promoters in unintended quagmire that effectively distracts them from the long-term agenda. This kind of distraction, incidentally, has benefited the powers that be enormously. Short-term agendas also unintentionally gloss over the greater problem Ethiopia encounters (example, national unity, development, education, health etc.) However, this does not necessarily mean that we should simply ignore the current political development and rather focus on the big picture. Oh! No. Despite distraction, we have an historical obligation to expose injustice and struggle to eliminate political demons for the sake of greater good.               

            I believe the following suggestions and critical examinations will elevate our ideas of political culture and uplift Ethiopia from its current crisis:

  1. Ethiopians as a whole must liberate themselves from faction politics although admittedly there is ‘mobilization of bias’ in all political movements and processes. Ethiopians should have the right to embrace their favorite parties but they should give priority to an all-Ethiopia inclusive common cause.
  2. The EPRDF should reexamine its role in Ethiopian politics and reconsider power sharing with its adversaries. The EPRDF should not “debunk the notion that power is fundamentally scarce and finite and instead demonstrate that it is unlimited,” to use Peter Scontrino’s words. The EPRDF should follow the example of Sudan mentioned above.
  3. The CUD/UEDF should go beyond politics of confrontation and employ a seasoned and mature political agenda that can benefit their tactical programs and the strategic interests of Ethiopia. They should not indulge in student movement type riots and should rather resort to a political craft that can enable them to systematically organize and mobilize their supporters. Confrontation politics will result in the demise of innocent bystanders irrespective of who provokes it, and as The 14th Dalai Lama said in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, “destroying your neighbor is destroying yourself.”  Moreover, spontaneous protestations end up in disillusionment and betrayal, reminiscent of the Derg Tiquoma (exposing ones own comrade), as demonstrated by CUD supporters in Addis Ababa.
  4. The EPRDF must understand that politics is not always dealt with sticks; it is also dealt with carrots. Just because the opposition demands some preconditions and employed street demonstrations does not mean it should be a victim of state sticks. The EPRDF also should not view the CUD and UEDF leaders as “free riders” to power, but as dynamic forces in the Ethiopian political milieu.
  5. CUD must understand that there is no short cut to power and the latter could not be gained easily unless the overall climate is favorable. Sometimes, it becomes prudent to ‘wait for the moment.’ Moreover, the CUD must revaluate its actions and respect what some UEDF members did. This is not to suggest that the CUD must bow to the powers that be against its will; it is only to remind the opposition leadership that it should grasp the moment when the opportunity is available. Politics is art of the possible and in a nutshell it is art of ‘use it or lose it’, and if the political actors don’t get hold of opportunities, they end up facing grave consequences. Moreover, the CUD has responsibility to teach its supporters that they must transcend ethnic politics and respect all nationalities equally.
  6. The EPRDF should set free the CUD leadership and their supporters. There was no need to incarcerate them in the first place. The EPRDF must reckon with the hard fact that it is not only a political party but also has responsibility in governance. It should therefore understand that negotiation with its adversaries and entering covenant with the opposition can only benefit the nation as a whole. The EPRDF must welcome challenges from the people and the opposition including questioning its authority. As one Republican senator recently said, “questioning the [U.S.] government is not unpatriotic; not questioning the government is unpatriotic.”
  7. Ethiopians in the Diaspora and at the home front must understand that they could not realize a pan-Ethiopian agenda so long they are organized under ethnic entities. More than any other strata in the Ethiopian society, Diaspora Ethiopians are vocal, outspoken, and critical of ethnic politics, but they are polarized by ethnic politics themselves. The first historical duty of Ethiopians in the Diaspora should be to organize themselves under pan-Ethiopian organizations, unless it is a self-help non-political association.
  8. Ethiopians in the Diaspora and at home also must face the reality that Ethiopia now is a republic and governing the latter entails fair quotas from all ethnic groups that make up Ethiopia. If the next prime minister of Ethiopia is an Oromo, or a Somali, or an Afar, or a Sidama woman, it should not be surprising. Governing Ethiopia also does not pertain to the demographics of a certain ethnic group. The idea that “Tigray, with some 10% of the population provides a narrow base from which to govern…” stated by Professor Christopher Clapham is a major flaw in political analysis. I have respect for Professor Clapham, but he should be reminded that his won country, England, a small island, at one point governed countries from Australia to America while Russia with eleven time zones could not. Whether one nationality is big or not is not so relevant to what we want to achieve in Ethiopia; it is the unity of the people under a diverse political system that matters.
  9. Wherever they may be Ethiopians should foster a pan-Ethiopian solidarity irrespective of their ethnic and religious background. They must understand that politics is a gregarious business, and as per the Ethiopian wisdom, Dir Biabeer Anbesan Yasir, (when the spider’s web unite, they can tie up a lion), they must forge a task force to enhance an Ethiopian agenda over minor ethnic interests.
  10. Ethiopians must understand that their country is symbol of independence and hope for the African Diaspora, and as such its heritage and unity must be preserved. Every Ethiopian should be a watchdog, for there are too many enemies.


Concluding Remarks: By now, the reader must have grasped the essence of my article. The central theme of the essay, in effect, boils down to the infancy of political culture in Ethiopia and the necessary precondition of a tolerant and diverse political system for peaceful and smooth transformation. However, in so far separate disconnected agendas continue to characterize the Ethiopian political culture, I am afraid it may take years for a coherent and collective political program to coalesce. On the other hand, given the steadfastness and altruistic commitment of some Ethiopians, I remain optimistic that Ethiopia will rise from the dust, strong and united, especially if the crème of the crème exhibit a sense of sacrifice and unity. But this advanced segment of the Ethiopian society must understand that it should go beyond dry functional connections and envision a proactive and viable (as opposed to reactive and spontaneous engagement) political program for a guarantee in political transformation.

            Ethiopians must understand that they are gardeners who could not afford to slack off and allow weeds to take over flowers. They should further understand that political acumen does not simply happen inside individual people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thought and a socio-cultural context. Put otherwise, creativity is not individual but collective, and this is precisely the type of political culture that I tried to address in this paper and that I envision for Ethiopia.

            Ethiopians in the Diaspora especially must reckon with reality and should understand 1) that it is easier to diagnose a problem than to cure it and the first step in solving a problem is to find it; 2) that it is about time to explore and appreciate the functioning democratic political cultures in North America and Europe where most Diaspora Ethiopians reside. They must emulate some aspects of Western political culture such as ‘free discussion of ideas,’ ‘select rulers without oppression,’ ‘willing to allow expression by those with whom they disagree,’ and introduce them into the Ethiopian social fabric.    



CUD: Coalition for Unity and Democracy

EPRDF: Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front

MPLA: Mozambique Peoples Liberation Army

SPLA: Sudan Peoples Liberation Army

UEDF: United Ethiopian Democratic Forces

UNITA: Union for the Total Independence of Angola 


Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2005