Appointment With Destiny: The Dawn of Democracy in Ethiopia?

Originally appeared in Ethiopia Review Magazine August 3, 1991

By Alemayehu Gebre Mariam

The July Conference Objectives
Just three months ago few would have predicted the downfall of the Derg or the sneaky departure of its brutal chieftain to Zimbabwe. The suggestion that Ethiopia’s warring factions would assemble for a dialogue in Addis Ababa would have been equally fanciful. However improbable this might have seemed, Ethiopia now appears to be opening a new chapter in its history.

The much-awaited political conference was held in Addis Ababa during July 1-5. Twenty-one domestic groups and organizations fifteen countries and international organizations were reportedly present (See list below). Meles Zenawi, acting president and general secretary of the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPDRF), presided over the conference.

In his opening speech, Meles declared that the central aim of the conference was to “establish lasting peace and democracy in Ethiopia” and set up a “transitional government reflecting the differences of opinion, interests and aspirations of the peoples of the country.” He noted that Ethiopia’s problems stemmed from “denial of democratic rights” and pronounced the end of an “unjust system that relegated the people to the status of second-class citizens in their own country.” He pledged to promote peace and democracy in the country which he said could be obtained “only by guaranteeing the rights and equality of the nations and nationalities.” He proclaimed the “dawn of a new life” for the people of Ethiopia.

Meles blamed the Derg’s “war machine” for bankrupting the country and for “pushing the people further into a miserable existence.” He praised his organization, the EPDRF, for its role in “dealing a decisive blow to the Derg army and … establishing a Provisional Government in the country.” He underscored EPDRF’s commitment to democracy observing that his organization has avoided “monopolizing power and implementing its own ideas.”

Meles acknowledged that the identification and selection of conference participants was “fraught with its own problems.” He said that the EPDRF identified those “forces who stand for peace and democracy, and in truth, represent the people…” He indicated that the factors considered in the invitation of participants included political and ethnic diversity, military participation in the struggle against the Derg and the practical need for an effective working forum. Meles assured participants “that this conference is only the first and would not be the last one.”

Conference Agenda
The conference agenda was drawn by the EPDRF. Agendas presented by other groups were reportedly voted down. Conference participants considered various issues relating to the structure and process of the transitional government and the question of Eritrean secession. The transitional government will consist of an 87 member assembly. EPDRF will retain 32 seats and the various Oromo organizations will have 27 seats. Six seats will be left open for “unrepresented groups.” The remaining seats are divided among 15 groups and organizations. On the question of Eritrean secession, the Conference participants reportedly agreed on a referendum
within 2 years. Sultan Ali Mirah reportedly made strong statements opposing Eritrean secession.

Participants reported that there was vigorous debate and an open exchange of views. There was apparently some problems in translating conference proceedings. Each group was allowed to provide its own translators. The conference atmosphere was described as cordial and stimulating.

Charter of the Transitional Government
The Charter of the Transitional Government appears to be comprehensive. Section 1 consists of declarations on “democratic rights.” Each nationality has the right to self-determination and self-government. It has the right to insure preservation of its own culture, language and history. The right to participate in national government is also granted to each nationality.

The Transitional Government will observe all UN declarations on human rights. Individuals shall enjoy the right to free speech, assembly and conscience. They shall also have the right to organize and establish political parties.

Section 2 deals with foreign policy. Ethiopia will follow a policy of nonintervention and observe its international treaty and obligations. Local governments shall have the right to contact international aid organizations independently of the national government to secure humanitarian assistance.

Section 3 defines the structural and process of the transitional government.
There shall be a representative Assembly of 87 persons and a ministerial body. The Assembly will operate as a legislative body. It will also pass the state budget. The Assembly will elect the president for the transitional government. The president will appoint the prime minister and the cabinet with the concurrence of the Assembly. The president, prime minister and vice-chairperson of the Assembly will be from different nationalities. There will be an “independent” judiciary. A constitutional commission will be established along with defense and public security committees. Labor laws and legislation promoting free press will be duly enacted.

Section 4 of the Charter deals with the political programs of the transitional government. The Assembly will establish a constitutional commission which will draft and present a draft constitution for consideration by the Assembly.

Following debate in the Assembly the draft document will be presented to the public for debate and comment. The final draft will be presented to a popularly elected government for ratification. Popular election will be held in less than 30 months. The transitional government will yield to the political party wining the most votes.

The Charter provides for the passage of legislation to establish local representative bodies. Assistance to war-ravaged areas, resettlement of involuntary Derg army inductees and reconstruction of basic infrastructures will be given top policy priority. Special effort shall be made to counter divisive sectarian and communal activities.

Criticism of the Conference
The Conference has been criticized by groups claiming to have been excluded by EPDRF. The Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces (COEDF), purportedly representing several groups including the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), elements of the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU), the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Alliance (EPDA) and the Tigrean People’s Democratic Movements (TPDM), criticized the conference as a sham forum and a brazen attempt by EPDRF to legitimize and entrench itself. COEDF charged that its members and other legitimate groups in the country were excluded by express orders of Meles. It claims that the participants invited to the Conference were handpicked EPDRF lackeys. COEDF argues that the Conference did not represent the diversity of political views in the country.

COEDF believes that the conference should have been conducted under international auspices outside of the country. COEDF argues that such a conference would have insured a free and open exchange of ideas and avoid possible EPDRF intimidation and retribution against disobedient participants. It claims that the agreement on a referendum in Eritrea is a desperate deal made to facilitate access to the port in Assab. COEDF also expressed grave concern over EPDRF’s reconstitution of the country’s armed forces by Front troops.

An Economic Charter?
The failure of the Conference to take any meaningful steps on economic issues was a major shortcoming. This is particularly worrisome in view of Meles’s statement in his opening speech that “the transitional government inherits a devastated economy which will have to be somehow revived side by side with the task of insuring a democratic system.”

EPDRF sources confirm that there is no official view on the country’s economic orientation. They indicate that the Conference has neither adopted nor rejected socialism, free market approaches or any other economic forms. EPDRF sources stress that the relief work and political organization must precede economic planning.

Missed Opportunity?
Indeed one may rightfully wonder why the Conference agenda completely ignored consideration of even broad economic goals and aspirations. The omission of economic issues raises questions at two levels: 1) Is there a `hidden’ agenda? 2) How sophisticated are EPDRF’s leaders, and equally, the Conference participants?

By excluding economic issues from the Conference agenda, the EPDRF seems to presuppose that political forms must precede economic forms. Despite Meles’s admission that the political and economic problems are coterminous, apparently the solutions need not be concurrent.

The EPDRF formulation of the agenda suggests that democratic institutions and practices can flourish and thrive even in a chaotic and barren economic landscape. The lack of a democratic government was not the only reason
why Ethiopia remains impoverished. Ethiopia became a global symbol of poverty precisely because its people were denied economic freedom by a repressive military junta which was hellbent on pursuing bankrupting socialist policies.

It would have been appropriate and logically compelling for the Conference to have considered and issued a general economic manifesto compatible with the putatively democratic political charter for the transitional government. If indeed the political charter recognizes individual liberties, permits free and unfettered political association and so on, it follows that a complementary economic charter which declares a commitment to free enterprise and guarantees the right to engage in private entrepreneurship could have been fashioned with little difficulty.

In failing to make a clear statement of economic policy, the Conference organizers seriously misperceived the urgent and critical needs of the common people. After seventeen years of war, repression and socialist indoctrination, the Ethiopian “masses” want to be left alone to pursue their meager lives in peace, dignity and with minimum government interference.

They want to know when they can own their own land, till it and feed their families. They want to know when and where they can get credit to buy seeds and farm implements and livestock. They want to be assured that they can sell their harvest on the market without government commodity prices. They are eager to send their children to school so they could have a better life. Enterprising Ethiopians want to know that they are now free to unleash their creative powers to improve themselves and their society. Ethiopians are least interested in promises for more political meetings, discussion groups and indoctrination sessions.

Death and Resurrection of Socialism?
There may be tentative answers why economic issues were excluded from the agenda altogether. Recently, in an opinion piece widely circulated in the American print media, Meles sketched his organization’s program for
saving Ethiopia from “15 years of darkness.” He stated:

The Democratic Front’s program envisions a system that combines state and private ownership. Those sectors of the economy that play a key role in upholding the independence of the country — such as factories, banks, energy and mining — should continue to be state-owned. Those services, wholesale and retail trade sectors, that don’t play a decisive national role but are currently state-owned should be set up, as worker cooperatives or rented top private capitalists. Ownership rights would be guaranteed, and there would be no restrictions on the use of capital…. Although we believe all land should be owned by the state, the state should provide free land to all those who want to use it. Land should not be bought, sold or used as collateral.

Meles pledged: “Ownership rights would be guaranteed, and there would be no restrictions on the use of capital.” If the state owns all these, what is left to own or guarantee?

EPDRF’s economic program is alarming and disheartening. Meles seems to forget that the “darkness of the past 15 years” is merely the gloomy shadow the now vanishing socialist star. Mengistu promised the very same program Meles is now offering when he made a deathbed conversion to a “mixed economy” in the twilight of his regime. Socialism by any other name is still socialism. It is dead in Eastern Europe and is in its death throes in the Soviet Union. There is no place in the world where socialism offers hope, dignity and progress. Today’s Ethiopia is the wreckage of socialism.

Why is the EPDRF reinventing the warped wheel of socialism? Can socialism save Ethiopia? Unlikely. Ethiopia is stuck in a socialist blind alley. It can not be saved by a mismatched shotgun marriage of socialism and capitalism. The Ethiopian people know from hard experience that socialism is a synonym for poverty, despair, corruption and degradation. The Western countries who have preconditioned economic aid and cooperation on progress towards a market economy and the establishment of democratic institutions are also not beguiled by nostrum of “mixed economy.” Ethiopia’s leaders must realize the simple fact that political pluralism demands commensurate economic liberalism.

Ethiopia’s problems inhere in the very prescriptions advocated by the acting president. State ownership of land in Ethiopia led to inefficient state and collective farms. State control of commodities prices contributed to production disincentives. The result was severe and recurrent food shortfalls. State ownership of industries prevented the growth of indigenous capital and warded off foreign investment.

Over the past 15 years agricultural and industrial output declined sharply. There was virtually no foreign investment in the country. Worker cooperatives lost both capital and productive capacity running up huge debts. State control of the services sector spawned a thriving underground economy. One American dollar could fetch up to eight birr on the black market. The government banks could offer only 2.07 birr.

State control and ownership of the means of production has rarely paved the path to economic development or democracy. The state crafted many of Ethiopia’s problems. Haile Selassie’s autocratic state left a legacy of
underdevelopment. His policy of divide and rule spawned ethnic and communal strife. Mengistu’s Marxist-Leninist state oversaw 15 years of famine, civil war and repression. An estimated eight million people died during Mengistu’s husbandry of socialism. The EPDRF, the dominant power contender, now offers a reformed and virtuous Marxist state to solve Ethiopia’s ills. How ironic!

The acting president’s overtures for the reestablishment of Marxism in Ethiopia is at best misguided and futile. Socialism has been discredited throughout the world. Just a month ago a dispirited communist party in Albania voluntarily surrendered power to democratic elements. This is especially poignant because the EPDRF once adulated the Albanian model. The Soviet government is selling off states enterprises and discarding state planning. Eastern Europe is forging ahead with privatization and political pluralism. In these countries the state is yielding to market forces and actively facilitating the conversion to a market economy. The EPDRF’s retrogressive attachment to socialism is puzzling.

Socialism has died a natural death in Ethiopia. The EPDRF and the “forces who stand for peace and democracy” should take pride in bringing about its overdue demise. Meles should boldly step forward and present the Ethiopian
people with a death certificate for socialism. If the EPDRF should insist on resurrecting socialism, it will be doing so at the risk of digging its won grave.

Free Enterprise and a Brighter Future
Ethiopia must be energized out of 15 years of Marxist darkness. This can be done only if its leaders embrace free enterprise. A free market economy is necessary to revive and boost the national economy. Market forces should be allowed to determine supply and demand with minimal government intervention. The state should refrain from direct economic activity. It should divest itself from its land holdings. It should sell of state-owned factories, banks and other enterprises.

The state should play a positive role in the economy by facilitating the interplay of market forces, fostering competition, providing individual and corporate incentives and attracting external capital to invest and team up with local capital. This is not a particularly original proposal. The Eastern European and the Soviets are doing it!

The free enterprise system is natural for Ethiopians. It will reignite the Ethiopian ethos of individual effort, competitiveness and self- reliance. It will afford a generation of deprived Ethiopian youth infinite opportunities for individual effort and excellence. It will help Ethiopia accumulate national wealth.

The free enterprise system is no doubt imperfect. There will be some disparity in wealth. There is a tendency for concentration of economic power in private hands. But this should be balanced against the limitless opportunities that will be available for individual achievement and fulfillment.

Ethiopians need to be unchained from 15 years of Marxist bondage. They are weary of sanctimonious Marxists whose best offer for change consists of paternalism and perpetual servility.

History shows that the most dynamic and successful societies are those that have imposed rigorous limitations on state involvement in the individual’s affairs. The Ethiopian people need to be free not only from political repression but equally from stifling government economic policies. Ethiopia’s new leaders should heed Lenin’s wise advice: “While the state exists there is no freedom; when there is freedom there will be no state.”
Alemayehu Gebre Mariam, Ph.D., J.D., is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino. He is also a contributing editor of Ethiopian Review.