A Tale of Two Countries

Alemayehu G. Mariam

The Strange Career of Democracy in Africa

What is the difference between South Africa and Ethiopia? Simple. South Africa is a democracy (government of the people, by the people, and for the people). Ethiopia is a pluto-kleptocracy (a government of rich thieves, by rich thieves and for rich thieves). Two weeks ago in Hawassa, Ethiopia democracy was mocked. This past week democracy was vindicated in South Africa. Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, did something that is rarely done, seen or heard of on the African continent. He relinquished power voluntarily, peacefully and gracefully. The African National Congress asked Thabo to step down.

He was willing to oblige. No arguments. No fuss. No hassles. In a simple but dignified presidential statement, Thabo accepted his fate: “Following the decision of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress to recall President Thabo Mbeki, the president has obliged and will step down after all constitutional requirements have been met.” In his farewell speech, Thabo expressed gratitude to the South African people: “I thank you most sincerely for giving me the opportunity to serve you.” ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe commented matter-of-factly, “He didn’t display shock or any depression. He welcomed the news and agreed that he is going to participate in the parliamentary process.” What is even more fascinating is the fact that 11 members of his cabinet followed suit and submitted their resignations.

It is hard to imagine the anguish and humiliation Thabo might have felt as a result of his unceremonial “recall” from the presidency. After all, he came to office trying to fill Mandella’s gigantic shoes. Sadly, he left with muddy footprints after nine and one-half years in office. May be the ANC leadership could have been more patient and generous. Thabo had only 6 months left to complete his term. He had paid his dues in the anti-apartheid struggle. The ANC had been home and family for the Mbeki clan for well over five decades. Thabo’s father, Govan, was a co-defendant of Nelson Mandella in the 1960 Rivonia trial, and served a quarter of a century behind bars on Robben Island. For the past nine years, Thabo was a positive influence on the continent. He brokered peace deals in Rwanda, Burundi, Ivory coast and the Republic of Congo. He weathered intense criticism for his mediation efforts in Zimbabwe, but in the end he secured a power sharing agreement there. Under his leadership the South African economy expanded along with the African middle class. He had major failures too. Millions of poor black South Africans felt left behind by Thabo’s free-market economic policies. His policy orientation on HIV/AIDS was bizarre and indefensible: “A virus cannot cause a syndrome. A virus can cause a disease, and Aids is not a disease, it is a syndrome.”

The ANC could have let him be, but party politics won the day. The judge who dismissed the corruption case against Jacob Zuma, formerly Thabo’s deputy, strongly intimated that Thabo’s office had interfered in the prosecution. That was the last straw for the ANC. Thabo had to go. But in his peaceful departure, Thabo became an African superhero. While his counterparts all over the continent cling to power like barnacles on a wrecked ship, Thabo simply accepted the judgment of his party, bowed to the will of the people and left office. In doing so, he became a point of light in a continent darkened by dictatorship, corruption and widespread human rights violations. Thabo Mbeki in the end proved that he was a class act!
Why did Thabo accept the judgment of the people and the party and resign?

Statecraft in South Africa

The hallmarks of any democratic system of governance include citizen participation, representation, consensus-building, accountability, transparency, inclusiveness and institutionalization of the rule of law. The success of democratic statecraft in South Africa boil down to at least four factors: 1) visionary leaders whose singular purpose was to form a more perfect union of the diverse people of South Africa, 2) a dynamic and self-correcting majority party functioning in a multiparty system, 3) an independent judiciary and broad acceptance of the rule of law in society, and 4) a vigorous free press that ensures public accountability.

Despite the long oppression of the apartheid system, South Africa has been blessed by the presence of visionary leaders throughout its modern history. Nelson Mandela is one of the few statesmen in as many decades who commands universal respect and admiration. But the list of visionary and patriotic South African leaders includes Chief Albert Lutuli, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Albertina Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Winnie Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko and many others. These men and women of principle, conviction and extraordinary intelligence guided the struggle for equality and democracy in South Africa for decades. As anti-apartheid revolutionary leaders, these leaders sought to build one nation from the many Bantustans forcibly created by the minority white regime. Geographic integration was only one part of the equation. The other part was truth and reconciliation.

The ANC leaders successfully transitioned South Africa to democracy averting a racial bloodbath. Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was instrumental in getting out the truth about apartheid-era crimes and human rights abuses committed between 1960-1994. Those who accepted responsibility were granted amnesty and surviving victims of abuses were compensated. Visionary leadership in large part explains the electoral success of the ANC and the 70 percent of the vote it garnered in the 2004 general elections, a supermajority sufficient to single-handedly change the constitution. But South Africa’s leaders envisioned a post-apartheid society that would function on the basis of a competitive multiparty system. Today, there are some 20 plus political parties in South Africa. In 2004, the Democratic Alliance received 12% and Inkatha Freedom party (7%), accounting for nearly one-fifth of the total votes cast. In future elections, the diverse political parties are likely to give the ANC a run for its money.

Fair and equitable resolution of disputes in society is one of the central objects of any democracy. Interpreting and applying the law fairly and defending the constitution of a given society is the traditional function and role of the judiciary. In South Africa, the courts (judiciary) have both decisional independence (broad societal acceptance of the decision of courts) and structural independence (insulated from political or other interference in the performance of judicial duties). Neither the president, the parliament nor other private interests can manipulate the South African judiciary to serve as a tool of political persecution or economic, social, ethnic, religious or regional advantage. Zuma’s alleged corruption prosecution is a case in point. When Judge Chris Nicholson granted Zuma’s motion to dismiss the charges, he said it was clear that there had been political interference in the case. Nicholson commented that he was “not convinced that the applicant (Zuma) was incorrect when he averred political meddling in his prosecution.” The judge further explained that a “titanic political struggle” had been taking place between Zuma and Mbeki and that two successive justice ministers had meddled in the prosecution. He ordered the state to pay Zuma’s legal costs. Zuma’s comment: “This is a lesson that we should never keep quiet when those in power break the law. I think the judgment is a serious reflection to those who are given authority and do not use it appropriately.” This is what it means to have an independent judiciary. Sorry, no kangaroo courts in South Africa!

StateGraft and the Culture of Corruption in Ethiopia

The aim of a pluto-kleptocracy is not governance or administration. It is the privatization of the state for personal, social and/or political ends. A pluto-kleptocracy is a system of government quintessentially based on graft and systemic corruption. The leadership is driven by a vision of self-aggrandizement and domination. They will do anything to remain in power and continue to plunder the state for personal or partisan gain.

Transparency International, the compilers of the Corruption Index, define corruption simply as “the misuse of entrusted power for private gain.” Others define corruption as “an act in which the power of public office is used for personal gain in a manner that contravenes the rules of the game.” A.K. Jain, a noted authority on the economics of corruption, has argued that there are three preconditions for the existence of corruption: discretionary power (the power to arbitrarily make and administer regulations), economic rents (an economics term which refers to an extra amount paid such as a bribe to someone for something useful, in short supply or to perform a pre-existing duty) and a weak judicial system (a legal system where there is low probability of detection of corruption and certainty of prosecution and sanctions). Jain’s theory accurately describes why Ethiopia is tied with seven other countries at 126/180 on the Corruption Index.

In 2001, then-President of the ruling EPRDF government Dr Negasso Gidada said that “corruption has riddled state enterprises to the core”. He warned that the government would show “an iron fist against corruption and graft as the illicit practices had now become endemic”. Today the culture of corruption and crimes of greed have metastasized from the core of state enterprises to the entire Ethiopian body politics. Corruption takes many forms in Ethiopia ranging from the shakedown of traffic cops on the street to institutionalized bribery and systematic kleptocracy. A high level official of the regime is recorded on tape asking for millions of dollars for himself and the upper chain of command in kickbacks (commission) under the table from Chinese officials awarded public contracts. That is institutionalized bribery. Food, medicines and other foreign aid items given to help the poor in Ethiopia disappear into private hands. That is systematic kleptocracy. Public officials are given bribes to perform their public duties. That is systemic corruption. Greasing the palms of the local police and judges to not pay a traffic ticket or to obtain a favorable judgment is corruption accepted as a fact of ordinary life.

The examples of corruption in Ethiopia are limitless: Obtaining loans from state banks with the purpose of money laundering in foreign banks; buying millions of dollars of gold painted iron bars and claiming that the buyers of the gold were innocent victims of a gold scam; siphoning off money from public projects and directing public works projects to friends while maintaining secret ownership interests, selling licenses and jobs, exchanging fertilizer for votes; officially requiring an investor to disclose his business plans and then passing it on to friends to use it and freeze out the proposing investor; prosecuting political opponents on trumped up charges and misuse the judicial process; politically directing judges to decide legal disputes in a prescribed manner; delaying the administration of justice and needlessly keeping those accused of crimes in prolonged detention; overlooking violations of law or unequal application of the laws when legal disputes involve friends, relatives, party members and others; appointing friends, relatives and party members to high government positions or jobs on the basis of loyalty and not skills or knowledge; and demanding and accepting money from the public for doing public work for which one is paid a salary are just a few examples of the culture of corruption in Ethiopia. In short, the iron fisted dictatorship in Ethiopia provides an object lesson in Lord Acton’s maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This past week, the release of the 2008 Corruption Index was accompanied by a warning to donor countries to increase the level of accountability of corrupt regimes. Transparency International chair Huguette Labelle has described the corruption situation in countries like Ethiopia as a “humanitarian disaster”. Transparency International urged donor countries to be “more focused” in their aid programs to “ensure assistance strengthens institutions of governance and oversight in recipient countries.” In other words, for Ethiopia PASS H.R. 2003 AND S.B. 3457!

Some Comparative Notes

It is useful to clearly delineate the distinctions between the South African democrats and Ethiopian pluto-kleptocrats. While the South Africans eliminated ethnic homelands and Bantustans to forge one nation, the Ethiopian pluto-kleptocrats were committed to creating a system of ethnic homelands (Bantustans) in the name of “ethnic federalism” to keep the people divided so that they can exploit and dominate them perpetually. To keep their crimes and robbery of the nation’s treasury from public view, the Ethiopian pluto-kleptocrats have banned and suppressed the independent media. The free press in South Africa enjoys freedom on par with Western countries. To give a veneer of legitimacy to their actions and hoodwink the international community, the pluto-kleptocrats have converted the judicial process into a kangaroo court system where political opponents are detained arbitrarily and without justification for prolonged periods. In South Africa one trial court judge effectively forced the resignation of the state president. In Ethiopia one kangaroo judge ensures the miscarriage of justice. While Thabo has succeeded as a messenger of peace and reconciliation in Rwanda, Burundi, the Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, Zenawi has become the Lord of War in Somalia.

Lipstick on a Pig

Ethiopia’s dictators today claim that they are nurturing a “young democracy”. They claim to have instituted good governance. They want to be showered with credits and accolades for creating unprecedented economic progress in the rural areas. They have deluded themselves into believing that they have created a competitive, pluralistic system of government and a more open civil society. Blah, blah, blah. Of course, all of it is fictional nonsense. The truth of the matter is, to paraphrase Senator Obama, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper and call it ‘democracy’ but it is still going to stink after 17 years.” You can call a ruthless and bloodthirsty dictatorship a “young democracy” and make silly claims of economic progress while half of your population is starving. That dictatorship, like the pig with lipstick, is ultimately a dictatorship. There is no question that Ethiopia today is in the hands of iron-fisted dictators who could not spell the word democracy, let alone understand and practice it.

Clientelism or How to Build a Political Machine for a One Man Dictatorship

In mid-September, some 800 delegates of the so-called EPDRF party met for three days in the town of Hawassa. The outcome was predictable. According to reports, the “delegates” rubberstamped the “reform agenda of 2001” which supposedly had produced significant results through “structural transformation of the economy”. They also decided to “maintain the status quo both in policies and leadership.” Zenawi was re-elected as “party leader” for the seventh time, and is quoted as saying, “There is nothing new we are seeking to implement.” He said that his preferred policies are already under implementation and have put the country “in the process of democratic and development changes.” Along with Zenawi, the whole lot of bandidos was “reelected” including Addisu Legesse as “deputy chairperson” for the fifth time; and 36 others were elected to the “Executive Council of the EPRDF.” No new faces, it appears. One report stated, “There was hardly any policy debate among the delegates during the three days last week, whether on political or economic issues.”

The one striking thing about this party convention is the “promise” to build a political machine for a one man dictatorship. The priorities for Zenawi and his EPDRF for the next two years are revealing and stunning. He intends to build a patronage-based mass political party which incorporates several things: political training for its 4.5 million members, special training for youth and women, reform of the civil service and justice sectors and expansion of rural development, education and health and other infrastructure related projects to strengthen the party’s acceptance and dominance in society.

Political scientists describe a party system that is based on patronage (a form of corruption based on distribution of rewards for supporting a party) as “clientelism”. It is one of the old tricks in the handbook of dictators and single-party states that seek to exploit regional, ethnic and linguistic differences for their own political ends. The party organization Zenawi aims to build is based on the creation of a grassroots organizations which thrive on “patron-clients” relationships. In such a patronage system, rich and powerful kleptocratic “patrons” (officials) promise to provide relatively powerless and poor “clients” with jobs, protection, infrastructure, agricultural tools and resources, infrastructure and services and other benefits in exchange for votes and other forms of loyalty to the party. They aim to exploit the vulnerabilities of the poor by creating perpetual social and economic indebtedness for their clients. The patrons use coercion, corruption, intimidation, threats and violence to maintain control. The plan announced at Hawassa is aimed at creating a political machine based on patronage, the spoils system and “behind-the-scenes” control for the pluto-kleptocrats to expand and maintain their power perpetually. Youth training, organization of women, etc., are about creating a corps of dedicated party workers who depend on the patronage generated by rewards, government jobs and other incentives to deliver the votes.

Needless to say, the party leaders do not intend to give their 4.5 million members meaningful participation in the party. An analysis of the declarations and public statements of the party leaders at Hawassa shows that the millions of members will be merely at the beck and call of the party leaders. Party members will have very little independence from the prescribed party line and there are no structures within the party for members to use to aggregate and articulate special interest within the party. It is also clear that the broader membership will have little opportunity for direct participation or decision-making; and just like the 800 members who “participated” at Hawassa convention, the role of the broader membership will be to rubberstamp the decisions of the party bosses. By using a combination of downward communication with coercion, threats and distribution of favors to clients and supporters, the political machine to be built in the next two years is expected to deliver the votes on time, every time.

One can not escape the fact that the planned party build-up is eerily Stalinesque. Party membership is a privilege reserved for 4.5 million members (approximately 5% of the general population; “an unprecedented ratio of one ruling party member in every 20 Ethiopians” according to one report; the old Soviet communist party had approximately 10% of the adult population as members). The ultimate aim is to create a “nomenklatura” (elite ruling class) who rule Ethiopian society by divine right of party dominance and enjoy special privileges and are given access and resources by virtue of their party membership, e.g. obtain important, prestigious and powerful positions and jobs, housing and educational privileges and preferences, business opportunities, agricultural commodities and so on. Every segment of society will be tapped for the new “nomenklatura”. One can imagine that the youth will be organized in the style of “Youth Pioneers” and women would be “collectivized” to turn out the votes. The recruitment strategy is clearly explained: Focus attention on the primary and secondary schools (considered “convenient political environments”) across the country with special attention on teachers, deploy thousands of agricultural extension workers, provide targeted health and education services and improve infrastructure to areas where there is support for the ruling party, improve the civil service program (referred to as “improved governance”) by recruiting party hacks, and so on. In short, if one wants to become an elite — part of the “happenin’ group” — one must join the EPDRF.

Hijacking Democracy in Ethiopia

The yearning for a government based on the rule of law and one that guarantees the right of all citizens produces a genuine democracy. It is clear that a grand plan is now underway to permanently thwart popular democracy in Ethiopia. To paraphrase Mayor John Hylan of New York City from the early part of the last century, we now re-confirm our knowledge that the real threat to democracy in Ethiopia is a one-man-one-party dictatorship “which like a giant octopus sprawls its slimy legs over our cities, states and nation. At the head is a small group of pluto-kleptocrats. This little coterie… run government for their own selfish ends. It operates under cover of a self-created screen…seizes…our executive officers… legislative bodies…schools… courts…newspapers and every agency created for the public protection.”


  1. By Miskir says

  2. By Belete

  3. By adu

Leave a Reply