Liberal democracy is no liberator.
- Written by ibro


CRN) 05 NOV 2O19 diagnosed two existential threats: a perpetuation of poverty and a lack of accommodation of ethnic diversity. To survive state collapse and prosper, EPRDF ideologues argued, Ethiopia needed a system that respected ethnic diversity and delivered rapid economic growth. Revolutionary democracy was the vanguard party ideology designed to achieve this.

To address poverty, revolutionary democratic state-building justified the rapid expansion of the party-state into all spheres of Ethiopia’s socio-cultural and -economic fabric. Recognizing the forces of the global market economy, the Ethiopian state also assumed the role of stimulating growth. The Democratic Developmental State (DDS) was the name given to this form of dirigisme. This was justified on the grounds that rapid economic growth and development must be relatively egalitarian, with a focus on agrarian transformation and industrialisation.

Addressing ethnic diversity, revolutionary democracy focused on group rights and offered recognition to historically marginalized communities. It attended to the weight of long struggles for recognition by various ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The constitution and the ethnic-based federal system adopted in 1995—the culmination of ethnic liberation fronts overthrowing the unitary Derg regime—are evidence of this.

Both the DDS and Revolutionary Democracy contain the word ‘democracy.’ However, the way democracy was defined by EPRDF ideologues was different from the liberal sense. While liberal democracy sees elections, political freedom, and other related rights as ends, revolutionary democracy sees them as a means to an end. That is, democracy can be guaranteed if, and only if, economic growth and just representation of group rights are achieved.

Along this road to democracy, EPRDF considered constitutionally enshrined rights to self-rule for minority ethnic groups as evidence of the democratic nature of its system. Also, ‘democracy’, on its terms, partly referred to the mass mobilisation of farmers for ‘developmental’ and political activities, and also described the EPRDF’s party-culture of internal deliberation and evaluation (e.g. gimgema). As much as EPRDF claimed it was committed to parliamentary democracy, it was clear that, over the last decade at least, it was against democratic movements that might infringe upon the economic growth achieved through the DDS model. Developmentalism was untouchable, and beyond the scope of democracy.

This is captured in Meles Zenawi’s conversation with Alex de Waal, where he said: “Let’s be clear what we mean when we talk about democracy: it must be a democracy of real choices. If we allow unfettered political competition today, the rent-seekers will be able to offer far more to the voters than a developmental party can.” And, “That kind of democracy isn’t offering real choices. What would be a real choice is between different paths to value-creating development. We could have a dominant party system, as we have today, with different views expressed within the party. Or we could have competition between two parties, each of them subscribing to a hegemonic developmentalism… .” This, clearly, is an understanding of democracy distinct from the one offered by liberal democracy.

But more recently, it seems, liberal democracy is gaining unprecedented support in Ethiopia. The support is observed not just among an urban elite, but also among the poor and those in rural areas, although perhaps it is too soon to distinguish their enthusiasm for a new system from their desire for change from the old one. Calls for political liberties, genuine parliamentary democracy, and related democratic reforms are common. Even those participating in what can be captured as “identity politics” seem committed to such liberal reforms. Internally, EPRDF is also embracing it under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Adopting liberal democracy in Ethiopia has unpredictable implications. In part, this is because Ethiopia, in its long history, has never had a system close to it. However, at least two things can be said with conviction. First, the DDS model—which brought unprecedented economic transformation—is being altered into a more liberal, free-market economy: a move from Meles’ ‘dead-end’ to Abiy’s ‘new horizon.’ Second, the struggle for recognition faces an uphill stretch.

Arguably, liberal democracy will not be able to satisfy the long struggle for recognition by various Ethiopian nations. But before examining that, what exactly is the concept of “struggle for recognition?” And, how can we understand the Ethiopian version?

The Struggle for Recognition

To grasp the concept, we can trace its intellectual origin back to Phenomenology of Spirit, a work by the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Hegel. Here, it is the 20th century French-Russian political theorist of Hegel’s work, Alexander Kojeve, who will help us understand Hegel’s theory of recognition through his book Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.

For Hegel, humans have a natural desire for recognition. Hegel’s first man—i.e. before the formation of society—forces another man to recognize him. Since both have an innate desire to be recognized, they immediately get into a struggle for recognition. Hegel’s man is attacking the other man just for recognition. After winning the battle, Hegel’s man can exploit the other, take his property, and so on. However, the primary goal of the attack was achieving recognition. Therefore, for Hegel’s man, being recognized as a superior by the other has more significance than using him for material gain.

Man risks his physical well-being, economic well-being, and even his life in the fight for recognition. In fact, for Hegel, this is what makes us human. Animals, always being interested in their physical well-being, never get into a fight for mere recognition, only for material gain; or for status, which leads to material gain. Man, however, has this unique freedom to act against his animal desire of self-preservation and risk his life for recognition.

This is why we should not primarily think about the economic interests of a group fighting for recognition. They may gain a desirable material outcome, but such gains are incidental, not essential. In major, historical examples of ‘struggles for recognition’, such as the civil rights and feminist movements, a desire to be recognized as an equal played an essential role. In these movements the fight was for a group’s dignity, equality, respect, being considered a fellow human, and other related concepts of recognition. Neither African-Americans nor women merely fought for a more just distribution of economic goods or better income. Their fight, primarily, was for recognition of their equal worth.

The struggle for recognition in Ethiopia

Nonetheless, such struggles are easily confused with quests for a more just distribution of goods. Analyzing, say, the question of Sidama statehood or Oromo’s fight for the recognition of Addis Abeba as the capital city of Oromia from an economic perspective is common. But when an Oromo is outraged about the fact that their language is not used as a federal language; when a Sidama is not happy with the lack of Sidama statehood, when smaller groups were granted their own regions; or, when any other person from a particular ethnic group raises similar questions, they are not talking about economic well-being. It is recognition that they are talking about. Where is the direct economic benefit, for instance, in the strong demand of the Oromo people for Adama not to be called Nazreth?

The 1960s student revolutionaries, who gave form to the now prevalent and sometimes ugly identity politics in Ethiopia, did not confuse questions of recognition with economic ones, although, as Marxists, they highlighted economic injustice. Their call for radical land reform—“land to the tiller”—captures the economic question. But as much as they wanted to see the end of the exploitation of powerless tenants by their landlords in the gabbar system go away, they also understood the weight of the ‘question of nations’: a question of recognition.

Surprisingly, given the time passed, today’s identity politics revolves around similar questions. The revolutionary students’ point was clear: Ethiopia is a nation that does not recognize the diversity of identities that it has due to the cultural hegemony of Orthodox Christian highlanders. Walleligne Mekonnen, in his influential article On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia, wrote, “to be an Ethiopian, you will have to wear an Amhara mask.” This captured the core thesis the students wanted to negate. It also captures what many of those participating in identity politics today think they want to achieve: being able to take off what they believe is the Amhara mask and make sure their authentic identity is recognized in the Ethiopian sphere.

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