Democracy and Nationalism

AdW: You insist that Ethiopia must be a democratic developmental state. But many people would argue that while you have delivered on the development, there hasn’t been any progress on democracy.

MZ: 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. Part of it is false promises of all the goodies that will come taking power. Part of it is the windfall profits of privatizing key sectors such as banking and telecoms and selling off profitable corporations such as Ethiopian Airlines. And part of it is the zero-sum political calculus of winner takes all, loser takes nothing. 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 hegemonic developmentalism so that when they rotate in and out of office, the fundamentals of the national project aren’t in dispute.


AdW: But I worry that this is tantamount to saying to the Ethiopian people, you can have democracy, but only in a watered-down version, and you will have to wait until we’re a middle-income country.

MZ: That is precisely why we cannot afford to wait. We have to push ahead with this accelerated development. We must have growth, growth, growth. The pressures for a conventional liberal democracy are there and cannot be contained indefinitely. What’s essential for our national survival is that we have achieved sufficient economic growth that when the transition comes, it is manageable and doesn’t jeopardize our developmental state.

We can’t have patriotism with an empty belly and we can’t have democracy with an empty belly either. Take your issue of food security which we have discussed so much. Imagine if there is a serious drought or another so-called world food crisis and we let the market take care of it: the price of staple food in Ethiopia will double. That’s a national security emergency: look at how food price rises led to the Arab Spring. Even in our much more backward economy in the 1970s the starvation in Wollo was one of the immediate causal factors in the overthrow of the Imperial regime. We estimate that if the prices of teff and other cereals go up by 50 percent in the main urban markets we will have serious disturbances on our hands, and so we cannot let that happen. Our national food security must be centrally managed. If we liberalize this sector we are taking a risk that we cannot afford to run.

Don’t underestimate this danger. We have been lucky, but we are not in the clear on this yet.

AdW: You are persuasive about the dangers of reckless liberalization. But is there a roadmap for achieving it in a more managed manner?

MZ: The trajectory for the evolution of democracy must focus on the norms and values that make democracy real. We don’t have the social and economic base for following the western model of democratizing through a piecemeal expansion of rights, though those will come in due course. It is not enough to have a political economy of value-creation: the democratic ethos also has to be hegemonic. Germany from 1870-1945 was a classic case of value creation in the economic sphere but without the democratic ethos. We need a ‘whole cloth democracy’ which will have many impurities that need to be eliminated as we go along. We have inherited many problems from our feudal past including value systems. The opposition is not comfortable with the constitution as such: they wanted to change the constitution by unconstitutional means. They play the democratic game in order to throw out the rules of the game.

AdW: You have massively expanded the membership of the EPRDF, and fused it in with the governmental apparatus. Isn’t that dangerous for the prospects of democratization? Doesn’t that invite exactly the danger that you are concerned to avoid—that a change in government or even a challenge to the EPRDF rule will actually dismantle the apparatus of government itself?

MZ: In the wake of the setbacks of 2005, we had no choice but to emphasize the developmental project, and seek hegemony for developmentalism. We need our people to internalize value creation; to drink it, to breathe it.

But you are right that we must move on from that stage. Our party used to be a vanguard party in which the production of ideas, debate on policy, and implementation were all extremely high quality and were seamless. We never had a problem with implementation because the same individuals who were engaged in producing the policies were those that implemented them. We were close to the ideal type of democratic centralism. We cannot do that anymore: our state is much more complicated and our party has changed its character, to become a transmission belt instead of a vanguard.

One of the things that are striking about developed countries is the proliferation of think tanks, set up by political parties, government departments, corporations, and philanthropists. As Ethiopia develops we are going to need those kinds of institutions. That’s why I was enthusiastic about your proposal regarding the Tana Forum and why we need to do similar things for social and economic policy. We need the element of plurality in thinking about African development.

AdW: The most controversial element in the Ethiopian constitution is the organization of administration and politics by a national group and the right of self-determination. I have always been intrigued by the fact that you adopted the Soviet definition of nations and a Soviet-style multi-national constitution, because that element of Marxist-Leninism is theoretically the weakest, and was deeply problematic in government—in fact, it led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and the USSR at just about the same time as you were introducing it here in Ethiopia.

MZ: The issue of nationalities is one that we cannot ignore. It was the question that broke the Dergue and it would have broken us too, had we not adopted the approach that we did. This is the other element to democracy in Ethiopia that you cannot overlook. In Taiwan and South Korea there was no issue of nationalities: they are entirely mono-ethnic societies and they could pursue their developmental state on an authoritarian basis accordingly. We cannot do that because the people would not stand for it.

AdW: Let me explain my thinking more. Modern nationalism is a product of industrialization: nation-states emerged from the industrial revolution and the administrative apparatus necessary for the organization of mass production, as well as military competition among industrial states both in Europe and for colonies. In pre-industrial agrarian economies, there is no such thing as nationalism in this sense: it is a product of historical change.

Two things follow from this. The first is that any attempt to define nations and nationalities in a non-industrial society involves applying a set of more-or-less arbitrary criteria concerning language, culture, territory, etc. If the criteria are adjusted even ever-so-slightly, the groups or populations that are identified as nations will alter, their boundaries will change, etc. The second is that economic development—of exactly the kind that

Ethiopia is undergoing now—will change the character of those national entities. People will migrate, they will be organized differently, cultures will change. This is normal. So how will your definition of ‘nation’ change as Ethiopia industrializes? And what does this mean for the constitution?

MZ: This is a critically important point that we have not resolved. It may be the most politically sensitive and explosive question that we need to face. Our federal formula was devised during the transition in negotiation with the OLF. Having been the most articulate element in defining the Oromo people, and demanding self-determination for them, the OLF were unable to form a coherent political programme that could represent those Oromo people. They regressed to a narrow nationalism that is the obverse of developmentalism or democratic nationalism. Meanwhile, the chauvinists adopted another pathology of nationalism, inherited from the feudal-imperial past, of a pan-Ethiopian chauvinism that refuses to recognize other national-cultural entities as equals. For us to move forward it is absolutely essential that the equal status of nations and nationalities is not only enshrined in the Federal Constitution but is internalized as part of our common political discourse. This is the foundation of democratic nationalism.

AdW: But I still see some big problems. Nations are not static and unchanging, especially when they are entities within a ‘nation of nations’. Isn’t there a danger of getting stuck with a system that cannot adapt to historical changes—especially with the pace of economic development that is now occurring?

MZ: That is why we are decentralizing important elements of governance, such as budgeting, to the zonal level and even lower. We need to have the right balance between the powers that are held at all different levels of government. If we invest too much in one single layer, there is the danger that the corresponding level of officialdom will become rent-seekers based on the outsized administrative privileges of that particular level. When the system was designed in 1991, the nations determined the administration. We want to avoid a situation in the future where the administration determines the nations, which is what doomed Yugoslavia and the USSR.

There is also no reason why the EPRDF should be comprised of constituent parties that match the federal entities and are confined to them. There is no other federal system where party politics is run on this basis. We are considering making the EPRDF into a single unified national party. This would be a logical step, but it needs to be taken at the correct time with all the necessary preparation.


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