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Teshome Abebe*

February 27, 2016


Why This Article


It has been creeping up on us for a while now. As current political protests in the form of dissent inevitably morph into disobedience followed by resistance and conceivably into a revolution, the crisis of authority will take its toll on the nation and everything it has been trying to overcome.  Sadly, one is forced to lament the historical coincidences that the rule of law in Ethiopia is no more than a fragile peace barely surviving between major conflicts and even wars. In this article I uphold the contention that the current protests in Ethiopia are causing serious threats to parts of the country; contemplate the likely future form of the protests based on current trajectory; and conclude, contrary to widely held opinion, that the ruling party could paradoxically emerge as indispensable to the country and its near-term future.


Protests in Action


In one of the most detailed studies of the politics of protests, Weimann and Kaplan address what motivates protests and the likely patterns they may follow. They assert that the primary need of a protest is for power to control the process of need satisfaction. As a result, there will be demands, and these demands may be escalated precisely in order to pass the bounds of what can be given. What the protestor really wants to take from the authorities is their departure. They further assert that protests by their nature are not just goal oriented, they are also an expression of a state of mind: the loss of respect for authority!


Surprisingly, those who oppose protests (the authorities) typically lack both the wisdom and courage: wisdom to discern and fulfill real needs before protests take place; and courage to resist the transformation of protest into the coercion of decisions.


The easiest form of protest to understand is dissent, which is an expression of a point of view contrary to a decision already taken. The dissent is meant either to limit the application of the decision, or to lead to revoking the decision altogether. In democratic societies, dissent is seen as a form of free speech. The early protests of the Oromo masses in Ethiopia appeared to have been couched precisely on the Master Plan for Addis Ababa and its implications for the surrounding communities. In that instance, the protestors achieved what they wanted: the revocation of a decision already taken.


Developmentally, protests graduate from dissent to action in disobedience.  In disobedience, the action is not limited to a dissenting view, but is augmented by refusing to comply with what is ordered by the authorities. Because this form of protest is generally based on principle, it is usually publicly announced and even staged. It is also usually recognized as ‘civil’, implying that the sense of community is not being challenged, and the legal framework of power remains intact. What is being challenged here is the particular offensive action of the authorities.


While disobedience is limited to the self, the next stage of protest, resistance, goes beyond just disobedience of the individual to the prevention of obedience by anyone else as well. Here the protestor is not limited to himself or actions just by himself, but he/she forces disobedience on others.  Researchers have estimated that a quarter of the Palestinians killed during the Intifada were by other Palestinians, for ‘cooperating with the authorities’.


Finally, protest can take the form of revolution, which is really directed, not against any specific authority, but against the general structure of authority in society. Ethiopians know full well, that in a revolutionary situation there is no longer a shared set of values to provide a basis for action. Revolutions set out to destroy whatever might remain of shared values. Because revolutions are a civil war against society, they are indeed “the rupture of conscience and the rupture of community”. The role players here are, as always, emerging rival counter-elites on their way to dominance.


In his authoritative book The War Against Authority, N. N. Kittrie asserts that the causes of dissent are: from the protestor’s points of view a) frustrated expectations, and b) status incongruity; and on the part of the government c) overreaction, and d) arrogance.  Kittrie’s assertions are based on a thorough study of principles invoked and used by and against rebels, dissidents, terrorists, as well as minorities in several countries around the world, including Ethiopia.


What is true and undeniable is that all of the above mentioned forms of protest have unanticipated and unintended consequences. There are some ills of which we do know, and there are those that are unknowable. What we can state unequivocally, however, is that as any protest movement goes through the various stages, it inevitably leads to the diminution or shift of the authority and legitimacy of the government.


Authority and Legitimacy


So what gives a state its authority and legitimacy? No doubt that heaps of volumes have been written on the subject, but suffice it to state for this purpose that the state is legitimate if it delivers important benefits; or that it is legitimate if its citizens consent to it. Political theorists assert that both of these views support or complement the view that legitimacy requires popular approval. In other words, legitimacy emerges when those under the authority believe or are shown that it is beneficial or rational to obey the authority, and we can tell if they have this belief by their approval of the state.


It follows from the above, that if a government is legitimate, then in some way, the fact that it has power is right or is justified. If it is right that it has power, then we can argue that we ought to obey it. If it is objectionable that it has power, then we don’t have an obligation to obey it.


Plato had a different view of this when he asserted that it is not just ‘consent’ that matters in lending legitimacy to authority; but what really matters is legitimate practical authority—i.e. skills matter the most.  In this view, a state is legitimate only if those in power have knowledge of how to rule, and skills on ruling.  It is not lost on the minds of other great thinkers to counter this argument by positing that what is important and valuable is being able to choose in the first place.


Authority and Legitimacy in Ethiopia


It would be the height of silliness to assume and/or expect the TPLF/EPRDF to lose its dominance as well as power solely as a result of the current political crisis. That would be unthinkable to the die-hard supporters of the party, and it should be food for thought for those that aspire to chase it out of power. In the following paragraphs, I will argue, that all is not well for the TPLF/EPRDF even if it overcomes the current challenges, however.


One of the most serious, and perhaps, mortal problems the government faces is what has been identified by Montesquieu (called “the real French equivalent of Adam Smith” by John M. Keynes) as ‘sectors of corruption’. According to this view, there are two sectors of corruption in society: one when people do not observe the laws; the other is when the laws corrupt people.  Here, protest is an attack on the second kind of corruption. If the current protests in Ethiopia are in some way connected to the fact that the laws extant have corrupted authority—regardless of whose laws—then, there is no sense for people in seeking legal redress when the law itself is the agent of injustice. This would pose a serious threat to authority and legitimacy, and any appeal in the name of law and order, as has been the case over the past few months, would fall on deaf ears, as people would have nothing to do with ‘law and order’ that perpetuates injustice.


There are other serious threats, which cumulatively, could unravel the authority and legitimacy of the TPLF/EPRDF. The first of these would be if the protests of today evolve into resistance, and that in turn becomes widespread. In a situation of widespread resistance, the authorities will have to treat all resistance to their rule as belligerency rather than criminal acts. This is so because they will be able to neither kill everyone nor have enough prisons to house them. The real effect of this is a shift of authority and legitimacy away from the authorities.


Second, the overall legitimacy and authority of the state may decline or shift because of the nature of its rule. If as is frequently alleged, the TPLF owns almost everything in society and controls all institutions, then under these conditions, it would not be hard to imagine that entire classes of citizens to be viewed as suspects or committing every political offense. This is a recipe for the marginalization of majorities, and not a particularly attractive way of endearing loyalty.


Furthermore, having shown a measure of patience over the protestors in Oromia and Amhara regions over the past few months, and having concluded what it called ‘consultations’ with local authorities, the government has just announced that the emphasis from now on will be more on justice and punishment and less on education and intervention (my emphasis). As stated above, however, the more the state flexes its muscle, the less its power of persuasion, and the less its authority and legitimacy.


Third, the overall legitimacy and authority of the state is bound to decline because of the ruling party’s commitment to single salvation doctrines that are currently in place. On the political front, the single salvation doctrine in place is ethnic based federalism centered on ethnic killils. It would not be an exaggeration to state that this has produced more angst for the authorities and for the nation than the benefits it has delivered. On the economic front, the single salvation doctrine in place is the ‘developmental state’ intertwined with a form of ethnic capitalism (the process of deriving social or economic value from the ethnic identity of a person or polity). One of the assumptions for the basis of the developmental state is a highly trained and disciplined work force, not to mention the incompatibility of other unstated assumptions, such as a unified state as well as the presence of a homogeneous society that shares common values.  Complicating these single salvation doctrines, the authorities have unnecessarily exasperated their relationship with the governed by making almost all other ideas unwelcome or even opposing them sternly, though there has been recent talk of some positive movement on the economic policy front.


Fourth, the overall legitimacy and authority of the state will shift because of the increasingly pluralistic nature of the globalized economy and the diffusion of technology; the social and economic policy imperatives of other countries; the national and/or ethnic unrest in the region; the climatic and/or environmental factors and their consequences at home; when the choices the state makes cease to satisfy the people; and when the people can no longer identify with the state as ‘ours’. And, finally, in the modern era “the authority of government is weak because its powers are great” and vast, where every decision must be negotiated and is open to challenge, and every group must be heard—usually with conflicting objectives.


The Paradoxical Implications and the Way Forward


The integrative objective of this article would not have been met if we could not provide an outline of the implications of the analysis contained herein. So, what are the implications, and what is the way forward?


Arguably, some of my readers would suggest that the TPLF/EPRDF has failed in most or all of the factors mentioned above, and has, therefore, lost or is on the verge of losing its authority and, therefore, legitimacy. While some might take issue with my impartiality on a given topic, and they have a right to do so, I believe that they do not have a basis for questioning my non-neutrality on the question of Ethiopia. In that spirit, I pose the following hypothetical questions: if, out of sheer benevolence, the TPLF/EPRDF government were to announce any time now that it is giving up power, and that the time has come for others to step in and manage the country. Which group would one prefer? Which group would possess the skills—organizational and governing—to step in and provide leadership that would be credible, truly democratic and unifying?


It is precisely this issue to which I now turn.  The current political crisis may indeed weaken the government. It might even lead to a diminution of both its authority as well as legitimacy. The TPLF/EPRDF has a number of both internal as well as external weaknesses. Its ethnic based governance structure is abhorred by most, and has spawned existential problems for it; its reliance on just one ethnic group to effectively run the entire country is causing serious rifts that have been swept under the rug for too long; there are serious questions about the constitution itself; the party’s current focus on just the absence of good governance as a ‘danger’ to the country and the party’s rule has obscured the problems the system has created and, thus, undermined the party’s credibility; in absolutely essential and important questions to Ethiopians, like the ‘unity’ of Ethiopia, the party has waffled; and there are other factors that we could list here as well. Inexplicably, the party seems to view the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia only as incidental to its rule. These are concepts that are foreign to the vast majority of Ethiopians, and it is offensive to their senses. Yet, one must also ask the hard questions of the ‘opposition’ as well. When was the last time since the 2005 elections that you have shown minimal organizational skills that are not susceptible to external manipulations; when was the last time you have shown a unified stand on the important questions that affect and define the unity of Ethiopia; when was the last time you have defined and maintained an unshakeable stand on the issues important to the country even if you were under, admittedly, the weight of appalling circumstances that have been dealt you by the party in power; and finally, when was the last time you were able to state clearly, unambiguously and forthrightly what Ethiopia and Ethiopian society would look like after your struggle with the TPLF/EPRDF is over? Answering these questions would require unity, boldness and a useful and relevant theory applicable to the Ethiopian experience.


The Way Forward


Authority and legitimacy are important governing intangibles that cannot be ignored. The diminution or absence of authority and legitimacy could spell the disintegration of any society, and in the case of Ethiopia, our country. As I see it, the nation is in danger (and I have written about this elsewhere). It is in danger partly because: it has a history of being difficult to govern, and that history may be playing itself out again; the ruling party has failed to acknowledge and correct major mistakes; and ‘opposition’ parties have lacked wisdom, skills, vision and unity to propose alternative models of governance structures that appeal to the interest of Ethiopians as well as make sense to their age old belief in a common destiny.


In my last article titled, “A Call for Constitutional Reform”, I argued that if there is anything that we, Ethiopians, have to talk about, if we were ever to have a national dialogue, it should start with a conversation about the constitution.  The state is created through our agreement about the constitution. The constitution, any constitution is, therefore, an agreement between the people. That agreement is with other people as citizens. As such, a constitution that is contrived, forced, and is somehow foisted upon the citizens cannot be viewed as an agreement between citizens. We value, follow and respect the constitution because we value and respect other citizens as our equals, and we honor our agreements with citizens because it is in our interest to do so. No one benefits because of this agreement except the citizens who initiated and agreed to it. The government is created because of it and is not the creator. Our obligation as citizens is, therefore, to other citizens and no one else. That is precisely why our conversations should begin with the constitution.


If authority, and hence, legitimacy of the government erode, everything that Ethiopians have been building including their way of life will vanish or be replaced by coercion or force. This force could be constitutional force meaning an agreement among and between all of the people of Ethiopia; or ‘disordered force’ meaning violent chaos. It is precisely this paradoxical condition that makes the ruling party indispensible to the imperatives of the times. The more authority and legitimacy erode, the more civil unrest. The more civil unrest, the more the chances of ‘disordered force’. The ruling party has gained bureaucratic know how; and for now, it enjoys the support of the world powers; it commands the military; and most importantly, it has the practical and moral duty to see to it that any change taking place in the country is through constitutional force.  Having propagated the concept all along, albeit for the purpose of maintaining its advantages, nothing less should be acceptable to it now. As a consequence, it can arguably be viewed to enjoy a particularly useful and constructive position in the Ethiopian polity. It can choose to use this unique role in the pursuit of establishing or maintaining an Ethiopian identity and become an inspiration to all of us in the process.


Finally, if we think in purely democratic terms, Ethiopia belongs to all of her children, including those who may have differing views than ourselves. That is why we must begin a national dialogue in earnest; there may not be a better way to start that other than the constitution itself; and there can not now be anyone else but the party in power to make that happen.


*Teshome Abebe is Professor of Economics, and former Provost at both EIU and FSU. He may be reached at: I have attempted to integrate work from different disciplines in an effort to fully appreciate the topic of political authority and legitimacy.




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