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Can Meritocracy be a Solution for Ethiopia’s Political Problems?

Can Meritocracy be a Solution for Ethiopia’s Political Problems?

Assefa A. Lemu 7-4-19


As the election period of May 2020 is approaching in Ethiopia, it would be better to start discussing the qualities that Ethiopian politicians should possess and the type of government to be formed in Ethiopia. Some argue that the current approach for the appointment of government officials which is based on quota-like should be replaced by merit based appointment. In an ideal world, it is assumed that the talented, the most able, and hard-working people will produce the best results from which both the individual and society can benefit. The question is what are the merits that we want our leaders should have and how do we know if someone has those merits or not? Who is going evaluate the presence of these merits and decide?

Plato and his teacher Socrates who was pessimist about democracy argued that the best form of government is that where political power and philosophy entirely coincide and led by “philosopher kings”. Both argued that either the kings must become philosophers or philosophers must be kings.  This thinking is based on the assumption that philosophers have the right world view, knowledge, self-restraint, selfless devotion to duty and will not be corrupted by government power. The Islamic philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi also came up with the idea of a religiously devout philosopher king, a supreme leader who is the source of all powers and knowledge in a given state. Today, Iran follows the philosophy of al-Farabi and ruled by Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme philosopher and religious leader.

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 In both Christian and Islamic world, the notion of philosopher ruler is based on the assumption that the existence of merit leads to a sense of duty and to better serve the community without looking for special reward for the service. Philosopher rulers are picked/ elected based on merit rather than simply by birth or wealth or both. Oromo Gada System, a traditional political system of Oromo in Ethiopia and Northern Kenya, uses a blend of ideas of philosopher ruler and democracy. The Gada system requires Gada officials to pass through five eight-year Gada age grades (Dabbale, Gamme, Kusa, Raba, and Dori) before they take power in the sixth grade (Luba Grade) at the age of 40 years. These Gada grades are training levels where they get the necessary merits such as courage, patience, open mindedness, reconciliatory, and oratory (Sirna, 2012: 68) to serve the community in political, social, and economic spheres if elected through a democratic process.   The ruling Gada group has responsibility to assign senior leaders and experts to instruct and council the future Gada leaders in the importance of leadership, organization, and warfare. The future Gada leaders also learn songs, parables, proverbs, cultural and historical maps, and other social skills that they can use in public speech to praise the living and dead heroes or to criticize and ridicule cowardice and traitors (Jalata 2012:135).

In addition to the individual merits or personal qualities, Gada system uses decentralization and check and balance to maintain the quality of its administration.  As Dr. Asafa Jalata put it “Gadaa government comprised a hierarchy of triple levels of government: the national, the regional and the local. At the pan-Oromo level, the national government was led by an elected luba council [leaders] formed from representatives of the major Oromo moieties, clan families and clans, under the presidency of the abbaa gadaa and his two deputies . . . The national leadership was responsible for such important matters as legislation and enforcement of general laws, handling issues of war and peace and coordinating the nation’s defense, management of intra-Oromo clan conflicts and dealing with non-Oromo people” (Jalata 2012: P.131). He also wrote “The gadaa system has the principles of checks and balances (through periodic succession of every eight years), and division of power (among executive, legislative, and judicial branches), balanced opposition (among five parties), and power sharing between higher and lower administrative organs to prevent power from falling into the hands of despots. Other principles of the system have included balanced representation of all clans, lineages, regions and confederacies, accountability of leaders, the settlement of disputes through reconciliation, and the respect for basic rights and liberties” (p.132) 

The merit system (meritocracy) worked in Gada system because the people administered by the system have common values and common understandings on the required merits. One of the challenges of meritocracy is its application in a society where there is no consensus on what is considered merit and where different groups attach different meanings, values, and weights to each merit.

In this article I will briefly discuss meritocracy and its relevance to Ethiopia’s political condition. I will also examine if meritocracy can mitigate or solve the political problems in Ethiopia or exacerbates them.

What is Meritocracy?

The word Meritocracy is built from two words mereo (Latin) and cracy (Greek) where mereo means merit and cracy means power. Literally it means power of merit. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines meritocracy as “1. A system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement; 2 (a) a group of leaders or officeholders selected on the basis of individual ability or achievement; (b) Leadership by such a group”. It defines “merit” as a demonstrated ability or achievement; superior quality or worth. Generally, merit is defined as a combination of factors including “innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity” (McNamee & Miller Jr., 2004, quoted in Alvarado, 2010). In short, merit is expressed as a sum of intelligence quotient (IQ)(ability) plus effort. Thus, meritocracy is the belief that “those who are the most talented, the hardest working, and the most virtuous get and should get the most rewards” (McNamee & Miller Jr., 2009, in Alvarado, 2010). In politics, meritocracy is the ideology that believes rulers should be chosen for their superior abilities and not because of their wealth or birth.

As most writers and researchers agree, the term meritocracy was first coined and used by a British Sociologist Michael Young in his book titled the Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) in which he described “a society where those at the top of the system ruled autocratically with a sense of righteous entitlement while those at the bottom of the system were incapable of protecting themselves against the abuses leveled by the merit elite above. Instead of a fair and enlightened society, the meritocracy was cruel and ruthless” (Alvarado, 2010). Those who are at the bottom of the society are considered as persons who lack talent, or lazy, or losers, and looked down.  That is why some writes say meritocracy erodes the sense of self-worthiness and causes self-depreciation of those who are at the bottom of the strata.

Like any other system, meritocracy has its advantages and disadvantages, but its advantages outweigh its disadvantages.  Its supporters say that meritocracy brings equality by rejecting patronage, nepotism, corruption, and incompetence for entering the civil service. It brings the best and brightest to the top because it encourages competition. They also argue that meritocracy  will initiate “…low status group members to dream about improving their social status, economic class, and place in the hierarchy, implanting the ideology that everyone has a chance of succeeding if they cultivate the required abilities” (Kim and Choi,  2017:112).

On the other hand, the opponents of meritocracy argue that meritocracy doesn’t exist, it is simply a myth. For example, in his article title “Meritocracy is a myth invented by the rich” Nathan Robinson who is the editor of current affairs of The Guardian says “In reality, there can never be such a thing as a meritocracy, because there’s never going to be fully equal opportunity. The main function of the concept is to assure elites that they deserve their position in life” (Robinson March 14, 2019). He argues that the children of the wealthy and elites are often ahead because they have accumulated advantages over their counterparts at the bottom. In his article titled “Meritocracy is a myth” James Bloodworth also wrote  Top of Form

Bottom of Form

“A disadvantaged child will nearly always and everywhere become a disadvantaged adult”. Both argue that opportunity usually follows wealth. These arguments are in line with the argument of Karl Marx who said “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” These arguments remind me the verse in Bible which says “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29).

If meritocracy is criticized for lack of fairness, lack of diversity and having subjectivity and democracy is criticized for not bringing wise leaders and good governance, then what is the best choice for Ethiopia? Yes, Derg and EPRDF leaders justified their stay in government power by referring to election. For that matter Adolf Hitler got the top government power in Germany by winning 90 percent majority vote in August 19, 1934 election. It is true that voters may be misinformed and misdirected but if we have the system that mitigates the downside of democracy, the effect will not be painful. For example, the experience of Gada system  shows that prescreening of individuals who stand for election based on their personal merits, making sure that all concerned groups deliberate on important issues, and represented in the government, as well as  having check and balance mechanism and decentralized power are very necessary. These can be obtained by using the combination of meritocracy and democracy.

Meritocracy in Ethiopian Politics

Meritocracy is better than taking power based on heredity like it was under the feudal Ethiopia and cronyism like it was under Derg and EPRDF. Even though it is not a perfect system, meritocracy in which holding government power is based on merit is a preferred system.

Singapore is one of the examples of countries that implemented the principles of meritocracy and succeeded.  The first Prime Minister of Singapore who is also recognized as the nation's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, argued “If you want Singapore to succeed…you must have a system that enables the best man and the most suitable to go into the job that needs them…” (quoted in UNDP, 2015). According to CIA’s the World Fact Book, the total number of population of Singapore is six million and, in terms of ethnic group, its populations are divided into four categories (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and “other ethnic groups”). With the population of only six million, Singapore has four official languages: English (37%), Mandarin (35%), Malay (11%) and Tamil (3%). Singapore got its independence in 1965 and became one of the prosperous countries in the world whereas Ethiopia that claims the cradleland of mankind and never colonized is still languishing in poverty and suffering from internal conflicts. This difference is mainly attributed to the difference in the governance of the two countries. 

Because of its past political history, inequality is deep rooted and inherited in Ethiopia. The children of those who have been favored in the past are still advantageous and moving ahead because either they have better wealth, or better education, or better connection, or all. The attempts to create level playing field have brought some results, but the gap is still wide.  For example, the Oromo and Amhara constitute 35% and 27% of 110 million Ethiopian populations respectively. This doesn’t mean they have proportional educated manpower or wealth. Somalis and Tigray each consist 6% of the total population of Ethiopia and have almost equal number of population. This doesn’t mean that they both have equal share of educated manpower, wealth, and political power in the country. We can take many other examples to show the inequalities among different groups, but the bottom-line is that there are inequalities in the country and level playing field is not yet there for all and it will not be there in near future. It is with this understanding that the right to equitable representation of every nation, nationality, and people is enshrine in the constitution of the FDRE. Article 39 (3) of the constitution says “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has the right to equitable representation in state and Federal governments”. In addition, Article 87 (1) of the constitution says “The composition of the national armed forces shall reflect the equitable representation of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia”.

The right for equitable representation and meritocracy are not mutually exclusive ideas. Equitable representation can be done based on merit. Equitable representation is about fair or impartial representation and it doesn’t mean the same or even or equal representation. For example, Gumuz and Amhara ethnic groups could not have equal representation in the federal government because of various reasons including difference in the total number of their population. However, they can have equitable or proportional representation. Exception is another solution which minimizes or corrects the shortcomings of meritocracy because it gives an option of taking affirmative actions. The bottom line is that Ethiopia can’t afford postponing the implementation of meritocracy on the excuses of the existence of inequality or absence of level playing field.


Theoretically, meritocracy where the appointments and responsibilities are assigned to individuals based on their merits which are determined through objective evaluations is a beautiful idea. It is based on the assumption that everyone has a chance of rising to any hierarchy if they have the required merit.  Unfortunately, the practical experiences show us that success is not necessarily the function of ability because there are many factors which contribute to or constrain it.

To achieve the desirable result from the implementation of meritocracy, two conditions must exist: “equality of opportunity” and “impartial competition”.  In the absence of equal opportunity, those who got opportunities that are not available to others will get ahead while others fall behind and this create inequality. Therefore, giving equal opportunity for everyone and assuring the existence of impartial competition is a challenge. In today’s Ethiopia, since we don’t have level playing field which gives equal opportunity for everyone, the implementation of pure meritocracy will exacerbate the already existing inequalities. Thus, the recommended approach is implementing meritocracy and democracy with some exceptions to take affirmative actions (positive discriminations) by overriding merit requirements.  To some extent, this can correct lack of diversity and fairness.


1.      Alvarado, Lorriz Anne. 2010.  Dispelling the Meritocracy Myth: Lessons for Higher Education and Student Affairs Educators. The Vermont Connection, 210, Volume 31.

2.      UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence .2015. Meritocracy for Public Service Excellence.

3.      Sirna, Zelalem Tesfaye. May 2012. Ethiopia: When the Gadaa Democracy Rules in a Federal State Bridging Indigenous Institutions of Governance to Modern Democracy.  M.A Thesis for Master of Philosophy in Indigenous Studies

4.      Jalata, Asafa. March 2012.  Gadaa (Oromo Democracy): An Example of Classical African Civilization.  The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.5, no.1, March 2012.

5.      Robinson, Nathan. March 14, 2019. Meritocracy is a myth invented by the rich. The Guardian.

6.      Kim, Chang-Hee and Choi, Yong-Beom.  2017. How Meritocracy is Defined Today?: Contemporary Aspects of Meritocracy. Economics & Sociology, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2017,

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