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Shining a Light on the Darkness: Thoughts on Democracy

Shining a Light on the Darkness: Thoughts on Democracy

Elias Dawit 10-04-20

Every country experiences the ups and downs of democracy. Today, the United States is at a crossroads, faced with an executive branch overturning the guardrails of the Constitution and tramping on the rights of the American people.

America’s current problems in holding a free and fair election, maintaining the independence of democratic institutions, upholding the Constitution, protecting rule of law, and holding back a creeping authoritarianism from the executive branch are not unknown in other parts of the world. Democracy is a constant work in progress.

The people of Tigray are facing many of the same challenges Americans are in maintaining their hard-won democracy. It is in the spirit of the over centuries-old bilateral relations and strategic partnership that Tigrayans should offer some advice and words of encouragement to their brothers and sisters in the United States.

The people of Tigray have recently undergone resistance from their federal government in holding a free and fair election. The federal government attempted to completely deny them their fundamental democratic right to choose their leaders by simply canceling the election.

Tigrayans have paid a steep price to exercise this right. Every family in Tigray has lost a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a mother or a father to the struggle for democracy. Not so long ago, a repressively brutal government rained bombs across their towns and villages; denied them food during a famine. After suffering so many losses and enduring so much pain, how could the people of Tigray kneel down to a petty tyrant’s abdication of the Constitution to simply maintain his fragile hold on power?

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And so, against the orders of an authoritarian government and the urgings of a hypocritical international community, Tigray held its election. The people exercised their democratic right, and, in Tigray, the people remained true to the Ethiopian Constitution.

At this time, people worldwide are saddened by the U.S. government’s attempts to deny its people this fundamental right. We all have watched in shock and horror as the U.S. government disenfranchises its minority populations, sets formidable barriers to members of the opposition party to vote safely, and discredits a free and fair electoral process with long-established and respected procedures.

Americans have generously sent their people to far off places around the world to serve as election observers—outside witnesses to be a check on the freeness and fairness of the electoral process. Perhaps it is time the global community returns the favor.  

The people of Tigray might want to consider offering its support to the people of the United States in protecting this foundational democratic right—not as external agents promoting an “orange revolution” but fellow global citizens who wish only to witness a free and fair election.

Of course, as in all aspirational democratic countries, elections are just part of the process.

Democratic institutions such as the legislative branch and the judiciary are a bulwark against the authoritarianism of an unchecked executive. In the U.S., the Republican Party-controlled Senate has turned its head away from the corruption, incompetence, and authoritarianism of its party leadership. The Department of Justice has openly worked to undermine the rule of law to protects the interests of the President. In today’s America, leaders have chosen party over country in a brazen attempt to subvert the will of its citizens.

In today’s Ethiopia as well, democratic institutions are compromised by caustic partisanship and a lack of independence. The parliament is a rubber-stamp institution that serves as an extension of the Prime Minister’s office.  The judiciary, along with other institutions such as the National Electoral Board, takes their orders from the palace—abrogating the independence they are given by the Constitution.

Sadly, this is also true in the United States. The rule of law in America has been sacrificed to the corrupt interests of its President. In stunningly transparent actions, the President has rejected the constitutionally guaranteed oversight function of the Congress, overreached and abused his power to protect his personal interests and wealth, and appointed partisan judges to the federal courts who tragically chose to pledge fealty to their patron rather than the Constitution.

Americans, like Ethiopians, are clinging to an ephemeral outline of democratic governance that has no substance—ready to dissipate with a mere swat of a hand.

In today’s Ethiopia, there is a cultish devotion to the head of government based on performative acts that reduce governance to theatre. These performances—planting trees, doing push-ups with soldiers, and pretending to be a traffic policeman—debase the office of the Prime Minister and demonstrate an alarming lack of personal self-awareness. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, like the American President, seems incapable of carrying out the hard work of governance and, instead, becomes a consumer product that is marketed to the people as a figurative head of government.

At the heart of this performative governance is the creeping authoritarianism that begins to corrode the body politic. Nationalism provides a useful cover for grievance politics aimed at creating chaos and confusion. In all this chaos and confusion, hate speech replaces political discourse while the twin forces of authoritarianism and repression extend their tentacles to silence and suffocate the voices of reason.

We urge Americans everywhere to stand up to tyranny yet again and reclaim their country. America has stood at the forefront of universally held aspirations that serve as a yardstick of democracy worldwide. The people of Tigray, just under five million in a country of over 110 million, has shown us all it can be done.

Dr. Martin Luther King said that “The quality and not the longevity of one’s life is what’s important.” The same can be said for democracy. The United States is one of the world’s oldest democracies, yet its democracy is only is as good as it is today. Democracy in Ethiopia is only a flicker in three millennia of existence. Yet we saw, against all odds, this flicker burn brighter and stronger with one mighty act of defiance in one very small place.

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