Looking Ahead

Donald Levine

University of Chicago


A half century ago, the ill-fated coup attempt against Emperor Haile Sellassie I in December 1960 marked the moment when Ethiopia entered the era of modernizing revolutions. The event, I have argued (www.eineps.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=746), became the first of several missed opportunities that Ethiopia suffered while trying to become a politically modern state. In hopes that the 2010 elections may offer an opportunity that this time Ethiopians might seize with complete success, I offer some thoughts on the challenging year ahead. 


First off, let us acknowledge that nearly all parties involved in the tragic events of 2005 seem determined not to repeat their major mistakes. The Government will not again react with excessive violence to demonstrations or public protests. Opposition candidates will not refuse to accept the positions to which they were duly elected. Both sides will probably refrain from the most grievously inflammatory elements of their electoral rhetoric and focus on issues. 


Second, let us acknowledge that Ethiopia's difficulties during the past half century reflect the growing pains of any country moving from an absolute monarchy to a modern democratic state. Compare Ethiopia, then, not with countries that already attained the conditions of functioning democracies, whereby governments change hands through popular elections–like the U.S., France, Ghana, and now Japan–but with the small group of nations that have had to deal with similar circumstances.  These include Iran, Thailand, and Afghanistan. Like Ethiopia, these three countries each possessed a core of indigenous traditions as a historic state.  Those traditions helped them withstand colonization during the era of European imperial expansion. At the same time, their patterns of deeply-rooted authoritarian rule at the national level posed stark challenges to their advance toward a modern political system. In 1960, no one really could predict how they would handle that massive challenge.  By the mid-1970s, all of them were riven by violent political storms. And today, each of them faces serious internal conflicts.


On the stage of world history Iran was the best known of these states, for being heir to the mighty empire of Persia that flourished as early as the 6th century BCE.  The honorific title of its ancient emperors was shahanshah, king of kings, comparable to negusa negest.  Retrieving that title, the 20th-century Pahlavi kings initiate robust efforts to modernize the country economically and culturally from the top down. These began with King of Kings Reza Shah Pahlavi (1926-41) and continued with his son Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-78)–the latter's reign punctuated by the short, promising regime of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh in which the king was briefly removed. In 1961, the same year that Haile Selassie introduced minor administrative reforms in the wake of the December 1960 coup, the Shah started an ambitious program of economic growth–the “White Revolution”– involving large-scale land reform and technical modernization. Yet politically, he wielded an extremely authoritarian scepter backed up by the SAVAK, a ruthless secret police. In 1978 the fundamentalist Islamist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah, installing a no less repressive regime.  The slaughter of vote protesters during this year’s election forms a massive blot on the country’s political record, not to mention the massive human rights violations produced under the Ayatollahs.  As of this writing, waves of protest against the 2009 elections continue to be met with violent repression by the state.


Siam's political modernization began in 1932–the year after Haile Selassie offered Ethiopia its first Constitution–when the Thai military overthrew the king and announced a constitutional monarchy. In 1935 the king abdicated and his son, living abroad, became monarch in absentia for 15 years. The country’s history thereafter involved a string of armed revolts, regicides, and politically motivated arrests, jailings, and murders. Through the 1960s, bureaucratic corruption and security force harassment provoked a reform movement that brought a new constitution and popular elections in 1968. After parliamentarians began attacking government corruption, General Thalom Kittikachorn dissolved the parliament. The General’s putsch incited protests by University students in late 1973 culminating in a standoff with the military, who mowed them down with tanks and helicopters near the royal palace. The 1973 revolt brought an unstable period of democracy; the military came back after a bloody coup in 1976.  Although parliamentary rule returned for the three decades following, military rule erupted in the early 1990s and again following a coup in 2006. Restored civilian government in 2007 promised stability, but nine months later massive protests provoked renewed violence and government crackdowns, igniting a crisis that persists. In April 2009 one knowledgeable observer wrote: "Over the past few years, Thailand's political elites have waged a battle on the streets of the capital using mobs to throw democratically elected governments out of power."


Lacking ancient lineage as a nation, the Afghan state dates from the coronation of an ambitious warrior, Ahmad Shah Durrani, as king in 1747. Even so, Afghanistan entered the modern world with characteristics similar to the three other states mentioned here. Known as “king of kings,” Ahmad Shah–like Emperor Tewodros II–unified a number of contending fiefdoms in pursuit of a sacred mission, which included a jihad against a Hindu caste. His clan was ancestral to nearly all subsequent patrimonial Afghan rulers until 1978. The Afghans maintained independence against England and Russia, fighting three wars against the British over eighty years culminating in 1919. In 1964, King Zahir Shah promulgated a liberal constitution providing for a bicameral legislature composed one-third each by popular election, royal appointment, and provincial assembly selection. Zahir's "experiment in democracy" produced few lasting reforms; rather, the University he founded facilitated the growth of unofficial extremist parties on both the left and the right. Those extremist parties led first to the Marxist regime following a coup in 1978, and then the Taliban regime from 1991. There is no need to mention Afghanistan's current plight of unending civil wars and recent electoral embarrassment, of which President Jimmy Carter said: "Hamid Karzai has stolen the election. Now the question is whether he gets away with it."


In this comparative perspective, Ethiopia's painful lurches in the direction of democratization can be grasped more readily.  She can boast a number of substantial achievements in the areas of political modernization, stability, and democratization, and this in the face of unprovoked military aggression from two of her neighbors. Despite severe setbacks following the National Election of May 2005, she has now a minimally functioning multi-party system, an elected Parliament, a fairly free press, and elites who have learned the importance of nonviolent politics and civil discourse. To be sure, the coalition of opposition parties have accused the government of continued harassment of their potential candidates; political leader Judge Birtukan Mideksa languishes in prison under what legal experts consider a charge fraught with ambiguities in the pertinent law; and allegations of severe human rights violations continue to appear. Even so, Ethiopia does have potentially transparent, official channels through which each of these issues can be addressed: the National Elections Board, and two exemplary institutions established by Proclamations No. 210 and 211–the National Commission on Human Rights and the Institution of the Ombudsman.


The major responsibility for seeing to it that 2010 becomes a resounding success rests with the EPRDF regime and the Parliament.  The current regime can claim enormous achievements in the areas of infrastructure development, expansion of schools and medical services, and openness to Green Technology–the energy hope of the future.  There is a level of freedom of expression in the country that has no parallel in Ethiopian history, except perhaps in the several months prior to the May 2005 election.  The question is: can the regime find sufficient confidence in its achievements and their popular support to relax the defensive posture, driven by insecurity, that has marked their early years along with all national governments in Ethiopia since the time of Emperor Menilek?


Perhaps above all, at a time when mutual confidence-building is more crucial than ever, can the Government shift from reacting to criticism as treason, and take robust steps toward the kind of openness they claim they really want to facilitate? A few simple steps might convince critics of their intention.

1. Ensure that the National Election Board is independent, impartial, and professional and attends to such incidents as the shouting down of opposition speakers at the peaceful assembly in Adama.

2. Provide whatever assurances it takes to move forward, as the Prime Minister affirmed recently, to devise of a code of conduct designed to put an end to harassment if it exists, or to prevent it if it doesn't.

3. Appoint a committee of experts on constitutional law to consider the status of the law under which Judge Birtukan Mideksa was imprisoned again (and let her out of prison on humanitarian grounds while the case is under review).

4. Activate, with serious energy and resources, the Office of Ombudsman.

5. Activate, with serious energy and resources, the National Commission on Human Rights.


A heavy responsibility also lies on the shoulders of the diverse opposition groups. A few simple steps might help the government relax and convince the public of their constructive attitude.


1. Reiterate their commitment to the importance of nonviolent politics and civil discourse.

2. Acknowledge publically their respect for the legitimacy of the current regime.

3. Focus effectively on issues and programs rather than grievances.

4. Attend to ways of building consensus rather than infighting

5. Express themselves honestly and courageously without recourse to anonymity.


As we approach the 50th anniversary of the disastrous initiative of the Neway brothers, this may be a propitious moment to stand back and appreciate how far Ethiopia has come today–in spite of the tragic events of 1960, 1974, 1991, 1998-2000, and 2005–and then to resolve to move Ethiopia forward in as constructive a manner as possible this time. It is time for EVERYONE to stop nursing grievances and extending blames, and to begin open, honest, searching discussions of issues which ought to concern Ethiopians of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints: poverty, food insecurity, energy, environment, women's rights, health, and quality of education.


Bertatun Yisten Le Addis Amet!