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Adaptive Democratic Developmental State: The Pathways to Ethiopia’s Total Transformation

By Asghedom Ghebremichael, PhD
Tigrai Online, July 19, 2015

Our existence as humans is measured in terms of the pathways of time we travel, our longevity. As time goes-by, we become adults and our cognitive capacity expands, enabling us to accumulate knowledge, which in turn enables us to interpret and taste the meaning life. But, because our brain’s capacity does not allow us to predict every event in life, we go through the process of learning-by-doing. That is, the cognitive and predictive capacity of our brain to capture, process, and comprehend every piece of externally received information is very limited. This condition is referred to as a bounded rationality, which means human beings’ capability to rationalize a whole package of information is incomplete. Hence, we live in a world of uncertainties and risks. This condition calls for implementation of the precautionary principles (PPs). Three unavoidable conditions compel humans to adopt PPs: (i) the inevitability of life to take all necessary actions, (ii) the likelihood of a risk that might cause serious or irreversible harm, and (iii) the lack of complete-scientific certainty regarding what, when, where, and how natural and/or human-induced danger might occur.


Hence, a courageous governing body does not hesitate to admit its mistakes, to learn-by-doing, to employ PPs, and to do a commendable job eventually. In effect, time is the essence of life, making history a learning process by which total transformation (TT) is realized. Developmental changes in the following four major spheres are necessary for TT: (1) the natural sphere, comprising the biosphere (biological system), the hydrosphere (water system), the atmosphere (air system), and the lithosphere (rocks system), (2) the social sphere, constituting culture, a shared way of life, along with its many elements, such as faith, norms, values, customs, mores, folkways, and the arts & entertainment, (3) the political sphere and its various institutional configurations, and (4) the economic sphere, comprising all social and physical infrastructures and associated institutions.

Ethiopia’s total transformation (ETT) can only be attained through a process that takes time. Dynamic developmental changes in each of the above four major spheres can lead to ETT. This, in turn, leads to a genuine sustainable development (GSD). What is GSD? It is a dynamic process by which human well-being is enhanced in an inclusive, a just, and an environmentally safe operating space. But, GSD can only be achieved through the best possible democratic governance system. What are the guiding principles of the best possible governance system? They are: (i) primacy of the rule of law, (ii) accountability, (iii) transparency, (iv) devolution of political power down to targeted-grassroots’ communities (i.e., an empowerment strategic policy), (v) responsiveness to the needs, aspirations, and preferences of all stakeholders (particularly to those of the poor), (vi) participatory decision making, i.e. a collective action mechanism, (vii) equity in gender and material wealth, (viii) allocation of scarce resources effectively and efficiently, and (ix) flexible institutional arrangements.

To-tie-it all together, therefore, we need institutions that are strictly enforced and coordinated. In a democratic governance system, institutions are socially and legally sanctioned administrative strategies that specify goals, objectives, obligations, rules, and decision-making procedures to maintain order in human interactions. They minimize transaction costs, reinforce contractual agreements, secure property rights, promote collective action, enable effective allocation of scarce resources, and foster social harmony.

Adaptive Democratic Developmental State: We can expect all of the above requirements to enable us to establish an adaptive democratic developmental state (ADDS). I coined ADDS for the purpose of this piece. It is a dynamic and new paradigm built on deliberative-democratic principles. ADDS is an antidote, a sort of panacea, to the usual failures of centralized and bureaucratized governance systems. Through active participatory dialogues among all stakeholders, science and public policy making can be balanced in decision making, because ADDS enables us to: (i) bridge organizational divide; (ii) foster social learning (experiential and experimental) to generate and mobilize human capital (knowledge, skills, and productive efforts); and (iii) advance mutual trust rooted in cultural norms and values. Note that trust is a prerequisite for building social capital stock on which the best possible democratic governance system can be founded.

The Ethiopian Scene

Equipped with the above exploratory knowledge, let us make the long story short as possible. Three thought provoking questions are warranted: (i) Where were we? (ii) Where are we? (iii) Where are we heading? These fundamental questions lead us to look into the modern Ethiopian political history (from the Imperial Era to the present day government). What follows is a brief comparative performance evaluation of the three governance systems through which Ethiopia had gone and is going through: (i) the Imperial Era of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974), (ii) Marxism-Leninism of the Military Junta (1974 – 1991), and (iii) Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1991 – Present)

 (i) The Imperial Era of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930 – 1974)

Let us explore this system a little bit more than the other two governance systems, because it was the source of all the tragic governance failures. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I use social strata, the Imperial Constitution, influences of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and cultural assimilation as explanatory societal factors: 

Social Strata

During the aristocratic-monarchy of Emperor H. Sellassie, as it was historically, it was easy to classify the Ethiopian society into: royal, elite, patriarchate (which was the religio-cultural instrument of the Monarch), comprador, bourgeoisie, feudal, merchant, peasant, the working class (e.g., factory, office, farm, and workers), the proletariat (e.g., house-maids, casual labourers, and house guards), and the lumpen, whose survival heavily depended upon shining shoes, carrying luggage, loading and unloading commercial trucks, etc. This is a crude classification, based on personal observations. From this scenario, it is easy to deduce that in the lower classes, from the peasantry down to the lumpen, there was surplus labour supply. This excess supply depressed productivity and wages down to near zero, if not to negative. The final outcome was chronic poverty in a backward economy, which was dependent on primitive-subsistence agricultural practices. Coupled with the adverse impacts of the feudal land tenure system, the subsistence agricultural sector, which depended on a highly degraded natural environment, resulted in miserably low agricultural productivity that declined year-by-year substantially. These conditions led to famine, starvation, and displacement of people from their ancestral homelands in search of food.

The Imperial Constitution

Absolute political power was vested in the Emperor. Because the 1931 Constitution was deemed not giving enough power to him, a new constitution was enshrined in 1955. This constitution declared Emperor Haile Selassie as a descendant of King Solomon of Israel and Ethiopia’s Queen of Sheba; his primacy was exercised through appointment of officials; control of the armed forces and foreign affairs; and strict oversight (supervisory) of the judiciary. Parliament was given power to approve treaties, but the Emperor had the final say: he was empowered to the extent of dissolving the Parliament. Executive power was vested in the Emperor. The “Ministers of the Empire” derived their authority from him, as did the Council of Ministers and the Crown Council, an advisory body of the Emperor. Formation of political parties was out of the question. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was defined as the State’s Church; and its organization and administration were made subject to secular laws. The Church retained autonomy only in matters of monastic life and spiritual affairs. But, its influential role as instrument of governance was highly significant.

 Socio-cultural, Economic, and Political Influences of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Although Coptic Christianity dates back to the 5th century, it did not reach the height of its political importance until the 14th century, after the restoration of the so called Solomonic Dynasty. During the Golden Age of Ethiopia, the scribes of the Church added life and permanence to the foundation of the society. It published the Kebre Nagast (The Glory of Kings), a national epic that brought together various elements of Ethiopian mythology and the Bible, and the Fetha Nagest (The Law of Kings), which to a certain extent systematised the laws of the Empire. Other documents intended to legitimise the Empire State and its institutions also have their origins in the literary efforts of Coptic Clerics during this era.

Religion was used by the monarchy as an instrument of sustaining aristocratic feudalism. The Ethiopian empire, which emerged into the 20th century bureaucratic State, was not politically integrated. It was a plural society characterized by: (a) domination of cultural minorities, (b) gross inequality in terms of wealth, power and privileges, and (c) sharp contradictions between and among nations, nationalities, and peoples. As the society began to modernize, class, intra-class and ethnic affinities were added to already existing social cleavages. As was typical of pre-modern bureaucratic empires, order was maintained by manipulation, regulation, and domination. In the minds of the gullible masses (their spiritual imagination), the Emperor had a Divine Power vested in him, making his actions unquestionably true in secular and religious terms. The Church sanctioned this primitive condition and exhorted its congregations to believe in it, reiterating the Emperor’s mystic power.

The roles of religious institutions, behavioral constraining norms, values, beliefs, and mores as the sources of political power and of monarchical legitimacy, were deeply rooted in the history of the Ethiopian society. Monarchs had customarily relied upon the Orthodox Church to pacify the ordinary masses. They acquired the public image of being charismatic leaders, the embodiments, and the upholders of the culture and sacred traditions of their societies. Emperor Haile Selassie ensured support of the Church by awarding it certain rights and privileges that were upheld by the authorities of the State. These include land and other property rights that were expanded from time to time through Imperial grants and gifts, and permissions to collect taxes from and to share-crop with peasants. In short, the Crown had to deal very carefully with the Coptic Church, since this significant landholder and most important source of religious and cultural legitimacy constituted the key element to determine sustainability of the Imperial system by pacifying the masses. Hence, the classic feudal trinity of nobleman, priest, and peasant, was well prescribed constitutionally.

 Sins of Cultural Assimilation and Dehumanization

Culture is a shared way of life and the most important identity of a given society. Traditional knowledge, history, norms, values, language, faith, customs, folkways, mores (moral/ethical rules), arts and entertainment (theatre, music, dance, literature, movie, and paintings), buildings, architecture, dress, food, and similar specifications define culture. As a shared way of life, culture is a vehicle for: (a) building social capital, which is the foundation of social cohesion and stability, which usher in genuine sustainable development, (b) environmental quality and sustainability, and (c) resilient communities, and much more benefits that improve human well-being. During the Imperial Era, however, a process of cultural assimilation and dehumanization - deprivation of all requirements for human dignity, self-esteem, and freedom – were institutionalized political norms of the feudo-aristocratic rule of Emperor Haile Selassie.

None Amhara nations, nationalities, and peoples were denied their fundamental rights, freedoms, and culture. Let it be clear here, however, that the Amhara masses, the ordinary Amhara people like most of us all, had nothing to do with the evil acts of the elite class. It is the ruling class that strictly enforced the assimilative process of Amharanization. It used this process as an instrument of subjugation and domination in order to divide and rule Ethiopians. The final outcome was that neither an Amhara nor a non-Amhara community benefited from the cruelty of assimilation, dehumanization, exploitation, impoverishment, and pacification strategies of the Imperial Rule. All Ethiopian masses were victims of the shameful-abject poverty, which brought the unceremonious demise of the Emperor.

By contrast, the current Ethiopian Constitution empowers Ethiopia’s nations, nationalities, and peoples to celebrate their unity in diversity during weeklong celebrations. These are unique celebrations where every nation, nationality, and people show-cases its culture with pride and cements social cohesion with its counterparts. The celebrations are rotational events; regional states take turn to organize them through active participation of the Federal Government. The motto of the celebrations is Our Diversity is a Source of Beauty and Strength. The celebrations contribute to social change, which is contributing to ETT (=Ethiopia’s total transformation), i.e., Ethiopia’s renaissance. What is pleasantly surprising is that Amharic is the national lingua-franca enshrined in the Constitution by the will of the people as an instrument of unity in diversity to take Ethiopia to the heights of peace, prosperity, and modernity.  

(ii) Marxism-Leninism of a Military Junta (1974 – 1991)

In 1974, a revolution, which was spearheaded by the Ethiopian working class, teachers, students, and an assortment of the petty bourgeoisie elements, overthrew the aristocratic feudal system of Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia for nearly half of a century. Gone with the Emperor were the archaic feudal land tenure system, the monarchical monopoly of political power, and the nascent national bourgeoisie, which clung tenaciously to the imperial coat-tails, with an unusual political myopia to the very end.

To the absolute dismay of the Ethiopian people, however, the national defense forces betrayed the popular revolution. Using its KGB apparatus, the Soviet Union, which was anxiously looking for a foothold in the Horn of Africa to counter balance the geopolitical sphere of influence of the United States and its allies, infiltrated the civilian Revolutionary Council and the newly coordinated National Defense Council. The soldiers, most of whom were illiterate, were manipulated and encouraged by the KGB to take over the political power from the civilian council of internationally and nationally highly regarded intellectuals. Most of the intellectuals who openly opposed involvement of the USSR were executed summarily; some were imprisoned, while others were lucky to flee the country to save their lives. In a very short period (less than a year), the military junta declared communism, based on Marxist-Leninist ideology, in an impoverished Ethiopia. Highly bureaucratized, command and control socio-economic programs were proclaimed. By several military decrees that were full of hysteria and paranoia, a number of social, economic, and institutional changes were made to please the Soviets, who were sustaining the puppet military regime: productive-agricultural land was nationalized; state farms were established; forced resettlements and collectivization were implemented; peasants were taxed heavily, relative to their income levels; all private financial institutions and industries were nationalized; and all private rental houses and apartments were expropriated.

The military junta used a network of strictly controlled institutional arrangements to stay in power at any cost, fighting a civil war that was being waged against it by many democratic forces. Failure of the misguided policies, the civil war, drought, and famine were the causes of the 1984/85 catastrophe to which the people of this ancient country were subjected to.  Consequently, the superstructure that was established by the Russians collapsed on May 20th, 1991, when the democratic forces victoriously captured the capital city, Addis Ababa.

(iii) Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1991 – Present)

Twilight of a democratic developmental state (DDS) flickered on May 20th, 1991 throughout the Ethiopian State’s landscape. Democratic forces that waged a bitter war for 17 years defeated the military junta that ruled Ethiopia since 1974 under the iron fist of communism. When they realized that they were on the verge of victory, the democratic forces had formed a united front known as Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF); and were ready with their version of governance system to rule the country. To that end, there was a reconciliation and consensus building process: In July 1991, the EPRDF convened a national conference attended by representatives of some 20 political organizations to discuss Ethiopia’s political future and to establish a transitional government.

After winning well-coordinated elections, the EPRDF formed a government. At the outset, it had made it clear that it was determined to make history of its own by transforming the social, economic, political, and environmental spheres of the country. A brand new Ethiopian Constitution was proclaimed in May 1994. The following introductory paragraphs capture the full spirit of that Constitution (emphasis added):

We, the nation, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia:

Strongly committed, in full and free exercise of our right to self-determination, to building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring a lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing our economic and social development;

Firmly convinced that the fulfillment of this objective requires full respect of individual and people's fundamental freedoms and rights to live together on the basis of equality and without any religious or cultural discrimination;

Further convinced that by continuing to live with our rich and proud cultural legacies in territories we have long inhabited, have, through continuous interaction on various levels and forms of life, built up common interests and have also contributed to the emergence of a common outlook;

Fully cognizant that our common destiny can best be served by rectifying historically unjust relationships and by further promoting our shared interests;

Convinced that to live as one economic community is necessary in order to create sustainable and mutually supportive conditions for ensuring respect for our rights and freedoms;

Determined to consolidate, as a lasting legacy, the peace, and the prospect of a democratic order which our struggles and sacrifices have brought about;

Have, therefore, ratified, on 8 December 1994, this constitution through representatives we have duly elected for this purpose as an instrument that binds us in a mutual commitment to fulfill the objectives and the principles set forth above.

After the Constitution’s official proclamation, the EPRDF formulated several strategic directions, including: (i) giving priority to peasant agriculture; (ii) enhancing the quality of the labour force; (iii) supporting hitherto neglected communities, which were identified in the Constitution as nationalities and peoples; (iv) devolution of State power to the Regional States; (vi) attaining self-sufficiency in food; (vii) determining an effective socioeconomic developmental role for the State; (viii) encouraging foreign investment by creating a free market economy and a conducive social, economic, and political climate; (ix) encouraging and supporting State governments to give priority to environmental rehabilitation and rural development; and (x) letting peasant farmers free to make their own economic decisions than had ever been before. These and similar strategic policy directions created a national optimism.  Now, Ethiopia’s renaissance, through total transformation, is becoming a reality.  

Closing Remarks

We started the performance comparative evaluation of the three governance systems with 3W motivational questions: (i) Where were we? (ii) Where are we? (iii) Where are we heading? For those of us who lived it through the tragedies under the Emperor (e.g., the Wollo and Tigrai, drought, famine, starvation and hunger of the 1960s to the early 1970s) and the savagery of the military junta (e.g., the Red Terror and the Hawzien massacre) were national tragedies of epic proportions. They were tragic historical events from which the current and future generations must learn to say never again; under the motto (guiding principle) of united we stand strong, divided we are weak and destined to failure.

Finally, to the keenly honest observer, therefore, a unique democratic developmental state of Ethiopia was born under the EPRDF, although a lot remains to be learned and to be done through a dynamic governance system. The poverty trap is not broken yet. ADDS is the best paradigm for attaining GSD. ADDS corrects the institutional and coordination failures of the static system of aristocracy and communism; and rejects the chaotic socioeconomic, environmental, and political characteristics of neoliberalism. It is rooted in strong nationalism, courage, curiosity, determination, entrepreneurship, and willingness to learn-by-doing. Ethiopia ought to continue with the current policy of unlocking the transformative power of the highly productive labor force of her young generation through variety of incentives. For the best possible ideas to materialize there is an urgent need for a strictly monitored good governance system, which should be designed uniquely for Ethiopia. Corrupt public servants and business executives must be divested of their authorities, rights, and freedoms in accordance with the law. Given the challenges, however, all indicators reveal that Ethiopia’s future is bright, because the present generation continues to learn-by-doing without hesitation.

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