November 3, 2019
by Emmanuel Yirdaw

Liberal democracy will not liberate Ethiopian nationalities still struggling for recognition, and nor will it free the country from poverty

Under the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the EPRDF ruling coalition diagnosed two existential threats: a perpetuation of poverty and a lack of accommodation of ethnic diversity. To survive state collapse and prosper, EPRDF ideologues argued, Ethiopia needed a system that respected ethnic diversity and delivered rapid economic growth. Revolutionary democracy was the vanguard party ideology designed to achieve this.

To address poverty, revolutionary democratic state-building justified the rapid expansion of the party-state into all spheres of Ethiopia’s socio-cultural and -economic fabric. Recognizing the forces of the global market economy, the Ethiopian state also assumed the role of stimulating growth. The Democratic Developmental State (DDS) was the name given to this form of dirigisme. This was justified on the grounds that rapid economic growth and development must be relatively egalitarian, with a focus on agrarian transformation and industrialisation.

Addressing ethnic diversity, revolutionary democracy focused on group rights and offered recognition to historically marginalized communities. It attended to the weight of long struggles for recognition by various ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The constitution and the ethnic-based federal system adopted in 1995—the culmination of ethnic liberation fronts overthrowing the unitary Derg regime—are evidence of this.

Both the DDS and Revolutionary Democracy contain the word ‘democracy.’ However, the way democracy was defined by EPRDF ideologues was different from the liberal sense. While liberal democracy sees elections, political freedom, and other related rights as ends, revolutionary democracy sees them as a means to an end. That is, democracy can be guaranteed if, and only if, economic growth and just representation of group rights are achieved.

Along this road to democracy, EPRDF considered constitutionally enshrined rights to self-rule for minority ethnic groups as evidence of the democratic nature of its system. Also, ‘democracy’, on its terms, partly referred to the mass mobilisation of farmers for ‘developmental’ and political activities, and also described the EPRDF’s party-culture of internal deliberation and evaluation (e.g. gimgema). As much as EPRDF claimed it was committed to parliamentary democracy, it was clear that, over the last decade at least, it was against democratic movements that might infringe upon the economic growth achieved through the DDS model. Developmentalism was untouchable, and beyond the scope of democracy.

This is captured in Meles Zenawi’s conversation with Alex de Waal, where he said: “Let’s be clear what we mean when we talk about democracy: it must be a democracy of real choices. If we allow unfettered political competition today, the rent-seekers will be able to offer far more to the voters than a developmental party can.” And, “That kind of democracy isn’t offering real choices. What would be a real choice is between different paths to value-creating development. We could have a dominant party system, as we have today, with different views expressed within the party. Or we could have competition between two parties, each of them subscribing to a hegemonic developmentalism… .” This, clearly, is an understanding of democracy distinct from the one offered by liberal democracy.

But more recently, it seems, liberal democracy is gaining unprecedented support in Ethiopia. The support is observed not just among an urban elite, but also among the poor and those in rural areas, although perhaps it is too soon to distinguish their enthusiasm for a new system from their desire for change from the old one. Calls for political liberties, genuine parliamentary democracy, and related democratic reforms are common. Even those participating in what can be captured as “identity politics” seem committed to such liberal reforms. Internally, EPRDF is also embracing it under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Adopting liberal democracy in Ethiopia has unpredictable implications. In part, this is because Ethiopia, in its long history, has never had a system close to it. However, at least two things can be said with conviction. First, the DDS model—which brought unprecedented economic transformation—is being altered into a more liberal, free-market economy: a move from Meles’ ‘dead-end’ to Abiy’s ‘new horizon.’ Second, the struggle for recognition faces an uphill stretch.

Arguably, liberal democracy will not be able to satisfy the long struggle for recognition by various Ethiopian nations. But before examining that, what exactly is the concept of “struggle for recognition?” And, how can we understand the Ethiopian version?

The Struggle for Recognition

To grasp the concept, we can trace its intellectual origin back to Phenomenology of Spirit, a work by the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Hegel. Here, it is the 20th century French-Russian political theorist of Hegel’s work, Alexander Kojeve, who will help us understand Hegel’s theory of recognition through his book Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.

For Hegel, humans have a natural desire for recognition. Hegel’s first man—i.e. before the formation of society—forces another man to recognize him. Since both have an innate desire to be recognized, they immediately get into a struggle for recognition. Hegel’s man is attacking the other man just for recognition. After winning the battle, Hegel’s man can exploit the other, take his property, and so on. However, the primary goal of the attack was achieving recognition. Therefore, for Hegel’s man, being recognized as a superior by the other has more significance than using him for material gain.

Man risks his physical well-being, economic well-being, and even his life in the fight for recognition. In fact, for Hegel, this is what makes us human. Animals, always being interested in their physical well-being, never get into a fight for mere recognition, only for material gain; or for status, which leads to material gain. Man, however, has this unique freedom to act against his animal desire of self-preservation and risk his life for recognition.

This is why we should not primarily think about the economic interests of a group fighting for recognition. They may gain a desirable material outcome, but such gains are incidental, not essential. In major, historical examples of ‘struggles for recognition’, such as the civil rights and feminist movements, a desire to be recognized as an equal played an essential role. In these movements the fight was for a group’s dignity, equality, respect, being considered a fellow human, and other related concepts of recognition. Neither African-Americans nor women merely fought for a more just distribution of economic goods or better income. Their fight, primarily, was for recognition of their equal worth.

The struggle for recognition in Ethiopia

Nonetheless, such struggles are easily confused with quests for a more just distribution of goods. Analyzing, say, the question of Sidama statehood or Oromo’s fight for the recognition of Addis Abeba as the capital city of Oromia from an economic perspective is common. But when an Oromo is outraged about the fact that their language is not used as a federal language; when a Sidama is not happy with the lack of Sidama statehood, when smaller groups were granted their own regions; or, when any other person from a particular ethnic group raises similar questions, they are not talking about economic well-being. It is recognition that they are talking about. Where is the direct economic benefit, for instance, in the strong demand of the Oromo people for Adama not to be called Nazreth?

The 1960s student revolutionaries, who gave form to the now prevalent and sometimes ugly identity politics in Ethiopia, did not confuse questions of recognition with economic ones, although, as Marxists, they highlighted economic injustice. Their call for radical land reform—“land to the tiller”—captures the economic question. But as much as they wanted to see the end of the exploitation of powerless tenants by their landlords in the gabbar system go away, they also understood the weight of the ‘question of nations’: a question of recognition.

Surprisingly, given the time passed, today’s identity politics revolves around similar questions. The revolutionary students’ point was clear: Ethiopia is a nation that does not recognize the diversity of identities that it has due to the cultural hegemony of Orthodox Christian highlanders. Walleligne Mekonnen, in his influential article On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia, wrote, “to be an Ethiopian, you will have to wear an Amhara mask.” This captured the core thesis the students wanted to negate. It also captures what many of those participating in identity politics today think they want to achieve: being able to take off what they believe is the Amhara mask and make sure their authentic identity is recognized in the Ethiopian sphere.

         Liberal democracy?

In The End of History and The Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy is a political system that has the ability to solve the problem of recognition. But, why did he say that? And will liberal democracy adequately cater for Ethiopia’s nations’ long struggle for recognition? To answer, we must go back to Hegel and Kojeve.

Hegel’s man gets into a fight with another man for mere recognition. The other man refuses to fight because he wants to preserve his life—he is a slave of self-preservation, like other animals. So, he submits to Hegel’s man and starts recognizing him as his Master. Now, we have a Master and a Slave. The Slave keeps recognizing his Master, but the Master does not recognize him back. This way, the Master’s desire to be recognized is fulfilled.

Soon, however, the Master will realize his desire to be recognized is not really satisfied. The Slave is an animal (an object) and the Master is not satisfied with the recognition that he gets from this non-human. As Kojeve puts it, “[t]he Master, therefore, was on the wrong track. After the fight that made him a Master, he is not what he wanted to be in starting that fight: a man recognized by another man.” At this point, he will look for another man to satisfy his need for recognition. But, again, the moment he defeats the man and makes him his Slave, the Slave ceases to be a human. He keeps going to many, many fights for recognition, but will never be satisfied.

The Master and Slave relation ceases to exist

This is true of the old kings and emperors, from Ethiopia and elsewhere, who would get into fights for mere recognition. The conquest does not really bring anything useful to them. In fact, it is usually a risky move. Nonetheless, they do it. The slaves are also unsatisfied. The reason for their dissatisfaction is clear: they are not being recognized. Just because they were defeated at the battle, it does not mean their desire to be recognized has vanished. They will try to get it by various means, such as revolution. Therefore, this Master-Slave relationship is never stable. This Hegelian reading of History indicates that the Master-Slave dialectic is what leads to revolutions, wars, the creation and destruction of empires, and the adoption of new political ideologies. In short, it is the instability in the relationship between the Master and the Slave that moves History.

What, then, is the solution? How can both the Master and the Slave satisfy their desire to be recognized? Kojeve writes, “Man can be fully realized and revealed—that is, be definitively satisfied—only by realizing a universal recognition… .” The Master must recognize the slave in order to receive recognition from a human—not a slave degraded to the status of an animal/object. The Slave will also satisfy his desire for recognition; he finally gets recognition from the Master. At this point, the Master and Slave relation ceases to exist.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos; January 23, 2019; Photo by World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the World Economic Forum in Davos; January 23, 2019; Photo by WEF/Benedikt von Loebell

This is where Fukuyama comes into the picture. He claims that liberal democracy is a system in which mutual recognition will be realized. All political systems from the primitive hunter-gatherer society to slave-owning societies, from imperial to colonial structures, from feudalism to theocracies, and from Nazism to communism have been tried and failed due to the unsolved Master-Slave contradiction. However, liberal democracy, due to the liberty and equality it affords to all, seemed to be a system in which the Master-Slave contradiction is solved. Recognition is afforded to all. Inevitably, sooner or later, the world will accept liberal democracy. And, when this happens, it will be The End of History, Fukuyama said, echoing Hegel.

From this, it follows that countries such as Ethiopia can solve the problem of recognition by adopting some form of liberal democracy. However, we should carefully scrutinize Fukuyama’s thesis. In principle, liberal democracy is committed to guaranteeing two things for all: liberty and equality. Yet it does not give adequate attention to the struggle for recognition by various groups for at least two reasons.

First, in political liberalism, it is liberty that usually takes the upper hand in the contest between liberty and equality. Although alluring, liberty does not provide a proper framework for compensating groups that suffered injustice. Saying, for instance, equal liberty to all Ethiopians will be afforded from now on does not make life any better for those who are poor or suffered through historical injustice, and, consequently, are unable to exercise their liberty. While the privileged are given a free rein to convert their existing advantages into ever-increasing superiority.

Second, even when liberal democracy gives equality a deserved attention, it focuses on economic equality and a more just distribution of wealth. As we have seen, however, economic questions such as the quest for a more just distribution of wealth are not at the heart of many groups’ struggles. Rather, it is ‘recognition’ that they are primarily fighting for; a socio-cultural concept, difficult to be captured by a liberal democratic paradigm that focuses on tangible economic matters.

Criticizing liberal theorists of justice in her book Justice and the Politics of DifferenceIris Marion Young writes, “[t]here are many claims about justice and injustice in our society which are not primarily about the distribution of income, resources, or positions. A focus on the distribution of material goods and resources inappropriately restricts the scope of justice.” It is this restricted conception of justice that makes liberal democracy unable to resolve problems of recognition. Therefore, it seems fair to say, liberal democracy, even when focusing on economic equality, cannot sufficiently address the ‘struggle for recognition.’

Ethiopia’s march towards liberal democracy

It must be understood that Ethiopia’s revolutionary democracy was not a system that was intended to stay in place forever. It represented a necessary stage of development before liberal democracy. The model’s objective is making sure that Ethiopia is not poor when the inevitable move towards liberal democracy is initiated. Again, to quote Meles, “we can’t have democracy with an empty belly.”

Looking at today’s openness to liberal democracy in Ethiopia, one might ask, “is our belly finally full?” The answer is a resounding “no”. While it is true that Ethiopia’s growth for the past decade and a half has been astonishing, poverty is still prevalent. Middle-income status, which, according to Meles and the old EPRDF, is a necessary condition that guarantees sustainable growth, has not been achieved. It is clear then that the reason for a shift towards liberal democracy is, to rephrase Meles, the inability to contain the people’s demand. For two reasons, I think this move towards liberal democracy has a very thin possibility of providing mutual recognition in Ethiopia, and, accordingly, rendering ‘identity politics’ unimportant.

The 21st century does not bode well for liberal democracy

Generally, the 21st century does not bode well for liberal democracy—it is in retreat. From Hungary to Poland, from the U.K. to the United States, and from Italy to Sweden, nationalism and ethno-identity politics are on the rise. Fukuyama himself has partially admitted this. In his new book Identityhe puts forward the view that modern liberal democracies have not fully solved the problem of recognition. If historically liberal countries are having a hard time solving the problem of recognition, what reason do we have to think that liberal democracy can bring adequate mutual recognition to Ethiopia?

Meanwhile, the internal political situation of Ethiopia is also not encouraging. The liberalization of the political sphere after Abiy Ahmed came to power led to an unprecedented rise in ethnic nationalism and conflict, and the protests that allowed him to take power had a strong ethno-nationalist component. Old questions of nations demanding recognition have resurfaced with a vengeance. Even the Amhara, who, previously eschewed ethnic nationalism, are subscribing to a strong form of it.

It is not clear how a commitment to liberal principles is going to find a middle ground between the opposing forces of Amhara and Oromo nationalisms. How is the Oromo activist demand for Addis Abeba to be under Oromia regional state’s administration going to be solved under a liberal democratic paradigm; and, how about questions of respect and dignity related to symbols such as monuments, statues, and the flag? Under the old EPRDF,  sticking to the constitution, Oromia could have been finally granted its “Special Interest” in Addis Ababa, and internal dialogue within the EPRDF might have struck a balance between the ruling coalition partners from Amhara and Oromia.

Related to the above point is the prospect of a democratic election—one of the defining features of liberal democracy. Some may argue that guaranteeing a free and fair election—as anticipated for in 2020—will improve ethnic relationships and solve the problem of recognition. However, even here, one is forced to be suspicious for at least three reasons:

First, the chances of a free and peaceful election are not high. Under the current political climate, conducting an election seems to be a path towards violence, led by ethno-nationalists. Different ethnic groups have the incentive and power to reject the outcome of elections in various areas, potentially leading to either a post-electoral deadlock or conflict.

Second, assuming that a democratic election is conducted, ethno-nationalist parties are likely to win many seats. It is not clear how the parliament and, consequently, the government would then function. For example, it is unreasonable for any observer to think that a parliament in which both the National Movement of Amhara and the Oromo Liberation Front representatives occupy chunks of the chamber is going to be functional in any sense.

Third, assuming that (a) a free, fair, and peaceful election is conducted, and (b) political parties can come to an agreement to form a government, there is a distinct possibility of a majoritarian democracy emerging. This, of course, is through the Oromo and Amhara. Together, these two ethnic groups make up almost two-thirds of the population. In a democratic system, some sort of coalition between the two giants is going to be at the center of decision making. But while trying to make sure their constituents are satisfied and trying to reach a compromise, parties representing the two large groups might infringe on the interests of minorities. Although there are ways of trying to prevent this, it seems impossible to prevent it altogether. This, then, takes us back to the original problem of recognition—this time, for minority ethnic groups.

Another argument in defense of liberal democracy could be from the standpoint of development. That is, it can be argued that liberal democracy will lead us to economic growth, and this, in turn, can lead to deescalating ethnic tension and satisfy the desire for recognition. This is also suspicious because it is not clear that the liberalization of our economy will lead us to any significant growth. Looking at world politics, it seems there is no monopoly on growth by liberal democratic countries. Instead the most remarkable progress has been made recently by the illiberal Chinese system. And Ethiopia, for instance, has achieved high growth and poverty reduction over the past decade under the DDS model.

Also, even if it is the case that liberalizing our economy can lead to prosperity, it is not clear how it will solve the problem of recognition, as economic growth and distributive justice do not provide a complete answer. It is also important to note that populism and nationalism are rising in the developed world. This tells us something important about the possibility of growth deterring the quest for recognition in a country like Ethiopia with historically complicated ethnic relations.

Point of no return

In his visit to Ethiopia earlier this year, Fukuyama said that the old EPRDF’s ways were not the way forward. However, as pointed out by Alemayehu Weldemariam, if we are to follow Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, it is not clear why we should ignore Meles’ view that revolutionary democracy is a path that will take us to liberal democracy. However, given that liberal democracy does not seem to guarantee mutual recognition, Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis should not serve as the framework with which we analyze contemporary Ethiopian politics.

Yet this is not to say that we should ignore and dismiss the current openness to liberal democracy and go back to the old ways. It must not be forgotten that revolutionary democracy and the DDS model were filled with problems. Rent-seeking behaviour and corruption were rampant while debt was getting out of control. There was also the unsolved problem of effectively practising the centrally driven DDS model in an ethnically diverse country. Popular demand for political liberalism could not, by definition, be addressed under a revolutionary democratic paradigm. Furthermore, those who fought for political rights and civil liberties suffered abhorrent human rights abuses while laws such as the anti-terrorism proclamation intimidated the public.

Going back to the old ways also seems unlikely in light of the public demand and Abiy’s seeming determination to pursue democratic reforms. Critiquing revolutionary democracy, Abiy’s new philosophy of ‘medemer seems to be broadly a move towards liberal democracy. Although this shift may correct some glaring mistakes of the past, it does not seem to be a paradigm under which mutual recognition amongst ethnic groups will be achieved. Therefore, we ought to be circumspect about this well-intentioned march towards liberal democracy.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: The cover of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s book Medemer (‘Synergy’) and former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

Edited by William Davison and Jonah Wedekind

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.