Demography and Democratic Yearnings — an interview with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali

Both Hailemariam and Abiy share the view that democracy is key to Africa because of the need to meet seismic demographic changes.

16 October 2018 ·   6 min read

Demography and Democratic Yearnings — an interview with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali shares his predecessor predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn’s view that democracy is key to Africa because of the urgent need to meet seismic demographic changes.

“I work seven days a week for $300 a month,” says Abiy Ahmed Ali from Menelik Palace, the Prime Minister’s official headquarters in the centre of Addis Ababa.

“I am not getting rich, but I am not corrupted. I have a modest office,” he indicates down the red-carpeted hallway, making the point.

“But I am interested,” he states, “in making change.”

Dr Ahmed swept in as Prime Minister in April 2018, upsetting the established Tigrayan-dominated political order which had effectively ruled Ethiopia since the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist-Leninist regime in May 1991. Abiy’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn had resigned in February 2018 because of what he personally described as his “failure to progress reforms”.

Both Hailemariam and Abiy share the view that democracy is key to Africa because of the need to meet seismic demographic changes. As Hailemariam put it:

“Democracy is an existential issue for Ethiopia. There is no option but multi-partyism.”

Both cite the pressures created by having 70% of Ethiopia’s population under the age of 30.

“The median age [in Ethiopia] is falling to between 16-18,” notes Hailemariam. “Unless we have a truly democratic state, we will not be able to provide for them.”

Not only should the government “appreciate the frustration young people have”, he says, but it has to acknowledge that there “is no extra choice that authoritarian regimes give us over democracies in meeting these challenges”.

Despite the legitimacy that its high economic growth record might be thought to garner, Ethiopia has been wracked by political demands for more openness. The dramatic changes brought by Prime Minister Abiy in 2018 repudiate the authoritarian economic model that was previously seen as a consequential aspect of Ethiopia’s positive development story. Ethiopia’s high rate of economic growth has been cited to extol the virtues of strong leadership and a “development state”.

Given its guerrilla-struggle origins, unsurprisingly the EPRDF traditionally adopted a far-left, “command” economic model, with the state at the centre. This has morphed into a “developmental-state” narrative, but still one in which there is little space for the private sector, especially foreigners, to operate.

Banks are state-owned and there is, for example, no stock exchange, simply because there is nothing of shares and stocks to trade. The private sector, which is supposed to be driving the productive side of the economy, has been frozen out by the power of the state, both through competition from state-sponsored or -owned enterprises, and by a squeeze on investment capital created by the government’s need to extract resources for its infrastructure plans.

Ethiopia had long been synonymous with poverty and man-made disaster. After Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 by Mengistu’s Soviet-backed dictatorship, the country descended into chaos, best known for mass killings and the starvation brought on by the government’s retrograde economic policies.

After Mengistu was overthrown, the leader of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Meles Zenawi, became Prime Minister and ruled through the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) until his death in 2012.

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After several years of consolidation to combat the chaos of the civil war and an extraordinarily wasteful war with Eritrea in 1998, Ethiopia began a dramatic and impressive growth trajectory. Its annual economic growth rate averaged 10.5% from 2005 to 2016, better than that of China or India during the 2000s.

Ethiopia’s development progress can be seen visibly, not only in the capital, Addis Ababa, and other major towns, but through the road network and into the countryside, contrasting markedly with the histories of famine and conflict for which the country had been notorious.

Then, in 2014, things started to fall apart. Demonstrations in Oromia and the Amhara region, comprising the two biggest ethnic groups in the country, had their roots in economic conditions and political restrictions. Protests erupted in Oromia, who make up one-third of the population, after a master plan was unveiled to expand the boundaries of the capital, Addis Ababa, with local farmers fearing their lands would be confiscated. Shortly thereafter, the Amhara, who comprise over one-quarter of Ethiopia’s 100 million people, launched protests in their region.

“Our reforms had been going too slowly to save the country from ethnic disintegration,” Hailemariam notes.

While Freedom House had considered the political system “partly free” in 1995, reflecting the advent of multiparty elections, it regressed to “not free” in 2010 as the government clamped down on political opposition, in which hundreds died. This reached the point, in the words of one cabinet minister in July 2018, that “by December [2017] it was not even certain that we could continue as a nation, so great was the crisis. There was a total disconnect,” he says, “between the population and the ruling party” of which he is a member.

“By resigning, Hailemariam made himself part of the solution.”

Hailemariam was replaced six weeks later as prime minister by Abiy, just 41, who also became chairman of the ruling EPRDF. It was the first time an Oromo, the majority ethnic group in Ethiopia, had led the country. Abiy moved quickly, releasing political prisoners, taking steps to normalise relations with neighbouring Eritrea against which it had fought a costly war at the turn of the century, and launched reform steps in the economy through the sale of stakes in state-owned enterprises.

Strikingly, in June 2018, Abiy criticised the behaviour of the country’s security and intelligence services, saying that they tortured and wrongfully arrested people. When asked in parliament why people accused of terrorism offences were among the thousands recently released from prison, he responded by saying that “terrorism includes using force unconstitutionally to stay in power”. Earlier he sacked the country’s intelligence and military chiefs.

“Does the constitution say anyone who was sentenced by a court can be tortured, put in a dark room? It doesn’t,” he noted. “Torturing, putting people in dark rooms, is our act of terrorism,” he said to MPs.

Abiy’s message was clear: the authoritarian political and closed economic model of his predecessors required a thorough overhaul.

“Most politicians,” he says, “know how to describe democracy, but they couldn’t deliver it. It is because it’s a borrowed concept, and they couldn’t apply it. It’s for the same reason that the TPLF struggled when talking about labour policy, or about communism. These are imported ideas.

“We have been talking about democracy for 20 years, yet there have been huge human rights violations. The party holds 100% of seats in parliament, yet it talks about democracy.”

In the same vein, he says, “the government talks about an agrarian society, yet only 12 million people work in this sector”.

Even though he is critical of the impact of social media on Ethiopia’s youth and their values, “you can’t talk about democracy and block bloggers and jam the voices of our society”, he says, taking a dig at the previous government’s regular clampdowns on Facebook and other social media outlets.

“Why did we not automate the election process if we held democracy to be so valuable?”

He also asks why Ethiopia’s leaders never made it their job to visit the whole country, “to understand our culture, language, society and demography. I am the first who has been to more than half of all cities in the country”.

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For Abiy, democracy is thus not an abstract, imported concept, but rather “one that is important because inclusiveness and co-existence is critical in Ethiopia because of differences in terms of tribalism, and religion and the virtually feudal system of land ownership which prevailed in the past. We must not just give the concept [of democracy] expression, but practical purpose” whether this is to “increase yields in agriculture or reduce very high levels of unemployment”.

The constitution, he says, “cannot just give rights, but it has to work in practice”.

This goes to the nature of the election system of the prime minister too.

“Eighty people in the Council of the EPRDF made me PM, even though there are 100 million Ethiopians. We need to open up the leadership to direct elections, Otherwise the system of governance is incompatible with democracy.”

And there is, he says, “a need for the rule of law, otherwise the term democracy is just blah-blah, just jargon”.

Yet some of “Africa’s old leaders”, who have been there many years, he says, singling out Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Sudan’s Omar el-Bashir, “would like to teach us about the concept of democracy [in places] where there are no elections, and no second opinions”.

The pace of change in Ethiopia, a donor darling even while it had a government that did not respect human rights niceties, should give outside actors pause for thought. Aid continued to flow regardless of the nature of the regime, since success was defined in technical rather than political metrics, and by the strategic interests, too, of the donors. Yet Abiy is charitable towards the donors in this regard, even though he thinks some should spend their money better and in a more focused fashion.

“If you asked the youth on the streets, they wouldn’t know that the United States gives us $1.3-billion a year.”

Rather than spreading this “around NGOs” it could “go on big projects – for irrigation,” he suggests, “or building a university. It is not the donor’s agenda,” he says, to be critical of the political system, but to pursue a development agenda.

But the donors could, he admits, “teach governments in other ways, for example by improving the conditions in prisons, which would have sent a message”.

Until now, he argues, government in Addis Ababa was “about tribe, family and party, exclusive and not inclusive, and interested in power to the neglect of others”.

To get this right, you have to lead by example.

“The maximum time I will stay in office is two terms. If you don’t do that, you cannot consider yourself a democrat. The EPRDF also needs to give up power to other groups, beyond the party. If you are a leader who thinks that you are the alpha and omega of everything, you are gone, irrelevant.

“Rather, if there are people with better ideas, younger people or people in business, from outside government, then we need to be open to them. That is why I have, for example, opened up my circle of economic advisers.”

These lessons in leadership and governance are a lesson to authoritarians as much as to all countries in need of reform.