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Looking Ahead

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Prof. Donald N. Levine
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 Bertukan 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. 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 Bertukan Mideksa was imprisoned again.
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!

Categories: Comment
  1. martha
    September 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Iran and Ethiopia has nothing in common, politically, economically or any other way. You should have mentioned other African countries as an example. Afghanistan’s tribe groups might have some thing in common with ethnic groups of Ethiopia. We are people who still live in the 6th century, poorest nation, but very proud. I am very proud of the fact that we are a nation who doesn’t require technology to survive. We make our own clothes, food and medicine.. Let us talk about next election, whatever is the outcome there will be some disturbance not to the magnitude of Iran. We don’t have that many wealthy and educated Ethiopians in the USA, we are not nuclear nation to get the attention of CNN, who ever wrote the above article may have seen only Addis Ababa and the few Ethiopians making noise in the USA. Let us just pray for a peaceful transition.What tragic events is this white man talking about in the 60’s, bringing the monarchy was essential, bringing Mengistu down was essential and the Woyane’s are by far the best of their predecessors. What Woyane needs to do is to step down and let change take place peacefully and that might happen because this is Africa and African leaders have a tradition of not stepping down in peace.

  2. martha
    September 22, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Donald Levine, keep your thoughts to yourself. Let Ethiopians take care of their own problem. Lecture where you can manipulate and exploit in the name of care.

  3. September 22, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    I used to be one of the Ethiopian who respect Prof. Donald N. Levin, but in this article or analysis he is out of touch with Ethiopian reality. The good Prof. gives the benefits of the doubt to tplf, and he is also comparing Ethiopia with Afghanistan and other East Asian countries. Why not the good old Prof. compares Ethiopia with other African countries? As far as I know there are no guerilla groups (that took power by force) and trnasforemed itself or themselves to democratic governments. Is tplf going to be democratic government, if the answer is yes, we are dreaming.
    I don’t have any hope for democratic Ethiopia under tplf. This gangster group is corrupted to its core. I am also surprised that the Prof. has so much fate on the so called election.

  4. martha
    September 22, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Bhaeilu you are so right. I just need to make correction. peaceful transition might not happen is what I meant to say on the about Woyane. Foreigners should refrain from interfering in our internal affairs, they are all going to Ethiopia to corrupt the beautiful girls and enjoy the natural beauty of our country.

  5. martha
    September 22, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    on the above statement about Woyane.

  6. Tesfaye Geleta
    September 23, 2009 at 3:37 am

    Dimet Bitimelekuss Amelwan Atiresam. Woyane will always be Woyane. It knows one thing and one thing only that’s keeping its guns trained on innocent Ethiopians and Ethiopiawenet.

  7. Temsgen
    September 23, 2009 at 6:27 am

    Martha, it is kind of funny that you are telling Donald Levine to keep his thoughts about Ethiopia for himself. You are late. Because, he has been doing that long before you were born. (Of course, I don’t know how old you are). One of his books, Wax and Gold, I think published in 1960’s is probably the most quoted, referenced and copied book on the Amhara people and culture. I have come across people in North Shewa who shared me tales about him from the time he was living amidst them while he was researching for his book, Wax and Gold. He could enjoy kine as much (if not better than) many of us who claim to be Ethiopian. Levine is American by nationality, Jew by his ancestry and may be ‘Ethiopian at heart.’
    Don’t be suspicious. He is saying it with the best of intentions.Listen to what he says.

  8. martha
    September 23, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you Temesgen, I WILL read his book,all I am saying is his comparison of Iran to Ethiopia is so wrong, he sounds sympathetic, I don’t know of any white who would have empathy towards any African nation, unless there is ulterior motive.

  9. II
    September 24, 2009 at 3:17 am

    Levine, You lost all credibility after your deliberately confusing statements after the 2005 election. We all remember your Summer of 2006 NPR interview where you said the US govt is making a mistake supporting Woyanne and a few months later on you became “neutral”. You are a coward and not a friend of Ethiopia. Why you bother to write as if you are an influential person is beyond me. Are the nursing homes full in Chicago

  10. abek
    September 24, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    “You are not influential. So you shouldn’t be writing”
    Here it goes. Obo, II. Did you say that in your right mind?
    So are you blubbering here too thinking that you are important and influential?
    If you do, bud, you are taking yourself a lot more seriously than you should. You know what Mesfin Woldemaryam says, “Mehayem defar new.” Illiterate people have all the courage and the audacity to say whatever comes to their mind.
    Another silly remark of yours goes …….
    “You called for ban on assistance and you said you are neutral.”
    Ahaa….the thing called logic and reason isn’t in your blood.
    Don’t know that one could be neutral and might ask for assistance to be cut off when he feels that that how it should be done.
    How many hollow remark have you been making under the guise of profundity? Please go and revise you logic 101 courses, if you have taken one.

  11. bre
    September 27, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Why is it that we can’t have a decent argument without being emotional and taking the opinions of others personally? Let’s foolproof our mind to discuss for change – http://litemind.com/thinking-traps/

  12. martha
    September 27, 2009 at 7:18 pm


  13. Juru
    September 28, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    I like Prof. Don Levine. He’s entitled to his opinon besides that he always has good intention. We cannot just denied the Melese’s regime devt. efforts. I think the current regime is doing good relatively to the previous “Key Shiber” govt. I don’t know about Meles’s”openness to Green Technology–the energy hope of the future”, though. Are we really prioritizing Green eneregy? I doubted!

  14. Quntan
    October 4, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Hate politics as advocated by shabia aficionados like Martha and Baheilu has no place in today’s Ethiopia. Thanks to EPRDF Ethiopia is on the right path to democracy and development. I am no fan of Donald Levine and will never be, but in DEMOCRACY he is entitled to his opinion no matter how egregious it is.

  15. martha
    October 5, 2009 at 6:37 am


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