On October 5 a new parliament officially opened in Ethiopia. It received its mandate from a regular election that was held on May 24, 2015. However, the election happened in a context where the ruling party massively manipulated state resources and institutions and established structures of political control down to the household level, especially in rural areas. There were also substantiated cases of harassment, intimidation, imprisonment and extra-judicial killings of opposition party members, including candidates both in the pre- and post-election period. As a result, the ruling party and its affiliates claimed to have won 100 percent of the parliament seats. Hence the entire election process was, in practice, nothing but putting a democratic mask to an authoritarian face. The best way to depict the essence of the new parliament is to say it plays a paramount role in consolidating electoral authoritarianism in Ethiopia.
In the new parliament, 20 years after its original inception, Ethiopians witnessed a relatively new prime minister taking the oath. During the last four parliaments, what remained constant was the person who was taking the premiership. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presided over all of them. He is best described as a leader “who tried to make dictatorship acceptable“. After Zenawi’s unexpected death in August 2012, his successor Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has just taken the oath for a second time. Desalegn is Ethiopia’s fourth leader (excluding short term transitional leaders) in the last seven decades of its political history.
Compared to the previous parliament the ruling party adds only two seats, which were previously won by an opposition party and an independent. Numerically, it might not sound significant to move from 99.6 percent to 100 percent. However, this has a huge symbolic meaning to millions of Ethiopian citizens. Two decades after adopting a constitution that instilled multi-party democracy, the last two elections proved the opposite. The ruling party has become very effective at rendering all constitutionally guaranteed institutions and practices of democracy to the status of a de facto one-party state.
The two narratives on Ethiopia
At the international level, two different but not unrelated narratives dominate Ethiopia’s image. On the one hand, reports from organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and CPJ focus on the severe violation of civil and political rights by the Ethiopian regime. There are well-substantiated cases with regard to this. These include: the killing and mass arrest of Oromo student protesters, the case of Zone Nine bloggers being imprisoned for more than 500 days on a bogus charge, the imprisonment of political party leaders charged with terrorism, and the increasing harassment and persecution of journalists. The most horrendous aspect of such cases is that they are presented in court to create a fake image that the due process of law is taking place. However, the truth is the court room has now become the epicentre of serious violations of rights. It is where justice is denied and political priorities prevail.
On the other hand, there are also reports coming out from the UNDP, World Bank and most recently from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The central focus of these reports is praising the success of the Ethiopian regime for reducing the poverty rate, for increasing agricultural products and enhancing access to education, health and roads. The high and sustained economic growth of nearly 11% for more than a decade, the successful social protection programmes and the cautious yet effective development planning constitute the core of this success story. Most of these reports recognise the significant and measurable improvements on the overall wellbeing of the majority of Ethiopian citizens.
Most of the time, both kinds of reports fail to speak to each other in a systematic manner. Hence the bigger picture of the politics of development remains elusive. In particular, reports that focus on the success of the regime in terms of economic growth usually emphasise that their focus is not on governance or politics. Usually these kinds of statements draw on political analysis that is barely integrated to inform the central position of the reports. The reports remain very technocratic by overemphasising the technical capacity of planning processes, policy synergy and effective execution. For instance, the latest report by ODI recognises the remarkable determination of the government to put farmer training centres in every village. However, there is limited effort to explore the political significance of these training centres in ensuring the unparalleled dominance of the ruling party. There is also limited effort to explicate the political relevance of such developmental institutions or structures and the developmental purposes of political structures. Because of this, such reports only tell the story of a glass half-full, and don’t reasonably reflect on the half that remains empty.
However, in the everyday life of Ethiopians, the rosy images of remarkable economic growth and pro-poor government investment coexist with an increasingly repressive political context. And the incumbent regime that aspires to build a democratic developmental state seems in control of this situation. Since the government seeks to derive its legitimacy from what it delivers, it uses reports that commend its success to justify its authoritarian rule. On the other hand, the critical reports are always regarded as attacks from fanatic neoliberal actors that seek to destabilise the country.
Over the coming five years, the new parliament will preside over the modernist mission of the government to bring the country to the levels of a middle income country by 2025. There is very little hope for change with regard to the political situation. But the economic growth will no doubt continue steadily, since its political relevance is unquestionable for the regime.
The inherently intertwined nature of the political repression and economic growth is well-captured by one joke that revolves around the recently inaugurated light rail transport system in Addis Ababa. This 34km railway that crosses the city north-south and east-west cost USD 475 million. People are sarcastically saying that it will make their frequent travel to visit the hundreds of political prisoners in Kality and Kilinto, on the southern outskirts of the city, easier.