Ethiopia: From Autocracy to Democracy, Remarks by Carl Gershman

Addis Ababa      June 19, 2019

It is my pleasure to be here with you today in Ethiopia.  It’s my first visit to Ethiopia, and I’m very excited to be here.

This country has embarked on a process of democratic transformation that is already having reverberations, not only here and in the region, but globally.  The process of democratic change will not be easy or quick.  It never is.  But what is happening in Ethiopia has profound importance for the future of freedom and democracy, and it deserves greater attention and support.  I have been tasked by the organizers of this conference to explain why the cause of democracy in Ethiopia is so significant.

But first, as president of the National Endowment for Democracy, I must say a few words about who we are and why we are here.  In 1982, Ronald Reagan delivered his famous Westminster Address in the British Parliament, in which he proposed a global campaign for democracy and said that the US should develop a way to help “foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their differences through peaceful means.”  NED was subsequently established as a non-governmental institution receiving an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress to support democracy around the world.

We do this by making over a thousand small grants every year to indigenous civil-society NGOs and independent media in more than eighty countries, as well as by providing funding to four core institutes associated with the two American political parties, the labor movement and the business community.  These institutes support, respectively, party development and free elections, free trade unions, and a productive market economy.  We also network democracy activists globally through the World Movement for Democracy; we publish the world’s leading journal of democratic thought called the Journal of Democracy; we have a center that builds support for independent media; and we organize many activities that mobilize political solidarity for frontline activists.  Over the past year, for example, in addition to funding many programs in Ethiopia, we’ve convened donors and organized many other meetings to build broad support for democracy here.  We like to think of NED as a comprehensive support system for people everywhere who are fighting for democracy.

A mentor of mine, the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, liked to sing an old Negro spiritual called “Oh Freedom.”  It went: “Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me.  And before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free.”  Why do human beings value freedom so much, that they are ready to give their lives for it, as the song says?

The Indian economist and Noble Laureate Amartya Sen has offered some insights.  His keynote address to the World Movement for Democracy’s founding assembly held in India in 1999 was a seminal statement on democracy that drew upon the Indian experience in defending the idea of democratic universalism.  According to Sen, “the rise of democracy” was the most important thing that had happened in the twentieth century and had created the expectation that democracy was “the ‘normal’ form of government to which any nation is entitled – whether in Europe, America, Asia, or Africa.”   Democracy had achieved this status, in Sen’s view, because it had three fundamental values that contribute to the betterment of the human condition.

The first is democracy’s intrinsic value that derives from the fact that “political freedom is part of human freedom in general, and exercising civil and political rights is a crucial part of good lives of individuals as social beings.”  Democracy also has an instrumental value, according to Sen, because it protects people from the abuse of their rights; enables them to organize and work for the advancement of their political, social, and economic interests; and gives citizens the tools to hold governments accountable, thereby fostering good governance and the rule of law.  Finally, he said that democracy has a constructive value, meaning that through democratic participation, people “learn from one another” and become more experienced citizens who can help society form its values and priorities.

Democracy, in other words, is not just a set of institutions or a finished product.  It is a process by which people express their dignity as human beings, defend their interests, and mature as citizens and members of a political community.  Sen emphasized that this process is not tied to a particular culture or religion, an argument that had been popularized in the 1990s by Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew who claimed that democracy was a Western idea that was incompatible with so-called “Asian values.”  According to Sen, this argument was wrong historically since ideas of political inclusion, religious tolerance, and government accountability were deeply rooted in Indian, Confucian, and other Asian cultures.  It was also wrong theoretically, he said, since the whole debate about whether some people and cultures were more suited to democracy than others posed the wrong question, which is not whether one country or another is culturally “fit for democracy,” but rather how it can “become fit through democracy.”  Posing the question in this way, Sen emphasized, extends “the potential reach of democracy to cover billions of people, with their varying histories and cultures and disparate levels of affluence.”

Sen’s optimism was a product of the very hopeful moment in world history in the late 1990s when the third wave of democratic had reached its crest.  Two decades later, however, democracy is in trouble around the world.  Authoritarian states like Russia, China, and Iran are growing more assertive, and they are promoting alternative narratives to democracy.  China’s authoritarian developmental state, for example, promises security and economic progress in exchange for allowing the state to restrict freedom and control all political and economic power.  Some regimes promote nationalism as the supreme value, while others use religion as an official ideology to legitimize state power.  Then there are transnational kleptocrats who loot the state, moving vast sums of money to sustain their luxurious lifestyles and to buy influence among Western governments and elites.  In too many places today, entrenched dictators and military strongmen seem to be prevailing.  Social media and the spread of the Internet have also created challenges by providing platforms for fake news and hate speech that sow division and distrust.

Freedom and democracy have lost their preeminence in the international community, but democracy is poised for a renewal, and Ethiopia may signal a turning of the tide.

Too often, we appreciate freedom only in its absence.  In Ethiopia you have known the feudal rule of the emperor, the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of the Derg, and the single party rule of the past regime.  You are an ancient country that has remained fiercely independent, being the only African nation to successfully resist European colonization.  Ethiopia defeated the Italians at the battle of Adowa in 1896 and the fascist forces of Mussolini in 1941.  You have survived the “Red Terror” of Mengistu and a bloody civil war, and you are now trying to build a democratic alternative to the developmental authoritarian state of Meles Zenawi.

With Africa’s second largest population, Ethiopia is the home of the Africa Union, with some eighty ethnic groups and immense religious diversity.  To some, your country’s history and social complexity may not seem to provide the most propitious soil for the cultivation of democracy.  But as Sen noted, the question is not whether some people and cultures are fit for democracy, but how they can become fit through democracy.  There is a great thirst for freedom and an aspiration for democracy in Ethiopia, as well as the political will and incipient institutions to support it. In its modest way, NED has tried to nourish it.

Since 1991, we have supported Ethiopian civil society to promote human rights, conflict resolution, democratic elections, independent media, and civic education.  Our Center for International Private Enterprise has worked with the Chambers of Commerce here for many years to foster a public-private dialogue, and our labor institute, the Solidarity Center, has more recently helped strengthen the Congress of Ethiopian Trade Unions.  We remained committed to supporting our Ethiopian partners during the authoritarian period when it wasn’t easy for them, because supporting democracy activists who are fighting for basic rights is part of NED’s core mission.  And we have redoubled our support with the new opportunities that have now arisen. In Washington, we have also been proud to host a series of Ethiopian Democracy Fellows, including Birtukan Mideksa, Merera Gudina, Lily Mengesha, and Negasso Gidada, the former president who died recently.  We have held several major conferences and many smaller meetings focusing on Ethiopia.  So we have been engaged with Ethiopia, and we are familiar with your struggles and your strengths.

The ascension of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister on April 2, 2018, following the massive popular protests of the previous two years, has produced one of the most surprising and important breakthroughs for democracy in the world today.  The release of thousands of political prisoners, the re-opening of democratic space for civil society and political parties, the commitment to free elections, the liberalization of the media, economic reforms, and détente with Eritrea have all made it clear that the current government is serious about the democratic transformation of Ethiopia.  But the work has only just begun.  There are many difficult challenges to meet and obstacles to be overcome.  There is no magic formula for building democracy, and it’s not just a matter of getting rid of the dictatorship.  And it takes time. Democracy cannot be exported from without or imposed from above.  It has to be built from within by empowering people with institutions that enable them, as Reagan said, “to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their differences through peaceful means.”

Ethiopia’s rich ethnic and cultural heterogeneity can be a source of both conflict and strength.  The political will of your leadership and the demands of the people must be matched by the building of effective and accountable institutions, and by peaceful and responsible political discourse.  Ethiopia will have to chart its own path to democracy, which has so many different dimensions – an election system that ensures that voting is free and fair, and political parties that are representative and competitive; an independent judiciary; a free media; a democratic constitution; a federal structure that balances decentralization and ethnic diversity with national cohesion; a productive economy that provides opportunity and well-being for everyone; a competent civil service; a professional military; a vibrant civil society that enables young people, women, and minorities to have a voice; and so much more.  All of this must be thought through and developed with care and patience.  Mistakes will be made, and disappointments are likely.  But if Ethiopia succeeds, and I believe it can, then the implications will be profound.

Ethiopia represents a reversal of the authoritarian reverse wave of the past decade.  If it succeeds in creating a peaceful, multi-ethnic country, not through repression but by democratic self-government, then it would provide an example for the rest of the world.  At a time when democracy in many countries is being threatened by malignant nationalism, illiberal populism, and religious extremism, Ethiopia can be a model of civic nationalism and show that it is possible for a multi-ethnic country to build an inclusive system that allows people to be themselves, and that celebrates ethnic diversity while protecting universal rights.

Ethiopia’s transformation from autocracy to democracy is of great consequence and deserves the support of the world’s democracies.  As the seat of the Africa Union, a democratic Ethiopia could emerge as a key member of the global coalition of democracies, playing a leadership role on the continent and inspiring democrats around the world.  We all have a responsibility to help democracy succeed in Ethiopia.  I hope this conference will make a contribution to Ethiopia’s resolve and vision to forge a democratic path, and I pledge our continuing support in this historic undertaking.