When Democracy is Messy: What Can Ethiopia Learn from the American Predicament?

By the Strathink Editorial Team

Editors’ note: It is not often that one compares America’s 250+ years liberal democracy to a country like Ethiopia and its democracy of barely 25 years. However, America’s current crisis of democracy reminds us that democracy is messy and maybe still in its experimental stage as states grapple with a fast-changing world. Maybe it is helpful for countries like Ethiopia to consider the experiences of other democratic experiments on its journey towards its own democracy. The editors would love to hear from our readers. This is our best shot. Send us yours.

Testimony by former F.B.I. Director James Comey before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee last month riveted global audiences. What is being played out in front of billions of people worldwide cuts to the very heart of the American democratic process. Can the United States withstand this alleged assault on the press and judiciary, collusion between the executive branch and a foreign adversary, and corruption?

Let’s also not forget that today the U.S. government is essentially dominated by one political party.

In Mr. Comey’s closing statement, he said, “We are a functioning adult democracy.” This raises important questions about America’s “adult” democracy versus younger democracies—democracies in progress, if you will—and lessons from the process we are watching unfold in front of us.

Will American democracy be able to recover from the multiple shocks it is experiencing with the election of Donald Trump? What lessons can be extrapolated for a democracy in progress such as Ethiopia?

On the surface, it might seem specious to compare America’s democracy, over 250 years in the making, to Ethiopia’s democracy, barely 25 years old. The trajectory of history of these two countries could not be any different. Today each country has a vision of the democratic state and society based on its own worldview, context and historical experiences.

Then again, why not look at a few of the democratic principles’ shared by both countries—the role of the media, rule of law, the primacy of national security, the sanctity of public service and the notion of country over party. The U.S., like every country, has had its high points and low points. History is cyclical and democracy is messy.

Ethiopia’s democracy has had its high points and low points as well. Immediately preceding the 2005 election, the democratic process was a fast-moving train with no brakes—moving at breakneck speed to reach the finish line. And then it crashed when the opposition’s leadership derailed the train by refusing to take their seats in the parliament.

Today’s crisis requiring “deep transformation” has its roots in the aftermath of the 2005 election. Hostility between the government and the press, a weak judiciary, the opposition’s collusion with a foreign adversary, government corruption and the primacy of the party over country sent cracks in the foundation of Ethiopia’s nascent democracy.

Can Ethiopia, and other emerging democracies, learn from the vicissitudes of the American democratic experiment?

  1. The Media in a Democratic Society

 No other American institution has taken the kind of beating the media has since the election of Donald Trump. Although historically the American press has been subject to the slings and arrows of the government at one time or another, the recent attack has been unprecedented in its intensity and scope.


“Fake news” is the new mantra for the President and his supporters in an attempt to undermine the public’s confidence in reporting the news. The administration’s press secretary does not hide his contempt for White House journalists—delivering his remarks in a scolding, hostile tone while refusing to answer basic questions. One newly elected official went so far as to body-slam a reporter on the day preceding the election when he asked a question about his views on healthcare legislation. It is reported that president wanted the F.B.I. to jail reporters who publish “leaks” coming out of the government.


This heightened hostility between the U.S. government and the media has had a chilling effect on the role of the press in America’s democracy. Opinion polls show the public’s loss of confidence in what the media is saying. This significantly undermines the watchdog function of the media—crucial to a functioning democracy.

The Ethiopian government and the press have maintained a highly contentious relationship since the formation of the EPRDF-led government. Both sides have good reason to mistrust the other.

From the private media’s perspective, the government has exercised heavy-handed control of content and distribution through the laws and regulations governing the press. The government has closed down media outlets and jailed journalists for violations of the press law. The government controls broadcast licenses and there are no private television stations.

From the government’s perspective, the private media is controlled by opposition groups with the objective of overthrowing the government. The media is not an honest broker in its reporting and resorts to rumors, innuendos and falsehoods intended to create instability and hostility between ethnic and religious communities. The private media is not serving as a watchdog but rather as an attack dog—biting at the heels of the government in an effort to pull it down.

We pose these questions: what is the net gain for the Ethiopian government in continuing its adversarial relationship with the media? What is the net gain for the Ethiopian media in serving the interests of a political opposition rather than civil society as a whole? At what cost is this dysfunctional relationship having on the advancement of democracy?

In the U.S., the media, in general, is one of the most highly trained in the world. The sheer numbers of journalists and commentators as well as the wealth generated by advertisers guarantees a broad array of opinions and perspectives on various broadcast platforms. News is literally at everyone’s fingertips using their mobile phone on a 24 hour, 7 days a week news cycle.

In the U.S., the media wields great power and can withstand the onslaught of the current president and his administration. Despite the grievances held by the public towards the media, the polls show the public having more confidence in the veracity of the mainstream media than the president. The media serves as the public’s watchdog and the government is put on notice. Despite the scurrilous attacks by the executive branch, the media is able to fulfill its important role in the democratic process.

Ethiopia’s media is weak—hampered by lack of training, few financial resources and dependence on funding from political opposition and subscribers. The growth of the media—both quantitatively and qualitatively—is hampered not only by lack of resources, but the ongoing tension with the government. The media wobbles under the antagonism shown by the government. By serving the interests of the narrow agenda of opposition political groups, the media cannot play its more appropriate—and productive—role as a watchdog for civil society.

  1. The Judiciary

America’s judicial system, on balance, is more fair than not fair. However, it is a miserable fact that the incarceration rates for African Americans are three times that of whites. African Americans convicted of crimes spend 20% more time incarcerated than whites who commit the same crime.

Even though the constitution requires legal representation for everyone accused of a crime, public defenders are often overworked and overburdened with cases—leaving little or no time to prepare an adequate defense. State judges, who decide over 98% of cases, are elected. The average voter knows little about the judicial candidates. Consequently, the more money a candidate has, the more likely the candidate will win the election. Corporations, unsurprisingly, are financing campaigns and winning in courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court justices, according to the constitution, are appointed by the president but must be confirmed by the Senate. Under the Obama administration, a there was a vacancy on the Supreme Court with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy, a candidate, under normal circumstances, accepted by both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, had earlier vowed to block any and all legislation and appointments proposed by President Obama, and he did. The vacancy stood for over a year until the election of Donald Trump, when the Republican majority in Congress approved the Republican’s judicial nominee.

Is the U.S. judicial system fair? That is a difficult question to answer. We can say that it is more often than not fair. However, if you are African American or poor, it is more likely to be unfair.

Can the U.S. system survive the injustice meted out by the courts?

In the past several years, American citizens have taken to the streets to protest the criminal justice system. The increasing number of African American citizens being shot by police under circumstances that pose no danger to the police combined with the high incarceration rates of African Americans has resulted in mass protests, sometimes violent. These actions have shown the cracks in the foundation of the judicial system. Will the republic survive?

Again, the Strathink editorial team says yes. The system is shaky but other branches of government—judicial and executive—are constitutionally mandated to impose remedies to correct the inequities of justice. The judicial system, more fair than unfair, will be forced to seek equilibrium in incremental steps—not fast enough if you are poor or African American, but fast enough for the democratic process to continue to function.

Ethiopia’s judicial system, crushed during the Mengistu regime, had to be re-built after 17 years of decomposing. Today, although improving, the judicial system is weak and lacks trained staff. Trials are delayed and there is an uneven application of the law. Many times trials are not open to the public or the media, resulting in a lack of transparency that undermines peoples’ confidence in the judicial process. Despite efforts to curb the petty corruption where the performance of regular duties hinged on bribes, there is still corruption in the system.

While America’s judiciary fumbles under a cloud of institutional racism, the judicial system improves incrementally through case law and public pressure. It is an imperfect system but with course corrections along the way.

Ethiopia’s judicial system, although much improved in the past 25 years, is fundamentally flawed and requires re-building from the bottom up. Every bribe, every misapplication of the law, every incident of injustice chips away at a marginally functioning institution. A democratic society requires the confidence of the public in the judicial process—at least believing that it is more fair than unfair.

  1. Collusion with A Foreign Adversary

 If the U.S. Special Prosecutor finds evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to interfere in the U.S. election, the impact will be far-reaching. But will the republic survive?

Yes. American democracy will survive an attack on its sovereignty—even by those who govern—because its democracy has evolved over several centuries, creating an organic system of checks and balances against the vicissitudes of politics and politicians.

America’s democracy is built on a foundation of longstanding and tested democratic institutions that have the capacity to resist political turmoil and self-correct assaults against the government.

Can an emerging democracy, such as Ethiopia, withstand collusion with a foreign adversary? In the case of Ethiopia, this is not a theoretical question. Former Rainbow Party leader Berhanu Nega has allied with Ethiopia’s most volatile foreign adversary—Isayas Afewerki and the Eritrean government.

While some may scoff at the attention given to Berhanu Nega and his 200-man army, Ginbot 7, by officials in Adds Ababa, the alliance between an Ethiopian opposition group and the rogue regime of Isayas Afewerki is a cause for concern.

The fear is not their success in overthrowing the government, rather the fear is the unpredictable assaults on the country’s security that cause damage to the public’s perception of their safety. Andargechew Tsige, a self-proclaimed terrorist, described in detail the training of recruits to carry out acts of terror against civilians in high occupancy buildings—shopping malls, mosques and churches. This is no joke.

In the U.S., it is the president and key members of his administration who have been accused of colluding with a foreign adversary. In one sense, this is a far greater danger than an opposition party’s national betrayal. Indeed, two years ago this would have been far-fetched—“fake news” disseminated by one of the alt-right media platforms. However, the investigation by the F.B. I., as well as the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, are getting closer to discovering this mind-blowing truth of the last election.

Again, the republic will survive this treason because of democratic institutions that have taken root over the last 250+ years.

Today Ethiopia’s has the capacity to absorb the shock of collusion with a foreign adversary because of the strength of its own military, the weakness of its adversary and the public’s unwillingness to support the treason of Berhanu Nega and Ginbot 7.

Yet, this situation could turn on a dime. In a situation of instability, collusion with Eritrea could pose a significant problem to national security.

  1. Corruption

There is no precedent for the business interests of an American president and his administration generating profit from decisions made about governance. The elaborate network of links within the U.S. administration’s highest government officials and foreign entities—both public and private—causes concern about whose interests are being served in policy decisions.

Again, Strathink argues that, although the wheels of justice may turn slowly in resolving these conflicts of interests, there is movement towards resolution. If one of America’s democratic institutions, either the judicial branch or the legislative branch, finds illegal conflicts of interest of the administration’s government officials, the constitutionally mandated checks and balances will click in.

It is widely known that Ethiopia’s government is experiencing a period of rampant corruption. Huge infrastructure projects with the massive infusion of money have weakened the resolve of many government officials to resist the temptations of corruption.

The EPRDF government was founded on idealism—the responsibility of the government was to serve the interests of the people. For 17 years, the fighters lived in the bush struggling against a massive army and an autocratic state. The liberation of the Ethiopian people from autocracy and the demons of a top-down totalitarian state was the beginning of the Ethiopian renaissance. The government has fulfilled many of the promises made to the people with the installation of the new government. Self-governance. Decentralization. Education. Health care. Economic growth. The restoration of continental leadership. No one but the most cynical can deny the extraordinary changes that have taken place since 1991.

However, the legacy of those young men and women who gave their lives to the struggle is being tarnished by the greed and self-aggrandizement of government officials from the top down. The moral high ground of the EPRDF’s early years has collapsed under the weight of corruption.

While the U.S. maintains a system of checks and balances to eventually pull the plug on the administration’s corruption, Ethiopia’s corruption is difficult to confront. The institutions required to curb corruption are weak and the political will among some high officials is feeble at best. The consequences of this corruption—the violence that exposed the public’s considerable discontent with the government—can bring down the state if not resolved.

  1. Party Before Country

Last, we talk about the recent spectacle of Congress—a powerful check and balance of the potential abuse of power by the executive branch—consistently and unapologetically putting party before country. At no other time in American history have party members so blatantly spitting partisan loyalty at the face of the American people. The lawlessness that characterizes the current administration—perjury, obstruction of justice, collusion with the Russians, conflict of interest, to name a few—is shielded by the blind loyalty of the Republican Party. It is desperation to maintain its power that drives Republican Party members to stay loyal to a president that has pushed the boundaries of his constitutional mandate.

Unless the Republican Party relinquishes its steadfast loyalty to the president, the status quo will remain. When U.S. President Richard Nixon’s men broke into the Watergate Hotel to steal files from the Democratic Party, it was members of the Republican Party who stood up for their country in the face of the president’s lawlessness. Today’s members of the Republican Party, except for a few courageous individuals, are retreating behind the party’s logo while the executive subverts the democratic process.

Again we argue that, despite the assault on democracy, the system will slowly but inexorably correct its course—but not without damage to the peoples’ faith in government. The party, too, will be damaged. No political party can survive the contempt of the people it claims to serve.

The EPRDF is undergoing a crisis as well—although dissimilar in its nature. The party covers the country like a blanket, suffocating the people in its omniscient presence and control.

The EPRDF needs to let the people breathe and open up political space for legal dissent. This is especially true for the coalition parties in the regions. Patronage and corruption following the 2005 election has impugned the integrity of the parties. Indeed, we witnessed the violence targeted against the OPDO in the last several years as people vented their frustration in street protests.

The deep reform that is taking place is a positive step in course correction, but must be geared toward moving beyond the party to the nation. Wasn’t this the end-goal in creating an ethnic federal state? Once ethnicity, power and self-governance were in balance, the nation-state of Ethiopia—stronger in its new configuration—would build on the regions to create an entity greater than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps the time has come—in this process of deep reform and based on a whole new generation who grew up in self-governing ethnic states—to transition to a broader nationalism with a greater degree of pluralism.

What Does This All Mean?

Democracy is messy. That is the main message of this article. Whether it is an old democracy like the U.S. or a new democracy like Ethiopia, the challenges of creating a system by the people, for the people and of the people are simply formidable. It is a constant balancing act of competing principles and interests under one flag. It is an exercise in perseverance while facing a multitude of existential crises. However, no democracy can survive shocks without strong democratic institutions. Without these institutions, democracy will fade and be replaced by autocratic rule.

The key is constant vigilance.

Molly Ivens, an American journalist, wrote, “The thing about democracy is that it is not neat, orderly or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion.” Maybe this is the best we can do—keep our heads above the confusion and keep working at it.




One Response to “When Democracy is Messy: What Can Ethiopia Learn from the American Predicament?”

  1. Ayalkibet haileyesu says:

    This is a beautifully argued and excellent comparison of what is happening in the US and Ethiopia. I fully agree withi the author’s observation of the weak and treasonous opposition leaders and the dangers of their collusion with Isayas afeworki to ethiopia’s national security. Similarly the author’s view on EPRDF’s failure to build independent democratic institutions like the press and the judiciary is also faire.
    However, I believe the author has utterly failed to make his assessment full and complete by not saying anything on two crucial points. He did not mention factors which are unique to Ethiopia’s predicament. The fallouts of ethnic federalism experiment and the ideological confusion of the EPRDF are the main culprits that have posed an existential threat to Ethiopia today. Though the author’s advise to EPRDF to fix the broken institutions is commendable, EPRDF should also be told to clarify the kind of ideology that it would like to rule the country with. To hit the nail right on the head: is EPRDF committed to liberal democracy or will it continue with its patchwork of world views called Revolutionary democracy (developmental state theory)?
    Furthermore, EPRDF should have the audacity and the readiness to critically evaluate the effects of the ethnic federalism experiment that has been installed since 1991. Observers of the situation in Ethiopia do agree that the root cause of most of the problems in the country Is this policy. Government officials are appointed not based on their qualification and merit. Ethnic identity seems an absolute criteria to assume public office. Favoritism, corruption and lack of an efficient state beaurocracy are uniquely caused by the so called ethnic federalism. So I believe this article would have been full and complete if the author touches up on these issues.
    Otherwise it is a beautiful article and kudos Strathink!!!!!!


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