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  • Is Ethiopia Democratic?A Bureaucratic Authoritarian Regime
  • John W. Harbeson (bio)

The uniqueness of individual countries or regions inevitably poses potential challenges to social science generalizations. Thus African realities continue to call into question various aspects of democratic theory, which has been grounded primarily in the experience of Western Europe and the Americas. Even within Africa, however, Ethiopia’s distinctive political history has set it apart from its continental neighbors and presented claims for exceptional treatment. It has been an empire (with a long history of independence) among former colonies, a quasi-feudal monarchy among countries seeking rapid modernization, and a Coptic Christian state among officially secular ones. It has also been the dominant power in the Horn of Africa, where received territorial boundaries and even the definition of polities themselves have been challenged in a fashion without parallel elsewhere on the continent.

Yet, notwithstanding the uniqueness of its earlier history, Ethiopia has been changing, in some respects rapidly and in others glacially, in ways that are leading it toward greater convergence with the rest of Africa. Ethiopia, too, suffered brutal military rule, as well as the elusive quest for radical transformation along Marxist-Leninist lines. The demonic Mengistu regime (1974–91) also undermined the country’s deep-rooted quasi-feudal institutions and established an unprecedented level of national-government dominance in political life. Any visitor to Ethiopia over the last quarter-century will also have noticed the many ways in which Ethiopian popular culture, particularly in the cities, has been influenced by the West. [End Page 62]

Most important of all for present purposes, Ethiopia has engaged in its own post-Cold War experiment with democracy, under the aegis of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). I would summarize the record of that experiment since 1991 by saying that Ethiopia has acquired virtually all the forms of democracy but little of its substance. I therefore differ in a major way with Paul Henze’s view of Ethiopian politics under the EPRDF regime. Since I believe that our differences derive, to a very large extent, from dissimilar theoretical and methodological perspectives, I will briefly explore these dissimilarities before turning to Henze’s misleading account of contemporary Ethiopian developments.

Theory and Practice

Although Henze does appear generally to accept the widely recognized statement of essential democratic norms offered by Robert Dahl, 1 he implicitly chooses not to work within the framework of contemporary empirical democratic theory. By contrast, I think empirical democratic theory can and should continue to be refined and applied even in countries like Ethiopia that lie outside Europe and the Americas. Empirical democratic theory involves the “formulation of hypotheses . . . which are in principle capable of being tested at the empirical level [and] made into operational hypotheses.” 2 In this case, the empirical question is what are the common elements of all systems claiming to be democratic, elements that constitute an empirical foundation for normative and analytical theories specifying necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of democracy. The contemporary conceptualizations of democracy’s necessary and sufficient conditions put forward by social scientists like Dahl and Seymour Martin Lipset, from which theories of democratic transition and consolidation ultimately derive, have been shaped by commonalities in the experiences of European and American countries claiming to be democratic. But with the post-Cold War expansion of democracy to Africa and other regions, we must now reconsider democracy’s theoretically necessary and sufficient conditions on the basis of commonalities in the global experience with efforts to establish and maintain democracy.

Henze declines to examine Ethiopia within this framework. He contends that such formulations in the abstract cannot serve as guides in practice for establishing democratic systems or appraising democratic performance because they deny: 1) democracy as “an ongoing process in which individuals and institutions interact in complex ways and with unforeseen and often unforeseeable consequences”; and 2) the ability of countries to substitute their own democratic reform priorities for those generated in the West. (“Societies in other parts of the world may have priorities for democratic reform that are different from those of the West.”) [End Page 63]

It may well be that too little attention has been devoted to...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 62-69
Launched on MUSE
1998-10-01
Open Access
No
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