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  • Is Ethiopia Democratic?Oldspeak vs. Newspeak
  • Richard Joseph (bio)

A global intellectual project is under way today as scholars grapple with the mixed nature of many political systems formerly considered to be making a “transition to democracy.” By “thinking wishfully,” as Adam Przeworski put it, scholars had projected onto the initial processes of regime transformation their hopes for more democratic outcomes. 1 Eventually, models that presumed a linear trajectory toward democracy began to appear less applicable, and new approaches to understanding the complex interplay of political power, institutions, and social forces in the contemporary context had to be devised.

Paul Henze, who brings to the study of post-Mengistu Ethiopia a great store of knowledge, had an opportunity to contribute to this important project. Despite its fascinating history and impressive civilization, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries on earth. It has also been devastated by war that, unlike elsewhere on the African continent, has been waged with massed troops, tanks, and modern warplanes. Since the replacement of the Derg (a council of soldiers who in 1974 seized power from Emperor Haile Selassie and installed military rule) by the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) in 1991, Ethiopia has experienced renewed economic development, received generous international assistance, and regained international respect as a bastion of security lodged between a war-torn Sudan and a Somalia in fragments.

A balanced assessment of the travails, dilemmas, failures, and [End Page 55] achievements of EPRDF rule would have been of immense value to scholars and policy makers. For reasons best known to himself, however, Henze has chosen not to provide such an assessment of the complex forces at work in post-Mengistu Ethiopia. Instead, he has assumed the task of defending the regime as a sterling builder of democracy, berating its opponents and critics at every turn for being misguided, misinformed, and malicious. This one-sided exercise has relevance beyond Ethiopia and even Africa. Other countries claiming to be democratic have been criticized for human rights abuses, unfair elections, and rule by a militarily dominant minority. Seldom, however, have such charges been dismissed in so sweeping a manner by a respected scholar.

I had looked forward to writing a commentary on Henze’s essay before reading it. But I had not anticipated being confronted with such a stark demonstration of how the idea of democracy can be distorted and turned into a shield for what are at best semi-authoritarian practices. My task has thus become the unpleasant one of identifying the threat that such a treatment represents, not just to struggling democratic movements worldwide, but also to the most essential element of our work as scholars and analysts, our reliance on language.

Democracy as “Protective Sophism”

As early as February 1992, the editors of Africa Demos noted that democratic transitions in Africa were being “coopted or derailed in several countries.” 2 As a result, a quality of democracy index (qdi) was produced and published, along with a list of indicators. The editors added a cautionary note: “The democratic movement in Africa risks giving birth to democracies that are façades behind which monopolistic and repressive practices continue to flourish. It was never the intention of Africa Demos to lend credibility to such deceptions.” 3

Six years later, Africa is becoming not the “workshop of democracy” predicted by Richard Sklar, but a workshop of “democracy as deception.” So blatant is Henze’s essay in this regard that it prompted me to reread George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, the Ministry of Truth systematically encourages Winston, the protagonist, to abandon Oldspeak and learn “to grasp the beauty of the destruction of words.” 4 By acquiring Newspeak, Winston would learn that the past can be altered. In the end, “everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.” 5 Eventually, Winston would even come to accept “that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy.” 6 I then revisited W. Arthur Lewis’s small 1965 classic, Politics in West Africa. In his unflinching portrayal of the undermining of Africa’s postcolonial constitutional democracies, Lewis emphasizes the distortion of language: “Nearly...