By John Young (lecture delivered 26 February 2022)
Thank-you to the Center for the Advancement of Tigrayan Scholarship for inviting me to participate in this conference. I heartily endorse the appeal of the Center for scientific rigor and social activism. In fact, they should always be complementary. For activism and a commitment to the welfare of the people to be effective it must be informed by solid and defensible research, and social science research should have the objective of improving the community. And it is that conviction that I have tried to bring to my own research and publications on the Horn of Africa.
Let me explain my awkward worded title – Tigray Democracy for a Post-War Democratic Tigray. This present dreadful war will eventually end and the critical questions for me as a student of the TPLF and the political development of Tigray and Ethiopia is what form should the post-war Tigrayan state take? What kind of government would best meet the needs of Tigrayans? And what can I do as an academic to raise these issues and inform the debate? My title also makes clear that democracy must be a Tigrayan democracy, and not an off the shelf version of Western democracy. It is useful to consider foreign principles of democracy and there is much to be learned from studying different systems of government. But two things should be borne in mind: first, although the West claims otherwise, it does not have a monopoly on the understanding of democracy, and second, democracy must reflect the unique conditions in society, in other words it must be a Tigrayan democracy for Tigrayans.
TPLF and EPRDF in Government
Crucial to imagining a post-war democratic Tigray is to critically analyze the experience of the TPLF and EPRDF in government and draw the appropriate lessons, both positive and negative. One starting point is Meles’s visit to Europe and the US in 1989-1990 to meet Western political leaders, government officials, and intellectuals at a time when the EPRDF expected it would soon defeat the Derg and assume state power. Meles wanted to better understand the epoch changing events of this period and know the expected response of the West to the coming to power of the Marxist-Leninist EPRDF. Upon returning to Ethiopia Meles’s told his TPLF and EPRDF comrades that the capitalist West had won the Cold War, the US would oppose any EPRDF socialist program, and the US would crush any attempt to challenge its hegemony. Meles’s assessment caused anguish among many in the EPRDF, particularly TPLF members who were committed Marxists. According to Meles, the EPRDF had to ‘put politics before ideology’ to survive in a new world of US unipolar dominance and global capitalism.
But the EPRDF nonetheless held that Western liberal democracy was inappropriate for Ethiopia. The Front explained that while Europe’s democratic revolutions were based on the struggle for the rights of individuals and a rising capitalist class, the armed struggles of the TPLF and the EPRDF components were for the rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples. And while Western democracy was the product of a clash between a moribund feudalism and a rising bourgeoisie, the EPRDF fought against a military regime and its supporters were foremost drawn from the peasantry. The EPRDF led an armed struggle for national self-determination in opposition to an Amhara dominated state. And in government the EPRDF developed a system of national federalism that granted the oppressed nations their rights, including the right to secession, the principle which is presently being denied Tigrayans.
The EPRDF also objected to the West’s demand that the Front endorse a market-based capitalism in which the state was reduced to the role of a ‘night watchman’. The EPRDF held that this model was not suitable for Ethiopia where systemic poverty constituted an ‘existential threat’. Markets did not play the role in Ethiopia that they did in the West and there was no capitalist class in Ethiopia that could carry out the needed development of the country.
The EPRDF thus insisted that the Ethiopian state had to play a leading role in the economy to raise living standards, provide social services, develop the country, and overcome unequal development and economic injustices. The EPRDF also rejected Western demands that it privatize peasant land. The Front contended that to permit a market in land would not encourage development but produce massive dislocation and a social disaster.
The EPRDF established a parliamentary system of government as demanded by the West, but with the Federation of Nationalities in light of the central place that nations held in the Ethiopian constitution. But the reality was that power in the state was largely in the hands of the EPRDF and the central committee. The Front contended that a Western parliamentary system would be dominated by the economically most powerful elements of society with the result that the large majority of Ethiopians who were peasants would be marginalized. In other words, Western parliamentary democracy would in practice not be democratic because it would not represent the interests of the majority peasants. In the West democracy has been co-opted by the powerful at the expense of the weak, while EPRDF democracy was intended to be based on the weak elements in society.
To be clear, I agree with the critique of the TPLF and EPRDF of Western democracy and that it does not provide a viable model for Ethiopia. The Fronts were correct then and I believe their analysis is still largely valid. The armed struggles in Ethiopia were for collective national rights, not individual rights as in the West. A fully market economy would not address the problem of systemic poverty, and the state needed to play the leading role in economic development. In an increasingly globalized economy, a strong state is necessary to ensure national sovereignty. And the EPRDF was correct in my view that democracy should reflect the will and interests of the peasants and the repressed nations.
I would also argue that the struggle for national self-determination, development, and overcoming economic injustices are democratic struggles to achieve democratic ends. That these critical components of the EPRDF program are not considered part of the Western democratic ethos is a failure of the Western conception of democracy.
The problem is that the EPRDF did not always live up to its ideals, it made too many compromises. It did not construct an alternative system of democratic government and foster a democratic culture that had the support of the majority of Ethiopians. Realizing national aspirations, raising living standards, developing the country, and maintaining Ethiopian sovereignty were major achievements but they did not prove sufficient in gaining the EPRDF popular support. In 1990 Meles argued for giving primacy to politics, but instead he led a technocratic government of experts pre-occupied with the economic plan to the detriment of engaging the people in government. To be sure, Meles was a brilliant man and contributed enormously to raising living standards of Ethiopians. But he was no democrat. As a result, the EPRDF’s elections were fraudulent, parliament was made up almost exclusively of EPRDF members, and the media was repressed. These conditions were made worse by Meles’s purging of the TPLF and EPRDF in 2001 of many of its most competent leaders.
With the death of Meles, Ethiopians, including Tigrayans, wanted change, more freedoms, and an end to opaque government decision-making, but the EPRDF under Desalgn Hailemariam was divided, lacked direction, and did not or could not deliver. The failure to provide change led to the rise to power of the demagogue, Abiy Ahmed, the destruction of all the accomplishments of the EPRDF, and this present horrific war which I expect will lead to the dissolution of Ethiopia. But not before many more people will die.
In 1990 Meles concluded that Ethiopia had no option but to submit to a world that would be dominated by the US and the West for the foreseeable future. He was not alone. In 1991 Francis Fukuyama famously claimed that capitalism and Western liberal democracy represented the endpoint of human history. But in 2022 the projections of Meles and Fukuyama look very dated. Democracy in the West is in crisis and has lost legitimacy among large sections of its citizens. The US unipolar dominance is weakening, and a multipolar world is emerging. The West no longer has the credibility to press its version of democracy on the non-Western world. At the same time frustration with the status quo and anger with the elites is becoming a universal phenomenon, along with demands for genuine democracy.
Against this background it behoves Tigrayans to draw the lessons from the experience of the TPLF and EPRDF in government and to consider and debate what kind of government you want, what kind of society you want. The most significant conclusion I have drawn from my studies is that the post-war Tigrayan government must be a democracy, both because democracy responds to the most basic aspirations of the people, and because without democracy the achievements of even the best of governments may be lost. The EPRDF being a prime example. As a non-Tigrayan researcher I want to contribute to those efforts, but the ultimate decisions must be made by Tigrayans alone and based on your unique history, culture, values, and aspirations. This demands intellectual independence and political imagination. I have no doubt that you are up to the task.
Thank-you for your attention and my best wishes for your conference.