How does democracy develop in a poor country with a long-standing history of authoritarian rule?
Six years ago, as a young, inquisitive and idealistic undergraduate, I traveled to my country of birth, Ethiopia, on a quest to answer one of the toughest questions in political science: how does democracy develop in a poor country with a long-standing history of authoritarian rule? At the time Ethiopia had recently passed through a tumultuous period following the highly contested 2005 election and the political crisis that ensued. There had been concerns of election fraud and as people took to the streets to protest the ruling party’s (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front or EPRDF) preemptive claim to victory, a callous response by security forces led to the death of 193 civilians and years of fear and silence that have followed. When I arrived in Addis Ababa in late 2008 to do research around those fateful elections, a sense of apathy mixed with resignation and fatigue permeated the air. I sought to meet and interview prominent political leaders, journalists and activists to understand from their perspective the significance of the 2005 election and its implications on democratization in Ethiopia. In the end I came back with more questions than answers and an unrelenting interest to understand a subject that was infinitely more nuanced and challenging than I had imagined.
On the way to one of these interviews in December 2008, I ran into a remarkable woman, a person who defined the essence of leadership as a form of servitude to a people and an idea. Birtukan Mideksa was a leading figure in the opposition movement and a former federal judge who never cowered in the face of political pressure, at one time dismissing a politically motivated corruption case against Seye Abraha (a core member of the ruling party who had a falling out with then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi)—an action that would cost her career. A dedicated and fearless leader, she had a unique ability to inspire these same virtues in others. When I met her, our encounter lasted less than five minutes. She was on her way out of a colleague’s house but promised me an interview in the coming week. A few days later she would be arrested, allegedly for reneging on the terms of a pardon by the government in statements she made to the media, and sentenced to life in prison. I would not speak to her until six years later.
It was not clear why the Ethiopian government decided to release Birtukan but in October 2010, she was pardoned again. By this time, the political situation in Ethiopia had regressed to an almost hopeless point. The EPRDF and its affiliated parties, led by Zenawi, had just won another election gaining a 99.5% majority in parliament (all but two of the 547 seats went to the ruling regime). In addition to obliterating the opposition through laws that restricted civil liberties, part of the ruling party’s success lay in its ability to become ubiquitous in all aspects of Ethiopians’ lives. As the rest of Africa continued to embrace the Internet revolution and globalization of media, in Ethiopia the government maintained tight control over access to information and communication. Until today, despite being amongst the fastest growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world that has yet to privatize its telecommunications sector. In all semblances Ethiopia had become a de-facto one-party state.
During those years I slowly started to shed my idealism, but remained inquisitive. After working for a human rights organization for a short time, I decided to shift and focus my career on development issues like peacebuilding and conflict resolution—issues that, ironically, seemed less intractable than democracy and governance. As I traveled to other countries—Liberia, Somalia, Iraq—I would rediscover what drew me to write about Ethiopia in 2008 in different manifestations elsewhere. Injustice takes on many different shades but nothing about it made it more palatable or less worthy of attention.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me to a graduation dinner in honor of Birtukan Mideksa who had recently completed her Masters at Harvard’s Kennedy School. In a low-key Ethiopian restaurant in Silver Spring, I would again encounter the person who unlike anyone I had met before sacrificed so much for an idea she believed in. For the next few hours, the room buzzed with conversations about politics, social change and culture in Ethiopia, interspersed with laughter and comic relief. Reminiscent of that important moment in time when change seemed possible through dialogue and cooperation, here was a space to have an open intellectual discussion about democracy and the fate of a country we cherished. For me, a young Ethiopian-American sitting at dinner with Birtukan and other Ethiopians who continue to toil for human rights and democracy through social media and academia, this encounter led to an important realization: there are no eureka moments or straightforward solutions to the injustices that we observe and so desperately seek to change. But each person’s actions stand as an example for others who can continue to keep the hope of change alive through an indomitable sense of conviction and solidarity.
These days I’ve started to write again, inspired by the examples of others around me who are making their contributions to a vision of Ethiopia that I share. I know that I am privileged to be able to express my ideas without fear, while others have died or languish in prisons to have this ability. It is a gift I cherish and one that I hope to use constructively. I don’t consider myself a political activist, but at a fundamental level, I desire a freer and more just society. Like many people from various national, religious and socio-economic walks of life who share this intangible connection to humanity, I feel a responsibility to carry forward the dream that others have sacrificed for.
- Dedicated to the Zone9 Bloggers (Befekadu Hailu, Atnaf Berahane, Natnael Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret, Abdel Wabela), Tesfalem Weldeyes, Edom Kassaye, Asmamaw Hailegeorgis and countless others who continue to inspire us in their absence.