Ethiopia's Election Results and the Myths of African Politics

This week, the results of the recent Ethiopian general election were confirmed. The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the incumbent government whose leader Meles Zenawi has been prime minister for twenty years, have claimed a landslide win that is neither revolutionary nor, allegedly, entirely democratic: 90 percent of parliamentary seats have gone to the EPRDF, 9.6 percent of seats to the EPRDF's affiliates, one seat to an independent candidate who is the recently deposed head of the Ethiopian Football Federation, and one seat - or 0.2 percent of the House of Representatives - to the opposition party.

The news comes shortly after the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the philanthropic foundation behind the multi-million dollar Ibrahim Prize for good governance in Africa, announced that it would not be awarding the prize to any African leader for the second year running.

This sad succession of events reinforces that wearying myth that "this is Africa" (TIA). But a myth is supposed to be a story that is familiar though not necessarily true. And the danger with the storyline of the TIA myth is that it can create what psychologist Martin Seligman has called "learned helplessness": the depressing and incapacitating belief that whatever action one takes, a bad situation won't be improved. With a grim forecast like this, there is nothing to lose by re-examining the central elements of the TIA story to see which can be replaced with some timely truths.

Perhaps the most salient part of the TIA myth is the idea that leadership elections in Africa are always hopelessly rigged in favor of the dictator of the day. At first glance, these Ethiopian elections seem to corroborate this. But the results also tell a different story: rigged, yes; hopeless, no. The 2005 elections were the EPRDF's first attempt at multi-party democracy, and were monitored by Jimmy Carter and a UN mission of election observers. When the EPRDF "win" was announced, those elections concluded with anti-government riots, civilian shootings by government forces, and opposition figures and civil society leaders being imprisoned and charged with treason and genocide. In contrast, the early indications from the 2010 election observers are that this round of voting has been carefully stage-managed in advance to pre-empt violence and internal protest later. This in itself is not, of course, good news. Still, it points to the fact that while the EPRDF leadership may not care for a working democracy, they do care about presenting the appearance of legitimacy to look good internationally and to attract foreign investment. In the face of another apparently rigged election, then, political pressure, scrutiny, and protest should be intensified, rather than abandoned. By encouraging a genuine democratic culture to develop in countries like Ethiopia, the legitimacy of an incumbent government would be strengthened. Opposition parties would also lose the advantages of "martyr status" and would find themselves under pressure to offer more than just an anti-government platform.

Another key element of the TIA myth is that political freedoms are secondary to economic stability and growth: an undemocratic regime can be tolerated in the interests of protecting a fledgling economy. This is a line of argument favored by several aid agencies and incumbent African governments. In Ethiopia the EPRDF attribute their extravagant electoral popularity, and their popularity with overseas aid donors, to their record of "double-digit economic growth." But what evidence is there for this growth? The mainstay of Ethiopia's economy is the agricultural sector which accounts for around half of Ethiopia's GDP. The EPRDF reports that agricultural yield has gone up by 40 percent, akin to Asia's "Green Revolution." But where Asia's Green Revolution may have averted famine in India and Pakistan, Ethiopia's miracle agricultural growth has led to no improvement in the standard of living, according to the UN. And leading development economists have commented that Ethiopia's agricultural growth figures are "somewhat puzzling," as the increase in yield has occurred without any comparable increase in fertilizer use, irrigation, seed variety, technology transfer, or farmland area. This puzzle could easily be solved with a transparent and accountable government, but the absence of political freedoms means the economic situation cannot be effectively scrutinized.

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MG Zimeta has written for Prospect magazine and elsewhere, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, and currently teaches at a university in Europe

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