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.

Even if we assume the reported economic growth is real, is it enough? In the 1880's, Otto von Bismarck, the "Iron Chancellor" and one of Europe's great reformers, introduced the principles of social welfare for the very poor. Bismarck's aim was not to create a welfare system that would help the poor flourish. It was to ensure the poor were sufficiently cared for to prevent a mass uprising, but also that they were kept too weak to form a credible opposition. As long as political opacity in Africa persists, there is no way of knowing if reported economic growth is simply a way of keeping the large agricultural classes under control while satisfying aid donors that some good is being done. Moreover, as long as the policy priority is economic growth and not political expression, the poor - in Africa and in the West - will always appear to us as a two dimensional people without character or culture.

One possible solution that could offer the right balance between political and economic progress is to change how development is measured. The Capability Approach, developed by the Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, encourages us to understand a meaningful human life as one with the opportunity to develop a range of capabilities and to satisfy a spectrum of personal and social needs. Under the Capability Approach, for a country to report good development figures per capita, economic prosperity must be accompanied by political and civic opportunities, as well as cultural and personal freedoms. (A fuller development index like this would also go some way to helping governments and citizens in more affluent nations to critically assess the quality of our own prosperity.)

The final core ingredient of the TIA myth is the message that the West will co-operate with what Bill Clinton once called the "new breed" of African leaders, at any price. The only requirement we effectively impose on this new generation of leaders is that they are not as bad as the "big men" leaders of the past. The problem with this position is that it offers African leaders little incentive to improve their game. Increasingly, the "new breed" is beginning to look like the old: Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, like Zimambwe's Robert Mugabe and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, is a former revolutionary. In view of this, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's decision this week to withhold its prize, rather than reinforcing TIA fatalism, may actually be a declaration of hope: Africa can do better.

The West's position of unqualified co-operation also has troubling ramifications for African citizens. It risks creating a generation with low expectations for what political and cultural involvement can achieve, and who may be cynical about the political double standards of Western democratic leaders. If younger Africans manage to escape the harsh regimes of their homeland as migrants, then it is easy to see how such cynicism would discourage assimilation in their new countries, leaving them doubly disenfranchised and alienated. But if they stay in their homeland, then it is difficult to see how such beliefs will inspire them to become democratic leaders of tomorrow.

Under these circumstances, Africa's most debilitating political myths may yet harden into a reality of self-reinforcing learned helplessness. As the poet Geoffrey Hill once wrote: "Against wild reasons of the state / his words are quiet, but not too quiet. / We hear too late, or not too late."