The past month saw the Sidama referendum and the merger of EPRDF into a single political entity called ‘Prosperity Party.’ Amongst the most common comments regarding the Sidama referendum was that it was an exercise of democracy in which the people finally determined their own administrative fate. Similarly, the formation of Prosperity Party has been commended as an inclusive effort that makes state power accessible to all Ethiopians organized under EPRDF. That too inevitably makes it a democratic move.
These things got me thinking about our understanding of democracy. As the well-coached followers we are, we associate democracy with public participation, the role of political parties, decentralization, freedom of expression, imprisonment of opposition politicians and so on. All the above stated facets constitute various aspects of democracy under a national setting. Dealing with these domestic issues takes up only half of the discourse on democracy though. The other half is made up of international factors affecting the development of democracy in Ethiopia. For some reason, this side of the argument is not considered as part of national discussions on democracy.
However, international factors have a considerable bearing on democracy in states. The international system is a place where the powerful impose their will on the rest. Just to get a better sense of the interaction of state and non-state actors in the international system, let’s look into some facts.
As Chalmers Johnson stated in his book ‘Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic”, the U.S. has got more than 800 military bases around the world. With nearly 200 countries around the world, that is an average of over 4 military bases per country. The book indicates that these military bases are there to ensure the viability of military sanctions for any state that does not abide by the standards of conduct the only superpower sets for states. The Americans have also shown us repeatedly that they are not shy of putting this tremendous fire power to use. The U.S. attacked and invaded a number of countries unilaterally and in alliance with its satellite states.
More powerful states are also allowed to attack and invade others as long as they have the U.S.’s blessing. The protracted Saudi and UAE attacks on Yemen are an ongoing case in point. The long history of their secret operations overseas has also achieved new heights as demonstrated through the successful regime changes during the color revolutions of Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring. The economic and political choking of the BRICS is also a testament to the unrivalled coercive power of the only super power in the international system. Without U.S. backing, governments crumble across the world either through internally orchestrated revolts ‘by the people’ or through direct military interference.
Sovereignty has become an obsolete concept only the powerful can realistically claim to have. The powerful states have decreed that they will not sit back and watch when governments they deem authoritarian oppress their people. Human and political rights have become an international tool to rationalize invading other states. The recent U.S. threat to militarily topple Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela, if anything happened to U.S. backed opposition leader Juan Guaido, is an ongoing case in point explaining that argument. As far as the U.S. is concerned, though an insult to our knowledge, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to free the people of those countries and make the world safer. As far as the most powerful states are concerned, the pretexts of violation of human rights and the fuzzy demarcations of international terrorism are reasons enough to shred one’s sovereignty, dismember territorial integrity, and impose their own will.
The European Union, the United States, and the United Nations impose military and economic sanctions and embargoes. The website Lexology indicates that over 24 countries in the world are currently languishing from the crippling effects of sanctions and embargoes. That is a ratio of 1 in eight countries.
Powerful states unilaterally use various tools to push weaker states into adopting policies they want to promote. The policy ‘recommendations’ international organizations put forth to states are also a tool of manipulation. International financial organizations, banks and other creditors lend money to states, leaving them with the heavy brunt of debt on their shoulders. Poor states like Ethiopia that depend on international sources of finance constantly endure incessant nagging and pressure to adopt policies that might not be congruent with their national development goals. We can raise here the fact that it was only a couple of weeks after the Article IV consultations with IMF that the Ethiopian government passed the decision to devaluate the Birr by 15Pct two years ago. The subsequent inflation that has made the country more unbearable to live in is a result of that decision.
The current international system is one in which societies do not have the right to follow their own administrative, economic and political models and ideologies. Just consider why countries like North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela are considered enemies of the world. That is because they are socialist countries. Religious societies can no longer establish a religious or non-secular state. Secularism has been designated as the standard of conduct for societies in the current international system. Going against that decision would be met with a fierce military invasion that can render a region unliveable. Is it not the right of religious societies to form religious states? Apparently—not in this international system.
All the issues raised above indicate that the international system is downright undemocratic. The policy dictations and systematic change of governments by the powerful across the globe show that the international system is one chaotic place run by bullies. If I say that much about the undemocratic nature of the international system, let me go on to ask: how can states be democratic in an undemocratic international system? The answer to that question necessitates the inclusion of international democracy into national democratic discourse.
Another key question here is: can such an undemocratic international system be home to a democratic state, regardless of fortune and power? In my opinion, the answer is no. The powerful states that are generally perceived to be democratic actually roam the world with their inhumane business, economic and military actions. Their stifling approaches to policy alternatives and freedom of thought underscore their undemocratic nature. On the other hand, weak oppressed states cannot claim to be democratic when they help impose the will of other nations on their own people. What good is public participation at the national level when international actors can force governments to adhere to their guidelines over national interests? The answer is simple. States cannot truly be democratic in an undemocratic international system.
Without the international platform in consideration, therefore, the issue of democracy at only the national level is a tool of division thrown onto us from outside. As thieves would throw bones to dogs guarding a house to divert their attention and sneak past, the numerous issues of democracy at the national level allow foreign powers to impose upon us their will undetected. As the guarding dogs quarrel amongst themselves over the bone, various sections of the elite focus their attention completely on the democratic agendas thrown on to them. These agendas include: women’s rights, administrative rights, human rights, political rights, and children’s rights, among others. Therefore, we need to raise our heads from the bone thrown on to us and look around if anybody is using the opportunity to go past us into our home. Dealing with only the national realm of democracy should, therefore, be replaced by a holistic approach that gives due emphasis to interactions with the international system.
8th Year • Dec.16 – Jan.15 2020 • No. 81