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Multi-party Consensus Autonomous Self-Rule Democracy:

A Briefing for Tomorrow’s Ethiopia

Professor Desta, Asayehgn


In the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has everoccurred in any independent democratic country with a relatively free press (Amartya Sen, 1999).

The assumptions, the nature and possible challenges of good governance may be better appreciated considering the Lijphart’s paradigm of consensus democracy. Over the years, the British system of government, a majoritarian democracy or the Westminster type of governance, has been criticized because it is constitutionally biased toward quick decision-making and its actions are based on a democratically elected majority in the government.

Unlike the tenets of a majoritarian democracy, according to Lijphart (1977), a consensus democratic federal nation needs to be governed by the existence of: 1) a grand coalition (including the ruling elites of each unit to  rule in the interest of their constituencies in elections, cabinets, parliament, civil service, etc); 2) a mutual veto (requiring consensus rather than majority rule); 3) proportionality (representation based on the population of each unit); and 4) segmental autonomy (each federal unit is autonomous and has its own sphere of authority, either territorially or functionally). As paraphrased by Shah. “…in the context of deeply divided places, this would appear to be a rather pleasant outcome whereby political parties representing different ethnicities would come together to form coalition governments, hence, ensuring broader representation of interests and minimal exclusion.” (2013).

To alleviate the “tyranny of the majority” in a democratic set up and to avoid the likelihood of turmoil due to deep linguistic, religious, and ethnic ruptures in the future, Lijphart suggests that nations need to emphasize and practice a consensus democratization process to create a manageable self-rule of communal constituents, so that all citizens fully enjoy equal partnership in the system (Howe, Philp J, 2015; Clark. P and Foweraker, J. 2001). As reported by Vatter (2007), consensus democracy is supposed to “…represent as many citizens as possible and that there are multiple checks and balances, thus limiting the power of the central government while providing for the representation of a broader array of interests.”

In short, as summarized by Lijphart, consensus democracies are composed of “kinder and gentler” units because they are likely to 1) be composed of welfare units, 2) be environmentally sensitive, 3) incarcerate fewer people, 4) eschew the death penalty, 5) elect more women, 6) reduce economic disparity, 7) have higher electoral turnout, 8) select leaders with opinions that correspond more closely with those of the citizens, 9) enhance accountability, and 10) minimize corruption, etc ( 1999).

According to Lijphart (1991), if democracy is defined as “government of the people by the people,” it behooves us to ask “who will do the governing and to whose interests should the government be responsive when the people are in disagreement and have divergent preferences?”  Moreover, as argued by Aerts (2005) as defined by Lijphart “Consensus decision-making is a higher ethical standard, because it is based on the principle that every voice is worth hearing, and that every concern is justified.”  “The pursuit of consensus not only aims to achieve better solutions but it also fosters a sense of community and trust.”  Empirical observations by Bormann (2010) also indicate that the Netherlands had a deeply segmented society. But, due to the absence of Westminster-like rules and norms, it is one of Europe’s most stable and flourishing democracies because it abides within the procedural consensus decision system. Similarly, like the Netherlands, “the European Commission follows the simplest decision procedures of all, namely if no consensus is reached no decision is taken” (Bormann, 2010). 

Relevant to the federal systems of governments are the attributes of the consensus democracy system that include the existence of reciprocal relationships between central and local governments. For example, through the transfer of authority, responsibility, and accountability from the central to local governments, the consensus democratic political decentralization system extends the democratic processes to lower levels of government (Barnett , C. et al., December 1997and Araia, 2013).That is, the process of consensus democratic political devolution allows local governments to have clear and legally recognized geographic boundaries over which they exercise authority and within which they perform public functions.  That is, municipalities can elect their own mayors and councils, raise their own revenues, and have independent authority to make investment decisions.  Therefore, a political devolution that operates through consensus inevitably changes the allocation of power and jobs.

In light of the experience of Switzerland (cantons) and India (states), the advocates of consensus democratic self-rule argue that a federal system is only viable and manageable if the existing emotionally charged ethnic group feelings are further sub-divided into manageable geographic regions.  Following the viable concrete examples from the well managed federated nations and believing that the formation of an ethnic community contributes to the formation of a shared space that could provide individuals with a cultural context in which to establish relationships, Spain, for example, is in the process of entertaining the formation of multi-ethnic federal states for its inhabitants. Belgium on the other hand is now relying on voluntary agreements to reorganize itself into a manageable ethnic federation because it is convinced that as membership in a community flourishes, so does the member’s well-being and life chances.

In theory, Lijphart’s idea that political decisions of democratic regimes need to be taken through procedures for creating or verifying consensus seems to be convincing and is enjoying widespread support in a number of European countries. Nonetheless, empirical studies that were conducted by Lijphart (1999) himself seem to indicate that consensus democracies are not superior to majority democracies in managing the economy and in maintaining civil peace. Also it is possible that a single-party government placed by consensus may not pass a requisite reform because in a one-party system there is no conflict of parties and it may not take tough decisions that might disrupt its comfortable control of power (Shah, 2013). Thus, given the major incompatibility of good governance and Lijphart’s consensus democracy, with African political mores and history another possible option needs to be considered for Ethiopia’s Federal Republic, the traditional non-party consensus, or the African communitarian approach of a grassroots democratic system of government.

 Non-Party Consensual Democracy:  The African Way

As stated by Wiredu (2000), compared to the Westminster majoritarian rule that is based on consent without consensus, theAfrican Non-Party Consensual Democratic system relies on consent and is subject to the control of the people as expressed through their representatives. In other words, compared to the multi-party system imposed by the West, Africa’s traditional system of government is relatively better as a form of governance because it is based on consensual democracy, arrived at through negotiation. As it existed in the Ashanti government in Ghana, though it didn’t last long, the residents of Warilu, Wello, Ethiopia, also were forced to form neighborhood associations in 1962-63. The neighborhood association subscribed to the African “communal ethos” because it incorporated the communities’ traditional values of consensus or consultative democracy and was set up to liberate the local people from various debilitating atrocities, corruption, and maladministration that the bureaucrats of Emperor Hailes Selassie’s feudal regime were imposing on the locality.

More specifically, non-party polity featuring traditional African politics could be a viable alternative to ease political tensions and divisions that have torn the African continent for many years.  However, as advised by Wiredu (2000),we have to be aware that traditional African decision-making differed from the supreme right of the majority because in the African non-party system, “…no party lost because all the parties were natural partners in power or, more strictly, because there were no parties. In the one-party situation, the reason why no party loses is because murdered parties do not compete.”  As succinctly stated by Kimbuku  (2007), the African style of consensus works as an indirect democracy because there are no formal votes won by the majority. Opinions are shared and discussions are taken into consideration and the final decision reflects the common interest. That is, setting up the rules of consensus demands that each constituency represented in the deliberation process make his/her opinion heard (Kimbuku 2008).

            As stated above, the African consensual polity assumes that traditional African polity was harmonious, and the conditions of traditional African political life were handled, by and large, by homogenous councils that were made of clans or lineages from the same group. Given this premise, it was assumed that the conditions of traditional political life would remain static and less complicated than those of the present.  However, the kinship networks that provided the stability for consensual politics in traditional African times don’t seem capable of serving the same purpose in modern Africa. The system decreases political efficiency in the sense that it takes a long time to deliberate drafted laws either in the local, regional, or federal parliament. More particularly, in urban industrialized African areas, the fact that a number of socioeconomic cleavages and new ingredients in ideological politics have been mushrooming makes a non-party system inefficient to operate. Moreover, since some Western thinking has been adopted, some traditional cultures may no longer be attractive to western scholars, i.e. the non-party polity that gave vitality to traditional Africa may not survive in a globalized African political scene. As observed by Kimbuku (2007), it is difficult to accommodate the traditional non-party polity in current African settings because urbanization, industrialization, socioeconomic cleavage, and ideological politics characterize the new Africa.

Actually, reversing this line of thinking, Wiredu (2005) warns us not to be nostalgic by imagining that the ground is now fertile for the breeding of a non-party system of governance.  He stresses the need to be cognizant that:


It might seem, therefore, that neither in the past nor in the present nor in the foreseeable future can consensus be seen to have been, or to promote, a realistic basis for politics in any African State that is a composite of distinct ethnic units. On the contrary, so it might appear, the more pluralistic approach of a multi-party system, provided it incorporates reasonable safeguards against tyranny of majority, offers the more practical option.

Following Wiredu’s suggestion that instead of relying on borrowed liberal democratic principles that are based on the principle of majoritarian rule, and being cognizant not whole-heartedly to revisit the non-party consensual democracy that existed in traditional Africa in its entirety for the current period, the most viable option for the salvation of contemporary Ethiopia from its  political challenges rests on establishing a multi-party consensus democratic political system.

Multi-Party Consensus Democracy: For Grassroots Governance

Citizens in stable democracies possess a relatively common set of understanding about the appropriate boundaries of government, the sanctity of political rights, and the duties of citizens to preserve them. If there is no consensus within society, there can be little potentiality for peaceful resolution of political differences that is associated with the democratic process (Almond and Verba, 1963).

In a way, non-party consensus reminds us of the nominal elections that used to occur under autocratic feudal rule and the Derg’s inhuman era. Therefore, to advocate the applicability of a non-party system of governance to current federal Ethiopia that subscribes to some elements of democracy, seems to be irrelevant and is likely to be unacceptable to the Ethiopian population because of the inhuman atrocities of those eras.  In addition, since there cannot be a conflict of parties advocating for a non-party system, advocating for a non-party system more or less amounts to leaning toward a one-party system. .

As some type of constitutional engineering for devolution occurred in contemporary Ethiopia in 2001, in name, it encouraged local units to have a say in selecting their own rulers which contributed to political stability. Also, it empowered local residents to select leaders that would be held accountable for their decisions. Theoretically, the Ethiopian Parliament enacted the devolution of powers to allow the lower levels of  the administration (woreda) to be held responsible for pursuing a grassroots type of local self-governance. Around 2005, just for a few months, before the May election of 2005, the Ethiopian Government showed some signs of transparency and political openness, and demonstrated a type of rudimentary democracy. As stated by the Carter Center, “…the May elections marked an historic event in the country, as Ethiopia witnessed its first genuinely competitive campaign period with multiple parties fielding strong candidates” (2009). Unfortunately, what began with a comparatively open period of campaigning and an orderly voting process in a fragmented democracy, uncertainty about electoral outcomes provoked mutual suspicion among the political actors. As result, the fragmentary type of democracy evaporated as the political parties entered into a skirmish resulting in an overblown  system of checks and balances by the ruling party.

To minimize the social unrest that is crippling the country and to ensure the exercise of political rights and freedoms for a genuine consensus democratic system, the Ethiopian Federal polity needs to start democratic institution-building and then encourage active participation by the woredas citizens, involving them in discussions eventually to lead to the transition of multi-party democratic consensus federalism. That is, organized into three political levels, Federal, woreda, and neighborhood, each woreda should have the right to autonomy and be allowed to maximize its political self-determination, as stated in Ethiopia’s Federal Constitution.  However, if decisions cannot be reached unanimously, both the majority and minority could attempt to synthesize the same issue by making adjustments in their respective viewpoints.

Therefore, it needs to be stressed once again that a multi-party autonomous consensus type of democracy is worthy of entertaining in contemporary Ethiopia because it excludes the possibility that the majority will impose its views on the minorities. Functioning in an integrated plural society, it provides a system of checks and balances between ethnic, regional and national levels, and ultimately reduces the fears of minorities. Finally, as stated by Agh (2001), it needs to be underlined that the decision-making rule of unanimous consent through deliberations depends in large-part on the willingness of the protagonists to encourage a culture of compromise and accommodation, and the executive needs to run this by five to seven elected officials. In short, as suggested by Lijpahart (1999), each woreda in federal Ethiopia, needs to be autonomous, with minimum exclusion, administered proportionally by a grand coalition, and subscribing to consensus democracy.  

It was enacted in 2001 in the Ethiopian constitution that the local administration in Ethiopia be autonomous and that each woreda be given nominal self-rule. However, a cursory look indicates that the local people living in the Ethiopian woredas have rarely been allowed to participate in political and social decision-making processes through their representatives. Though it is claimed that Ethiopia follows a federal system in which each constituent unit is autonomous and is able to select and recall their administrators, it is surprising to note that the governors and administrators for each woreda are selected by the macro-political participants who occupy central places in Ethiopian politics.  By and large, the local governors of woredas and municipalities are not selected by local people but are political cadres, or extensions of the ruling party. Thus, they are sent from regional states (Kililes) and zones to administer the woredas and municipalities.

Summary and Policy Implications

Since the inhuman and authoritarian Derg was routed from power in1991, Ethiopia has shown a dramatic transformation in its economy. Based on rapid public infrastructure investment as the key structural drive of growth, the World Bank (2015) indicates that Ethiopia has decreased poverty levels from 60% to 29%.  Furthermore, a forecast by the World Bank indicates that Ethiopia will become a middle income country by 2025.   For instance, “In an analysis of 124 countries over four decades, though having the third largest infrastructure deficit in Africa, Ethiopia was ranked to be among the fastest 20% in infrastructure growth in the past decades” (World Bank, 2015).

In tandem with economic growth, Ethiopia has been facing massive social unrest, corruption, unaccountability, and because the governance style is heavy handed, it has undermined the country’s economic growth that has been recorded for the last two decades.   For example, the most glaring and politically sensitive issues that were sparked in Oromo land, Wolkait Tsegede,  Qemant  etc. have created political instability in all of Ethiopia.  Moreover, much of the disruption has been caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon. El Niño has not only disrupted  normal  conditions, but the unexpected  drought has also threatened Ethiopia’s agriculture which, as a result , has contributed to  mass starvation of more than 10 million people.

Despite of these challenges, and given Ethiopia’s resilience, there is no doubt that Ethiopia’s economic growth will recover from these shocks provided the existing political structure is carefully revised to adapt to current needs.  For instance, initially, the formation of federalism was a landmark in Ethiopian history. Federal Ethiopia was demarcated based on ethnicity to reflect the ideological orientation of freedom fighters -who need to be thanked for liberating the Ethiopian people from the dictatorship of the Derg and bringing about stability, economic growth, and in a way, minimizing rural poverty.

Nevertheless, since they live in a dynamic environment now, the Ethiopian people are constantly demanding the exercise of genuine self-rule, as epitomized in the Ethiopian constitution. This demand needs to be appreciated because the demand of the Ethiopian people is in line with their fundamental human rights. Thus, the Ethiopian people deserve to be empowered to rule themselves, with the existing nine asymmetrical ethnic-based regional states subdivided into manageable autonomous woreda.

As operating now, this new type of strategy will not undermine the existing ethnic demarcation. Instead, it will help save homogenous groups within geographical units or woreda.  Stated differently, the proposed formation of autonomous woredas will ascertain self-rule. Also, each constituent unit would have direct contact with the federal office. Thereby, giving veto power to each woreda and a consensus decision-making process for issues that might need negotiating between the legislators and the prime minister of the country. 

In short, in line with the current demands arising in Ethiopia, it is time that the form of multi-party consensus democratic self-rule federalism must be allowed to emerge. The federated state of Ethiopia could be divided into equally-sized autonomous woreda units to ensure equity. . That is, by doing away with demarcating each region by ethnicity, a three-layered type of federalism is created.  That is, the governing power in Ethiopia could be divided into:  federal government, woredas ,and municipalities. If needed, woredas in the same geographical regions could collaborate and support each other to pursue their economic and social endeavors. It needs to be underlined that each autonomous federal unit or a woreda unit has to be managed with recognition and accommodation among the representatives of each of its major social groups so that the created federal unit remains stable and abides by the power-sharing provisions. As it is successfully practiced in Switzerland, for example, a woreda executive in Ethiopia could have five to seven members and the executives elected by the local people.  Power is vested in the committee not an individual. This type of unanimous consent decision-making process would provide an institutional basis for democracy and stability. Furthermore, it is likely possible to give every parliamentary player from the woredas an equal opportunity to express the interest of the locality (woreda) that he/she represents. In short, as it is  practiced in Switzerland, as a principle, Ethiopian woredas could be made sovereign “…to have the right for self-determination with respect to their internal structure, the organization of the governmental branches and the contents of democratic rights of their citizens (Federalism in Switzerland, 2000).

In order to implement self-rule in the Ethiopian woredas, therefore, it would be a genuine option for Ethiopia to follow and strictly implement multi-party (actors) grassroots types of autonomous democratic federal system, whereby decisions are based on consensus-- without  alienating minority groups or those who disagree. It is assumed that if Ethiopia is to move gradually from the creation of formal democratic structures (the ‘minimalist’ approach) to the establishment of a broad-based democratic culture (‘maximalist’ approach), it needs to envision an autonomous self-rule type of governance to assure democracy, with a stable form of management, promoting harmonious relationships among ethnic and religious factions in the Ethiopian political space. Though modest, this proposal is a briefing for tomorrow’s Ethiopia.  It is intended to serve as an agenda for a discussion on how to enable the existing woredas in Ethiopia to become sovereign (autonomous entities), managed by a legitimate government that bases its decision-making process on consensus democracy. It is hoped that this briefing will serve to facilitate culture of civic discussion, compromise, and accommodation within the future architecture of Ethiopia’s polity.  Therefore, either modifying it or designing an alternative to this briefing would collectively empower all concerned Ethiopians to design a long-lasting and visionary statement that Ethiopia needs, and to articulate strategic plans for achieving Ethiopia’s sustainability.  Given the various challenges that Ethiopia is facing, we can simply ignore or accept the obligation to act. For those who want to act, it is not too late to buckle up!


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