Least of Ethiopia’s Worries

In the Southern town of Hawassa, during one of his public addresses, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) spoke of amending the constitution to limit the number of terms an individual could serve as premier. This perhaps a gesture in the point he has been trying to make, that he has no intention of staying too long.

It was also part of his rhetoric to reform government by draining the proverbial swamp. It ties into the effort to open up the political space and bring to the fore good governance. At the same public address where he unveiled this plan, he underlined that the era of individuals staying indefinitely in power has come to a halt.

But what of political monopoly by a single party?

Indeed, amending the constitution is hard to realise in Ethiopia. It would require Abiy to persuade the EPRDFites, which is tricky given that they have never had the appetite for constitutional amendments. It would then require two-thirds of the two legislative chambers to second the proposal, not to mention the majority of state councils’ approval.

The amendment would require a great deal of Abiy’s time and energy. And if it all comes to realise, it would have unfortunately been for meagre consequences.

The argument forwarded by proponents of a term-limit on the Office of the Prime Minister is that it would hinder an individual from becoming a de facto dictator, or a Prime Minister for life. Just as the line between a party and a government can be blurred to the detriment of democracy, so does the boundary between an individual and the Office.

But the success rate of term limits to bring about democracy is debatable. One can take the case of China. The People’s Republic of China, the only legal party in the South Asian nation, imposed a presidential one in 1982 not long after the death of the longtime leader Mao Zedong. Although it is true that as analysts maintain the lifting of this term limit is harmful, what is crucial to note is that in the meantime it did not do much to alleviate China’s lack of democracy.

It is not just that term limits on their own have little to no significance. They are also gestures that can be abolished. Again, we can look at the case of China.

Contrast China’s experience to that of Germany and Britain. The latter two do not have term limits for the person serving inside the highest office of their lands. Neither has this led to the weakening of democratic institutions nor the erosion of a multiparty system.

Understandably, Ethiopia, like most other nations in the world, has a unique political and social infrastructure. A one-size-fits-all argument should not be applied in any case without considering the underlining context. This should go for the proponents of a term limit for the premier as well as the argument I am trying to make.

Abiy’s promise, if it comes to fruition, would be the first for a leader in Ethiopia (the Ethiopian president has a two-term limit). But whatever the political and social framework of a country, without robust democratic institutions, strong opposition parties and a lively private media, a term limit would not help the democratisation process much.

It may be a naïve outlook, but if a party or an individual can win successive terms in a political field that is fair to all sides, then why not let that person continue?

What history has proven to us is that while democratic institutions, multipartyism, a vibrant media industry and an informed public are exceptionally hard to get rid of, in the absence of these, term limits are relatively easy to remove.

Within the context of a vibrant democracy, an individual is either voted out of office, removed by the courts or would not find enough votes for approval by the parliament. But where the political field is lopsided, the legislative body lacks party diversity, and the judicial system is weak, a term limit would have a marginal impact. It would be utterly powerless against a single party’s monopoly in government.

If Abiy is considering reforms, then his first order of business ought to be in ensuring that the system does not allow a single party from being in control of branches of government for too long. Given that Ethiopia faces a macroeconomic crisis, and was in political chaos only months ago, a term limit ought to be at the bottom of Abiy’s bucket list for Ethiopia before he leaves office.

Laws, a parliament and elections do not in themselves assure democracy. The respect afforded to the rule of law by officials, a multiparty parliament and fair elections do.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is Fortune’s Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on May 12,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 941]



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