Democracy and Democratic Institutions

By Abel Merawi

Addis Ababa City AdminFebruary 22, 2021 ( -- Every political system rests on a fictional or concrete foundation of ideologies that enforce their rule. Monarchs stand on the legitimacy of unquestionable divine power, while dictators rest on military force. The same goes with democracy, which lays its foundation on institutionalism or bureaucracy as a way to hear and respond to citizens. It is common knowledge that democracy is the will of the people but it is often forgotten that institutions are the lifeline between leaders and people. They are indispensable channels which in combination form what is known as bureaucracy.

However, the existence of institutions per se does not grant them legitimacy or a democratic nature. I hope the common perception behind bureaucracy as a machine of oppression may not make you assume that I am defending a malfunctioning system. I am speaking of the original notion of bureaucracy as applied in a truly democratic state, which I hope our nation will attain in the long run. In its truest sense, bureaucracy is the body of the state that is filled with civil servants who are not elected but hired for their professional merit to serve the people. In the meantime, we are stuck with a pseudo-bureaucracy that caters to the demands of political leaders at the expense of the system. Let us then explore both the pseudo and real forms of bureaucracy, with the aim of examining the democratic or otherwise undemocratic nature of our current institutions.   

To test if institutions in the government (not political leaders) in Ethiopia are democratic, let us pose a series of questions. These inquiries focus on service provision, staffing, and accountability of government institutions. In terms of service: When you look at the different infrastructures such as roads, public housing, and health centers, do you observe quality service or maladministration? Is the water, electricity, and telecommunication service consistent and impartial or does it reek of favoritism? When you make citizenry demand such as issuing Identification Cards, do you see a consistent and effective service delivery or a system that speaks of incompetency and stereotype? When you want to build a house or invest, do you encounter officials who are ready to legitimately serve you or rent-seekers who won’t lift a finger unless you fill their pockets? The list can go on but we also have to question institutional recruitment and accountability.

The current staffing in Ethiopia is a reminder of the previous one in terms of staffing. Just to make sure, let us ask: Are governmental institutions staffed with competent employees or incompetents who are picked for party affiliation? Do civil servants operate impartially to serve every citizen or do they tend to favor those with similar ethnic, religious, and ideological tendencies? When you apply for a job in government institutions, are you hired based on professional merit or allegiance to party ideology? In relation to accountability: Is there a just system that addresses your grievances when you don’t get electricity or water for weeks? When traffic police are corrupt or when you are physically harassed by the police, is there a system in place to defend you? When your condominium savings end up a pipedream because an ethnic or party affiliate stole your opportunity, is there an institution that holds them accountable? If your responses are positive to these questions, you are lucky to live in a country with democratic institutions. But if not, perhaps we should direct our political demands in this direction.

Even in countries that claim to be democratic, we see failure in building a healthy bureaucracy with democratic institutions. This failure emanates primarily from the primitive and natural tendency of patronage and its modern and elitist form known as ‘clientelism’. Francis Fukuyama in ‘Political Order and Political Decay’ explains that a patronage relationship is the oldest form of political bond in which the patron or the powerful does another individual a favor in exchange for loyalty and political support. In modern politics, this has transformed into clientelism, in which politicians favor opinion leaders and groups in exchange for their votes during elections. While the former operates on a personal level through personalized gifts such as land, money, or entry to high circles, clientelism operates on a larger scale by favoring a certain group with public goods such as hospitals, schools, roads, etc., at the expense of others.  

When clientelism becomes the rule of the land, the greatest threat to nation-building becomes distrust and loss of social bonds. Ethiopian politics can best exemplify this situation. With the advent of ethnic federalism, political institutions began to rot with the infestation of clientelism even before they were properly established. The grand plan of building condominiums to the lower and middle class of society ended up a front to favor party and ethnic affiliates. Now we hear about the thousands of houses that were illegally handed in such a manner. But this was not a thing of the past because we have seen government officials in the current administration have also allegedly given land and condos to those who have a party and ethnic connections. This has shattered the trust amongst citizens and every ethnic group returned to the archaic form of trust that extends only to family, friends, and ethnic ties. This greatly undermines the political order of the nation by making clientelism replace impartial services to every citizen. The combined effect is political decay rather than political order.

As Francis Fukuyama emphasizes, political order goes beyond controlling abusive government and fair election since its primary objective is fulfilling the expectations demanded of government. The government is expected to impartially provide security, education, public health service, build infrastructures, and protect legitimate property rights. Such political order occurs when the collection of complex organizations labeled government has the capacity to take this administrative task and also reaches into every scope of state function. This is one of the greatest tasks facing our country, and it is a true victory if we could demand and see to it that governmental institutions are separated from political ties. When democratic institutions are in place, the personalized and ethical desires of any political leader, will not be able to penetrate through the system and disrupt the country. I believe building impartial and autonomous institutions, is at the very foundation of nation-building and so we should shift our discourse to the things that matter.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Democracy and Democratic People

Paideia or Deep Education

Educational Purpose: Good Citizenry Vs Rational Autonomy

Crowd Leaders as National Enemies of Ethiopia

Ethiopia Under the Threat of Crowd Mentality

Conformist Realism in Ethnic Federalism

Alternatives to National Identity

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part II: A National Stand for Unity

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part I: EPRDF and the Creation of Ethnic Division

Forms of Human Violence (Part II)

Forms of Human Violence (Part I)

The ‘Having’ Mentality

Group Narcissism

Segregated Justice


Free but in Chain, Part IV: Personal Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part III: Economic Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part II: Social Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part I: Bondage of Worldview

Unemployment and Economic Growth in Ethiopia

The Underestimated Human Ignorance

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part II)

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part I)

Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality

Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance

The System and the 'Criminal'

Trust as an Economic Force

Do You Trust the Government?

Our Online World

Fame Mistaken for Expertise

The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers

A Time to Reflect

The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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