Unlike democracy, tribalism does not accommodate equality of all human beings. Unlike tribalism, democracy demands societal and individual decency to eradicate individuals’ cruelty against fellow humans. Therefore, without profound common civic morality and sensitivity to human life, a society does not hold the moral high ground to enquire for a democratic leadership, writes Kibrom Berhane.
Abraham Lincoln’s well-known phrase – ‘by the people for the people’ – is one of the famous definitions of democracy. Among other issues, this definition indicates that democracy is about the people’s commitment to elect their leader(s) and the right to enjoy the necessary services from the democratic system. This definition, again, reminds us that responsible citizens are decisive in determining the existence and quality of a democratic system. Hence, people’s firm belief in freedom and the presence of a general social context compatible with democratic values are important factors for a democratic leadership to flourish. When we have appropriate social contexts, such as solidarity, liberality towards pluralism of ideas, social and individual commitments for human freedom, and shared social hopes, it will, relatively, be easy for a democracy to be the value of a given society. In our context, however, I believe that we have no social context well-suited to democracy for, at least, the following important reasons.
Primarily, in a nutshell, scholars argue that when a government is big or is excessively interventionist, democracy will be appropriated for undue political ends. Nevertheless, most Ethiopians usually call for a high government involvement in almost everything – from the economy to the security; from social issues to ethnic conflicts; from institutional fraud to professional misconducts; from foreign policy to provincial activities, and other related issues. In almost every situation the common people call for government interventions rather than thinking about their respective responsibilities. This indicates that there is a huge mismatch between what a true democracy demands and what our society is.
Secondly, although democracy is about protecting human rights, most Ethiopians are ruthless against humanity in defense of their ethnicity. We usually hear from many people that democracy does not come overnight. I can also say that it will never happen so long as we have a society which respects tribalism over human life. I can also argue that democracy will not be realized as long as freedom is used as a mechanism to suppress people who are considered to be different from certain respective groups. Democracy is a stranger for countries, such as ours, where both social groups and political parties come together to demonize groups which are in favor of the universal human rights.
Democracy does not need ultra-populist political leaders (i.e. most political party leaders, particularly of the opposition political parties) and conservative communities which demand liberty for the pursuit of happiness only for their respective group members. Unlike democracy, tribalism does not accommodate equality of all human beings. Unlike tribalism, democracy demands societal and individual decency to eradicate individuals’ cruelty against fellow humans. Therefore, without profound common civic morality and sensitivity to human life, a society does not hold the moral high ground to enquire for a democratic leadership.
Thirdly, we reiterate that because it helped us to live together, to eat, and to do many things together, our communal societal structure is a blessing for us. This is true. It, at the same time, nurtured individuals to prioritize their group goals over the inalienable individual rights. It trained people to evaluate the actions of fellow human beings based on their blood ties rather than on objectively measurable actions. Due to the deep-rootedness of the collective life and tribalism in our communities, the majority of Ethiopian is very much concerned about the weakening of communal lives than the declining responsibilities of individuals in defending human dignity. This form of societal context, I believe, cannot be a fertile ground for a real democracy to germinate.
Democracy depends on who we are. It is not something we have to practice it to change our mind. It is our mind which should be adjusted to democratic values and for the engenderment of human-ness. Trying to defend our interests and values by sacrificing the rights of others is an outcome of a terrible social value. In my perspective, any form of democracy requires citizens who have gratitude for life; citizens who consider humanity second to none. A society which is not tolerant of the plurality of opinions does not contribute to the development of civil liberty. Deprivation of civil liberty, in turn, restricts the development of social, political, and democratic values.
Therefore, for a democracy to flourish, obviously, we need strong social institutions. A strong social institution also demands a society that strongly believes in the universality of justice (i.e. notwithstanding social, cultural, and political differences). This is because, according to John Rawls (as stated in his book titled “A Theory of Justice”), “justice is the first virtue of social institutions.” Justice, according to him, cannot allow people to impose sacrifices on individuals or small groups for the advantage of the dominant or larger groups.
Unfortunately, the ‘justice’ that most groups in our country fight for is usually subject to the calculus of interests only to their respective group members. For instance, in our country’s current context, a certain decision will be considered just only by groups who believe justice is in favor of them. The justice system is not evaluated based on the objective values it constitutes. This means, a society which does not believe in justice cannot have societal tenets compatible with democratic values.
Hence, if we need a democratic system in our country, I think, our intellectuals should, primarily, work on people to develop qualities to protect humanity rather than narrow-minded tribalism. A real democracy needs citizens who firmly believe in the right of life to anyone. We should make sure that people respect the inalienability of human rights before anything else. In the absence of this kind of public mentality, we will not have a social context that fosters democracy. Unless all stakeholders work on it, the change towards democratic leadership will be a fakery rhetoric. Therefore, with our current societal intellectual capability which primarily respects ethnicity rather than humanity, democracy will be an illusion.
Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].