The benefits of a presidential system of governance for Ethiopia

The current system of government in Ethiopia is parliamentarism where the constitution is often ignored by the ruling coalition, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself has acknowledged recently. For the past 27 years, the parliament in Ethiopia has been serving to rubberstamp whatever decision a single party (TPLF) within the ruling coalition (EPRDF) makes. This year, things have changed after nation-wide protests pushed OPDO, another party within the EPRDF coalition, to the forefront and TPLF out of power. Currently, EPRDF and the Ethiopian government are led by OPDO, one of the four parties that make up the ruling coalition.

Under the current system, the central (federal) government is headed by the executive (the prime minister) who is elected by only one of the 547 woredas (districts) of Ethiopia. That means the top executive of the country is elected by less than 200,000 people.

Parliamentarism may work fine for ethnically homogenous countries like Japan, Israel, or England, but in highly diverse countries such as Ethiopia (80 ethnic groups), and Nigeria (250 ethnic groups) such a system invites frictions and rivalries between different ethnic and religious groups. Parochial interests impede the national agenda causing a constant state of convulsion.

After decades of civil strife and multiple coup d’etats, Nigeria has abandoned its British-type parliamentary system and adopted a presidential system in 1999. Under the new constitution, the winner of Nigerian presidential election must get 51 percent of the total nationwide electorate and a minimum of 25 percent of the votes in at least 2/3rd of the states. As a result, for the past 20 years, Nigeria has been politically stable and is on its way to becoming a genuine constitutional democracy.

In a presidential system, the candidates for president have to be on the election ballot in all of the 545 districts of Ethiopia, while candidates for the legislature (parliament) compete in the districts they represent. The people of Ethiopia will have a direct voice in the election of the nation’s top leader, while local issues are brought forward by district representatives in the legislature. Presidential candidates must campaign on political platforms that benefit every constituency of the country. The presidential system of a strong executive, a functional legislature, and an independent judiciary generates incentives for unity, ensures the rights of minority parties, and helps the country advance faster towards economic prosperity. A presidential system also helps protect Ethiopia from outside forces who are trying to foment ethnic clashes to keep the country divided and weak.

A serious discussion is currently underway among Ethiopian scholars and politicians to amend the EPRDF constitution that the EPRDF itself has ignored. Currently, Ethiopia’s constitution is whatever the EPRDF executive committee decides. The transformation of Ethiopia into a genuine constitutional democracy must begin by amending the current unworkable constitution, or draft a new one and make it ready for the next election. The government needs to convene an all-inclusive constitutional convention to review the existing constitution.

Prime Minister Abiy and his party, OPDO, as well as ANDM leaders, are on the right track. They are national heroes who have saved Ethiopia from a bloody civil war. They are best situated to do even more good things for the country. They can make Ethiopia a united, prosperous country by taking the next necessary step: Dissolve the ethnic parties in EPRDF and transform the coalition into a unitary party that can easily win the hearts and minds of most Ethiopians. If one or two of the parties in EPRDF refuse to merge, let them go.

Ethiopians throughout the country, not just certain districts, would love to have the chance to vote for visionary leaders like Abiy Ahmed, Lema Megersa, Gedu Andargachew and others who are leading the current reform movement in Ethiopia. Under the existing system, most Ethiopians are prevented from voting for them.

Important caveat: Democracy will take root in Ethiopia only if the country prospers economically. Democracy cannot thrive in an impoverished country. It is, therefore, necessary for democracy activists and all Ethiopians to participate in the effort to grow the Ethiopian economy at a faster rate. The fastest route to economic growth that benefits all Ethiopians is a free market economy: privatization of all profitable industries, privatization of land, deregulation (removal of obstacles to starting and operating businesses), reduction of business taxes, protection of private property, protection of individual rights, free flow of information, and free movements of goods, capital and services.