The Ethiopian Second Republic and the Fragile “Social Contract”

Jon Abbink


Eighteen years after the change of power and the ushering in of the second Ethiopian republic in 1991, the political process in Ethiopia has, according to most observers, rigidified and largely closed the space for representative democracy. This paper will look at the main organizing political ideas or ideology of the current Ethiopian republic and to the nature of its governance techniques in the face of domestic and international challenges with reference to the debate on “failing” or “fragile” states. The new “social contract” defined after 1991 and codified in the 1994 Constitution is precarious. Dissent and ethno-regional resistance to federal policies are dealt with mainly by coercion and discursive isolation. Oppositional forces voice the need for a rethinking of the organizing ideas and institutions of the second republic in order to enhance political consensus and a shared political arena, but get little response. The paper will sketch an interpretation of governance in Ethiopia, focusing on the dilemma of reconciling local and modernist political practices, and will discuss the status of “republican” ideas, in name important in Ethiopia but mostly absent in practice. Explicit debate of these ideas is usually sidelined – also in academic commentaries – in favour of a focus on the ethno-federal ideology of the Ethiopian state.

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