Ethiopia: New Media, Democratization and ‘Going with the Grain’

(Befekadu Wolde Gabriel)

Did the democratization process came to a halt in Ethiopia? How to enhance the democratic deliberation of citizens using New Media? What does it mean ‘Going with the Grain’ – the new political discourse of neo-liberals and their foot soldiers who are being forced to change their narrative under glaring economic success and triumph of developmental state paradigm? How to stage a new platform that could accommodate this new narrative and encourage dissent voices to be part of democratization process?

Before going to discuss these questions, let’s brief ourselves on the basics of New Media and review the success and drawback of the government of Ethiopia in employing New Media to promote development and democracy

New Media and its role in democratization process

Human communication has gone through different stages of evolution adding more complex appliance in every stage of its long history. It has developed from oral tradition through scripting, printing, wired electronic communication, wireless electronic communication to today’s digital communication or New Media.

The definition of ‘New Media’ is fluid, open and is continually evolving along with the discoveries of new technologies. According to, New Media is “a way of organizing a cloud of technology, skills, and processes that change so quickly that it is impossible to fully define just what those tools and processes are.” Socha & Eber-Schmid (2013). Guo Ming Chen explained the reason and the characteristics what makes New Media “new” as follow. “ …‘New’ is not only because of its successful integration in the form of the traditional interpersonal and mass media, but also because of its new functions that enable individuals to equally control messages in interpersonal media, which allows them to control messages in mass media (Crosbie, 2002)”. (Chen, 2012. p.1)

Chen (2012) identified unique characteristics of New Media as: capability of dematerialize media text by converting data from analog to digital form, (digitally); converging the forms and functions of information, media, electronic communication and electric computing (convergency); mediating free interaction between users and the system (interactivity); creation of global information center (hypertextuality) and creation of virtual experience and reality of cyberspace (vertuality). (p. 2-3) The New Media tech

Wikipedia defines New Media as “on-demand access to content anytime, anywhere, on any digital device, as well as interactive user feedback, and creative participation” and discerns non New Media as all traditional Medias; TV shows, printable, books, journals, newspapers “unless they contain technologies that enable digital interactivity”.

The inherent democratic nature of New Media is that it fosters open and equal access to all citizens by creating virtual public sphere where democratic citizenship strengthens and thrives. Virtual space refers to the space where aggregation of public opinion formulated as alternative competitor to the existing dominant discourse. “From a democratic perspective, the unprecedented possibility for citizens’ deliberation and public input to decision making processes, hitherto confined to representatives and their officials, defines the New Media as paradigmatically distinct and potentially empowering”. (Coleman, 1999. p.69). Abbot notes the uniqueness of New Media technologies as powerful tools for citizens “by turning users into both consumers and producers of content”. (Abbot, 2012. p.335)

These unique characteristics enable New Media to have a paradigm change in all aspects of societal life of modern world. New Media, noted Chen (2012) “redefines political, cultural, economic, geographical and other boundaries of human society, expands and stretches social relations, intensifies and accelerates social exchanges, and involves both the micro-structures of personhood and macro-structures of community (Steger, 2009)”. (p.1)

An impact of the New Media on the democratic process of developed countries is continuing to be a debating issue. Initially, the inherent democratic nature and capacity of the New Media, particularly social media such as, Facebook, YouTube and Tweeter boosted optimism and hope for better democratic deliberation. However, the nature and extent of the impact of the New Media in changing of main stream democratic politics of developed nations remain unclear. In contrast to that, the New Media accelerates the pace of growth in social changes in a rapid speed that have never been observed before in the history of developing nations.

The New Media helped North Africa and Arab countries to overthrow despotic regimes. As (Abbot, 2012) noted ‘‘savvy opposition campaigners [have] turned social media applications like Facebook from minor pop culture fads into a major tool of political communication’’. However, overthrowing despotic regimes turns out to be much easier than forming functional democratic governance in developing countries. “The new regime stumble, the economy flounder and the country finds itself in a state at least as bad as it was before. This is what happened in much of the Arab spring, and also in Ukraine’s Orange revolution a decade ago”. Consolidation of democratic process has been thwarted in many of these countries due to inherited historical and cultural drawbacks. Because of this reason (Hofheinz, 2011) predicted that “The heyday of revolutionary activism will pass; everyday life will return, and internet use will become less ‘revolutionary’”

Democracy is a form of government in which people rule. Participation and deliberation of citizens in the governing process is a main characteristic of the democratic governance that make a big distinction from any other forms of government. Democratization process, as Abbot (2012) described, is not only a political transition and regime transformation, but also “a dynamic process that recognizes and includes the way in which democratic norms, institution and practices are disseminated” (p.334).

The process of democratization in developing countries requires active participation of citizens on one side and reformative government action that directed to create democratic institutions and conducive environment for participation of citizens in governance on another side. Looking from this point of view, the New Media fosters unmediated publicity of governing process and greater public participation that have never been possible hitherto. “These applications of the New Media range from simple information provision through interaction between councilors/officials and citizens, to informal discussions, formal consultations and even joint decision-making initiatives (Stubbs, 1998).” There are, however, factors that limit the full impact of the New Media in the democratizing political process in developing countries. The level of penetration of the New Media technologies and limited internet access are the main hurdle to harness the potential of the New Media. Mostly a small group of urban middle class elites have the privilege to access the New Media appliances and services. However (Abbot, 2012. p.352) argues that this doesn’t reduce the credential of New Media because this group “may be a minority, they have consistently been identified in the literature on democratic transition as a principal agency for democratization.”

Another factor that compromises the use of the New Media and jeopardizes the process of democratization is the fact that internet and social media can be used by forces with anti-democratic and extremist agenda. In newly formed reformative regimes anti-democratic forces could use New Media to undermine democratic beginnings. “Internet and social networking tools can be used to advance extremism and anti-democratic agendas just as easily as ‘progressive’ and democratizing one”. (Abbot, 2012 p.335)

The New Media and Developmental State of Ethiopia

Development is a process of discovery. The glaring economic success of the country is a result of tedious theoretical and practical experiment. The creative experiment that incorporated new concepts of developmental state to the core tenets of ethnic federalism, and revolutionary democracy has enabled to discover a new Ethiopian style of development.

While acknowledging the success of developmental state principles and practices in economic domain there is remaining work in applying those principles in other domains, particularly in democratization process of the country. In this instance comes New Media as valuable tool that offers much help in facilitating and accommodating this process.

Hitherto there have been distinctive creations of Ethiopian government in employing New Media to promote socio-economic development and enhance the efficiency of developmental state bureaucracy. The most successful creations are WoredaNet, SchoolNet and ECX. HealthNet and AgriNet are in process of being weaved in respective sectors.

WoredaNet is a terrestrial and satellite-based network that connects almost all smallest units of local government in Ethiopia. The objective of the network is, through IP-based service, enhancing efficiency of government structures “as well as information provision and service delivery to the public at large”. U.N. (2005) WorldNet provides various ICT services such as video conferencing, internet and messaging to link the central government with the eleven regional and 550 district administration. Various government institution use the video conference service of the WoredaNet to conduct conferences and workshops on all levels between federal and regional entities, regional to woredas, woredas to zone. “Through a 42-inch plasma TV screen installed in the Bureau of Capacity Building at the regional and woreda level, local officials could receive training and instructions from the Prime Minister himself, as well as from other ministers, high-level civil servants and trainers in the capital”. WoredaNet also accelerates rural connectivity by harnessing broadband network to every village with every citizen no more than five kilometers from an access point. WoredaNet, the e-government communication backbone, developed by the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation, is a promise and a major enabler for rapid ICT development in the country. (Harry, 2007)

Another successful type of network is an educational network – SchoolNet. It is aimed to broadcast video lectures from a broadcasting station in the capital to almost every secondary and preparatory school of the country via the satellite network. Currently, SchoolNet connects more than 604 high schools 14 higher institutions 36 Agricultural research institutes with VSAT based broadband for delivery of video-based standard and distance education. The main objective of the SchoolNet is to deliver quality education for all students in the country. Most importantly, it targets countryside students who rely on poorly trained teachers for their education. The SchoolNet is aimed to enable students from rural areas to have access to the same quality of education as those in the major towns and cities. “SchoolNet was a powerful symbol of the EPRDF’s commitment to guarantee every citizen equal opportunities and it was crucial in addressing the urban–rural education divide.”

Ethiopian commodity exchange (ECX) has enabled to transform Ethiopian marketing system to enter the modern age of globally connected trading system which is relied on New Media technology. ECX is Africa’s first digitally supported market for trading coffee and seeds that will revolutionize Ethiopian agriculture through dynamic, efficient and orderly marketing system. ECX has become a model to other African countries and beyond.

The government of Ethiopia has made considerable effort to harness the New Media in support of the nation building project. These efforts have brought Ethiopia to a position of a leader of IT driven transformation in Africa. However, the government is lacking focus in employing of the New Media to initiate a national dialog by providing space for dissent voices and alternative visions. In other words, EPRDF failed to take under its umbrella political narratives alien to the development of the state paradigm.

What does it mean? It means that there is a lack of placing targeted emphasis on cooperative work and cultivating deliberative traditions by bringing opposition voices for the common good. It means that there is a need to host public speech using the New Media to accommodate participation and engagement of opposition voices inside and outside the country. In other words, there is a need to open a New Media bridge in reaching out alien voices for further democratization of the country’s political space.

Two years ago a respective government institution has been approached and recommended to launch a New Media platform that would accommodate dissent voices and opposing views to begin a national debate with all specter of Ethiopian politics. This internet platform is supposed to be a broad forum that could serve as market of ideas where different views and ideologies can be entertained and presented to the public. This platform would be hosted by the government but will be managed by an independent editor. It is supposed to be a virtual national political space where all specter of political lines are going to be represented and engaged with one another. The platform would be a space where important and current national affairs would be debated from all perspective views. It would be a scene where national idea is hammered to chart the country’s future by all concerned citizens. The platform would be a board where citizens will be able to raise their concerns to the government. The government officials will be able to address all concerns publicly and officially.

There is plausible experience in other countries, for example in Tanzania and Ghana, with a similar arrangement and method of communication. In these countries the state-owned but independently managed newspaper became not only national mediator but also a model for other media outlets. It demonstrated to the public standards how to promote a healthy and constructive debate. The New Vision, Uganda’s state-owned but independently run newspaper, and in Ghana, where The Daily Graphic that has a similar ownership structure have been their countries’ best-selling newspapers. Gagliardone (2014).

There are two basic reasons why the government of Ethiopia has to open a state-owned but independently managed New Media platform. The first internal reason stems from the principle of democratic developmental state. It implies and requires government to play its role as an agent of development and change in key aspect of the society. And the second external factor comes along with the change from outside.

Internal factor – applying principle.

A prerequisite task for applying of a basic principle of democratic governmental state in media domain requires government to assume a leading role in media domain, particularly in New Media. The principle of embedded autonomy of democratic developmental state implies to monitoring of democratization process the same way it does in the economic domain. It seems that there is inconsistency in part of government to apply in media domain the same principle that has been the bedrock for economic success. As Gagliardone noted “It is as if the EPRDF has been unable to extend the same logic of centralizing state rents in order to produce new value in media domain.” Gagliardone (2014)

In democratic developmental state the government economic intervention is aimed to make sure that priority of steady and balanced national economic growth override all other interests. Similarly with the same logic it is the government responsibility to bring dynamics in democratization process by leading a divided and fragmented New Media space. Government pioneering role would raise Ethiopian cyberspace to the level that could serve constructive national dialog. And it has become an urgent task for the government to raise the bar, by hosting constructive debate in cyberspace, for existing deconstructive and fragmented New Media outlets. The point is that in Ethiopian society where exist ethnic and political differences traditional media and New Media platforms are dedicated only to reflect this division and grievance. A fact that all platforms are connected only to their communal interest makes them incapable of being neutral and independent to moderate national dialog and serve the interest of the whole nation.

“In a society that is divided along ethnic and political lines, intercommunal divisions represent opportunities for different media outlets to thrive, each targeting its own audience and their grievances, without producing new value or a healthy media environment.” states Iginio Gagliardone a research fellow at the University of Oxford in his recent eighteen months study in Ethiopia. Gagliardone (2014)

He mentions “If the EPRDF was consistent in its approach to economic rents, it would allow newspapers and other media sources to function, but would look to exercise central control over the debate, ensuring that for a limited period of time the state would play the leading role in ensuring that a “responsible” set of discussions emerge to add value to the government’s overall goals.”

Since their inception all Ethiopian internet platforms (from Ethiomedia to Aigaforum and in between) are entangled to their narrow bases. They are all targeting their own audience and their grievances without generating new value or a conducive media environment. According to Gagliardone, when Internet became a space to discuss Ethiopian politics, debates were rapidly captured by the polarized tones in internet platforms launched by Ethiopians in the diaspora such as Ethiomedia … etc.

The reason he counted “The New Media, rather than being seized by a new generation of leaders and advocates as an opportunity to test innovative ideas, were largely captured by “old politics”. Instead of debating new issues, as occurred in nearby Kenya, author returned to old grievances that had their roots in the 1960s and 1970s. Then the movements challenged the Emperor, and later the Derg. While some common grounds did emerge as a result of that, discussions they promoted tended to remain in the background. Those discussions were unable to galvanize or mobilize passions and political energy in the same way as more extreme pieces that polarized the debate.”

In order to counter balance domination of grievances and divisions in New Media, and – to promote constructive debate on the matter of national affairs, the government has to use autonomy of developmental state to initiate a New Media platform that pioneer constructive national dialog. It is a Prerogative of democratic developmental state to lead democratization process.

External Factor -The changing world – “Going with Grain”

The government policy toward media has been guided on a principle of developmental over free flow of information which in practice meant to harness the media to developmental agenda and ignore dissenting voices without expending political capital by engaging or repressing them. This strategy has been suitable and acceptable considering the dominance of die-hard chauvinists, fringe extremists and psychopaths of all sorts who lost orientation in the new circumstance of a new country. With these groups of people it has been practically impossible to achieve any rational and value adding dialog.

However, dynamic economic changes on the ground and changing status quo of international politics has brought important changes inside neo-liberals’ camp and opponents of existing political system. This new evolving discourse urges the government to take a proactive action that is aimed to build a bridge in order to bring a broader consensus.

Because of the continuing failure of neo-liberal ideology in world scene and success of alternative paradigms, Neo-liberals and their foot soldiers have been forced to change their narrative of developmental state. The new narrative dubbed as ‘Going with the Grain’- is a notion that does consider the premises of developmental state and engaging it in its merit and internal logic rather than denouncing it. The new narrative revises the old approach that outright rejects any other alternative models except Western style political system and market fundamentalism. This new arrangement provides an opportunity to examine for optimal and workable alternatives within developmental state discourse. Indeed, such positive development inside neo-liberal camp and opposition has to be encouraged and given opportunity due to consideration for the common benefit of the country. That is why there is a timely need for creation of the New Media platform to initiate national dialog by the government.

“Going with Grain”, the change in heart and mind part of neo-liberals, enabled by the acknowledgment of the humbling fact that it was market fundamentalism that brought down the world economy to its knee in recent financial meltdown and ironically it was the government that stepped up and rescued the whole world from total catastrophe. The fact that institute that most loathed by neo-liberals – government – came to rescue the ‘sacred’ market was a sobering moment to those who know all, judge all high priest of market fundamentalists.

The other reason for change in narrative is the success of none neo-liberal world that counterchallenges Western style political system. China has broken Western world’s monopoly in economic progress. In contemporary world neither one-size-fit-all ideology nor does exist perfect political system that reflects a real democracy in its classical terms. Peer reviewed research paper revealed that US plutocracy is far behind from genuine and open democracy. The central point that emerges from the research is that “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests. They have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. The results of the research “provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.” Gilens M & page B. (2014). The United States has become a byword for gridlock and money talks louder than ever in American politics. Wealth disparity in American society has become a record high in history: one top percent of Americans own 40 Percent of the Nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80 percent own only 7 percent.

In contrast, China has been doubling living standards roughly every decade for the past 30 years. The Chinese elite argues that their government model that includes tight control by the Communist Party, coupled with a relentless effort to recruit talented people into its upper ranks is more efficient than democracy and less susceptible to gridlock. The political leadership in China changes every decade or so, and there is a constant supply of fresh talent as party cadres are promoted based on their ability to achieve goals.” The Economist (2014). The effectiveness and legitimacy of political system of any country is gaged by the attitude of the people who are governed under that system and live under that rule. The 2013 pew survey of global attitudes showed that 85% of Chinese were “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, compared with 31% of Americans. The Economist (2014).

The significance of china’s example is not that it provides alternative to western style of political system but it demonstrates alternative exist and in each country it is unique.

Ethiopia’s staggering economic performance and multi-dimensional progress has proved the viability of developmental state paradigm tailored to the country’s socio-economic set up. And it compel many opponents of the system to question and reexamine the credibility of their own premises. For the exception of hard core ideologues and irrational opposition groups who are intellectually dishonest and intentionally deceptive, all Ethiopians applaud the achievement of the nation and do not shy away to be part of this historical endeavor. Regardless of differences in political orientation and partisanship, patriotic Ethiopians harbor the aspiration of national unity and share common purpose for the good of the country. Alleviation of country’s poverty is one common denominator that binds their vision and effort despite divisions and controversies. To bring all Spector of political lines in one common virtual cyber platform and opening national dialog through New Media is a humble but important step toward next level of democratization process in the country.

The success story of today’s Ethiopia has been made possible by the gallant and creative leaders who dare to chart a new avenue that seems to be unthinkable and who never hesitate to exercise the power of their imagination. Success in any nation never appeared as a result of a random incident in the world history. The need to bring dynamics in democratization process is neither a stunt to appease anyone nor window dressing the existing political system. It is a necessary response to a new internal and external developments. Though democracy is a universal aspiration, it is a culturally rooted practice and we need to develop that unique Ethiopian style of democratic culture by bridging differences and widening political space.

In conclusion it is legitimate and appropriate to mention that democratization process is not halted in Ethiopia. That happens because of the millions of citizens taking an active role in participating in their local and regional governing process in daily basis and they voice their opinions regarding nation’s affairs that they have never been able to do. It also happens because of the marginalized Nation and Nationalities have claimed the ownership of their destiny and full membership of the nation’s body of politics. Yet democratization process has to be tweaked and enhanced to the next level following internal and external dynamics. That has to occur because of the dialectics of process of development. One way to begin the process is by opening a channel for more citizens’ deliberation including opposing voices on the matters that affect the nation. The New Media in this case would become the best available communication tool that fosters unmediated publicity of governing process and greater public participation.

It is a high time for Ethiopian government to open a new venue of communication and take advantage of the New Media by starting a blog!


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* The author Befekadu Wolde Gabriel is a guest writer on Horn Affairs. He is a student of Master of public Administration at University of Utah and can be reached at [email protected]

Befekadu Wolde Gabriel - Ph.D. in agriculture, B.Sc in Sociology and graduate student (MPA master of public administration) at Franklin University - Ohio, and can be reached at [email protected].

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