Eritrea is Ruled without the Consent of the Governed
Abraham G. Ghiorgis
July 4, 2012
The article the "Consent of the Governed" pasted below is compiled from "Democracy Web." It explains the concept and its historical roots in a simple way.
This first week of July is a joyous time in America where the people proudly celebrate their glorious independence from British colonialism. On July 4, 1776, the Americans in practical terms ushered to the world the revolutionary concept of the "consent of the governed."
For us, Eritreans, what does the consent of the governed mean? The Eritreans took the road of the consent of the governed on three important occasions and milestones in their history. In a way, they took their destiny in their own hands. First, the Eritrean armed struggle for national independence led by both the ELF and the EPLF, which was consumed in a de facto independent Eritrea in 1991 had an overwhelming support of the Eritrean people. This accomplishment be it implicitly or explicitly had a consent of the Eritrean people. Indeed one of the significant reasons for its success.
Second, in 1993 the Eritrean people in an internationally supervised referendum legally voted for independence of Eritrea. Again, this is a consent of the Eritrean people.
Third, in 1997 the Eritrean people ratified a constitution.This also is a consent of the Eritrean people, at least it is a consent of the majority of the Eritrean people who live under the oppressive yolk of the PFDJ inside Eritrea.
In my book, the ratified constitution warts and all is a foundation for the establishment of liberal democratic institutions -- executive branch of the government, legislative branch of the government, judiciary branch of the government, independent media, independent civil associations, an army and a police force whose obligations are to the constitution and the rule of law, and etc. These institutions enshrine and protect civil liberties and create a civil society that is at peace with itself and its neighbors. This is a civil society where the rule of law reigns. (See: (1) The Constitution of Liberty, by F. A. Hayek; and (2) The Open Society and its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper)
When it came to put all of these in practice, it sadly was not to be, since the PFDJ leaders suddenly got cold feet. The PFDJ leaders betrayed their own people and violated the principle of the consent of the governed; they shelved the ratified constitution to collect dust and never to be seen again; they cruelly decided to rule Eritrea through arbitrary edicts and decrees.
Still, the ratified constitution is the only document that I see can effectively unite the Eritrean people. These include those who oppose and those who support the Eritrean government, since after all is said and done, all of us belong to the Eritrean nation. The thugs who are giving us all kind of pains and sufferings are no more than the total number of cards in a single deck, still no need to be vengeful and vindictive. There are a lot valuable lessons to be learnt from the magnanimous heart and generosity of such saint like leaders, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, who helped their respective countries to transition to liberal democratic societies taking a cue from Abraham Lincoln's wise words of "with malice toward none; with charity for all." It is my sincere belief that the ratified constitution can help us to smoothly transition Eritrea into a civil society without any hiccup, where civil liberties are respected.
Anything else is back to square one. This may even result in chaos and anarchy in Eritrea. We should never assume that we are different than Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, just to mention a few tribal societies like us that are having tremendous problems transitioning towards liberal democracy and the rule of law. In the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, the USA has been doing all kind of things to help in the transition for more than ten years, and yet all the blood and treasure went down the drain without any effective result. This by itself should be a great warning for those who mistakenly believe that the tanks of Ethiopia could bring a qualitative change for the better in Eritrea. (See: (1) The Future of Freedom, by Fared Zakaria ; and (2) The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama)
More, the Eritrean leaders do not even abide by the rules and charters of their own organization -- the PFDJ. The last time the PFDJ had a meeting of a general congress was in 1994. Based on its rules, the PFDJ is supposed to meet every two years, to be extended by a half year if extraordinary circumstances warrant. The next time the general congress was supposed to meet was by the latest in 1997. Now it is 2012. The PFDJ has not met for its general congress for about eighteen years. This means the leaders do not have a legal standing to authenticate their leadership, since the legitimacy of the congress that elected them expired some time in 1997. In addition, the rules of the PFDJ limit the term of its chairman to two terms that amount to a maximum of five years; yet its only chairman has illegally usurped power for about fifteen years - that is since 1997. This is nothing but a coup d'état. By any measure, this means that the leaders of the PFDJ do not have a consent of the members of their own organization, let alone the Eritrean people, since these leaders have violated the rules and charters of the PFDJ itself. ( For a detailed explanation please see: http://eritreamereb.blogspot.com/2009/11/pfdj-is-illegal-organization.html )
The Eritrean leaders do not have a consent of the governed -- whether the consent of the Eritrean people or the consent of the PFDJ. Our struggle now is to bring a system of government in Eritrea that rules according to the consent of the governed -- the consent of the Eritrean people and also yes of the consent of the members of the PFDJ.
Abraham G. Ghiorgis.
Note: the blogspot noted below has a reading list of books on the subjects of property rights, rule of law, and constitutional government. Also included are previous articles published in Eritrean websites and other relevant articles on Eritrea and Ethiopia. The site is as follows: http://eritreamereb.blogspot.com/
(I) The Consent of the Governed : Essential Principles
by "Democracy Web"
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed..."
Declaration of Independence, United States of America, 1776
The most fundamental concept of democracy is the idea that government exists to secure the rights of the people and must be based on the consent of the governed. Today, the quote above from the U.S. Declaration of Independence is considered an indisputable maxim of the ideal form of government.
The essential meaning of consent of the governed can be better understood by examining countries where it is lacking. In 1989, Chinese students who had gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square adopted the Statue of Liberty—calling it the Goddess of Liberty—as the symbol of their demands for truth, freedom, and democracy from their government.
The Statue of Liberty, adopted in 1989 by protestors in China's Tiananmen Square
Millions of workers, professionals, and peasants joined the students in Beijing and in cities across China to take back a government that had long been used to deny people's freedom. Since the Communist Party seized power in 1949, anyone who opposed its dictates and ideological campaigns had been subject to arrest or worse. The party's policies caused millions of deaths through famine, execution, and violent political purges.
The Chinese people consented to none of this. Indeed, the regime's only authority to govern was the Communist principle of "democratic centralism," according to which the decisions of the party leadership could not be questioned. In 1989, Deng Xiao Ping, the top Communist leader, ordered the use of force to put down the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China. The world saw students stand before tanks, but ultimately they were helpless to prevent the mass killings and arrests that ensued. Nearly 20 years later, the Communist Party remains the supreme authority. The students who sought democracy were imprisoned, expelled from school, forced into exile, pressured to recant their views, or denied their livelihood or even housing. Workers were treated even more harshly, and today China's booming export-based economy is built on the severe exploitation of labor. For now, repression has effectively prevented any reemergence of the popular demand for democracy. This is the result of a system based on the opposite of the consent of the governed (see also Country Study of People's Republic of China under "Freedom of Expression".)
(A) Before Consent of the Governed
Until the original 13 American states asserted the principle of consent of the governed as self-evident, it had been applied only rarely around the world (see below). For much of recorded history, people lived under different types of autocracy, ruled by a single leader exercising unlimited power. Sometimes, the ruler was the best warrior, able to seize power over a group or nation (for example, Genghis Khan in 13th-century Asia). Such leaders often founded hereditary monarchies, the most common form of autocracy. In most cases, the monarch was all-powerful, claiming his or her position by "divine right" (as in Europe) or the "mandate of heaven" (as in China). The ruler was sovereign, the supreme authority of a state. The people were not citizens but subjects. They never consented to be governed, but owed their total obedience and loyalty to the ruler, often on pain of death. In some countries, kings or emperors agreed to limit their powers in response to the demands of landowners and noblemen, establishing a system of consent by the aristocracy. England's Magna Carta (Great Charter) of 1215 is among the most famous agreements limiting the powers of a king. It guaranteed that the king and his successors would not violate the acknowledged rights and privileges of the aristocracy, the clergy, and semiautonomous towns (see "Constitutional Government").
But even when its powers were limited, monarchy meant arbitrary and unrepresentative rule for most subjects, locking them into a life of servitude. The idea that the people were sovereign was—and in many places remains—revolutionary.
(B) Consent of the Governed: A Positive Definition
The United States of America was the first modern state formed around the principle of consent of the governed. The term implies that the people of a country or territory are sovereign and consent, in a direct referendum or through elected representatives, to the establishment of their own government. In most modern cases, the form of the state is a republic, or rule by voting citizens within an agreed-upon constitutional and legal framework. But some monarchies also operate with the consent of the governed, as in Great Britain, where over time the monarch has given up most political and administrative functions to elected officials.
The original consent of the governed—for a new constitution or the formation of a new state—is achieved either through direct democracy, such as a referendum or plebiscite, or through elected representative institutions, such as an existing legislature or a special constitutional assembly. In some cases, the establishment of a new governmental system requires a "supermajority," from three-fifths to three-quarters, to convey overwhelming popular assent, but often a simple majority suffices. (The U.S. Constitution required the approval of ratifying conventions in at least nine of the 13 states; an amendment must be passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress as well as the elected legislatures of three-quarters of the states.) What remains fixed is the principle that the people are sovereign and must provide their fundamental consent to be governed.
The most common form of democracy is the parliamentary system, in which the executive branch is controlled by the party or coalition of parties that wins a majority of seats in parliament. Unlike in the American presidential system, there are few constitutional checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches, and the system relies heavily on the oversight of the opposition party or parties in parliament (see "Constitutional Limits," and "Multiparty System").
Once the form of democratic government is established, elections are the main vehicle for renewing the consent of the governed. Each election is an opportunity for the people to change their leaders. When a particular government loses the people's confidence, they have the right to replace it. If the system requires modification, the legislature may pass laws to reform it within the bounds of the constitution; if laws are insufficient, the people and their representatives can choose to modify or replace the constitution itself.
(C) Consent of the Governed: A Negative Definition
As noted above, in defining consent of the governed, it is helpful to examine cases where it is absent. Modern authoritarian regimes offer clear examples. These take various forms, including dictatorship (Zimbabwe), theocracy (Islamic Republic of Iran), military rule (Burma), and apartheid (as occurred in South Africa). But all forms of authoritarian government deny people freedom, take away property, exercise power arbitrarily, and act ruthlessly to maintain themselves. A distinct category of modern authoritarian rule is totalitarianism, which is based on violent revolution, a comprehensive ideology (such as fascism or communism), and a disciplined party apparatus. These regimes are distinguished by their system of social control over the whole population. Examples include Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, and the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong.
Modern authoritarians claim power by citing the need to safeguard the integrity of the state against supposed external threats, political stability against an unruly society, and economic equality against the upper classes. What they have actually achieved is oppression, famine, catastrophic war, genocide, and the general lowering of living standards for the population. As the American philosopher Sidney Hook once observed,
How can there be genuine security so long as arbitrary power, whether it be of an employer or a group, or especially of the state as employer, is not subject to the restraints of a freely operating democratic process?
Although most seize control through violent revolution or coup d'etat, modern authoritarian rulers claim to have the consent of the governed. But they rarely allow free and fair elections or referendums to test their claims, and when they do the people generally vote against them (as in Chile in 1988, Poland in 1989, and Serbia in 2000). There are some cases, such as Nazi Germany, in which a modern authoritarian regime can be said on some level to have come to power through elections. But in fact the Nazi Party was a parliamentary minority that seized total power through intimidation and thuggery in what amounted to a coup d'etat (see also Country Study of the Federal Republic of Germany).
(D) The Right to Rebellion
Implied in the principle of consent is the right to withdraw consent—to overthrow a regime that abuses the people through tyrannical, arbitrary, or unrepresentative rule. This was the right that the British philosopher John Locke claimed was intrinsic to a system of natural law (see below), and that the 13 American states invoked against King George III in 1776.
King George III of England, 1771, five years before the start of the American Revolution
Two centuries later, the people of Eastern Europe rose up to claim the same right against an oppressive Communist system. But Locke's principle is not a general right of rebellion or revolution; he did not advocate anarchy. The cause of rebellion—or the withdrawal of consent—must amount to tyranny, and the system that the people rebel against must first violate their natural rights. Violent rebellion has come to be seen only as a last resort. In most modern cases, from anticolonial movements to anti-Communist movements, peaceful protest has been a more successful form of "rebellion" for the purpose of establishing a democracy based on consent of the governed.
What happens when a minority asserts the right to withdraw its consent to be governed? This has occurred in a number of places where minorities desire independence from dominant or oppressive majorities. In general, the world has recognized the right of oppressed peoples to form their own self-governing regions or independent states, as in Kosovo and East Timor. In Sweden, Italy, and other countries, minorities have gained autonomy without violence. But for some regions seeking independence or autonomy, such as Chechnya in Russia and Darfur in Sudan, the world has been less supportive and has failed to prevent the majority government from committing mass killings or genocide. Despite numerous international treaties and documents defining nationality and minority rights, there is little consistency in this area.
(II) The Consent of the Governed: History
(A) Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic
The first significant historical examples of rule by consent of the governed were the city-state of Athens in the fifth century BC and the Roman Republic from the fifth to first centuries BC. Each was the most successful economic and military power of its time and region.
Athens is sometimes considered the first example of direct democracy. All citizens would assemble regularly or as needed to decide various questions facing the polis, or city-state. The Athenian Assembly elected certain categories of public servants, and many other temporary officeholders were chosen by lot from among those who volunteered, but all major decisions were made by the citizenry as a whole. The voting body of citizens, it must be noted, included only adult males of Athenian descent, leaving out resident aliens (metics), women, and slaves.
Unlike Athens, Rome was governed through layers of representative institutions and officials. There were a number of assemblies organized by class and wealth, the most important of which were the Senate and the Council of the Plebs. Senators belonged to the elite landowning class, known as patricians, while the plebeians made up the rest of the citizenry, including landowners, merchants, and farmers. At first, only patricians could hold public office, but the plebeians gradually sought more power within the state, choosing officials known as tribunes to protect their rights. In the first century BC, driven in part by its class struggles, the Roman Republic succumbed to rule by a series of generals, one of whom was Julius Caesar. His heir, Octavian, later known as Augustus, became the first of the Roman emperors, founding a dynasty and turning the state into an autocracy.
Athens and republican Rome, while not democratic in today's sense and largely dependent on slavery for labor, remain models for direct and representative democracy. Their influence on our political thinking is evident in our language. As Professor Bernard Crick of Oxford University notes, "Almost the whole vocabulary of politics, ancient and modern, is Greek and Roman: autocracy, tyranny, despotism, politics and polity, republic, senate, city, citizen, representative."
(B) The British Experience
Another important precedent for consensual government is found in the English civil wars (1642–60). Centuries earlier, the Magna Carta had forced the king of England to recognize the rights of noblemen, the clergy, and townsmen. This led to the eventual creation of Parliament, consisting of the House of Lords and House of Commons, and bound future monarchs to observe established laws and customs. By the 17th century, Parliament represented nearly all landowners, a large class of people. When Charles I defied Parliament by attempting to impose uniform (Anglican) religious practices and raise taxes without consent, it formed its own army, defeated his forces, and eventually executed him. In 1649, the House of Commons declared England "a Commonwealth and Free State" and sought to govern without a king. The monarchy was restored in 1660, but the Commonwealth was significant as a historical example of republican rule, as an influence on the subsequent adoption of the English Bill of Rights in 1689, and as part of the religious strife that drove many English dissenters to immigrate to America.
(C) John Locke and the Origins of the American Revolution
The consent of the governed was championed in modern political thought by the British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), whose ideas heavily influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution. In his Two Treatises of Government and other works, Locke used the philosophy of empiricism—the view that knowledge is based on sensory experience—to thoroughly denounce the arbitrary and divinely justified rule of the monarch, and to establish a general theory of rights that exist in "a state of nature"—a hypothetical condition in which people live without government. Locke's arguments were in direct contradiction to those of another natural law philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who in his book Leviathan theorized that a state of nature meant a "nasty, brutish, and short" existence. Hobbes argued that in exchange for security, individuals give away their rights to an all-powerful ruler. Locke asserted that the state of nature was fundamentally different: "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it which obliges everyone... No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."
In the Second Treatise of Government, Locke explained the logic of a government based on the consent of the governed. While most recognize the moral obligation not to do harm, he said, government is needed to protect the people's peace and prosperity against the inevitable few who would violate the natural law. Since property is disputable, government is also necessary to resolve disagreements between owners. Government is legitimate only through the consent of the governed, and only as long as it satisfies these fundamental needs of the community. A government that violates the trust of the people loses its legitimacy and should be overthrown.
Locke was, in part, justifying England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, which replaced King James II and shifted greater power to Parliament. A century later, Locke's ideas played a central part in the American Revolution. (Thomas Jefferson called him one of history's greatest men.) The Declaration of Independence is itself a remarkably succinct restatement of the people's right to rebel against an unjust ruler and establish popular government. As such, it has become the world's touchstone of democracy.
(D) Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution
The French Revolution in 1789 drew on philosophical influences similar to those behind the successful American Revolution. In many ways, though, France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, adopted by the National Assembly, was more sweeping and radical in its assertion of human rights, equality, and the definition of a just society. In this regard, it reflected the greater influence on the French Revolution of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his view, a good government should serve not just the interests of a collection of individuals (Locke) or the state's interests (Hobbes), but the interests of the people as a whole. It should represent the common or "general will," which was based on reason. His views became the basis for many communitarian philosophies and also affected the development of social democracy in Europe.
The idea of the "general will," however, was often abused. Rousseau meant the idea to reflect a clear, higher community interest as opposed to an individual one (for a modern example, the protection of a forest against clear-cutting by a landowner). But his writings are open to interpretation. When the French Revolution descended into the so-called Reign of Terror under the radical Jacobin faction (1793–94), the leader Maximilien Robespierre used the "general will" to justify imposing a dictatorship that would create a "republic of virtue" and rid France of corruption and moral decay. Robespierre was overthrown and executed for his extremism, and republican rule eventually gave way to Napoleon Bonaparte, a general who declared himself emperor. But the Revolution's original ideal of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" has continued to inspire a tradition of republicanism and freedom, both in France and around the world.
(E) Consent of the Governed: The 20th Century and Today
Consent of the governed existed in a minority of states until the mid–20th century. At the end of World War II, democracy was restored or introduced in Western Europe and Japan, but the repressive Soviet system was installed in Eastern Europe. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, as countries in Asia and Africa were gaining independence from European empires, many colonial regimes were simply replaced with authoritarian rule. At the same time, military dictatorships seized control in a number of Latin American countries. Since 1975, however, there has been a steady progress toward democracy and rule by citizens. Authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships fell, and communism collapsed throughout the Soviet bloc. In most cases, these systems gave way to electoral democracy and constitutional government. Major exceptions remain, but today electoral democracy is practiced in 123 out of 193 countries, according to the Freedom in the World 2007 survey.