Advancing Democracy and Good Governance in Ethiopia: The Role of Civil Society Organizations

by Derara Ansha Roba

Following the African Union (AU)-led peace negotiations between the warring parties—the Federal Government and the Tigray regional government, the war, which lasted for nearly two years, has ended. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the war; thousands were displaced; millions went hungry; public infrastructure was destroyed; and numerous human rights violations occurred. The peace agreement is a critical decision for communities living within the war zones.

Despite the momentous peace agreement held between the Federal Government and Tigray regional government, the country is still suffering from war and conflict, particularly in the Oromia region. Thousands are killed, displaced, and go hungry. Women and children are raped and encounter numerous human rights violations and other tragedies. Indeed, Ethiopia has a long history of war, which has resulted in massive losses in terms of human life and resources, and the above scenarios are mentioned as a recent phenomenon. These previous and recent facts unveil the persistent culture of war instead of peace, military measures instead of dialogues, and authoritarianism instead of democratic leadership in Ethiopia.

In addition to war, various practices such as disputed elections, arbitrary arrests, and detentions, reduced public participation, lessened active civil society organization involvement, media closures, corruption, and more still exist and vary in degree. In no way can a democratic system properly function unless these hindrances are removed. It would be merely a claim of “democratic government,” even though the contrary is clearly the case in reality. Democracy, however, transcends what is provided in political documents.

Democracy is a process consisting of a complex system that embraces rules and institutions. Thus, a democratic country is one that strives to create an enabling environment by enacting rules and establishing institutions that enhance the system, giving citizens the liberty to reach their full societal potential. In other words, democratic consolidation takes place when democracy is ‘the only game in town,’ behaviorally, attitudinally, and constitutionally1

Actualizing a democratic system demands the integration and exhibition of democratic principles in its institutions—both civil and governmental. Moreover, citizens must be involved in the decision-making process through their representatives. Realizing the democratic system cannot be left to the government alone. Rather, adopting a legal framework, maintaining the rule of law, promoting institutional independence and checks and balances, and enabling a healthy environment for civil society organizations (CSOs) and active citizen participation to flourish are among the major components that contribute to democratic consolidation. The subsequent paragraphs will emphasize the role of CSOs2in building democracy.

CSOs refer to, “associations, networks, and groups that promote public interests”3 that are neither governmental4 nor profitable. They are formed on a voluntary basis at the local, national, and/or international levels. They play an essential role in democratic governance systems and are active stakeholders in social, economic, and cultural activities, with the goal of addressing the common interests of members, communities, or the public5. CSOs have been engaged in humanitarian assistance, service deliveries, development projects, human rights and policy advocacy, and environmental protection6.

In Ethiopia, CSOs were barely recognized and received little attention for decades7. Particularly, the CSOs which worked on human rights, governance, and related areas were disregarded. Such a resistant approach culminated through the legal framework measure, Charities and Societies Proclamation No.621/2009. This proclamation has crippled the CSOs mainly working on human rights and democratic affairs by restricting their administrative functions, eliminating foreign funds/donations, ousting foreign organizations working on human rights, and hampering the ability of local organizations to engage with United Nations human rights mechanisms.  The claim that the 2009 CSP, and its associated directives, violated international human rights standards was one of the underlying reasons behind calls for the reform of the law. A call that would not be heeded until the recent political changes that swept the country in April 2018 and the subsequent passing of the new Organizations of Civil Societies Proclamation in March 2019.

The justification for such measures, according to the government at the time, was to eliminate foreign interventions which allegedly contributed to the economic crisis and affected the development of Ethiopia8. However, the facts speak otherwise. CSOs have played a significant role in terms of development and service delivery (schools, health centers, etc.)9. The advent of the new law, Civil Society Proclamation No. 1113/2019, has created an enabling environment for CSOs and it is a positive move towards the consolidation of democracy. Despite the many obstacles that can prevent CSOs from working, they must fulfill their duties and responsibilities and strive to realize the country’s democratic development. Some of these roles, duties, and responsibilities are:

The first and most basic role of civil society is to limit and control the power of the state. They should play a key role by holding the government accountable for wrongdoing, such as violations of human rights. In other words, CSOs should take the position of a watchdog to check, monitor, and restrain the power of political leaders and state officials. They should raise public concern about any abuse of power. They should lobby for access to information, and rules and institutions to curb corruption.

speaking public concern

Second, CSOs should play a great role in exposing the corrupt conduct of public officials and lobbying for good governance reforms. Even where anti-corruption laws and bodies exist, they cannot function effectively without the active support and participation of civil society.

A third function of civil society is to promote political participation. CSOs can do this by educating people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens and encouraging them to listen to election campaigns and vote in elections. Particularly during election times, civil society organizations have a vital role to play in monitoring the conduct of elections to ensure that voting and vote counting are entirely free, fair, peaceful, and transparent. It is very hard to have credible and fair elections unless civil society groups play this role. On the other hand, they can also help develop citizens’ skills to work with one another to solve common problems, debate public issues, and express their views.


A fourth way civil society can play a great role in building democracy is by providing new forms of interest and solidarity that cut across old forms of tribal, linguistic, religious, and other identity ties. Democracy cannot be stable if people only associate with others of the same religion or identity. Therefore, civil society organizations should promote tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing points of view. Civic life becomes richer, more complicated, and more tolerant when individuals of different religions and ethnic identities come together on the basis of their common interests, but only if these values are taught, and experienced through practice. On the other hand, civil society organizations should play a significant role in mediating and assisting in the resolution of conflicts that can result from intolerance for diversity in political viewpoint, culture, ethnicity, religion, etc.


Recalling the ongoing problems degrading the democratic system in Ethiopia, and conversely, the significant roles of CSOs in building democracy, this paper utterly calls for the reconsideration of the space of CSOs in the country. The paper argues that the undemocratic culture on the ground is due to the prevalence of an unfavorable environment for CSOs. To halt such an environment,


CSOs should:

  • build collaboration among each other and local administration at different levels. The local administration and government officials shall be open to working with CSOs and vice versa.
  • Ensure their right to access financial resources and other resources and be free of government interference through legislation and practice.
  • build strong networks of CSOs at different levels, which in return help them as a platform to share knowledge and exchange success stories. Aside from providing an excellent opportunity for mutual capacity development, such an alliance is beneficial in terms of defending, preserving, and expanding their space.

Government must:

  • empower CSOs, particularly those working for advancements in human rights, good governance, peace, and democracy.
  • have an openness towards CSO financing from whatever (legitimate) source is available, with aid playing a minor role.
  • demonstrate a commitment and compliance with its CSO rules and policies
1. Micheal Bratton and Nicolas Van de Walle, (1997) Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transitions in Democratic Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 235.
2. The paper is limited to briefly discussing the role of CSOs in their general context. Hence, in-depth discussions such as their types, legal regimes, and historical accounts are not included.
3. Gebre, Yntiso. "Reality checks: the state of civil society organizations in Ethiopia." African Sociological Review/Revue Africaine de Sociologie 20, no. 2 (2016): 2-25.
4. This does not mean that the government cannot regulate CSOs.
5. Based on its purpose, these organizations could be community-based, intellectual associations, labor unions, women's rights associations, disabilities organizations, charitable organizations, etc.
6. Gebre, Yntiso. "Reality checks: the state of civil society organizations in Ethiopia." African Sociological Review/Revue Africaine de Sociologie 20, no. 2 (2016): 2-25.
7. There were numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on relief, development projects, and capacity building mainly by foreign institutions.
8. Gebre, Yntiso. "Reality checks: the state of civil society organizations in Ethiopia." African Sociological Review/Revue Africaine de Sociologie 20, no. 2 (2016): 2-25.
9. Ibid.

Leave a Comment