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The Tragedy of Modern Ethiopian History and the Challenges to its Political Economy

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                      February 20, 2020


Ethiopia is a great nation with a spectacular and magnificent civilization of antiquity, and material as well as spiritual florescence of the medieval to the early 17th century period, but its modern history is bedeviled and infested by numerous enigmatic causes that led to the country’s disaster failures, including countering the modicum but meaningful development strategies that Ethiopia had initiated in its most recent history. This article intends to expose and uncover the plethora of actors’ (domestic and foreign), policies and political economy agendas.

Ethiopia has made a transition from a coercive hegemony (the Derg rule: 1974-1991) to a benevolent hegemony of the EPRDF (1991-2018), that is, until the advent of Abiy Ahmed to power; I attribute ‘benevolent hegemony’ to the EPRDF because under its rule democratic governance was unable to flourish, but the ruling party is credited for a double digit economic growth, foundational economy, the establishment of forty-five universities, major industrial parks, and public housing etc. This is unheard of in modern Ethiopian history, although a significant number of the so-called opposition, stuck in self-denial, would not like to acknowledge it. Moreover, Abiy Ahmed, a byproduct of the EPRDF himself, seems to counter attack and derail the worthwhile development initiative undertaken by its predecessor regimes; and worse, under Abiy, Ethiopia is sliding backward and it is beset by instability and displacement of millions of its citizens.

The current Ethiopian crisis does not come as a surprise to me, because I made a political forecast on the present turmoil, some twenty-five years ago, as follows:

The TGE’s [Transitional Government of Ethiopia] policy of Kilil and self-determination is commendable, but the consequence of fragmentation as a result of new wave of ethnic political consciousness, and the inability of some minority nationalities to become economically and politically viable, would ultimately preoccupy Ethiopians to otherwise unforeseen problem.1 

What I have reasoned above is only to indicate the necessity of precautionary measures in the event of a political action program exhibits negative outcomes, but I was never prepared for an incredibly bizarre political behavior in which a government will standby with callous silence when armed brigands kill Ethiopians and loot their property; churches and mosques are burned to the ground; roads that link the regional states are blocked; college students are unable to attend classes and pursue their educational career peacefully, and some twenty-two colleges are now closed down; and most importantly, in the absence of rule of law and an Hobbesian-like state of nature of lawlessness that has become now second nature in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian people who never have had such an experience are terrified by a nightmarish politics perpetrated by the inept regime whose direction is unfathomable and whose mission seems to satisfy foreign political goals and not promote Ethiopian national interest. I was never prepared for such kind of tragic political phenomena, let alone predict it.

Medemer, love, and forgiveness are no longer tenable and as a result, the yesteryear popularity of PM Abiy Ahmed has diminished considerably, but it is not extinguished completely, especially if one follows the February 14, 2020 massive demonstration support for Abiy at the Jimma-Agaro area, and also the warm welcome the PM received extended to him by the Dubai, United Arab Emirate, Ethiopian refugees; that means, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed still maintains some support from some Ethiopians. Now, the likelihood is that present Ethiopian politics will be shaped by the confrontation between the supporters of Abiy and those who despise and oppose him.

Given the current Ethiopian political landscape, thus, the PM could further garner support from Ethiopians via his newly constituted but untested Prosperity Party, although as we shall see later the majority of Ethiopians, especially those who favor the federal system and are rallied around federalist forces, have now become fierce critiques of Abiy Ahmed. And in order to redeem the nascent political deficit that has now bewitched the Abiy regime, some government officials have begun finger pointing at potentially threatening rival forces for the ills that Ethiopia has encountered now; more specifically, they blame unknown gunmen, who have become mysterious belligerent forces, for the cause of instability and displacement of people from their villages. A good example of this kind of scapegoat is Lencho Bati, who in his interview with Al Jazeera said, “Ethiopian people used to live together peacefully. This [internally displaced people] is politically masterminded, agitated from behind in order to sabotage the reforms…The overthrown elites, the people who were enjoying privilege for 27 years, they want to make sure this process [the reform] is sabotaged.”2          

Lencho Bati’s statement is full of contradiction and miscalculated verbose, to say the least. What does “overthrown elites” mean? Was there any silent coup d’etat in Ethiopia that we were not aware of? Is Lencho implying to the TPLF when he says “overthrown elites” or is he simply imagining fantastic political figures in order to hoodwink the people? Whatever his contemplation is, it is not surprising that those kind of easy picking or sitting duck are entertained by a spokesperson of the Government, because Abiy Ahmed, in his recent visit to Bale told his audience in the most explicit fashion by mentioning the TPLF; he uses the word ‘eat’ in the metaphoric sense and said, “We are now eating the TPLF that ate us for 27 years”, but the same Abiy Ahmed, during his sojourn to Tigray a couple of years ago, told the Tigray audience packed in an auditorium at Addi Haqi, Mekelle, Tigray, that “they are golden, and Tigray without Ethiopia and Ethiopia without Tigray could not exist” and also mentioned Tigrayan patriots such as Suhul, Marta, Qeshi Gebru, Berhane-Meskel Reda, Tilahun Gizaw, Meles Zenawi etc. Abiy’s statement, of course, is now a bygone and forgotten rhetoric, and if at all, what we see now is Abiy’s engagement against Tigray by forging unholy alliance with Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea.

My advice to Abiy Ahmed, if he can listen, is that he should pause for a moment and think twice before he moves forward once in instigating any skirmish against Tigray, let alone open an all out fire in order to subdue the people of Tigray. On the contrary, his best bet could be to make peace with the TPLF and other political organizations like the OLF, if indeed he genuinely wants to iron out differences with diverse political groups, and ultimately earn support from the Ethiopian people and consolidate power legally and peacefully. On the other hand, if Abiy does not make peace with the above mentioned political parties and other federalist forces, and wrongly assumes that he could hang on to power via his Prosperity Party and with the help of some feeble parties like the Ethiopian Citizen Party, his regime will collapse ignominiously.

Abiy Ahmed also ought to pursue and implement an inclusive and comprehensive policy that can bring about Ethiopian unity and heal the nation from its miserable condition. As a leader of Ethiopia, and not of this or that sectarian group, he should refrain from discriminating some Ethiopians and some regional states such as Tigray or Afar. A good example of discrimination is forbidding the Chinese investor delegation who were en route from Addis Ababa to Tigray from travelling to Mekelle in order to sign an agreement with the officials of the Regional State of Tigray; and because of this sad but shameful act of the Government, the Tigrayan leaders who were waiting the Chinese delegation at Ras Alula Airport, were compelled to go to Addis Ababa, meet their Chinese counterparts and sign the agreement in the capital city.

What I discussed above is policy matrix in its micro sense; at a macro level, I would like to expound the significance of public policy with respect to the Ethiopian political economy in general and the liberalization policies in particular. It is abundantly clear that the Abiy regime has now made a major departure from the Developmental State (DS) EPRDF agenda to a liberal economic policy; during the formative period of the new government, Abiy told the people’s representatives of the Ethiopian parliament that his government is geared toward installing a capitalist system There is nothing wrong in striving to establish a capitalist system in which private enterprises for profit and private ownership reign supreme; after all; in the context of political economy and the long odyssey of human engineered mode of productions, it is capitalism that brought up the most revolutionary and most efficient production system hitherto unknown in human history. However, unfettered capitalism is overly exploitative and does not show any regard to the welfare of the poor working people.

In most affluent and middle income nations, capitalism or the market economy, as it is preferably and favorably known by Western countries, had indeed created enormous wealth and opportunities, but it could not offer equality or even equity for some members of society to have access to the privileges and amenities that the rich people take it for granted. In this context, thus, neither structural adjustment program (SAP) nor the Washington Consensus can alleviate the deeply entrenched poverty in Ethiopia, and Abiy and his cohorts at the top echelon of the government may have wrongly or inadvertently but willingly endorsed the Washington Consensus agenda.

Back in 1998, in a critical appraisal of SAP, I attempted to discuss and expose the Program’s objectives: “The SAP as a strategy argued the necessity of downsizing the bureaucracy, the privatization of state enterprises, devaluation of currency, reducing government expenditure etc in order to boost the domestic economy. This monetarist prescription of the supply-side economics , however, gave more power to donors in the planning and supervision of domestic African enterprises, and as a result most African countries who espoused SAP are poorer now than they were two decades ago…At a time when the World Bank was advocating Accelerated Development in 1979, the purchasing power of exports of Ethiopia, Somalia, Benin, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Liberia, Zaire and Zambia fell drastically because they were unable to compete in the unequal partnership of global trade. Incidentally, in an effort to remedy the ‘inequality among nations’, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1964 came up with a splendid idea of North/South Dialogue and with a very noble slogan of “equitable distribution of world’s wealth”, but disappeared like a phantasmagoria in the cloud of Northern interests.”3                      

In light of the above extrapolation, I suggest that that the present and future governments of Ethiopia must not only have a sound and doable policy framework but also a system in place that prevents the pitfalls of Washington Consensus; it is imperative that a system that investigates and monitors external institutions that make inputs to influence public policy installed in order to safeguard domestic policies; the system should serve as a permanent guidepost or beacon for the overall development agenda of Ethiopia.

Formulating and implementing policies, however, are not easy, and as Ernesto Stein et al aptly put it, “Policies are complex undertaking. Bringing any particular “policy reform” to fruition is a process that involves multiple actors through many stages of the policy process. It requires specific responses from economic and social agents, and therefore necessitates several forms of cooperation and positive beliefs about the durability and other properties of the policy. That is, policies require a great deal more than a magical moment of special politics to introduce “the right policy” in order to produce effective results.”4  

On top of the above policy analysis, Ernesto Stein et al further elaborate the significance of policies as they pertain to macroeconomics, trade policy, regulation, and the following point of argument that I found it quite relevant to my own thesis and the reality on the ground in Ethiopia” “It is not trade liberalization per se but credible trade liberalization that is the source of efficiency benefits. The predictability of the incentives created by a trade regime, or lack thereof, is generally of much greater importance than the structure of these incentives.”5 

As shown above, while durable and sound policies are important, they are, however, challenged by competing global powers and more so by donor nations. This challenge has directly affected the inner dynamics of Ethiopian politics in general and the policy-making spectrum in particular; and the challenge is best exemplified by the fierce competition in investment by China and the Western nations – Europe and the USA; the latter apparently lagged behind the highly accelerated marathon-like Chinese investment in Africa and is compelled to expedite its foothold on the African continent.

The aggressive Chinese investment in Africa may have played as a wakeup call to Western nations; in other words, it may inadvertently compelled the USA and Europe to revise their respective policies to the extent of having an upper hand in Africa, and if possible brush aside or kick out the Chinese from the continent, which I believe is impossible to attain at least in the short haul, but they could score some achievement in terms of weakening and/or retarding Chinese investment in Africa. In order for the West to be successful, however, it has to stave off China’s aggressive involvement by mimicking the Chinese focus on foundational economy, and not simply by condemning and punishing African governments that have had good relations with China.  

The Africa continent-wide China investment vs. Europe/USA investment in Africa is best captured by Todd Moss: “While the traditional donors have generally held aid levels, new actors have arrived. China’s rapid and dramatic push into Africa has shaken much of the aid community. China has long been involved in Africa – for example, building most of the stadiums and railroads constructed there after independence. Yet in recent years China’s engagement on the continent has accelerated spectacularly. The anecdotes are compelling: Chinese companies and workers are building major infrastructure projects in almost every African country, and China has announced some enormous financing package deals for new projects, such as $9 billion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and $13 billion in Ghana.”6  

There is no doubt that China, like Western nations, is also interested in African resources, especially petroleum and strategic minerals, but what makes it different from the West is that it enabled African nations to stand on their feet by avoiding donor aid entrapments. To be sure, Africa, as a whole had $10 billion debt to China that has reached $30 billion by 2016, but the Chinese government has given debt relief to African nations either by cancelling the loans partially or by reducing the debt in half as in the case of Ethiopia. The Chinese Export-Import Bank (EX-IM) that facilitates debt management to African countries has outshined all OECD countries, especially in infrastructure, agriculture, mining, and the new wave in industrial parks. China is now very much involved in the development sectors mentioned above in much of Africa, but in particular in Ethiopia; the Chinese, in fact, view Ethiopia as their gateway to the rest of Africa.

The government of Ethiopia, be that of Abiy or future leaders must have unflinching political stances in choosing Western or Chinese partnership in the promotion of Ethiopian development projects, more so, if the government is endowed with astuteness and wisdom, it should choose the best of Western and/or Chinese models. The choice between the West and China is not going to be easy, because by its very nature it is complicated and hypersensitive and could push a seating government to a high-strung decision-making process, and it goes without saying that Ethiopia needs leaders with great vision, patriotic zeal, and altruism.

Unfortunately, however, in is most recent history, Ethiopia is confronted by the lack thereof the type of leadership mentioned above, and in the absence of those leadership qualities, the tragedy of Ethiopia could be further exacerbated and its political economy could falter to the point of meaninglessness. At any rate, I personally am in favor of an independent decision of the Ethiopian government in respecting the sovereignty of Ethiopia while at the same time negotiating debt and/or grant with the economic superpowers, and it does not really matter whether the aid comes from China or the United States or from both, insofar strings are not attached and a new cold war makes Ethiopia in particular and Africa in general a new chessboard of the superpowers.

In the light of the above context, thus, we can now examine Abiy’s role in Ethiopian politics. When Abiy Ahmed came to power, following the smooth transference of authority, he was full of promise in the way he presented himself as “a man of the people”; his ideas of Medemer (inclusiveness or joining hands), love, forgiveness, and unity of Ethiopians, were formidable mobilizing themes; his attractive personality and his eloquence in a public square were equally mesmerizing, and practically he attainted the semblance of good governance by restructuring the state apparatus, and appointing ten women ministers amongst the total twenty ministers. But in less than two years in his stay in power, gradually but surely he began contemplating ideas and presenting them in his speeches that put him at variance to his original good intentions; he placed himself, unwittingly perhaps, in contradistinction to his previous political agendas and government policies. He began contradicting his own words, without perhaps ever recalling the many EPRDF government actions in alleviating the poor condition of Ethiopians and making Ethiopia a successful nation. It is in this kind of contradictory standpoints and measures that the Ethiopian tragedy became abundantly clear and came out glaringly in public; and it is this tragedy that may altogether fracture and dismantle the country’s political economy.

And it is in the midst of this tragedy that the US has committed $1 billion in aid and a separate $37 million for the upcoming Ethiopian election, but the most important thing and which I think would have an indelible impact on Ethiopian politics, is that of Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo’s speech to the business leaders in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, February 19, 2020. According to Reuters, “US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a veiled swipe at China during a speech to Ethiopian business leaders on Wednesday in an apparent amplification of US criticism that Chinese lending for big infrastructure pushes poor countries into debt…The Trump Administration is seeking to counter significant Chinese influence on the continent with its new Prosper Africa trade and investment strategy and a newly establishment financier, the US International Development Finance Cooperation.” 7       

What is to be done now? A major test for Abiy is whether his government begins to act like a government or not! Until this moment, it is apparent that the Government has demonstrated a shadowy existence in domestic politics and showed more commitment to external linkages such as Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirate, and as of recent Somalia-Somaliland. While Abiy’s claim of attaining peace in the Horn of Africa is indisputably palatable to some observers, the peace initiatives and brokerage in Somalia and South Sudan by Ethiopia is a sole and single achievement of the EPRDF government and Abiy has continued same policy on an already paved way. However, while the EPRDF twenty-seven year rule was accompanied by a strong bulwark against foreign enemies such as Al Shabab and as a result maintaining peace and order in Ethiopia and at the same time enhancing diplomatic relations with all nations, the Abiy government is presiding overall a fragile and defenseless Ethiopia. Doing business and/or political relations with foreign government could be a major failure if the Ethiopian government is unable or unwilling to resolve internal disputes and contradictions, and the Abiy regime seems to neglect this fundamental truth in politics.

Some observers, in fact, think that Abiy’s Horn of Africa policy could actually backfire; one of these observers is Michael Rubin, who wrote an opinion to the Washington Examiner: “Ethiopia’s naïve peacemaking could lead to war…For the sake of the region, let us hope that regional leaders, European officials, and Secretary Mike Pompeo will try to talk sense to Ethiopia’s egotistical leader before he makes a move, which can undo decades of progress and cost tens of thousands of lives.”8   

Michael Rubin’s concerns are appreciated and well-taken, but whether Abiy’s shuttle diplomacy in the Horn and beyond result in an all-out war could be questionable; it may or may never happen, but it could serve as a major distraction from the more pressing problems in domestic Ethiopian affairs, the multiple socioeconomic issues mentioned above, and the controversy surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), to which Ethiopians have now reached a tacit agreement in viewing it as treason if the Government indeed yields to Egyptian interests.

Nevertheless, contrary to war, if peace and stability are sought in the Horn of Africa, the problem associated with hegemonic stability as explicated by Duncan Snidal should be seriously considered. Snidal argues, “The theory of hegemonic stability ignores the impact of bargaining, negotiation, strategic rationality and cooperation through collective action.”9 It looks that Abiy and his Government delegation to the GERD negotiation with Egypt has completely ignored what hegemonic stability ignores, and this is in large measure due to the very incapable, incompetent, and inexperienced leaders in the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Irrespective of the chaotic political atmosphere in Ethiopia now, the government has an obligation to set priorities in terms of transposing Ethiopia from its current tragic affairs to a more peaceful and stable nation marching forward to prosperity and welfare of the Ethiopian people. At the end of the day, if the upcoming election is going to be conducted in a  fair and free manner, the main contending parties are going to be the National Forum of federalist forces and Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP) that emerged in the wake of the so-called reform initiative in the last two years, but while Forum is the making of indigenous genuine forces, the PP could be the mirror image of a borrowed name; it is very likely that PP is influenced by the Trump/White House new policy known as Prosper Africa or by the African Union Agenda 2063 “to build an integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa…”.

By way of concluding, I believe Ethiopians should unite and pull together irrespective of their differences and contribute constructively for a better, peaceful, and prosperous Ethiopia. Ethiopians also must act in unison to pressurize the Government to prioritize Ethiopia’s national interests, and keep at bay Ethiopia’s deadly enemies from interfering in the internal affairs of their country. There is no choice and/or alternative for Ethiopians but to unite at this juncture of their history; they must remember what their great grandfathers scored a resounding victory at Adwa a hundred twenty four years ago, that we will be celebrating with pride on March 1, 2020.

Notes

1.    Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition, University Press of America, 1995, p. 166

2.    Al Jazeera, “Is Ethiopia sliding backwards under Abiy Ahmed?”, February 14, 2020

3.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “Africa and the New World Order”, African Link, Volume 7, No. 1, 1998        

4.    Ernesto Stein et al, The Politics of Policies, Inter-American Development Bank/Harvard University, 2005, p. 15

5.    Ernesto Stein et al, p. 16

6.    Todd Moss, “Reflections on Africa’s Rocky Love-Hate Relationship with International Capital”, in John W. Harbeson and Donald Rothchild, Africa in World Politics, Westview Press, 2017, p. 32

7.    Giulia Paravicini, Reuters, Addis Ababa, February 19, 2020

8.    Michael Rubin, Washington Examiner, Opinion, February 17, 2020

9.    Stephen Gill and David Law, The Global Political Economy, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, p. 47

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