On the anniversary of Meles Zenawi’s death six years ago, the WPF has published a new Occasional Paper, “The Future of Ethiopia: Developmental State or Political Marketplace?” by Alex de Waal. In it, de Waal notes that “Today’s changes in Ethiopia are rapid, confusing and disruptive. They promise openness and democratization, but also contain perils. Like many others, I am struggling to place them in a context that allows me to make sense of what is happening now and what may happen in the near future.” He draws on two prisms through which to assess the situation: the ‘democratic developmental state’ as articulated by Meles Zenawi in a series of discussions held with the author between 1988 and 2012, and de Waal’s formulation of the ‘political marketplace.’ The full paper is available on the WPF website and below is an excerpt from the introduction:

Today’s changes in Ethiopia are rapid, confusing and disruptive. They promise openness and democratization, but also contain perils. Like many others, I am struggling to place them in a context that allows me to make sense of what is happening now and what may happen in the near future.

I find much of the commentary on Ethiopia’s current predicament to be polarized, generalized or not sufficiently attuned to the specifics of the country’s recent history. In my case, one prism through which I interpret Ethiopian developments is the analysis derived from numerous discussions that I had with Meles Zenawi between 1988 and 2012. I initially developed the framework of the ‘political marketplace’ as a critique of Meles’s theory of the ‘democratic developmental state’. In particular, I saw monetized or marketized politics as a threat to the state-led developmental order that Meles envisioned: I argued that as well as the two scenarios he envisaged, namely economic transformation versus a relapse into poverty and chaos, there was a third: a political marketplace.

The rationale for this paper is that these two frameworks, the developmental state and the political marketplace, offer analytical insights that are important for understanding Ethiopia today.

This paper has two parts. The first is based on those conversations with Meles. I have notes from many of them (especially from the period 2007-2012) and recollections of others. I have organized them into the themes of the developmental state, democracy and nationalism, and foreign policy and security strategy. In each case what I present are amalgams of notes, verbatim transcripts, and a few inferences. They are rearranged for coherence.

The second part asks questions relevant to Ethiopians today. I use the conceptual vocabulary of the developmental state and the political marketplace, to point to some lessons that might be learned and applied.


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3 Responses to The Future of Ethiopia: Developmental State or Political Marketplace?


    My name is Ashenafi Bassa FROM ADDIS ABABA ETHIOPIA and i read the the article from beginning to end with great attention and wonder. what i learned from the article is that the writer has an interesting insight on Ethiopian politics specially on the EPRDF system and had noted all the realities without any hesitation i mean in a frank way and i take my hut up even though i do not wear it right now. in addition to that it is a guiding article if the government wants to learn from it to save the nation from the current and immediate danger here and there. finally thank you again and hope i will see you with another breath taking article.

  2. AL says:

    First of all thank you very much for your interesting reflections on the future prospects of the country. I have read some of your writings, and I want to commend your commitment on political issues in Ethiopia and other countries in the region. I made these short notes for a discussion with friends but I thought I would share them in case they inform the next revision of the article.

    The article sketches the developmental state paradigm of Meles, mostly through a highlight of your conversations with him. And subsequently it reviews the most changes in the country, and reflects on its future prospects. Here are a couple of gaps I noticed. Firstly, the shift of gear from your analysis of the developmental state paradigm to current issues and future prospects feels abrupt. More particularly, you completely ignored the series of events and mass protests that led to the resignation of the former PM and the arrival of Abiy. You characterized the shift as a simple outcome of the success of the developmental model, but that is at best incomplete and possibly a misdiagnosis. Greater access to education certainly played a role but there are other conditions that led to the political activism on the part of the youth, which hastened the pace of change. First the organization of politics along ethnic lines make it a compelling force as it touched deep-seated (or primordial as you called it) social threads to achieve collective action. You have highlighted the potential risks of between group conflicts in the current, but I feel you have not given it the central place that it deserves.

    Moreover, access to the internet and especially social media made it much easier to mobilize the youth – think of how the Qeerroo were mobilized through OMN and facebook. These issues cannot be simply surmised as outcomes of developmental success, and they will play paramount role in shaping the future transitioning processes. For example, having seen the powers of Qerroo, Abiy will be very reluctant to seek to temper the organization of politics along ethnic lines.

    Second, I felt your depiction of the developmental state model in Ethiopia appears to involve, to be blunt, a ‘willful suspension of disbelief’. I feel the Ethiopia’s developmental success is only partially true, and has been exaggerated by relentless advocacy by the government, which has been bought into by many westerners who take as a benchmark highly incompetent governments elsewhere in Africa. Increasing exposure of deep-rooted weaknesses such as corruption, despotism and ill-management of mega-projects all point to a failed fliration with the developmental model. Simply speaking Meles’s developmental approach has way too many pitfalls to be characterized as a victim of its own success. Think of the foreign debt burden haunting the country today. It was hardly difficult to anticipate that none of the projects except the hydro dams would generate foreign currency that would finance them. Another example is the delay in the Nile Dam and the associated wastage of resources. Most of these mistakes were avoidable if there was a small willingness to accommodate external feedback during policy development. It also seems that you have missed more recent updates on economic performance. Although GDP figures are said to grow at least at 7%, indicators that are more reliable (and less prone to abuse) suggest a stagnant economy. For example, the government budget was 5% lower than the previous year (I believe the first time to decline in more than a decade) and the new budget precludes starting any major capital project. These developments might be outcomes temporary shocks due to the political turmoil. However, they also point to a growing recognition by Abiy’s government on the ineffectiveness of massive state projects. This might mean that the heavily investment-driven growth path has come to an end, and we do not know quite know if policy makers have an alternative in mind.

    Finally, I found Meles’s nostalgic comparison of TPLF and EPRDF illuminating. He remarks “We [TPLF] were close to the ideal type of democratic centralism. We cannot do that anymore: our state is much more complicated and our party [EPRDF] has changed its character, to become a transmission belt instead of a vanguard.” That actually told me something: Meles was living under the illusion that the relationship between TPLF and Tigray was symbolic of the relationship between EPRDF and Ethiopia. Nothing can be farther from the truth. In most parts of the country, people use TPLF and EPRDF interchangeably. The relationship between the non-TPLF elements of EPRDF and their constituent ethnic based populations has always been an adversarial one because they are seen as pawns of TPLF. An exception of this can be the newly minted OPDO under Team Lemma, but even the new OPDO was never endorsed full-heartedly until the election of Abiy as PM. In fact, this is the same risk Abiy runs – while the populace might root for him they will never vote for his party. Outside Tigray, EPRDF is simply seen as an enemy, at best to be tolerated and at worst to be fought. This again highlights why the fruits of developmentalism (however imperfect) were never good enough to fill in the serious legitimacy deficit of the EPRDF.

  3. en says:

    I have read the article but I was dismayed by it in that it was something that tries to give respectability to the cobbled together nonsensical philosophies of MZ that he used to for nothing more than to legitimize his criminal enterprise for looting Ethiopia and impoverish its people.

    The doctored growth figures are now well-known to be largely myths, the people who benefited are those who are from his narrow ethnic base and those Melesse was by all accounts an out and out sociopath who has charmed half-witted westerners telling them all sorts of fables, I think you were also hoodwinked by him.

    All told, the democratic developmental state was neither democratic – as you also agree – nor developmental. It was simply organized thievery, that is all. Ethiopia is saddled by huge debt it can hardly afford to pay borrowed for projects that were simply used for siphoning money to the corrupt TPLF officials and EFFORT and cronies. . .

    Most of these projects for which the country was billed many, many times over their value remain unfinished and most of them will never be finished. They are gone now with most of the money, leaving the country with the debt . . . All that and more was the legacy of the pseudo intellectual mafioso Melsse Zenawi . . .

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