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Political Leadership and Political Economy in Contemporary Ethiopian Politics

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                              August 16, 2018

In this article, I will discuss the basic tenets of political leadership and political economy in the context of the current crisis in Ethiopia and in light of the ethnic-based disturbances that are quite enigmatic to explain, but for all intents and purposes it looks that ethno-nationalist tendencies and practices targeting certain ethnic groups, are artificially inseminated by some forces who wish to see Ethiopia torn apart by civil wars. I am of the opinion that these disturbances will eventually subside and the ulterior motives of the obscure forces will fail, but at this juncture of their history Ethiopians are required to stand in unison and cannot afford to stand by and watch when a nation-wide crisis hovers over Ethiopia.

Introductory Remarks on Political Leadership

Ancient Egypt or Kemet was the first nation-state and ancient civilization that heralded the innovation of governance; and political leaders, namely the pharaohs of the respective dynasties were expected to govern according to the principle of Maat (order, stability, and righteousness). The ancient Greeks borrowed the idea and practice of governance from the ancient Egyptians; Plato’s The Republic, in fact, was inspired by the Egyptian master-teacher priests. However, Plato refined the concept of the state (and by extension ‘governance’) as the embodiment of reason, and he argued that political leadership was the preserve of the statesmen that he calls ‘philosopher kings’, individual rulers who would govern for the common good.

Ancient Ethiopian art of governance was, in many ways, similar, to that of ancient Egyptians; however, what makes Ethiopian political leadership unique was the prevalence of Kwame Hig (fixed legislation or constitution) and the Ba’ale Hig (public advocates) during the heyday of the Aksumite Kingdom. Ancient Ethiopia’s Aksum kings and queens ruled with the consultation and consent of the twelve council of elders (collective leadership as in most African traditional societies); in lieu of Maat and ‘common good’, thus, Fithi/Fith was incorporated in the corpus of the Ethiopian legislature, that later became the basis for Fitha Biher (Justice of the Nation); the Fitha Biher , antecedent to modern constitution, served broad public interests.

In contradistinction to the above ideas and practice of political leadership and governance, Niccolo Machiavelli argued that states and rulers are driven not by reason but by passion. Furthermore, in a nutshell, effective leadership for Machiavelli was “the end justifies the means”, even if the ruler employs ruthless and despotic style of governance. His advice to the prince (and the title of his book is The Prince) was to embody the characteristics of the cunning fox and the strength of a lion. This Machiavellian doctrine, of course, must be seen in the context of the unruly and war-torn Italy of the 16th century and we must not perceive Machiavelli as the architect of negative attributes of politics, for he also advocated the welfare of the people in his contrasting analysis of the Palace (the ruling elite) and the Piazza (the public square of the ordinary people).

One other important political theorist that I like to include in this essay for the sake of enlightenment in political leadership is Max Weber, who makes a fine departure from the normative and traditional leadership styles. Weber’s analysis of political leadership underscores the legitimacy of authority vis-à-vis the government; hence, the source of legitimacy for Weber are: 1) the rational-legal; 2) traditional authority; and 3) the charismatic authority. The latter authority attributes superhuman and/or extraordinary qualities to the leader.

Long after Machiavelli was gone, that is, in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century and beyond, other theorists like Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto wrote about elite power; scholars like C. Wright Mills and Robert Dahl also debated the primacy of elite power and pluralism in the United States in the 1960s. All of them wrote volumes on elite power and brushed aside grassroots power, and in the same vein a significant number of Ethiopians, obsessed with Shumet (legitimate power) conventionally advanced the role of political elites and not the role of people.

As far as I am concerned, politics is not just about power although the latter is, without doubt, the unit currency in leadership and governance. Politics is the administration of the state and the people, and the sources for the legitimacy of power are the people. On top of my definition of politics, a political leader for me is one who is farsighted, visionary, creative, innovative, change agent, and one who (s/he) is really committed to the people. On top of these qualities, the individual and/or collective leadership ought to revive the glory of Ethiopia (its ancient and medieval civilizations), not only for the sake of pride and psychological satisfaction, but also to use it as a fulcrum to mobilize Ethiopians toward forging their country into an industrial hub and economic success.

The above introductory note can help us understand the subtle nuances of politics and also the nature and characteristics of political leadership. However, most of the political theorists, I have brought forth are circumvented by what we call real politic in political science. There is no doubt that real politic can be used as an explanatory tool for human behavior (or the political animal) and respective political systems, but I am afraid, this paradigm is devoid of the humane dimension of politics that ancient Ethiopians purposely adopted as their modus operandi, and it is in the latter spirit that I write this article.

Therefore, in order to realize a stable, peaceful, united, and prosperous Ethiopia, we must at all costs humanize the current Ethiopian politics with all its manifestations of ethno-national skirmishes and clashes, here and there. It is for this apparent reason that I produced one article entitled “National Reconciliation and National Development in Ethiopia” in 2010; this is what I said then:

This essay intends to reach out the Ethiopian Government and the opposition by way of suggesting to both parties so that they can and should make efforts to iron out their differences and create a political climate conducive enough to enable the two blocs to sit in a round table for dialogue and for the peaceful and smooth development and transformation of Ethiopia…Above all, reconciliation , negotiation, and dialogue to bring together opposing or opposite forces and not birds of the same feather that flock together….Political fragmentation in contradistinction to national development emasculates the latter’s objectives, and the EPRDF ought to transcend the current Kilil (regional) politics and foster a pan-Ethiopian development without undermining the relative autonomy of the regional states.1  

I made the above argument when the ruling party, the EPRDF, was relatively strong but not ready to reconcile the larger Ethiopian society; now, when I began scribbling this article, the EPRDF, despite its efforts to overcome confrontational politics in the last three years, is in pretty bad shape and has literally squandered its clout on the various political actors that played a role in the making of the new regime. However, the EPRDF still gets credit for boldly criticizing itself and for asking forgiveness from the Ethiopian people, and for leading a smooth transition from the former government of PM Hailemariaim Desalegn to the new government of Abyie Ahmed.

Nevertheless, despite the smooth transition, the Ethiopian political landscape, at present, is bedeviled by ethnic clashes and disturbances especially in Benishangul Gumuz, Debub Kilil, Oromia, and the Somali Regional State. What went wrong? When Abiye Ahmed emerged as head of the nation, all Ethiopians, including myself, saw a promising hope and a shining future for Ethiopia, but whether prima facie (first impression) encounters are deceiving or not is one major conundrum that we Ethiopians have now encountered and shouldered – a more complex problem that Ethiopians countenanced and perhaps compelled to overcome this major problem on their own. But, at a time when they are so divided, can Ethiopians really unite and combat the ethnic divide that has afflicted much of Ethiopia?

I personally do not like to judge a book by its cover, nor make a hasty generalization about the current government, which is only five months old, but out of concern for Ethiopia’s peace and stability, I wrote an article entitled “The Ascendance of a New Regime and Contradictory Polices and Measures in Ethiopian Politics”, and the following, in part, is what I stated then:

There is no doubt that the new prime minster, Abiye Ahmed, has distinctly and single-handedly mobilized the Ethiopian people by his intellectual prowess and his communication skills, but his deeds have been performed by too much too soon actions. Accomplishing political agendas in  a short time is highly appreciated, although translating policies into action via slow and steady “track and field” is sometimes preferable in order to avoid (or prevent in advance) mistakes that could have negative impact on the overall politics of the country.2    

Contrary to the above critical appraisal, the Abiye government moved at a fast pace; granted freedom to political prisoners and convicted criminals, and even invited Diaspora Ethiopians, including former Derg members who masterminded and translated into action the Red Terror that consumed thousands upon thousands of Ethiopians, especially the youth. Dr. Abiye also made a swift move in responding to the deadlock of ‘no peace, no war’ state between Eritrea and Ethiopia and in no time the new prime minister of Ethiopia went to Asmara and the President of Eritrea came to Ethiopia. Now, we know why this hurriedly conducted air-to-air diplomacy was supported by the two governments; as Reuters reported, “…the rapprochement was, in fact, the culmination of a year of back-channel talks, sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters. One of the drivers behind that process was the United States, which has been a major player in the Horn of Africa for decades. More surprising was the role played by a much smaller nation: the United Arab Emirates.”3     

The peace diplomacy between Eritrea and Ethiopia was supported by a significant number of Ethiopians and Eritreans, but it was opposed by a sizable Eritrean Diaspora groupings. The Tigray Regional State, headed by Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael, fully endorsed the peace agreement between the two countries, but this most northern Ethiopian state is requesting for a land-to-land and people-to-people diplomacy instead. Debretsion has suggested that Isaias of Eritrea and Abiye of Ethiopia come by car to the people, but this metaphoric car has yet to be a material force!

We will have to wait and see what the implications of the rapprochement is going to be on Ethiopian politics; if, on its positive side, it is going to bring real and sustainable peace between the two countries, a great historic achievement will be witnessed; if on the other hand the peace initiative, on its negative dimension, is meant to disrupt Ethiopia by first going against Tigray (as the present low-level politics indicates), it will create havoc to the larger Ethiopian society but it will also destroy the very actors who engineered the entire schema of negative energy.

Now, is Dr. Abiye with his unique style of leadership, taking these initiatives all by himself (a soliloquy leadership enterprise) or there are obscure other actors behind him? In all probability, Abiye seems to be acting without the EPRDF, a party that is now almost greatly weakened but not defunct yet. If Abiye is acting alone, notwithstanding the shadowy elements, he would be transgressing the principle of collective leadership, which, in turn, could result in further damage to the democratic process in Ethiopia and even play as a stumbling block to national integration.

It is not too late for Abiye to operate in consultation with his own party, the parliament, and the competing political parties. As we understand it in political science and as Putnam proposes six integrative factors are identified to help a leader create his/her own road map: social homogeneity, recruitment patterns, personal interaction, value consensus, group solidarity, and institutional context.4   of these six integrative factors, only one, that is, ‘personal interaction’ is being employed by Dr. Abiye, and he would have to go a long way in order to effectively consolidate political power and lead Ethiopia for the better, and he can’t do it by mere populist drama and mass sentimental support.

Abiye Ahmed has yet to learn to become a political savvy, and I would not mind extending my two-penny worth advice to him, especially with respect to rethinking his organizational base. If he completely abandons his party, the hyenas of Arat Kilo, who still maintain office and who pledged loyalty to Abiye, could ultimately betray him, and this is not going to be surprising because these hyenas suffer from opportunistic pathogens; they are pretentious and hypocritical and they are clever at deception; and in relation to this Mafia-type politics (“Trust Nobody”) I like to use my first advice by employing the old Tigrigna adage or proverb that goes as follows: ዝብኢ ከሳዕ ዝደለዮ ዝረክብ ይሕንክስ when roughly translated it means, ‘the hyena limps until it gets what it wants’. The second advice comes from a fellow scholar by the name Joel DeLuca: “Inspirational leadership without a firm grounding in organizational politics risks becoming hollow rhetoric.”5       

It is optional for Dr. Abiye to either accept or ignore the above advices; he could follow his own instinct and attempt to form a new coalition government that constitute  himself, Team Lemma, the various opposition groups who recently returned to Ethiopia, and some of the homegrown parties, but he should at least seriously consider the digital revolution in information technology that he is familiar with, and read between lines what Rhodes and Hurt say: “In the media age, leaders are presented and stage-managed – spun – DDL [Database Definition Language] as the solution to almost every social problem. Through the mass media and the internet, citizens and professional observers follow the rise, impact, and fall of senior political office holders at closer quarters than ever before.”6      

Finally, in this section of the paper and before I delve into political economy, I like to urge to the Government of Ethiopia that it should take an urgent action to thwart the current disturbances in almost all Ethiopia. The Abiye regime must understand that it cannot govern a country unless there is peace and stability on the ground and the first task of any government is to ensure security for its citizens, without which there could not be any meaningful development agenda. On top of this peace and security concerns, the Government and other actors (Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian alike) must refrain from trying to isolate Tigray, which by the way is going to be a futile attempt to curtail a part of the whole and wish to maintain the whole; the latter cannot stand without the part. I had advanced a similar argument in my previous article entitled “21st Century Ethiopian Politics should be Reoriented toward National Reconciliation and a Home Grown Ideology”, and this is what I said in part:

As far as I am concerned, any movement leveled against the people of Tigray will fail ignominiously not because Tigray is quintessential core of the Ethiopian nation but also because ethnic hatred in all its forms is anti-Ethiopian. Any grouping that foments hatred against any nationality in Ethiopia, including the Amahara, Oromo, and other nationalities is anti-Ethiopian.7

Unfortunately, however, it looks that present-day Ethiopian politics is tainted with domestic and external alliances against Tigray, or more specifically against the TPLF, and one wonders why this kind of weird politics is being enhanced in the Horn of Africa now, and Abiye Ahmed may have altogether dismissed the wisdom of the Afar Ethiopian people who told him “that he should be careful not isolate Tigray” from current Ethiopian politics; and quite ironically, one external observer by the name Bronwyn Bruton seems to have justified and verified the position of Abiye and Isaias on Tigray. She said that “Abiye Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki are racing toward peace because they both face the same threat: hard-liners in the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front…Although it might seem shocking to outside observers there is a very clear reason why both leaders are suddenly so eager to cooperate. They are united by the presence of a still-potent mutual enemy: the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)”8

Furthermore, Bronwyn argues that “Abiye has proved more of firebrand than expected and has been moving quickly to generate a political following and dismantle the TPLF’s grip on power”, but she also contends that Abiye might confront limitations in his capacity to accomplish his mention of brushing aside the TPLF completely. She says, “The bad news for Abiye is that his maneuvers will probably have minimal effects… Abiye can’t possibly afford to fire 95 percent of Ethiopia’s generals. To consolidate his power he needs to fire the worst but co-opt the rest, and that process could take years.”9    

With respect to Bronwyn’s argument, and at times her biased opinion, we can conclude that the current government, after all, might fall under ‘state of exception regime’ rather than the many typologies of political leadership that we have discussed above, and if this is true, as we shall see below, the policies of such regime could have a major impact on the development strategies and projects that the previous government has promoted and attained.

The Political Economy of Ethiopia: What is it and what should it be?

A significant number of people think that political economy is the simple admixture of politics and economics, but that is not the case. As many economists, political scientists, sociologists, and philosophers agree, political economy is a complex broad discipline that deals with production, trade, and the relations of politics and economics in the relations among nation-states. I don’t mind this definition, but the essence of political economy cannot be understood unless there is a general consensus among scholars and statesmen that political economy is a constant interplay between politics and economics.

The first people who propounded political economy were Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, and out of their theories and extensive writings, there evolved the theory of the liberal market economy. Among these theoreticians, it was Adam Smith who came up with the idea of the ‘invisible hand’ or the market governs itself thesis but he was proven wrong due to the fact that the market economy suffered recession and/or depression several times in history and was unable to govern itself until respective governments intervened and rescued it. Karl Marx was also wrong in assuming that capitalism would be replaced and eliminated by socialism under the leadership of revolutionary proletarian regimes; he underestimated the potential of the market economy and the resilience of capitalism. Quite the contrary, capitalism became the most successful mode of production in human history, but as we shall see below, its shortcomings and negative attributes on the welfare of the working people need to be reformed and adjusted; that is to say, a more humane capitalist system should be adopted and implemented.   

The political economy of Ethiopia under the Derg (1974-1991) was socialist; mixed economy (public and private enterprises supervised by the developmental state) under the EPRDF; and it could be a neo-liberal capitalist system under the new regime of Abiye Ahmed. The latter regime might attempt to transfer control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector, thereby reviving economic liberalism and that is the nature and characteristics of a neo-liberal policy.

In the post-WWII period and with the advent of the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank, IMF etc), the neo-liberal economic policy was inaugurated as the guiding blue print for governments. The emphasis of this policy was the privatization of the economy, especially the industrial, agricultural, and service sectors. In brief, the capitalist system (or the market economy as they prefer to call it) without government interference or without state (public)-owned enterprises is preferable.

As stated above, the EPRDF adopted a mixed economy guided by the DS, and Ethiopia did very well in terms of economic progress in the last two decades. EPRDF’s DS success was manifested in the great surge forward in the foundational economy: nationwide all-weather roads, railways, electric power and dams, irrigation in agriculture, industrial parks, the expansion of elementary and secondary schools, the proliferation of vocational and technical schools, the expansion of universities (now fifty of them), and the establishment of nation-wide primary health care centers. On top of these achievements, Ethiopia’s double-digit growth was confirmed and celebrated even by the neo-liberal institutions like the World Bank and IMF and European observers. One American TV company, the CNBC (headquartered in New York City) reported that “…Ethiopia continues its emergence as a regional manufacturing hub. The landlocked country in the Horn of Africa has seen double-digit economic growth as recently as 2017 thanks to its state-led development model which has espoused the mass opening of industrial parks.”10     

What is referred to as ‘state-led development model’ is what I called developmental state (DS) in my book published in 2013 and this is how I defined it:

The developmental state in simple and plain language is a state that is involved in and has control and guidance of the parameters of development projects of a given country. …A developmental state is heavily involved in comprehensive development (ranging from foundational development projects such as education and infrastructure to agro-industrial development) not simply in macroeconomic planning as some development theorists would like to argue. Furthermore, a developmental state enjoys autonomy and intervenes in the making of the economy, but unlike a regulatory state like the United States that is not interested in the type of industries, it is interested not only in the type of industries but also decides what kind of industry a country should have. Therefore, industrial policy becomes central to a developmental state. Some developmental states not only do [they] intervene aggressively in the economy, but they also own industries. However, other developmental states like Japan hardly own industries, but in the end both types of developmental states are capitalist and as such allow private ownership to flourish and permit corporate elites to play a crucial role in the development process.11 

If a DS renders sound transformation and prosperity as it did for the Asian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong), China, and Japan etc why then resort to a neo-liberal development agenda, when in fact the latter failed in most Third World countries? I pose this question on purpose so that the Ethiopian policy makers have clarity on this issue before they venture into debunking the Ethiopian DS that has really made a difference in the Ethiopian economy.

While addressing the Ethiopian parliament, Dr. Abiye told us that he is in favor of capitalism, which by the way is acceptable to me, and as I have indicated above, this economic system was most successful and has demonstrated universal applicability. However, I have not heard of the details of the Prime Minister’s policy in regards to the capitalist system. Similar to Dr. Abiye and his Government, Ginbot 7 and Arena Tigray are also in favor of the neo-liberal market economy, but I am not sure whether they have incorporated in their respective policies and/or political programs the distinction between the Liberal Market Economy (LME) and the Coordinated Market Economy (CME), both of which are capitalist systems. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss in detail the policies of the two systems, but it is important to note which countries belong to which. The US, Canada, the UK, and Australia belong to the LME group, and Germany, Japan, Scandinavian nations, Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland belong to the CME bloc. While the former group still promotes unfettered capitalism, the latter bloc of nations humanized capitalism.

If Ethiopia adopts the LME policy of economic development, slowly but surely it could reverse the gains of the DS and the many major projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) could be stalled or delayed indefinitely; if, on the other hand, Ethiopia pursues the CME strategy, it will have a chance to make reforms in the economy without completely obliterating the DS and without hindering the current pace of development.      

In conclusion, I like to bring to the attention of the neo-liberal Ethiopians at government level, in the academia, and in the competing political parties, the irony of American capitalists who have recently shown reservation, if not resentment, to the capitalist system. This was discussed by Rick Newman, a columnist to Yahoo/Finance, and here is what he stated in his column entitled “Both Political Parties are Rejecting Capitalism”:

Why are both parties supporting more government intervention? Which would you prefer: Economic authoritarianism? Or domineering socialism? If you thought that Republicans and Democrats mainly differed on the matter of how best to distribute the spoils of free market capitalism, you are stuck in the 1990s. Each of these parties is now lurching toward anti-capitalism statism, with the main difference being how, exactly, the government should control the economy.” 12

Let me pose another question before I end this article: why are some Ethiopians excited about neo-liberal capitalism when, in fact, it is being rejected even in its own turf? Let me know what you think!



1.      Ghelawdewos Araia, “National Reconciliation and National Development in Ethiopia”, www.africanidea.org/national_reconciliation.html October 22, 2010

2.      Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Ascendance of a New Regime and Contradictory Policies and Measures in Ethiopian Politics”


3.      Reuters, August 8, 2018

4.      R. D. Putnam, The Comparative Study of Political Elites, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1976

5.      Joel R. DeLuca, Political Savvy: Systematic Approach to Leadership Behind the Scenes, September 2002

6.      R. A. W. Rhodes and Paul Hurt (editors), The Oxford Handbook of Political Leadership, July 26, 2016

7.      Ghelawdewos Araia, “21st Century Ethiopian Politics Should be Reoriented Toward National Reconciliation and a Home Grown Ideology”


8.      Bronwyn Bruton, “Ethiopia and Eritrea have a Common Enemy” July 12, 2018 https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/ethiopia-and-eritrea-have-a-common-enemy-abiye-ahmed-isaias-afwerki-badme-peace-tplf-eprdf

9.      Bronwyn Bruton, Ibid

10.  CNBC World Politics: Ethiopia and Eritrea declare an end to war – and this could mean a lot for their economies, Monday, 9 July, 2018

11.  Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power and the Developmental State, Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2013, p. 127

12.  Rick Newman, Yahoo/Finance, August 14, 2018


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