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Envisioning Ethiopia’s Future

Professor Desta, Asayehgn

It is interesting to note that when the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (hereafter referred as Meles) was born, his mother, Woizero Alemash Gebre Leul, named him Negasi—“The Future King” in Tigrigna. Ironically, in opposition to his mother whose desire was to see Negasi as the future king of Ethiopia, in 1975, Negassi (also known as Legesse) joined the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) under a pseudo name or nom de guerre, Meles (a nod to Ethiopia’s most vocal student leader, Meles Tekle, who was slaughtered by the Derg in 1974), to fight against Ethiopia’s military government, or Derg.  

 In 1991, when Ethiopia’s military junta, or Derg, was dismantled by Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Meles assumed the presidency during the transitional period (1991-94).  In 1975, however, when the Ethiopian House of Representatives unanimously elected Meles, he became the Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia until his death in 2012. 

When Dr. Abiy (or abbiyot, the Derg’s favorite slogan for the revolution it usurped from the Ethiopia university students) assumed the Chairmanship of the EPRDF that eventually led him to become Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia on April 2, 2018, he stood at a crossroad. Prime Minister Abiy (hereafter referred as Abiy) could never have reconciled his premiership with the title of future king, a title planted in his mind by his mother, Woizero Tezeta Wolde, when he was seven years old. Had he become king, as his mother had wished, Abiy would have followed the footsteps of Emperor Tewedros, Yohannes, Menelik, Lij Eyasu ?, Empress Zeweditu, and Emperor Haile Selassie.

As stated above, the late Meles and the current Abiy were expected to be kings of Ethiopia by their mothers—though both ended up as Prime Ministers. Considering Meles’ tenure of 21 years in relation to with Abiy’s mere five months in office, the purpose of this short easy is to compare Meles’ vision and accomplishment with Abiy’s vision. Understanding Meles’ history can provide lessons and help guide Abiy’s future. 

Highlights of Prime Minister Meles’ Vision and Accomplishment

During seventeen years of military rule (1974-1991), Ethiopia came close to disintegration. When the late Prime Minister Meles assumed power, Ethiopia was ravaged by famine and insidious civil wars. As 17 ethnic-based armed groups fought against the Derg, the country was crumbling to pieces (Forum of Federation, 2010). To maintain its existence, the despotic military junta relied heavily upon borrowed funds from the Soviet Union and other western multi-lateral institutions. For example, in 1991, Ethiopia’s external debt amounted to over 50 percent of the country’s Gross National Product (Desta, 2014). As the EPRDF came to power in 1991, Ethiopia experienced poverty, poor education, and deteriorating healthcare programs. Realizing Ethiopia’s tremendous burden, Mengistu, then head of the Derg, fled the country and sought asylum in Zimbabwe.

As the wave of the future, Meles advocated for the developmental state model—i.e., the state controls the entire economy—as practiced by South Korea. Meles’ ruling party envisioned that Ethiopia’s renaissance would eliminate poverty, accommodate Ethiopia’s inherent ethnic and religious diversity, and elevate the country to sustained inclusive middle-income status by 2022.  

To advance the democratization process and improve the effectiveness of the state and local administration in Ethiopia, the EPRDF endorsed a federal government structure that entitled the Nations, Nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia to self-government. Stressing self-determination, it gave the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia further rights to secession. To accommodate ethnic and religious diversity and raise ethnic self-awareness of the Ethiopian masses, the EPRDF established an ethnic map. That is, it categorized the country into nine ethno-linguistic regional states. Furthermore, the newly designed autonomous regional states were encouraged to practice local administration and to use their local languages and culture to serve as mediums for communication and instruction.

Entitled to self-rule in their languages and cultures at the grassroots, the late Prime Minister Meles believed that all peoples of Ethiopia would eventually participate on equal footing in all affairs. As enshrined in the Federal Constitution, the new Ethiopia—composed of mosaic of cultures and languages—would a) be decentralized, b) entitle local inhabitants to manage their local affairs in an autonomous fashion, c) effectively utilize its own languages, d) develop its own culture, and e) participate on an equal basis in the country’s  common federal political activities (Forum of Federation, 2010; de Waal, 2018).  

Rather than follow the Washington Consensus program or the neo-liberal model, Meles assiduously focused on the East Asian model of developmental state, tailored to invigorate Ethiopia’s economy. During his tenure, Meles enabled Ethiopia to rebound and:  a) achieve a steady economic growth for more than fifteen years, b) revitalize its health care services and other related social development projects, c) reengineer and rejuvenate the structure developments of modern roads, railways, hydro dams (such as the construction of Ethiopia’s Grand Millennium Dam Project), air transport, state housing,  and  telecommunications services, d) galvanize universal primary and higher education, e) launch the  Growth and Transformation Plans (GTP) to minimize poverty, and f)  attain the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations. Today, the late Meles is still recognized an effective leader for his pivotal domestic and international roles.

Based on the above achievements and for laying down the threshold conditions necessary for Ethiopia’s development, optimists still consider the late Meles a visionary, charismatic, compassionate, and highly transformational leader. However, leadership cannot be based on a zero-sum game. Some political opponents blame Meles for not being a good listener, depicting him as an attention seeker. Furthermore, during Meles’ time, horrendous human rights violations and massive land grapping from the poor reportedly took place. Also, as claimed in the Ethiopian Constitution, the Ethiopian government structure was never collectively ruled. Others claim that Meles purposely designed the executive branch of government to increase his own power to control the local inhabitants (the Africa Development Bank, 2009).

Moreover, the Meles’ critiques claim he single-handedly inserted the Leninist idea of self-determination to be Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution though self-determination was never tolerated in the Soviet Union. Similarly, the idea of self-determination including cession was dropped from China’s Constitution in 1975 because it instigated unnecessary tension among the Chinese people (Desta, 2017). Nowadays, critics insist that Article 39 should be scrapped from the Ethiopian Constitution.

Abiy’s Vision for Ethiopia: The Way Forward 

During the EPRDF’s last three years of laziness and ineptitude, the restless Querro, Fano, and Zerma youth nearly took over Ethiopia’s political landscape. This disorder created a golden opportunity for Abiy, the leader of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), to assume the chairmanship of the EPRDF and emerge as Prime Minister of Ethiopia on April 2, 2018. 

As an outspoken and persuasive preacher with the courage to lecture human physiology to his senior ministers, Abiy tentatively articulated the following vision for Ethiopia: If Ethiopians heal their wounds, forgive, love, trust one another, and remain united (ENDEMER), Ethiopia would prevail. 

A few months weeks after the populist Abiy assumed the premiership, he labored intensely to capture the attention of the disaffected youth, touring the country to examine the pulse of the Ethiopian people. He a) lifted the country’s state of emergency, b) condemned  the brutal treatment of prisoners, c) released all political prisoners and convicted criminals from Ethiopian jails, d) amended anti-terrorism law, e) unlocked a number radios and websites, f) reunited the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, g) attempted to create peace with opposing Islamic adherents, h) welcomed opposing forces and certain disgruntled Diasporas to their country, i) reshuffled Ethiopia’s defense and national security leadership, j) stood against the sanctioning of forces to fight demonstrations in Ethiopia; and k) reviewed the divisive nature of ethnic federalism  (see for example, Metho, April 7, 2018).

However, Abiy is showing an ideological shift and bypassing some important deliberation with EPRDF members. As result, Abiy’s actions appear to suffer from “fundamental leadership deficit” (Wikipedia, 2018).  For instance, the EPRDF’s policy dictates state-owned enterprises. However, without conducting well-designed studies to investigate whether domestic businesses or the diaspora can afford to participate, in the name of increasing Ethiopia’s dwindling foreign-exchange reserves, Abiy is attempting to liberalize the economy and semi privatize the most lucrative state-owned mega companies, such as Ethiopian Airlines, Ethio-telecom, and electrical power within both domestic and foreign companies.  Delighted with Abiy’s new economic direction, it is not surprising that the World Bank has promised to give $1 billion in direct budget support to Ethiopia in the next few months. 

Meanwhile, Abiy’s tactical moves to lure Saudi Arabia and other African countries have earned him much praise for his foreign policy initiatives.  For example, when Abiy visited Saudi Arabia in June 2018, he managed to secure the release of more than 1000 Ethiopian prisoners from Saudi Arabia’s prisons. To help Ethiopia with its foreign exchange shortage, Abiy’s diplomacy has helped him to convince the United Arab Emiratis to deposit $1 billion in Ethiopia’s central bank in order to increase Ethiopia’s foreign exchange reserve from less than two months’ worth of imports to a three-month reserve required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).   

          In June 2018, Abiy orchestrated peace meeting between the president of South Sudan and his rival, Rieck Machar, in Addis Ababa. In May 2018, Ethiopia signed an agreement with the government of Djibouti to secure an equity stake in the Port of Djibouti. Similarly, Abiy and the President of Kenya signed an agreement to construct logistic facility at Lamu Port. In June 2018, bypassing preconditions Ethiopia has insisted on for years, and by caring less to involve the affected local people, Abiy single-handedly decided to implement the 2000 Algiers Agreement, concomitant with the decisions of the international boundary commission. After twenty years, diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea are finally in full swing. 

Summary and Conclusions

Based on the South Korean developmental model, Meles established a vision for Ethiopia designed to eliminate poverty, accommodate diversity on equal footing, and attain inclusive middle-class status by 2022. According to World Bank, since Ethiopia has achieved sustained economic growth averaging 10.9% per annum for the last fifteen years, and Ethiopian poverty has declined by 33%. More particularly, undernourishment fell from 75% to less than 50%. Meanwhile, households with improved living standards measured by electricity, and running water doubled from 2000 to 2011.  Finally, Ethiopia progressed towards the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in the areas of education, child morality, HIV/AIDS, and Malaria (World Bank, 2015).

In contrast to the Derg era that attempted to socialize all Ethiopians into one culture, language, and value system, Meles created a self-governed federal system that attempted to maintain equality of all nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.

On the other hand, Abiy has candidly asserted that Ethiopia’s development would be based on the willingness of the Ethiopian people to aggregate (ENDEMER), heal their wounds, love each other, forgive each other, and trust each other. While both Meles and Abiy have set the direction and the road map for Ethiopia’s future, Meles’ vision seems to be specific, purpose driven, directional, and future oriented.

On the other hand, Abiy’s vision seems populist, evangelical and non-operational. Abiy’s concept of “Medemer” is too vague and his concept of MEDEMAR has become a laughable concept. Opposing his own party, the OPDO, Abiy seems to be entertaining the formation of a centralized Federal system in Ethiopia. For example, he intervened to dismantle the leadership structures of the autonomous regional Ethiopian Somaliland and the Southern region rather than allowing them to solve their domestic problems.

Except for the early honeymoon days of Abiy’s reign, the political upheavals in Ethiopia have yet to subside. Ongoing problems include:  1) conflicts over boundaries between regions (Amhara and Tigray, Somali and Oromo); 2) conflicts over rights of residence in localities that have demanded to be divided and possibly create new states (southern region); 3) conflicts over the status of indigenous peoples and settlers such as in Gambella and Beni Shangule; and 4) inter-communal violence (de Waal 2018). It is sad to notice that while the Federal Government looks on, a number of innocent Tigriganes have become victims of mass atrocities.

Economically, Abiy tends to embrace the neo-liberal developmental model over the developmental model initiated by his party, the EPRDF, which created unprecedented economic growth in Ethiopia.  Under Abiy’s strategy, Ethiopians can expect economic dependency, and a few billions of dollars from the United Arab Emirates or the World Bank won’t begin to solve Ethiopia’s remaining issues.

Instead, the Abiy’s government must create a shared vision with visionary leadership that encouragers the participation of Ethiopia’s unemployed youth. If Ethiopia’s youth (Querro, Fano, and Zerma ) continue to feel economically marginalized, Abiy’s slogan of MEDEMAR, or any measure of tough federal response, won’t save Ethiopia, but spark social and political upheaval similar to the “Arab Spring” in 2010. Therefore, as suggested in my book, Re-Thinking Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism, Abiy’s government must design a comprehensive sustainability program to shift modern capitalist economies toward a sustainable employer of last resort (Desta, 2017).


Africa Development Bank (2009). Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: Country Governance Profile , Governance, Economic & Financial Reforms Department (OSGE), Country Regional Department East (OREB).

Allo, A. (June 7, 2018). “Ethiopia’s new Prime  Minister has had a Stellar two months, can he keep it up?” Available at Https: www.cnn.com/2018/06/07/africa/ethiopia-abiy-ahmed-rtransformation-intl/index.html, accessed 8/25/2018.

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De Waal, A. (2018). “The Future of Ethiopia: Developmental State or Political Marketplace.” World Peace Foundation.

Desta, A. (2014). From  Economic Dependency and Stagnation to Democratic Development State. Trento, New Jersey: The Red Sea Press.

Desta, A. (2017). Rethinking Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism. Germany: Lambert, Academic Publishing.

Ethiopia. The constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1994-95). 

Forum of Federations-The Global Network on Federalism and Devolved  Governance (2010). “PM Meles Explains his vision for Ethiopia.” Available at http://www.forumfed.org/events/pm-meles-explains -his-vision-for-ethiopia/, accessed, 8/20/2018. 

Metho, O. ( April 7, 2018). “Act now to empower the Ethiopian vision of Prime Minister Abiy or the work of the people to bring change may be wasted.” Available  at https://ecadforum.com/2018/04/07/act-now-to-enpower-the-ethiopian-vision-ofprime-minister-abiy/, accessed 8/16/2018. 

Wikipedia, (2018). Abiy Ahmed: the 15th Prime Minister of Ethiopia . Available at https://en-wikipedia.org/wiki/abiy_ahmed, accessed, 8/18/2018. 

World Bank (2015). Ethiopia Poverty Assessment. Available at http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic./poverty/publication/ethiopi-poverty-assessmen, accessed 8/28/2018.