Home African Development African Education Theories & Empirical Data
FundraiseScholarship Awards Links Contact Us Contact Us

Transposing Ethiopia while Concurrently Preserving Its Institutional Heritage and Its Political Economy Achievements

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                        January 23, 2019

The purpose of this article is to systematically analyze and critique the present Ethiopian politics, policies, and initiatives in the context of change and reform and yet to propose the continuation of Ethiopia’s achievements in the last two and half decades, and use the latter as a convenient platform to constructively guide the future developments of the country. This paper will further discuss the developmental state (hereafter DS) and the neo-liberal policy agenda, in an effort to garner theoretical clarify on concepts and policy spectrums and the impact they would have on Ethiopian politics and the larger Ethiopian society.

There is no doubt that Ethiopia has achieved economic growth at 10 to 11% per annum in the last 15 to 18 years and it has proved to the world its substantial progress in foundation economy such as roads that connected the whole of Ethiopia; railways that served as nerves of transportation between Ethiopia and Djibouti; another railroad, still under construction, that is planned to connect Djibouti with the Ethiopian towns and cities of Awash, Woldia, Hara Gebeya, Kombelcha, and Mekellle; public housing projects that virtually transformed Addis Ababa, not to mention the light railroad that is now serving Addis Ababa commuters; industrial parks in major Ethiopian cities that heralded the slow but real transition Ethiopia is making from traditional plow and hoe farming to irrigation and mechanized agriculture, and eventually to full-fledged manufacturing industry.

On top of the above achievements, in the last 27 years, Ethiopia made a remarkable progress in education, although quality education still remains the country’s major challenge. The expansion of elementary and high schools in all nine regional states quadrupled compared to the era of the Derg military regime and Emperor Haile Selassie’s government; incidentally, there are now fifty universities, coupled by the Technical and Vocational Education & Training (TVET) institutions, in all Ethiopia, and this is another major achievement of Ethiopia under the rule of the EPRDF.

The EPRDF, however, miserably failed in the areas of democracy in general and the human rights and justice spheres in particular. Although there was so much talk on democracy, including the slogan and/or guiding principle of the ruling party’s ‘revolutionary democracy’, democratic rights were virtually absent in Ethiopia. It is abundantly clear that there was no democracy in Ethiopia, and as a result Ethiopians were unable to exercise basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech and press despite the fact that these rights were granted by the Ethiopian constitution. Moreover, EPRDF’s major shortcoming was that it virtually monopolized state power by excluding contending political parties and keeping at bay Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals. I hope that the systematic avoidance of intellectuals and professionals will not happen again under the reformist Abiye’s government, and I truly believe that a government that deliberately ignores the country’s major asset commits the highest crime that has yet to be defined by the justice system. Now, one could surmise which one weighs more, EPRDF’s achievements or its failures? I will leave the answer to the reader?

With the advent of Dr. Abiye Ahmed as the new prime minister of Ethiopia nine months ago, ‘change’ and ‘reform’ have become the buzz words in Ethiopia. I personally welcomed the initiatives and reforms undertaken by the new regime, including the release of political prisoners, the unifying and rallying slogans of PM Abiye’s ‘love, forgiveness, and togetherness’ that were effective in the mobilization of the Ethiopian people. Additionally, the structural change initiative in the government of Dr. Abiye was remarkable; now that we have ten female ministers from the cabinet of ministers that constitute a total of twenty ministers, is unheard of in the annals of Ethiopian history, and this government action, without doubt, signals a promising cornerstone for the equality of women, not only at government level but also at the level of the larger Ethiopian society. Abiye’s initiative in reconciling with the opposition parties and brokering peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as between the religious leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) are also milestones in Ethiopian history

However, while the above initiatives are great in and of themselves, the great instability, chaos, and ethnic confrontations that gripped most of Ethiopia under the watch of the Prime Minister are quite troubling; and more troubling and enigmatic is the fact that Ethiopia’s huge defense force and federal police, ironically were made bystanders vis-à-vis the political morass in almost all Ethiopia. Subsequently, Ethiopians (excluding the verbose and opportunist elite) have questioned the existence of the government that was unable to maintain law and order in order to quell the disturbances. So, which weighs more, PM Abiye’s positive contributions or the chaos engendered by some unknown elements/agents, that are provoking innocent Ethiopians for violent ethnic confrontations?

What is to be done now? As the title of this article suggests, first and foremost, Ethiopia’s forward march should be considered seriously and with conscious intention to preserve its institutions and its development achievements. As a matter of policy, the twin agenda of preserving prior projects and new vistas in reform and transformation requires the realization of a historically posterior moment (looking back and looking forward!). In other words, Ethiopia must break away from the present without losing touch with the past; a good, solid, and effective policy is one that constantly reassesses the past and that kind of policy must be adopted by PM Abiye’s government. That is what Dr. Abiye should do before he ventures into eliminating durable projects and institutions (e.g. the constitution, parliament, federalism, the developmental state, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) etc.)

PM Abiye should be extremely careful not to err in policy and instruct his government to engage in a disempowering function and consequently diluting existing projects and institutions (a good example is the slowly vanishing EPRDF). The Prime Minister could sometimes encounter a moral dilemma and this is quite normal and natural in a changing society. As Susan Sontag ones said, “Generally a moral principle is something that put one at variance with accepted practice,”1 and if the Prime Minister endorses my proposal and/or accepts other similar ideas put forth by other Ethiopians and Ethiopian observers, he won’t face any major dilemma.

What we need to do now in Ethiopia is establish a delicately balanced ecology that is more harmonious and less confrontational, a policy that ultimately enables us to achieve constancy and change. By maintaining ‘constancy and change’, we can successfully transpose Ethiopia through series of reforms while concomitantly preserving its institutions and its political economy achievements. In the following paragraphs, thus, I will present my own stand and others viewpoints on how to undertake reforms while at the same time advocating for the conservation of the present political structures of Ethiopia.

Back in February 2018, I contributed an article entitled “Misreading History and Political Science and the Exigency of Smooth Transition in Ethiopia,” and this is how I argued then:-

I personally would recommend the continuation of the current federal structure with some amendments of the Constitution in regards to article 39 and its clause on secession; the latter should be discarded and only the self-determination clause should be preserved. The regional states must continue as autonomous states but the mono-ethnic composition should change to multi-ethnic diverse and yet inclusive polities. In other words, while, for instance, Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, Debub, Afar, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Gambella maintain their present status, they should simultaneously accommodate other Ethiopian ethnic groups in their respective turfs, and gradually graduate from mono-ethnic to multi-ethnic states, very much like the Debub Kilil of Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP)2

The article was written at a time when the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his intention to resign from his post; and about the same time, Goitom Gebreleul and Biniam Bedasso authored “Managing Ethiopia’s Political Crisis”, and her is how they advance their argument:-    

Managing Ethiopia’s political crisis requires going beyond democratic reform and instead thinking about the political economy and institutions that shape elite competition along ethnic lines. The two most important measures that should be embarked upon immediately in this regard are devolving more power to the regional states in accordance to the constitution and deethnicising elite competition at the federal level.3     

In a similar vein to Goitom and Biniam’s thesis and to that of mine quoted above, Alemayehu Weldemariam, also recommends the retention of the Ethiopian federal system. In his article, “Ethiopian Federation needs reviving, not reconfiguring”, Alemayehu argues, “The promised democratization is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, unless the ethnic bargaining on display in Kenya or Nigeria is considered a model to follow. What is needed is not less, but more federalism.”4 

Mahmood Mamadani, writing in the New York Times, argues that the “TPLF…turned to ethnic federalism to dissolve and fragment Ethiopian society into numerous ethnic groups – each a minority – so it could come up with a “national” vision. In a way it replicated the British system.” Though Mamadani is correct on TPLF’s ethnic federalism, I personally don’t believe the TPLF deliberately wanted to dissolve and fragment Ethiopia. on Mamadani’s part, this kind of reasoning is a slippery and wrong conceptualization of the Ethiopian reality, but his argument as shown below is convincing and more palatable to my own perception and analysis of Ethiopian politics:-

Mr Abiye can achieve real progress if Ethiopia embraces a different kind of federation – territorial and not ethnic – where rights in a federation unit are dispensed not on the basis of ethnicity but on residence. Such a federal arrangement will give Ethiopians an even chance of keeping an authoritarian dictatorship at bay.”5  

Within the framework of the theme of federalism, I like to add two more views, one presented by Samuel Huntington in 1993 and the other by myself in 1995. “Ethnicity is likely to be central to Ethiopia’s political parties, elections and politics generally,” says Huntington, and “attempts to suppress ethnic identifications or to prevent ethnic political appeals are not likely to be successful. If broad-based ideological party exists, which appeals across ethnic lines, then ethnic territorial lines can be tolerated”6  

But the most important argument that Huntington advanced, and one that comes close to my own thesis is his following reasoning: “The combination of ethnic territorial units and ethnic parties…cumulates cleavages and can have a disastrous effect on national unity and political stability.”7 My argument with respect to the federal structure of Ethiopia and the formation of the nine regional states, locally known as Kilil, was made in my debut book in 1995: “The TGE [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.”8   

Ethiopia should learn from its own political experience of the last three decades in general, and the pros and cons of its devolution of power experiment in particular. As I have noted above, the negative consequence of the language-based Kilil structure actually has now torn asunder the larger Ethiopian society; ethnic clashes are everywhere although in the very strict sense they are not the making of the people; they are, by and large, engineered and provoked by shadowy elements. Having said that, the positive aspect of Ethiopian federalism is quite apparent; in terms of enabling autonomous regions to flourish their languages and cultures, and exercising self-administration, the federal system needs to be admired. I say this, because there has never been a moment in Ethiopian history whereby minority nationalities have realized their fundamental rights of self-determination. Therefore, Ethiopia should redeem the negative attributes of the federal structure and preserve its positive dimensions while at the same time reforming the system in general. Even if the government attempts to dissolve the federal system, the people of the various regional states would not easily yield their hard won self-rule rights, and in this context thus the Government should consider my proposal of gradual transformation of the regional states from mono-ethnic to multi-ethnic entities and from language demarcation to geography delimitation.

With respect to economic development policy, the present government is going to face major challenges and impediments if it completely abandons the developmental state (DS). I am of the opinion that Ethiopia should carry on the DS while reforming its economic policy; it is better to start from a given base instead kicking off from the scratch; thus far, the DS served as the economic and development base for Ethiopia as I have extensively discussed in my book, Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power and the Developmental State (2013); I was particularly interested in the success stories of the DS states like the Tigers or the High Performing Asian Economies (Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore), China, Japan etc. To some extent, Ethiopia emulated the DS experiment of these countries and successfully scored economic growth and achieved impressive foundational economy as already discussed above.

If the Ethiopian DS was effective in transforming the economies in many countries, why then discard and abandon it? However, if Ethiopia under the leadership of PM Abiye decides to relegate its DS agenda into the backburner, it should at least replace it with a viable development strategy that could transform Ethiopia and uplift Ethiopians from poverty. What could be that new economic policy? One could safely assume that it is the neo-liberal economic policy because the PM, while addressing the parliament, has told Ethiopians that his government would establish a capitalist system.

Before I delve into the neo-liberal parameters, I like to make it crystal clear that I have no problem with capitalism, because, after all, this mode of production was a historically constituted economic system and one of the most effective and productive economic systems hitherto known in human history; it has made an indelible impact in the transformation of societies and in the making of wealth, especially in Western Europe and North America. However, capitalism is also known for its inherent crisis (recession, depression etc.) for its exploitation of the labor force with minimum wages, and for degrading and contaminating the environment, just to mention some of its defects.

In order to correct the defects of capitalism, thus, some Nordic countries in Europe (Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark) have adopted a social-democratic (SD) system or ‘capitalism with a human face’, if you will. Unlike the naked and unfettered capitalism, social democracy gives priority to the greater welfare of its citizens, and in order to ensure the latter agenda, the SD governments interfere in the making of the economy as a whole and economic policies in particular; while most of Western Europe and North American countries are regulatory states (the government regulates the economy but does not make industrial policy), the Tigers, Japan etc. are interventionist states because they heavily intervene in the economy and development projects and also lead, guide, and furnish industrial policies; in brief, they are interventionist DS nations, and the DS in these countries actually plays a positive role in humanizing capitalism and that is why I argue Ethiopia must continue to utilize the DS and preserve it as part of its overall economic development package.

If the government of Dr. Abiye finds defects in the Ethiopian DS, it should restructure and correct its shortcomings, but it should not altogether abandon it, and as our colleague in the academia, Professor Asayehgn Desta contextually use the ubiquitous maxim, ‘if it ain’t’ broke, don’t fix it’, in his recent article entitled “Transforming Ethiopia’s Developmental State Model for the Future”,9 leave alone the Ethiopian DS. The message conveyed by the maxim is pretty much clear: if things are working sufficiently and efficiently, don’t make unnecessary improvement or amendment, but if you do it could backfire.

On the other hand, if the government wants to make a departure from the DS in favor of the neo-liberal economic policy agenda, it should at least tolerate and implement the coordinated market economy (CME) as opposed to the liberal market economy (LME), which I have discussed in my article entitled “Political Leadership and Political Economy in Contemporary Ethiopian Politics”; in the LME system, governments and the respective countries are completely dependent on the “market” and the latter is mythologized as if it is a supernatural force that can correct itself every time it encounters crisis, but that is not true; in point of fact, the market economy, as pointed out earlier, is bedeviled and bewitched by inherent crisis, and the belief that the market has an ‘invisible hand’ (ẚla Adam Smith) to refurbish itself is mythology par excellence.

Before I close this paper, I like to explore the nature and characteristics of the neo-liberal agenda, policy, and ideology, for the sake of theoretical clarity and to benefit the broad-range of Ethiopian academic circles and the policymakers at all government levels in Ethiopia.

Neo-liberalism, rooted in classical liberalism of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, is an ideology-cum-policy framework that advocates free market competition, deregulation of capitalist markets, privatization, the non-intervention of governments in the economy, and fiscal austerity (e.g. lowering government spending and laying off workers). Neo-liberalism as a concept was born in the Paris Meeting of 1938, but it became more prominent after WWII when it was adopted by the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank, IMF etc.), and ever since it became the ideology and philosophy for policymakers of capitalist nations and/or market economies.

What I have provided above is only a brief sketch of the essence of neo-liberalism. In order to give the bigger and deeper picture of this political economy “beast”, however, I like to furnish to my readers George Manbiot’s penetrating analysis at  length:-

Neo-liberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines as consumers whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that the “market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimized, public services should be privatized. The organization of labor and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Effects to create a more-equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. …In a world of competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.11                     

Beyond the essence of the neo-liberal policy, it is imperative that we must see the downside and drawbacks of neo-liberalism as opposed to its claim, “the market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve,” as stated above. For the purpose of this discussion, I will make reference to John Gray’s review of Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” that was put out by The Guardian in 2007. 

Many writers have pointed to the havoc and ruin that have accompanied the imposition of free markets across the world. Whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or post-communist Europe, policies of wholesale privatization and structural adjustment have led to declining economic activity and social dislocations on a massive scale.

As Klein sees it, the social breakdowns that have accompanied neo-liberal economic policies are not the result of incompetence or mismanagement. They are integral to the free-market project, which could advance against a background of disasters….these disasters are manufactured as part of a deliberate policy framed by corporations with hidden influence in government.12   

Finally, I urge all Ethiopians to open dialogue on pertinent issues to current Ethiopian affairs and spread the word of the above discussion and contribute for Ethiopia’s development and progress, and the welfare of the Ethiopian people.



1.      Susan Sontag, “Courage and Resistance,” The Nation, May 5, 2003, p. 12

2.      Ghelawdewos Araia, “Misreading History and Political Science and the Exigency of Smooth Transition in Ethiopia,” February 18, 2018 www.africanidea.org/Smooth_Power_Ethiopia.html

3.      Goitom Gebreleul and Biniam Bedasso, “Managing Ethiopia’s Current Crisis”, quoted in “Misreading History and Political Science…”

4.      Alemayehu Weldemariam, “Ethiopian federation needs reviving, not reconfiguring”, www.ethiopia-insight.com January 10, 2019

5.      Mahmood Mamdani, “The Trouble with Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism”, New York Times, January 3, 2019

6.      Samuel Huntington, “Political Development in Ethiopia: a Peasant-Based Dominant Party Democracy? Quoted in Alemayehu Weldemariam; it was originally published in a PDF format as “Report to USAID/Ethiopia: Consultations with the Constitutional Commission”, March 28 to April 1, 1993

7.      Samuel Huntington, Ibid

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

9.      Asayehegn Desta, “Transforming Ethiopia’s Developmental State Model for the Future”, www.africanidea.org/transforming_ethiopia.html

10.  Ghelawdewos Araia, “Poltical Leadership and Political Economy in Contemporary Ethiopian Politics”, www.africanidea.org/Contemporary_Ethiopian_Politics.html August 16, 2018

11.  George Monbiot, “Neo-liberalism, the ideology at the root of all our problems,” The Guardian, April 15, 2016

12.  Review by John Gray: Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism www.theguardian.com/books/2007/sep/15/politics     


All Rights Reserved Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2019. For educational and constructive feedback, contact Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia via dr.garaia@africanidea.org