Rene Lefort on Medhane's Paper: Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian State

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If I understand Medhane well, it’s “the widespread democratic aspiration of Ethiopians”, which makes the developmental state needs to be revisited. Taking the risk of being politically incorrect, I would question the nature and the range of this aspiration. 

Rene Lefort 

Let me deliver here some comments and even some critics about the serious article Medhane has just published. I will do it friendly but frankly. Unfortunately, I must also do it very briefly, at the risk of over simplification, and at the risk of omitting some key issues.

I share Medhane’s views about the most part of the article, dealing with Meles’s personal capacities, the structure of the ruling power, the developmental state, how it is embedded in the political agenda of the regime and how its conception at least contributed to postpone – for how long? – the democratisation of Ethiopia.

But let’s go to the main question Medhane’s article raises: “and now???”

- It’s not clear for me why, after Meles’ death, the fact – obvious – that he has been shaped by the ancestral authoritarian Abyssinian culture and what I call the “communist engineering” which has fashioned the TPLF since its inception and which is still in place entails logically – Medhane presents it as a consequence - “the need to revisit” the developmental state. A window of opportunity is now opened, but only perhaps. For me, the main reason is that this authoritarian stand of Meles is not too specific to him, but is shared by almost all the present leadership and more than that by almost all members of the party-state, until the lowest level of the kebele.

- But I am convinced that the developmental state has to be revisited and will be revisited for the simple reason that, in its present form, it has now outlives its usefulness. It can no longer nurture a high growth, which, among others, the regime knows is a must for its sustainability. The reason for its exhaustion can be summarized as follows. High growth requests high investments, which are out of the reach of Ethiopia alone. Thus, its main contributors can only come from outside and, obviously, essentially from private investors. They will remain reluctant to come as long as they will consider that the development state, as it now operates, will seriously hamper their ability to do their business as they do it elsewhere.

- If I understand Medhane well, it’s “the widespread democratic aspiration of Ethiopians”, which makes the developmental state needs to be revisited. Taking the risk of being politically incorrect, I would question the nature and the range of this aspiration. Let us come back to this authoritarian “traditional and political culture… of Ethiopia at large”. “At large” wrote Medhane. I could give hundreds of examples proving that this kind of culture is still more than dominant, but I will here mention only two of them.

- I just returned from a field research in a rural kebele where I started to work ten years ago. I questioned farmers and local officials about their reactions to Meles’ death. Even those who, to say the least, didn’t regretted his death made a distinction between its policy and its personality. They rejected the first, but they sincerely admired the second because, as they say, he was “a strong leader”. When the few of them who knew Hailemariam Dessalegn is now the Prime Minister were asked to give their opinion about him, it was always very negative. The only fact mentioned to sustain this judgement was that in his investiture speech he declared the country would be governed by a “collective leadership”. For the interviewees, it was the blatant proof that he must publicly admit he was not competent enough to be what they consider as a true Prime Minister. Why? Because a true Prime Minister must be, in their own words, “a strong man”. Why? Because only a strong man can do what is for them his first duty: “ensure peace and security”. If he’s weak, he will be contested, which will inevitably leads to “troubles” of which they will be the first victims, threatening the ultimate goal for which they struggle day after day: to survive.

- A young scholar has recently undertaken a study about the middle class in Addis Ababa, including its attitude towards the regime. As everybody knows, this class is generally considered as the spearhead of the opposition to authoritarian regimes. One of his main findings is that this group is far from being homogeneous in this regard. Its position ranges from a strong support to the regime (those who have directly benefited from it, those who give it credit for having built an economical environment, which has greatly favoured their economical ascension, those who are proud of its achievements, etc.) to a strong opposition. The most instructing is that these opposite stands largely cohabite in the same person, each of them at different degrees. If the majority is dissatisfied with the regime, it’s more for economical reasons (inflation, persistent poverty, etc.) than for the lack of democracy. It fears a change, because it dreads that it will rapidly become uncontrollable and, taking into account what it considers a deeply divided society that it will inevitably lead to a tragic turmoil. Thus the general attitude: to concede to the authorities what they ask for, to turn in to oneself, either in the private or professional life.

- This having been said, I shall insist that I am convinced that a widespread aspiration for change exists all over Ethiopia, including the so often forgotten countryside. But in which domains, and how far? It’s seems to me that this aspiration for change is limited to short terms demands, mainly in the economical domain (inflation, poverty, etc.) and more broadly and deeply to a kind of individual professional empowerment, except for a very few who would like it goes further[i]. By that, I mean mainly the possibility given to anybody to manage his working life as he wants and on an equal footing, without the constant intrusion of the party-state, its arbitrary, its erratic rules, its constant requests for “voluntary contributions”, its double standards vis-à-vis ordinary people and committed party members, etc. In my view, Al Amoudi has recently summarized this expected change in unusually straightforward words: let the developmental state build roads, open schools, take care of the population health, and let us do our business. This implies that the developmental state should not only act lawfully, or at least fairly, but above all reduces the perimeter of its interventions. But this doesn’t imply at all that this change is the same as the establishment of democracy, in other words the sovereignty of the people, which encompasses among others the right to freely decide collectively the policy of the country together with choosing the leaders who govern. If I could dare a comparison, I would say that this expected change would bring Ethiopia close to the present China system.

- If I am right, which chance has this change to happen? I have in this regards more much more questions than answers. If it occurs, it will necessarily give more room for a true market economy. Being more competitive, the present nomenclature would loose the protections and privileges it has now and thus the benefits they grant it. Would it then oppose to this change, or would it favour it or at least accept it, expecting that its own advantages in a strong growing economy would prevail over its probable losses? An other way to try to look into the future is to come back to one of the consequences of Meles’ death, which is in my view one of the most important. Some authors argue that Ethiopia is living under a system they call “developmental patrimonialism”: “rents are centralised” at the top “and leaders take a long-term approach to rent maximisation”, i.e. to distribute at least most of these rents for the long-term development of the country. If this system really applies to Ethiopia is out of the scope of this comment. But for sure Meles was the ultimate guarantor of this redistribution. After his death, would a leader, some leaders or political forces make sure this will continue? The risk observed in many other Third World countries is such a decline of this redistribution that most of the rents, after being centralised, remain in this centrality. And then the question of democracy becomes crucial, because only strong counter powers can prevent this shift. Medhane is right: the lack of democracy could lead to a terrific raise of “ethnic entrepreneurs, countless locust oligarchs, political repression, rent seeking and corruption”.



[i] I leave aside here the claim by the Muslim community to autonomy to manage its own religious affairs.

Last Updated on Monday, 05 November 2012 00:15



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