Modern Ethiopia has been ruled at various moments by an empire, a dictatorship and since 1991 by a one-party state. Both the Emperor and the Derg (the military dictatorship which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 until 1991), ran Ethiopia as a centralized system. Ethiopia’s current political system—a federation consisting of 10 semi-autonomous regions that roughly coincide with the country’s largest ethnic groups—is very much the work of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition of ethnic nationalist parties which defeated the Derg. The EPRDF drew up a new constitution which sought to realize political and economic rights for Ethiopians. Until recently, most of Ethiopia’s regions and their nationalist parties asserted their rights inside this federation. Much of the credit for this was owed to Meles Zenawi, from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Meles was quite skilled at managing these demands and tensions. Though his regime faced challenges in 2005, during federal and regional elections, and 2008, during local elections, Meles’s regime remained quite popular. Part of Meles’ appeal was that he was credited with introducing a model of the developmental state, which eschewed neoliberalism, while leading to economic growth and vast expansions in communications, education and hydroelectricity in Ethiopia. In sum, he transformed the country. Meles died in 2012.
Initially, Meles’s successors in the EPRDF, under Hailemariam Desalegn (who lacked Meles’s charisma and decisiveness), managed to keep the system together, but from 2015 onwards tensions began to show. The central government’s plan to expand the administrative territory of Addis Ababa (also the federal capital) into Oromia, resulted in widespread, protracted protests. Hailemariam tendered his resignation. The result was a managed transition within the EPRDF, following an internal vote, to a new government in 2018 led by Abiy Ahmed, a charismatic and young leader of the Oromo Democratic Party. Ahmed was very popular, both at home and abroad. He won a Nobel Prize (he secured a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea, a former province of imperial Ethiopia); at home, he initiated a number of reforms (release of political prisoners) and announced constitutional reforms to break with ethnic politics, including what would have been Ethiopia’s first democratic elections. But Abiy went further. He also stated his intention to break with Meles’ economic legacy: He announced a series of neoliberal economic reforms, most significantly privatizing state utilities, including privatizing Ethiopian Airlines, the best run airline on the continent.
Then in November 2019, he announced a new political party, the Prosperity Party, consisting of some elements of the EPRDF. Meanwhile, his own base began to fall apart, especially among Oromos. The latter openly began to challenge his legitimacy. The state’s response was mass arrests and detention. Then, in October, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front announced that it wanted to govern itself. Abiy’s decision to postpone elections (he cited COVID-19) made his government illegitimate, they argued. A month ago the federal government declared war on the TPLF. At least 27 people have since died in the war and hundreds left homeless. More than 43,000 fled to Sudan.
The takeaway is that the Ethiopian state model is in crisis.
This week on AIAC Talk then, we discuss how Ethiopia helps us make sense of and work through questions about the nature of the African state: whether development is an emancipatory goal or not; what does it mean to alleviate poverty; and finally how do we create constituencies that support pro-poor policy in the face of rapacious capitalism.
Our guest is Elleni Centime Zeleke, Assistant Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. She is the author of Ethiopia In Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964–2016 (Brill, 2019) among other published works.
If you missed our episode last week, we paid homage to the greatest footballer of all time, Diego Maradona. We were joined by the Colombian multimedia journalist, writer, translator and author, Pablo Medina Uribe, whose work has featured on Africa Is a Country before. We were also joined by Tony Karon, who teaches on the politics of global soccer in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School in New York. Tony is editorial lead at AJ Plus and before that spent 15 years at TIME magazine, where he was a senior editor.