By Messay Kebede
This paper can be taken as a manifesto of an individual who has pondered on the tragedy of Ethiopia for many years and whose specific features is that he is passionate about the country, has no political ambition or affiliation, even though he is firmly anchored in the opposition camp, and feels no grudge is worth nursing if it stands in the way of a much higher cause. These features possess the virtue of providing a vantage point, not only to analyze the problems of Ethiopia, but also to approach them from the perspective of the best way out for everybody. In a sense, the paper is a mental reenactment of the 2005 election triggered by the question of what would have happened if its outcomes were used to institute a grand coalition instead of exasperating mutual suspicion and the desire to oust or suppress the opponent. In conceiving the election as a lost opportunity, the paper attempts a theoretical construction whereby what came through the ballot box could be recreated through the learned decision of the ruling elite and opposition groups. Not that it entertains any illusion about the predictability of the future, but because the constant availability of different choices in history allows us not to always expect the worst.
Narrowing of the Playing-Field
One cannot explain the circumstances and outcomes of the 2010 national election without the aftermaths of the 2005 election, rightly considered as a watershed in Ethiopia’s recent politics. In light of the opening of the political field for free and fair election in 2005, it is reasonable to assume that Meles and his supporters had caressed the idea that they would easily emerge winners. Meles allowed free election, not because he was ready to cede power after a fair fight, but because he thought that the opposition was too weak and its popular support too fragmented and numerically feeble to constitute a serious challenge. The underestimation of both the opposition and the extent of the popular frustration alone explain the opening of a competitive scenario.
From his electoral defeat that he had to reverse by a violent crackdown on protesters and the imprisonment of opposition leaders, Meles drew the conclusion that only the path of authoritarian politics can keep him and his supporters in power, a conclusion that, unfortunately, opposition leaders failed to acknowledge––despite numerous signs indicating the closure of the political field––with their declared hope of a repeat of the 2005 election. They badly missed Meles’s determination never to go back to the situation of 2005 and his scheme to prepare the conditions for the institution of a de facto one-party state. His resolution was all the firmer as a repeat of the 2005 election crisis would cripple his leadership and end his ascendency within the EPRDF.
On the other hand, it was also clear that Meles would not go to the extent of banning political parties, thereby going against the present constitution, which justifies the hegemony of the EPRDF, and the international opinion favoring democracy and multiparty states. Meles could not take the road of openly establishing a one-party state, not only because of the international opinion, but primarily because outlawing political parties would entail the dissolution of the EPRDF as a coalition of ethnic parties in favor of a single party, and hence the renunciation of ethnic politics. Indeed, how could the EPRDF transform itself into a single party unless the idea of ethnic groups having their own autonomous representation is done away with? And how could Meles and the TPLF maintain their political hegemony without the fragmentation of Ethiopia along ethnic lines, which becomes effective only through the existence of ethnic parties representing ethnic groups? Without ethnic based elections, ethnic distinctions would be simply linguistic and not political. Elections are thus an indispensable component of the ethnicization of Ethiopia: they give primacy to ethnic entities over the larger notion of Ethiopia as a single nation.
Another reason for maintaining a semblance of democracy is that the facade of open election is an important tool for Meles’s repressive policy. In a country where opposition is forbidden, people have no other choice than the violent overthrow of the regime, either through a popular insurrection or an organized guerrilla movement. The recognition of the right to oppose and compete for state power, in addition to detracting people from the idea of a violent overthrow of the regime through the hope of a peaceful, democratic access to power, gives the ruling party an arsenal of legal and covert means to harass and undermine opposition forces. The state allows the existence of opposing parties, but makes sure that the electoral contest never reaches the level of real threat to the ruling elite. Only through the establishment of a peaceful order achieved through the weakening of the opposition could Meles prevail in his party and retain the loyalty of the army. His political prevalence and his ability to retain the loyalty of senior party members and army officers depend on his success in providing a safe and extended environment for a tranquil enjoyment of preferential treatments and privileges. Failure to do so brings about anxiety and frictions that will threaten his absolute power.
That is why it is absolutely mistaken to interpret the rise of Meles to absolute power as his own doing. No doubt, Meles had the temperament and the qualities needed to emerge as a strongman within the TPLF and used his prominent position to alter the original egalitarian tendency prevailing in the upper leadership of the party. However, individual dispositions are not enough to create dictators or authoritarian leaders; social forces are also necessary. In particular, the TPLF’s persistence to retain a hegemonic position within the EPRDF and the state despite its minority status in terms of regional weight compelled the organization to put its fate in the hands of a strong man. When political hegemony is achieved through the exclusion of rival elites, it calls, sooner rather than later, for the enthronement of a dictatorial ruler as the best guarantee to preserve the hegemony. The only way by which the TPLF could maintain its egalitarian tradition was to relinquish its hegemonic aspirations, thereby making the recourse to a strongman unnecessary.
Toward the Developmental State
Faced with the dilemma of allowing political pluralism while ensuring the dominance of the EPRDF, Meles opted for the strategy of using all the means of the state to cripple opposition parties until such time his own power and the party he represents acquire a hegemonic status. This new strategic choice is none other than the recourse to the theory of the developmental state. The purpose of the policy is to create the conditions for a long-term rule of Meles and his party by siphoning off popular support from opposition parties to the point of making them irrelevant.
A word of caution: I am not saying that Meles’s love affair with the theory of the developmental state dates from the 2005 election. As shown by his doctoral thesis, he has reflected on the theory for quite a long time. Even so, what remains true is that the 2005 electoral crisis and its consequences turned the theory from a personal preference into an indispensable strategy and provided him with the opportunity of convincingly presenting it to his supporters as the only viable policy.
To begin with, Meles criticizes neoliberalism even before he has made any genuine effort to apply it. The reason is that the application of the theory would simply result in him and his followers losing power, as evidenced by the 2005 election. What made the theory of developmental state a necessity is thus the single and overriding issue of Meles’s control of absolute power. The theory, we know, has been praised and advocated by many scholars for its ability to promote rapid economic growth. As a model drawn from the successful and rapid development of Japan and East Asian countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, etc., the theory has been prescribed as an efficient remedy for countries struggling against underdevelopment. For Meles, the economic advantages are worth considering only to the extent that they guarantee the control of state power. In effect, the theory is usually associated with the presence of authoritarian states that reject the path of liberalism.
I know that some scholars, Meles himself, and his ideologues maintain that the developmental state is not incompatible with the defense of democracy and human rights, that the new state can be democratic and developmental at the same time. This kind of approach ignores, mostly for political reasons, the defining character of Asian developmental states. Countries that seriously engage in the path of the developmental state do so because they think that the liberal paradigm of development has failed in Africa and elsewhere. Born of a critique of neoliberalism, it is inconsistent to assume that the theory is compatible with democratic principles. Had it been the case, the difference with liberal policy would become difficult to establish. The truth about the theory is that authoritarianism is conceived as the best and most efficient way to achieve rapid development, especially for lagging countries. Witness those countries that are cited as examples were or still are defined by an authoritarian state. Rather than being both democratic and developmental, this model of development promises the gradual institution of a democratic state once economic progress is put on a firm footing.
The prescription of authoritarianism as a remedy to achieve the goal of rapid development vindicates that all authoritarian states are not developmental. They become so only when they harbor the clear goal of using a strong state to achieve growth. It is, therefore, a mistake to argue that popular insurrections in the Arab world testify to the failure of the authoritarian model of economic progress at the expense of democratic rights. None of the Arab states has sincerely applied the Asian model of development, given that authoritarianism was used to defend the interests of predatory elites rather than to accelerate national development.
In the case of Ethiopia, the economic dimension must be emphasized as it is the key to the project of a long-term rule of Meles and his cronies. Like most people, Meles has observed that people living in regimes that show robust economic performances are little prone to protests and insurrections. What essentially drives people is not so much the pursuit of freedom in the abstract sense of the word as their ability to satisfy their most basic needs. Freedom becomes mobilizing when it is invoked to overthrow regimes that have lamentable economic records. Accordingly, a regime that succeeds in providing bread and butter for its people is guaranteed for a long rule. Of course, elections will be held in such a regime, but they are more about popular consecration or approval than genuine contests. In a situation of economic progress, the ruling party need not use fraud and intimidation to win elections; it prevails because the economic success of the regime makes opposition groups irrelevant.
Such is the course that Meles would like to take in order to institute the conditions for an indefinite retention of power. The developmental state promises the defeat of the opposition achieved no more by suppression and rigged elections, but based on the economic achievement of the regime. In this way, contests for power become less threatening as the regime will draw its legitimacy from popular approval, which is not concerned with the conquest of state power. This popular approval guarantees a long-term rule, the very one needed by Meles’s cronies and military elite to entrench their interests and privileges, thereby transforming them into permanent acquisitions. The establishment of a firm but silent and condescending rule is what they want in exchange for allowing Meles the exercise of absolute power.
Characteristics of Developmental States
The whole question is to know whether Meles’s new strategy can be successful in the conditions of Ethiopia. Since success entirely depends on the ability to furnish appreciable economic growth to the Ethiopian masses, we need to say a few words about the basic characteristics of the developmental state. According to many scholars, some crucial and commonly held features define the developmental state or the Asian mode of development.
Market Economy: The commitment to free market must be unwavering even if the state is called upon to play a leading role both in terms of planning, investments, and directives. The economic role of the state, though decisive and extensive, is not tantamount to running the economic machine, as was the case with the socialist policy; rather, it is to render a helping hand for the establishment of vibrant private enterprises and a capitalist class. Besides actual economic functions, the developmental state supports capitalism by providing a lasting political and social stability together with the rule of law and the protection of property rights.
The fact that the state assumes a supporting role significantly reduces rent-seeking activities, such as government extracting revenues by the control of land and natural resources, the imposition of exorbitant tax and restrictive regulations affecting free enterprise, or government agents demanding bribes and other payments from individuals or firms in exchange for preferential treatments. The net outcome of such rent-seeking activities is, of course, the prevention of economic growth through the falsification of market economy and fair distribution. The national wealth cannot grow in a country where rent-seeking behaviors prevail, since the imposition of restrictive controls hampers economic activity and an important part of the wealth goes to a sector that makes no contribution to productivity. Clearly, in light of most underdeveloped countries being held back by states that have grown into rent-seeking systems, the supportive role of the developmental state to market economy constitutes a major shift.
That the state limits its role to supporting private business does not mean that we are dealing with a weak state, in the liberal sense of the state confined to providing law and order. The developmental state requires a strong and authoritarian state, that is, a state that enjoys financial autonomy, is free of internal cleavages and frictions, and faces a disabled opposition. It is also endowed with effective institutions so that it is able to soar above particular social forces. Only thus can it direct economic forces toward national development and have enough leverage to prevail over adverse forces.
Bureaucratic Autonomy: The strength of the state is actually a condition for the other defining character of the developmental state, namely, the autonomy of the bureaucracy. Indeed, bureaucrats rather than the political elite supervise and direct the economy, with the consequence that, unlike the ruling political elite, the bureaucracy is established on the basis of merit, efficiency, and high skills. What is required of the bureaucrats is less political allegiance than efficiency in exchange for handsome remunerations. The advantages enjoyed by the bureaucrats are, therefore, not due to rent-seeking activities but to their contribution to economic growth.
Development-Oriented Elite: What makes the autonomy of bureaucracy possible is the control of state power by development-oriented political elites. Instead of using the state to sideline rival elites, as is often the case in underdeveloped countries, such elites are motivated by the desire to increase the national wealth. As they make political legitimacy conditional on economic achievement, they allow an autonomous functioning of the bureaucracy, given that autonomy is how bureaucracy can function efficiently. Such is not the case in rent-seeking states: government is used to undermine rival elites for the simple reason that the dearth of economic growth entails the extraction of revenues through political exclusion and illegal means.
Nationalist and Elite Education: The strategy of using skill and merit to perpetuate the rule of a political elite fosters the other necessary component of the developmental state, to wit, the centrality of education. Not only does the strategy advocate the expansion of education so as to increase human resources in all areas of social life, but also insists on providing a quality education, especially an elite education at the higher level of university. The provision of highly trained people is a component part of the policy of rapid economic growth and hence of direct interest to the ruling elite.
Needless to say, education is also geared toward nation-building: in conjunction with the values of meritocracy, it promotes national consciousness and unity. Obviously, the promotion of nationalism is necessary to justify the prerogatives of a strong state and inculcate discipline, just as it is necessary to galvanize and mobilize people around the national goal of development. Without the inculcation of the values of loyalty, unity, dutifulness, meritocracy, and the drive to learn, the developmental state cannot achieve the mobilizing power it needs to lead the country into the road of rapid development.
The Ethiopian Situation
In thus exposing the main characteristics of the developmental state, we secure the ability to see whether Ethiopia under Meles has the required attributes for a successful move. It must be admitted that, once again, we find a repeat of the mistake of Ethiopia’s previous modernizing regimes, namely, the attempt to copy a model of development and apply it in a country lacking the necessary prerequisites.
Most observers acknowledge that market economy in Ethiopia not only operates under unfriendly conditions, but has also taken a skewed form. For instance, despite the primacy given to improving agricultural production, the entire agricultural activity is hampered by the state’s control of land. The absence of private ownership of land does not allow peasants to use their allotted land for transaction purposes. Nor does it encourage them to invest so as to improve productivity. The state’s ownership of land and its subsequent disincentive effect on agricultural production represent a major disparity with East Asian countries that is not likely to be removed any time soon. State ownership of land is necessary to keep control over the peasantry and protect the ethnic boundaries. If land becomes a commodity that peasants can sell and buy at will, the confinement of people to ethnically defined areas would be seriously jeopardized.
The ethnic borders add further restrictions on economic activity in that they prevent the free mobility of labor and capital. People isolated behind ethnic borders and increasingly turned into alien groups by a denationalized education, the nurture of animosity over past treatments, and a separatist language policy, are understandably little inclined to move from region to region in search of opportunity. The hampering effect of internal borders is no less true for capital owners: their ethnicity can restrict their freedom to invest wherever they like or can cost them heavy losses in the form of bribes to local agents to get the necessary permission.
Another major distortion to market economy is the fact that the Ethiopian economy is increasingly dominated by conglomerates that have close ethnic and political ties with those controlling state power. Directly owned and managed by senior members of the TPLF, the conglomerates extend their activities in numerous and crucial agricultural and industrial productions as well as in service areas, such as banking, insurance, import/ export, etc. There is no denying that the provision of political support to these TPLF-controlled businesses structurally distorts the operation of free market. The distortion encourages the wide practice of corruption and embezzlement, given that enterprises owned by businessmen non-ethnically related to the ruling elite cannot hope to operate without bribing officials of the regime.
The weight of political intervention undermines efficiency and quality in all spheres of business and bureaucratic activities. Not only does political protection foster the wide practice of corruption, but it also erases free competition, the result of which is that merit and the norms of efficiency and quality are set aside. Likewise, it creates insecurity since the lack of the rule of law, basically manifested by the complete subordination of the judicial system to the ruling elite as well as by the ethnically charged social atmosphere, gives property rights a precarious status, to say the least. Insecurity, wide corruption, and the absence of free competition, all conspire to discourage investment and block the improvement of productivity. In short, the characteristics of the Ethiopian economy are at the antipode of what is needed to launch a process of development that could be branded as an application of the Asian model of development.
Another crucial disparity is that the cumbersome weight of political intervention does not allow the autonomy of the bureaucratic sphere which, as we saw, is a defining feature of the Asian model of development. Far from allowing autonomy, Meles and his cronies are using the bureaucracy as an extended organ of the political machinery, thereby undermining impartiality and professionalism, and distributing favorable treatments on the basis of political patronage, ethnic affiliation, and bribes. What must be emphasized here is that the ethnic basis of the Ethiopian state, as fashioned by the TPLF, is structurally adamant to the autonomy of the bureaucracy. In order to build a competent and professional bureaucracy, recruitment and promotion must be based on merit rather than on ethnic affiliation and political patronage. The whole ideology and political goal of Meles and his followers are thus directly opposed to the establishment of a professional bureaucracy.
One necessary condition for creating a competent bureaucracy and improving the human capital in terms of skills, knowledge, and expertise is, of course, education. In this regard, the records of the Meles regime show some improvement, but alas an improvement that is only quantitative. We can even say that the quantitative improvement is obtained to the detriment of quality. The tense relationship of the regime with students and teachers further weighs on the regime’s inability to raise the standard of education. Also, the lack of political accommodation and material improvement cause a systematic brain drain that further impoverishes the country of skilled people. If the regime cannot find incentives by which it retains the services of the people it educates, then it can never attain the level of human capital needed to launch a developmental state.
Another obstacle disabling the educational policy is the lack of nationalist themes extolling Ethiopia. Civic education is polarizing in that it is not directed toward national integration and the development of national consciousness; rather, it exalts ethnic identity and fragmentation. It reiterates past grudges, but does little to create a new national consciousness based on the inheritance of the past. Whatever nationalism the educational system or the regime is propagating, it is an exhortation to a clean slate, start-from-zero nationalism. This futuristic nationalism answers every question except the most important one, which is: Why an Oromo person, for instance, would prefer the construction of a new Ethiopia to the creation of an independent Oromia? The futuristic nationalism lacks the excitement and commitment flowing from continuity, from the sense of belonging to a historical and transcendental community. The future generates excitement when it connects with the past so that it tells a story, a saga by assuming the mission of looking after and moving forward a legacy.
Interestingly, Meles knows that the developmental state needs a nationalist theme, that popular mobilization around national goals is one of its strengths. That is why he is now fanning the theme of “war on poverty” and the Abay dam project. Especially, the latter project is highly nationalist: (1) it enables Meles to blame Western countries for their reluctance to support the project; (2) it revives a longstanding grudge against Egypt over the control of the Nile; (3) it appeals to the contribution of each Ethiopian, thereby supplying a common national goal, regardless of ethnic belonging, and allegedly able to pull Ethiopia out of poverty.
In his address during the 20th anniversary of the victory of the TPLF, Meles made a short speech about the Abay dam project that was saturated with nationalist slogans and boastings. The themes of unity, common goal, and eradication of poverty promised the renaissance of Ethiopia, the restoration of the eminent place it had in the past. Not once was the ethnic issue mentioned, rather, the historical identity of Ethiopia was back to the forefront.
One would be tempted to shout “Alleluia” were it not for the fact that this tardy nationalist discourse does not agree with the actual ideology, political structure, and economic policy of the regime. This brings us back to the fundamental issue, to wit, the question of knowing whether the Ethiopian ruling elite has the characteristics of a development-oriented elite, as forcefully required by the theory of the developmental state. As we saw, the non-predatory character of the ruling elite is the sine qua non of the whole theory: in addition to being nationalist, the ruling elite must draw its legitimacy and its retention of state power from its ability to deliver economic growth rather than through the use of repression.
To the question of whether Meles and his cronies are anywhere close to being a developmental elite, the answer is, of course, no. This negative answer does not, however, mean that they are unable to become developmental. I am not saying that some such transformation will occur or that it is inevitable. As a strong skeptic of determinism in history, I am simply referring to the possibility inherent in the human person to finally make the right choice and laying some conditions necessary to effect the transformation. Since my position will certainly cause an array of objections, even angry attacks, it is necessary that I set out the arguments liable to back it up.
Conditions for the Emergence of Developmental Elites
Serious studies on the rise of developmental states agree that threat to power is the reason why authoritarian elites decide to initiate reforms promoting economic growth. The reforms are meant, not to satisfy any sudden democratic aspiration, but essentially to preserve power. The threat can be internal or external or both; the point is that it is clearly perceived that the ruling elite will soon lose everything unless it initiates reforms. Such was the case with Japan, which adopted drastic reforms toward modernization in order to counter the threat of colonization. Such countries as Taiwan, Hong-Kong, Singapore, and South Korea undertook reforms to weaken the menace of communism. If we take the case of some Latin American countries, we find that their modernization is a response to the danger of internal insurrections led by Marxist groups inspired by the Cuban Revolution. In the face of serious threats, ruling elites adopt either a repressive policy as the right response or opt for reforms as the best way to ensure their long-term interests. History testifies that, of the two methods, the avenue of reform has best served ruling elites.
Additionally, the wise policy of reforms is perceived as a way of getting out of the political stalemate caused by authoritarian regimes. When traditional elites engage in the process of modernization, they initiate the formation of a modernizing elite, especially through Western education, whose interests and outlooks clash with the traditional system of power legitimacy. This conflict is easily translated into a competition for the control of political power. Authoritarianism is then used as a repressive power to maintain rising elites in a subordinate position. All the same, the assessment of the ruling elite could also be that a policy of repression brings about neither economic development nor ensures peace and political stability. The expectation of an indefinite and inconclusive political conflict creates a rapprochement between the authoritarian elite and aspiring modernizing elites. Stated otherwise, both parties realize the existence of a political stalemate and take the decision to engage in negotiations. The decision means the renunciation of repression on the part of the ruling elite and the withdrawal of the call for the overthrow of the regime on the part of aspiring elites. These decisions show their respective readiness to compromise on reforms to the system.
My contention is that the Ethiopian situation precisely exhibits a political stalemate, itself fraught with dangerous possibilities. The tangible repressive tendency of the regime after the 2005 election has forced opposition forces and leaders to opt either for an armed conflict, with all the uncertainties that are attached to this form of struggle, or pursue a peaceful struggle whose success depends on Meles’s guarantee of democratic rights, which, I believe, is no longer likely. The third possibility is the path of popular uprising of the kind shaking up the Arab world. The likelihood of a popular uprising in Ethiopia cannot be underestimated even if no one can tell when and how it is going to materialize. One thing is sure, though: unless something is done, it will occur and, given the political structure established by the TPLF, it is not set to be peaceful and probably will invite dangerous confrontations. What is likely is not the Egyptian situation of the army refusing to shoot demonstrators, but the Libyan or Syrian scenario of bloody confrontation and civil war.
Redoubtable though Meles’s repressive power may be, he is not likely to marginalize the opposition and achieve a final victory. The fact that the state becomes a repressive power blocks the economic progress that he needs to sideline the opposition. On the other side, the challenge of the opposition is bound to grow but without endangering Meles’s hold on power, that is, so long as it sticks to a peaceful form of struggle. This stalemate can implant nothing else but the seeds of an angry popular insurrection that no one can seriously claim to control. In other words, the present situation is deepening the political stalemate, which can only develop into a dangerous state of affairs for everybody unless a mood for compromise soon emanates from all parties concerned.
Toward a Transitional State
The only way by which the present ruling elite can begin its transformation is through the establishment of a grand coalition materializing a power-sharing arrangement among various elite groups, especially with those representing opposition forces. This grand coalition brings a major change: it means the forging of a national political elite and, more importantly, the rejection of the embedded practice of using the state to exclude rival elites.
I say “embedded” because the practice goes back to Haile Selassie. It was taken up and amplified by the Derg; under the TPLF, it took an open ethnic form. In all these cases, the principle is the same: all the means of the state are used to marginalize and exclude rival elites, be they ethnic, religious, or class-based. The practice of exclusion instead of integration or coalition denotes the lack of development-oriented elites and the preponderance of rent-seeking, predatory elites. The use of the state to keep out rivals betrays a quest for wealth that is not based on growth but on political entitlement and predatory practices.
The call for a grand coalition may seem utopian since it amounts to asking the TPLF to abandon its hegemonic position in favor of a shared leadership. However, the utopian character decreases as soon as we see it from the perspective of the long-term interests of all the players and as the only viable way out from a dangerous situation. As we saw, developmental elites emerge not so much from an ideological or moral conversion to democracy as from an existential dilemma. The dilemma applies to opposition forces as well: it means competing elite groups renounce the principle of conditioning change on the overthrow of government. Instead of positing change in terms of one group losing and another group winning, they espouse the idea of change occurring as a result of coalition formation or power-sharing with the ruling elite, which amounts to a win-win outcome. I hasten to add that the EPRDF should not be cited as an example of grand coalition, given the hegemonic position of the TPLF.
The idea of a grand coalition is workable because it contains a valuable incentive for everybody, that is, the incentive to effect changes so as to avoid dangerous developments. Let me clarify: change cannot be an incentive for Meles and his cronies if it is coined in terms of them giving up power. There is no incentive for the opposition, either, if compromise is posited in terms of maintaining the status quo. Each camp must come half way so that they all meet where power-sharing arrangement takes form.
The interesting thing about power-sharing is that it creates the conditions needed to apply the developmental state. Meles is thus taken at his word and provided with the incentive of being able to preserve the long-term interest of himself and his group. Indeed, we have indicated that the developmental state requires the dismantling of the rent-seeking state, the consequence of which is that elite rivalry for the control of the state is significantly diminished. The rivalry has its source in the fact that the control of power gives an exclusive access to wealth through various legal and illegal means. The establishment of a genuine market economy removes the incentive of state control as a privileged access to wealth.
If the road of earnest reforms is rejected, what else remains but the maintenance of the political structure of the TPLF, the consequence of which is that Meles has to adhere indefinitely to a repressive policy and the practice of electoral fraud? The expectation that he will be able to marginalize the opposition by offering to the masses tangible economic betterment cannot happen if the present political structures and practices are preserved. The developmental state cannot be a reality so long as the state is used as an instrument of exclusion.
One outcome of Meles’s rise to absolute power that could turn out positive is his ability to dismantle the rent-seeking state. I venture to say that absolute power has given Meles some autonomy vis-à-vis his followers; I even suggest that a disparity between his interests and that of his followers is inevitable. The passion of Meles is power; the goal of his followers is enrichment. The rent-seeking activities that they use to enrich themselves prevent Meles from achieving the economic growth by which he can justify his control of absolute power. He has now the choice of maintaining the old structure, with the consequences that his power will become increasingly fragile, or resolutely dissolve it through reforms. In order to do the latter, he needs the support of the opposition.
The dissolution of the rent-seeking state means that Meles takes the opportunity to lay the foundation of the developmental state by promoting integration or coalition instead of exclusion. This enormous contribution is the manner he protects his long-term interest and that of his followers. Is there a better way of effectively guaranteeing his assets and a great place in history than by becoming the great benefactor, the architect of Ethiopia’s final entry into the road of modernization? He is entitled to keep whatever he and his followers have amassed if the reforms he realized say to Ethiopians: “you owe me.”
Meles’s goal to use authoritarianism to bring about economic growth so as to marginalize the opposition thus faces one major stumbling-block. The projected growth cannot occur unless the state is reformed. The only exit is to present the change in terms of a win-win option, that is, in terms offering incentives for both Meles and the opposition to come to an agreement. The problem is none other than the design of an agreed transition allowing the ruling elite a constitutional guarantee of continuity and an effective control of power while including the opposition in a genuine system of power-sharing. For example, a strong presidential power that retains the control of the armed forces and the right to nominate the prime minister working with a parliament elected by the people could do the job. In this way, the prime minister becomes accountable both to the president and the parliament, thereby incarnating the rule of consensus that animates the entire political system.
To sum up, to solve the present political stalemate of Ethiopia, one prescription is for democratization to occur gradually and under the sponsorship of an authoritarian ruling elite. Various systems of power-sharing guaranteeing the interests of the ruling elite and of the opposition can be designed. The point is that the movement toward greater democratization begins, no more through the overthrow of a ruling elite, but through a formula of power-sharing and the building of trust among various elite groups. This type of democratization is not uncommon: the transition from authoritarianism to democracy is not only the trajectory of the Asian countries that applied the formula of the developmental state, but also of other countries, such as Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Chile, etc. The truth is that the birth of democratic states from an evolution of authoritarian regimes is no less a historical trend than the establishment of democracies as a result of the violent overthrow of authoritarianism.
(Messay Kebede, Ph.D, can be reached at Messay.Kebede@notes.udayton.edu)