Ethiopia at a Critical Juncture: Antifragile or in a Trapped Transition?

A thunderstorm over Addis Ababa, 2015 (Jean Rebiffé / Creative Commons License)

By Fetsum Berhane 


Antifragility, a concept introduced by the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, represents things that benefit from shocks, the exact opposite of fragile; those that thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, risk, and uncertainty. “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better,” Taleb declared in 2012.

Ethiopia’s recent past shows the same quality. It survived what observers expected to be balkanization a quarter of century ago to become a fledgling federal democracy. And it managed to turn the existential risk posed by a political crisis in 2005 into the impetus to achieve a decade of rapid growth.

But last year was a tumultuous one. Ethiopia experienced its worst political crisis in recent times and looked like it may experience sustained violence. The state partially addressed the crisis, again showing its resilience. Survival, however, is only half the equation: we are yet to see whether Ethiopia will use the unrest as a catalyst for enhanced democratic and economic progress.

The question now is whether Ethiopia maintains her antifragility, or is it in a trapped transition and deemed to fail in its ambitious endeavors.

State Building

The millennial Ethiopia has been an African success story. Despite minimal revenues from extractive industries, economic growth has been rapid and output almost doubled from $30 billion in 2010 to $54.8 billion in 2014. Alongside Rwanda, Ethiopia is the exemplar of the African developmental state — a polity where economic development is the foremost priority.

An interventionist government simultaneously plays the role of implementing, coordinating, and regulating. The state’s dominant role is justified by a Revolutionary Democracy doctrine that strives for rapid transformation into industrialized prosperity. The founding leader of the new republic, Meles Zenawi, was also the architect of this Democratic Developmental State ideology.

Meles led the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) insurgents to power replacing a military junta in 1991. The EPRDF, which settled into a coalition of four regional parties from Tigray, Amhara, Oromia and the multi-ethnic south, has dominated since, marking a new era in Ethiopia’s rich history.

The process of state formation in Ethiopia is a source of bitter contention. At one pole, Ethiopian ultra-nationalists claim it has existed as a legitimate entity for millennia. Hence, their vision is one of Ethiopia as a unitary nation. At the other extreme, ethno-nationalists say Ethiopia is an empire that needs to go through “decolonization” in which minorities hitherto oppressed by northern highlanders become genuinely independent.

It is in this context that the 1994 federal constitution tried to find a midpoint by asserting that all ethnic groups had the “unrestricted right to self-determination up to secession” while simultaneously professing the goal of establishing “a common political community”.

Still, the ideological battle lines remain drawn: a right-wing opposition drawn from the Diaspora and an urban elite oppose federalism, as they believe it weakens the central Ethiopian state; on the other hand, some ethno-nationalists reject it as they’re separatists, or they think not enough autonomy has been granted.

Still, the EPRDF coalition has managed to transform a highly centralized state into a federation organized on the basis of strong regional autonomy on paper, and people’s rights to self-determination and self-rule. The constitution promoted ethno-national representation, a reversal of a century-long process of suppressing ethnic identities and local languages.

To achieve that, however, the EPRDF controlled the regional ruling parties, taming the natural dynamism of a federation. But the passing of Meles almost five years ago has kick-started power struggles between the center and the rest, as well as intensifying competition within the EPRDF.

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Federal Regions of Ethiopia (Wikimedia)

The federalism intended to create a fairer and more representative system. Despite the economic progress and partial democratization, there is, however, growing discontent at unfulfilled constitutional promises. The last year of tumult has shown that in the face of slackening economic performance and public discontent, the EPRDF has to choose between maintaining an unsustainable status quo through force, or boldly taking radical reforms to improve accountability.

Crisis Building

There is little doubt that Ethiopia made great leaps in its two decades of transition towards a market-based democracy governed by the rule of law. However, the pace of political reform slowed as the economy expanded. The government generally proved its capability to improve economic management and build infrastructure. Major blots on its record are seen in the weaknesses of public institutions such as the courts, land administration agencies, and human rights and anti-corruption commissions. A similar lack of institutional development are visible in opposition parties, the media, and civil society as well.

One major reason for this is the struggle between the interests of the EPRDF and its proclaimed commitment to democracy. The EPRDF, which in addition to the instinctive tendency to consolidate power, believes a stable coalition has to govern for decades to be able to implement long-term economic policies that can repeat the Asian industrialisation miracle. That is hard to reconcile with pluralism, the theorists argue, as competitive elections tend to pressure parties to implement short-term populist policies rather than unpopular, but necessary, measures. The flipside is that building a dominant party system, which for all practical purposes is a one-party system, hampers the development of democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Secondly, effective political reforms disrupt established norms and tries to improve them. The partial reforms that were seen in the last decade, on the other hand, nourished a fertile ground for corruption as institutional rules were either ill defined or politically unenforceable. That left officials still largely unaccountable but protected by a shiny new gloss of revitalization. The consequent worsening petty despotism caused tension between the state and society. Such grievances that accumulate in the absence of strong institutional checks resulted in violent outbursts like last year. This may become more common as an increasingly connected, literate, affluent citizenry demands more from its rulers.

EPRDF’s Renewal and the Hangover

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Meles Zenawi’s funeral, September 2012

Also part of the picture is evidence indicating democratization is challenging in highly religious nations with feudalistic social structures. Far from a radical process of societal democratization, the EPRDF has struggled to even replace its founding generation of liberation heroes. Political leaders are respected in Ethiopia to the extent that replacing them is considered an act of betrayal. Ethiopia’s transformational leader, Meles, tried to break that mold with a succession plan. Veterans of the struggle were supposed to gradually move on, ending with Meles stepping down in 2015. Alas, he died prematurely. His passing left the party to deal with the uncompleted succession and foisted a transition on an unprepared country.

Several observers expected chaos. The ruling party, however, managed it smoothly. But an incomplete, rushed succession caught up with the party and played a major role in the 2016 unrest. In retrospect, predictions about post-Meles instability were realized, albeit delayed.

The Meles vacuum slowed the generational succession and left the EPRDF and federal government weaker. On the other side of the equation, regional governments and parties were emboldened to explore the possibilities of a constitution that promised a loose federation. The EPRDF’s practice of ‘democratic centralism’, which demands obedience to majority decisions, has limited the autonomy of regional party leadership, while creating a consistent application of economic policy. But it also meant investment crowded to the center at the expense of weaker states in the peripheries. Post Meles, these norms began to clash with newly assertive regions.

‘Regional governments and parties were emboldened to explore the possibilities of a constitution that promised a loose federation.’

The ruling coalition found itself in uncharted waters. Several power centers started to emerge within the party and the government. Long subdued regional administrations found themselves without a federal leash. Some became more vocal, while others went as far as employing ethnic violence, as was seen in Gondar, in an attempt to assert power vis-à-vis Tigray. It is in this context that hidden internal disputes, and public discontent at maladministration and poverty, which was mellowed by the popularity of the late charismatic leader, started to surface. Soon, the protests, partly spontaneous and partly backed by EPRDF factions, broke out.

The simultaneous occurrence of a severe drought, weaker growth, and foreign challenges, meant the perfect storm for a wobbling coalition. The result has been an ongoing State of Emergency to reassert control, which has served to strengthen the hand of an already influential security apparatus.

The coalition has also ramped up the reform efforts in a more urgent bid to improve public administration and reduce corruption. However, systemic deficits — such as the EPRDF’s exclusivity – in comprising four parties governing four states leaving behind five allied parties that run peripheral regions — have not been tackled.

Transition Trapped?

The durability of a ruling party in a dominant party system hinges primarily on its capacity to mobilize mass political support to maintain its legitimacy. In an unprecedented manner in Ethiopian history, under the EPRDF the state and party’s “writ runs in every village”, as Meles put it months before his death. That has enabled the state to deepen and maintain legitimacy. The success is exhibited in the coalition’s robust campaigns such as a sustained fund-raising drive since 2011 to build Africa’s biggest dam on the Nile.

Observers, however, suggest that the coalition’s abilities in this area have now been slowly losing ground for years. Worsening discipline within the EPRDF parties has led to growing corruption and undermined its integrity. The massive addition of new members — from 400,000 in 2005 to nearly 7 million by 2009 — as well as increased patronage, which accelerated after the 2005 crisis, further weakened it.

The EPRDF’s appeal has also taken a hit in other areas. First, the unprecedented decade of growth still failed to alter the lives of tens of millions of people who remain deeply impoverished. Also, some of its business-friendly policies disregarded social and ethnic sensitivities. This includes the displacement of farmers surrounding the capital for urban settlements and investments altered the ethnic composition of the area, echoing historical oppression for affected Oromo people. The revolutionary leftist coalition’s move towards the free-market right heightened the perception it had become little more than a clique of self-serving elites.

‘EPRDF’s control-freakery starves it of the youthful talent it needs’

Despite all the challenges, the EPRDF’s organizational structure has not altered, meaning there’s been minimal substantive internal reform. And the coalition still fears independent interest groups, leading to a widespread tendency to repress and control. This meant the absence of pluralistic competition that would have forced the EPRDF to redefine its vision and recruit committed, competent members. Instead its control-freakery starves it of the youthful talent it needs.

Minxin Pei, evaluating the Chinese Communist Party, once proposed that monopolistic corporate systems hardly ever give up their lucrative dominance voluntarily. Instead, they devote their energy to preventing the emergence of competition, and eventually they succumb to the resulting ills of complacent inefficiency. Similarly, political monopolies develop a range of pathologies such as patronage, organizational dystrophy, and unresponsiveness. Pei concludes that one-party regimes can rarely take on new rivals when there is sudden change in the political environment. His recommendation of encouraging inter-party and inter-regional competition to motivate local elites to experiment with reforms sounds more compatible with Ethiopia’s diversity than the suffocating, atrophying status quo.

A Nation at the Crossroads

Among its underlying problems, the EPRDF suffers from a chronic inability to remove incompetent and corrupt officials and to cleanse itself of new unqualified opportunistic members. The inability stems from the fact that the opportunists have grown in ranks during the transition and their interest-based networks are better organized than those in the pro-reform faction.

If the EPRDF can get its house in order, and the government uses this crisis to deepen federalism, then there can be democratic and economic reforms that strengthen progressive constitutional principles. Then, the crisis may be retrospectively viewed as a blessing in disguise. Failure to use this opportunity, however, risks derailing an economy that is at takeoff stage — and the political crisis may worsen.

The ERPDF’s endeavor of building a federal and democratic republic had much to overcome to prevail over a culture of authoritarianism and centralization. The uphill becomes steeper when the dominant party loses its vigor and there’s little room for progressive forces to fill the void.

The present scenario suggests Ethiopia is in a trapped transition. Whether its historic antifragility comes to the rescue again will determine its fortunes over the next decades.


fetsum picFetsum Berhane is a political commentator and an independent public relations consultant in Ethiopia. He works for business and governmental institutions and blogs at the regional website, HornAffairs.