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Deciphering the Ethiopian Conundrum

By Amen Teferi
Tigrai Onlne - March 11, 2014

The EPRDF led government has “democratic developmental” policy that has been eulogized and demonized in equal measure. According Alex De Waal the intelligent engineer and communicator of this policy, the late primer Meles Zenawi, had been “equally indifferent to praise and blame.” Hence, this transformational paradigm and policies has rarely been elucidated in a proper manner that would spur a meaningful understanding.

Alex De Waal said “World leaders have lauded Meles’ economic achievements without acknowledging their theoretical basis. Human rights organizations have decried his political record as though he were a routine despot with no agenda other than hanging on to power.”

He also added, “while alive, Meles would ask to those who acclaimed Ethiopia’s remarkable economic growth [whether] they under-stand that his policies completely contradicted the neo-liberal Washington Consensus?”He would also ask “to those who condemned his measures against the political opposition and civil society organizations, he demanded to know how they would define democracy and seek a feasible path to it, in a political economy dominated by patronage and rent seeking?”He further commented “Meles did not hide his views, but neither did he ever fully present his theory of the ‘democratic developmental state’ to an international audience.”

If not for the international audience, recently there was a forum that could be deemed as an opportune platform to this end. We had this enlightening symposium discussing on the nexus between democratic developmental State and the mass media held at Intercontinental Hotel, on January 25, 2014, which was organized by the graduating class students of the AAU School of Journalism and Communication, where opposition party leaders, media managers, journalists, instructors and students and government officials were invited to take part as active participants.

Some of the papers presented at the symposium have tried to review the notion of developmental state. These papers have candidly tried to show the nexus between the theory and practice of a “democratic developmental” state as it is implemented by Ethiopia. Therefore, I would like to extol the organizers and wanted to compliment their wisdom in bringing this essential issue to the floor.

The symposium was convened to discuss on fundamental ideas that are coached by the five paper stabled for discussion. Dr. Abdisa, dean to the AAU School of Journalism, has presented a paper titled “Media and in the Developmental State: The Ethiopia conundrum”, whereas, the general manager of the Fana Broadcasting Corporate, Woldu Yemesel, has reflected his views on “The Practice, Challenges and Opportunities for in Media in a Democratic Developmental State.”

Zadiq Abrham, representing the Government Communication Office, has come-up with his excellent discussion on the “Normative Expectation of Media in a Democratic Developmental State” and in my view, his paper is stuffed with well seasoned arguments that could be considered as an eye-opener. The other panelist Tamirat G/Giorgis, from Fortune, English weekly, has made his observation with regards “The concept of Democratic Developmental State vis-à-vis the Ethiopian Constitution.”Finally, MushieSemu, from the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), has dueled and reflected his views o n“Freedom the Press in the Environment of Developmental State.”

Before going to the highly contentious topics of this convention, I would like to pinpoint some essential issues highlighted by the opening remark made by Dr. Abdisa Zeraey. In his opening remark or introductory speech, Dr. Abdissa has noted what he believed to be the challenges of the fledgling democracy our nation Ethiopia.

He opined that much commendable progress has been registered in the effort made to create and consolidate our democratic system of governance over the last 20 plus years. However, this transitional democracy is still facing daunting challenges that should be addressed without any delay. While Dr. Abdissa noted the laudable progress made, he has boldly indicated important shortcomings our political culture which is embedded with acute polarization. The contending political parties operating in our political landscape are burdened with caprices bad political culture that is infested with incompatible attitudes that could stimulate tendency of enmity among opposing the political groups that are suffering under the lack of consensus even on major national agendas that would go well beyond any ideological cleavages.

One of the pervasive drawbacks of our democratic dialogue is cynicism; which was epitomized by an interesting anecdote accounted by Dr. Beyene Zenebe as a concluding remark to the heated debate of the morning session which he chaired.

Dr. Beyene related a story about a person attending a meeting held in North America. There was this big-Whig from Qinijit who was in the meeting that was unduly extended to obstruct his dinner appointment with an ex-EPRDF official, Dawit Yohanes. Therefore, he raised his hand and declared that the meeting is prolonged and he found it impossible to stay anymore for he has a dinner appointment with friend –Dawit Yohanes.

Up on which one of the attendee of the conference becomes infuriated and angrily reacted saying “What the hell do you have to do with this guy anyway? Tell us now. Are you going to report the agenda we have just discussed to this EPRDF guy?”

Then the person who had asked permission to leave to meeting becomes so nervous and retorted “Hey, do listen to me. You ought to realize that Dawit and me are childhood friends and we have spent that precious early days together and don’t be so naughty to ask me to disown this part of my life.”

Then, Dr. Beyene continued, “This is a prevalent notion of the many elite living here or in the Diaspora. The moral story of this anecdote is that we should not forget that we are all compatriots who cherish many other social relationships other than politics. We may have different political outlook, and yet we are all Ethiopians and ‘political brothers’ as far as we are members of a single political community. As democratic citizenries we need to agree to disagree and go transcending the ideological cleavages and stand together to our common national interest. We should argue, debate and discuss and the best way to win or lose a case the strength of the facts we presented in our arguments.”

Dr. Abdisa Zeraeh as also noted that the basic feature of a democratic system is its unique political dispensation that would allow different political actors to work together; a unique dispensation endowed with apolitical space that would permit every views and ideologies promoted by contending political parties to be expressed. Unfortunately, so far, this democratic platform was exploited to subvert the most precious values of a democratic system of governance, which require the undivided commitments of every actor for their sustenance.

Dr .Abidisa noted, that the democratic exercise over the last two decades has transpired a grave shortcoming in creating and nourishing consensus around the linchpin values of our constitutional order and matters that have national importance. According Abdissa, it is undeniable that the nation has registered much success. But failure to notice these serious limitations of our democracy would be an unpardonable crime. Therefore, he urged us to work to improve our political culture and augment our readiness for democratic engagement, discussion, and debate. Exchange views on major national issues would eventually lay the basis for national consensus; an essential element he considered for unfettered and vibrant democracy.

However, he decried, “as much the number of the public platforms we had over the last two decades, we are not that fortunate in promoting the culture of democratic deliberations, where diverse views and opinions clash and thereby bolster democratic political culture.” He also pointed out, much often than not, the public platforms were occasions where monolithic and homogenous views are entertained, so much so that gatherings where participants with contending ideologies coming together to exchange ideas on issues of common concern are being seen as rarer-avis or abnormality. If we see platforms that draw diverse views and opinions as instance of the aberration of democratic culture, the public forums would lose the necessary dynamism that would cast fresh ideas. They would rather increasingly become forums that are predictable to the extent that could be rendered as formulaic. They would consider new ideas or eccentric views (if you wish)as a product of unhealthy turn of events, rather than taking it as an essential recipe for revitalizing democratic system and public discourse.

Dr. Abdissa has advised that this culture should be refurbish or changed so soon; and be changed forever before it pose itself as an insurmountable challenge that would frustrate our effort to consolidate democratic governance in Ethiopia. The effort in this regard should be geared towards realizing a deliberative democracy that would engaged a large size of the public. He further noted that the symposium held on January 25 was not envisaged as a public event to showcase whose ideas are valid or wrong.It is rather designed to cater food-for-thought and create a space that would ventilate ideas and views ofthe various stakeholders, and thereby draw lessons that would help us understand and perfected the democratic discourse and get privy to each other’s concern, position and line of arguments, Dr. Abdissa said.

In his opening speech, Dr. Abdissa argued that nobody has monopoly over truth; noting that every one of us would have some limitations that would hinder our vision of the whole picture. He therefore encouraged the audience to have readiness to listen to what others have to say, underlining its considerable significance in curbing the inherent limitations of our argument by creating a unique opportunity to see the general picture. Moreover, it would foster a compassionate attitude towards the views of our contestants and furnish privy to their concern.

The symposium has made commendable effort to demystify the complex definitional controversies surrounding the concept of developmental state. I found the symposium so fascinating for two reasons. For one thing, the discussion has shown me EPRDF’s courage to grapple with the business of deciphering and formulating the ideological codex of its policies through arduous intellectual engagement.

I have witnessed the bewilderment of some participant who was presented with the difficult task of interpreting and analyzing their specific reality without copying the model of others. The challenge to create nexus between developmental state and democracy was in fact a daunting task that had spurred frustration in the minds of some participant who gave vent to their emotion by belittling and mocking the organizers. One among these was Dr. Dagnachew Assefa who alleged that panelists were skillfully selected with a view of “hegemonizing” the ideology of the ruling party and fabricate consenting the general public.


Dr. Dagnachew seems to me to be cynic in his argument. His squabbles were endowed with all forms logical fallacies. He portrayed himself as un-philosophically philosophical. He also tended to be unbecomingly skeptic about everything in a manner that does not go well with the person of his stature and academic experience.

I guess his problem lies in his egoistic interest to relax under the light of admiration. When invited to similar public forums he used to enjoy the adoring attention of “fan club” firebrands. And that has eventually led him to be comfortable with a kind of accentuated clothing of hypocrisy.

I share this disappointment with my friend who was eager to know all about the symposium. My friend also knows the high regard had to Dr. Dagnachew for the courage he used to display in telling the truth with commendable academic insight. But recently I found him to degenerating to the status of the mediocre. And, as the saying goes, it is in fact “only a step from the sublime to the mediocre.” As a following up to my comment my friend retorted “I think his mediocrity is a fruit of the conscious and sustained effort of Dr. Dagnachew. It is really an “achievement.”

His comment has an absurd slant. My friend immediately began to relate the famous novel “Catch 22.”  The author of “Catch 22”has classified the mediocre into three groups. “These who are mediocre by nature and those are forced to be such by the crashing forces of the circumstances in which they found themselves. But still others will ‘achieve’ through their own sustained effort and Dr. Dagnachew is a member in this group,” he said. I look the comment to be somehow harsh. All the same, it is not altogether devoid of any grain of truth.

In truth, Dr. Dagnachew has unbecomingly featured himself and did a futile attempt to make the monarchical regime analogous with the current regime in matters freedom of expression. This is an “epistemological crime” that would erode the self-esteem of an honest intellectual. Indeed, in this symposium, he has represented the worst of himself. I have seen him lacking that vitality of an instructor of philosophy whom one would expect to do service in vivifying the discussion by signposting the roads of argument and by enriching and sharpening ideas that may appear unfathomable to the audience.

Nay, he was not instrumental in this regard. He was rather attempting to disorient the participants and was decrying the organizers picking up nonsense nitty-gritty. He was unable to reason from facts, but was simply playing the fool by airing his cynic opinion that has lost all the vitality of higher level public discourse. He has got everything he needed to do this, but his wanton for mediocrity doesn’t allow him to bolster the dialogue. He was just sneering.

In any case, I am of the opinion that the symposium has courageously grappled with the difficult task of charting the road to the unknown. It is successful to some extent. It has set out with the craziest notion of the creating nexus between developmental state and democracy. And I think the symposium has furnished us with all the necessary gadgets that would enable us to analyze and rationally explain the unknown zone of our experience.

The significance of the matter is clear. But some participants, including Dr. Dagnachew, have made frivolous move to wrap the mood of the convention with suspicion alluding an alleged sinister design by the incumbent.

The most contentious issue of the panel was the nature of developmental state and its compatibility with democracy and the nexus between developmental state and journalism. There were participants who argue that democracy and developmental state policy are inherently contradictory. On the other hand, there were those who an equivocally declared that the two are complementary. The latter have argued that the historical circumstances in countries that are deemed to be the classical model for developmental state-namely Taiwan and North Korea- were having such historical circumstances that have forced and disposed them to lose the political will to work for democracy with equal attention they have given to development. EPRDF is now trying to reinvent wheel by establishing nexus between developmental state and democracy.


According the AAU’s SJC dean, Abdisa Zereay, who is also a panelist dueling on the nexus between journalism and developmental state. He has made it clear from the outset that the convention is not a platform where one would strive to register victory over the other. He was rather apt to declare that the platform is just unique opportunity to kick off a public discussion on matters that have greater importance to the future of our fledgling democracy. It was aimed at polishing the diamond by facilitating the exchange of views and ideas so as to nourish the general consensus over national agendas that have much significance in charting the way forward.

He underscored the fact that the attempt to establish this nexus cannot be achieved by simply formulating an equation of “Democracy PLUS Developmental State IS EQUAL TO Democratic -Developmental State.”This venture rather requires a much deeper analysis of matters related to all aspects of the society under discussion which encompass the social- political- economic dispensation.

Is it possible to be a democracy while professing to follow Developmental State model? Are democracy and developmental state model compatible? What possible nexus we may establish between the two? What would be the nature of media under in this system? These were the fundamental questions the symposium tried to address? 

Reinventing the wheel

This gave birth to the new concept we call “developmental state.”These East Asian countries have never dreamt or know that they are implementing what we now referred to as “a developmental state model.” They were simply trying to figure out what it takes to realize development in their respective countries. They were simply responding to the existing historical, political and economic demands of their own reality. They have clearly identified their specific situation and made attempt to respond to their own reality.

I would like to mention here what Alex De Waal has said in this regard “The abiding impression left by Meles and the TPLF leadership was that their theory and practice were deeply rooted in the realities of Ethiopia, and that they would succeed or fail on their terms and no others.” The EPRDF always have vested interest in convincing its own people, and that was all that mattered. As Alex De Waal rightly commented they do not “measure their record or their policies against external standards; on the contrary, they evaluated outside precepts against their own experience and logic. It [has] a refreshing, even inspiring, dose of intellectual self-reliance.” Here, establishing nexus between developmental state and democracy is another instance of this invincible spirit and organic intellectualism of the party.

In retrospect, one can say that they were not only unflinchingly optimistic about the prospects of their policies as they were optimistic about the success of the armed struggle, but they have practically seen that their democratic developmental policy is delivering results.

“From the outset, what needed to be done was to conquer poverty. From his early days in the field through to his last years as an international statesman, Meles was absolutely consistent in this aim. Ethiopia’s over-riding national challenge was to end poverty, and in turn this needed a comprehensive, theoretically rigorous practice of development. Marxism-Leninism was, for him, not a dogma but a rigorous method for assembling evidence and argument, to be bent to the realities of armed struggle and development.”

“He never finished his thesis due to the outbreak of war with Eritrea in 1998, but the draft manuscript, ‘African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings’, was the justification and blueprint for a ‘democratic developmental state’”

Meles clearly stated that there should be no confusion that the EPRDF’s mission was to build a capitalist state. He further stated that rent seeking and patronage within the ruling party posed the key dangers to this objective, and they needed to be thoroughly stamped out. Meles’ adversaries accused him of selling his revolutionary soul to imperialism and serving Eritrea at the expense of Ethiopia. Meles won by the skin of his teeth – just two votes in the Central Committee of the TPLF. His rivals then walked out and Meles seized the moment to consolidate his power. The next decade was to be his chance both to hone and to implement his theory of ‘democratic developmentalism’.

“One may disagree with Meles’ thesis or argue that he failed to implement it properly. But without question it represents a serious attempt to develop, and apply, an authentically African philosophy of the goals and strategies of development. He explained the background to me. ‘For the first ten years after we took over,’ he said, ‘we were bewildered by the changes.

 The New World Order was very visible and especially so in this part of the world. The prospect of an independent line appeared very bleak. So we fought a rear- guard action not to privatize too much. The international thinking shifted away from the neo-liberal demand for a non- interventionist ‘night-watchman’ state towards recognizing the need for a capable state to lead development.

Meles agreed with the neo-liberals that the ‘predatory state’ of Africa’s first post-colonial decades was one dead end, but argued that allowing the market to rule was a second dead end. ‘You cannot change a rent-seeking political economy just by reducing the size and role of the state. The neo-liberal paradigm does not allow for technological capacity accumulation, which lies at the heart of development. For that, an activist state is needed, that will allocate state rents in a productive manner.’ South Korea and Taiwan were Meles’ favorite examples of developmental states that succeeded by subverting neo-liberal dogma. China’s rise provided something else: by challenging American dominance it made space for alternatives. In his thesis he wrote, ‘there has to be more political space for experimentation in development policy than has been the case so far in Africa … The international community has a role in creating such a space by tolerating development paradigms that are different from the orthodoxy preached by it. Africans have to demand and create such a space.

Meles’ starting point was that Ethiopia (and indeed Africa as a whole) lacked comparative advantage in any productive field. He laid out his case in one discussion we held. ‘African workers produce textiles at nine times the price of the Chinese.’

Similarly, African foodstuffs could not compete in international markets. ‘In these circumstances, the best way to make money is through rent: natural resource rent, aid rent, policy rent. So the private sector will be rent-seeking not value creating, it will go for the easy way and make money through rent.’ In reaction to this, Ethiopia postponed private land ownership and kept state control of the financial sector and telecoms. If the state guides the private sector, there is a possibility of shifting to value creation – it needs state action to lead the private sector from its preference (rent seeking) to its long-term interest (value creation). So the state needs autonomy.’ The government should choose when and how to partner with the private sector (an example was developing Ethiopia’s leather industry) and should invest in education and research.

Meles clearly identified the challenge of development as primarily a political one: it is necessary to master the technicalities of economics, but essential not to let them become a dogma that masters you. It is the politics of the state that unlocks development. The ‘developmental state’ should, he argued, be obsessed with value creation, making accelerated and broad-based growth a matter of national survival. If Ethiopia could sustain its growth levels – which have been running at close to percent per annum for most of the last decade – it could achieve middle-income status and escape from its trap.

Contentious issues

Dr. Abdissa had begun his discussion by expounding the relationship between media and organized society. He continued his argument by pinpointing the basic assumptions or the bedrock of this relationship. As he has rightly noted media is not working in a vacuum. Unquestionably, it is functioning in society that is organized according to some fundamental ideological and moral percepts. Accordingly, the society and the media would have various dispensations that would necessarily be informed by the basic political-economic arrangement of that society which would in turn determine how the media function.

In outlining the basic philosophical assumptions that have determined the nature of the relationship of man and state in liberal democracies Dr. Abdissa has noted down that “Man is a rational animal and an end in itself” is the fundamental premise. This is the basic assertion of the liberal democracies when establishing the right to freedom of expression. The notion held by the liberal democracies about the nature of man and society borne the basic philosophical assumption of the liberal thought. According to him, for the liberal democracies, the basic unit of analysis is the individual. Thus, “the ultimate goal of man, the society and the state is the fulfillment the individual, and hence “freedom of expression matters, because human beings matter.” Freedom of expression must be protected because human beings should be protected.

Freedom of expression matters whether the individual exercising his freedom of expression speaks the truth or not. Freedom of expression matter because it is instrumental in accomplishing certain highly valued goals of the society, i.e. the search for truth in market place of ideas. In an organized society the individual will assume an important status of being rational who go out to the market place of ideas in search of the truth and thereby made informed decision about his life and the society in general. Hence, freedom of expression is also a core element of a democratic system, as we don’t have democracy in any meaningful way without the existence of freedom of expression. Hence, freedom of expression goes along the freedom of the press, because freedom of expression can only manifest itself through the different mediums of mass communication.

In Ethiopia constitutionally guaranteed freedom came into the scene following right after the dawn fall of the Derge regime in 1991. It was then that the long established gag-order of the despotic regimes came to an end and the cruel knot of prior censorship abolished. When Ethiopia began to exercise democracy the world has just undergone through fundamental political transformation that had global impact. Following the collapse of the soviet-bloc the fashionable lyric of our word had been “end of history” which announces that the globe has no option but follow the path of the liberal free market-democracy.

Before the collapse of the communist block the world has undergone through various permutation that have created the post-cold war political dispensation. In particular the international thinking about the role of governments in development has undergone through various rocky paths that have led to various policy recommendation over the last sixty years.

In years that laps between the 1950’s and 1960s there was a general consensus about the role of governments in development. The post-colonial era had greater confidence in the developmental role of governments. But the hope that was vested on governments soon became a thin air.

The faith on governments has evaporated after learning the deep crisis created by the involvement of government in the economy. Therefore, since then, the role of governments in the economy is assumed to be disruptive in realizing economic growth. Hence, the fashionable idea of the international community becomes “structural adjustment.”But this notion again comes to its inevitable demise. Weakening the role of government in the economy becomes the adored mantra. To our dismay “structural adjustment “had never alleviate the problem.

Nonetheless, amidst this disillusionment we had spectacular economic growth happening in East Asian countries. The unique experiences of these countries had begun to attract the attention of scholars. There was this impressive experience in these countries, while other developing countries were suffering under various political and economic crises that were not alleviated by the prescriptions of the Western governments and their international agencies that were administrating the new medicine called “structural adjustment.”

The impressive economic progress in East Asian countries have captured the attentions of many who would like to ponder on the secret of this economic miracles. As the role played by government in these countries was immense, scholars were forced to revisit their thinking about role the state in development.

The classical developmental sate in East Asia has made miraculous transformation from agrarian economic to industrialization. They made a sustained economic growth while under autocratic governments. Until then, the presumption was that spectacular economic progress of this magnitude can only be delivered through the strict implementation the prescriptions of free market and liberal democracies. The important question is how these East Asian countries managed to register this incredible economic progress? I will discuss the rest of the issues in the second part of this review.

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