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The Theory and Practice of Meles Zenawi

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In the months following his death on 20 August, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been eulogized and demonized in equal measure. But his policies, and the transformational paradigm on which they were based, have rarely been elucidated. While alive, Meles was equally indifferent to praise and blame. To those who acclaimed Ethiopia's remarkable economic growth, he would ask, do they understand that his policies completely contradicted the neo-liberal Washington Consensus? 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? Meles did not hide his views, but neither did he ever fully present his theory of the ‘democratic developmental state’ to an international audience. Over nearly 25 years, I was fortunate to be able to discuss political economy with him regularly, including critiquing his incomplete and unpublished master's dissertation. During this time, his thinking evolved, but his basic principles and sensibilities remained constant. 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. Reviewing his writings on the developmental state, this essay shows the unity of his theory and practice. Meles had the quiet certitude of someone who had been tested – and seen his people tested – to the limit. Along with his comrades in arms in the leadership of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), he had looked into the abyss of collective destruction, and his career was coloured by the knowledge that Ethiopia could still go over that precipice. Many times during sixteen years of armed struggle in the mountains …
REVIEW ARTICLE
THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF MELES
ZENAWI
ALEX DE WAAL*
African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings,by
Meles Zenawi. Unpublished Masters Dissertation: Erasmus University,
Rotterdam, no date.
In the months following his death on 20 August, Ethiopias Prime
Minister Meles Zenawi has been eulogized and demonized in equal
measure. But his policies, and the transformational paradigm on which
they were based, have rarely been elucidated. While alive, Meles was
equally indifferent to praise and blame. To those who acclaimed
Ethiopias remarkable economic growth, he would ask, do they under-
stand that his policies completely contradicted the neo-liberal Washington
Consensus? To those who condemned his measures against the political
opposition and civil society organizations, he demanded to know how
they would dene democracy and seek a feasible path to it, in a political
economy dominated by patronage and rent seeking?
Meles did not hide his views, but neither did he ever fully present his
theory of the democratic developmental state to an international audi-
ence. Over nearly 25 years, I was fortunate to be able to discuss political
economy with him regularly, including critiquing his incomplete and un-
published masters dissertation. During this time, his thinking evolved,
but his basic principles and sensibilities remained constant.
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. Reviewing his writings on the
developmental state, this essay shows the unity of his theory and practice.
Meles had the quiet certitude of someone who had been tested and
seen his people tested to the limit. Along with his comrades in arms in
*Alex de Waal (Alex.DeWaal@tufts.edu) is Executive Director of the World Peace
Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.
African Affairs,18 doi: 10.1093/afraf/ads081
© The Author 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved
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the leadership of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), he had
looked into the abyss of collective destruction, and his career was
coloured by the knowledge that Ethiopia could still go over that precipice.
Many time s during sixteen years of armed struggle in the mountains of
northern Ethiopia against the then-military regime led by Colonel
Mengistu Haile Mariam, Meles had close personal brushes with death. In
1988, he and other central committee members avoided a likely-fatal
aerial bombing by just twenty minutes after their hideout was betrayed by
a spy and Ethiopian ghter-bombers targeted it. Later that year, he was
taken gravely ill with malaria and was evacuated to hospital in Khartoum
one of the very few times he left the eld during the entire armed struggle.
As Meles crossed the border back into Ethiopia, I met him for the rst
time, and we began the rst of our seminars on political economy. As
dusk fell, still recuperating in his pyjamas, Comrade Meles climbed
aboard a creaky Soviet Zil truck, captured from the Ethiopian army. All
travel was at night, to avoid the MiGs, and we bumped our way along
rocky tracks, rst through the forested lowlands, camping out during day-
light hours under trees next to a dry riverbed. Such was the itinerant life
of the TPLF leadership. The next night our truck rumbled up a road cut
through the mountainside by the guerrillas, with hairpins so tight that our
truck had to make three-point turns. We spent the next day in caves at
the TPLFs temporary headquarters in a mountain called Dejena, and the
next nightfall I watched as an apparently uninhabited hillside gave forth a
battalion of men, a dozen trucks and a tank, all of them completely
obscured by camouage until that moment. The TPLF had turned
concealment into science.
The discomfort of the journey was less memorable than the travelling
discussion group of Comrade Meles, Comrade Seyoum (head of TPLF
foreign relations and later Ethiopias longest-serving Foreign Minister), a
dozen ghters, a representative from a European agricultural assistance
agency, and myself. I learned quickly that the most necessary attribute of
a guerrilla ghter is functioning without sleep. Meles was a voracious con-
sumer of information and analysis, and a tireless questioner. We discussed
perestroika in the USSR, theories of peoples liberation warfare, the
imperfections of grain markets, and, above all, peasant survival strategies
during drought. At one point w e met a hunter on the tr ack and Meles spent
an hour discussing with him the importance of conserving endangered
species.
Meles was a convinced Marxist-Leninist, pragmatic but certain that the
way of life of the Ethiopian peasants had to change or die. Having just
completed my doctoral dissertation on famine survival strategies in
Sudan, I tried to convince him that rural people were best served by
diversied livelihoods, and that pastoral nomadism was an effective
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adaptation to the vagaries of life in a drought-prone ecosystem. He did
his best to convince me that traditional livelihoods were doomed to stag-
nation and that Ethiopian peasants had to specialize in farming, trade, or
livestock rearing.
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 TPLF had convinced the people, and that was all that mat-
tered. They did not measure their record or their policies against external
standards; on the contrary, they evaluated outside precepts against their
own experience and logic. It was a refreshing, even inspiring, dose of
intellectual self-reliance.
Meles was uninchingly optimistic about the prospects for the armed
struggle and assured me that the Tigrayan guerrillas, until a few months
previously conned to the hills and the borderlands with Sudan, would
penetrate as far south as Shewa, the Amhara heartland just a hundred
miles from the capital Addis Ababa, within a year. I did not take his
promise seriously (neither did any other non-Ethiopian). But he was
correct, and within two and a half years, the TPLF now a member
of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)
coalition achieved the remarkable feat of capturing the capital city.
The EPRDF took Addis Ababa on 28 May 1991, amid international
predictions that Ethiopia would go the way of Somalia, where guerrillas
had overrun Mogadishu just four months earlier. On 31 May, government
salaries and pensions were due. They were paid on time. Police were back
on the street within days.
During the next 21 years, Meles often looked as though he was
camping out in the palace. He moved into his predecessors semi-
subterranean bunker home in the sprawling grounds of the old palace of
the Emperor Menelik, and took over Mengistus spacious but damp mod-
ernist executive ofce. The artwork scarcely changed over the next two
decades, the carpets just once. Meles was not interested in the trappings
of power, only in what could be done with it.
From the outset, what needed to be done was to conquer poverty.
From his early days in the eld through to his last years as an international
statesman, Meles was absolutely consistent in this aim. Ethiopias 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. When the TPLF rst administered liberated
territories in the 1970s, it took a conventional leftist line, tried to regulate
trade and moneylending, and failed. The Front responded by adjusting
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its policies to encourage the local petit bourgeoisie in the villages and
small towns it controlled. When the great famine of 19845 struck, the
TPLF took the strategic decision to make feeding the peasantry its prior-
ity, even at the expense of losing ground to the enemy.
Meles was primus inter pares in the EPRDFs collective leadership and
chief economic theoretician. In an episode made famous by Joseph
Stiglitz,
1
Meles objected to the IMF position that international assistance
was too unpredictable to be incorporated into national budget planning
purposes, with the absurd consequence that national spending on infra-
structure, health, and education could not be increased in line with
foreign aid ows. Meles produced arguments and data and forced the
Bretton Woods Institutions to rethink.
Meles inverted Kissingers dictum that holding ofce consumes intel-
lectual capital rather than creating it. He was always learning, reading,
debating, and writing, and while he never abandoned the fundamental
principles forged in the eld, his views evolved greatly. After 1991, he
studied for a degree in Business Administration at the Open University
(graduating rst in his class) and subsequently a Masters in Economics at
Erasmus University, Rotterdam, under the supervision of the former
Minister of Development Cooperation, Jan Pronk. He never nished 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 justication and blueprint for a democratic developmental state.
Excerpts are available online with the intriguing disclaimer: The author
is the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The views expressed are personal and
do not necessarily reect the ofcial position of the Government.
2
Some
of his analysis is also contained in a chapter in a recent collection edited
by Akbar Noman and others.
3
The war with Eritrea not only interrupted Meles studies but provoked
the most bitter dissension within the EPRDF. Meles was accused of
having been soft on Eritrea and blind to Eritrean preparations for war,
and subsequently for stopping the war once Ethiopia had expelled the
invader from occupied territory. The internal party debate then took an
ideological turn that seems to outsiders to be oddly anachronistic, replete
with references to Bonapartism and the Kulak line. Meles clearly stated
that there should be no confusion that the EPRDFs mission was to build
1. Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents (Norton, New York, NY , 2002), pp. 2730.
2. <http://cgt.columbia.edu/les/conferences/Zena wi_Dead_Ends_and_Ne w_Beginnings.pdf>
(23 October 2012).
3. Meles Zenawi, State and markets: neoliberal limitations and the case for a developmen-
tal state in Akbar Noman, Kwesi Botchwey, Howard Stein, and Joseph Stiglitz (eds), Good
Growth and Governance in Africa: Rethinking development strategies (Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 2012).
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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 imple-
ment 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 rst 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.
4
Meles was doubly constrained: internally the EPRDF was regressing,
rehearsing its rhetoric but practising what Meles came to dub pervasive
socially wasteful rent seeking.
5
But after emerging from the fractious
debates of 20001, Meles had the upper hand, at the same time as inter-
national 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 Africas rst 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 develop-
ment. For that, an activist state is needed, that will allocate state rents in a
productive manner.
6
South Korea and Taiwan were Meles favourite examples of develop-
mental states that succeeded by subverting neo-liberal dogma. Chinas
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
4. Discussion, Meles Zenawi, Prime MinistersOfce, Addis Ababa, 16 October 2010.
5. Zenawi, States and markets, p. 169.
6. Discussion, Meles Zenawi, Prime MinistersOfce, Addis Ababa, 26 February 2011.
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different from the orthodoxy preached by it. Africans have to demand and
create such a space (p. 39).
Meles starting point was that Ethiopia (and indeed Africa as a whole)
lacked comparative advantage in any productive eld. He laid out his case
in one discussion we held.
7
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.
8
In reaction to this, Ethiopia
postponed private land ownership and kept state control of the nancial
sector and telecoms.
The argument continued, 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.
9
The government should
choose when and how to partner with the private sector (an example was
developing Ethiopias leather industry) and should invest in education
and research.
Meles clearly identied 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 polit-
ics 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 10 percent per annum for most of the last decade it
could achieve middle-income status and escape from its trap. To succeed
in this, a third element was needed, namely the hegemony of develop-
mental discourse, in the Gramscian sense that it is an internalized set of
assumptions, not an imposed order. Meles liked to give the example of
corrupt customs ofcials in Taiwan, who exacted bribes worth 12 percent
of the value of imports of consumer goods, while not demanding bribes
on imported capital goods, illustrating how value creation had been inter-
nalized in this way so that even the thieves followed the norm.
African countries might have the trappings of human rights and democ-
racy, but, he said, there is no sustainable democracy in a society charac-
terized by pervasive rent seeking. We need value creation to be dominant
for there to be a foundation of democracy, for politics to be more than a
7. Discussion, Zenawi, 16 October 2010.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
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zero sum game, a competition to control state rents. Worse, he added, I
am convinced that we will cease to exist as a nation unless we grow fast
and share our growth.
10
Thus far, I found Meles case compelling, though I questioned if it
were possible to create a common mindset of value creation in a country
as vast and diverse as Ethiopia, in such a short period. Was there not a
danger that a theory, however sophisticated, would degenerate into a set
of dogmas parroted by party cadres who scarcely understood the meaning
of pervasive rent seeking but who knew the rewards of loyally following
the party line? Meles response was that the EPRDF had indeed neglected
political education and party organization for years, which explained the
20001 internal crisis and the poor performance in the 2005 elections, in-
cluding being wiped out in the major cities. But, he argued, a new gener-
ation of leaders was emerging, he was renewing the party at all levels,
and, above all, his policies were delivering results. Ethiopians had never,
ever, experienced anything like the recent economic growth and the spec-
tacular expansion in infrastructure and services and this, he said, would
transform the country in the next fteen years.
Included in Meles paradigm was a theory of democracy. He writes,
Even if a developmental state was to be solely concerned about accelerat-
ing growth, it would have to build the high social capital that is vital for
its endeavours. It would have to stamp out patronage and rent seeking.
These are the very same things that create the basis for democratic politics
that is relatively free from patronage ( p. 10).
Meles condemned liberal formulae as trickle-up democracy and said
that, in a poor developing nation, political parties and NGOs would easily
become patronage mechanisms, rather than the basis for a true associ-
ational political culture and sustainable development. He feared a
no-choice democracy in which factions contested for which one could
best loot the state.
Developmental states could come in several forms, Meles argued,
provided that they maintained the hegemony of value creation, were
autonomous from the private sector, stamped out rent seeking and
patronage, and maintained policy continuity for sufciently long to
succeed. A developmental state could be authoritarian, but in Africas
ethnically diverse societies, democratic legitimacy was a sine qua non.
Ethiopias ethnic federalism and decentralization reected this. Meles
said his preference was to have two competing parties, each of which
stood for developmental values, but in their absence the option would be
a stable dominant party or dominant coalition, such as Japan or Sweden
enjoyed in post-war decades. In the Ethiopian case, he wrote, the peasant
10. Discussion, Meles Zenawi, Prime Ministers Ofce, Addis Ababa, 17 October 2008.
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is the bedrock of a stable developmental coalition. His critics said this
denied them the chance of voting for real alternatives.
Hence, Meles approach to democracy and human rights was all of a
piece with his overall theory. He said, when [the developmental state] has
done its job it will undermine its own social base, to be replaced by a
social democratic or liberal democratic coalition. Meanwhile, he argued,
what meaning did liberal civil and political rights have in a context of
abject poverty or political chaos? Development and a strong state were
prerequisites for human rights, and Ethiopia needed to establish these
rst. Justiable or not, this is a serious argument that deserves serious
assessment.
In early 2011, I asked Meles why he had been so reticent about his
theory. He replied that he should not jeopardize Ethiopias interests by
pursuing a personal intellectual agenda that would be sure to draw re
from his numerous critics and detractors. However, he added that his
ideas, which had been heretical just a few years earlier, were becoming
common currency, and that as the time approached for him to leave ofce
at the 2015 elections, he planned to update his dissertation and publish
it.
11
Almost 25 years ago, Meles was indifferent to opinion and argument
that failed to match his own standards, and was quietly condent that
Ethiopians would shape their own history, and that history would prove
him right. Recently, when I asked Meles what he would consider his
legacy, he was uninterested in those who hailed his government as
triumph or disaster, and addressed only the question of whether develop-
mentalism was becoming hegemonic in Ethiopia.
12
It would be another
decade, he said, before that question could be answered. Meles also said
that the intellectual work of articulating the theoretical grounding of his
politics, and extending that analysis to what he called the archetypal
African state, characterized by a vigorous political marketplace, was just
beginning. Enough of Meles writings are in the public sphere to demon-
strate that Meles was a truly original thinker. Let us hope that his unpub-
lished papers provide sufcient material to ll out the other, less
explored, areas of his intellectual inquiries.
11. Discussion, Zenawi, 26 February 2011.
12. Ibid.
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Research
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Ethiopia’s recent experiment with a developmental state model delivered double-digit economic growth and significant expansion of public services for nearly two decades. However, a wave of violent protests that began in 2014 culminated in a leadership change and the termination of the developmental experiment in 2018 as well as a regionalised civil war in 2020. In this working paper, we explore why Ethiopia yet again succumbed to political violence and instability by investigating the relationships between ethnic behaviour, economic development and political violence in the period 1997–2020. First, we explore trends in economic growth, horizontal and vertical economic inequality, as well as social mobility under Ethiopia's developmental state. Secondly, we account for temporal and geographic patterns and correlates of political violence in 1997–2019 by using ACLED data. Finally, we account for the microfoundations of political discontent using survey data on political preferences from 2020. Our survey data explores perceptions of individual and group-level relative deprivation, aspiration gaps, future expectations and social mobility. Our data and analysis indicate that Ethiopia maintained relatively low levels of horizontal inequality but that vertical inequality was poorly managed, which manifested itself through – among other things – low intergenerational mobility. We also find that political violence was driven by grievances (measured through economic vulnerability and repression), opportunity structures for mobilisation (measured through urbanisation and youth demographics) and the ethno-national composition of administrative districts. Contrary to the macro-level economic data, our micro-level survey data indicates that inter-group economic grievances trump perceptions of vertical or individual relative deprivation. Finally, we also test the extent to which political discontent is a function of increased aspirations that are stimulated by improved material well-being and thereby high aspiration gaps – or what is known as the ‘Tocqueville paradox’. We find no support for this counter-intuitive relationship in Ethiopia, as various indicators of frustration were negatively correlated with income.
Article
During its 28 years of rule, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had built a strong system for controlling the Ethiopian state and civil society. This article looks at how the party first managed to keep control over the civil service. It analyses the functioning of civil servants’ evaluations called gimgema. Such evaluations comprise the filling of evaluation forms and sessions of criticisms and self-criticisms during which bureaus’ employees have to publicly acknowledge their mistakes and accuse colleagues. Bureau heads who are also party officials then decide on the employee’s future. The article describes the functioning of gimgema, its political efficiency, and some resistance strategies put in force by state agents. Born in a Marxist-Leninist ideological framework, gimgema is an Ethiopian variation on the global socialist evaluation theme, now fitting perfectly with neoliberal injunctions to ‘good governance’, ‘commitment’ and ‘transparency’. As a symbol of the EPRDF’s ideological evolution, gimgema exemplifies the ideological indeterminacy of government techniques.
Chapter
After centuries of monarchical rule, 14 years of military rule and three years of a one-party political system, Ethiopia adopted a constitution that provides for multiparty democracy. The Constitution establishes democratic institutions and contains democratic principles that are vital for competitive multiparty democracy; it also guarantees civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of expression and association, that are critical in this regard. Be that as it may, there is currently no competitive multiparty democracy in Ethiopia. Instead, an electoral authoritarian system has been instituted that allows the EPRDF and its affiliates to enjoy exclusive control over every level and unit of government. This is so because, among other things, even if the domestic and global political dynamics that were at work when the EPRDF came to power in the 1990s left it with no choice but to constitutionalise multipartyism, its violent history, vanguardist self-perception and the developmental-state paradigm it later endorsed have driven it into electoral authoritarianism. The various formal and informal mechanisms that the party put in place, the socioeconomic structure of the country, and the minimal international pressure it faced when democratising have allowed it successfully to retain its incumbency for more than two decades. However, new domestic and international dynamics are putting pressure on the EPRDF to open up the political space and allow genuinely competitive multiparty democracy.
Article
The political and economic renaissance of Africa is an issue that continues to preoccupy Africans and non-Africans alike. Various methods of achieving such a renaissance have been proposed. Most of these proposals are variations of the dominant neoliberal paradigm of development. The argument of this chapter is that the neoliberal paradigm is a dead end, and that a fundamental shift in paradigm is required to bring about the African renaissance. African states need to move away from that paradigm and towards becoming developmental in the sense and manner sketched here.