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‘Ethiopia’s Crisis: Things fall apart, Will the center hold?’ A Rejoinder – See more at:

by Minga Negash

In his November 24, 2016 article, Mr. Rene Lefort described the Ethiopian crisis and theorized that the problem is a center-periphery issue, underpinned by economic growth and exacerbated by the power vacuum left by the late dictator, Mr. Meles Zenawi.  Mr. Lefort’s narrative, however, is not the same as the one that was made at the two-days-long conference which was held in October in Washington DC, under the theme of Transition and Constitution Making in Post-Conflict Ethiopia. I also read Professor Messay Kebede’s critique and Mr. Lefort’s response. It is an interesting and timely discourse, with scholarly decorum. In this rejoinder I attempt to show that no single theory fully explains a social and economic phenomenon, and argue that the center-periphery thesis does not fill a void. As Amartya Sen succinctly documents, “the asymmetry of power between the ruler and the ruled which heighted culture, cannot be used to the explain failure of governance”. We need to find a better analytical framework.

On a text level, the author of the original article does not hide what he intended to say, for the article is readable despite its wordiness. The work appears to be a chronicle of his latest trip to Ethiopia rather than a documentation of a serious research, and hence unlike his other works, it contains ambiguities and assertions. In the response of December 5, 2016 Mr. Lefort slides and concludes that the continuity of the Ethiopian state is conditioned on EPRDF’s internal dynamics, as if the Ethiopian state is one of the post colony states of Africa, and founded on the fables of gedli historians. The piece and the response confuse between known problems of decentralization (organizational instabilities when sub entities have/do not have/ mass base) and ordinary factionalism or power blocks within organizations.  From a source perspective, the writer appears to have privileged access to the regime’s kingpins. The only other sample included in the report was one of the last dissenting legal voices in the country, Dr. Merera Gudina, a fearless advocate of dual identities, who is now finding himself in the jails of the dictatorship.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters call for a regime change in Ethiopia

Gondar Protest

At a conceptual level, the article reignites the debate about the type of association (if any) between political institutions and economic growth. Is there causality or reverse causality between the two variables, and if growth exists, who are/were the actors (winners and losers)? These questions were subjects of careful works of academics and policy makers. The great classical and contemporary economists have immensely labored to produce a wealth of literature, in the context of both developing and developed nations. Qualitative arguments crucially depend on contextual orthodoxy (country’s uniqueness or exceptionalism), and hence attempting to examine Ethiopia’s crisis along the lines of orthodoxy is/will not be an exception.  However, in the evaluation of a text, empirical or otherwise, one is obliged to ask whether a text makes sense to either theory or practice or both; one has to examine whether the text hides anything. Theorization therefore suggests a “self-conscious development and specification of abstract categories and the formulation of patterned relationship such as chains of cause and effect.” From Mr. Lefort’s description of the events in Ethiopia, one expects a major idea (s) to come out from an author of his stature, with the aim resolving the tensions. Indeed the major idea that is coming out of his piece is that the regime will and probably should continue, under a set of conditions (ifs and buts), regardless, and the threat to its rule is from within. The declaration of the state of emergency has as much to do with power dynamics (the PDOs’ elevation from a status of being TPLF’s satellites to junior partners) and factionalism within the ruling party as the attempt to quell the uprisings in various parts of the country.

In a paper entitled “Do Institutions Cause Growth”, Glaeser, La Porta and Lopez De-Silanes, using cross section of country data across a time period of forty years show that “human capital is the basic source of growth than political institutions; and poor countries get out of poverty by good policies often pursued by dictators and subsequently improve their institutions”. For them, institutions are sets of rules, attitudes, ethical standards, procedures and norms that are designed to constrain those in authority, and underscore that growth in poor countries may be feasible without immediate improvement in institutions.

The Economist of May 7 2016 compared the degree of crony capitalism in developed and developing economies, and the latter group of countries accounted for 43% of global GDP but for 65% of global crony wealth. During the last two decades capital moved from one country to another without restriction, financial liberalization allowed crony capital to consolidate itself, capture the state, speculate and evade taxes, and allied with dictatorial regimes, minorities and families to serve as intermediary for  foreign capital; owned crony industries through shoddy deals (large farms, banking, mining, telecommunications, and real estate) and pushed up prices, particularly property prices in these countries. Crony capitalism in many countries thus has led many nations to be vulnerable to discontents, surprising election results, political instability and government unaccountability. Cross country studies such as the above however had econometric problems where a number of social and political variables are difficult to recognize and measure, and hence more recent studies have attempted to examine “within country” factors, such as geography, culture and other social variables, which accentuate/attenuate cronyism.

Enter Ethiopia’s growth and institutions. The African Development Bank and the World Bank have been producing rosy pictures for the Sub Sahara Africa (SSA) region. Credit rating agencies painted a similar picture for channeling debt capital to the region. The deficit model of higher education development justified massification without proper professors. There were several narratives of economic miracles. Flat ties and black sheds became fashion. Even President Obama incensed many Ethiopians when he talked about a democratically elected government in Ethiopia. The small economies of SSA appeared to have been put on a steroid, and Ethiopia appeared in the Keynesian beauty contest, to show high rise and shiny buildings and engineering design simulations on televisions. Increase aid, remittance and debt finance, crisis in the greater Horn of Africa, and China’s rush for the control of resources and markets, have all begun to unravel themselves, questioning the legitimacy of relationship based (crony) capitalism as the gains (if any) did not trickle down to the population.

In his response to Professor Messay critique Mr. Lefort argued that growth has increased inequality but at the same time makes strange conclusion that poverty has also been reduced. If poverty has indeed been reduced, it is not clear how much of the alleged reduction was financed by the generic growth of the economy and not by external aid, and why the country is facing so much food shortage and outmigration. A number of economists, including Professor Seid Hassan, Professor Alemayehu Geda and Professor William Easterly, and Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI)-http://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Ethiopia.pdf and the mass outmigration of Ethiopians provide evidence that is contrary to Mr. Lefort’s “eye witness” account of prosperity or the regime’s largely politically loaded and exaggerated growth statistics. The growth espoused by dictatorial regimes throughout SSA, if it exists, quickly lost steam as citizens continued to suffer from conflict, the brutality of the state, debt burden, forced outmigration and internal displacement, and the dynamics of heighted economic, social and political discontents, exacerbating ethnic, faith and other differences. Ethiopia’s growth story, if it exists, is not very different from the rest of SSA.  Hence, for TPLF/EPRDF the odds have assembled again, challenging the growth hymn, to a level of a storm. The central question is whether or not it will wither the current storm via its instrument of a “command post”.

Moving to the institutions, many argue that EPRDF’s own mission and structure is a problem. Furthermore, there are more than 58 locally registered political parties and another 20 or so exiled and armed groups, all contending for power. At least half of the 80 or so parties have regional perspective. TPLF thrived on this. Fractured as they are, neither the structures of the political institutions nor the TPLF authored constitution has been able to manage and regulate political behavior and the relationship based capitalism, or the master servant relationship within the ruling party. There is little difference between the central committee of the party and the national parliament, and spouses and family members sat as members of a polite bureau. The key stakeholders do not want to change this structure as they are the benefactors of the system. Hence the rhetoric of controlling rent seeking behavior and the promise of reform cannot be taken seriously.  The regime’s structure and the political ethos it advanced produced untouchables, normalized cronyism, legitimized minority rule, overemphasized diversity rather than commonality, weakened the institutions of the state, forcing everyone to behave opportunistically and “think in a box”. When cronyism is added to regionalism or other forms of closed social associations, the contest for the control of the soul of Ethiopia’s institutions gets high as the cost of inaction proved fatal for the disfavored and unorganized groups.

Understanding the discontent, fracture and armed insurrections in various parts of the country thus requires a new perspective for assessing the internal and external dimension of the conflict. Constraining the behavior of those who control the levers of real political and economic power is one important issue.  Another important and practical question is the space and time for conflict management, resolution, justice and reconciliation. Until the conflict is resolved the capturers of the institutions of the state shall continue to attempt to the control, masses continue to protest, armed groups get legitimacy and popularity, foreigners get a chance to advance their own interest, and peripheries opt to ignore or undermine or exit from the so called “union of ethnic groups” construct of Ethiopia. They delegitimize the state simply because that is the bargaining instrument they have, and at present aggrieved parties do not have the institutional mechanism to resolve conflict from within. Regionalism as an instrument of bargain and de-legitimization of the state are likely to continue for a while but many have already realized that fads and fables do not persist.  Had Mr. Lefort’s energy been spent on this direction, it would have been a worthwhile investment.

With the TPLF/EPRDF determined as it is to assert its authority,  and continues its head-on collision with the new intelligentsia, under the mantra of growth, law and order or now ironically on “Ethiopian-ism”, it is only talking to itself and the demand for improved institutions will almost certainly continue as growth (if it exists) demands better political institutions. Furthermore, TPLF/EPRDF must know that the growth, if it exists could also have come in spite of it. In short whichever way one understands the causes and consequences of the conflict change appears unavoidable. Predicting future events is hazardous but probability theory also does not support Mr. Lefort’s many ifs and buts to happen concurrently to make the TPLF/EPRDF an agent of change. More importantly, change does not come out of the fiats of autocrats and benefactors of cronyism. What saved the TPLF/EPRDF from the storm is neither its political institutions, nor its popularity in Tigrai nor its “centrist elite”, it is rather the mono ethnic top brass of the defense and security organ which is a benefactor of the cronyism. Mr. Lefort is correct in questioning how long the situation persists, and that shall remain a puzzle. However, as the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyweered once argued, fundamental change is not possible without a “system break up”. No doubt examining how the cronyism gets replaced by better political institutions requires discourse; and there are several avenues for this. It is however incorrect to conclude that a breakup of an organization that is built on conflict and cronyism leads to the breakup of nations.

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