Mind the Jump: A Brief Response to Messay Kebede (Abiye Teklemariam Megenta)

June 15th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Professor Messay Kebede’s challenging essay, “Meles Zenawi’s Political Dilemma and the Developmental State: Dead-Ends and Exit”, makes a lot of fresh arguments and suggestions. Some of them are deeply unsettling to many of us who consider ourselves to be part of a pro-democracy struggle in Ethiopia. To the extent that we believe Messay himself is a member of our community – a towering intellectual figure at that – it is hard to escape a sense of deep disenchantment with what appears to be his abandonment of our deepest convictions. But that is not a good enough reason to react negatively towards the article. I agree with American political philosopher Michael Walzer that the internal critics, the incrementalists and foot-draggers, the prophets that are honoured in their own city, are better in achieving the goals of their criticism than the external hammer-on-the-skull critics. But the axe and the furious witnessing (to use Kafka’s phrase) are needed if communities are not to stagnate beyond reprieve, as ours seems to be heading towards. It is refreshing to see that Messay is willing to stick his neck out in service of reason and progress. But alas, most of his arguments, at least the arguments which matter, are far from persuasive.

The main point in Messay’s article is that it is not beyond Meles Zenawi to establish a developmental state provided that the present political structure is reformed in such a way that leaves, at least for some time, the ruling elite in power, but does not exclude the opposition from participating in the act of governing. This is an authoritarian scheme, insofar as its grounding is elite agreement, not voter choice. But Messay takes a hopeful, if not an overconfident, view that democratization is possible under the tutelage of these power sharing authoritarian elites.

The relevant literature in political science and political economy shows that this overconfidence is misplaced. There are diverse explanations of the democratization process, and Messay is on point to claim that elite-conceded or – to a lesser degree – elite-imposed democracy are not implausible. But there are few places where these democratization processes have started with power-sharing arrangements among competing political parties. As Harvard Political Scientist Pippa Norris argues, there is little evidence that power sharing “serves the long-term interests of democratic consolidation and durable conflict management”. As it turns out, the bulk of literature points to an opposite conclusion: that power sharing arrangements in full-scale authoritarian systems unravel quite quickly since the currency of trust and strength of agreement-enforcing political institutions on which the effectiveness of these arrangements rely are very low, or even worse, they lead to exclusionary bargaining systems and political culture that frustrate the emergence of democracy. It is good to note that in the very few cases where power sharing schemes have positive democratization effects, including some of the examples mentioned by Messay, the authoritarian states happened to have strong selectorate accountability, or they were less than full-scale authoritarianisms. In a simple language: the more the scale of authoritarianism, the less the actual democratization effect of power sharing arrangements. If what Messay says about the nature of Meles Zenawi’s rule is true, it makes his idea hopelessly mistimed.

It seems to me that what prompts Messay to consider this path to democratization is his enthusiasm for the developmental state. In a way, his aim is to kill two birds with one stone. But accepting elite authoritarian tutelage would not have been necessary had Messay been less dismissive of the concept of a democratic developmental state. Messay insists, plausibly enough, that the concept ignores the “defining characteristics of Asian Developmental States”. But that is not a good reason to reject altogether its realizability. Indeed, the histories of post-war Germany, Botswana, South Africa and many other countries suggest that a developmental state can be democratic. I do not know the “serious literature” on this issue to which Messay refers, but my understanding is that a good many developmental scholars agree that such states are possible, in both an ideal and non-ideal sense. If such agreement exists for political reasons as Messay contends – which I think is an implausibly strong claim – he fails to offer any evidence.

Also, Messay makes two rather common errors – both of the conflating sort – when he constructs his argument. First, he takes it for granted that neo-liberalism = liberalism. I think it is fair to say that this is a troublesome position. Philosopher John Holbo rightly calls the general tendency to conflate the two as “strawman-ing liberalism”. Some of the most vociferous critics of neo-liberalism – an economic philosophy that is best represented by the ”Washington consensus” – including Joseph Stiglitz, Meles Zenawi’s unabashed champion, are self-proclaimed liberals. The dominant thought in liberalism qua philosophy (to which such egalitarian stalwarts as Ronald Dworkin, Richard Arneson and John Rawls belong) doesn’t prima facie reject a developmental role for the state since the underpinnings of this thought are not property rights. Second, Messay seems to think that democracies are ipso facto liberal. I am sympathetic to the view that no democracy can be illiberal. This is not, however, similar to saying that no democracy can be non-liberal. Certainly, in Messay’s exalted field (political philosophy) there is a rich scholarly work on normative non-liberal democratic theories. The institutional implications of these theories have also been a subject of serious discussion by political scientists. It is not my aim to nitpick Messay for trivial purposes. It is to show that once one escapes such confusions, one can imagine the possibility of a democratic developmental state, and, dare I say, a liberal democratic developmental state.

Messay has much else to say, not least in his kicking of opposition parties in the shin for failing to grasp that Meles Zenawi had no intention to “go back to the situation of 2005”. This is an odd claim. My impression before the 2010 election was that if there was any single point that Ethiopian opposition groups agreed on, it was that Ethiopia was backsliding towards absolute authoritarianism. Am I missing something here? Some believed that their only way of connecting to Ethiopians was to use whatever political space the system provided them; some decided that this was a naïve view and chose a different path; there was a minority who continued to participate in the process with the hope that Meles Zenawi would come to see the follies of his ways. If members of this latter group committed any offence, it is in their anti-determinism, a view with which Professor Messay openly associates. I do not see how a person who advises Meles to make concessions can hold it against the opposition for acting on a similar belief unless the advice is intended to be no more than gestural.

I believe that Messay’s attempt to reflect on the matter of development and democracy in a decently nuanced manner is commendable. The Ethiopian opposition seems unwilling to give up the tiresome but emphatically false argument that democracy is a precondition for economic development. Democracy needs a better and a more convincing defence than one that tastes as a picked cherry or is based on dogmatic assertions that fly in the face of well-grounded knowledge. I can’t emphasise enough how emancipatory Messay’s article is. But its emancipatory value is in the freshness of its approach, not the force of its reason.

  1. Enanu Agonafer
    | #1

    Ethiopia needs new thinkers and Dr. Messay and Abiye are not two of them.

    Ethiopia Dr. Messay and Abiye know has evolved. New economic relations have created new classes. The military, ethno – military and academic elites are no more in command. The future of Ethiopia is the new emerging middle class – the economic elites. Any analysis that shuns this force from consideration is wrong. And that’s why most attempts to introduce change in the form of democracy or other continues to fail.

    In the past century, Ethiopia was feudal under absolute monarchy close for seventy five years. Regent H. Selassie took power from Empress Zewditu through palace intrigue. A coup d’Etat was tried by military elites against him but failed. In the name of revolution, military elites came to power in 1974 until they were removed by another ethno – military elites. The latter are still in power but losing grip to new elites.

    For hundred years, the power exchange in Ethiopia has been from a monarch to military elites to ethno – miliary elites. It was done by palace intrigues, “revolution” and violent civil war. Coup d’Etats have not succeeded. Democracy and peaceful transfer of power has not been tried except in 2005 in which the ethno – military elites were defeated. The academic elites had always been in the background of these power exchange in the country. Academic elites such as leaders of OLF, EPRP and AESM are examples here. They paid enormous prices but never succeeded to achieve independence, form their own government or share power with others.

    The century of military, ethno – military and academic and quasi- academic elites in Ethiopia is over. A recent study of the Ethiopian military has confirmed that its interest to take power through coup d’Etat is almost nil. In case situations go out of hand, it might step in but only upon the request of parliament or the government itself. Some say it has understood that the Constitution prohibits its take over of power. The quasi- academic – ethno -military forces such as OLF and ONLF (if they want to succeed like TPLF) have to take their hit-and-ran to a higher level to be taken seriously. They have not done that for the last three- four decades and they are losing momentum. The diaspora academic elites are still talking whereas those in the country are not. The ones in the country have changed to the extent that their mission is not to liberate the masses but rather prosper and join the emerging economic elite.

    The century is for the emerging economic elites in the country. The opposition is dead and buried in the country. TPLF/EPRDF, let alone share power with the opposition, it will not talk to them as they have no sizable constituency that wields political clout. As a political force, which largely comes from the academic and quasi – elites, the opposition is out. Even in 2005, it was the economic elites that took the opposition where it found itself. Once they realized they cannot do business with the opposition, they let it go. The opposition has not recovered from the damage the separation caused.

    The economic elites have now turned to the government and started demanding wider economic space (in forms of free economy and market) which they are getting day after day. The entire bureaucracy is serving them and the police protecting them and their property. Soon, they will demand further political liberalization in the jargon we hear every day: good governance, transparency, accountability, efficiency and effectiveness, responsiveness, participatory, consensus, rule of law, etc. And the government will talk to them, respond to their demands provided they pay money.

    The economic elites forming the middle class is the force that will bring democracy in the country. The military, ethno-military and the academic and quasi -academic elites have been given the chance in the last fifty years. They have squandered the chance and it is time for them to leave the field for others.

  2. tewbel
    | #2

    Vow! I have been holding my breath.

  3. Dawit
    | #3

    Enanu, When I read your comment, I thought you confused China with Ethiopia. It is a good dream. Be careful of not confusing dreams with reality. Who are the economic elite in Ethiopia? Do you mean the handful of corrupt, predatory, rent-seeking “business people” who benefit from TPLF perks? Or the “eje wodeaf” traders who are subjected to the business killing policies of TPLF? May be, you mean the imaginary wealthy peasants of Meles Zenawi? Do you know the GDP share of private investment and business in Ethiopia? Ethiopia is one of the worst countries for business. If you are interested in class analysis, I take it that you have read Ken Ohashi’s departing thoughts about the country’s economy and the climate of business. I thought even propaganda cannot be stretched a certain point.

  4. Koroboo
    | #4


    I agree with Messay 100% and have to say that except throwing European sounding names in your article you haven’t put into context the Ethiopian reality. But Messay has done a commendable job in putting his views across in a very realistic way within the Ethiopian confines, not western cloud coco land idealism most of the Diaspora including you is gripped with.

    What saddens me is the fact that we don’t even learn from our mistakes in the past. The idealistic students movements in the 60’s and 70’s that has inspired and eventually lead to massive destruction of the same generation and our countries fate, for exactly same questions we still are asking now. Freedom, democracy, justice, rule of law, equality etc… In my view there is a reason for this, not completely understanding the realities on the ground and trying to attain your goal without the prerequisite preparation and environment.I am someone in his early 30’s that doesn’t have that historical baggage of the current leadership of both the government and opposition, like you. However, I choose to learn from the mistakes done before and understand the reality on the ground. That Ethiopian politics has changed and will change for good. Irony prevails across political spectrums, wherein extreme viewpoints fuel rivalry. As politics is a continuum, ideologies often override conciliations. However, whenever it overlooks reason, the irony results in confusion.

    So confused is Ethiopian opposition politics that political parties emerge, split, merge, and pass on almost daily. They remain weak, saturating the political scene with lopsided rhetoric, unchallenged policy measures, and uncontested propaganda.

    With the parties failing to forward alternative arguments on issues of public interest ranging from the cost of living to doing business and onto social security, they settle for playing a blame game. Failing to articulate their stands, they go to bed merely opposing and comfortably.

    Governing is an art that demands a series of compromises. Beyond rhetorical statements, it requires character to lead. As far as this character embodies the energy and determination as well as ability to innovate and govern, it would be reflected in each argument.

    An aspiring opposition member should exhibit this characteristic, even among her opposition. If he understands the responsibility of governing, her arguments would be substantiated with facts. His arguments would be accurate, while she fuses responsibility with accountability.

    The Ethiopian political scene has been challenged by character poverty since opposition politics has became increasingly specious, individualised, and uncoordinated. Divided along sectarian lines, the parties serve special interests. Haunted by animosity, their arguments are often unsubstantiated.

    They take opposing as a duty, not a vocation, leading them to settle for unproven policy alternatives. Lacking the ability to strike optimal balances amongst alternative policies, they prefer to capitalise on public resentment or historical loopholes. On occasions of strong policy debate, they opt for archaic issues and even when they get it right, they contradict themselves.

    They claim to be liberal while supporting subsidies. They claim to be social democrats while they favour tax relief for the rich. In most cases, they lack a clear philosophical drive in their arguments.

    Still consisting of the Old Garde, they leave no space for the youth.\

    Capitalising on their weaknesses, the EPRDF remains the only functional party on the political scene. Snatching agendas such as national unity, Abyssinian patriotism, and Nile hegemony, once opposition strongholds, from the opposition, the ruling party has successfully transcended conventional ideological barriers.

    As it expands its political base, it has crowded them out of their comfort zone. They apparently enjoy the art of opposing more than the prospect of possibly governing.

    On the inflationary economic situation, the opposition bluntly opposed undertakings such as the credit cap. Some even advocated for a wage increment, knowing that it could fuel inflation.

    Under the litmus test of fiscal policy, they shockingly failed to identify a possible source of the money to pay for it. So incomplete have their proposals been, they forfeit on both political and technical fronts.

    Coordination remained their nightmare, though they sometimes enact the drama of forming coalitions. Lacking strategic vision, coalitions often fracture.

    At the heart of it lies the deeply entrenched poverty of character. Signified by a concerted vision to govern, the temperament to lead is an essential quality for an aspiring chief. Not only do Ethiopian opposition parties lack such a vision but their leaders are also unadventurous.

    The prevailing socio-cultural conditions are unfavourable for democracy. Compounded by this narrow political space, the opposing side has become so comfortable that they find themselves in the quagmire of facing extinction.

    To the dismay of ordinary Ethiopians, listening to reasoned debate remains a luxury in this global era of innovation, technology, and ideas. The marketplace of ideas is crowded with Revolutionary Democracy and its sectional interpretations.

    Crying fool of public disappointments has rather became the model of doing business of opposition politics in the country, as it aggrandises its every little achievement.

    Although ideas are the lifeblood of partisan politics, less is said about more in Ethiopian opposition politics. This poverty of ideas accompanies the poverty of character. Even in opportune times such as election campaigns, opposition parties focus less on innovative solutions than historical events. They campaign with indolence, indicating that they might govern with passivity.

  5. Dan
    | #5

    Enanu Agonafer said:
    [[A recent study of the Ethiopian military has confirmed that its interest to take power through coup d’Etat is almost nil.]]

    Was that the rank and file or the 95% ONE TRIBE who won’t “coup d’Etat” themselves? :-)

    Are you freakin’ kidding us?

    Come on now ….Bro! The fact is the follwing:

    A few months ago, Ginbot 7’s research team presented an extensive list of the top military commanders of the Woyane regime including their names, their position in the military and their ethnic background. That meticulously researched study showed how the current military of Meles Zenawi’s regime is totally dominated by one ethnic group where by some 95% of the top brass of the military emanate from the Tigrian ethnic group representing about 6% of the population.

  6. ጉረኞች
    | #6

    What are you talking about Enanu? Are you saying that the ‘አየር ባየር ነጋዴ” and those who benefited from corruption would determined the politics of Ethiopia? That is simply laughable. No doubt so far the ethnic enterpruners had it their way, it takes some time to change the trend even with genuine democratization struggle with organized oppositions. Definitely, no change would come out of ‘አየር ባየር ነጋዴ”. You better give big ear to what Messay is saying, considering the time it might take to come out as a victor.

  7. Ashu
    | #7

    Who are the economic elits? What economic space are they getting day by day? If you are talking about EFORT and the like, it is ok. The government it selling suger, oil… and is this free market?? ordinary importers were almost freezed in April and May and they are not sure what is going to happen next year. Their destiny is in the hands of the government.

    If the government believe prices can be lowered, it should have take part with out baning or intemidating the business community.

    You are either in denayal or misinformed. Talk to the business people how they feel.

  8. Messay Kebede
    | #8

    Your comments on my article raise interesting points and invite a serious debate. For now I say the following:
    1. Your statement that “what prompts Messay to consider this path to democratization is his enthusiasm for the developmental state” completely misunderstands the main idea of the article. What prompts me is the present political impasse of Ethiopia: Neither Meles can succeed in marginalizing the opposition through rapid economic development, nor the opposition can overthrow him through electoral victory (the only way is armed struggle or popular revolution). What is the way out from these dead-ends? That is the main question of the article and I am surprised that you think that Ethiopia is not in a political stalemate.
    2. I think that your understanding of the genesis of democratic systems is not complex enough. It still reflects some Marxist assumptions. Democratic systems emerge, not only because of popular pressure or uprising, but also when conflicts between elites reach an impasse. Democracy is a way out from a political stalemate. I think numerous historical facts confirm the assumption.
    3. You say that authoritarian states lead to democracy when they have strong selectorate accountability. This is a structuralist argument that ignores the importance of subjective factors in history. It does not apply to Japan and other East Asian countries, which are now in the democratic camp. Most importantly, what is crucial is not the presence of some institutional prerequisites, but the determination of elites to respect them. The TPLF constitution of Ethiopia is fine; the problem is that the ruling elite does not respect it.
    4. I agree when you say that “no democracy can be illiberal.” However, your notion of a “liberal democratic developmental state” misses the characteristic feature of the Asian model of development. In the latter authoritarianism is perceived as a necessary means to promote economic progress and modernization. If you adopt liberalism, in whatever form, then I don’t see why you need the developmental state.
    5. My question concerning the 2010 election is the following: if opposition leaders had known that the elections would result in complete defeat for them, would they have participated? If I remember correctly, MEDREK was hesitant because the guarantees of fair elections were not enough. But they had to follow others, especially Hailu Shaul and his party, who thought that a fair competition was possible. I have heard many interviews of opposition leaders in which they say that they expect a significant victory. I have also read many articles stating that the Meles regime is on its last leg.

  9. Abiye Teklemariam
    | #9

    Professor Messay,

    Thank you for the response. On the misreading, I stand corrected. But it doesn’t change the substance of my response. Here are my comments.

    1.I don’t deny that democracy can be a way out of a political stalemate. I actually did not state my views about the genesis and development of democracy fully. My main point is there is little evidence to suggest that grand power sharing coalitions lead to democracy. In fact, the evidence points to the contrary.

    2.I didn’t say authoritarian states lead to democracy when they have strong selectorate accountability.It is that authoritarian power sharing coalitions lead to democracy if they are preceded by either an authoritarian system that had strong selectorate accountability or that is less than full-scale. It is a structuralist argument, but backed by a strong empirical evidence.

    3. The theory of developmental state is an economic theory(not an all encompassing political philosophy) that informs the priorities of economic policy and how to mobilize resources to execute them. It is insensitive to regime typology. The fairness vs. prosperity, employment, taxes and spending, deficits etc economic debates in liberal states can be informed by developmentalism.

    4.I think the election time declarations of the opposition party leaders were intended to redirect people’s attention to political contest.I thought it was not a great strategy, but the truth is it had nothing to do with their beliefs that 2010 elections could be like 2005.

  10. astra
    | #10

    Thank you Abiye. You have surgically pin pointed the fault lines of Messay’s argument – a point of view which clearly lacks sufficient empirical data to sustain it. Your conclusions says it all. Messay’s thesis could be entertained merely for “its emancipatory value in the freshness of its approach, NOT the force of its reason”

  11. Enanu Agonafer
    | #11

    My opinion is meant to show how the vocal diaspora academic elites are detached from the reality in Ethiopia and feed the day dream of the diaspora opposition. They cannot be power broakers in a highly charged political environment by suggesting pulled from nowhere.

    First they have to see if there is economic change that has affected relations in the country to the extent politics is impacted by it. Nobody begins with that. The discussion is always TPLF/EPRDF is in power for so long and how can we remove it. If anything different comes, it is how power can be shared with the government – obviously with academic and quasi – academic elites. Some get angry if you say both TPLF/EPRDF and acadamic elites are no more impotant political force in the country. The worst thing is they do not ask who these new forces are.

    TPLF/EPRDF has not talked for a while and will not talk to the opposition both from within and without the country. It has reach a point where it considers them a hit away from total elimination. It will no hear to any kind of suggestion to re-invent and strengthen them because deomocracy needs them. It has, time and again, said democracy is not an urgent affair for the country; growth and development are.

    So, with whom does TPLF/EPRDF with its governmet deal today? The economic elites. As noted widely, the service, industry and agriculture sector are moved by foreign and domestic capital. The finance source of the five-year plan is foreign and domestic capital and tax. Behind capital are tax are maily business people on whom the government is dependent. The government talks to these people, works to meet their interests and sometimes they clash. There are several recent examples to this effect. The future challenge these peole will raise to the government is to create “enabling economic environment” which includes good governance. In effect, good governance is democracy.

    As the economic elites closely work with the government to advance their interests, they will fight back any force like the academic and quasi academic elites that aspires to take political power or share it with the government. First of all, these elites have no significant stake in the country. They have no economic interest or any other interest for that matter. They might claim to be citizen of the country and need democracy, but those are not enough to put economic interest of an entire class in the hands of people who cannot protect it and help it to grow. The academic elite of the diaspora cannot even claim they aare citizens of the country. So much for their concern and efforts to destabilize it.

    TPLF/EPRDF has said that it will hand over power after building capitalism in the country. We do not know if the economic elites will not remove them soon enough to further open up the country for business. The millions of workers in the newly created farms, service, manufactury and construction will join the new economic class to bring about a far reaching change in our country. EFFORT is TPLF`s platform for joining the emerging economic elites.

  12. rezene kadissaba
    | #12

    Enanu – Afe Kurit Yibel –
    Let me supplement a simple example to support your argument. Recently the gov tried to dwell into the food oil business. They didn’t know the magnitude and volume. They found it surprisingly very huge, complex and the traders very powerful. The same goes to Sugar. Currently, they are negotiating and trying to find a win-win way out of it. The general business volume is becoming very huge. Too bad most Ethiopians are not aware of the current opportunity and soon all goes to China & India manufacturers. The gov can not sustain the protectionist policy anymore. We all will be Yebeyi Temelkach – like most nations in Africa.

  13. tizita
    | #13


    You stole the piece from the Addis Fortune. I hope you real neame is not Tessfaye Habisso. Shame on you for stealing even when you use a fake name.

  14. Oda Tulu
    | #14

    I am utterly disappointed with both Messay Kebede and Abiy Teklemariam. To me,respect for human rights in an all inclusive democratic governance go hand in hand with development in this age of information.

    I wish to draw to the attention of the duo that the demand for freedom and dignity drive the revolution of the the masses in the Arab world.

    What Ethiopia now critically needs are political leaders; Messay and Abiye do not qualify.

Comments are closed.