Global Development Institute Blog

By Eyob Balcha Gebremariam

The May 24, 2015 Ethiopian election is an archetypical political process where authoritarian developmentalism went to the poll seeking procedural democratic legitimacy for its less inclusive economic growth and severely restricted civil and political rights of citizens. The final results of the elections will tell whether the state-to-family level structures of control, harassment and indoctrination will be strong enough to extend the 99.6 per cent domination of the ruling party over the national parliament.DEVELOPMENT BOTH AS INSTRUMENT AND IDEOLOGY

The incumbent Ethiopian government claims that it is building a democratic developmental state. Most government and party documents and propaganda materials take both development and democracy as existential elements that are essential for the continuity and survival of Ethiopia as a country. Particularly after the May 2010 election which resulted in having only one parliamentary seat for the opposition, developmentalism (Limatawinet) assumed the most crucial role in government political discourses. Huge infrastructure construction projects including dams, roads, urban houses, educational and health facilities and railways have been carried out. The massive investment by the government in these projects and their impact on the current economic growth is the main source of legitimacy for the regime in power. For the first time in nearly three decades, the ideology of the ruling party has changed from the most controversial Revolutionary Democracy to Democratic Developmentalism. This was proved when EPRDF argued in favour of “developmental democracy ideology” against two opposition parties that represented Social Democracy and Liberal Democracy, in one of the pre-election debates.

Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, according to the most recent National Human Development Report by the UNDP registered a growth rate averaging 10.9 percent in the decade to 2012/13 with an acclaimed “pro-poor budgeting” (especially on education and health) progressively increased to 70 per cent of the federal government’s investment. The World Bank puts Ethiopia’s average growth rate since 2004 at 8.3 percent in its latest Poverty Analysis Report in 2014. The World Bank also describes Ethiopia’s growth as “strong” and “broad-based”. Both reports agree that high economic growth has contributed to the reduction of absolute poverty and the success of achieving five of the eight Millennium Development Goals in Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, both the WB and UNDP are respectively critical of the rate of reduction in poverty depth and severity and the decline in absolute numbers of people below the poverty line. In spite of the progressive reduction in absolute poverty, the WB argues 87 per cent of Ethiopians live in deprivation according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). Likewise, the UNDP report emphasized, due to high population growth, there are about 25 million Ethiopians that are below the poverty line of USD$0.60/day. This puts all the rosy pictures of growth and success for more than a decade under a big question mark.

The other image that characterizes present-day Ethiopia is the severely restricted and curtailed civil and political rights of citizens. These include the imprisonment, harassment, and intimidation of journalists, bloggers and activists, the ever narrowing political sphere and gross violation of human and democratic rights. The closing down of private newspapers and magazines, the forced exile of more than 60 journalists, the imprisonment of zone9 bloggers and reports of abuse from multiple political parties are much substantiated scenarios.

The ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRDF) used its majority seats in the previous parliament to pass politico-legal laws such as the Charities and Societies Proclamation, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation. The incumbent uses such kinds of legal instruments, its control over the judiciary and strong presence of security forces that overlap with the ruling party structures to silence alternative views and to squash any attempt of dissent.


The end of the civil war in 1991, the promulgation of the constitution in 1995 and the establishment of a number of institutions and practices including regular elections for five consecutive times are clearly seen as insufficient for democratic consolidation in Ethiopia. Almost all political parties vying for political power are immensely entrenched into zero-sum game political rivalries. The incumbent characterizes opposition parties as “anti-peace”, “anti-development” and “anti-democratic”. Nearly all of the opposition parties call for a regime change from dictatorship to democracy by removing the ruling party. There is hardly any trust among major political forces in the institutions of democracy, including the constitution and processes of democratization including the just-ended election. This proves the failed democratic transition in Ethiopia which is far from democratic consolidation. It is in this political context that the ruling party opted to pursue authoritarian developmentalism under the disguise of “democratic developmentalism”. In today’s Ethiopia, the government seeks to legitimize its rule by delivering on socio-economic aspects and justifying its actions against civil and political rights of citizens as a price paid for peace, stability and development.


The Horn of Africa, the most fragile region in Africa, is offering the incumbent unparalleled strategic advantage regionally, continentally as well as globally. Being a relatively stable country with a strong government and with a population of nearly 90 million people, Ethiopia is the one and the only country that is capable of leading the region’s peace and security agenda as well as the region’s external relations. Often known as “donors’ darling”, the current regime is skilful enough to negotiate both with the East (mainly China) and the West (US, EU and UK) by playing a regional police and peace-keeper role or as a gateway to resourceful Africa. The regime plays the “China card” quite often and strategically to manoeuvre through the terrain of international aid. While both the US and EU expressed their implicit message about the credibility of the election in their eyes by not sending any election observer mission to Ethiopia, they cannot afford to remain indifferent about the outcomes of the election. The EPRDF led regime is a reliable and key player in the region in the fight against terrorism particularly in curbing al-Shabaab in Somalia.

While preliminary election results are coming out suggesting another utterly shameful and unjustifiable landslide to the ruling party, it is imperative to examine the existing political situation in Ethiopia at least from three perspectives. First, the authoritarian regime disguised in “democratic developmentalism” is using its super power to silence alternative views, criminalize dissent and terrorize citizens using draconian laws, intelligence and security institutions and multiple structures of control. Its positive economic growth report is always presented as a cover-page to hide its true face. Second, the geopolitical context is wisely exploited by the regime to silence any external critique both from within Africa and outside. For instance, the recent incident where Wendy Sherman (US undersecretary for political affairs) gave diametrically opposite opinions about the EPRDF led regime in a fortnight shows how perplexed the Obama administration is.

Thirdly, the Ethiopian regime is crafting a new way of covering up its unjust and dictatorial nature in the veil of economic growth. It is a new precedence for other regimes where citizens’ views and concerns are always rejected. It is another headache for Africans where authoritarian regimes change constitutions, rig elections or persecute opposition leaders just to quench their lust to power. The Ethiopian case is a combination of all; achieving less inclusive economic growth, rigging elections, violating constitutionally guaranteed rights, controlling society and running a de-facto police state.

* Eyob Balcha Gebremariam, a PhD researcher at Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester,, blogs at Email:

This blog was orignially published on Pambazuka News