Global Development Institute Blog

Ethiopia stands out as a leading example of state-led development in Africa and yet in 2020 it descended into civil war. Tom Lavers’ new open access book offers a comprehensive, multi-sector analysis of Ethiopia’s project, charting the rise and fall of its ‘developmental state’.

 In the following summary, Tom outlines the key themes of the book.

Under the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until 2019, donors, academics and media alike lauded Ethiopia for shedding its past image of famine to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Ethiopia made rapid progress on virtually every available socioeconomic indicator and launched a series of mega-projects, including new railways, hydropower dams and industrial parks.

Despite many successes, however, all was not well. From 2014 onwards mass anti-government protests spread across Ethiopia’s Oromiya region and from there countrywide. Fuelled by a growing power struggle within the ruling elite, these protests paralysed the country and forced political reforms resulting in the dissolution of the EPRDF in 2019 and paving the way for the outbreak of civil war in northern Ethiopia in late 2020 with catastrophic impacts both on human lives and the economy.

So why did one of the wealthiest and best-organised political parties on the continent implode so spectacularly in the midst of an economic boom? The book adopts a multi-sectoral, multi-scalar and historical approach, arguing that the answer lies in the EPRDF’s strategy for maintaining political order and the distributive failings of the EPRDF’s project of state-led development.

The EPRDF originates in an insurrection against the previous Derg regime by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that liberated the northern region of Tigray and then formed the EPRDF as a coalition of ethnic-based parties to represent Ethiopia’s ethnic groups. Having fought its way to national power by 1991, the EPRDF faced a difficult situation in which to consolidate national power. Though militarily dominant, the EPRDF had limited elite or popular support outside Tigray.

The EPRDF’s political strategy was twofold. First, the new government launched a state building project based on a federal system comprising ethno-linguistically defined regions. This federalism aimed to address the ‘national question’ inherited from past regimes by allowing for a degree of ethnic self-determination. Political control rested to a considerable degree on the symbolism of ethnic self-determination, and the TPLF’s co-optation and subordination of newly formed EPRDF parties. Yet, by creating the federal system, the EPRDF also made ethnicity the central organising principle of politics, entrenching the politicisation of identity.

Second, the EPRDF considered widespread poverty and rapid population growth to present a major distributive threat. The government sought to consolidate its control over the masses through a broad-based development strategy, distributing resources in forms that tied people to the party-state. The first step was to maintain state land ownership and the distribution of land rights to peasant farmers while raising smallholder agricultural productivity through state-controlled distribution of agricultural inputs.

However, the longer-term objective was always labour-intensive industrialisation and mass employment creation that would reduce pressure on rural land, thereby enabling urbanisation and improved living standards. In doing so, the expectation was that the government would retain popular compliance during a process of structural transformation and urbanisation.

This political and economic strategy was, in many respects, successful. A party split in 2001 led to the centralisation of power around the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, and a concerted focus on implementing the national development strategy. The result was rapid agricultural productivity growth and strong economic growth fuelled by state infrastructure investment.

However, the limitations of this strategy also sowed the seeds of the EPRDF’s eventual demise. The key failing was the slow pace of industrialisation and mass employment creation. Rapid population growth and rural land shortages meant that agriculture was no longer able to provide livelihoods or political control over a rapidly expanding youth population.

Moreover, despite some latter success in attracting foreign investment to new industrial parks, progress with industrial employment creation was minimal compared to the great needs of a rapidly growing and urbanising population. Despite being a key government priority over several decades, progress with industrialisation was slow, as a result of the limitations of domestic capitalists, the failures of state industrial policy and the constraints on industrialisation in the contemporary global economy.

In the absence of mass employment creation, growing population pressure and landlessness amongst young adults was further exacerbated by the government’s development projects, displacing landholders with minimal compensation to make way for urban expansion, infrastructure projects and agricultural investments.

Though population growth and stalled structural transformation were the main factors driving this distributive crisis, displacement for urban expansion and development projects provided a highly visible flashpoint for growing resentment at the shortage of opportunities generated by the development model. It was these instances of displacement that provided the initial spark for the Oromo protests in 2014 and 2015. The protests subsequently spread across the region and then the country fuelled by the broader distributive crisis and the politicisation of ethnicity, with distributive failings framed as inter-ethnic grievances.

A full understanding of the EPRDF’s collapse requires analysis of the links between this mass distributive crisis and elite political dynamics, however. Elite cohesion within the EPRDF rested on the dominance of the TPLF and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and the acquiescence of the leadership of the other ethnic parties. This uneasy compromise within the EPRDF gradually began to unravel, particularly after Meles’ death in 2012.

The result was that when anti-government protests spread from 2014, leaders of subordinate ethnic parties within the EPRDF did not identify a common threat to the ruling elite that required a unified and coherent response, but rather saw potential for political advancement in riding the wave of ethnic-based anti-government protests. As such, mass protests magnified emerging divisions within the EPRDF, leading some factions to align with and encourage the protests, whilst others sought to suppress them.

The 2018 leadership change, the ERPDF’s dissolution in 2019 and the outbreak of civil war in 2020 are the complex results of these elite power struggles within the former EPRDF in the context of a mass distributive crisis. Ultimately, the distributive crisis and elite fragmentation translated into a broader crisis of the Ethiopian state, centring, once again, on the role of ethnicity in politics.

In exploring these issues, the book also sets the Ethiopian experience in comparative context and explores the implications of Ethiopia’s ‘developmental state’ for other late developing countries. In particular, can authoritarian regimes in Africa pursue state-led development as a means of securing their own political survival along similar lines to those in East Asia? And, how does the context of ‘late-late development’ alter prospects for state-led development and the political processes required to bring it about?


Top image of Addis Ababa. Photo by Robel Argaw on Unsplash




Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.