Like Ideologue, Like Party: Need for Nation to Move On

The Revolutionary Democrats do not see a mere party leader in Meles Zenawi, but an icon, Ethiopia’s Madiba, crossing party lines, respected by each and everyone, whose deeds are only comparable to so-called paragons of leadership, like Menelik II or Tewodros II.

It has been five years since Meles’s death, but every government institution ingratiatingly carries the name and photo of the late Prime Minister, often times with a quote from the late leader himself, in a fashion that has become a defining feature of these bodies. The state-owned Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation and its subsidiaries routinely run fawning documentaries outlining the late leader’s legacies, interspaced with an outpouring of appreciation from officials and supporters. State newspapers, like Addis Zemen, have run special editions in light of the Meles’s fifth year death anniversary, most times with editorials advocating his views and ideologies.

Indeed, the whole spectacle should not be surprising. The Revolutionary Democrats do owe much to Meles. The late leader was often a key source of strategies and policies to the party. Although it is often hard to attribute complete authorship to any one person for the endeavors undertaken by the state in the past 26 years, due to the opaque nature of Ethiopia’s politics, it would not be a misstatement to assert that some of the most dynamic policy statements were originated, or at the very least sold, by Meles.

Over the decades he made sure to orient the party in a position that would oppose the previous regime, Dergue, with a slew of political and economic structural reforms. He liked the contrast of embracing, or seeming to embrace, a multiparty political system, decentralisation of power, independent press and some measure of privatisation.

The reforms continued well into the millennia, the most ambitious being the Growth and Transformational Plan (GTP). The five-year plan that was projected to cost dozens of billions of dollars was to include a slew of mega projects that boldly aimed at transforming Ethiopia radically enough for it to become a middle-income country. The highlight was the Grand Ethiopian Rennaissance Dam (GERD), which was to be financed through government bonds – a venture admired even by his detractors.

The GTP was further expected to increase investment in renewable energy, create an amiable environment for foreign direct investment, improve the nation’s infrastructure and maintain a speedy economic growth.

The latter was of particular interest to Meles, which he saw as the only cure to Ethiopia’s major ill, poverty. Economic growth was the only solution, and maybe good-governance too. When the country experienced a double-digit growth, he demanded this be sustainable. When he saw a global trend towards environmentally friendly investments, he initiated Climate Resilient Green Economy.

He saw in economic development a win-win situation. An unabashed anti-neoliberal, he argued against laissez-faire market liberalisation and advocated the rise of state institutions such as the industrial complex Metal & Engineering Corporation (MetEC). His ideology was termed democratic developmentalism, an economic theory where growth is mainly driven by the government and imports are discouraged with high tariffs. In the end, people get food on their table, and the government asserts its legitimacy.

Most of these are centrepieces of the Revolutionary Democrats’ ideological and political mainstays, and though they may not be unique to the world, or even in some cases to the country, they were advocated for and directed by the late Prime Minister.

On the morrow of Meles’ death, after being sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegne, vowed to continue in the late leader’s footsteps. A promise he has kept for the most part.

Five years have passed, and save for a limited number of reforms in some sectors, there have not been any major radical changes to policies and strategies by the new Prime Minister or his administration. A case far too obvious in the macroeconomic sector of the country, party ideology has stagnated to hero-worship and wish fulfilment.

The lack of new ideas is by no means a state secret, though. But rather it is referred to as “continuing the legacies of Meles Zenawi”. State propaganda has shifted towards the canonization of the late Prime Minister, probably not as a choice but a necessity. Whatever does not grow, dies. As such, building a cult of personality around Meles helps stretch the party’s existence and legitimacy in the eyes of supporters. The Revolutionary Democrats do not worry much that the power they hold is borrowed, as long as it is still power.

Nonetheless, this affects the country too. The line between party and government is very thin. The Revolutionary Democrats have an outright majority in parliament, with their allies controlling the rest. So the domestic and international policies the party decides to harp on will affect the nation too.

As the country sticks to an old line of thought outlined by a late Prime Minister and new policies fail to materialize, times are changing. The problems the country faces are not the same. The nation’s primary objective may continue to be the reduction of poverty, capacity building for good governance and social development, but the reasons for why the nation is failing in these goals continue to mutate.

In the days of Meles, Ethiopia faced, and continues to face, economic problems related to poor infrastructure, an educated work force and foreign currency shortage. And in the political realm, the lack of awareness in the rule of law and distrust of government were some of the most obvious.

Ever the since the death of Meles, though, there have been a number of developments.

Identity politics is more toxic than ever. And political instabilities in two of the countries largest regions have created an impasse between government forces and the people living in those areas. All of this has been exacerbated by social media, which in the last five years has taken on a life of its own.

Such a political environment has contributed to economic uncertainty, severely affecting the economy by contributing to a decrease in tourists and foreign investments. In the international arena, the country faces recent negative global economic trends as China’s slowing economy, possible disintegration of the Eurozone and United State’s ‘America First’ stance.

Even though Meles’s ideas, or the strategies devised during his day, may have had creditable results, new ideas need to come to the fore. Signature policy agendas can be challenged, and large scale reforms should be reanalysed in the context of today.

It is true that Meles’s preferred economic theory of democratic developmentalism has delivered fast economic growth, but the government still lacks credibility in the eyes of constituents, perhaps proving the whole theory wrong. When the need to build capacity for good governance emanates from the want to deduct legitimacy, it does not sound sincere. And when leadership is subverted into one person rule, whether by the very parliamentary structure of Ethiopia’s political system, or the forceful personality of Meles himself, good governance fails to be institutionalised.

The economy in itself is not flawless. A foreign currency crunch, an unequal distribution of wealth and acute susceptibility to the global economy continue to haunt the nation. The remedy should not be more high tariffs on goods and services and the dumping of resources on state-owned enterprises, but rather the opposite, privatization, trade and more permeable borders. Trade liberalisation, especially with neighbouring countries, should not remain a pariah to the country simply because Meles was against it.

Although the nation hopes to be wealthier, and more democratic, it cannot do so in the very same manner Meles’s administration had hoped to. The symptoms, like poverty, or lack of good governance, maybe the same but Ethiopia’s main sources of problems are different and so should be the ways of resolving them.

Published on Sep 27,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 909]



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