Is Meles Zenaw’s Developmentalism Winning in Ethiopia?


Photo: The late PM of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi

By Merkeb Negash
Jan. 28, 2013

The active politician is a creator, an initiator; but he neither creates from nothing nor does he move in the turbid void of his own desires and dreams. He bases himself on effective reality… applies one’s will to the creation of a new equilibrium, [and] does so in order to dominate and transcend it. What ‘ought to be’ is therefore concrete; indeed it is the only realistic and historicist interpretation of reality, it alone is history in the making and philosophy in the making, it alone is politics. — Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks

A recent article by two prominent scholars titled “Is state capitalism winning?” intrigued me to ask if state capitalism was winning in Ethiopia. The success of state capitalism depends on getting both the politics and the economy right. As there could never be a credible doubt on the socio-economic strides Ethiopia has made in the last decade, I will focus on the politics, which depends- on developmental states- on the formation of a nascent ‘historic block’. According to Antonio Gramsci and Francoise Bayart, the formation of hegemony is, in turn, essential to the development of a historical bloc within a social formation.

The consolidation of ideological hegemony was one of the most pressing issues that kept Meles awake at night. As Alex De Waal recently revealed, Meles “was uninterested in those who hailed his government as triumph or disaster… [He was only obsessed with] whether developmentalism was becoming hegemonic in Ethiopia”. Officially, Meles had been arguing that the ‘hegemonic’ nature of Ethiopia’s development project would be achieved faster and held more deeply because it emerged from free debate and dialogue. Political rhetoric aside, the notion of building an Ethiopian developmental state did not emerge from free debate and dialogue nor was Meles so naïve to believe so. As Hugues Portelli argued, “there is no social system where consensus serves as the sole basis of hegemony nor a state where the same social group can durably maintain its domination on the basis of pure coercion”. Instead, Gramsci, in his prison notebooks, argues, the normal exercise of hegemony is characterized by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent. Even in the democratic cases of developmentalism such as Botswana, Japan and Malaysia, some sort of coercion and consent have worked in tandem with building developmental/ideological hegemony. In Botswana, for example, a remarkably stable historic bloc has been formed not through free debate and dialogue but with the ruling coalition of elites co-opting or integrating the leaders of the most important social factions within the Batswana society.

Since the introduction of developmentalism as a modus operandi  of state political economy in Ethiopia, the incumbent party strengthened its ‘pursuit of hegemony’ by creating ‘leadership’ with ‘allied classes’ such as the peasantry, small-scale producers and bureaucrats (of which about 6 million are members of the ruling party).  Experiences show that East Asian developmental states have had to base themselves on the ‘explicit’ or ‘tacit’ support of the peasantry. It is, therefore, natural that the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) chose small farmers, which constitute 80 percent of the Ethiopian population, as its support base. In addition to the rural peasantry, small and medium size entrepreneurs in the urban areas are also counted as the government’s support base. The government has been creating and organizing “new entrepreneurs” in a manner Gramsci described as “manufacturing the manufacturers through protectionism and privileges”. This explains the emergence of Small and Micro Enterprises (SMEs). According to the Growth and Transformation (GTP), the number of people engaged in SMEs is planned to reach three million. The combination of these factors and measures could thus be potential areas for creating a ‘nascent developmental coalition’ in Ethiopia.

In addition, the material structure of ideology in civil society, consisting of publishing houses, newspapers, literature, art (music, poetry, theatres etc), and street names and so on, all operate as factors or elements in the struggle over hegemony. Having observed the songs, poems, theatres dedicated to Meles Zenawi after his death, it doesn’t take much to realize the success of Meles’ dream of ideological hegemony. Even the staunch critics of Meles seem to have admitted this lately. For instance, Abiye Teklemariam, who had previously insisted that “Ethiopia is far, far, far away from a situation where people choose Meles Zenawi over [other] alternatives whatever [Artists] say”, recently tweeted as follows: “you can’t nowadays even discuss football without conjuring up some developmental spectacle. The unity of [political] culture and ideology that Meles Zenawi promised to achieve is truly realized”.

On the other hand, the intellectual class, which Gramsci and Bayart consider as the ‘civil servants of the superstructure’, is often hostile to the regime and against the developmental state paradigm. Meles believed that the neoliberal paradigm was “the only game in town” for intellectuals; hence a challenge. I had been sceptical of this assertion until a professor of Political Science once shrugged-off my argument that neoliberalism had failed to bring the ‘hopeless continent’ out of misery and backwardness. I provided various works of world-class economists and the actual African condition we both lived in as evidences for my argument. I even raised WB’s recent report of the failure of the neoliberal prescriptions in Africa. I couldn’t convince him. Ironically, the intellectual class in Africa has become more neoliberal than the WB, the physician that prescribed the medicine! Meles had been well aware of the fact that the intellectual class had become “more catholic than the pope”! That is why he chose to exclude this class from the developmental coalition. He was right! Meles based himself on effective reality and applied his will to dominate and transcend this reality so as to create a new, better equilibrium. Meles’ ‘what ought to be’ was, therefore, concrete, it alone was/is history in the making; it alone was/is politics!

With such intellectual conservatism, Meles thought it would take another decade before he could be sure of the ideological hegemony of developmentalism in Ethiopia. When Time asked him what kept him awake at night, Meles replied : “it has always been fear : fear that the light which is beginning to flicker in this great nation, the light of renewal, an Ethiopian renaissance, might be dimmed by some bloody mistake by someone, somewhere”. However, if Meles could come back and see how his proud people grieved his death and are determined to continue his legacy, how artists praised him and footballers struggled not to let him down, he would no longer have this fear; in lieu, a beautiful smile, a gift he rarely enjoyed serving his people!

Meles, Rest in Peace; developmentalism is becoming hegemonic sooner than you thought.

Ed’s Note: Merkeb Negash is a lecturer of Political Science and International Relations at Jimma University, and a blogger at Danielberhane’s blog. He has done his MA Thesis on the potentials and challenges of the Ethiopian developmental state. The views expressed in this article do not necessairly reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at elroenegash@gmail.com.