Meles Zenawi : In Pursuit of Democratic Developmentalism

By Charles Abugre
Nov. 27, 2012

In life and in death Prime Minister Meles Zenawi left no room for ambiguity – you love him or you hate him with a passion. You admire him or you loath him with a passion. You agree or disagree with him with a passion. You debate with clarity, purpose and passion.

Upon the announcement of his death, an Ethiopian diaspora opposition voice, speaking on BBC radio proclaimed that Meles’ passing was a moment for celebration – a collective good-riddance by the people of Ethiopia. Asked why there was such a popular and spontaneous public grief on the streets of Addis Abeba if Meles was so loathed by his people, this voice claimed that far from being spontaneous, the people had been mobilized by the regime and ordered to the streets. It was all a façade, he said.

Another opposition voice, writing on his blog from the United States bemoaned how Meles lost the opportunity to be an exemplary leader – to be loved, cherished and revered by their people, like Nelson Mandela. In saying farewell to Meles, he chose to paraphrase Brutus’ tribute to Julius Caesar, the friend he had slain in a power grab: “It is time to bury Meles not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them”. An international NGO leader working in Kenya, writes on his facebook page: “Ding Dong the witch…well, we are admonished in Africa not to celebrate another person’s death, but it can be difficult when the person is a dictator like Meles”.

In contrast Susan Rice, The US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, spoke, at Meles’ funeral, of Meles the normal human being – loving father and husband- “uncommonly wise and able to see the big picture”…”disarmingly regular, direct and unpretentious”; Meles the “relentless negotiator and formidable debater”… “remarkably ambitious, but not for himself” (as is often the case) ; Meles was the almost uncontested intellectual political leader of Africa(especially after Thabo Mbeki’s exit from power) in Africa and the world; a man “with little patience for fools and idiots” and if I may add “pin prickers as Meles referred to political provocations that posed no real threat”..

How much would Meles have cared for being a Mandela or not been seen as a Julius Caesar? Perhaps not much. From the little I know of him I would argue, much as Alex de Waal has in a recent tribute; “He would have cared more whether his ideas and his programmes were properly presented ….. and whether history will prove him right”.

It is his ideas and programmes that interest me in relation to his legacy. It is the simple and disarming articulation in 1991 of the singular purpose of his leadership – that all Ethiopians can eat 3 meals a day- that reminds me of his revulsion against poverty and indignity. I associate with his view that it will be hard to keep the Ethiopian state (similar to many African states) in one piece without urgent and sufficient growth and transformation in the economy – starting with agriculture – as basis for shared livelihoods, shared agency and the resources to build the institutions of democracy. I identify with his analysis of the role of the state being principally to provide services, play an active role in building a dynamic economy including, regulating the market for both efficiency and public good; redirect incentives and economic rents towards value added activities; enable the people to influence and control political power by their ability to organize as informed and economically empowered citizens.

I admire the impressive coherence of his political and economic thoughts that guide his programmes and his ability to combine pragmatism with a clear ideological focus – we could do with a few more leaders who really care about clear thinking and invest in it. He believed that theory and practice must be rooted in one’s reality –the Ethiopian reality in historical context – and the patience to analyse that reality. The guy read almost as much as he was a workaholic.

I share his view that neither development nor democracy can thrive on their own – both must be pursued in tandem an in an inter-connected manner. – the development process is democratized if it is broad-based, dynamic and equitable and the democratic process is developmental if the marginalized have the economic and social wherewithal to actively shape politics. He calls this democratic developmentalism. These together form the foundations for enduring human rights. This way of thinking cannot be fitted neatly into the conventional “authoritarian bargain concept” box some have tried to fit him in – i.e. a South East Asian model of exchanging political repression for “food on the table”. I admire the ability to combine attention for the immediate – e.g. feeding people and preventing starvation– with the long haul – building the structural foundations of a dynamic economy and participatory democracy.

Most of all, I agree with Susan Rice that Meles was ambitious but not for himself (for he has acquired no private wealth and owns no private companies – an old style nationalist of the likes of Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah and Kenneth Kaunda who sincerely believed that power is about service not personal wealth). I admire his sense of the certitude of his ideas for it is this attribute that guided his ability to take or reject ideas or money, to resist manipulation and to remain unconventional when it suits. But I do not accept shooting people on the street if even to contain widespread violence, and the mass arrest of journalists – the political reactions to threats that have come to be widely marketed as evidence of autocratic rule.

So what is it about “democratic developmentalism(DD)” that I consider the legacy that must not only endure but be actively advanced. I came to be involved in discussions about DD from the angle of peace and security on the Horn of Africa, a subject I know little of, as an economist and anti-poverty activist. A group of us wanted to contribute to peace and security in the Horn of Africa through an informal platform to exchange ideas. Meles is one of a few African leaders who actually make time to engage in and welcome intellectual exchange whether about politics, economics or social policy.

We believed that Ethiopia was crucial to this for several reasons: it is the largest country by population in the region; relatively the most stable; relatively the most democratic; with the most dynamic economy; with a lot to lose if war broke out across several boundaries and the most to gain with peace; and relatively the most trusted by international powers. Above all, the person of Meles commands the most respect internationally for his intellect and negotiating ability and not least because he is seen as a person whose word you can trust- love him or loath him. He could afford more magnanimity, more patience and more sacrifice relative to the rest. So initially we spoke about dialogue, bringing young people together across boundaries, making overtures to belligerent neighbours, avoiding the use of Ethiopia as a centre for organized opposition to conduct regime change etc.

All well and good, but how in the long run can peace be sustained and entrenched? Does peace and the lack of thereof depend on individuals in power or is there more to it? Is armed conflict sustained merely by political motives or is there an economic motive? Do people fight simply because they hate each other or is there more to it. As we mauled over these issues over time, one thing became increasingly clear – we need to think about peace and security in our continent in a long term manner. Relative peace is ultimately built on shared prosperity, shared opportunity, mature institutions, greater choices and effective voice for people and a serious attention to inequalities especially geographical and group-based inequalities.

Meles argued that sustaining peace and security in Ethiopia and the region will require us to think about how to shape the economy to provide enduring benefits for all the people and address poverty, how to shape politics to make it inclusive of all the diversities and how to build institutions that promote genuine democratic inclusion. This calls for a clear understanding of the structural realities of economies and the institutions in it (public and private); the nature of political organization and the attitude towards genuine democracy and inclusive and dynamic economic development, and how these issues interlink. The task is to simultaneously build institutions for both genuine democracy and genuine development. He believed that the Ethiopian state is at risk of disappearing unless these tasks are accomplished. This task is daunting for a poor economy because poverty itself results from and contributes to weak institutions necessary to provide and regulate.

To square these brackets Meles argued for a clear ideology, contrary to Susan Rice’s assertion that Meles was merely pragmatic, not ideological. Indeed he believes that not only should the state be guided by a clear ideology but that ideology should he hegemonic in a Gramscian sense. The ideology, he called “democratic developmentalism” (DD) – the task is to build a democratic developmental state. To make this ideology hegemonic requires a political vehicle – a party totally committed to the ideology and driving it through society through education, policy and organization. Meles believed in his party, fought his battles within it, dedicated his life to it, survived by it and saw himself as an integral part of it and died serving it.

He was unequivocal that the economic development task of DD is to build a capitalist economy based on the reality of the Ethiopian economy – an essentially agricultural economy dominated by small holder farmers facing unstable and hostile local and international markets and small modern sector benefitting largely from unproductive and “pervasive rent-seeking”. By rent-seeking he meant economic agents seeking ways to maximize returns without adding value. This includes corruption in public and private places as well as kick-backs, land speculation, tax dodging, asset price manipulation, speculative financial transactions etc. The task is to guide economic agents towards value added activities, including innovation and productive investments and to discourage unproductive rent seeking activities. But some economic rents are high not simply because of manipulation and bad behavior of economic agents but arise from low competition (few entrants into sectors at relatively low cost and high returns. In these areas, he believed that the role of the state is to participate in these markets to share the returns or redirect them through taxation. To be able to guide the private sector towards value addition, necessitates a degree of independence of the state from the private sector. It means actively discouraging political leadership from also being enmeshed in private business, in order to minimize conflict of interest. This does not of course preclude the state jointly investing with the private sector, as is the case of the burgeoning shoe industry. It is in this context that the Ethiopian state actively participates in or even dominates large corporations such as the telecommunications, heavy industry and the thriving EFFORT(the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray) group of companies and areas they consider necessary to stimulate or to own in order to capture and redirect rents. It is also the reason why Ethiopia refuses to establish a Stock market seeing them largely as instruments for speculation rather than development financing. Ethiopia also does not open its banks to foreign participation.

This approach is largely derived from the practice of the middle income countries of Asia and Latin America, and to some extent South Africa and his views about the role of the state in the economy is more akin to the German school of economics with its emphasis on innovation and technology. He came to dislike neoliberalism with a passion. Meles may have been be promoting a version of capitalism but he did not come to accept capitalism lightly. He was afterall a Marxist Leninist and continued to be influenced by its analytical power even to his death. He came to this view largely from a pragmatic stand point – the world has moved on and a smatter strategy is required. “You need to pick your fights cleverly” he will say, conscious of the relative powerlessness of Ethiopia as an aid and food dependent economy.

Clever picking of fights has enabled Meles to basically effectively sustain aid inflows even during times of political tensions and policy disagreements especially with the World Bank, the IMF and some bilateral donors, although it must be said that over the past 2 decades Ethiopia’s aid receipt has been below the sub-Saharan African average in per capita terms. Yet, many would say that they (together with Rwanda) have made the best use of aid of any country – another reason for keeping aid flowing. Meles would severely critique aid not in order to reject it but in order to soften the terms and access more. Meles is comfortable with foreign direct investment although he will argue that development is not about capital accumulation but innovation, technology and organisation. Indeed, with the financial crisis leading to low investment absorption in matured economies and average wages rising in China, Meles has been arguing strongly for foreign capital flows to Africa, presenting it as the next source of global demand capable of lifting the global economy. And he has not failed in his pursuit. 60% of Chinese and Turkish investments to Ethiopia are in manufacturing and these investments are growing.

Meles passionately believed in democracy and human rights – both civil/political and social economic rights – contrary to popular belief. Two things are critical for democracy in a democratic developmental state: the need to address the powerless of the “atomized peasant” by enabling the peasants to organize not for organizing sake but to acquire economic power, for example through cooperatives in order to access technology or to address pricing problems. Organised wealthy peasants are crucial not only for the fight against poverty but for effective voice in political contestation – the avoidance of elite capture of politics. The second task, he would argue is the need for a hegemonic party not only to support this process of organizing for economic participation and value-added growth but also to educate in order to advance the hegemonic ideology not by force but by gradual internalization of its tenets. In the context of electoral politics, such a strategy – linking political organisation with economic power – cannot escape the charge that the ruling party is using incumbency and the monopoly over state resources to entrench the party in power. Meles does not contest this charge per se, merely arguing that this is what needs to be done for the hegemony of democratic developmentalism to be entrenched.

Besides theory, Meles also emphasises the quality of practice: when you think and plan big, then be sure to deliver: when you promise be sure to fulfill; when you decide, be sure to stick by your decision. The evidence of these dictums are clear for all to see – poverty is reducing at one of the fastest rates in the world, Ethiopia is industrializing; rural incomes are rising; revenue allocation to ethno-linguistically divided states, using distributive justice as the main principle is helping convergence among nationalities and providing services that some communities had never afore experienced. The economics of democratic developmentalism has clear fruits in Ethiopia for all to see. South Africa declared itself as a developmental state partly thanks to the friendship between Thabo Mbeki and Meles and cooperation between their respective parties. The Economic Commission for Africa has taken the first steps to encourage intellectuals discourse on DD. Time will tell if they will sustain it. Ethiopia may well sustain the programmatic dimensions of DD. Only time will tell where the politics of DD will go, with new leadership. Meles may well have been dictatorial. Even that, Africa has lost an intriguing, even enigmatic leader and spokesperson. This loss will be hard to replace.

Charles Abugre, the author, writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed in this article should not be attributed in any way to the United Nations. A version of the article of forthcoming in New African magazine