Africa’s Next Hegemon: Behind Ethiopia’s Power Plays
In 1991, as the Cold War drew to an end, the only African country that had never been colonized by European imperialists was but a pale reflection of the Great Ethiopia that generations of the kingdom’s monarchs had pursued. A million people lay dead following two decades of civil war. Secessionist movements in the provinces clamored for self-determination. The economy was in tatters, and another catastrophic famine loomed. The world came to associate Ethiopia with images hoards of starving children, and the country’s regional and domestic decline opened questions about its very survival.
Nationalist historians trace the Ethiopian state’s roots to the second millennium BCE. With the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as one of its founding myths, Ethiopia’s history has between entwined with the development of the Abrahamic faiths: the Jewish presence in the Ethiopian Highlands predates the destruction of the Temple; Ethiopian Orthodox Christians claim that the Ark of the Covenant is located in Axum; and the first Muslim hijra, or flight from Mecca to escape religious persecution, was to Ethiopia. Mystical ancestry and military greatness provided legitimacy to Ethiopia’s rulers for centuries as they controlled their formidably diverse empire through a policy of violent internal assimilation and external expansion.
But ideas of that greatness lay shattered as rebel soldiers from the countryside marched on Addis Ababa in May 1991 and overthrew the (formerly Soviet sponsored) dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The leftist liberation movement promised a constitution that would give self-determination to Ethiopia’s ninety-plus nations and nationalities and address the political-economic inequities that had torn the country apart, but observers were sceptical about the ability of the Horn of Africa’s once mightiest empire to reconstitute itself. When the northeastern territory of Eritrea voted for and got independence in 1993, it not only cut Ethiopia off from the sea, but also risked triggering cascading claims for self-rule.
A quarter-century on, though, the mood in Addis Ababa could not be more changed. Between 2001 and 2012–13, Ethiopia’s economy grew more than seven percent per year on average. It was the only African country to move at a pace comparable to the East Asian tigers—and to do so without a hydrocarbons boom or a huge mining sector. The economic miracle resulted in real pro-poor growth, lifting millions of people out of the vicious cycle of poverty, hunger, and poor health. While the country’s population soared from roughly 40 million in the 1980s to nearly 100 million today, it achieved the 2000–15 Millennium Development Goals for child mortality and is likely to also meet them for combating HIV/AIDS and rolling back malaria. Ethiopia is also making giant strides tackling income volatility and illiteracy. And, with sequential bumper harvests of Ethiopia’s staple crop, tef (a cereal similar to millet), millions of smallholder farmers might well be able to escape the productivity traps that historically have kept them in abject poverty.
Ethiopia’s economic resurgence has underwritten an ambitious state-building project by the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that differs resoundingly from Washington Consensus recipes of electoral democracy and laissez-faire economics. Ethiopia has become the prime example of what my colleagues and I have termed “Africa’s illiberal state-builders.” In the aftermath of two decades of war, the EPRDF established a durable political order that seeks autonomy from internal and external threats, builds functional institutions, and establishes hegemonic control over the political economy. The economy’s commanding heights are in the hands of state-owned enterprises and business elites closely wedded to the EPRDF project. In the last parliamentary election, the EPRDF and its allies won all but two of 547 available seats. The party is emphatically statist when it comes to development, and it relies on a relatively narrow social base, but its organization is extraordinary in political and coercive terms. The latter is derived from decades of armed struggle and close cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which advised the EPRDF in its drive to recruit five million new members between 2005 and 2010 and has developed deep party-to-party ties. There is no state in Africa where talk of a “China Model” sounds more substantive than in Ethiopia under EPRDF rule.
With its domestic authority seemingly firmly consolidated, a decade ago, the Ethiopian government re-embraced huge regional ambitions under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who governed Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012. Central to this is a vision of a Great Ethiopia “finally” fulfilling its historical destiny by casting off the shackles of poverty to lead Africa: domestic and regional ambitions were always closely entwined in the mind of the premier. On the one hand, Meles understood that forging alliances and acquiring international legitimacy would boost the Ethiopian economy and consolidate ERPDF rule. On the other hand, he saw a domestically secure Ethiopia as uniquely capable of ridding Africa of the epithet “the hopeless continent.”
To fulfil his ambitions, the prime minister developed excellent relations with a wide variety of partners, guided by the belief that depending too closely on one set of friends would expose Ethiopia to their whims. And so Meles struck up personal friendships with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Joseph Stiglitz. He also went on trips to study the South Korean economic miracle, and debated the economics of big infrastructure with Hu Jintao. He played the role of spokesman of the developing world with equal verve, representing Africa at the G–20 and climate change summits, where he denounced the inequities of the global political economy and the marginalization of his continent. And as the EPRDF developed its institutional ties with the CCP, Meles saw no contradiction with Addis Ababa fulfilling the role of Washington’s regional “deputy sheriff” in the Global War on Terror. Ethiopian diplomats, generals, and spooks have been crucial U.S. allies in the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden. With U.S. officials fretting over the stability of old allies in Egypt, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia’s reliability and effectiveness in the war on terror is seen as vital. Read more