Three months ago, cabinet members of the Addis Ababa City Administration were astounded to find Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) in their midst, as they gathered to evaluate a nine month performance report of the just-ended fiscal year. The convocation was the first since Prosperity Party (PP) formed a government last September, having won the June 2021 national election in a landslide victory. However, Abiy is already irked of his government’s weaknesses, criticizing officials and employees alike at every meeting he turns up to.
“Are you in power because you have the passion to serve the people or merely to fill vacant positions? Do you think you will remain in power forever?” asked Abiy. He then went on to enumerate a litany of corrupt practices bedeviling the capital city from issues in municipal land management to general wheeling and dealing by networks organized along ethnic lines.
Evidently, the poor shape the City Admin is in, attests to the failures of Abiy’s administration, just a year into its five-year term. A month before he addressed the Addis Ababa municipal cabinet; he convened military top brass and told them, “The cadres fled when the war broke out. But after the military saved the country, the cadres are back trying to criticize you.”
The speeches sufficiently illustrate to what extent Abiy is unsatisfied with the performance of the civilian leadership.
From a failing economy, a deteriorating justice system and to the narrowing political space, there is no doubt the country needs a silver bullet to deal with the multifaceted domestic, regional and international challenges.
The PM’s focus on Addis Ababa indicates to the extent in which the capital city is at the center of Ethiopian politics. Addis Ababa, which deserves more administrative leeway as the nation’s capital and diplomatic hub of Africa, remains under the domain of one party.
Looking closely, the PM’s tirade at the gathering, points to issues that worry the administration. Abiy is well aware that shortcomings in his administration will harm his re-election chances. Critical issues like housing, inflation, poverty, peace and security will determine whether PP will be re-elected or not. And the PM knows that no propaganda campaign can hide such failures.
Secondly, his participation, bypassing protocol and engaging in micro-management, is a sign that the PM is centralizing power, denying institutional decision-making, observers say. This does not bode well in a federal arrangement where power should be devolved to lower-tiers of administration.
Observers are not surprised that PP is facing such administrative challenges shortly after its landslide electoral victory.
“From the beginning, this administration gave high-level positions to those people who seemed to swoon over the PM, instead of assigning individuals based on merit. The PM is surrounded by ‘Yes’ people. Plus, the PM has been acting as the only decision maker in the administration,” said a senior manager at an international organization.
“I think the PM is now realizing the danger of such leadership. I hope he will decentralize decision-making, and appoint capable people to positions of power,” the manager added.
For some, the PM implemented a system of kakistocracy, instead of meritocracy.
“Like the EPRDF before it, the PP is wary of self-confident civil servants who want to build independent institutions. They fill their administrative systems with ‘yes people’ because they fear for their power. Of course, Abiy has to fear for his power because nobody passes the chance, given the political fragility the country is in. In the meantime, the administration is filled with amateurish, inefficient people who have little crisis management skills,” the senior manager said.
For him, there is a scarcity of new insights and perspectives to deal with festering problems. This is because Abiy’s system does not allow for the existence of independent think-tanks. “The only entity in the administration that has a modicum of independence is the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRC), with all its shortcomings,” he said, adding, the only good thing going for this administration is, it is including opposition leaders into the administration.
The exact type of administration model Abiy is trying to follow remains a bone of contention, even for many in the field. Though the last election gave legitimacy to Abiy and his administration, the party is still sending contradicting signals to the public, analysts and international partners.
In fact, the Party adopted “pragmatism” as its official ideological model, as opposed to developmental state model, which the EPRDF used mainly to maximize the influence of the state in the economy. However, overhauling and revamping the existing civil service, which is usually criticized for having a “communist-mentality,” remains to be a challenging task for Abiy’s administration.
But why pragmatism?
Abiy baptized his administration with Medemer or positive synergy, before adopting “pragmatism.” Later, the PP took the slogan of making Ethiopia “the African beacon of prosperity,” by implementing pragmatism.
Pragmatism is doing what situations demand. It is a non-philosophy that skips solving ideological assumptions and skims over the surface. It is being increasingly adopted in post-modern thinking, where foundational knowledge is undermined and fast dynamism shadows solid perspectives.
Philosophically, pragmatism avoids epistemology or history of knowledge. Pragmatists believe knowledge is not only the accumulation of yesterday’s world but a byproduct of our anticipation for tomorrow.
“Pragmatism offers instead, a view of knowing as a social and situated accomplishment that both shapes and is shaped by the lived experience of knowers. In other words, epistemology and ontology cease to be distinct philosophical categories,” sums up Barbara Simpson, of Strathclyde Business School, in her book titled “Pragmatism: A Philosophy of Practice.”
“We do not want to be identified with any of the mainstream ideologies, left or right,” Eyob Tekalign (PhD), State Minister of Finance, said once.
Kenichi Ohno (Prof.), a senior policy researcher at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Japan, has advised the EPRDF during the Meles, Hailemariam and now Abiy’s administrations. His recommendations and policy inputs have been influential especially in Ethiopia’s economic transformation and industrialization, among other ideological arenas.
He traveled to Addis Ababa dozens of times to meet top officials including all the prime ministers. In April 2022, he was in Addis holding discussions with Ethiopia’s Planning Minister, Fitsum Asefa (PhD) and other top PP officials. Yet, he admits he is unable to grasp why the PP adopted pragmatism.
“I understood what Meles wanted to do and what developmental model he pursued because we had many discussions and exchanged letters on his economic philosophy and strategy. He had a long-term vision. He also implemented specific measures to achieve his vision in kaizen, leather export, sugar production, agricultural extension, etc. You can argue whether his vision was good or bad, and I must say he did not succeed in producing manufacturing dynamism, economic transformation, or a long-term roadmap for economic liberalization,” Ohno stated in an email response to The Reporter.
Ohno still does not grasp the details for Abiy’s long-term developmental philosophy. “I don’t know concretely what he means by pragmatism. If it is to cope with currently urgent problems, all governments do that. He must mean more than this. I am unsure what his position is in policy debates about state versus market, developmentalism versus the Washington Consensus, horizontal versus vertical, industrial policies, infant industry promotion, etc.” Ohno writes, adding “These were the issues Japan, the World Bank, and others have hotly debated since the 1980s. Maybe he thinks Ethiopia doesn’t need such developmental debates. I am not sure.”
Though PP officials say pragmatism is the ideological model based on which the 10-year economic development plan is formulated on, the nature of the government is categorized as “developmental authoritarian.”
In a paper titled, “Developmental Authoritarianism in Africa,” published in January 2022, Lumanyalo Ngcayisa, University of Free State, mentioned that Abiy, President Paul Kagame, and President Yoweri Museveni are introducing different variants of authoritarianism known as “developmental authoritarianism,” ostensibly inspired by the Chinese authoritarian developmentalism model.
“There are no grounds to suggest that democracy outperforms authoritarianism when it comes to economic performances. Empirically, records illustrate that authoritarian states can reach high economic growth rates, e.g., Singapore and South Korea,” Ngcayisa wrote.
Major characteristics include elongated executive power, where autocrats simultaneously accumulate power while weakening state institutions, judiciaries, media and civil activists that provide checks and balances.
Second, centralized repressive state power, lack of accountability, state interventions in economy and elite patronage for financial backing, leads to citizens’ inability to hold those responsible accountable.
Third, autocrats use populism and nationalism to capitalize on existing social tensions to solidify their rule, while weaponizing media and new technologies to regulate domestic news and misinform the international community.
Developmental authoritarians impose high taxes, create capitalism that benefits few and impose draconian laws with relentless efficiency and suppress information that triggers mass panic or dissenting opinions, among others.
Finally, autocrats institute the “emergency card,” using traditional tactics such as declaring a state of emergency to facilitate repression and prolonged executive state power.
“PP is already proving it does not stand for the poor. It is lifting all the subsidies, from electricity and fuels to basic commodities. The economy is being repurposed only for those who can afford to, while the poor are left out. The housing system caters only to the rich. In the near future, the poor will be driven out of urban areas in Ethiopia, because they cannot afford inflation,” said an expert who wants to remain anonymous.
The government is becoming a capitalist, focusing on money-making even more than the EPRDF, according to the expert. “The economic reform also failed from the outset. Abiy’s administration is completely avoiding investing in public goods. The public is being exposed to poverty and war. This is a very dangerous course,” the expert added.
During the June 2021 election, it is the urban population who massively voted for PP, unlike Ethiopia’s electoral history, where urbanites are usually against the incumbent. Opposition parties proposed impressive economic policies during debates, but officials of PP outmaneuvered all by promising to make Ethiopia great.
In previous elections, the ethno-federalist EPRDF exerted much influence all over the country together with a rigged electoral system. However, with Abiy’s leadership, the newly transformed PP is expected to advance a centrist government with Ethiopian unity on the agenda, while maintaining the federal structure.
Nobody was ready for post-EPRDF Ethiopia. The ultimate priority since the fall of the Front is saving Ethiopia from balkanization. In Ethiopia, party is formed first and ideology is shopped after power is seized, not the other way around.
The Derg’s Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) was formed after Mengistu secured power. Three coalition parties of the EPRDF were formed after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) felt assured it is entering 4 Kilo Palace. The PP was also formed after receiving power.
Some experts argue PP is practically implementing a developmental state model just like the EPRDF, though officially, it adopted pragmatism. These experts state PP deviated from the EPRDF only on its positive principle regarding economic deregulation. Yet, the state’s hand in the economy is even made stronger through State Owned Enterprises across all sectors, and the Ethiopian Investment Holding overseeing business on behalf of the government.
Many experts underline “social democracy,” is the right model Ethiopia needs at this time, to readjust the economic inequality created by the EPRDF in the past three decades.
“Unfortunately in Ethiopia, only opposition parties fell in love with this model,” said a political science expert. “Yet, determining the right ideological and administrative model for the post-EPRDF Ethiopia, requires assessments.”
Just after it took power on April 2, 2018, Abiy promised massive economic and political reforms, democratization, strong economic growth and reconciliation by bringing in marginalized regional states and ethnicities into the center. The massive expectation the PM engendered is now a vehicle to public dissatisfaction.
Is there an administrative magic bullet?
“The main reason the three African states are failing to repeat China’s success under authoritarian developmentalism is because they lack execution capacity like China. ‘China’s politics is identified with the CPC,” says Ngcayisa. “The system works irrespective of individual identities in the system. But the politics of Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, is identified with Abiy, Kagame and Museveni. The system fumbles when these leaders are not there.”
This clearly indicates the poor performance of PP will continue unless Abiy decentralizes power, builds independent institutions and cease micro-management.
Determining the right administrative model for Ethiopia needs an intensive research. But at least there are basic ideas the model must align with. Such a model must arise from the psychology of the Ethiopian people. For instance, Ethiopia has a population highly spiritual in nature, trustful and hardworking.
Other national interest issues can be categorized into three.
Domestically, Ethiopia needs stability and poverty alleviation. Regionally, Ethiopia needs friendly neighbors, with the country being land-locked and needing to utilize its neighbors’ ports.
Globally, Ethiopia needs Foreign Direct Investments, loans and technology. So it needs to be friendly with all global powers, if possible. In the meantime, Ethiopia must defend Africa’s interests. The right ideological model must be based on these pillars.
Some experts recommend that including more opposition figures especially into the legislative and judiciary branches of government can rebalance the power accumulation in PP’s hands. Currently, there is no in-fighting especially among government organs, as all are dominated by the PP. For instance, barely any discussions take place whenever the PM takes key decisions such as a state of emergency or declaration of war.
To some extent, Abiy’s speech to the municipal cabinet last month is similar to that of his predecessor PM Hailemariam Desalegn, when the latter told his cabinet a few years ago, “when you are out of this office, all of you [EPRDF officials] are busy building your own corrupt networks.”
Hailemariam also lamented he could not do his job because of informal networks. Those networks, usually in the form of the informal economy and corruption, grew to the level of state capture and forced him to tender his resignation, eventually paving the way for Abiy to succeed him on April 2, 2018.
Abiy is also facing the same danger, only with a much greater degree of complication.