Why Ethnic Fissures are Undermining Ethiopia’s Developmental State

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and its fastest growing economy. By aggressively pursuing a state-led model of development similar to that of China, Ethiopia’s government is attempting to maintain an annual growth rate of around 10%. This, in theory, should be lifting millions out of poverty. Yet the ethnically-charged violence that has plagued the country over the last few weeks paints a far bleaker picture. This violence, which is caused by a feeling of disenfranchisement among Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, is indicative of the cracks that are starting to appear at the foundation of the country’s developmental state.

For months, the Oromo people–Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group–have been protesting against the government in Addis Ababa. The protests began last November with a plan to expand the capital region into Oromo territory. Feyisa Lilesa, an Oromo marathon runner, crossed his arms in protest as he took second place in the Rio Olympics. He told the press that “The Ethiopian government are killing the Oromo people and taking their land and resources.” On October 2, an anti-government protest was held during a religious festival in the Oromia region. 52 protesters were killedwhen security forces opened fire. In the meantime, protests have spread to the Amhara region, home to Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group. In light of these protests, the government declared a state of emergency last week that gives the already powerful government even greater authority.

Ethiopia is divided into 9 regions. Each is dominated by one ethnic group.

One of the government’s primary fears is that recent protests are endangering its developmental program. Like in many East Asian countries during the 20th century, the state exercises enormous influence over the economy. It is following a model under which the state pours investment into certain key industries, and the results have been positive so far. As protesters target assets owned by foreign firms, however, there are fears that foreign investments will dry up. So if the government is pursuing a form of development that has served countries like South Korea and China so well, why are the people protesting? Well, there are historical and economic factors that mean Ethiopia’s model of the developmental state has caused major resentment among the Oromo and Amhara people.

The current government came to power in 1991 following a brutal civil war. After Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, a communist junta called the Derg was established. Under the leadership of the Derg, insurgencies sprung up across the country. A massive famine in the 1980s caused millions of deaths. Eritrea’s war of independence and an invasion by Somalia further weakened the Derg’s hold on power. In this context, a rebel group called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began to fight against the Derg in the Tigray region. Eventually, it became the dominant member of a coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In 1991, the EPRDF overthrew the Derg and assumed its position at the head of the Ethiopian goverment–a role that it has maintained until today.

The TPLF domination of the EPRDF means that the government is dominated by the Tigray ethnic group–which constitutes only 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Thus the Oromo and Amhara–which make up around 34% and 27% of the country, respectively–have little representation while the Tigray are extremely powerful. Now let’s connect the dots. If development is largely driven by the state and the state is dominated by the Tigray, this means that the gains from development have disproportionately benefitted the Tigray while the Oromo and Amhara have remained steeped in poverty.

That dynamic–under which one ethnic minority largely controls the economic trajectory of the country–is the fundamental structural problem of Ethiopia’s developmental state. It is a significant reason why Ethiopia is unlike South Korea, China, or Taiwan, and it presents an existential threat to the country’s path of development.

Like in Ethiopia, the almost miraculous development of the Four Asian Tigers and China occurred largely at the hands of authoritarian leaders and their cronies. Because general population benefitted from rising standards of living, however, the people allowed the status quo to continue enriching their countries even though it disproportionally benefitted the upper class. But in Ethiopia, the upper class is not just a group of politically well-connected individuals. It is a group of politically well-connected individuals who all belong to the same ethnic group. That is a recipe for ethnically-charged resentment, and it is why protests are sweeping across Oromia and the Amhara region.

Many of the Oromo and Amhara protesters are calling for a representative democracy that will grant them independence from the Tigray elite. Yet a democracy would completely undermine Ethiopia’s developmental state, as the heavy hand of the government is a necessary part of its model of development. If the Tigray elite wishes to continue with its authoritarian developmental vision–and it should, because it has made significant progress so far–it needs to end the marginalization of the Oromo and the Amhara. While it does not yet need to transition to democracy, it does need to show the people that wealth is not just open to the Tigray. It needs to construct a powerful Oromo and Amhara elite that can buy into Ethiopia’s current economic and political model alongside the Tigray. If the elite can overcome ethnic boundaries, the people will follow. Otherwise, resentment will continue to mount, and the entire developmental state will be at risk of destruction.

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