EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

From Ethnocracy to Bureaucratic Crony Capitalism – By Olaana Abbaaxiiqi

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Part II

Emergence of Ethnocracy

Before going to our major topic of Master Plan, I will digress a little and talk about the nature of the EPRDF’s (hereafter TPLF) government and the status of federalism in Ethiopia. I am bringing this not for an academic interest, but for pragmatic political reason because it has relevance for the topic we are discussing here. Unless we have clarity about the nature of this government, it will be very difficult to truly understand where some of its actions emanate from, and why it is taking some of the actions it is taking or the policies it is adopting.
It is a well-known fact that TPLF is an organization created to liberate Tigray from Ethiopia, especially from the Amhara domination. The TPLF leaders themselves do not deny it, and in fact, state it with pride during their anniversaries. However, since its inception TPLF has gone through several metamorphoses. These include: changing from an organization for the liberation of Tigray to an organization taking power and lording over Ethiopia; from anti-imperialist organization to pro- western organization becoming their darling, and while at it, also wooing the Chinese and making them the major investors in the country; from market economy to revolutionary democracy and then to developmental state; from a federal structure based on ethnic territories, to centralized power control through centralized vanguard party system, and then adopting the concept of developmental state to further weaken federalism.  So, “who or what is TPLF?”
I would have liked to go into the details and show that even though TPLF has gone through all these stages and metamorphoses, it has not shed its core self at any stage of its metamorphosis. At all stage it has put the interest of Tigray first. TPLF is a holding company for the advancement and enrichment of Tigray and the Tigray people in company Ethiopia. Holding company is defined as a company that owns enough voting stock in another company to control its policies and management. A holding company exists for the sole purpose of controlling another company.
TPLF was born to liberate Tigray from Ethiopia because it believed that was the best solution for Tigray, and it adopted Marxism-Leninism because it believed that better served the interest of Tigray. It dropped Marxism and wooed the western powers, because it thought that better served the Tigray interest. It dropped secession from Ethiopia and sought power in Ethiopia, because again it believed that better served the people of Tigray.  When it came to power it concentrated all essential positions and powers in the hands of TPLF, and it adopted the Dergue land policy because that served Tigray’s interest.
So when we look at the genesis of TPLF and follow its trajectory over the period, we clearly see a potential ethnocratic state in the making.  By ethnocratic state I mean a state apparatus being appropriated by a dominant identity group to further its interests, power and resources.  TPLF’s acts from its inception to present exhibits that it has all the fundamental characteristics of this definition of ethnocracy. All along, TPLF wanted to control state power for the purpose of using it to empower and make the Tigray people dominant in Ethiopia in every aspect.  Ethnocratic regimes promote the economic growth of the dominant group and its domination of power structure while maintaining a democratic façade. All the early TPLF talk of fighting oppression, solidarity with other oppressed groups to transform and build Ethiopia on a new basis of equality, etc., and the talk about democracy and elections are all facades.  Moreover, all the chatter about federalism and belief in self-determination is only political maneuvering to create division between ethnic groups so that it could divide and rule over them.
Of course the driving factor that makes ethnocracy an attractive method of governance for the TPLF is its population size.  This is the only system that can help it bridge its population deficiency gap and allow it to control state power while giving it the façade of democratic rule.  I cannot emphasize more how much the control of the state power is important to the TPLF; the only vehicle that enables the TPLF to be dominant and maintain its dominance over a period of years is the control of state machinery.  TPLF does not have the economic base, natural resource, strategic location or cultural basis to be dominant in Ethiopia. It is also TPLF’s population base (7%) that makes it most unlikely for it to cede power in a democratic way to others.  It is easier for the camel to go through the eye of the needle than for TPLF to be democratic. I will not dwell much on this topic, suffice it to say that the Ethiopian state under TPLF manifests typical ethnocratic form of government for the major part of its rule.

Transition to Bureaucratic Crony Capitalism

However, the above does not mean the TPLF did not change at all overtime. Change is the universal constant, and even unbeknownst to it, as a result of the condition in which it functions, TPLF has undergone some changes. Some of the changes came as result of conditions under which it functioned and others are manufactured by TPLF itself purposely to adapt to new situations in order to elongate its rule.  Lately it appears the ethnic nature of the government, is slowly but surely, being diluted, at least at the periphery, along with the decline of the influence of the party.  This occurred because the TPLF leadership have been in power for more than two decades and they have aged and they have been away from Tigray in Addis Ababa for a very long period of time.
In addition, the prevalence of corruption and the party becoming very cozy with the nascent business group has contributed to the waning of the influence of the party, which resulted in the weakening of the ethnocratic nature of the state. The marriage between the party leadership, the bureaucracy and the nouveau riche business class, it appears, had created an environment for an oligarchic type of system that is not totally subservient to the newly molded party to emerge.  The relationship between TPLF and the bureaucracy was not only a one way relationship. As much as the TPLF has shaped and changed the bureaucracy, it has also been affected, manipulated and coopted by it. However, it should be noted that in spite of these changes, the ethnocratic nature of the government is not something that will disappear overnight, and still manifests itself in many spheres.
It is for this reason that I prefer to characterize TPLF’s government, as it stands today, as a rule in transition from ethnocracy to bureaucratic crony capitalism type of state. This kind of state is characterized, by the bureaucracy lacking autonomy from the dominant class, the state function being riddled with corruption and nepotism, the judiciary being a rubber stamp for oligarchs, and the prevalence of legal cover to expropriate and transfer capital to their cronies. All these are hallmark of the TPLF state as it exists in current form.  This type of system necessitates extreme centralization of power in one locus, i.e., in the center, in the few hands where critical decisions are made.  This is a form of state that perfectly suites the nature of TPLF.
True federalism on the other hand demands administrative decentralization, and even more, demands devolution of power to states or regions. This means, for federation to be federation, typically the federal government will not have power and should not interfere in such exclusive powers given to the state governments. Therefore, in bureaucratic crony capitalist system which naturally concentrates power in the center, and which keeps on usurping power every time, federalism cannot exist or function. It is for this reason that, for example, the government dominated by the federal bureaucratic oligarchs did not bother to see if it has the power to create and impose a Master Plan on cities that are located outside its jurisdiction in Oromia.

Developmental State and Federalism

The introduction of the so called Developmental State economic policy is another instrument used by the TPLF to centralize power further and weaken the implementation of federalism in Ethiopia. Historically, developmental state policy is a policy that was implemented in highly centralized states of Asia.  In fact, it had been successful in practice mainly in monoethnic countries; however, in few rare situations, including in Botswana, it is implemented in multiethnic countries also.  As a precondition for its success, developmental state policy presupposes the concentration of power in the hands of the centralized autonomous bureaucracy and a dominant party.  It is a system suitable to be implemented in a centralized way by the state or bureaucratic elite.  Because of this, developmental state policy is by its very nature inimical to federalism that presupposes decentralization and devolution of power to regional states.  The existence of all dominant party, which is component of developmental state theory, inevitably means the concentration of power in the center, which necessarily undermines the authority of the regional states. Thus, developmental state theory and federalism are incompatible.

TPLF, especially Meles Zenawi, who was very keen on this, adopted this policy for similar reasons already stated above. Next to Marxism, this is a policy that justifies dominant party system (similar to communist vanguard party) and puts bureaucrats in charge of the economy, both as central planners and policy executioners.  Because it concentrates the essential decision making power in the center, and accepts dominant party leadership, developmental state policy is a policy that is in sync with the core nature of TPLF. Besides being in sync with TPLF”s nature of dominance, it should also not be forgotten that because the bureaucracy is controlled by the TPLF, any policy that helps to make the bureaucracy dominant is a welcomed policy to the TPLF’s objectives. Today, thanks to this policy, even though there is still an appearance of administrative decentralization, there is a zero political decentralization in the so called federal Ethiopia.
There is no surprise here that even though developmental policy goes against a state structure based on federalism, the TPLF bureaucrats fell in love with it at first sight. In fact, one of the other major reasons that prompted Zenawi to adopt this policy is because it could be used as an effective stealth instrument to dilute the implementation of federalism.  This is a policy that helped them to efface federalism without officially stating so; it is a vehicle that enabled them talk the talk of federalism, but practice bureaucratic centralism.
Implementation of developmental state policy in a federal country also inevitably leads to an unequal development between the constituent states.  Uneven development preferring the dominant group’s ethnic territory will result from it because all the important economic decision is made centrally where the dominant group makes all the major decision. Once the dominant group’s bureaucratic hegemony is instituted, its only one step away to give preferential treatment to their own ethnic group territory.
Adopting the developmental state policy has also a crucial ideological importance for the TPLF.  TPLF realizes that it cannot fool all the people all the time with pseudo democracy and federalism; therefore it has to come up with other additional tactics to hoodwink the population.  Especially Zenawi knew that they cannot get legitimacy through democratic means, and for that reason alone they needed an ideology that gives them justification to concentrate power in the center and rule from the center notwithstanding federalism. Concentration of power in the party and in the bureaucratic center could be acceptable if it is packaged and covered by a seemingly neutral policy that is not about concentration of power, but about something else. And such a seemingly neutral policy could get acceptance only if it is rooted in the promise to bring about a universally acceptable benefit to society at large. That commonly accepted value that the TPLF promised to bring about through such a policy is development.
It is for this reason that Zenawi and his band went to a great length to show how developmental state policy is essential for fast development and, in fact, how it’s the only pathway to development in Ethiopia. In connection with this, they also used the developmental state ideology to justify the importance of dominant party, without, of course, talking how authoritarian this will be and how incompatible this will be with federalism.  In short, by promising to bringing development, they sought to cure the legitimacy gap they cannot bridge through democratic means. Moreover, the ideology of development was exploited as a means of establishing political hegemony.
Because Zenawi believes the end justifies the means, he thought that as long as TPLF brings about economic development they will earn legitimacy, all the other things will be forgotten and they will be loved by the people, and their actions will be justified and they will be in power uncontested for an indefinite long period of time. Leaving aside whether they can attain the economic development through their developmental state policy, we should remember the Biblical saying, “man shall not live by bread alone.”  Even if economic development is attained, it does not mean that people will stop from questioning TPLF’s policies that result in an unequal development between regions and income dipartites between ethnic groups. Moreover, even if development will be attained, it does not mean that this will automatically be translated into constituent units halting their struggle for the realization of a real self-rule and simultaneously participating equitably in shared rule.
Federalism is said to have been introduced in Ethiopia basically to resolve the age old power relationship between ethnic groups. The solution sought was to devolve power to each major ethnic groups so that they can administer themselves locally and attain shared rule on matters common to all peoples in Ethiopia.  However, the concentration of all the important powers in the party and the central bureaucracy, buttressed and justified by the ideology of developmental state, had made it virtually impossible even to have a semblance of federalism in Ethiopia. In short, in practice the TPLF has brought back in a roundabout way the very problem (Centralization) the federal arrangement was introduced to resolve in the first place.  The so called units (states) in the federal government are in practice only empty shells devoid of any important power and autonomy save those related to cultural and language issues. Thus, the struggle for liberation from the tyranny and hegemony of the TPLF and the struggle, at a minimum, for the realization of self and shared rule are as relevant today as ever.
To be continued.