Political economy priorities

Options for building a pan-African identity

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Supporters of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wave flags at a rally.
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By Prof John Harbeson

One of the most fundamental and timeless conceptual and practical policy issues in the multi-disciplinary literature of the social sciences concerns the connections between the political and economic dimensions of development.

Indeed, the problem is so fundamental that it is rarely confronted boldly and directly. And yet, it is so fundamentally important existentially that wrestling with it is inescapable on a daily basis, by scholars and practitioners of development policy in and on African countries as well as those of other post-colonial regions of the world.

The notion that one of the latest theories of Asian origin – that Ethiopia, Rwanda, and perhaps Botswana, qualify as “developmental states” – has betrayed dramatically the limits of progress on this core problem, at least with respect to sub-Saharan Africa.

After decades of conjecture and trial-and-error practice, one would expect that more reliably empirically valid hypotheses would have been at least stumbled on through insightful conjecture and trial-and-error practice than has appeared to have been the case.

To be sure, a veritable mountain range of literature attests to the hypothesis that successful democratic political development, even the state itself, has been preceded by broadly-based economic development, to mention only the compelling work of Barrington Moore, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Charles Tilly.

But sub-Saharan Africa has not enjoyed the luxury of sequential economic and political development. Since independence, sub-Saharan Africa has confronted existentially the problem of simultaneous state, economic, and democratic development, complicated by the legacies of colonialism and the mixed objectives and record of international influences.

Perhaps better than most sub-Saharan African countries, Kenya is as good an example as any of both the real and yet profoundly qualified extent to which an African country can achieve all three objectives. To my knowledge, how a country like Kenya can fundamentally improve on this mixed record has yet to be persuasively advanced and explained. As colleagues of mine have regularly commented, for reasons insufficiently explored, it has generally been the smaller African states, by population and mostly by size, that have accomplished the most in confronting the triple challenge of achieving stable states, rapid – if not necessarily particularly inclusive – development, and sustainable democracy.

Contemporary Ethiopia, in my view, has dramatically demonstrated fatal flaws in the “developmental state” model of which, along with Rwanda, it has been touted as an African exemplar. The model, first articulated by Chalmers Johnson with respect to Japan, has been the latest to be uncritically imported from Asian cases for African application. It has been applied to Ethiopia and Rwanda principally because both countries have been experiencing high, approaching double digit GDP growth rates for a decade or more. The most fundamental flaw in the model, as applied to Africa, and to Ethiopia in particular, is its misconception of the state, exacerbated by neglect of the place of states in developing countries within an international order dominated by security-seeking strong states.

Ethiopia has been uncritically perceived as a “strong” state ostensibly because its ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Development Front (EPRDF) ruling regime has seemed capable of the requisite far-sighted effective regulatory measures to promote sustainable economic development, the best evidence for which has been its GDP growth rates. The truth, however, is that the profound transformations being wrought by the new administration of prime minister Abiy Ahmed has demonstrated that a highly centralized, deeply authoritarian ruling regime does not, in and of itself, a state make.

The Washington-based Fund for Peace has routinely regarded Ethiopia as a weak state in its multi-indicator annual surveys of 175 states for the unarticulated reason that Ethiopia is still in search of a sustainable post-imperial state, as it has been since Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown. The authoritarian EPRDF regime, like the preceding brutal military regime, has failed to achieve a post-imperial Ethiopian state because it cannot be accomplished absent embedded democracy and inclusive, equitable economic development.

The Abiy regime has commendably freed thousands of political prisoners and promised forthcoming free and fair elections. But it must directly and democratically first address the adequacy of the constitution it envisions for the state it would establish while simultaneously ensuring economic manifestations of democracy in areas such as land reform and hundreds of thousands of its citizens displaced by EPRDF administration over the years. In particular, it must address Article 39 of the existing constitution which proclaims an ethnically confederal state. Just as Kenyans are well aware of the problems caused by ethnic sub-regional political geography, the Abiy regime must confront the reality that ethnically defined sub-regions cannot be an alternative or substitute for cultivating pan-ethnic Ethiopian political identity.

World Bank-IMF neo-liberalism, in attacking governmental regulatory overreach, has been joined by its opposite, developmental state reliance on central government planning and regulation, in misconstruing the nature of the state in Africa and building it simultaneously with economic and political democracy.(

— Writer is a professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer of African Studies at Johns Hopkins University

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