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Democratic Developmental State Inches Autocracy


Many argue that politics is the art of possibilities. But it has become the art of the impossible in the Ethiopian context. Dogma has become the operating word for spouting ideological extremes from one side to the other, with no end. Logic has lost its meaning and facts have become secondary to everything else.

How can a generation of critical thinkers be raised, if the discourse is mired with one-size-fits all political and economic theory that lacks concerted rationale and fails to reflect the daily struggles of average people?

Democracy is the most essential element in bringing about a system of governance that is accountable to the public. Nothing short of it will do. Ethiopia has seen the consequence of unelected regimes staying in power for too long. They were not even ready to loosen up their grip in the face of sustained public outrage.

Certainly, no one expects fully representational democracy in a continent of dictatorship. But with a new generation which is capable of accessing a variety of information media and understands the value of a truly democratic state, pulling back on establishing relevant institutions is not an option.

Societies that allow individuality to blossom demonstrate that the creative mind of individuals can transform the world. If the song remains the same, it would absolutely be shutting down dissenting voices. A system that discourages the battle of ideas is a system that eventually fails in the long-term.

Past experiences have shown that regimes that insist on conformity and suppress individuality are those that turn out to be autocratic in nature. Contemporary comparison of democratic and undemocratic states would vividly show that democratic states get things done right.

Currently, political and economic policy based on the ideology of democratic developmental state is the mantra in some developing nations, including Ethiopia. Democracy and the developmental state are absolute contradictions, at least in terms of origin. Even if those contradictions are left aside, the preconditions for that system to take hold do not exist in these nations.

In a country where the lack of well trained and disciplined technocrats is prevalent, implementing the policy of a developmental state could be considered a panacea. In the absence of well trained, apolitical and informed public servants, good bureaucracy and professionalism will surely be subverted by political interference. The lack of autonomous civic institutions that could not be influenced by the political class should not be taken easily.

The Ethiopian business sector also lacks sophistication in its approach of managing resources. The rampant rent seeking activity would also involve challenging efforts synonymous with pulling hair from an egg. For it does not bring lasting productive value, it drives speculation.

Despite the benefits of economic incentives provided to encourage productive investment, penalising rent seeking activities that do not add much productive value through the existing tax regime have had a more immediate negative effect.

No one can deny the fact that the country has recorded substantial economic growth in the last decade. But most of that growth did not originate from the industry or export sectors that could become a spring board to a much more stable economy.

If all these preconditions in administrative and economic sectors of the copy cat democratic developmental state are not met, what remains will be the autocratic portion of it. That would lead to a dominant, one party rule, Ad Infinitum. Indisputably, such a situation would be a disaster in the making.

Ethiopia has been governed by kings and queens, a military junta with a pseudo-socialist ideology, and currently it is governed by the Revolutionary Democrats. What remains a pipedream is a truly representative democracy, in which elected officials are accountable to the public and can be thrown out for promises broken or incompetence.

It might be juvenile to ask if a country is fit for democracy, at this age of globalisation and opening up.

“A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy,” Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winning economist, once pointed out.

Urban elites are not sections of the populace that need a teachable moment about the value of true representative democracy. Instead, it is the rural farmers, who need to hear a diverse and competitive point of view about their world, so they can make better and informed decision.

Establishing democracy is a messy affair. But it is irresponsible to have a Faustian bargain that avoids building a truly representative democracy and negotiate it down to something less. So would it be imperative to pass it to the future generation with no discernible resolution. An obtuse blindness to the history of the country would surely relegate facts as secondary to self interest of every kind.

There is always going to be resistance to change. Yet, change is inevitable and accepting it on our own terms will make life easier for all the interest groups.

Amid the changing world and growing conflicts of interests, it might help to pronounce the words of a song, “The old getting older and the young getting stronger,” sang by the late American singer, Jim Morrison.

Change is something for the unquestionable autocrats of the world to ponder, albeit always.


Mesfin Tekle is a resident of Toronto, Canada. He works as a derivative specialist and has visited Ethiopia four times in the past five years. He can be reached at



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