AFRICANGLOBE – While the ruling party maintains its grand plans to to transform the economy, critical voices are asking why agricultural production is not meeting targets and how the government will hold itself accountable. Fulfilling late premier Meles Zenawi’s vision was never going to be easy.
Seven months after the death of Ethiopia’s Premier Meles Zenawi, the consensus of his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), emphatically delivered at its 10th congress in March, is that there will be no wavering from the late leader’s vision.
Few who understand the inner workings of the party would be terribly surprised. After 21 years, Meles, the ruling coalition and the state became almost interchangeable. In death, his legacy has become the driving force for both party and state.
The anecdotal descriptions of the late prime minister say something about the role his party played in national life: workaholic, intellectually curious, charismatic, dictatorial and wary of dissent.
The ‘developmental authoritarian’ state was in many ways a reflection of this.
Publicly disavowing its Marxist roots in the post-Cold War era, the party nevertheless intervened in every facet of public life, has been wary of uncritically embracing market reforms under the ‘Washington consensus’ and sought to transform Ethiopia from a pre-capitalist agrarian economy into an industrial middle-income economy.
To do so, the government’s Growth and Transformation Plan (2010-2015) emphasises accelerated industrialisation through the development of massive infrastructure projects, particularly in energy and transport, while exploiting Ethiopia’s untapped resources – including phosphates, oil and gas.
At the same time, the liberalisation of Ethiopia’s other key resource – more than 70m ha of largely unexploited land – has become a key strategy for speeding up agrarian reform.
Over the past decade, the government has leased 330,000ha, mostly in the lowlands of the south and west. Agrarian reform in historically neglected regions such as Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz in the west and the Omo River Valley in the south has involved ‘villagisation’, in which more than one million rural people have been relocated to make way for large-scale rice, sugar and rubber plantations.
While there have been complaints that these foreign-owned plantations are growing cash crops for export, government officials are quick to point out that 80 percent of the large-scale projects have an element of local ownership and that Mohammed Al Amoudi’s 10,000ha Saudi Star Agricultural Development rice project in Gambella will distribute 40 percent of its crop locally.
At the same time, government-backed agricultural schemes have allowed smallholder farmers to obtain plots and loans. The nature of land reform also fits into a wider political project that came with Ethiopia’s 2005 constitution: federalism.
“Ethiopia is perhaps the only country in the region in which the periphery controls the centre,” says Mehari Taddele Maru, a former director of the Institute of Security Studies’ African Conflict Prevention Programme.
The observation is cryptic and can be interpreted as referring to the nominal ceding of power to the semi-autonomous regions under the constitution. While the ruling party wields unquestioned power over the multi-ethnic republic, the attempt to devolve power to regional governments has acted as something of a check on ruling-party excesses.
“The EPRDF’s revolution is unique in Africa. We came to power with a transformation agenda to shift Ethiopia from a pre-capitalist society to a capitalist market-based society, but we are not there yet. With 80 percent of its population still in the peasantry, Ethiopia remains a peasant-based agricultural society. Our challenge is how to mobilise the targeted classes for which the EPRDF remains a caretaker – the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia and the working class,” says EPRDF veteran Sebhat Nega.
While official statistics continue to be impressive, showing double-digit growth over the past decade, there has been something of a slowdown over the past year. An Addis Ababa University economist who requested anonymity explains: “Meles Zenawi’s vision has two elements. One is a repudiation of the Washington consensus. He was very explicit about this. In its place, he planned to inaugurate the developmentalist state, modelled on China and South Korea. The goal here was the eventual creation of a middle-income state. The question is whether it is working.
“Take a simple example: cereals production. The government targeted an increase of cereals production from 16 quintals (1.6tn) an acre to 32 quintals an acre between 2010 and the present. The targets have not been met at all. It may appear a small issue, but it raises several questions, the most important being how does [the government] hold itself internally accountable?”
Investment in infrastructure and social services has brought about material change. Primary school enrolment is close to 100 percent. There are 22 public universities, up from three a decade ago. There is a health centre within 20 minutes of every citizen, according to the government, and better roads have opened up the country.
However, the challenge of transformation remains. On the outskirts of Asosa in Benishangul-Gumuz, Melese Kaseya, 30, is a model farmer at an organic farming project established by non-governmental organisation Biovision.
The local woreda (Amharic for district) allocated him 5ha. Initially unschooled in modern farming methods, he barely scratched out a living, earning on average 2,000 birr ($110) annually.
Since he joined the Biovision scheme, Melese has seen his annual maize and cabbage output more than double to 40 quintals and 600 quintals respectively. As a result, he is now earning more than 30,000 birr annually.
He is well on his way to completing the construction of a stone house and also produces mangoes, bananas and other fruit. As a model farmer, he now trains 10 other farmers in his woreda.
As a case study, however, Melese’s story is at odds with the national experience. Access to fertiliser and farm inputs continue to be low.
“The structure of the economy remains virtually unchanged since the era of the Derg. Agriculture still contributes 8-10% of gross domestic product. The same goes for manufacturing, at 10-13 percent.
Remember that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front EPRDF rebellion was triggered by ethnic domination. But today, what has really changed is nothing more than ethno-linguistic replacement.
In almost every sector, the top positions almost 90 percent of the time are held by Tigrayans,” says the economist, referring to Meles’s ethnic group.