Issue date: October 2023, 11 Chapters, pages: 157, ISBN: not provided
A Critique by Mersie Ejigu
Dear Prof. Messay,
Thank you for sharing your book, ETHIOPIAN MODERNIZATION: OPPORTUNITIES AND DERAILMENTS, and making it easily accessible. It is a massive work, congratulations. I read it with interest. As you are a public intellectual and a distinguished professor, I decided to lift my pen and jot down a few points by way of a critique. The critique, however, covers only issues that I thought were of critical importance to the current Ethiopian political economy discourse.
1. My understanding is that you used “modernization theory” as a conceptual framework for presenting your ideas. It is a good approach to use globally accepted theories and methodologies to diagnose problems, understand issues, and generate solutions. Indeed, your main thesis “the persistence of tradition as the main obstacle for modernization” requires the unpacking of what you mean by tradition, analytical framework, and evidence. However, you seem to work on an incomplete modernization literature (see, Bauman’s modernity and ambivalence; Inglehart & Welzel’s modernization) marked by opinionated side remarks- thus failing to address the whole gamut of issues surrounding political economy, state formation, and functioning.
Modernization theory, including Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth and Development and Marxian Theories of Social Evolution and Development, were heavily criticized for being linear and too mechanistic. Despite its ambition to provide a holistic perspective (social, political, economic, and environmental), the theory dogmatically limited itself to one template for producing affluence with freedom—the Western pathway.
Further, modernization is largely based on neoclassical economic theory, which has gone through significant changes particularly over the past three decades. Suffice it here to mention the ascent of “sustainability,” as a global agenda in the early 1990s, which set in motion paradigm shifts in development thinking or the transformation from traditional to modern society. In 2005, the World Bank published “Where Is the Wealth of Nations? Measuring Capital in the 21st Century.” The report redefined the “wealth of nations” as the sum of four factors: produced, natural, human, and intangible (cultural heritage) capital. Countries like Ethiopia may be poor in “produced capital” but are rich in other forms of capital. The new wealth accounting values culture, including traditional practices like goodness, self-esteem, tolerance, love for work, respecting one’s word, inclusiveness, religious tolerance, attachment to the homeland, etc., as part of a country’s wealth. Today, “traditional knowledge and institutions” are recognized as “wealth” and inputs for improving the wellbeing of people, peacemaking, peace building, and providing nature-based solutions to societal problems. On the war front, traditional wars were more civilized, humane, respectful of international rules of engagement, and protective of non-combatants compared to the modern/today’s wars, where most victims are children, women, and the elderly. Hence the need for rethinking “modernization theory.”
2. You seem to argue that “modernization” in Ethiopia started with Atse Tewodros’ effort to build an armament industry. Indeed, the armament industry has the potential to serve as a foundation for a country’s industrialization if based on strong backward linkages (local suppliers). As you well know, Ethiopia existed over three thousand years prior to Atse Tewodros with well documented contributions to world civilization, arts and literature, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and engineering. “Ethiopians were the first to invent the science of stars and gave names to the planets, not at random and without meaning, but descriptive of the qualities which they conceived them to possess, and it was from them that this art passed the Egyptians,” harvard.edu. Ethiopia is the only African country with its own alphabet and calendar. Atse Kaleb’s ingenuity in ship making and commandeering almost 300 ships to defeat the enemy across the Red Sea is widely documented. The complete version of humanities first book, the Book of Enoch (መጽሐፈ ሄኖክ) was found only in Geez (although some argue, albeit without evidence, that originally it might have been written in Aramaic. So, what more modernism can there be? Today, several universities (Hamburg, Harvard, Princeton, University of Chicago, Paris, St. Peterburg, etc.) offer Geez language courses, while in Ethiopia it was only the Addis Abeba University, recently Bahir Dar, Debre Marcos and Mekelle that offer Geez language courses. So, our problem is the knowledge deficit we have regarding our country, its history, people and tradition. I believe we have failed to properly diagnose Ethiopia’s failure to build an entrepreneurial class out of the wombs of those remarkable achievements. But what remains true is that these historical achievements are Ethiopia’s unique resources, not only a source of pride, but also a significant part of the institutional capital (intangibles), a critical component of Ethiopia’s wealth as determined by the new national income accounting framework.
3. You made a sweeping statement, without providing evidence or supporting literature, that “Emperor Menelik’s southern expansion derailed Ethiopia’s pursuit of modernization because it enabled him to have access to enough resources (human and natural resources) enough to ward off his enemies of millennia.” What is widely documented, however, is that:
a) Emperor Menelik’s expansion was in all directions, Gojam, where he had perhaps his biggest battle with Ras Adal, Wollega (averted war), Wello, Wolaita, Sidama, etc. You also narrowed down Menelik’s multidirectional state building efforts through power consolidation to “conquest on Oromo peoples” (page 131). Unfortunately, you didn’t elaborate on the nature of the “conquest” and how it is different from his battles with other regional kings or European state-building which uniformly began with monarchical centralization of authority. Please note that at the time of Menelik, Dessie Zuria, for example, was a densely forested area, i.e., natural resource rich as the Gore area, for example.
b) Menelik is also the first to pass a state regulation to protect the life and property of artisans (antiregna, ሸማኔ፣ ባለ እጅ); invest in economic and social infrastructure (road construction, railroad and access to the sea, telephone, schools, and institution building–the first Ministerial cabinet)-a precondition for industrialization and agricultural transformation; and the first to drive a car.
c) KING MENELIK HAS INVESTMENTS HERE; Abyssinia’s Ruler Said to be a Heavy Buyer of American Railway Stocks. Has aided his people. Remarkable Progress During His Reign – Baron de Jarlsburg – The New York Times .
d) The northward push of the British from Kenya would have made the entire Sidama region a part of Kenya had it not been for Menelik’s forces, which you didn’t mention.
e) Lastly, it bears noting that Menelik’s industrialization efforts got disabled because of his poor health and untimely death, as many authors suggest.
4. On the same page, (p. 131) you also wrote that Menelik’s conquest was followed by “Amhara domination.” Stretching credulity, you offer the specious suggestion that this derailed Ethiopia’s modernization drive without reason or evidence. You noted further that Menelik had one motive: “the restoration of the grandeur of Christian Ethiopia” although you didn’t explain what you mean by that. You did not link the issue to the modernization efforts he made. Unfortunately, your understanding of history revolves around “ethnicity,” which made you deviate from the main topic of your book, and analysis of the main pillars of institutions (laws, norms, and culture).
5. Post Menelik, undoubtedly Ethiopia has, “squandered several modernization or industrialization opportunities.” Why Menelik’s successors, Iyasu, Zewditu, and Emperor Haile Selassie, failed to build on his modernization efforts remains a big question. On p. 144, you wrote that Emperor Haile Selassie, upon his return from exile, “reduced the country to a neo-colonized country …., dependent on the West and focused on eliminating any kind of threat to the monarchy.” What is apparent is that policy choices he made, knowingly or unknowingly, brought his own and the monarchy’s demise.
Nevertheless, it is important to juxtapose his failures against his successes. As we all know, Emperor Haile Selassie inherited an empty Treasury and dead institutions from Italian colonizers with a British military administration imposed on him, resistance against meaningful reform by the old ruling class, and conflict between patriots and traitors (bandas). He cleverly managed to get the Brits off his back by forging alliances mainly with US, regained Eritrea, and established a highly respected and non-aligned Ethiopian state. He championed the African decolonization process, became father of independent Africa, built highly professional civil service and military (enviable in Africa), forged a mutually respectful relation with the United States and established Ethiopian Airlines, Air Force, agricultural high school (Jimma) / college (Alemaya) and enviable civil service and military. Indeed, he used the East African colonial curriculum and foreign teachers that resulted in the detachment of students from Ethiopian history and core values and knowledge deprivation about Ethiopia and Ethiopiawinet. Using the 1960 coup de ’tat as a wakeup call, he could have pushed for land reform and industrialization. Policy choices he made set the stage for the colossal failures of the monarchy, student movement, and subsequent political leadership.
For example, following the defeat of Italian colonizers and return of the Emperor, Ethiopia launched its first ten-year reconstruction and development plan in the early 1940s, which never materialized. Then, in 1957 Ethiopia prepared its first Five Year Development Plan (which made Ethiopia the first African country to formulate a five
year development plan). Despite being sanctioned by the Emperor, the Plan was kept secret because it was seen as a threat to the Crown and aristocracy. Using the 1960 coup de ’tat as a wakeup call, he could have pushed for land reform and industrialization. Policy choices he made set the stage for the colossal failures of the monarchy, student movement, and subsequent political leadership. It must, however, be noted that it was with the Third Five Year Development Plan (1968-73) that Ethiopia witnessed the emergence of an entrepreneurial class (with the likes of Gebreyes Begna and his Addis Goma, Bekele Molla, Mammo Katcha, Teka Egano, Alemaya graduates, who went directly to cotton farming in the Awash valley upon graduation, etc.,), which unfortunately was terminated by Derg.
When it assumed power, Derg had several choices but chose socialism and imposed it on the Ethiopian people, although the country was not materially ready for socialism as the Soviet planning technical advisors use to tell authorities. These advisors never hide their surprise with the party/government’s decision to nationalize what was called “the commanding heights of the economy,” when there were no commanding heights (economic base/ productive capacity). The nationalization was also hastily implemented. Their advice for the country was to build a bourgeois class and develop the economy’s productive capacity.
Similarly, organizing society along ethnic lines is a choice that the EPRDF leadership made, while the rest of Africa runs from it, and imposed on the Ethiopian people. Indeed, modernization opportunities were missed not only at beginning when it seized political power, but also post 2005 election, and when Hailemariam Desalegn assumed the premiership. The Prosperity Party leadership also understandably chose to stick to it, when it had ample choices that could have averted the quagmire Ethiopia finds itself today.
6. You also inaccurately made the claim that “despite radical measures, the Derg never abolished the “colonial” hegemony of the Amhara over other ethnic groups nor demolished the authoritarian and centralized character of the Ethiopian state.” Here again, you owe your readers an explanation and evidence on where and how colonial hegemony of the Amhara manifested itself during Derg years and where and how the authoritarian and centralized character of the Ethiopian state curtailed modernization?
7. Post Derg, you wrote “ethnicization parades itself as the appropriate solution” (p. 136). No, Sir. I would argue that you don’t solve societal problems by going backward and embracing endemic polarization (if we consider Rostow’s Stages of Growth or Marxian Theory of Social Evolution stages) and ethnicizing the “soil” (where land ownership is the primary source of livelihoods and tool for exercising political power). What ought to be done is going forward to the next stage, i.e., with the creation of well-functioning markets (market based competitive system including capital markets) rooted in the Ethiopian objective realities or mixed economy (as Ethiopia has a huge highly successful public enterprise sector). Building concomitant institutions (legislative, executive, and judicial) anchored in citizens equality and meritocracy is a critical successor factor.
As you may recall, the early 1990s was the time when the UN system, after years of development research and debate, started to heavily promote decentralization of state functions, devolution of decision making, inclusive growth and equal access to resources and justice. Further, UNDP launched a study to support the creation and operationalization of stock (capital) markets in Africa, which I had the opportunity to participate in. Today, there are 29 African countries with capital market (various levels of market capitalization and liquidity). But Ethiopia is not one of them. So, the appropriate solution to Ethiopia’s problems at the time was to sow the seeds of capitalism, develop markets, and invest in institutional infrastructure to enable the creation and operationalization of the Ethiopian capital market, which could have facilitated the development of an entrepreneurial class and united the country. Some may argue that Ethiopia was not ready for such a move, but that is highly conjectural and gross underestimation of the multiplier potency of capital markets. Furthermore, in the latter years of the Derg, significant efforts were made to expand the manufacturing capacity, though state driven, by encouraging local suppliers of raw materials and semi-processed products. Recently, a new law has been promulgated on the establishment of a capital markets. However, actualizing a well-functioning capital market when the country is under ethnic federalism, in the middle of ethnic wars, heightened capital flight and erosion of productive capacity, security breakdowns, absence of a competitive environment, sovereign debt default, widespread drought, and famine would be mission impossible.
8. On page 127, you wrote that ethnic federalism “has developed deeper roots and is reflective of engrained regional interests of elites.” But here again, you didn’t provide any evidence or survey results to support your statement. What does “deeper roots mean?” what is the extent of the deepness? and who measured it? It is wrong to take media statements or what a few vocal individuals state as a basis for policy making or not reforming policies. Please note that the driving force behind ethnicism is economics (see Political Parties in Africa: Ethnicity and Party Formation; Species of Political Parties: A New Typology; Ethnicity in Sub-Saharan Africa; Political parties, independents and the electoral market in sub-Saharan Africa) Clearly, reforming economic policies, empowerment of the individual, and creating a competitive environment will go a long way in changing the behavior of people (individuals, groups, and communities), i.e., on how they see economic opportunities, interact with one another, how they see their future, their decision on family size, what to pass to their children, what they should care about (common property, degrade or conserve biodiversity) The experience of many countries including Ethiopia suggests that ethnicism thrives on bad economic policies and is often used to cover state weaknesses.
9. I also noticed a narrower understanding of ethnic federalism and its effects. You wrote, on p. 154, that “ethnic federalism …. is a real threat to national unity, and incompatible with democratic workings.” Whilst this is undeniable, there is massive literature out there that presents ethnic federalism as anti-developmental /Society, State and Market/; distorts development priorities and undermines resource allocation and distributional efficiency (Ethnic bias, favouritism and development in Africa), aggravates income inequality and leads to resource scramble, (Distributive Politics and Economic Growth,), encourages rent-seeking behavior (Ethnic bias, favouritism and development in Africa, erodes the capacity of the federal government to function properly (Todaro, 1994); compromises accountability to the general public since those in power often misuse public trust and the power entrusted to them for private gain (Corruption and Government) results in monopolization of power, creates a fertile ground for abuse of privileges, arrogance and waste of resources by the political leadership (Ethnic bias, favouritism and development in Africa); enhances society’s vulnerability to political manipulation and conflict entrepreneurs, while eroding citizens personal freedoms, self-confidence, and independent thinking (Ethnicity: An African Predicament) ; makes a country conflict prone (Federalism, the subnational constitutional framework and local government, Conflict, Post-Conflict and Economic Performance in Ethiopia); hurts productive capacity (“446 manufacturing industries in Ethiopia stopped production,” March 2022 report of the Minister of Industry; damages the environment (environmental security and conflict). Ethnicity is an instrument of elite resource capture & political distortion (Canen & Wantchekon 2022; Easterly & Levine 1997). Thus, in advocating the continuation or ending of ethnic federalism, it is important to address the full range of issues (pros and cons) and make well informed decisions.
10. Federalism vs unitary state. The argument you mentioned that “the depoliticization of ethnicity can only result in the restoration of a unitary state” does not make sense. Please note that it was back in the late 1980s that the world development community started to promote decentralization, devolution, and inclusion as a means of achieving sustained economic growth and technological transformation. Ensuring that development is people centered, driven and that people are empowered in the decision-making process is sine quo non for building a democratic and industrialized country. So, it is the right balance between centralization and decentralization that matters. Indeed, the experience of many countries amply demonstrates that successful decentralization and well-functioning federalism require strong centralization, i.e., you need to have a capable developmental state or national level institutions (civil service and parastatals) to coordinate, plan and guide, and keep the country together through a win-win center -periphery bondage. Successful federalism also requires recognition of the rights and wellbeing of individual citizens and a shift from group rights to individual citizens’ rights. We are in the era of smart, innovative, mobile, connected, borderless and informed citizens, and the rise of a middle class dominated by youth (aged 15- 29), which needs to be fully brought into the development decision making process as owners and participants.
11. On the State Church relationship, you wrote, on page 60, that “owing to the ignorance of the Ethiopian clergy and the proverbial reluctance of the Church to welcome modernizing reforms.” This statement is wrong and ill-informed. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a very complex and long-standing institution that has served, beyond spiritual teachings, as the center of the sciences, architecture, construction, medicine, arts, music, literature, governance, astronomy, etc. Throughout its existence, the Church has demonstrated wisdom, tenacity, and farsightedness to withstand political pressure. Your statement on the need “to steer its propensity for confrontational manifestations towards constructive goals, for instance towards accomplishments in the economic field,” while positive is what the Church already does. As the history of state formation elsewhere shows, universal religions are the cornerstones of coherent states. Ethiopia’s own history shows the only two states it had were built around state religion—Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam (under Gragn Ahmed). Thus, my recommendation here is for you to do more research and expand the literature you cited to include writings of Church scholars. It would also be useful to show what superior material and spiritual accomplishments protestant churches contributed to Ethiopia’s modernization relative to the Orthodox Church since Peter Heyling, a Lutheran German missionary, arrived in Ethiopia in 1633.
12. On the path forward, (p.133), you recognize “the multi-faceted impediment arising from ethnonationalism and ethnic federalism” to modernization. You also recognize that ethnonationalism and ethnic federalism “an outgrowth of the malformation of the Ethiopian modern state (p.136) and then conclude that “a federal system based on criteria that are less divisive, logical and attractive is not feasible.” The thought of ethnic federalism as the only and best choice (for the pursuit of peace, better socioeconomic wellbeing, human security, freedom, and unity of the country) is not corroborated by facts or credible studies. Nor did you provide any justification for narrowing the policy choices of such a big and diverse country. Your conclusion that Ethiopians should see their future only in “ethnic federalism” is ill-informed and irresponsible or denies the huge loss of life, property, and breakdown of the sociocultural fabric that Ethiopia suffered from. It is also contrary to the scientific analytical framework, in the form of modernization theory, that you constructed your book. As you know well, the beauty of science lies in the fact that it explains the reasons behind a happening or a change; analyzes a situation past and present; wraps it up by pointing out the result as a likelihood (not as the only way out), and then opens the field for further research. The social sciences that you and I operate within is a much more complex with many imponderables (risks and opportunities), multiple permutations and combinations, hence multiple choices. It is incumbent in all of us to bring science and hard evidence to the forefront of the current emotionally charged discourse, broaden the policy space, and recommend a path that leads to the making of enduring peace, democratic practices, and socioeconomic betterment.
13. You concluded, (p.138) that “there is not any good actual alternative to the preservation of the ethnically demarcated states” and “no better way to resolve the dilemma than to erect a presidential power transcending ethnic entity.” This statement counters all the analytical work you did in the context of modernization. Your writing is opaque on how modernization can be enhanced by maintaining ethnic federalism and erecting a presidential power, nor did you explain how a presidential power can help restore law and order, create peace, stability, achieve economic and productivity growth.
14. In my judgment, the best way forward, in my judgment, would be to de-ethnicize the Ethiopian polity and administration, outlaw ethnic based media and political parties (as Rwanda did) and replace the ethnic narrative by a development narrative (ending hunger, poverty, and underdevelopment; inclusiveness; equal access to economic opportunities and justice; free movement of labor and capital; competitiveness; and putting in place a capable developmental state (as defined by Agenda 2063, which Ethiopia is a signatory of). One can set a phase out time where ethnic parties are given a time limit to transition themselves to multiethnic parties. The state institutions (agents of modernization) must also be decoupled from ethnicity and organized to serve society ethically and professionally. Please note that the de-ethnicization agenda should not be seen as a win-lose game, where those who benefited from ethnic federalism are going to lose and others gain. It is rather a win-win arrangement that aims to broaden and deepen economic opportunities, and a scheme where those who legally profited from ethnic federalism both at the individual, group, community, and institutional level will move to a sustainable future.
In closing, I must say that the title of your book, “ETHIOPIAN MODERNIZATION: OPPORTUNITIES AND DERAILMENTS,” is a critically important and most timely topic. The modernization theory, you chose, as organizing principle and analytical framework could help to analyze problems (past and present), threats and opportunities, and evolve sustainable solutions. But you need to bring it on board in its entirety, stick to it, and ground your observations on hard evidence/solid data generated by using internationally accepted survey methodologies. Given the vastness of the topic, another alternative is for you to organize a symposium on the topic, call for papers, and edit proceedings, which will be published under your name. I, therefore, encourage you to continue your research and produce a new version of the book.
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