Ethiopian National-Building From Economic Perspective

An Endeavor Far-removed from its Goal

With Ethiopia being at a crossroads, nation-building continues to be a contentious matter amongst politicians and policymakers in Ethiopia. Attempts of successive regimes to build an economically integrated society have borne no fruit. The administration of the Revolutionary Democrats is no different. The constitution adopted 25 years ago demands the formation of a single economic community which is crucial in promoting common rights, freedoms, and interests. The reality is, however, far from the intended goal. Not only that, the main ingredients of state building, providing citizens with basic functions and services, including maintaining internal order, are still unmet. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale probes into the matter.

In its preamble, Ethiopia’s constitution necessitates the creation of a single economic community to promote common rights, freedoms, and interests, which are key ingredients for a nation building endeavor and the creation of a common identity. The declaration is among a few issues that enjoy the support of many in a multi-national country of polarized politics in which these differences pose an obstacle to achieve a common and shared identity among Ethiopians.

To create a single community interconnected economically, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) adopted a development model targeting addressing poverty with an impressive record of pro-poor spending. This top-down development model which Ethiopia pursued helped the country become one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Especially since 2005, the country has been growing at an average rate of 10Pct annually and the international community has recognized Ethiopia’s economic growth recorded in the past decade.

However, the economic growth figure at face value does not portray the whole picture. Ethiopia’s path to economic development was not smooth sailing. Ethiopia remains one of the world’s poorest countries with more than 20Pct of the population still living in extreme poverty. Rising unemployment, rampant inflation and corruption have diminished the fruits of economic growth. Although 25 years have passed since the introduction of the constitution that sets to create a single economic community, achieving this vision remains a daunting task.

Where is the evidence?
Over the past 12 years, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Day, celebrated on December 9, has become a big opportunity for nations to promote their identity, language, and culture. The state-sponsored event is also supposed to showcase Ethiopians’ unity to the world despite their many differences. Although believed to be an important milestone in the state-building endeavor, the present Ethiopia is a far-cry from the expectations of the general public. Ethnic based conflicts and violence still widely exist in the country while shared values are fast deteriorating.

Yet, Ethiopia celebrated the 13th Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Day this December and it seems that Addis Ababa, a city chosen to host the Day organized by the State of Oromia, is unlikely to show the world the proclaimed unity in diversity. This is because the regions, where the people come from for the celebration in highly decorated cultural attire and song, are being shaken by political turmoil all the while struggling under poverty, unemployment, lack of infrastructure, inflation, and insecurity. Even worse, currently some regions are questioning the legitimacy of the central government to impartially represent all ethnic groups in the country. This is leading to political mistrust within regions and also between regions and the federal government.

The difference and division are deep rooted in many economic aspects. Due to the absence of common economic hubs like Addis Ababa across the country that can link all modes of production and increase dependency upon each other, regions in Ethiopia remain foreign to each other. All regions remain distant from each other unable to tie up their resources, labor, and markets. Surprisingly, the lifelines of Ethiopia and Djibouti are more interdependent than those of regions in Ethiopia. As they are not integrated economically, the regions have better trade, employment, and even cultural ties with neighboring countries on their respective boundaries than with their peer regional states.

This is why politicians and many others argue that Ethiopia, which has failed to create a society that is economically integrated, has a long way to go in state-building – an important ingredient in ensuring sustainable economic growth.
What went wrong?
The term ‘nation-building’ and ‘state-building’ are often used interchangeably. Although connected they have different meanings. Generally, state-building involves affording citizens with basic functions and services such as health and education; providing security against external threats and maintaining internal order; raising and collecting taxes; and meeting responsibilities and obligations as a member of the international community. Nation-building, on the other hand, is generally understood as a broader process of developing a shared sense of political community capable of collectively grooming the population of a given state. While state-building has a dominant role in this task, nation-building demands the mobilization of a wide range of non-state actors. So, state-building and nation-building are integrally related as twin aspects of modern nation-states.
Economic benefits and nation-building are also inseparable in contemporary politics. According to a study ‘Nation-building in Africa: Problems and Prospects’ by Arnold Rivkin, time and economic development are the main factors that determine the success of a nation-building endeavor in Africa. Rivkin stresses that it is not only a question of using economic development as a technique or regarding it as a factor in the nation-building process. Rather it is about viewing economic development as a goal inseparable from that of nation-building. In this view, a nation-state cannot be built unless and until it has produced a modern economy.
According to Rivkin, nation-building can be considered successful if conditions that are conducive to political stability, peaceful change, and sustainable economic growth are created as a result of the process. On the other hand, it is considered unsuccessful if the state in question is dogged by persistent political instability, military coups, and general disorder, which in turn compromise economic and social development.
Some scholars also stress that undertaking delayed nation building and addressing economic development at the same time, while under the pressure of globalization, is highly difficult. It is more challenging for Ethiopia, where ethnic polarization, micro-nationalism, and balkanization are overheating the fundamental questions of change. Even the economic progress achieved over the past two decades could not bring socialization, institutionalization, and democratization; all essential for good nation-building.
Many agree that it is the natural strings of religion and cultural ties that play a crucial role in the informal nation building endeavor of Ethiopia. In fact, scholars including Dima Negewo (PhD), a political economist who led the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) for a long time in exile, says Ethiopia has not started the following step post-state formation.
“The only time a real attempt to build an efficient and inclusive state was made was between 1913 and 1916 during Lij Iyasu’s time. All other regimes tried to maintain the dominance of the northerners, even after state formation,” Dima says. “A century after the state was formed, Ethiopia is backward and poor, even compared to other African countries. Economic progress, particularly infrastructural development, has improved over the past 15 years but the fundamental homework remains undone.”
Dima, who believes state formation in Ethiopia has some missing elements from the start says even though Ethiopia’s population has increased five-fold ever since the state’s formation, the central government has done nothing to accommodate political diversity through economic integration.
Kassahun Berhanu (PhD), Political Science and International Relations Department lecturer at Addis Ababa University (AAU), stresses Ethiopia is now between a rock and a hard place. “Now is a very critical time for nation-making and remaking. Even though we have strong common histories like defending external forces at Adwa and fighting the Dergue’s dictatorial rule, we did not focus on political and economic integration,” argues Kassahun. “We focused on what differentiates us, rather than capitalizing on what we have together.”
Even the EPRDF, in successive official statements, has admitted that it has sidelined the issue of building a national identity while giving much attention to ethnicization of politics and politicization of ethnicity. Although nation-building subsumes economic development, EPRDF has been focusing on hollow economic growth detached from nation-building.
The government has overlooked the fact that achieving economic growth without an efficient state apparatus is impossible, according to Gudeta Kebede (PhD), lecturer of politics and development at AAU. “Attempting to achieve shallow economic development without building the nation properly has brought the country back to square one,” he adds. “As a result, regional states are currently demanding more autonomy from the central government.”
However, Alemayehu Geda (PhD), professor of economics at AAU argues that Ethiopia’s nation-building process is not as bad as it is intentionally portrayed by politicians, ethnic-elites, activists, and the media. “As long as the state is there with the right to use force to maintain the security of the population and keep order, then nation-building is on-going and continuing. I do not think the current problems are endangering Ethiopia,” he says. “Rather, the major problem that makes the country fragile is that the central government has no capacity to control violence and conflict.”
For Befekadu Hailu, a writer and political rights activist, ethnic identity is growing at the expense of economic integration and national identity. “If you repeatedly act on the only thing you know, confined in your language and tradition, it will lead to poverty and absolute ignorance. There is no magic fix for Ethiopia’s problems but de-ethnicization and a focus on reducing poverty. In a diverse state, nation-building should not be a source of conflict. It just needs a wise and fair accommodation of diverse languages, cultures, and political economies,” says Befekadu.
For the experienced political scientist Kassahun, on the other hand, identity politics, regional autonomy, and self-governance are not bad for nation building since they do not exclude others. “The rhetoric on unity or identity is just arrogance and must stop. Neither self-governance nor unity destroys Ethiopia. Our futurity is bounding us together. We have much in common rather than differences. Nation-building at this time seems a luxury, but it is critical for the survival of Ethiopia as a nation.”
Kassahun begs to differ, repeating Albert Einstein’s words: “It cannot be solved with the mindset that created the problem. Diversity is the best thing if welcomed and treated carefully and equally. But even unity can be bad if mistreated. The problem is understanding federalism precisely, he says. “Of course, nation-building is a long project that takes time. But the cost of reluctance will be high for Ethiopia.”
The way out
Kassahun says free elections and absolute democratization will be the decisive political factors for the steps ahead. “The most decisive piece of homework that can help as a starting point for Ethiopia’s next nation-building chapter should come from deep discussions amongst societies, religions, political economists, civic societies, the youth, and representatives of every segment of society.”
On the other hand, Gudeta lists a number of actions that the central government and all stakeholders need to take immediately. “The federal government must discharge its duty of nation-building before it is too late. More languages must be considered to be official working languages,” he says. “Marginalized and angered groups at the flanks must be attracted to the center. The media, activists, and leaders of regional states also need to quit firing at each other from their cornered barracks.”
Dima agrees. “The state must first ensure security, encourage investment and private sector development, as well as boost confidence. Power sharing and democratization is highly decisive. A new framework is necessary to enable minority and opposition parties to be part of the nation-building process, even if a majority wins the election,” he says. “If power is equally distributed vertically and horizontally and there is accountability for failures, dramatic improvements can be witnessed. The reconstruction of independent public institutions and civic organizations is critical, at the same time.”


8th Year • Dec.16 – Jan.15 2020 • No. 81

Ashenafi Endale


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