Tefera Negash Gebregziabher is an Ethiopian post-doctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Right for Education spoke with him about his PhD research on the political economy of Ethiopia, the 2018 reforms, and the way the pandemic has shaped politics in the country.

R:Ed: Could you tell our audience about yourself and your work?

My name is Tefera Negash, a researcher and academic. My PhD research investigated the relationship between money and politics in Ethiopia with a focus on the EPRDF regime, which had dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991. I finished my PhD studies last December. Now I am working as a postdoctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies on a collaborative capacity building project between Dutch and Ethiopian universities. The project seeks to strengthen the rule of law, promote democratisation and encourage civil rights, especially in the context of the recent reforms. 

R:Ed: On a day-to-day level, what does the close relationship between the Ethiopian state and the economy look like? 

During my fieldwork it was clearly visible how the state and major economic activities are intertwined. Even ordinary Ethiopians would feel the presence of the party and its affiliates in economic activities. For young people especially, it was evident that pursuing any form of entrepreneurial activity is difficult unless you have party networks and connections. This, hopefully, has been changing since the reforms of 2018. During my PhD research, when talking to young businesspeople, what they mentioned as the most frustrating aspect of the state-economy nexus was the heavy handedness of the ruling political party in business and economy.

R:Ed: Can you tell us a bit more about the 2018 reforms? What changed in that year and how have things been in the two years since the reforms?

The 2018 reform was a tectonic change from inside out. I would call it a soft revolution within the EPRDF coalition party. Many things happened at once and very fast. This rapid reform overthrew those who controlled everything within the EPRDF and brought Abiy Ahmed to power. Previously, those people in power (the TPLF) had used their political power to control economic resources, activities and policies. Now, these people may have not necessarily lost their resources but at least they have lost their political power, which was the main instrument for economic control. There have been many positive changes both politically and economically since the 2018 changes. Yet, the security situation of the country is deteriorating, which in my estimation is the political system that has long been under authoritarian lockdown has been opening up. The presence and operation of different political forces in the country is contributing to destabilisation rather than the opposite.  

R:Ed: Prior to the 2018 reform, Ethiopia’s political economy of development was compared to Rwanda’s, and many people thought that Rwanda’s state-run economic development model would be successful everywhere. Then, however, there seems to have been this reversal: do you think that the comparison with Rwanda no longer applies? 

Yes, there is a common comparison between Ethiopia and Rwanda. Some researchers advocate for developmental patrimonialism, meaning that development should come first, and then other rights will follow. Ethiopia and Rwanda are supposed to model this. It has only been a short period of time since the 2018 reforms, so we cannot yet say if a shift away from this model has truly occurred because: one, there are lots of merits in some of the policies that Ethiopia followed so far. And two, it is never a simple case of private sector and liberalisation versus state socialism; there are lots of spaces between these extremes. For example, there is a huge gap between Chinese political economic system and Americas hard core capitalism. Both metaphorically and literally, between China and the US, we have Europe with its diverse kinds of welfare states. So, in short, an excessive focus on developmentalism has been disruptive, and Prime Minister Abiy seems to question this model but it’s still only been a short while since 2018.

R:Ed: Ethiopia’s liberalization has focused on the economy, which is very important, but political liberalization also matters. This would entail a shift away from electoral authoritarian tendencies, so that people can have more rights. Some have argued that even if there is more economic liberalisation in Ethiopia, the political side still relatively unchanged. Do you have any hope for Ethiopia moving in a different direction, or do you think that liberalisation is only going to happen in economy for now?

I am hopeful that the new prime minister, if given some time, will implement some of the ideas that he talked about on his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He talked about inclusiveness, human rights and peace, and I think he still has time to do that. He has already accomplished a lot in that regard. Economically, I am also hopeful that he won’t copy the strategy of using the power of his political party to own businesses and to co-opt the military apparatus in such strategies as business involvement in the economy. I am hopeful that Ethiopia will not see the emergence of a new group of elites who use the newly acquired political leverage to economic gains and control. Doing away with this will be a daunting task indeed because for the last 30 years there has been an intricate relationship between business, politics and ethnicity.

R:Ed: How do you think COVID-19 has affected the political and economic trajectory that Ethiopia had previously been on? 

COVID-19 had a significant effect on the planned elections. The Abiy administration’s push to postpone the elections that were due to take place in August 2020 has raised resistance from some corners and there are some who politically capitalised on that. Though Abiy’s administration and other political actors favour the postponement for obvious rational reasons, others have seen the postponement as Abiy’s effort to stay in power. I can’t be really sure whether the Abiy administration has used the pandemic as a pretext to stay further and consolidate power.

R:Ed: We’ll have to see how that plays out in the next couple of years. On a more personal note, 2020 has been a challenging year for many. We’ve had to take a step back, and some people have found that they have more free time. During this time, have there been any books that you’ve found time to read that you would recommend to our audience?

I personally quite like Russian literature, such as ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. During this time I’ve also enjoyed Rutger Bergman’s ‘Humankind’ and Catherine Belton’s ‘Putin’s People’. For your audience I would like to recommend ‘Doughnut Economics’ by Kate Raworth and the works of Samir Amin such as ‘Capitalism in the Age of Globalization’. 

Find out more about Tefera’s research and work here.