Big Tent: Ethiopia’s Authoritarian Balancing Act

Big Tent: Ethiopia’s Authoritarian Balancing Act

When Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader of more than 20 years, died in August 2012, many anticipated significant and potentially destabilizing change. Past political transitions in Addis Ababa had been violent and settled at the barrel of the gun, so the precedents were worrisome. Meles’ eulogies emphasized his individual brilliance and his personal role in bringing development to the modern Ethiopian state. What would happen with the strongman gone? Could the strong and effective authoritarian developmental party-state engineered under Meles’ leadership sustain itself without him?

Instead of instability, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) quickly moved Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn into the leadership spot without public drama or fuss. Meles’ Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) remains the party’s guiding policy document, and key initiatives such as the Grand Renaissance Dam are moving forward steadily. Ethiopia was never a one-man dictatorship, but was characterized by a strong authoritarian ruling party with deep links among the security forces, regional administrations, mass organizations and party-affiliated enterprises. The EPRDF is key to understanding Ethiopia’s stability and the regime’s ability to remain in control of a diverse country of some 90 million, divided into a complex set of ethnic groups, in a poor region that suffers terrible levels of conflict.

The EPRDF is ubiquitous in Ethiopia. It dominates the country through a network of political, military, economic and social organizations where the lines between party and state, party and military, party and business, and party and nongovernmental organization are blurred. Since 1991, the EPRDF has controlled all levels of government from the federal to the regional, including all levels of judicial, legislative and executive authority, and it is difficult to separate the EPRDF as a party from the EPRDF as the government. Patronage has been a key part of the party’s strength, and state resources such as development programs, access to higher education and civil service jobs have been used to reward supporters and punish opposition. The EPRDF controls a vast set of businesses through its party-based holding company, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). The party also controls newspapers, radio stations and mass organizations such its Youth League, Women’s League and Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions. Most importantly, the ruling party that began as an armed movement retains tight control over the military and security services. The EPRDF is more than just a political party, and its ability to embed itself in a network of state, private business, mass organization and party institutions makes it formidable. This network of linked centers of power is key to Ethiopia’s extraordinary authoritarian stability.

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