Mind the Jump: A Brief Response to Prof. Messay Kebede

Abiye Teklemariam Megenta

Professor Messay Kebede’s challenging essay, “The fallacy of TPLF’s developmental state,” makes a lot of fresh arguments and suggestions. Some of them are deeply unsettling to many of us who consider ourselves to be part of a pro-democracy struggle in Ethiopia. To the extent that we believe Messay himself is a member of our community — a towering intellectual figure at that — it is hard to escape a sense of deep {www:disenchantment} with what appears to be his abandonment of our deepest convictions. But that is not a good enough reason to react negatively towards the article. I agree with American political philosopher Michael Walzer that the internal critics, the {www:incrementalist}s and foot-draggers, the prophets that are honoured in their own city, are better in achieving the goals of their criticism than the external hammer-on-the-skull critics. But the axe and the furious witnessing (to use Kafka’s phrase) are needed if communities are not to stagnate beyond {www:reprieve}, as ours seems to be heading towards. It is refreshing to see that Messay is willing to stick his neck out in service of reason and progress. But alas, most of his arguments, at least the arguments which matter, are far from persuasive.

The main point in Messay’s article is that it is not beyond Meles Zenawi to establish a developmental state provided that the present political structure is reformed in such a way that leaves, at least for some time, the ruling elite in power, but does not exclude the opposition from participating in the act of governing. This is an authoritarian scheme, insofar as its grounding is elite agreement, not voter choice. But Messay takes a hopeful, if not an overconfident, view that democratization is possible under the {www:tutelage} of these power sharing authoritarian elites.

The relevant literature in political science and political economy shows that this overconfidence is misplaced. There are diverse explanations of the democratization process, and Messay is on point to claim that elite-conceded or – to a lesser degree – elite-imposed democracy are not implausible. But there are few places where these democratization processes have started with power-sharing arrangements among competing political parties. As Harvard Political Scientist Pippa Norris argues, there is little evidence that power sharing “serves the long-term interests of democratic consolidation and durable conflict management”. As it turns out, the bulk of literature points to an opposite conclusion: that power sharing arrangements in full-scale authoritarian systems unravel quite quickly since the currency of trust and strength of agreement-enforcing political institutions on which the effectiveness of these arrangements rely are very low, or even worse, they lead to exclusionary bargaining systems and political culture that frustrate the emergence of democracy. It is good to note that in the very few cases where power sharing schemes have positive democratization effects, including some of the examples mentioned by Messay, the authoritarian states happened to have strong selectorate accountability, or they were less than full-scale authoritarianisms. In a simple language: the more the scale of authoritarianism, the less the actual democratization effect of power sharing arrangements. If what Messay says about the nature of Meles Zenawi’s rule is true, it makes his idea hopelessly mistimed.

It seems to me that what prompts Messay to consider this path to democratization is his enthusiasm for the developmental state. In a way, his aim is to kill two birds with one stone. But accepting elite authoritarian tutelage would not have been necessary had Messay been less dismissive of the concept of a democratic developmental state. Messay insists, plausibly enough, that the concept ignores the “defining characteristics of Asian Developmental States”. But that is not a good reason to reject altogether its realizability. Indeed, the histories of post-war Germany, Botswana, South Africa and many other countries suggest that a developmental state can be democratic. I do not know the “serious literature” on this issue to which Messay refers, but my understanding is that a good many developmental scholars agree that such states are possible, in both an ideal and non-ideal sense. If such agreement exists for political reasons as Messay contends – which I think is an implausibly strong claim – he fails to offer any evidence.

Also, Messay makes two rather common errors – both of the conflating sort – when he constructs his argument. First, he takes it for granted that neo-liberalism = liberalism. I think it is fair to say that this is a troublesome position. Philosopher John Holbo rightly calls the general tendency to conflate the two as “strawman-ing liberalism”. Some of the most vociferous critics of neo-liberalism – an economic philosophy that is best represented by the ”Washington consensus” – including Joseph Stiglitz, Meles Zenawi’s unabashed champion, are self-proclaimed liberals. The dominant thought in liberalism qua philosophy (to which such egalitarian stalwarts as Ronald Dworkin, Richard Arneson and John Rawls belong) doesn’t {www:prima facie} reject a developmental role for the state since the {www:underpinning}s of this thought are not property rights. Second, Messay seems to think that democracies are ipso facto liberal. I am sympathetic to the view that no democracy can be illiberal. This is not, however, similar to saying that no democracy can be non-liberal. Certainly, in Messay’s exalted field (political philosophy) there is a rich scholarly work on normative non-liberal democratic theories. The institutional implications of these theories have also been a subject of serious discussion by political scientists. It is not my aim to nitpick Messay for trivial purposes. It is to show that once one escapes such confusions, one can imagine the possibility of a democratic developmental state, and, dare I say, a liberal democratic developmental state.

Messay has much else to say, not least in his kicking of opposition parties in the shin for failing to grasp that Meles Zenawi had no intention to “go back to the situation of 2005”. This is an odd claim. My impression before the 2010 election was that if there was any single point that Ethiopian opposition groups agreed on, it was that Ethiopia was backsliding towards absolute authoritarianism. Am I missing something here? Some believed that their only way of connecting to Ethiopians was to use whatever political space the system provided them; some decided that this was a naïve view and chose a different path; there was a minority who continued to participate in the process with the hope that Meles Zenawi would come to see the follies of his ways. If members of this latter group committed any offence, it is in their anti-determinism, a view with which Professor Messay openly associates. I do not see how a person who advises Meles to make concessions can hold it against the opposition for acting on a similar belief unless the advice is intended to be no more than gestural.

I believe that Messay’s attempt to reflect on the matter of development and democracy in a decently {www:nuanced} manner is commendable. The Ethiopian opposition seems unwilling to give up the tiresome but emphatically false argument that democracy is a precondition for economic development. Democracy needs a better and a more convincing defence than one that tastes as a picked cherry or is based on {www:dogmatic} assertions that fly in the face of well-grounded knowledge. I can’t emphasise enough how emancipatory Messay’s article is. But its emancipatory value is in the freshness of its approach, not the force of its reason.

(The writer can be reached at abiyetk@gmail.com)

22 thoughts on “Mind the Jump: A Brief Response to Prof. Messay Kebede

  1. koster on

    Development without freedom is called looting but not development. Development should be for the benefit of all or the majority. What is going on in Ethiopia is similar to Russia under Jelzin which is looting and enriching certain groups of people while enslaving or leading to poverty the majority of the people.

  2. Enanu Agonafer on

    Ethiopia needs new thinkers and Dr. Messay and Abiye are not two of them.
    Ethiopia Dr. Messay and Abiye know has evolved. New economic relations have created new classes. The military, ethno – military and academic elites are no more in command. The future of Ethiopia is the new emerging middle class – the economic elites. Any analysis that shuns this force from consideration is wrong. And that’s why most attempts to introduce change in the form of democracy or other continues to fail.
    In the past century, Ethiopia was feudal under absolute monarchy close for seventy five years. Regent H. Selassie took power from Empress Zewditu through palace intrigue. A coup d’Etat was tried by military elites against him but failed. In the name of revolution, military elites came to power in 1974 until they were removed by another ethno – military elites. The latter are still in power but losing grip to new elites.
    For hundred years, the power exchange in Ethiopia has been from a monarch to military elites to ethno – miliary elites. It was done by palace intrigues, “revolution” and violent civil war. Coup d’Etats have not succeeded. Democracy and peaceful transfer of power has not been tried except in 2005 in which the ethno – military elites were defeated. The academic elites had always been in the background of these power exchange in the country. Academic elites such as leaders of OLF, EPRP and AESM are examples here. They paid enormous prices but never succeeded to achieve independence, form their own government or share power with others.
    The century of military, ethno – military and academic and quasi- academic elites in Ethiopia is over. A recent study of the Ethiopian military has confirmed that its interest to take power through coup d’Etat is almost nil. In case situations go out of hand, it might step in but only upon the request of parliament or the government itself. Some say it has understood that the Constitution prohibits its take over of power. The quasi- academic – ethno -military forces such as OLF and ONLF (if they want to succeed like TPLF) have to take their hit-and-ran to a higher level to be taken seriously. They have not done that for the last three- four decades and they are losing momentum. The diaspora academic elites are still talking whereas those in the country are not. The ones in the country have changed to the extent that their mission is not to liberate the masses but rather prosper and join the emerging economic elite.
    The century is for the emerging economic elites in the country. The opposition is dead and buried in the country. TPLF/EPRDF, let alone share power with the opposition, it will not talk to them as they have no sizable constituency that wields political clout. As a political force, which largely comes from the academic and quasi – elites, the opposition is out. Even in 2005, it was the economic elites that took the opposition where it found itself. Once they realized they cannot do business with the opposition, they let it go. The opposition has not recovered from the damage the separation caused.
    The economic elites have now turned to the government and started demanding wider economic space (in forms of free economy and market) which they are getting day after day. The entire bureaucracy is serving them and the police protecting them and their property. Soon, they will demand further political liberalization in the jargon we hear every day: good governance, transparency, accountability, efficiency and effectiveness, responsiveness, participatory, consensus, rule of law, etc. And the government will talk to them, respond to their demands provided they pay money.
    The economic elites forming the middle class is the force that will bring democracy in the country. The military, ethno-military and the academic and quasi -academic elites have been given the chance in the last fifty years. They have squandered the chance and it is time for them to leave the field for others.

  3. Misrak on

    Hmm… Thank you for your response to the proposition but please tell us your opinion in plain English and the language of the common and ordinary people on this forum and beyond. BEKA!

  4. minew shewa on

    What is this?

    “The Ethiopian opposition seems unwilling to give up the tiresome but emphatically false argument that democracy is a precondition for economic development.” Why mix particular cases (if there are for that matter) with a general truth? Believe it or not the only way to development is democracy and even more so in Ethiopia. Besides developmental state (to be more precise democratic developmental state) is about Asian Tigers; how these countries developed and the degree of state intervention (there was no lack of democracy in these countries as we see it many african countries including Ethiopia.

    “Democracy needs a better and a more convincing defence than one that tastes as a picked cherry or is based on dogmatic assertions that fly in the face of well-grounded knowledge.” These are just words.

    What is sharing power with opposition parties other than democracy (not authoritarian)? And why mix democracy with Authoritrian elite? Why Dr Messay is in hurry to give us a new “idea”? Why does he has to beat round the bush. Why does he not tell the opposition “I am fine with Mr Meles’s developmental state except for few amendments, like sharing power?

    Mr critical Abiy; you r just as nauseating as Dr Messay.

  5. Mamo Kilo on

    Enanu Agonafer, and in 1991 Ethiopia changed from a free country opressed by a dictator to an enslaved nation under an ethnic minority tyrant.

  6. HAQ on


    “Ethiopia Dr. Messay and Abiye know has evolved. New economic relations have created new classes. The military, ethno – military and academic elites are no more in command..”

    Ethno- military are no more? Is that right?

    Isn’t “95% of the top brass of the military emanate from the Tigrian ethnic group representing about 6% of the population.”?

  7. anon on

    whew!!! i don’t know in which planet miss enanu agonafer is living in? what a dumb analysis. but of course you are entitled to your opinion, madam.

  8. Tulu Oda on

    I am utterly disappointed with both Messay Kebede and Abiy Teklemariam. To me,respect for human rights in an all inclusive democratic governance go hand in hand with development in this age of information.

    I wish to draw to the attention of the duo that the demand for freedom and dignity drive the revolution of the the masses in the Arab world.

  9. Mesay Kebede on

    Your comments on my article raise interesting points and invite a serious debate. For now I say the following:
    1. Your statement that “what prompts Messay to consider this path to democratization is his enthusiasm for the developmental state” completely misunderstands the main idea of the article. What prompts me is the present political impasse of Ethiopia: Neither Meles can succeed in marginalizing the opposition through rapid economic development, nor the opposition can overthrow him through electoral victory (the only way is armed struggle or popular revolution). What is the way out from these dead-ends? That is the main question of the article and I am surprised that you think that Ethiopia is not in a political stalemate.
    2. I think that your understanding of the genesis of democratic systems is not complex enough. It still reflects some Marxist assumptions. Democratic systems emerge, not only because of popular pressure or uprising, but also when conflicts between elites reach an impasse. Democracy is a way out from a political stalemate. I think numerous historical facts confirm the assumption.
    3. You say that authoritarian states lead to democracy when they have strong selectorate accountability. This is a structuralist argument that ignores the importance of subjective factors in history. It does not apply to Japan and other East Asian countries, which are now in the democratic camp. Most importantly, what is crucial is not the presence of some institutional prerequisites, but the determination of elites to respect them. The TPLF constitution of Ethiopia is fine; the problem is that the ruling elite does not respect it.
    4. I agree when you say that “no democracy can be illiberal.” However, your notion of a “liberal democratic developmental state” misses the characteristic feature of the Asian model of development. In the latter authoritarianism is perceived as a necessary means to promote economic progress and modernization. If you adopt liberalism, in whatever form, then I don’t see why you need the developmental state.
    5. My question concerning the 2010 election is the following: if opposition leaders had known that the elections would result in complete defeat for them, would they have participated? If I remember correctly, MEDREK was hesitant because the guarantees of fair elections were not enough. But they had to follow others, especially Hailu Shaul and his party, who thought that a fair competition was possible. I have heard many interviews of opposition leaders in which they say that they expect a significant victory. I have also read many articles stating that the Meles regime is on its last leg.

  10. Abiye Teklemariam on

    Professor Messay,

    Thank you for the response. On the misreading, I stand corrected. But it doesn’t change the substance of my response. Here are my comments.

    1.I don’t deny that democracy can be a way out of a political stalemate. I actually did not state my views about the genesis and development of democracy fully. My main point is there is little evidence to suggest that grand power sharing coalitions lead to democracy. In fact, the evidence points to the contrary.

    2.I didn’t say authoritarian states lead to democracy when they have strong selectorate accountability.It is that authoritarian power sharing coalitions lead to democracy if they are preceded by either an authoritarian system that had strong selectorate accountability or that is less than full-scale. It is a structuralist argument, but backed by a strong empirical evidence.

    3. The theory of developmental state is an economic theory(not an all encompassing political philosophy) that informs the priorities of economic policy and how to mobilize resources to execute them. It is insensitive to regime typology. The fairness vs. prosperity, employment, taxes and spending, deficits etc economic debates in liberal states can be informed by developmentalism.

    4.I think the election time declarations of the opposition party leaders were intended to redirect people’s attention to political contest.I thought it was not a great strategy, but the truth is it had nothing to do with their beliefs that 2010 elections could be like 2005.

  11. Anonymous on

    Thanks Prof Messay
    I think it is high time to delineate our vision and solution seeking to the current upheaval of Ethiopian to the usual tried and tired trodden paths.
    What Messay has shown us in his article is, we should not always wear the opposition hat for the sake of it! We ought to indulge ourselves in search of workable solutions that take into account the prevailing situation – social, political, economical, external, internal, and the likes.
    The mindset and modus operandi of both the EPDRF regime and the oppositions are well documented sagas; hence to say the least it does not require my qualification or articulation. However, what has been missing to date is a flicker of light that takes us out of the quagmire of polarised stands that have been undertaken, thus far. In light of this, what Messay ‘s contribution cab taken as a precursor step to bridge the existing entrenched positioning.
    Probably, call me naïve, this might be the missing gambit to soften the two polarised stands that ultimately brings about what we have envisaged for the past two decades and would leads to the democratisation of the mother land.

  12. Belay on

    Messay kebede joue le grand politicien de votre temps,
    un type qui fuit toutes les luttes.Au debut de la revoution
    ethiopiennes quand ses ‘freres” daniel tadesse et ses amis
    negede gobeze luttenet pour sauver notre pays ,
    lui se derobe derriere les barreaux du vin rouge
    et differents boissons alcholiques,et maintenant loin
    du “feu ” il veux jouer ” l’ethiopien ”
    Au diable ‘ les Hodames ‘

  13. Roger Bojjia on


    In a way what is the difference between Ethiopia and India other than that the Indian tyrannical feudal Mafia business circles are taking over the whole of Ethiopia monopolizing virgin fertile farm lands (modern day green Gold) at the invitation and repeat begging of the minority tyrant of Ethiopia starving 80 million poor Ethiopians soon to extinction.
    Soon we will be forced to change the name of the country from that of Ethiopia to that of the fitting name, Indopia.

    But the name “Indopia” is in the process of being patented as a result of which you or any one else are absolutely forbidden even to think about it let alone use it without my written and stamped permission. MONEY TALKS! Enough is enough!

  14. abyssiniangirl4life on

    You are either too dumb or a TPLF cadre. How can you in all seriousness claim that ethno-military elites are gone? Who do you think are the economic elites? I do agree with you on your general premise, though:Money talks. It is within the economic heavy weights to bring about democratic changes. But when said economic elites are the perpetrators and beneficiaries of the current system…why would they want to change it?

  15. Enanu Agonafer on

    My opinion is meant to show how the vocal diaspora academic elites are detached from the reality in Ethiopia and feed the day dream of the diaspora opposition. They cannot be power brokers in a highly charged political environment by suggesting ideas pulled from nowhere.

    First, they have to see if there is economic change that has affected relations in the country to the extent politics is impacted by it. Nobody begins with that. The discussion is always TPLF/EPRDF is in power for so long and how can we remove it. If anything different comes, it is how power can be shared with the government – obviously with academic and quasi – academic elites. Some get angry if you say both TPLF/EPRDF and academic elites are no more important political forces in the country. The worst thing is they do not ask who these new forces are.

    TPLF/EPRDF have not talked for a while and will not talk to the opposition both from within and without the country. They have reach a point where they consider the opposition a hit away from total elimination. They will not listen to any kind of suggestion to re-invent and strengthen the opposition because democracy needs them. They have, time and again, said democracy is not an urgent affair for the country; growth and development are.

    So, with whom does TPLF/EPRDF with its government deal today? The economic elites. As noted widely, the service, industry and agriculture sector are moved by foreign and domestic capital. The finance source of the five-year budget and plan is foreign and domestic capital and tax. Behind capital and tax are mainly business people on whom the government is dependent. The government talks to these people, works to meet their interests and sometimes they clash. There are several recent examples to this effect. The future challenge these people will raise to the government is to create “enabling economic environment” which includes good governance. In effect, good governance is democracy in a different name.

    As the economic elites closely work with the government to advance their interests, they will fight back any force like the academic and quasi academic elites that aspires to take political power or share it with the government. First of all, the academic and quasi – academic elites have no significant stake in the country. They have no economic interest to advance or any other major interest for that matter. They might claim to be citizens of the country and need democracy and human rights, but those are not enough to put economic interest of an entire class in the hands of people who cannot protect it and help it to grow. The academic elites of the diaspora cannot even claim they are citizens of the country. So much for their concern and efforts to destabilize it.

    TPLF/EPRDF have said they will hand over power after building capitalism in the country. We do not know if the economic elites will not remove them soon enough to further open up the country for business. The millions of workers in the newly created farms, service, manufacturing and construction will join the new economic class to bring about a far reaching change in our country. EFFORT is TPLF`s platform for joining the emerging economic elites. Others are supposed to imitate TPLF – EFFORT and join the rush before it is too late; but they do not seem to have understood the game.

    Most Ethiopians are blinded from seeing this reality because of elite dysfunction and empty bravado about democracy and human rights. Do not get us wrong. We are for democracy and human rights. The problem is to know how they can be brought about and by whom. The political discourse in the country and abroad should raise real questions and struggle with them rather than look for a short cut to power. Time for all of us to reflect hard and long.

  16. Anonymous on

    Reply to TPLF

    You cannot be serious!

    In your infantile mind providing a link, which shows the rating of Prof Messay’s teaching by his students, would tarnish his persona. Prof Messay does not need endorsement by his buddy philosophy students to write, to comment and to share his concerns about “our” Mother land Ethiopia!! He has been around for some time and he is a tried and tested intellectual with illustrious career both in Ethiopia and abroad. Hence, such amateurish attempt by semiliterate TPLF’s foot soldier the like of you would not, should not and could not dent his image.

    Just a piece of advice for next time – try to challenge the idea that is/are put forward!!!

  17. Ha hu, Ethiopia Tikdem on

    You are a disgrace TPLF! Not even worth an argument, I just thought I should use this space to get my impressions of you across. And you would be surprised i am one who finds it hard to categorize myself either as a government supporter or opposition…for the sake of the country I try hard to take the middle ground…gin can’t stand such undue behavior. So infantile and so low – you brought in a link to comments from the Professor’s students??? hager bet sewun endemitasakikut!? Any thing goes… Oh my God! Just so you know (’cause you seem to be so dumb to know this!) it’s testimony to a culture of free speech and transparency that our people are so hungry of. He is at a place where even an accomplished person such as the good Professor is not immune to hearing the voices of others, rather than going crazy over hymns of adulation from befirhat yetewatu nefsoch and one’s own echo. Seriously, denkoro neh/sh, batam! My first post ever, and it’s a rant, egziar yiyilih/sh, denkoro:) Your indecency/bilgina actually got to me!

  18. T. Goshu on

    The article by Professor Messay and responses/impressions being reflected by other academicians such as Abiye ,Dr.Hassen and Dr. Tekola ;and the comments by many concerned Ethiopians are interesting and desirable .And I strongly believe that these kinds of exchange of ideas/veiws should be encouraged . However, I do say that our style of communication suffers from some sort of shortcoming which is really difficult to sort out.Any way, let me try to express my impression:

    1)I want to argue that our exchanges of ideas which may have theoritical/philosophical/academical or direct pratical applications should be encouraged and debated with the spirit of honesty, civility, critical thinking as well as clarity( not highly jargonized theoreies) if we want to get our messages reach the people and make a difference. I want to say that the article by Professor Messay and the comment by Abiye T/Mariam do not sound that they are messages well-designed to reach out and communicate the large segment of the Ethiopian society with an average education leave alone the people of Ethiopia at large.They rather look like papers prepared for work shops for academic exreciece. I really do not think the political and socio-economic misery that is going on for the last 20 years and continued in a much more unprecedentedly dire situation needs a highly thoerised( jorgonized) level of academic analyses and/or hair-spliting debates and counter-debates.

    2) I do not know how Professor Messay’S arguement about the very behavior and interest of Ato Meles Zenawi ( how he may be an agent for a real sense of development and political reform ) holds water as far as the hard facts on the ground ( the total humuliation) he caused to the Ethiopian people for the last 20 years and still continuing with his bloody iron fist is concerned. I wonder why the Professor is trying hard to defend his arguement that is clearly stated in his article. I really do not know waht kind of contextual understading he wants us to have. Is he not saying that Ato Meles may play a positive role in pursuing developmental state and cosequently political reform if he is not troubled by his parastic cronies and if gets the support of the oppositions?? So, what kind of contextual understading are we supposed to have?? Professor Messay did not show us why and how oppositions would be able to have a genuine dialogue, agreement and natioanl/inclusive reconcilaiton on the question of how to share
    political power.

    2) Commentator Abiye T/Mariam has made his reponse( message) more complicated academic exeriece by inserting more quoations from philosophers and academicians . I do not know what are his target groups . It sounds that he simply wanted to talk not with a large section of the society in Ethiopia with an averagre level of understading ,but with Professor Messay and few intellectuals . I said few because I am not soure if many of that group give meaningful attention , let alone pursuing active participation as far as the serious challenges the Ethiopian people are facing.

    3) I went through the comment from Dr.Tekola . I wonder why he came up with that kind defense mechanism with all kinds of more jargonized approach. I do not know why he wanted to tell us about his close friendship with Professor Messay and try hard to inform us about the knowledgeabilty of Professor Messay by asserting that his is one of the “Finest Philosophers” as if the arguement was/is whether the Professor is one of the top intellectuals or not. I am not saying he is not supposed to defend the Professor as a person who knows him personally. What I am saying that the way he tried to do it ( unnecessarily emotional and totally one-sided) is not the way expected from functioal intellectuallity.

    I want to say that all the abvoe mentioned highly educated and well-experienced inteelctuals sincerely deserve great appreciation and respect for their efforts in initiating and engaging us in a very important and timely dialogue as far as the need to help the people of Ethiopia get of the horrible situation they are experiencing is concerned. I sincerely hope that so many silent intellectuals will come forward and play their own part.

    May God help us!

  19. From the Land of The Rising Sun on

    I am impressed by the ideas and observations presented by Enanu Agonafer. If this claim is backed up by meaningful ratio of the so called middle class and economic elites, it is a sound observation. Ethiopia has nearly 90+ million population, how much does the economic elite constitute? are they as such in sheer number to influence Melese’s or the governments direction?

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