Is Ethiopia becoming a political marketplace?

Ethiopia is not a political marketplace. It will not become a violent chaotic one that resembles Somalia or South Sudan, but it may become a hybrid form more akin to Kenya or South Africa.

Corruption and the political marketplace are closely linked, though they are not identical. Typically, the main mechanism in which an institutionalized, authoritarian state transitions to a political marketplace is through the combination of corrupt deals and political competition. Politicians facing competition for party nominations or in open elections need money for their campaigns. Those in office need money to consolidate their patronage networks. The best opportunities for obtaining this money are through large-scale deals, especially with foreign investors.


Corruption needs to be understood in context. There is no historical case in which accelerated economic growth has not been accompanied by corruption. It is remarkably hard to measure corruption, but Transparency International provides a yearly ranking of corruption perceptions. Ethiopia hasn’t changed much on this: in 2012 it was ranked 113 out of 176; in 2017 it was 107 out of 180. Ethiopia is perceived as less corrupt than neighboring countries. However, Ethiopians tend to aver that corruption has worsened, and they complain about corruption more than others.

One of the features of Ethiopian corruption today is that the proceeds of corrupt activities are largely invested in the domestic economy rather than hidden abroad. Another is that there is no established culture of negotiations over liabilities, by which I mean that small capitalists who evade taxes or cheat on licenses rarely have the chance to make a deal with the tax authorities whereby they pay a penalty and can thereby obtain reputable status. Rather, they live in fear that they will be punished harshly. This has the consequence that the class of emergent capitalists, which should be the support base for the EPRDF, tends to hide itself away at any moment of political confrontation rather than organize as a political force in support of the current dispensation. This may be one reason why those who have benefited from the last twenty years of growth are not ready to credit the EPRDF for their material advancement.

In all languages and political cultures, the concept of ‘corruption’ has both a material and a moral dimension. It could be argued that because Ethiopians expect the state to be autonomous from society and to unite the material and spiritual realms, the notion of ‘corruption’ carries a greater moral charge than in countries where material bargaining is intrinsic to political relations (such as Kenya or Sudan). By inveighing against ‘rent-seeking’—a term that has never been widely understood by the population in general— Meles probably made this problem worse, as he raised the moral bar. Demanding a high standard of ethics in leadership is a double-edged sword as leaders rarely live according to the code. And one of the most consistent findings of political psychology is that the most-disliked kind of offender is the hypocrite. Those who are brazenly criminal are less disliked than those caught out in small hypocrisies.

It is always tempting for a new government to engage in a high-profile campaign against corruption. Unless this is based on a thorough political-economic analysis of the contours of the issue, this can readily become a politicallypartisan purge or a tool for generating insecurity. Anti-corruption initiatives need to be scrutinized as closely as corruption itself.

Another feature of Ethiopian corruption is that financial corruption has not become a driving factor in politics, or at least not yet. Ethiopia does not have a political marketplace in which electoral campaigns, patronage politics, and policy decisions are driven by the economics of supply and demand. It is not a political marketplace in which allegiances are traded for material reward. For sure, there are individual cases of corrupt transactions that affect gaining or holding political office, but this is not the dominant logic according to which politics is organized.

The most important element of corruption to monitor in the political arena is political finance. For example, we should analyze payments in the context of privatization deals, new foreign investment, and (especially) arms purchases, to see if additional funds are provided to finance the activities of political parties or candidates.

The questions to ask are: what factors make Ethiopia vulnerable to the monetization or marketization of politics? What would such a process look like it if it were to occur?

The most obvious vulnerability is that Ethiopians are not used to the kind of political horse-trading and bargaining that is common in other countries. There is an element of political innocence. The laws controlling political competition including financing of political parties, political advertising, etc., are not suited to competitive politics, and there is no experience in enforcing such matters as campaign funding laws. It will be tempting for the new administration to liberalize the political arena in a way that creates a free-for-all for those with money to spend. This also means that, in comparison to other countries in Africa in the Middle East, political market predators (such as the specialist advisory firms in the U.S. and Israel) may think that Ethiopian politics can be influenced or bought cheaply, and may rush in.

The relative lack of experience in political bargaining also means that Ethiopian political entrepreneurs may find that it is more effective to promote public messages of total change, rather than advocating dialogue and compromise.

What best protects Ethiopia from the marketization of politics are its institutions and rules. These can be restrictive and indeed oppressive, but their value will be recognized if they are gone.

The next two years will be the test for Ethiopia’s democratization: will this be a managed transition to openness and pluralism, a chaotic arena of unregulated competition, or a takeover by a new political force?

What is Ethiopia’s position in the wider region?

Ethiopia’s standing in the Horn of Africa, Africa, the Red Sea arena and greater Middle East, and the world, are a mixture of its hard and soft power. Ethiopia’s military has a high reputation. Ethiopia’s economy is among the fastest-growing in the world. Ethiopia has set an agenda on key issues, including African peace and security, climate change, economic integration, and the developmental state. The intellectual agenda setting has often been conducted in a discreet manner, through multilateral organizations and without publicly proclaiming leadership, which has contributed to its success.

Ethiopia’s strengths in this area include the institutional memory of its foreign affairs and security leaders, and its valued reputation for understated but principled leadership.

In today’s emerging world of bilateral, transactional, monetized and coercive international relations, Ethiopia has much more to lose than to gain. It is overshadowed by far richer and more accomplished operators in the transnational political markets of the greater Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Its economic gains from embracing the global market will be isolated windfalls; its advantages in the security arena will be subordinate to the interests of bigger players.

Ethiopia has invested in a multilateral order based on norms, principles and institutions, at the African Union and United Nations. The emergent order in the Horn of Africa is the hegemonic Middle East strategic alliance of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, backed by Egypt, Israel and the United States. This is based on money and military capacity. Despite being dubbed a ‘NATO for the Middle East’, it has no treaty containing norms, principles and institutions, and its hegemony threatens the African peace and security architecture.

Ethiopia’s 2002 national security and foreign affairs strategy is now outdated and was never more than a statement of intent, and the promise of holding a public discussion on the goals and strategies was never fulfilled. Attempts to bring it up to date in recent years did not translate into a coherent strategy. This is another area in which a national debate is required.


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