Economic Growth and Political Control
For the past two decades, state-led agricultural extension in Ethiopia was implemented by excluding other players in general and non-state actors in particular. This has facilitated uncontested control of the public space by the EPRDF regime.
The ongoing agricultural extension scheme that is a major component of transforming smallholder agriculture is driven by political imperatives aimed at effectively controlling the bulk of the Ethiopian electorate whose votes in periodic elections are crucial to the regime’s perpetuation in power.
In as much as the attainment of economic recovery and food self-sufficiency is the genuine desire of the EPRDF regime, the implicit goal also includes obtaining legitimacy from smallholders whose support is crucial for winning elections and ensuring survival against internal and external threats.
Donor influence on agricultural policy is rather limited except in cases where donor interventions are commensurate with the preferences of the EPRDF regime. The discussion on the political economy of agricultural policy making in Ethiopia has, therefore, both economic and political dimensions.
For the past two decades, state-led agricultural extension in Ethiopia was implemented by excluding other players in general and non-state actors in particular. This has facilitated uncontested control of the public space by the incumbent Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
In addition to its presumed economic ramifications, the ongoing agricultural extension scheme that is a major component of transforming smallholder agriculture is driven by political imperatives aimed at effectively controlling the bulk of the Ethiopian electorate whose votes in periodic elections are crucial to the regime’s perpetuation in power.
In this vein, the urge for effective control of the majority among the electorate is necessitated by the existence of potential and actual threats to regime survival as indicated below:
• The Tigray People’s Liberation Front that played the crucial role in ousting the previous military dictatorship and which is now at the heart of the EPRDF government has its origin and support in Tigray region with a population of less than 5 million in a country of 80 million. Even in Tigray itself, local constituencies are contested by other protagonists that are inimical to TPLF’s policy directions. Hence the vitality of the Front cannot be maintained in the absence of control and patronage mediated by the advantage of incumbency.
• EPRDF is a coalition of four ethnic-based regional organizations whose legitimacy is highly contested and challenged by other protagonists in the regional states of the federal system. This necessitated tight control and patronage as instruments of survival.
• TPLF/EPRDF is accused by Pan-Ethiopian political and social forces of abandoning the unity and territorial integrity of the country and of endorsing Ethiopia’s dismemberment by facilitating Eritrea’s secession and elevating ethnicity as an overriding organizing principle of political life.
• Threats from armed separatist groups, like the Ogaden National Liberation Front in Somali and the Oromo Liberation Front in Oromia regions, are another factor that prompted EPRDF to entrench a system of control and patronage.
• The Eritrean threat expressed in hosting separatist and unionist movements of various persuasions striving to effect regime change in Ethiopia could also be taken as one of the reasons for EPRDF’s recourse to control.
• EPRDF’s close cooperation with the west in the fight against thriving political Islam in the sub-region has also brought it into conflict with some radical Islamist movements engaged in terrorist activities, for example in mainland Somalia. Tight political control throughout the country may be seen as a means of ensuring that such groups do not establish a foothold within Ethiopia.
• Last but not least, EPRDF’s Marxist-Leninist past espousing the role of a vanguard party still inherently persists forcing it to emphasize control in its management of public affairs.
Despite the aforementioned, however, it could be assumed that control and patronage in a large and populous country like Ethiopia characterized by numerous diversities, competing claims, and multiplicity of incompatible interests could serve only short-term goals that cannot endure over a longer period.
Cognizant of this, EPRDF is striving to bring about economic development and improvement in people’s livelihood through which citizens would develop stakes in the continuity of the system. This is why official government declarations repeatedly state that implementation of existing economic policies, including those concerned with agrarian transformation, would elevate the country to the status of a middle-income economy under which citizens could be extricated from underdevelopment.
In this vein, EPRDF believes that a robust middle class that subscribes to its socio-economic and political programmes as a reliable constituency of support by paying allegiance to its drives of transforming the Ethiopian political economy and state-society relations can be forged in due course.
It thus hopes that the majority of Ethiopians would develop a sense of common belonging expressed in voluntary coexistence within the polity. Specifically, EPRDF sees the success of the agricultural extension programme as critical to the realization of these goals, believing that the resulting broad-based agricultural growth would weaken support for the forces that are opposed to its dominance and survival.
Whether such broad-based agricultural growth is indeed to be achieved and whether this brings the anticipated political benefits are matters to be seen in the years to come. In the meantime, it is hard to see any other exit strategy for the EPRDF from desisting from its tight political control other than that of increasing popular support through broad-based growth and prosperity, thereby allowing political liberalization.
However, this leaves the agricultural extension programme playing an important dual role as short and medium-term strategies. On the one hand, it is a central part of the government’s strategy for promoting broad-based agricultural growth whereas, on the other hand, it functions as a valuable tool for political control and mobilization across the country.
For both reasons, the government has made public investment in agricultural extension a high priority over the past two decades – in contrast to many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, there may be tensions between the two objectives, with the control imperative leading to a less flexible and responsive service for farmers, thereby reducing its productivity and growth impacts.
The ramifications of agricultural extension in Ethiopia are viewed from several angles.
First, it has played an important role in augmenting smallholder production due to improved access to inputs, credits, and training.
Second, the government persisted in implementing the extension program despite the hesitation of many smallholders to embrace credit-based services for fear of being indebted in cases of harvest failure.
Third, the implementation of the program gained the support of donors of various persuasions that provided assistance prior to and following the commencement of the programme.
Fourth, the government has invested a lot in the venture to advance closely intertwined socioeconomic and political goals.
Fifth, extension workers who received relatively advanced technical and administrative training of various sorts are deployed en masse in all the rural areas to guide and oversee implementation of the programme in a manner that could lead to the attainment of the desire economic and political objectives.
Sixth, the overarching presence and outreach of EPRDF that is embedded in closely-knit party and government structures enabled it to effectively penetrate the rural areas thereby facilitating political control that is vital to securing votes of grassroots communities constituting the overwhelming majority of the electorate.
In conclusion, in as much as the attainment of economic recovery and food self-sufficiency is the genuine desire of the EPRDF regime, the implicit goal also includes obtaining legitimacy from smallholders whose support is crucial for winning elections and ensuring survival against internal and external threats.
By and large, donor influence on agricultural policy is rather limited except in cases where donor interventions are commensurate with the preferences of the EPRDF regime. The discussion on the political economy of agricultural policy making in Ethiopia has, therefore, both economic and political dimensions.
This is a summary version of the author’s full paper with the same title, available for download here .