A Decade of Ethiopia: Politics, Economy and Society

As appears in Progress in Development Studies 18(2): 147-14. DOI: ​https://doi.org/10.1177/1464993417749150

Abbink, Jon. 2017: A Decade of Ethiopia: Politics, Economy and Society 2004-2016. Leiden: Brill. 253 pp. $24.00. ISBN: 9789004345881.

Ethiopia is a country of contradictions. There have been sustained, high rates of macro-economic growth and progress on development indicators, with persistently high levels of poverty and food insecurity. The government has strong international relations and partnerships, hosts the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, but severely restricts civil society within its borders. There is new infrastructure, improved healthcare and advances in access to education, amid growing discontent and mass anti-government protests. Regular elections occur, deemed by some to be credible, while opposition politicians and journalists are accused of genocide, treason and supporting terrorism. Building on several decades of research, in this new publication Jon Abbink guides readers through the complexity of this dynamic and diverse country.

The book focuses upon political, economic and societal issues of the nation, and is structured chronologically, with each chapter covering one of the years during the 2004 to 2016 period. This format allows readers to engage with events as they occurred in time, but also poses some limitations. With the exception of an introductory chapter on the 'Developmental State', many of the themes presented are not synthesized, resulting in readers having to identify trends over time and figure out what it all means. Covering chapters by year means grappling with a limited set of key issues, such as listing incidents of violence and dignitary visits throughout each year. In so doing, some important changes and cumulative shifts were only addressed in passing or not covered at all. For example, Africa's largest safety net, the Productive Safety Net Program, is mentioned in passing. This was also the case for the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange and its outreach to farmers, the rapid expansion of healthcare coverage and service provision, and the experimentation and leadership of Ethiopian actors to develop weather-indexed crop insurance. These are not headline events, but are transforming emergency response, the marketplace, and available opportunities, particularly for the smallholder farmer majority.

Politically, the chapters outline the brief rise and rapid fall of the 'democratization process' the ruling party outlined when it came to power in 1991. The height of political opposition representation in parliament occurred in the 2005 election (with 174 members of 547 seats), which steadily declined. By the 2015 election, not a single opposition member was in parliament. The 2004 to 2016 period witnessed shifts of power: one ethnic-based party (the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front) shifted to a coalition of regional ethnic-based parties (all affiliated with the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front), relations with European nations wavered while those with China strengthened, and rural-urban divides became apparent with opposition parties winning most urban areas in 2005. The final year covered in the book, 2016, saw the emergence of mass protest movements, followed by the initiation of the state of emergency with an assortment of repressive laws and heavy punishments. Abbink describes the shift toward an all-dominant, authoritarian and monolithic bureaucracy that became increasingly oppressive, enabled by international assistance. The political assessment is critical and negative, but where Ethiopia can claim progress is not in the political sphere.

Abbink outlines how the heavy-hand of the state in the economy offers some reasons for optimism: Ethiopia's economy has grown remarkably, poverty has been reduced, significant foreign direct investment was attracted, and the country had one of the most competent bureaucracies in Africa. Infrastructure has been a key area of public investment, from universities to railways and dams. The book outlines rising debt, population increases, and the environment as critical challenges to sustaining growth. A few issues that gained prominence as the years progressed, such as the dam on the Blue Nile, shifted in their presentation. For example, in the Introduction the Blue Nile is described as providing 59% of downstream flow (pp. 10), while in the 2004, 2005 and 2010 chapters, respectively, 86%, 85% and 82% of Nile flows come from Ethiopian sources (pp. 25, 45, 130). Particularly at points such as these, the book would have benefited from references, unfortunately none are provided (with the exception of some footnotes in the Introduction).

The author does not grapple with the difficult position any government in Ethiopia would face: insufficient resources, financing and capacity, combined with significant population, health, education, infrastructural, and environmental challenges. For example, Abbink criticizes the rapid rate of deforestation (wood being a primary source of fuel), high costs of expensive hydrocarbon imports, and the contested hydro-electric dams, but it is unclear what viable alternatives are suggested to meet the energy needs of the nation. Even the author shifts positions: in 2005 flower exports were a promising development (pp. 46), by 2008 viewed as causing environmental harm (pp. 104) and in 2010 their long-term disadvantages were evident (pp. 139). The government has few 'good' options or ideal choices; finding fault seems the easiest task.

In the book, societal change is largely viewed through the lens of politics. For example, ethnic and religious identity is spoken of in light of ethnic-clashes and potential divisions within society. Civil society and independent media are presented in relation to the increasing restrictions and state control, particularly following the regulations of 2009. Notably missing were social shifts related to linguistic choices, and the education of a generation (in parts of the nation) who are unable to communicate in the federal language nor with those outside their ethno-linguistic group. This is not only an issue related to education and administration of regional states, but also of primary language of instruction at local levels, as some students do not extend their education beyond that point. Given that the nation is home to more than eighty languages, one would expect a greater level of engagement with language issues, in addition to those of ethno-religious identity.

For undergraduate and graduate students with an interest in Ethiopia, Abbink's book provides an accessible account of the 2004 to 2016 period. The year-by-year account provides a consistent format and readers are given an opportunity to experience the events as they occurred. In focusing largely on the political sphere, the book centers around the most negative and problematic issues, at times at the expense of exploring significant progress the country has made in other domains. Nonetheless, Abbink brings depth of knowledge and experience; this book is recommended as an essential resource for anyone interested in Ethiopia. 

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