Hustling at ‘the end of history’. Development and inequality in inner Addis

Source: Ethiopia Insight

Ahun tariq yellem, there is no history”, Wondimu told me. 

In the parlance of the streets of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Wondimu, a street hustler and previously a car attendant working in a government-supported cooperative, is an Arada: a street-smart urbanite. 

Arada is the name of a historic part of Addis Ababa’s city centre. Since the 1950s, being Arada conveyed ideas of smartness and urban sophistication cultivated by generations of inner-city dwellers. Intellectuals, artists, singers, people of fashion and culture described themselves as Arada to signal how the city—its bars, restaurants, cinemas, and theatres—had shaped their lifestyles and sensibilities. 

Hustlers such as Wondimu, sex workers, pickpockets, and thieves also claimed to be Arada. The hustler’s ability to make do and get by in the inner city was a sign of smartness. The Arada was poor, but had respect and recognition. 

History had ended, however, Wondimu reckoned, because the wave of economic growth and development that Ethiopia has witnessed in the past twenty years offered him and many others in the inner city no opportunities to experience improvement and social mobility. While high-rise buildings dot the landscape of Addis Ababa, wielding the promise of abundance, Wondimu saw his own condition of marginality and exclusion persist. Economic growth and development eventually wiped out street Aradas’ sense of dignity and respect.

History had ended because “if you are cista, nobody is going to respect you,” said Ibrahim, a man with past and present involvement in Addis Ababa’s street economy. 

Fukuyama in Ethiopia 

Another man also talked about the end of history: Francis Fukuyama. 

In his (in)famous book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the socialist bloc and the crisis of communist parties across the world, he argued that the final victory of liberal democracy and market economy signalled that society had reached the highest point in its evolution. 

Twenty-six years later, Fukuyama landed in Ethiopia for a quick trip. On 11 June 2019, at a conference hosted in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa, he compared Ethiopia’s developmental model to that of East Asian developmental states, pointing out the challenges that Ethiopia’s developmental model had faced and could face in the future.

Fukuyama’s appearance in Ethiopia was received with a fair dose of criticism and scepticism, especially on social media. For some, his talk was not just dry, it was superficial. It showed that the Prophet of the End of History knew very little about Ethiopia.  

Ethiopia beyond the end of history

When The End of History was published, Meles Zenawi, the former guerrilla, ideologue, and leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, had become “the new Elvis of Ethiopian politics”, as anthropologist Donald Donham put it. As leader of the dominant party within the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, that has ruled the country since 1991, he set the country onto a trajectory of development and economic growth that, a decade later, would come to defy the liberal and free market triumphalism that inspired Fukuyama’s narrations on the end of history. 

A former Marxist-Leninist, Meles Zenawi strategically embraced the market economy while continuing to build the influence of the state in setting the pace of economic growth. For many observers, Meles Zenawi’s state-led vision of development transformed Ethiopia into a political laboratory for ideas for growth in the continent and the vanguard of an African alternative to neoliberal market orthodoxies. This alternative was not just a matter of ideology, but of economic success, admirers of Ethiopia’s developmental model argued: the boom of Addis Ababa, the construction of high-rise buildings and large-scale infrastructure, and even the highly contested government figures on the country’s double-digit annual growth rates were regarded as the living proof that Meles Zenawi’s recipe was working and that Ethiopia was indeed rising. 

With the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012, observers, scholars and policymakers wondered if Ethiopia’s experiment would come to an end. But giant posters of the late prime minister soon appeared on the streets of Addis Ababa, committing to fulfilling his developmentalist dreams. Hailemariam Desalegn became the man burdened with the responsibility of carrying his legacy. The Ethiopian developmentalist experiment was destined to live on. 

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But the appointment in late March 2018 of Abiy Ahmed as the head of the EPRDF coalition and the country’s prime minister quickly turned out to be a game-changer. Dubbed a reformer and appreciated for his eloquence and openness about the challenges ahead, he was viewed as a politician who could address demands for political openness and greater inclusion, not only by those who had supported him in the past, but also by critical members of local media and the diaspora. Abiy Ahmed fulfilled many of his promises. He lifted the ban on opposition parties that had been designated “terrorist groups”, ended the state of emergency, showed an eagerness to amend restrictive laws on media and civil society, and signed a historic peace agreement with Eritrea that won him the Nobel Prize in October 2019. 

However, he also signalled that he wanted to go further, namely to reform the ways the economy has been managed and development has been delivered in Ethiopia. In his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in February 2019, Abiy Ahmed told international investors that Ethiopia was embarking on a “virtuous path of reform” that would “bring Ethiopia to the centre of international market”, “enhance the ease of doing business” and “unleash the potential of the private sector”. In an interview with the Financial Times that same month, he reiterated the point. “My economic model is capitalism”, he said. For many, this sounded like an intent to discontinue Meles Zenawi’s statist project and bring Ethiopia into the global space of unrestrained free market liberalism. 

Developmentalism or neoliberalism? 

Fukuyama has not been the only “global” expert and intellectual commenting the fortunes of Ethiopia’s economic growth and development. Informed commentators such as Alex de Waal in 2013 invited scholars and critics to give a fair hearing to the development vision of the late Meles Zenawi and to wait for it to be realized. A few days after Abiy Ahmed receiving his Nobel Prize, Oxford University’s Paul Collier joined the chorus of market-economy-enthusiasts celebrating Ethiopia’s new path. 

The words of global experts and star academics do not matter much in shaping narratives on the ground, yet they often become a sounding board for the longstanding debate between proponents of a more systematic liberalisation of Ethiopia’s economy and those who believe that wittingly or unwittingly Meles Zenawi’s vision of a developmental state offers a better synthesis between growth and economic sovereignty.

However, seeing developmentalism and neoliberalism as inevitably in opposition is misleading. 

Historically, neoliberalism is a political project and ideology about, not against, the state. Just as Ethiopia’s developmentalist and statist experiment is not against the market economy. Informed by Marxist-Leninist ideas of political centralism, Meles Zenawi opposed liberalism. Yet his writings suggest that he appreciated the significance of combining opposing ideological principles, such as the idea of development as a political process, the dream of making Ethiopia into a collectivist society, and acceptance of the free market. 

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In this regard, Abiy Ahmed’s willingness to pursue further economic liberalisation—as the recently proposed “Homegrown Economic Reform” suggest—is not strictly in discontinuity with the past. The new course might result in a closer embrace of market economy and liberal democracy, but probably not a complete rejection of the EPRDF’s previous attempts to provide a political synthesis between developmentalism and neoliberalism, state-led development and market-led economic growth. 

A few years along the line, Abiy Ahmed might well be successful in finding and enforcing a new synthesis between these apparently opposing ideological principles. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize might give him more leverage for realising his vision of development.

Yet, whether the quest of this new synthesis will then qualitatively improve the living conditions of ordinary Ethiopians is still unclear.

No prospects 

Wondimu and his peers on the streets of inner-city Addis Ababa have hardly been allowed to participate in debates about the future of their country and the economy, or how government policies and development programmes have affected their livelihoods. Wondimu does not have a Twitter account and most of his friends use Facebook only rarely. When invited by government officials and NGOs to “participate” in consultation sessions or political meetings, they are asked to sit, be quiet and listen.

Certainly, they are not voiceless. Over the ten years I spent investigating the streets of inner-city Addis Ababa, researching for my book The Act of Living, I witnessed how Wondimu and many others expressed their demands to NGOs and government institutions—including replacing doomed life-skills training programmes with employment-oriented initiatives focused on cooking or driving. 

However, government officials, development workers and policymakers have not been listening. Since the mid-2000s, government institutions and NGOs have promoted entrepreneurship programmes as a tool for poor people’s empowerment and participation. Wondimu participated in such a scheme, collecting parking tickets for a government-supported cooperative. This job paid no more than $70 a month and gave Wondimu no prospects for the future. 

He could have tried joining other small-scale enterprises: selling foodstuffs, or producing small stoves, or concrete blocks for construction sites. Or, he could have found work at one of the city’s many construction sites. But even if he made the switch, his destiny would have been no different. Most small-scale enterprises in the inner city invariably failed quickly or paid too little. Construction workers experienced low wages, lack of safety at work, and the possibility of being fired suddenly and at any time. 

Why hustlers got it right

Unlike Fukuyama, hustlers’ narrations on the end of history got it right. For Wondimu, history has ended because the pursuit of the Ethiopian dream of economic growth and success has not opened opportunities for social mobility and improvement. 

State-led economic growth, the existence of an Ethiopian “alternative” to the orthodoxy of the market, and, more recently, the promise of a liberalised economy, have not come with guarantees of a more just and inclusive society. 

The centrality of the state in Ethiopia’s experiment has historically been a double-edged sword. Political stability and the ability of the EPRDF to influence the economy are historically grounded in a pervasive form of authoritarian politics that has constrained the ability of ordinary citizens to express dissent and affect policy.

Inequality has deepened in the last twenty years of economic growth and development. By the end of the 1990s, real income in urban areas had increased, but only for the wealthiest household had they risen significantly. In 2016, the number of people living in absolute poverty has reduced, but the gap between rich and poor has continued to deepen. 

Meanwhile, the development of Addis Ababa has also created new forms of exclusion. 

The historic Arada area, where Wondimu grew up, has been the periodic target of large-scale evictions, clearing out poor communities to make room for private investment. The glass and steel towers that symbolise wealth in Addis Ababa rise from the sites of what used to be the homes and markets of the poor.

Evictions in Addis Ababa will continue under the watch of Abiy Ahmed’s administration. In November 2018, Abu Dhabi-based real estate developer Eagle Hills and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched La Gare, a new development with shopping malls, luxury hotels and over 4,000 high-end residences. La Gare will replace Kirkos, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the inner city. The government promised that the 1,600 households targeted for eviction because of this project would be relocated to “affordable houses” in the new development.  

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Some celebrated this as a break from the past. Others doubted it would happen and despised it as a PR stunt. How could those from low-income areas afford to live in a luxury development? How “affordable” would these houses actually be? Would an Abu Dhabi developer really give out houses for free? 

In April 2019, Abiy Ahmed then announced another milestone in his plans for the regeneration of Addis Ababa. His riverside project – “Beautifying Shegher” – will be supported by the Chinese government, with the aim ostensibly to give Addis Ababa’s a radical facelift and revive Addis Ababa’s river, currently a small and highly polluted stream. In practice, Abiy Ahmed’s project of beautification will consist of a 12-kilometre redevelopment of densely populated parts of the Ethiopian capital – a potential sign that the government’s visions of urban future will be realised at the cost of more evictions. 

In these circumstances, Wondimu’s narration of the end of history offers no solutions. However, marking a departure from the talk of star academics and the government’s urban megalomanias, it points to something immensely important about the future of Ethiopia: the effectiveness of the present conjuncture of reform will depend on whether the new EPRDF administration is able to address the shortcomings of its predecessors and implement policies that result in greater political liberties and opportunities of social mobility for those at the bottom of urban and rural societies. Will development and economic growth fulfil their promises of collective improvement and engender a sense of hope and dignity in the wider population? If they do not, as Wondimu put it, “there is no history”. 

The names of individuals who appear in the text have been changed to protect their privacy.

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