Tigray economics and Ethiopian politics

Teklu Abate / August 23, 2013
During the last two decades, Tigray has occupied the minds of Ethiopians. That EPRDF’s (the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Party) creator, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), is native to Tigray explains all the discourses. Ordinary conversations, media reports, and developments on the ground all seem to testify that Tigray is being preferentially and positively treated in all fronts. It is known that TPLFities dominate Federal government offices including the military and security apparatuses. It is public discourse that people from Tigray take a significant number of scholarships being offered by top western universities. Compared to the other regional governments, Tigray presumably outachieves in nearly all economic indicators and measures. In a way, Tigray is said to be the ‘pampered child’ of the ruling party.

The question is: to what extent these assertions hold water? That TPLFities have a grip on power is never contentious. Elusive and less grounded was the argument related to Tigray’s overall economic performance. How and to what extent the region performs economically compared to other regions? This was never answered authoritatively only until we happened to get a new empirical study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

The National Economy

In its January 2013 book entitled Food and Agriculture in Ethiopia: Progress and Policy Challenges, the IFPRI provided “…empirical evidence to shed light on the complexities of agricultural and food policy in today’s Ethiopia, highlight major policies and interventions of the past decade, and provide insights into building resilience to natural disasters and food crises” (http://www.ifpri.org/publication/food-and- agriculture-ethiopia).

According to the IFPRI, the editors of the book, Paul Dorosh and Shahidur Rashid “tell the story of Ethiopia’s political, economic, and agricultural transformation”. The overall conclusion of the book is that Ethiopia is seeing better economic performances and that the agriculture development-led strategy is “sound”. “In fact, since 2001 the per capita income in certain rural areas has risen by more than 50 percent, and crop yields and availability have also increased. Higher investments in roads and mobile phone technology have led to improved infrastructure and thereby greater access to markets, commodities, services, and information” (IFPRI website).

It is interesting that Ethiopia is making developments in several key areas. This must be duly acknowledged and commended. Praising good beginnings and criticizing malfunctions should be the business of any reasonable and responsible citizen. There is no doubt that infrastructure is developed and productivity is improved. What is unfortunate is that the high cost of living (with double-digit inflation) is neutralizing the changes brought about. Although per capita income increases, purchasing power alarmingly deteriorates, putting households in a near perfect gain-loss scenario. Of course, the degree of income distribution at household and regional levels is also not even. The government and its sympathizers and the opposition should not exclusively focus on the amount of national income and rate of inflation, respectively. Both need to be considered for a meaningful characterization of our national economy.

Tigray Economy

The most important part of the book that caught the attention of media is, however, the one related to the comparative economic performance of Tigray. Compared to other regional governments, Tigray is performing pretty better in nearly all indicators and measures including access to and utilization of fertilizer, irrigation, technology, infrastructure, and crop production. The difference between Tigray, Amhara, Oromoia, and Southern Ethiopia is, according to the IFPRI ubiquitous and substantial.

The important question to ask is not why Tigray grows faster and stronger but how it does that. Meaning, given common macro-economic policy, how does Tigray outperform other regional governments in infrastructure development and crop production? It is well known that the weather and topography in Tigray are not any better conducive for crop production- we have there many arid, rocky and mountainous areas. In fact, one finds hectares and hectares of arable and fertile land in the other regions. It is difficult to argue that the labor force in Tigray is much more skilled and productive compared to in those other regions. The only significant factor that should explain at least much of the variation must be related to the degree of investment made. Tigray must have enjoyed the highest resource pool over the last yesteryears. And this seems in direct parlance with the popular cry that the region is the ruling party’s favorite stop for its economic train.

This is hard to refute. Some members of the top TPLF leadership have been talking to what extent Tigray is progressing. The most recent account is one which came from Azeb Mesfin. She eloquently talked of Meles’ vision and plan to turn Tigray into a truly industrial zone in just few years. The opposition and other people interpreted this as a mere political maneuvering made to create tensions between the Tigray people and the other Ethiopians. To me, her talks just talked of the truth.

Generally, the fact that Tigray is found to be the most ‘prosperous’ region in Ethiopia has serious ramifications. Seen from compassionate and moral grounds, it is good to see that part of the country to make improvements, for it ‘hosted’ several wars that involved Ethiopians and foreigners. Citizens from all parts of Ethiopia participated in heroic wars but Tigray, in addition to its soldiers, suffered a lot in terms of infrastructural damage and environmental and psychological realms. If all the investments took into consideration this reality of Tigray, it sounds justifiable. However, it would have been more edifying and blameless had it been done in absolute clarity, transparency and based on national consensus.


That Tigray is economically leading the other regions means a lot. The IFPRI’s finding could be used by all interested stakeholders as a solid base of evidence in support of the structural inequality persisting in the country. The difference between Tigray and the other regions is as psychological and moral as it is economical. Meaning, it is morally wrong to grow one region faster than others. The difference could also stimulate and sustain psychological uneasiness between Tigryans and other Ethiopians. The already worrisome psychological climate might get intensified. Moreover, Ethiopians might have hard time discriminating between the ruling party and ordinary Tigryans. To the many, TPLF might mean Tigryans and Tigryans might mean TPLF. This hitherto hard- to-refute-and-accept perception might now look grounded. This situation in turn might force innocent Tigryans to identify with TPLF. That in the end means a protracted and undifferentiated struggle between TPLF/Tigryans and the rest of Ethiopians and would unnecessarily complicate matters. All these psycho-moral tensions might be considered barriers for future peace and cooperation between Ethiopians.

What to do

Empirical studies naturally appear credible and authentic. The comparative study reported by the IFPRI is likely to be considered a yardstick to measure how regions in Ethiopia perform economically. All stakeholders must see the case seriously to avoid any unnecessary complications. The government, the opposition, the media, Tigryans and the entire Ethiopian population must face the reality. The government must accept the reality and demonstrate its readiness to treat all regions fairly in the future. Bluffing and/or getting rough on this issue would not do any good. The educated, regardless of their political affiliations, would be influential in creating a common platform for all Ethiopians based on the reality on the ground. Workshops, seminars, conferences and/or publications that involve and consider the government, the opposition, Tigryans, and all other people are crucial.

The writer could be reached at teklu.abate@gmail.com and also blogs at http://tekluabate.blogspot.no/.