Economic growth and leadership succession

By Tim Kelsall

In recent days there has been fevered speculation across the internet about the fate of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, and the leadership struggle liable to follow his (as yet unconfirmed) demise (for an excellent overview seeé-lefort/ethiopia-after-meles). The way this struggle plays out will have profound implications for the fortunes of a country with one of Africa’s largest populations, and fastest growing economies.

At the Developmental Regimes in Africa project ( ) we have been finding that how a country handles its succession process is crucial to political stability and economic growth, and that traditionally, African countries have managed this process rather poorly.

Sub-Saharan Africa, it may surprise some readers to know, has not been short of high-growth regimes*: since 1960 it has had nine, whereas Southeast Asia, a much wealthier region, has had only six. However, it will come as less of a surprise to know that African high-growth regimes tend to be fairly short-lived.

A typical high-growth regime in Africa lasts for 13 years, whereas in Southeast Asia it lasts for 23.

Associated with this fact is that in Southeast Asia, high-growth regimes in Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have all spanned changes in political leadership, whereas in Africa, only one country—Mozambique—has achieved this.

The question is why?

One answer might be that Southeast Asian states have been comparatively free of the authoritarianism, corruption, cronyism, and nepotism that afflicts so many African countries—but it is actually more complicated than this. Anyone familiar with Southeast Asian governance knows that it often falls well short of good governance ideals.

Rather, what seems to distinguish successful Southeast Asian regimes from African ones, is that economic policy-making is either entrusted to a bureaucracy that is effectively insulated from the hurly-burly of leadership politics (as in Thailand during the 1960s and 1970s), or political leaders are embedded in strong political parties with traditions of consensual decision making and clear conventions governing leadership succession (Malaysia in the 1970s, Vietnam in the 1990s, Laos today).

This explanation also fits our successful African case, Mozambique, which has a strong governing party, FRELIMO, with succession conventions established following the assassination of its first President, Eduardo Mondlane.

It also helps explain why our only Southeast Asian outlier, General Suharto’s Indonesia, was unable to sustain the 26 years of high growth experienced under his rule. In Indonesia, the bureaucracy was less insulated than in Thailand, while the ruling Golkar was weaker than other parties in the region. 

So what are the implications for Ethiopia (or other high-growth regimes like Uganda or Rwanda, for that matter)? The good news, from a developmental point of view, is that Ethiopia is fortunate to have a ruling party stronger than that in many other African states—so there is at least a chance that growth will continue. The bad news is that it is far from clear that the EPRDF is as robust as Mozambique’s Frelimo, Malaysia’s UMNO, or the Vietnamese Communist Party, while the apparent absence of an obvious successor or clear conventions governing the succession process is an obvious cause for concern.

If it is to avoid the fate of other high-growth but short-lived regimes, the EPRDF must now invent a binding a succession tradition, with or without Meles at the helm.
* Defined as a regime with a decadal annual average growth rate of 7% or more. Note that our study excludes states with a population of under 5 million, and states recovering from conflict.

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3 Responses to Economic growth and leadership succession

  1. David Booth says:

    Meles Zenawi – leadership and transformation

    As the untimely death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was announced, I was on an international flight by chance turning the final pages of Robert Rotberg’s recent book Transformative political leadership.

    Meles’ passing marks a sombre moment for Africa as well as a potentially worrying one for the peoples of Ethiopia. I leave to others more knowledgeable on the subject to assess the full measure of the man and to ponder the implications for the politics of Ethiopia and its region. But the occasion seems to justify four bold observations from the broader perspective of policy research on Africa.

    Without question, Meles has presided over the most constructive and dynamic period in Ethiopia’s modern history. The country has made notable progress over a relatively short period in numerous fields of economic and human development. Much of this is well-documented – for example, ODI research in the Development Progress series has set out the evidence on the five-fold expansion of access to primary education that was attained over the years 1995-2009.

    It also seems undisputed that a large part of this achievement is attributable to the leadership Meles gave his country over this period. His leadership seems to have had the qualities that Rotberg calls ‘transformational’ rather than ‘transactional’– visionary, well-navigated, effectively communicated and delivered with astuteness and integrity.

    Meles does not figure among Rotberg’s heroes, and Ethiopia is not mentioned in the book. This is odd. It no doubt relates to the fact that – despite devoting chapters to Ataturk and Lee Kuan Yew – the book ends up in Arab Spring mood, emphasising generational change and asserting a pent-up demand for leadership that is democratic and (therefore) committed and responsible. Meles doesn’t quite fit that script, which asserts a direct and necessary link between democratic formalities and responsible leadership. But the script is wrong, and under-appreciates three further observations that the career of Meles illustrates dramatically.

    First, it really matters whether a leader’s transformative vision includes sophisticated thinking about the economy. Most of Africa’s current leaders do not just fall into Rotberg’s grey and ‘transactional’ category. They also lack bold ideas about the main challenge: turning the continent’s high economic growth rates into real processes of economic transformation, with structural changes and growing productive capabilities starting with agriculture. Meles was exceptional as an intellectual, capable of contributing – for example – a robust chapter on the developmental role of the state to an excellent recent book on Good growth and governance. His ideas as translated into policy may not all have been right, but they did have scope and serious grounding.

    Second and third, the experience of the past 20 years in Ethiopia illustrates something about the origins and the sustainability challenges of developmental regimes in Africa, the subject of the new ODI-led research project funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    In history, transformative ambitions are most often stimulated by episodes of crisis, threat or violent upheaval, which galvanise wills and create moments of exceptional opportunity in which visionaries can thrive. There is plenty of evidence in the Rotberg book to support this insight as well as its flipside, that the routine operations of elite politics, democratic or otherwise, provide incentives for doing the minimum and playing safe. Rotberg’s mantra is that transformative leadership is the basis of good institutions. This may be true but should not imply that personal leadership qualities are the prime mover. Along with Rwanda (which does get positive mentions in the book) Ethiopian experience tells us something uncomfortable yet important about what it takes to get dynamic change processes going in poor and stagnating countries.

    The sustainability of the national trajectory initiated by an exceptional leader has already been addressed by Tim Kelsall, on this site, in anticipation of Meles’ death. Kelsall concludes that the critical vehicle for controlling the disruptive and potentially fatal impacts of a leadership transition is not the electoral system or parliament. It is the ruling or dominant political party. All eyes need to be focused therefore on the processes now taking place in Ethiopia’s TPLF and EPRDF, as well as around new Prime Minister Desalegne. As in the Botswana and South African transitions discussed at length by Rotberg, the challenge is not just to achieve a smooth handover but to retain the things that really matter from the original impulse.

  2. Pingback: From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green » Blog Archive » Meles post mortem – hero or villain?; Charter Cities, garifunas and porn kings; back to school; African oil rush; stubborn elites; what do you think about jobs? links I liked

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