Ethiopia's Vanguard Capitalists

How the EPRDF Mobilizes for Economic Development

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 2015.  Siegfried Modola / REUTERS

This week, Ethiopia is commemorating its national day with an exhibition celebrating the country’s economic progress. More than 140 companies—some state-owned, some private—have set up displays in Millennium Hall, a conference center in Addis Ababa’s upscale Bole neighborhood. From a scale model of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is still under construction, to displays of domestically assembled automobiles, the exhibition aims to show visitors just how much Ethiopia has changed since troops of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the communist Derg regime 25 years ago, after a long and violent civil war.

The EPRDF's history as a revolutionary movement still shapes its approach to economic development.

Since it first took power in May 1991, the EPRDF has gone through several transformations—from a socialist liberation movement to a reluctant liberalizer to a self-styled “developmental regime” in the image of the East Asian tiger economies. But the legacies of the war against the Derg still loom large in the attitudes and policies of Ethiopia’s ruling party, which has used the organizational strategies it developed as an insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s to turn the Ethiopian economy into a regional success. A quarter century after the EPRDF swept to power, its history as a revolutionary movement still shapes its approach to economic development.

An abandoned tank in Dollo Ado, southern Ethiopia, August 2011. The EPRDF started as a 17-year insurgency and ousted the communist Derg regime in 1991.

An abandoned tank in Dollo Ado, southern Ethiopia, August 2011. 

Thomas Mukoya / REUTERS


The EPRDF started as an ethnic left-wing insurgency that fought a 17-year guerilla war in Ethiopia’s arid, mountainous north before overrunning the rest of the country in a few weeks in the spring of 1991. In a region packed with armed groups, the movement stood out for its focus on institution building. The EPRDF developed a basic public health-care system and an integrated grain market in the areas it controlled, and toward the end of the insurgency, it even established a business school at the movement’s headquarters in Hagere Selam, where fighters studied microeconomics

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