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Ethiopian Conflict and "Authoritarian Aid" in Africa: A Response to Nic Cheeseman




In a piece[1] published on 22 December 2020, Professor Nic Cheeseman, while justifying democratic aid conditionality, makes a very strong case for ‘democratic development’. With a focus on the case of a bloody conflict[2] in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, Cheeseman makes a case for democratic conditionality while simultaneously arguing against ‘authoritarian development’ in Africa. The said piece, rightly so, elicited significant debate. Some of the responses to the article include, Kelsall[3] who challenges Cheeseman’s democracy-authoritarian dichotomy and argues that there is need for ‘development policy community to look beyond the democracy-autocracy binary, and think instead about how human welfare can be maximised in context.’ Another one is Sudi[4], who, in response to Cheeseman, argues that the problem in Tigray is not an indictment of ‘authoritarian development’ but of ethno-federalism and also against the authoritarian-democracy binary regarding the potential to create stable, prosperous and democratic societies in the long run.


Perhaps, the most hard-hitting response[5] to Cheeseman was one published by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) Bulletin online in which the authors raise concerns over Cheeseman’s cited data sources as regards the aid dynamics in Ethiopia and accuse him of advancing a narrative that instrumentalises aid as a lever of regime change in African polities. Cheeseman, through Twitter, accused this particular piece of mischaracterising his views and sought for the right of reply which CODESRIA granted on the same platform (Twitter). Even as we anticipate his reply to the said piece, more questions arise as to Cheeseman’s eagerness to defend the assumptions and assertions that he made.


There could be many reasons why Cheeseman’s assertions received both the attention and the critique that we witnessed, with  more expected to follow. One of the issues with his take, in my view, is that Cheeseman, draws out on anecdotal evidence yet makes grand assumptions based on meta-theories to argue against ‘authoritarian development’, on the one hand, and in support of some sort of aid-supported ‘democratic development’ in Africa, on the other. He uses Ethiopia, a country currently experiencing a bloody internal conflict in its northern Tigray region, and Rwanda to demonstrate how [Western] ‘aiders’ have over time developed a liking for and supported authoritarian regimes on the basis that those regimes demonstrate results. He, however seeks to illustrate that such development model is not sustainable. Instead, advancing a case for ‘democratic development, including overtly making assertions that justify and/or call for donor-conditionality in a bid to advance democracy across Africa as a way to ensure sustainable development and stability.


Notably, Cheeseman glosses over grave aspects such as the dire humanitarian crisis triggered by this conflict in Tigray and the political crisis in Ethiopia, in general, as well as the regional implications of the conflict, to talk about development aid and democratic conditionality. I, have informally engaged with a few individuals with interest in this subject, who have expressed their struggle to understand why Cheeseman found it necessary or urgent to talk about democratisation and development aid in relation to the bloody conflict in Ethiopia. The piece carries with connotations in support of the West's eagerness to influence and shape political processes in Africa which raises, justifiably so, raises questions that touch on Western patronage of public life in Africa. Especially because development aid and democratisation are the two most significant means through which the West has, over time, sought to influence and organise African nations and their peoples.


Cheeseman’s apparent inability and/or unwillingness to critically engage with the topics of democracy and development aid in Africa, instead choosing to argue for the need for [Western] ‘aiders’ to put their money on democratisation as a way to ‘sustainably develop’ African nations and guard against situations such as those in Ethiopia, arguably exposes his belief in ‘development through aid’ and the universality of [Western] liberal democratic peace imperatives, both of which are deeply problematic. It is curious to note how he proceeds with great ease to dichotomise and compete ‘authoritarian development’ and ‘democratic development’. He does this as though neither democracy, particularly as advanced by Western actors, nor development aid, as a means to bring both economic growth and political stability in Africa, is problematic. By so doing, he, on the one hand, assumes that there is consensus that Ethiopia in particular, and Africa in general, necessarily need to democratise, whence and how [Western] 'aiders' want. On the other hand, by claiming that ‘democratic development’ is better than or superior to ‘authoritarian development’, he assumes that development aid is important and even necessary for economic growth and political stability of African polities such as Ethiopia.


Even as Cheeseman argues for democratic conditionality in development aid, he refuses to pay attention to facts as simple as that Africa and Africans have a painful history with aid conditionalities in their variant natures raising important ethical concerns. I think that, once you start advancing a case for aid conditionality, of whatever nature – including democratic conditionality that Cheeseman openly advocates – you can expect to respond to questions relating to why you think there is need for aid, at all? And why your version of conditionality is any different to or better than numerous conditionalities that the West, which is largely the ‘aider’, has deployed over time with massive adverse impacts on the African nations and their peoples. These are questions that, I think, Cheeseman will need to grapple with even as he advances the narrative of ‘democratic development’ in Africa, which in his view, is [or should be] aid driven, at least, in part.  


I raise questions that touch on the foundational aspects of Cheeseman’s grand assumptions. My critique relates to his apparent inability and/or unwillingness to engage with the problematic of development aid in Africa and his assumption that African polities necessarily need to democratise, of course, in the Western fashion, as a way to ensure both sustainable development and political stability. I conclude by suggesting that, by championing democratic conditionality, Cheeseman’s piece came across as patronising and/or promoting Western patronage over African polities. This is for the simple reason that the foreign ‘aiders’ he advises to shun ‘authoritarian aid’ and instead support ‘democratic aid development’ models are largely Western with a known history[6] of using aid to attempt to influence African nations and shape political processes and outcomes on the continent.  However, before I do this, I will provide an overview of the conflict in Tigray, given the fact that Cheeseman’s piece, although paying little attention to the conflict dynamics, is in response to the unfortunate conflict situation in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region.


The Tigray Conflict


In a piece,[7] published by BBC News, De Waal provides a good summary that, in my view, captures the context of the current conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. In this article, he clearly illustrates how this conflict is a culmination of ‘years of darkness.’ Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed’s fallout with the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991 when Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition led by the TPLF, captured power, is at the centre of the current conflict. Dominated by the TPLF, the EPRDF defeated a military junta, widely known as the Derg, which had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 ruled Ethiopia for nearly two decades. TPLF, was to organise the Ethiopian state into an ethnic-federal system, which some commentators, like Sudi[8] view as the cause of the problem. Through TPLF’s strongman, former PM, Meles Zenawi, the government of Ethiopia adopted a developmental state approach that, while tramping on basic democratic principles, has been credited for spurring the country’s impressive economic progress in recent years. 


Coming into power in 2018 current PM, Abiy Ahmed, quickly took a raft of measures that appeared to liberalise politics and open governance in Ethiopia. These included freeing some of the political detainees and inviting back home political actors in exile. He rode on a quick reform agenda that earned him both internal and external admiration and support. Externally, his quick rapprochement with his Eritrean counterpart, President Isaias Afwerki, saw him bring an end to two decades of hurting tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea.[9] PM Abiy Ahmed's quick reform agenda at home and conciliatory approach to regional politics was to earn him a Nobel Peace Prize, which has since been criticised[10]as a flawed decision with analysists[11] now thinking that ‘this prize-winning peace deal was little more than a military pact designed to crush the TPLF once and for all’.


Tensions rose following several months of bitter altercations between the federal government, led by PM Ahmed and the Tigray regional government, led by the TPLF. Following the events of November 4th 2020 when the TPLF staged an attack[12] on the northern command military base of the Ethiopian National Défense Forces (ENDF), PM Ahmed declared that the red line had been crossed and mounted what he termed a ‘rule of law enforcement operation’[13] which has been nothing but a bloody military campaign against the TPLF. He imposed a communication shutdown on Tigray hence placing the said military operation behind dark veils. In addition to communication shutdown, it is reported[14] that aid workers were barred from entry as the ensuing conflict killed thousands with at least 50,000 people crossing to neighbouring Sudan as they fled the fighting that included air raids and heavy artillery.


Having fallen out with the TPLF and given the fact that the party dominated Ethiopia’s military and economic ranks, it is observed[15] that PM Ahmed's ‘power base is among a mostly Amhara political elite that wants to abolish the federal system in favour of a unitary government system.’ Other than the Amhara militia, there are claims[16] backed by evidence[17] that Eritrean forces have been fighting alongside ENDF in Tigray creating interesting yet complicated dynamics in which a foreign military is involved in internal fighting in another country at the invitation of the host country. The humanitarian situation in Tigray deteriorated over time, and the end to the armed conflict remains uncertain with pundits[18] predicting a protracted political crisis in Tigray that may arguably lead to government of Ethiopia’s own projection and fears[19] of possible state degeneration.


One would have expected that these complex conflict dynamics and humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region could be assessed on their own merits without dragging in other equally problematic topics such as development aid. I would think of the Ethiopian problem, both in Tigray and other parts of the country, as having more to do with failure of the leadership there to create avenues through which they can non-violently manage power and resources. The extent to which [Western] democracy can aid this process is debatable hence not obvious as Cheeseman appears to frame it. Nonetheless, like every other scholar, Cheeseman has the right to view and comment on issues in ways that he better understands and sees them. As regards the current situation in Tigray, his point of view included seeing the conflict as relating to, at least in part, the authoritarian regime that had been emboldened by development aid from foreign, largely Western ‘aiders’. He, therefore, views the said conflict as an indictment of the unsustainability of, partly aid-powered, authoritarian regime in Ethiopia. Hence, he argues that however development-oriented authoritarian regimes may [appear to] be, their quality and sustainability are wanting. Cheeseman exposes the weaknesses of ‘authoritarian development’ simultaneously advancing a case for ‘democratic development’. He argues that the latter is a better or superior option. While doing this, Cheeseman hardly engages with the problematic of development aid and democracy promotion by outsiders, especially the West, in Africa.


Development Aid


Foreign development aid is one of the prevalent strategies employed by the West, arguably to spur economic growth in poor countries, most of them in Africa. Development aid, in part, propelled international development organisations including various United Nations (UN) agencies and international financial institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) into global economic recognition.[20] Over half a century later, there is too little to show for the said aid as many countries in the developing world, Africa in particular, continue to wallow in economic turmoil. As a result, there is increased frustration, whose genuineness is debatable, among development ‘aiders’, as to the significance of their work. Cheeseman himself recognises this fact when he argues[21] that “tired of working with governments that diverted resources and failed to keep their promises, aid agencies such as the United Kingdom’s former Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Development Fund were naturally keen to work with regimes that could deliver success stories.” What he, however, does not do is critically engage with the fundamental question on why aid is not working? Better still why aid, in and by itself is problematic? One would think that these kinds of questions should inform a theoretical discourse underneath the grand assumptions he makes about ‘good democratic aid’ to be promoted vs ‘bad authoritarian aid’ to be shunned. Instead, Cheeseman goes on to gloss over what he terms theoretical justifications for ‘authoritarian aid’ for example, by citing Africa Power and Politics Programme’s[22] claims that “many attempts to radically transform African political systems have failed making ‘aiders’ to choose to ‘work with the grain of African societies’. These assertions imply an existence of a stubborn negative characteristic of African societies which the [Western] ‘aider’ needs to tolerate and devise ways to work with. In so doing, Cheeseman reproduces deeply problematic assertions which inevitably paint Africa as a ‘desperate case’ requiring external fixes. 


The narrative of portraying African societies as desperate cases needing outside fixes is not new. Hence, the idea that ‘many attempts to radically transform African political systems have failed’ does not seem to sit in well with the urgent need to decolonise aid but other aspects of our engagements including knowledge production and dissemination. It is difficult, for example, to locate the difference between the Africa Power and Politics Programme’s view of Africa and the logics that underpin colonial and neo-colonial perceptions of the continent. Citing numerous key sources, Ssentongo[23], for instance, argues that, “one of the self-justificatory saviour practices of colonisers is to frame the colonised and targets for colonialism as sub-human, of lower intellectual capabilities, backward, barbaric, primitive, underdeveloped, and therefore needing civilisation…Such images were practically socialised and pumped deep into the colonised’s self-perception both to make them accept their fate and appreciate their white saviours.” Whereas Cheeseman may, understandably so, argue that he cited Africa Power and Politics Programme’s views only to serve the purpose of illustrating what he thinks are ‘theoretical justifications for authoritarian aid’, the fact that he did not bother to critically appraise such extremely problematic assertions, including lack of appreciation that such perceptions are not ahistorical, may imply his inability to identify that they are problematic or worse still, that he actually agrees with them. Furthermore, his argument against ‘authoritarian aid’ and for ‘democratic aid’ implies his inability and/or unwillingness to see Africa outside the realm of human societies that may not actually need any aid at all. As such, he frames Africa as a society that needs to be acted upon. He views the development of African nations as inevitably dependent [as a matter of necessity] on external [Western] ‘aiders’. In which case, Cheeseman seems to see no reason and makes no effort to engage with the fundamental questions around development aid and the pervasive colonialism and imperialism that permeate it.  


Before advancing the argument for whatever form of aid, be it ‘democratic aid’ or otherwise, it is important to pay attention to the fact that the idea that foreign development aid in supporting economic growth is contested.[24] Perhaps, the most hard-hitting works on the maladies of aid is Dambisa Moyo’s[25] seminal work through which she declared foreign aid flatly ‘dead’. Prior to her work and indeed after, we have seen an exponential growth in literature questioning the role of foreign aid in developing African polities. Part of this literature seeks to demonstrate how development aid is not only unhelpful but actually harmful. Furthermore, there are evidence-based claims, for instance, as published by the Guardian[26] that “Western countries are using aid to Africa as a smokescreen to hide the sustained looting of the continent as it loses nearly $60 billion a year through tax evasion, climate change mitigation and flight of profits earned by foreign multinational companies.” The same Guardian article, reports that “although sub-Saharan Africa receives $134 billion each year in loans, foreign investment and development aid, there is research suggesting that $192 billion leaves the region, leaving a $58 billion shortfall.” 


In addition, there are arguments on how aid is confused with charity and how aid industry employs aid as bait[27] to further other [‘aiders’] interests and ends. It is argued[28] that charity, which is what a lot of development ‘aiders’ arguably do, assumes that its recipients are weak and unable to help themselves which results in problems such as ‘white saviour syndrome’ while paying little attention to how the ‘aider’ could actually be part of the problem of the ‘aided’ or the process of 'aiding'. One of the ways this can be appreciated is an analysis of the nexus between aid and politics. For example, in a historical-political view of aid, Jakupek[29] reveals how the “economic and political focus of development aid changed in many respects, such as from the Keynesian economics to neoliberal economics of Friedman and Hayek to an elusive post-neoliberalism paradigm and populist response to the failure of the Washington Consensus in foreign aid”. Examining the historical-political US aid industry, Jakupek[30] further argues, for example, that the US Marshall plan on aid “was more a political than an economic instrument”. Western ‘aiders’ have a well-established history of using aid to pursue their national interests in Africa and beyond. This is, in part, why Cheeseman’s recommendation that [Western] ‘aiders’ tie their aid to democratisation – which itself is a problem area – raises fundamental questions that has birthed the critique to his argument. 


Democratic conditionality


In my view, neither authoritarianism nor democracy in the manner that both are embedded in and practiced within the ecosystem of the nation-state are hugely 'un-African'. For indeed the Westphalian nation-state, as we know it, is simply a Western construct. Questioning Cheeseman’s ideas on [Western] donor-led promotion of democracy in Africa does not imply acceptance or championing for authoritarianism or its less extreme, often framed as desirable, variants such as ‘benevolent dictatorship’ as seen in state consolidation and developmentalism rhetoric. The West’s support for authoritarian regimes, for example, in Uganda,[31] in the name of stabilisation is now common-place. In fact, ideas such as that state consolidation should precede democratisation[32] and developmental state[33] emerged from Western scholars and have been championed by the West. As Cheeseman rightly observes, this is, in part, how authoritarian regimes, such as Rwanda’s and Ethiopia’s have ended up receiving more aid because [Western] ‘aiders’ view those regimes as delivering results on the aid that they receive. I am yet to be persuaded how this is not, in part, the West’s eagerness to sustain the aid bubble by showcasing that aid works, on the one hand, and experimenting on developmental state theories, on the other.


Cheeseman further argues, rightly so, against ‘authoritarian development’ but fails to see that ‘democratic development’, especially as led or partly influenced by [Western] ‘aiders’, is as problematic. While the West has continued to greatly influence and shape political processes and outcomes in Africa, partly under the guise of development aid, it is neither fair nor accurate to claim that Africa has entirely been shaped by the West as far as the said political dispensations are concerned. There is evidence on how African leaders have equally contributed to establishing and shaping the said political systems and practices.[34] While this is the case, it matters less the extent to which the West has continued to influence and interfere with political processes in Africa. Neither is the point about whether or not whatever political processes and outcomes the West supports, through aid, in Africa – such as democratisation and development – are good or bad; right or wrong. The simple fact is that Africa does not influence or interfere with political processes in the West and common human decency, leave alone established international norms, demand as much from the West. Indeed, no human society should be ordered around, regardless the intention, by another human society. Furthermore, Africa has a well-known history of her civilisation being massacred by the West. There are sufficient reasons to be suspicious of any sort of Western interference on Africa’s political processes and outcomes regardless of how well-meaning their intensions are made to appear. Cheeseman’s inability or unwillingness to see that the use of [Western] aid to champion any political cause, including democracy, in Africa is in and by itself a problem amounts to insensitivity to history and context, on his part.


A lot has been written on the current crisis in Tigray, somehow, the least I had expected is someone to argue that this conflict would have been avoided had Ethiopia been a [more or better] democratic state. Particularly, because the liberal democratic peace imperative seems to be fast collapsing under the weight of surging academic critique[35] that begun in early 2000s and has been growing ever since. Even policy makers have tampered their enthusiasm about liberal democratic peace approaches that, based on a particular reading of Max Weber[36], view a ‘strong democratic state’ as the ideal way to bring about stability and prosperity to the world’s nations and their peoples. We do not have sufficient evidence yet to support claims of democratic peace as better placed to ensure stability and development especially in Africa. Cheeseman seems to view the current crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region as, in part, as a result of an authoritarian regime and donor complicit due to the fact that the said regime had been demonstrating results. But his apparent argument that a democratic Ethiopia would be better placed to secure the developmental gains achieved over time, hardly draws on any fountain of evidence beyond the Western democratic bubble. While most of the African countries, and particularly in Eastern Africa region where Cheeseman’s piece focuses, cannot be said to be democracies, a quick comparison between countries of the region that are relatively 'more democratic', like Kenya, with those that are 'less democratic', like Ethiopia, does not reveal significant differences in terms of those countries’ levels of stability and ability to secure past and present development gains.


As if his grand assumptions about democracy’s perceived ability to secure sustainable development are not unsettling enough, Cheeseman goes on to posit that donors should peg aid on human rights record of its recipients. This he does, when he, for example, opines[37] that “it also means diverting funding from authoritarian states that show no protecting civil liberties and political rights to countries that are improving in this regard”. He, therefore [explicitly] advocates for the [Western] ‘aiders'’ power to reward and punish and [implicitly] the power to decide and/or influence decisions on what African regime is authoritarian or not. More worryingly, Cheeseman seems to have no problem with [Western] 'aiders'' power to determine which regime should survive and which one should be diminished or even ‘overthrown’. This is, in part, the basis on which Cheeseman has been accused[38] of advancing a narrative that, in a veiled way, justifies the use of aid to influence and/or cause regime changes in – what are perceived by [Western] ‘aiders’ as authoritarian – African states.

Cheeseman goes on to justify [Western] ‘aiders’ role as gatekeepers of human rights violations in African polities. He argues[39], for instance, that “given that the governments of Ethiopia and Rwanda have committed human rights violations, this is the very least that donors should be able to establish before deciding to support them”. His filament of thought appears to fairly give some sort of deserved powers to [Western] ‘aiders’ – who, after all, are investing their money in Africa – to call out human rights violations of authoritarian regimes in Africa. In so doing contribute to improving the quality of democracy and human rights records on the continent. What he fails to do is reflect on the fact that established democracies in the West, which are Africa’s major ‘aiders’, violate human rights no less. Furthermore, by granting a pass to [Western] ‘aiders’ as democratic norm-setters, Cheeseman not only appears to fail to recognise the patronising nature of such assertions, but also the fact that the Western liberal democratic bubble itself is facing existential threats. Africa is, rightly so, starting to question whether the West is an example to emulate in the continent’s quest to democratise. There is need to pay attention to this before advocating ‘democratic conditionality’ by [Western] ‘aiders’. Furthermore, Cheeseman pays no attention to the fact that donors themselves are hugely implicated in gross human rights violations in Africa. They do not therefore, necessarily enjoy the moral high ground, he seems to assume they do, to warrant their human rights gatekeeping role that ‘democratic conditionality’ [should] allow them.


Cheeseman proceeds to suggest that without international [of course, largely Western] support, it would be too difficult and take too long to establish democracy in Africa. As argued above, he seems to view Africa as a desperate case in need of foreign [largely Western] aid without which the African story will remain in a sorry state of affairs. Clearly, Cheeseman does not see how Africa can possibly democratise without external intervention or interference in the name of aid. To this end he, for instance, argues[40] that “after all, without international support for key democratic institutions and civil society groups these regimes are likely to remain authoritarian for longer”. The use of phrases such as ‘after all’, is testament to the obviousness with which Cheeseman thinks African countries need to be ‘helped’, in part, by [Western] ‘aiders’ to build and/or grow their democracies. In so doing, he inadvertently or otherwise, assumes a tone that reinforces the West’s patronising agenda while paying little attention to the West’s plunder of the continent.


By propagating a partly [Western] donor-driven democratic agenda in Africa, Cheeseman, arguably fails to appreciate that it is important for African nations and their peoples to be let alone to decide by and for themselves on what kind of democracy they so want, if at all, for themselves and how best to establish and practice it. Deploying ‘democratic conditionality’ as one of the means to coerce – because that is what conditionality does – African polities into democratising, in the manner that [Western] ‘aiders’ want is heavily patronising and, in part, why Cheeseman’s argument calls for a rebuttal.


Ethical implications and conclusions


In scholarly spheres, ethical considerations not only end with the process of production and sharing of knowledge but equally entail deep personal reflection on ‘issues of reflexivity, positionality and power relations’[41]. In the said article, Cheeseman does not seem to be bothered by the implications of his privileged position as a well-accomplished, extensively published and widely visible middle aged white male scholar based in the United Kingdom. While some of these aspects, such as being white and, in the West, are mere accidents, history teaches us that these things matter. As such, those qualities inevitably influence the reception and impact of Cheeseman's work. For example, given his privileged position, [Western] ‘aiders’ are not only most likely to pay significant attention to Cheeseman's assertions, but may actually implement his recommendations, either in part or in their entirety. In fact, as Sudi[42] observes [not necessarily agreeing with part of the claims], “Cheeseman makes ‘important points that should be of great interest to policymakers in Western Capitals”. The fact that Cheeseman makes grand assumptions based on meta-theories of democracy and development, significantly lacking in empirical evidence, especially from Africa, inescapably raises fundamental ethical questions.


Understandably, as Professor and enthusiast of democracy, Cheeseman has a right to promote the global, including Western-aided, democratic agenda. However, one wonders if the donor-community will bother to understand if and why African countries such as Ethiopia may want or even care about the [Western] version of democracy that Cheeseman argues should, partly be promoted by ‘aiders’ though aid conditionality tied to democratisation. When Cheeseman argues for democratic conditionality, he is aware, or so I think, that [Western] ‘aiders’ may not bother to invest in efforts to try and understand what kind of democracy that countries like Ethiopia may actually want to forge for themselves. As such, donor-conditioned democratisation may just be another nostalgic enthusiasm by extra-African actors, particularly in the West, aimed at ordering African polities in ways preferred and framed by them. This, inevitably implies that Cheeseman advances arguments that seek to justify, mainstream and normalise flawed ideas of advancing democracy in Africa, partly as conceived and desired by non-African, largely Western actors.


Underling Cheeseman’s argument are claims and justifications of the West’s power to order and organise African polities in the manner [a democratic way] that the West so wishes how or thinks best. Debatably, Cheeseman’s argument can be simplified as advising the [Western] ‘aider’ to assume a posture with the imperative: ‘if you don’t democratise, we don’t give you aid’ [negative] or ‘if you democratise, we will give you aid’ [positive]. Or how else can one interpret his advice[43] to [Western] ‘aiders’ to ‘divert funding from authoritarian states that show no protecting civil liberties and political rights to countries that are improving in this regard’? And, how is this different from any other form of patronising actions by the West that Africa has historically suffered and continue to suffer? After all, Cheeseman’s argument does not envisage avenues for democracy beyond the Western bubble, especially because he sees no problem with subjecting Africa’s democratisation efforts partly under the grip of [Western] ‘aiders’ who themselves have a history of destroying Africa through aid conditionality. This is why Cheeseman’s article inevitably triggers memories of difficult situations caused by aid conditionality measures in the past. These include the devastations of the structural adjustments, in all their various manifestations, and many other conditionality measures, which as demonstrated by Mkandawire[44], have been implemented over time by actors such as the World Bank to advance a bastardised notion of ‘good governance. Arguments as Cheeseman’s tend to give impetus, if not new life, to the idea that Africa, as receiver of aid, is a passive recipient to be acted upon by the 'aider'. This is undoubtedly a spectacle of norm-diffusion from the West to Africa. Additionally, by failing to critically engage with the notion of aid, Cheeseman’s argument justifies a problematic, and arguably false, claim that Africa ‘needs’ aid.


The easiness with which Cheeseman brings in the aspect of development aid into the analysis of a bloody conflict in Ethiopia raises concerns over his own conception and perception of Africa’s conflicts and how they should be addressed. His argument borders on claims that if aid to Ethiopia was based in democratic ideals then Ethiopia wouldn’t be in the conflict that it is currently or that it would easily address the current crisis. This is the basis on which he seems to build his grand argument for a partly donor-driven ‘democratic development’ agenda in Africa. Cheeseman straightforwardly advises [Western] ‘aiders’ to put their aid money on democracy promotion because he views [Western] democracy as the best, perhaps the only, way to bring about sustainable development and peace in Africa. This reasoning entirely conforms with the liberal democratic peace imperatives that, as argued above, have increasingly come under a sharp critique. 


Whereas he is firmly within his right to write what he wishes, Cheeseman’s article may be viewed as ill-timed. Democracy, particularly as designed in the West and exported to Africa, including as part of aid conditionality, is increasingly becoming controversial. Thus when these topics are introduced into crisis situations such as Ethiopia’s, they tend to veil some of the most urgent aspects of the conflict such as analyses of the causes and dynamics of the conflict, the gravity of the humanitarian situation, the need for speedy de-escalation of the conflict and the search for a resolution. Whether, when and how Ethiopia needs to democratise and if and how development aid may be useful there, methinks is for the over one hundred million Ethiopians to decide.


[1] Cheeseman, N. 22 December 2020. The conflict in Ethiopia calls into question authoritarian aid: https://carnegieeurope.eu/2020/12/22/conflict-in-ethiopia-calls-into-question-authoritarian-aid-pub-83515 (accessed 16 January 2021)

[2] Al Jazeera 09 December 2020. Ethiopia conflict ‘spiralling out of control’: UN

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/9/ethiopia-conflict-spiralling-out-of-control-un (accessed 18 January 2021).

[3] Kelsall, T. 21 January 2021. A response to Nic Cheeseman on authoritarian aid: http://democracyinafrica.org/a-response-to-nic-cheeseman-on-authoritarian-aid/ (accessed 22 January 2021).

[4] Sudi, S.B. 08 January 2021. Authoritarian Aid: A reply to Prof. Cheeseman: http://democracyinafrica.org/authoritarian-aid-a-reply-to-prof-cheeseman/ (Accessed 19 January 2021).

[5] Adesina, J., Fischer, F. & Hoffmann, N. January 2021. Reflections on aid and regime change in Ethiopia: A response to Cheeseman. CODESRIA Bulletin Online, No. 1, January 2021: https://codesria.org/IMG/pdf/1_adesina_fischer_hoffmann_codbul_online_21.pdf (accessed 18 January 2021).

[6] Mkandawire, T. 2007. ‘Good governance’: the itinerary of an idea. Development in practice17(4-5), 679-681.

[7] De Waal, A. 15 November 2020. Tigray crisis viewpoint: Why Ethiopia is spiralling out of control:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54932333?fbclid=IwAR3Lt8S0fe4LvIfGStNna-B51MLNyiiHFtTiEaW6irma8KXaEWl_fpjoFFs (accessed 20 January 2021).

[8] Sudi, S.B. 08 January 2021.

[9] Demissie, S.T.  11 September 2020. The Eritrea-Ethiopia peace deal is yet to show dividends https://issafrica.org/iss-today/the-eritrea-ethiopia-peace-deal-is-yet-to-show-dividends (accessed 21 January 2021)

[10] Tsehaye, V. 10 December 2019. Opinion: Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize win is a flawed decision:  https://edition.cnn.com/2019/12/10/opinions/abiy-ahmed-ethiopia-nobel-prize-2019-opinion/index.html (accessed 21 January 2021).

[11] Zelalem, Z. 19 January 2021. Starvation crisis looms as aid groups seek urgent Tigray access: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/19/ethiopia-hesitant-to-allow-aid-agencies-into-tigray (accessed 21 January 2021).

[12] Africanews. 27 November 2020.The midnight attack on an army camp that plunged Ethiopia into war:

https://www.africanews.com/2020/11/27/the-midnight-attack-on-an-army-camp-that-plunged-ethiopia-into-war// (accessed 19 January 2021)

[13] Yesuf, J.S. 24 November 2020. Law enforcement operation or an armed conflict?: https://addiszeybe.com/news/currentaffairs/law-enforcement-operation-or-an-armed-conflict-the-conflict-in-tigray-and-international-humanitarian-law (accessed 19 January 2021).

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Ethiopian Conflict and "Authoritarian Aid" in Africa: A Response to Nic Cheeseman Ethiopian Conflict and "Authoritarian Aid" in Africa: A Response to Nic Cheeseman Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on April 11, 2021 Rating: 5

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