Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa: Is Aid to Blame?

When examining the effects of bilateral or NGO aid in Africa, Ethiopia is perhaps one of the most interesting cases. The East-African state was never formally colonized, yet aid enabled the same outcomes as it did in previously colonized states. The causal or correlational (depending on the author) link between colonization and authoritarianism is a well-established theory of African politics. However, Ethiopia’s un-colonized history presents a new avenue to analyze authoritarian durability in African regimes. Given Ethiopian politics’ unique past but unfortunately common illiberal present, it is not so much the direct legacy of colonialism that continues to enable dictatorial rule, but rather the characteristics of the colony and colonizer relationship, and their contemporary manifestation in the form of aid that purports these regimes. This type of relationship is necessary to keep in mind when considering why aid flows from the United States to so many different countries. Is it purely altruistic? Or does bilateral aid hold a more harsh practical interest in mind? Tracing the flows of aid from the United States to Ethiopia demonstrates that the latter should be considered over the former.

Theoretical Background: Selectorate Theory

Selectorate Theory is a theory of politics that attempts to ascertain a scientific way of comprehending political relations, insofar as it classifies groups of actors and defines how they interact. The theory is best applied to authoritarian regimes, which, when they are durable and resistant to political change, possess a great understanding of how dictatorial politics function. Individuals living in these systems are organized into three categories: Essentials, Influentials, and Interchangeables. Essentials, such as generals or those who possess a large persuasive or coercive capability, are those whose support is absolutely integral for the leader; influentials, or, individuals in the governing bureaucracy or party members, are those who posses the ability to influence politics but are not necessarily the most important actors; and interchangeables constitute the general population, whose enthusiastic support may not be required at all for tenable rule. For illiberal regimes, it is most important to purchase the loyalties of those in the essential class. In order to obtain the loyalties of the essentials in the long-term, a constant source of money is required. One sensible way to maintain sources of money is to receive aid from foreign governments.

Aid given to developing states typically fails to meet its supposed goal because of the way illiberal regimes organize their population. The demands of authoritarian rule mean that aid is typically earmarked for embezzlement rather than for altruism. Donor states cognizantly play the role of patron in this dynamic, and thus bilateral aid should be viewed through the neo-colonialist lens, in that the inter-state relationship adopts colonial notions without the traditional colonizer-colony dynamic. In the same way that the European colonizers installed illiberal regimes to maintain control over their colonies, foreign aid is utilized by donor states to secure certain policies deemed favorable. This relationship inhibits democratization at the expense of supporting dictatorial regimes, and should thus be viewed as a colonial endeavor under the paradigm of colonialism.

Selectorate Theory, however, is not the only method for comprehending authoritarian regime durability in sub-Saharan Africa. Mamdani contests that either the tribal identities or anti-imperialist leaders facilitate democratic breakdown in Africa, while Ekeh suggests that the legacies of colonialism created two “publics”, wherein a civic and primordial public prevent state unity and breed illiberal rule. Although the theories posited by Ekeh and Mamdani may explain how different states initially developed authoritarianism, they fail to explain the durability of these regimes and why they continue to avoid democratization. Furthermore, Ethiopia, which had never been colonized, also failed to democratize. Given the common discourse on African politics’ failings to provide a general theory for the propensity and durability authoritarian politics in the region, Selectorate Theory’s call for a more scientific mode of analysis, that is, viewing African politics based on the mechanisms of authoritarian governance rather than through the guise of culture or other political currents, presents a possibility to understand why the un-colonized Ethiopia is as undemocratic as the former African colonies.

Haile Selassie: The Durable Dictator

Ethiopia’s case can be understood in much the same way as that of myriad other states, the corrupting influence of power. Ethiopian rulers viewed that the path toward development lay in the emulation of other successful states who themselves had utilized power to develop. The Ethiopian polity, or political class, viewed Europe’s ability to colonize Africa as a direct product of their military and economic power, and intended to follow suit. Thus, the acquisition and preservation of power defined the parameters of Ethiopian politics. Power, however, was predicated on the ability to secure the allegiances of the Essentials.

Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, ruled from 1930 until 1974, with only a brief interruption due to Italy’s attempted invasion. The Selassie regime was the last in a long line of emperors. Recognizing that a dictator’s true power rested in the hands of the Essentials, crucial aid supposedly destined for those suffering in the drought and famine of 1972 was re-appropriated for the Ethiopian government unless aid organizations paid a tax called for by vague regulations. When confronted, Selassie invented an excuse, claiming that it was in “accordance with the laws of nature” for drought and famine to strike, and that governmental action was unnecessary.. These were not the ravings of a selfish dictator, but rather the shrewd navigation of illiberal politics.

Selassie understood that he needed to continue to reward his essential backers, the high-level bureaucrats and military personnel of his regime. Ethiopia, however, was not a wealthy country, and thus Selassie viewed incoming aid as an opportunity to gain funding to continue to allocate resources to his supporters. Rather than allocating aid or letting proper aid utilization occur untaxed, Selassie saw this disaster as an opportunity to reaffirm his relationship over his essential backers. Selassie’s response to the drought and subsequent famine demonstrates one part of why bilateral aid tends to fail: illiberal regimes need to maintain their support structures, and aid is an easy way for a poor country to secure the necessary funding to do so.

Neo-Colonialism and Bilateral Aid

The flows of aid between the United States and Ethiopia, as well as the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, highlight the neo-colonial characteristics of bilateral aid. Bilateral aid, or, aid from one country given directly to another, is allocated to “deliver policies” that donor states want and the recipient regime needs. Throughout World War II and the Cold War, the United States allocated aid to various governments in order to secure anti-communist positions. Pro-American dictators could afford to maintain the loyalty of their Essentials, while the United States prevented new communist states from materializing.

In 1943, at the height of the American Lend-Lease program, in which the United States provided aid to states combating Axis powers during World War II, conversations between Selassie and Roosevelt grew increasingly more common, as Roosevelt sought an African ally and Selassie solicited aid with which he could re-allocate to his Essentials. In addition to aid under the Lend-Lease program, a 1951 trade agreement between the United States and Ethiopia guaranteed economic benefits in exchange for “amity”. In essence, aid from the United States provided the Selassie regime with funding to maintain its network of essential backers in exchange for a pro-American stance.

The Selassie regime fell, however, due to mismanagement of the political field as a result of record levels of inflation that left the already poor country poorer. Recall that Ethiopian politics was based on the accumulation of power. Power generally manifested as military support, and thus the military constituted most of Selassie’s essential backers. Ethiopia’s patron in the United States did not provide enough resources for Selassie to reaffirm his authority, and when Selassie failed to reassure the military during the inflationary crisis of 1974, low to mid level military bureaucrats and enlisted men deposed him in a revolution. The United States’ failure to supply their client state with enough funding to maintain the status quo facilitated The Derg’s ascendance.

After the Selassie era, the new regime, called The Derg, or, Committee, was a military Junta with a communist ideology. Selassie’s pro-American leanings ensured him consistent access to bilateral aid because he was willing to implement policies amenable to American interests. The Derg, on the other hand, marked a switch in Ethiopia to communism, the United States’ ideological antithesis. One of the Derg’s worst policies was the forced land nationalization. This policy abolished tenancy and nationalized all land at the same time, leaving peasants to enforce the new project. This policy caused massive famines, and was in fact a complete disaster. While these scenarios were playing out, aid from the United States sharply fell. The United States no longer felt that they had an ally in Ethiopia, and thus bilateral aid between the two countries during The Derg’s tenure became almost nonexistent. The Derg’s ultimate downfall came about as a result of the Soviet Union’s retreat from funding proxies and the refrain from ideological foreign policy under Soviet leader Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost reforms. Without support from The Derg’s communist patron in the Soviet Union, Ethiopia’s dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam could no longer afford to maintain his own network of Essential backers, and was forced into exile in Zimbabwe.

Following The Derg’s downfall, Ethiopia still has not democratized. Currently, Freedomhouse, a well known aggregator of democracy, states that Ethiopia’s score on political rights is a 7, its freedom rating is a 6.5, and its civil liberties ranking is a 6, where , a 7 is the least democratic while a 1 is the most. To reiterate, maintenance of a small coalition regime, in which the Essential backers need to be kept content, requires a significant amount of money. After the fall of The Derg, Ethiopia adopted nominal democratic reforms, but never really pursued them or fully institutionalized democratic norms. To explain Ethiopia’s failure to democratize post-Derg, we must look to the flows of bilateral aid.

The United States continues to provide Ethiopia with substantial amounts of monetary aid as well as other forms, such as food and technological aid . In exchange for these contributions, Ethiopia provides the United States with intelligence on Somalia. Viewing Ethiopia as an integral ally in the Global War on Terror, the United States is content with providing assistance in exchange for anti-terrorist policies and intelligence sharing. Just as Ethiopia was a pawn for the United States against communism, a pawn for the Soviet Union against capitalism, it is now a useful “ally” for the United States (again) against terrorism. In exchange for these policies, Ethiopia receives aid, enabling the states illiberality and impeding democratization through purporting the current regime.


While colonialism derailed the tracks countless countries were following, it should not be viewed as the sole reason for authoritarianism in the developing world. The case of Ethiopia demonstrates that authoritarian durability is not a direct result of formal colonialism. Instead, a scientific view of the mechanisms of authoritarianism and the organization of individuals living in these systems provides us with a much better explanation. It is the need to secure the loyalties of essential backers that purports authoritarianism in sub-Saharan Africa. Colonialism explains why states that may initially have democratized failed to do so, but it does not explain why states in the developing world that had gone un-colonized, such as Ethiopia, failed the democratic project as well. The machinations of colonialism are indeed at play, but it is the subtleness of neo-colonial bilateral aid agreements, and how they enable authoritarian leaders to maintain their rule in exchange for policy concessions that explains the continual failure of robust democratization to take hold in sub-Saharan Africa.

Adam Goldstein

About Adam Goldstein

American University senior on the BA/MA track for Comparative Politics. Unapologetically obsessed with Iranian politics, political science, and Phish. Contributing editor and Middle East/Africa columnist.