Extraordinary Ethiopia – ancient, booming but undemocratic – By Richard Dowden

dowden9When you say to people in Britain: “I’ve just been in Ethiopia”, they give you a look which says: “Poor you. Was it too terrible to talk about?”

That is the trouble with the modern media. Faraway places of which we know little are only shown to us when something bad happens. In the case of Ethiopia, the 1984 famine and subsequent hungers have fixed its image in the global mind. It is as if the image of the collapsing Twin Towers in 2001 typified America. But of course we have other, more positive, images of America but none of Ethiopia. So I tell them: “Ethiopia? It’s great. It’s Booming!”

Addis Ababa is being transformed as if by monstrous engines boring through the heart of the city. A new motorway flows into town sweeping aside all before it and an urban rail system is smashing through buildings, roads, gardens – everything accompanied by cranes and trucks, noise and dust. All along its path the traditional one-storey homes of mud, wooden planks and rusted corrugated iron roofs are bulldozed into heaps and replaced by six or more stories of concrete and brick. Hammering, grinding and showers of glittering acetylene sparks proclaim the arrival of armies of Chinese workers and the rise of mighty steel and glass constructions.

The lesser building sites are full of Ethiopian workers; some newly arrived from the rural areas. Addis used to feel like a timeless city. People hung around talking or walked slowly as if on a long stroll. Now they march the streets with speed and urgency. All seem to have watches and mobile phones. Even the poor seem to have purpose. I watched one man sitting by the roadside carefully stitching the seams of his disintegrating trousers with string. For the better off the vast market quarter, Mercato, is seething with bustle and business.

Ethiopia has one rich asset that much of sub Saharan Africa has lost or never developed. It has been a state for a very long time, longer than Britain and most of Europe. Its people, language, culture are all rooted more than two thousand years ago and further back the first humans and their hominid ancestors walked here. Ethiopians’ connections to the Semitic world go back thousands or years through migration and trade. Its Coptic Christian rituals and ceremonies came from Egypt in the 3rd century A.D.

When Europe took over much of Africa at the end of the 19th century Ethiopia was already a state, capable of raising an army that defeated the invading Italians in 1896. It then made an alliance with the invading Europeans which gave it new territories. The Emperor Haile Selassie cooperated with the European powers, but in 1936 Italy seized the country. Only seven years later it was free again and, unlike its northern part, now Eritrea, never colonised. All this gives Ethiopians a special self-confidence in who they are, where they come from and where they are going.

Its recent history is also extraordinary. In 1974 Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the army. But a group of Marxist students from the Tigray region at Addis Ababa University who had fought to overthrow the Emperor, saw the revolution hijacked by an army coup led by Major Mengistu Haile Mariam. Led by Meles Zenawi, these intellectuals formed the Marxist Leninist League of Tigray, left Addis and took the long march to the mountains in the far north. Linking up with their Eritrean neighbours and cousins who had already been fighting for years for their independence from Ethiopia, the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front started a new war against the military regime.

12 years later Mengistu fled as the TPLF and the Eritreans arrived at the gates of Addis Ababa. It was an astounding achievement, especially since they had no regional supporter. But the truth was that, for all their bravado, the TPLF leaders had not expected the Soviet Union to collapse so suddenly and with it the Mengistu regime. They may have hoped that a long struggle might nibble away and gain greater independence for Tigray. Suddenly they found they could eat the whole cake.

How could they claim legitimacy? As their army approached Addis Ababa Meles came up with a brilliant solution. The TPLF would find allies among Ethiopia’s other ethnicities and create a national umbrella body, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front. They also created parties for Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups; the Amhara, Oromo, Somalis and ethnically mixed southerners (who were traditionally regarded as slaves). Like the Eritreans, all these “˜nationalities’ were given the constitutional right to secede from Ethiopia by referenda. In theory.

In this way Ethiopia took the opposite direction to other African countries. The rest all tried to create nationalism by suppressing ethnicity and even banning ethnic-based political parties. Ethiopia based its political system on its constituent parts. It was an extraordinary gamble. It works at the moment but of course no referenda have ever been organised or even discussed.

At the time Meles said his movement’s model was Albania. The Americans and Europeans who felt they had just engineered the total defeat of global communism, gulped. After all, Mengistu may have been a Communist but he wasn’t a looney. Then it became clear that this model simply meant that, like Albania, the TPLF was independent socialist, not aligned to Moscow or Beijing. It was not at all committed to the economic policies of Enver Hoxa.

Like any good socialist who wins the jackpot, Meles Zenawi was not going to squander his winnings. While the state retained close control over land, the economy and key state-owned companies, Ethiopia was to allow capitalism to flourish and have the best of both worlds. Key sectors are state-controlled but the buccaneer capitalists are given free rein.

With the Soviet Union gone, Meles engineered good relations with the United States and Europe. When he and Isias Afwerke, his former ally in the revolution who became President of independent Eritrea, went to war – twice, the West backed Ethiopia. It won both rounds of the war but did not press home its victory, another counter intuitive but brilliant decision by Meles although it nearly cost him his job. The Ethiopian army wanted to carry on to Asmara and change the government there. Now the two armies face each other along the border; landlocked Ethiopia open to the world, coastal Eritrea – like its president – a reclusive, closed and difficult state.

When Meles appointed Hailemariam Desalagne, a southerner and a Protestant to boot as Deputy Prime Minister, many saw this as a token gesture to the southerners and a manoeuvre to prevent a rival emerging from one of the powerful highland ethnic groups. But when Meles died in July last year, the succession fell to Hailemariam. Although he sounds more like a technocratic civil servant than a national leader, he is beginning to consolidate his power and appoint his own people in top jobs. Ethiopians are beginning to realise the deeper meaning of his appointment.

Meles’ successor could not be another Tigrayan. Nor could it be an Amhara because Ethiopia has almost always been ruled by Amharas and the Oromo, a larger group, would be up in arms. The choice of an Oromo would upset the Amhara. A Somali? Since Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and again in 2010 and is still interfering there, that is unthinkable. In the past a southerner could no more have ruled Ethiopia than an Arab could rule in Israel. But Hailemariam, hardworking, technocratic, continuing to deliver the economic boom and not part of the traditional Ethiopian power struggle, was the perfect choice. It will work as long as the economy keeps growing at a good clip.

But make no mistake, parliamentary democracy as we in the West understand it, has no role in today’s Ethiopia. Out of the 547 elected members of the country’s lower chamber only one is from an opposition party. I met him. Girma Seifu Maru is a nice man but a lonely one. As Meles Zenawi said: “There is no connection between democracy and development”.

And whose picture hangs in every government office in Ethiopia? Not President Muluta Teshome, whose name and face few Ethiopians would recognise. Nor Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalagne. It is Meles Zenawi.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles published by Portobello Books.

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22 thoughts on “Extraordinary Ethiopia – ancient, booming but undemocratic – By Richard Dowden

  1. Pingback: Extraordinary Ethiopia – ancient, booming...

  2. Richard Dowden, please correct some of your inaccuracies as follows.
    No one considers Ethiopians from the South as slaves and if you ever dare to read Ethiopian History, one of the influential queens who gave birth to successive Kings and Princes was from the South, Queen Elenie (Hellena) and one of the prominent Monks (Pope) of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, Saint T/Haimanot has a lineage from the Wolaita ethnic group of the south which the current Prime minister hails from.
    On top of that no one Ethiopian is interested in Ethnic chauvinism. Anyone from any of the Ethnic groups,capable enough to steer the country towards a better future is welcome; that is what our history is all about!

  3. The statement: “The choice of an Oromo would upset the Amhara.” is simply the reflection of the late PM’s propaganda that intentionally “makes” or “depicts” the Amharas and Oromos a historical enemy while they are true relatives than any one else in Ethiopia. His all deeds in this regard is veiled with maintaining his groups elite intact from the possible challenge it might face when both are united. Observers like you should filter out the kernel of the truth than echoing the voice of evil politicians. Which study really shows that the Amhara’s would be unhappy if an Oromo becomes a PM? It is only Melese’s …

  4. Thanks for an insightful article – it is frustrating how the press often prefers bad news! Ethiopia has so many talented entrepreneurs, at home and abroad. The challenge to continue the growth is to build the skills and structures for that energy to flourish while being positively regulated. Some people there joke that the 7% or 11% growth is despite the government. The emphasis on building roads and railways and other infrastructure is good and brings giant opportunity. I hope there will be space for the private sector also to contribute fully to that growth.

  5. Richard

    Surprisingly upbeat article on Addis Adaba but is the rest of the country doing as well? And is this boom in Addis not financed as a result of millions of acres of land being sold-off by the government to foreign investors to grow crops for export? If so, what happens when this money runs out?

    Unless things have changed recently, those living in the country are still shackled to the land having to pay rents up front for crops they have not yet planted? Also setting up in business has never been easy and takes months and great expense. Add that to a poor corruption score and it is not surprising that most Ethiopians are still to be found eking out an existence from the soil.
    For real and sustainable momentum to carry all the people upwards all of the above needs to change.

  6. This article is full of errors: Not is insightful and need much corrections.
    The author told us that ‘’Its Coptic Christian rituals and ceremonies came from Egypt in the 3rd century A.D.’’
    WRONG, do not forget that Ethiopia’s presence in Jerusalem, as you also mentioned it, starts around 1000 BC at the time king Solomon who gave our queen a land that we still control at the heart of Jerusalem. The relationship between the Coptic Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthodox church seriously started in 13 century.
    Again he stated ‘’..Only seven years later it was free again’’ from the Italian invasion. WRONG: It is five years later.
    The author noted ‘’…12 years later Mengistu fled as the TPLF and the Eritreans arrived at the gates of Addis Ababa.’’ WRONG: 17 YEARS LATER
    ‘’…he [Hailemariam] is beginning to consolidate his power and appoint his own people in top jobs.’’ WRONG. Please tell us who and who are his own people. Check out the number of ministers from each party and you will find yourself wrong.
    The statement ‘’As Meles Zenawi said: “There is no connection between democracy and development”’’ is out of place and context. I am sure you haven’t got what he meant by that. Do you know that Meles and his party advocate ‘’Democratic Developmental State’’? So you perceived the statement wrong.

  7. Yes, there are inaccuracies. First Ethiopia does not have a history of 2000 years. You might have reflected traditional tales. The name as a country was recognised after Hailsellseie requasted UN in 1930 to t be named as such . Before that it was known as Abyssinia, prior other nations and nationalities were subjugated by Minilik II. Your economic development observation seems also superficial. We people who live there know that the majority have only one meal a day if not at all.

  8. There are some factual errors but don’t affect the argument. It is also interesting such thoughtful article can be made humorous.
    The country was in distress for a long time. Although Ethiopia is booming extraordinarily, the image of the country in the West has not changed because of the abyss of the past.
    Thanks for the writeup, it is good to see some brains are working .

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  10. Richie, You need to think of something else to do; you’ve messed up your facts. If you did what you did here for UK press you will be fired on the spot.

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  12. NIce one.

    Yes Meles has made some choices that are bearing fruits. But he also choose to try a democratic state and conducted a free election on 2005. He changed his mind (or was forced to do so by his party) when he saw he would loose power very fast if he kept on.

    So he failed on that. And began to act as if it is a deliberate choice: “no connection between democracy and development” . He was just rationalizing a failure. Before that, he used to talk at lenght about Japan that conducted elections but had still managed to keep a dominant party that delivered on the development front.

  13. Thank you Richard for an insightful commentary, I won’t challenge the factual statements of others but I don’t think it affects the power of your arguments in any event.
    I loved my time in Addis & in the beautiful, historic countryside. I made many fabulous friends and will go back as soon as I can. I’m not well-qualified to comment on Zenawi or other figures(though I was well aware how the Tigrayan junta dominated politics).
    I will say though how striking it was to see the hard infrastructure go up so – rapidly thanks, often, to the Chinese.
    However I am concerned that not enough money or attention is going toward ‘soft’ infrastructure. That is, I hope the money is found for better schooling in all Ethiopia; I hope medical facilities and public health improve at a great rate (and that the disabled are better funded); and I hope the public sector enhances its operations so that the legal system can operate effectively.
    Beyond that, the sky’s the limit for Ethiopia!

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