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.