With an Einsteinian shock of hair and a wise man’s beard, Mulugeta Tesfakiros, just off a flight from Washington, settled into an office of glass walls and vibrant artworks in Addis Ababa. The millionaire magnate, who has gone into the local wine business with Bob Geldof, mused on the new Ethiopia: “Most of the people need first security, second food … and democracy after that.”
An hour’s drive away stand the corrugated iron watchtowers of a prison. The inmates include nine bloggers and journalists charged with terrorism. Standing in a bleak courtyard on a family visit day, they talked about how they had been tortured.
“I feel like I don’t know Ethiopia,” one said. “It’s a totally different country for me.”
This is the Janus-faced society that is the second most populous country in Africa. A generation after the famine that pierced the conscience of the world, Ethiopia is both a darling of the international development community and a scourge of the human rights lobby. Even as investment conferences praise it as a trailblazer the entire continent should emulate, organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) describe it as “one of the most repressive media environments in the world”.
To be in Ethiopia is to witness an economic miracle. The country has enjoyed close to double-digit growth for a decade. One study found it was creating millionaires faster than anywhere else on the continent. The streets of Addis Ababa reverberate with hammering from construction workers as the concrete skeletons of new towers and a monorail project rise into the crane-dotted sky. Ethiopia’s government says it is on course to meet most of the millennium development goals and, by 2025, to be a middle-income country.
Yet the frenetic urban expansion has uprooted thousands of farmers while, critics say, those who speak out against it are rounded up and jailed. Of 547 MPs, only one belongs to an opposition party. Activists and journalists describe an Orwellian surveillance state, breathtaking in scale and scope, in which phone conversations are recorded and emails monitored by thousands of bureaucrats reminiscent of the Stasi in East Berlin. The few who dare to take to the streets in protest are crushed with deadly force. Amnesty International has called it an “onslaught on dissent” in the runup to elections next year.
The architect of this ostensibly Chinese model of development – or “authoritarian developmentalism” – in east Africa was the late prime minister Meles Zenawi, who appeared to set the blueprint with his remark: “There is no connection between democracy and development.” When Meles died in 2012 after 21 years in power, the UK prime minister, David Cameron, described him as an inspirational spokesman for Africa, while the former PM Tony Blair, whose autographed photo adorns the five-star Sheraton Addis hotel, spoke of his “great sadness”.
Among the winners of the Meles legacy is Tesfakiros, the head of the Muller Real Estate company with a business empire that includes logistics, transport, food manufacturing and the wine venture with Geldof, which last year made a profit of $5m (£3m). “We’re trying to put Ethiopia as a wine-producing country like California or South Africa,” he said.
Ethiopia also imports about 10m litres of wine a year to serve a growing middle class, a concept that would have been unthinkable to viewers of the images of helplessness and starvation that spurred Band Aid in 1984.
“People would be surprised. It’s very hard for them to believe,” Tesfakiros reflected. “There has been amazing growth in the last 15 years. People have got the work ethic and are investing. The real estates market is booming and will boom for a time.”
He praised prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s government for ensuring peace, encouraging domestic entrepreneurs and attracting investment from China, India and the west. Asked if all this was at the sacrifice of democracy, Tesfakiros replied: “What’s democracy? The opposition needs support by the middle class. When we have a middle class, we will have a stronger democracy. Until then, we have a nanny for the democracy. Democracy is a matter of education and civilisation – 85% of our population is farmers; we don’t know how to read and write. When you have a middle class, you push for your rights.”
If progress means surrendering civil liberties, including his phone calls being tapped, that is a price Tesfakiros is willing to pay. “If they listen and make the country safer, I don’t care. In America they do it, in Europe they do it.”
Independent journalists have described telephone conversations they had years ago being played back to them during interrogations. This year an investigation by HRW noted the government had complete control over the telecoms system and virtually unlimited access to the call records of all phone users. Most of the technologies were provided by the Chinese telecoms firm ZTE, it said, while Ethiopia also appears to have used tools made by UK, German and Italian companies in the UK, Germany and Italy.
Some believe the spying programme is so sophisticated that it must have western support at government level. Ethiopia is seen as a reliable police officer in the region, hosting a US military base and sending troops to fight the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab in neighbouring Somalia. Advocates of its hardline security approach – patrons of the leading coffee shop chain are patted down on entry – point out that it has not suffered atrocities like Kenya, which is also engaged in Somalia.
The three journalists and six bloggers arrested in April and charged with terrorism in July are accused of planning attacks in Ethiopia and working in collusion with Ginbot 7, the US-based opposition group labelled by authorities as a terrorist organisation. They deny the charge and say they have been tortured. During the visit by the Guardian to the prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, one said he had been locked in a 20 sq metre room with 100 inmates.
“It’s not just the slapping you or beating you on the feet, it’s the way they wake you in the middle of the night in that shitty room where you’ve tried so hard to sleep,” the prisoner said above the noise of fellow inmates and their relatives. “It’s mental as well as physical torture. For a person who followed the world and was on the internet 24 hours, I feel like I’m shut down here. The only freedom I have here is thinking. They can’t stop me thinking, but even that is distorted.”
Hope is fading for the group as they get caught in the cogs of the court system. “We feel this is our new life. We know from the past experience of others that we have started a prison life already. There’s not going to be any bail; it’s going to be waiting day after day. Even though we know we are innocent, we know we have to accept it. The only choice we have is to smile or cry – and we want to cry about it.”
They are not the only journalists and activists behind bars. In June, Andargachew Tsige, a Briton of Ethiopian origin and secretary general of Ginbot 7, was seized at a Yemeni airport and illegally extradited to Ethiopia, where he could face the death penalty. Opposition parties, who boycotted parliament after the last election, say their members have been incarcerated, or worse.
The Oromo Federalist Congress, representing Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, is resisting the government’s “masterplan” for expanding Addis Ababa, claiming it has forced 150,000 Oromo farmers off their land without compensation. Witnesses say police killed at least 17 protesters, including children and students, during demonstrations this year and hundreds more are being detained without charge.
While tycoons such as Tesfakiros are showered in money from the property boom, Bekele Nega, general secretary of the congress, which has more than 10,000 members, has a different perspective. “This we don’t consider ‘development’,” he said. “This we consider the uprooting of the indigenous people, who will lose their culture and identity. The government say they are expanding Addis Ababa but the reality is they are getting rid of the people who don’t support the EPRDF [the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front].”
He challenged the west’s perceptions of positive change in the country. “Foreigners who see these tall buildings will say Ethiopia is developing. The reality is we are not developing. We are not having three meals a day. People like Bob Geldof and others consider they have helped our people and of course they have. But they didn’t come to the kernel of the matter. The EPRDF used the money from that time to build the empire they are in control of. Somebody hijacked the money from that hunger. It’s written in black and white.”
Ethiopia is still one of the biggest recipients of UK development aid, getting about £300m a year. Money also pours in from the US. Nega believes it is misspent: “The west has left us, left the people. The US is aiding dictators and turning a blind eye to us. Why? The same with Britain, which has democratic values. They give the taxpayers money for buying weapons or for the police station to handcuff people.”
Donor aid is also helping the government to spy on its citizens and even turn family members against each other, he alleged. “For any five family members, one will be reporting to the police. Your brother or your sister or your mother.
Ethiopia has turned its back on the concept of western liberal democracy, Nega said. “Whether we like it or not, we are in the Chinese developmental state. The west wants us to be democrats and build a democracy. This question is not comfortable for our leaders. According to them, we need only food. They don’t understand that poor people need democracy. They fact we are poor does not mean we are not human beings. We cannot be uprooted and tormented.
“As human beings we deserve democracy, human rights, rule of law. Until we get it, we’ll go on demanding it, even at the cost of our own lives. We are demanding it for the sake of our children. Maybe tomorrow, maybe today, any day I could be in prison. But I have my tongue and my pen and they cannot drive me back from telling what I know and believe. I hope the world will know what the reality is.”
Similar criticism of the disjunction between economic progress and political freedom have been made of Rwanda under Paul Kagame. But Ethiopia is much bigger. Its government is unrepentant and convinced of its mission. Any hint of doubt would seem like weakness. One senior official said: “The most basic human right is food on the table. If we’re doing that, why would we violate other human rights? This is a safe, secure place and we want to keep it that way. We’ll do anything to keep it that way. We have 90 million people – you try to control them.”