It is a startling fact, but for decades Ethiopia has been regarded as one of Africa’s most successful states. Still largely associated in the west with biblical-scale starvation — a hangover from the terrible famine of 1984 — to those who know Africa, Ethiopia is a leading example of a state that has got its act together. Since 1991, after the overthrow of the disastrous Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, Africa’s second-most populous nation has been run as a strictly authoritarian, but largely effective “development state”, modelled on successful north-east Asian nations, particularly China.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a quasi- socialist coalition dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, has, as in China, merged state and party. As in China, too, it has harnessed its near-monopoly on power to develop the nation — one with a vigorous sense of its own distinct culture — by building roads, dams and free-trade zones.
When it completes the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the mightiest in Africa, Ethiopia will be self-sufficient in power. Its nascent manufacturing sector is seen as a prototype for a continent that badly needs to go beyond shipping out unprocessed raw materials. Ethiopia has attracted significant investments to its shoe and garment industries from China, Turkey and the US. Even Ivanka Trump is considering moving production of her line of women’s shoes from China to Ethiopia.
The results have set the country apart. Officially, growth has averaged 9.1 per cent since 2000, and has topped 10 per cent in eight of those years. Even if cynicism prompts you to shave off a percentage point or two, Ethiopia has been expanding at a China-like clip. According to the International Monetary Fund, average per capita income, measured at purchasing power parity, has risen fourfold since 2000, to $1,916 from $517, with similarly impressive gains in health and life expectancy.
Africa’s great success story, however, is going through its Tiananmen Square moment. Alarmed by an unprecedented wave of protests that has united opposition forces across ideological and ethnic lines, Ethiopia has answered as China did in 1989. With bullets. Over the past year, by its own admission, security forces have killed more than 500 people, including the 55 or more who died at a religious festival last week. Meanwhile, thousands have been intimidated and imprisoned. This week, Addis Ababa declared a six-month state of emergency, the first in a quarter of a century. That will give it even more draconian powers to impose curfews, black out information and round people up. The severity of response shows how rattled the government is. Protesters have targeted foreign investments, including a Turkish textile factory and a mine owned by Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote, threatening the development agenda, which hinges on projecting the country as a stable place to do business.
Unrest was galvanised by a proposed expansion of Addis Ababa, the fast-transforming capital, into surrounding farmland belonging to the Oromo, the largest ethnic group. But the roots of rebellion go deeper. What is unfolding is a backlash against what many see as domination of the state apparatus by the minority Tigrayans, who make up only 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s 100m people. That leaves other groups, principally the Oromo (32 per cent) and the Amhara (30 per cent) on the sidelines.
Ethiopia is not like most African countries, thrown together by careless colonialists. One of the world’s oldest centres of Christianity, it has a history stretching back at least to the kingdom of Axum in the first century AD. That makes Tigrayan domination different from the “it’s our turn to eat” ethnic rivalries that shape politics in much of Africa. “The Tigrayans believe they have created this model for modern Ethiopia and that they should be able to see it through,” says Clionadh Raleigh, an expert on Africa at the University of Sussex. What makes the unrest a potentially existential threat for the government is that it has united Oromo and Amhara, groups normally loath to make common cause.
It feels as though Ethiopia’s impressive experiment in creating a development state is pushing against its limits. Ideally, the government would respond by loosening its authoritarian grip so as to accommodate the different groups that feel excluded from current arrangements. Unfortunately, those who run the country are likely to make a very different calculation. They will look again to China for inspiration and see 25 years of growth in the period since the Tiananmen Square massacre. From that narrow perspective, the lesson will be all too clear: suppress and carry on.
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