Ethiopia is the China of Africa. Like China, it traces its history back thousands of years and considers itself a regional giant. Like China 30 years ago, it has a serious development plan based on raising health and educational standards, improving farm yields and industrialisation with the help of foreign capital. Unfortunately, also like China, it has an authoritarian government that represses its people to stay in power.
There is a crucial contrast with China, however. Ethiopia will not be able to carry off the trick of economic expansion and political repression indefinitely. For the 26 years since it ousted the Marxist regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu, the ruling coalition has tried just that. Yet, if anything, it has been less prepared than the Chinese Communist party to give space to the private sector. It has maintained a firm grip over strategic sectors and planned its march towards putative prosperity with military ruthlessness. That has stifled entrepreneurialism and jeopardised a strong economic record that has seen growth — at least according to official numbers — average about 8 per cent since 2000.
It is the political risks that form the gravest threat to the present system. Though it insists otherwise, the coalition is dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which is seen to favour ethnic Tigrayans who make up only 6 per cent of the population. The cabal in charge seems genuinely to believe that only it can frog-march Ethiopia to middle-income status.
Its plans have run into opposition from the Oromo and Amhara, ethnic groups that together make up 60 per cent of the population. The Oromo, the biggest, have long felt discriminated against, a sentiment that exploded two years ago after government plans to extend Addis Ababa, the capital, into their land. Unusually, the Oromo have formed a united front with the Amhara, who have long felt themselves the rightful rulers of Ethiopia.
That is the background to the turmoil that erupted in 2016 with the killing of at least 55 people at a religious festival. Several thousand may have been killed since, and many thousands more are still imprisoned. The ruling coalition’s attempt to quell dissent forcibly — tempered by holding off on Addis expansion plans — has failed.
Now, there is a hint that the government is rethinking. Last August, it ended a 10-month state of emergency. Last week, Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, said the government would release political prisoners and close a notorious prison as the first steps to “national reconciliation”. It is too early to celebrate a change of heart. No prisoners have yet been released — and some are likely to remain in jail even if the government meets its promise. Though welcome, even a full-scale amnesty would be just a start.
More fundamentally, the government must do more to deepen democracy and demonstrate that it rules for all Ethiopians and not just an undeclared minority. That will require changes within the mechanics of government as well as a reprioritising of development goals such that all the country is seen to benefit. Enforced land seizures must stop. The press should be freed so that Ethiopians can have an informed debate about their priorities. The people who run Ethiopia have no monopoly on wisdom.
Of the almost 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, few matter more than Ethiopia. A successful development agenda there could help ignite a continent badly in need of role models. Sadly, for all its economic and social achievements, authoritarian Ethiopia is still far from that.
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