Scan the mainstream media for news about Ethiopia and discover headline after headline describing the country’s economic successes: double-digit economic growth, foreign investment and aspirations to become a middle-income country by 2030. Ethiopia, we are told, is a functioning democracy, an African tiger economy and an important ally of Western governments.
According to such eminent sources as the BBC, CNN, the World Bank and the US State Department, Ethiopia is an African success story; a beacon of stability and growing prosperity in a region of dysfunctional states. Dig a little deeper, speak to Ethiopians inside the country or within the diaspora and a different, darker image surfaces: A violent picture of brutal state suppression, state corruption, widespread human rights violations and increasing levels of hardship as the cost of living escalates.
For a country to be regarded as broadly democratic a series of foundational pillars and interconnected principles are required to exist and be in operation: the observation of human rights, political pluralism, a flourishing independent media, an autonomous judiciary and police force, a vibrant civil society and a pervasive atmosphere of tolerance, inclusion and freedom. Where these are found to be absent so too is democracy.
The Ethiopian government – the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) maintains that it governs in accordance with democratic ideals: a brief overview of their methods however makes clear this is far from the truth. The EPRDF rules in a highly suppressive manner and has created an atmosphere of fear and suspicion throughout the country, employing a largely uneducated security apparatus to keep the increasingly mobilized populace in order, and a state-run judiciary to lock troublemakers away.
Political dissent is all but outlawed, and should protestors take to the streets they are shot at, beaten and/or arbitrarily arrested; opposition leaders are imprisoned, branded terrorists, intimidated and persecuted; all major media outlets as well as the sole telecommunications company are state owned or controlled — outspoken journalists are routinely jailed, trade unions are controlled by the government, and humanitarian aid, including food and fertilizer is distributed on a partisan basis, as are employment opportunities and university places. Refuse to pledge allegiance to the EPRDF and see that job offer withdrawn, the seeds, fertilizer and humanitarian support withheld.
In justification of this tyrannical rule, the government states that Ethiopia is an evolving democracy, that change takes time and that economic growth is their primary concern and not the annoying niceties of universal human rights law, much of which is written into the liberally worded, systematically ignored constitution. And whilst the EPRDF commits wide-ranging human rights violations, and acts of state terrorism, the country’s major donors, America, Britain and the European Union, remain virtually silent. Indeed their irresponsible actions go beyond mere silence — they promote the fictitious image of democracy and stability in Ethiopia, and in some cases conspire with the regime against opposition party activists, as many believe the UK has done in the case of Tadesse Kersmo, a British citizen and leading member of the opposition party Ginbot 7 – Movement for Unity and Democracy in Ethiopia. He was recently arrested at Heathrow on vague terrorism charges, as well as Andargachew Tsege another British citizen. Tsege was kidnapped while transiting through Sanaan airport in Yemen, and rendered to Ethiopia as part of a brutal crackdown on political opponents and civil rights activists. He has been imprisoned inside Ethiopia ever since, and the British government, to their utter shame, has said little and done nothing.
Development aid from these and other benefactors, including the World Bank, flows through and supports “a virtual one-party state with a deplorable human rights record,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) states in it's aptly named report, Development without Freedom. The Ethiopian government’s “practices include jailing and silencing critics and media, enacting laws to undermine human rights activity, and hobbling the political opposition.”
In 1995 the then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stated that the plan was for Ethiopia to “sustain current double-digit rates of growth for the next 15 years, so that by 2025 we become a middle income country.” And they would achieve this in a manner that would “allow us to have zero net carbon emissions by 2030.” Economic reforms and growth controlled by a highly centralized political system, mirroring, many have suggested, the methodology of China, is the EPRDF’s approach. It is largely Chinese money and organization that has built the new dams, roads and railways. Industrial parks have sprung up offering new jobs at increased wages, and the government plans to build another nine such facilities. But manufacturing is a tiny part of the country’s economy: almost 85% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, which accounts for 41% of GDP, coffee being the main export.
Certainly there have been some economic achievements over the past 25 years and the country’s carbon emissions during the period 1999 to 2012, have, according to the World Bank, remained static. This is indeed positive, as is the commitment to hydro, geo-thermal, wind and solar power. Overall unemployment has fallen slightly to 19.8% (from 2009 when it was 20.4%), but 50% of young people remain unemployed, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the famous ‘double-digit growth rates’, has been consistently high, averaging 11.35% in the years since 2010, according to Trading Economic, although this dropped to 8% in 2015/16. The UN relates that there has also been substantial progress in the achievement of Millennium Development Goals, particularly relating to those living in extreme poverty. This figure has fallen from 45% in 1995/6 to 30%.
Whilst these figures and the commitment of sustained investment are encouraging, no level of economic growth, green or otherwise, can justify violent, suppressive governance, as is being perpetrated in Ethiopia, and a nation’s GDP is only one measure of a country’s health, and a narrow one at that. It reveals nothing of the political landscape, the human rights conditions under which people are forced to live, the dire levels of poverty or where any new wealth has settled. Many claim ‘crony capitalism’ abounds in Ethiopia, that the principle beneficiaries of economic growth have been government members and close supporters and people from Tigray, the regional home of the majority of the government and senior members of the armed forces.
Desperate for change
With a population of almost 100 million, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria. And with a population growth rate at a tad under 3% it’s growing apace (in the EU e.g. its 0.23%, the US 0.81%), meaning over the coming five years the country will have around 20 million more people to feed.
The median age is a mere 17 years of age (44% are under 14), life expectancy is just 67 years of age (158th out of 198 countries) and the country (according to the US State Department) is still regarded as one of the 10 poorest nations in the world, with some of the lowest per capita income figures on the planet – just $590 (World Bank): it’s hard to live on $49 a month anywhere. The combination of low income, low life expectancy and poor education levels – only 39% of adults are literate and 85% of rural youth don’t complete primary school – means that Ethiopia is ranked 174th (of 198 countries) on the United Nations Human Development Index.
None of this, plus other stark details of daily life, the inflated cost of living for example, increased taxes, or the lowest level of Internet access in Africa – just 3.7%, is featured in the country’s routinely championed GDP figures. Headline numbers which mean nothing to the majority of people: most can barely feed themselves and their families, are increasingly angry at the level of state suppression and live in fear of government retribution should they dare to express dissent. As HRW correctly states, “visitors and diplomats alike are impressed with the double-digit economic growth, the progress on development indicators, and the apparent political stability. But in many ways, this is a smokescreen: many Ethiopians live in fear.”
Fear that has kept the people silent and cowering for years, but, encouraged by movements elsewhere, long-held frustration and anger spilled over in 2015 and 2016, when large-scale demonstrations erupted. Unprecedented demonstrations that followed hard on the heel of elections in May 2015, which, despite widespread discontent with the ruling party saw the EPRDF miraculously win 100% of the seats in both the federal and regional parliaments.
Thousands marched; firstly in the Oromia region then in parts of Amhara (areas that constitute the two largest ethnic groups in the country), until in October, after scores of people were killed in a stampede at Bishoftu in Oromia, a State of Emergency was announced by the ruling regime. Extreme measures of control were contained in the clampdown that lasted for 10 months. Draconian rules, which undermined the rights of free expression and peaceful assembly, and prohibited any association with groups labeled terrorist organizations, such as independent media stations, ESAT TV and Radio and the Oromia Media Network. Break the rules and face up to five years in jail, where torture is commonplace.
HRW made clear that the Directive, which was lifted in August, went “far beyond what is permissible under international human rights law,” and “signaled a continuation of the militarized response” that characterized the government’s reaction to people’s legitimate grievances, peacefully expressed. Tens of thousands of protestors, including opposition party leaders, were arrested and detained without due process. Hundreds of people killed, many more beaten by security forces that act with total impunity. None of this is contained in the World Bank data, the IMF forecasts or the BBC news headlines, nor is the state terrorism taking place in the Ogaden region and elsewhere, where murder and false imprisonment of pastoralists is routine and women tell of multiple rapes at the hands of soldiers and the quasi Para-military group the Liyu Police.
Ethiopia desperately needs a renaissance, true development built on a firm foundation of human rights, inclusion and political pluralism. Human development that caters to the needs of all its citizens, not economic growth based on a prescribed outdated, unjust economic model, which inevitably benefits a few, strengthens inequality and fosters corruption.
Far from building a democratic society in which freedoms are observed and valued, an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and inhibition has been cultivated by the EPRDF government, a brutal regime that is determined to maintain power, no matter the cost to the people of Ethiopia, the vast majority of whom are desperate for democratic change.