A brittle Western ally in the Horn of Africa
The Economist / November 1, 2007While things are getting better in much of Africa, Ethiopia risks getting left behind
AS AMERICA surveys the map of eastern Africa, it finds little to take comfort from. Somalia is in anarchy, riven by competing warlords and a haven for Islamist militants. Sudan is involved in the bloody suppression of blacks in its western region, Darfur. Both countries are deaf to outside complaints and seem chronically unstable. America is thinking of putting Eritrea, briefly a beacon of hope after it split from Ethiopia in 1993, on its list of countries that sponsor terrorism. But between that grim trio stands Ethiopia, America’s hope.
This ancient country has become an essential ally of America in the “war on terror”. Last year Ethiopia invaded Somalia in support of a UN-backed transitional federal government, which had been threatened with jihad by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that had taken over Mogadishu, the capital. The Americans joined in, giving vital intelligence, to catch al-Qaeda people whom the UIC was sheltering. These men, it believed, were responsible for the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 220 people.
The West and Ethiopia are co-operating closely against the Islamist threat in the Horn of Africa, which threatens the coast of Kenya and Tanzania as well. It is alleged that Ethiopia is a destination for prisoners interrogated under the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme. Certainly the Bush administration has been unstinting in its praise of Meles Zenawi, the prime minister. It has also vilified Ethiopia’s neighbour and mortal enemy, Eritrea, which it accuses, among other things, of arming and funding the Somali Islamists.
Mr Zenawi won the West’s friendship, too, for his efforts to tackle Ethiopia’s deep poverty. These have met with some success—so much so that Tony Blair has put Mr Zenawi in the vanguard of an “African Renaissance”. But Ethiopia’s upward track as development poster-child and dependable ally was rudely interrupted in 2005. That year’s presidential and parliamentary elections were marred by mass killings on the streets of the capital. Police fired on opposition supporters and others who were protesting against what they claimed were rigged elections. Tens of thousands, including journalists and NGO workers as well as opposition activists, were rounded up in a general dragnet; many spent weeks, or months, in prison without charge. Opposition leaders were accused of hugely inflated crimes, such as high treason and genocide. Seventy-one of them were freed only last summer, after having to sign a letter admitting their part in inciting violent protests.
These events shattered the West’s cosy image of the modernising, progressive Mr Zenawi. Appalled Western governments abruptly switched off direct financial support to the Ethiopian government, though aid has been resumed through indirect channels. And an anti-Zenawi lobby, largely funded by the big Ethiopian diaspora in America, now issues a stream of anti-government criticism from the United States. A few weeks ago the House of Representatives passed a bill condemning Ethiopia’s human-rights record and pledging money to help opposition politics. Though it stands almost no chance of becoming law, it shows that Ethiopia is now a subject of fierce controversy.
On six cents a day
Ethiopia likes to do things differently. In September it started celebrating the new millennium (see picture above), more than seven years after everybody else. The country has been out of step in this respect since 1582: while the rest of the Christian world changed to the revised Gregorian calendar, Ethiopia stuck to the Julian. It also still keeps its own time, measured in 12-hour cycles rather than 24-hour ones.
Uniquely in Africa, Ethiopia was never really colonised by Europeans. But its singular history has been a curse as much as a blessing. As the rest of Africa decolonised and modernised, albeit fitfully, after the second world war, Ethiopia remained stuck fast in a feudal fantasy presided over by a diminutive emperor, Haile Selassie. He was deposed only in 1974, by which time the modern world had largely passed Ethiopia by and the country had become known for poverty and famine. It still is.
Ethiopia was further damaged by the committee of military officers, known as the Derg, that overthrew the emperor. That regime degenerated into a “red terror” of gulags and summary executions; it also lost an expensive, wasteful war with Tigrayan and Eritrean separatists over what would become, in 1993, the new country of Eritrea. The Derg produced the dreadful famines of 1984-85, the first to be alleviated mainly by the efforts of Bob Geldof and a phalanx of rock stars.
Since the early 1990s, however, Ethiopia has recovered somewhat under Mr Zenawi. Signs of that are evident on the big, pristine campus of the University of Arba Minch, more than 500km (311 miles) south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. The university’s president, Tarekegn Tadesse, has welcomed 8,000 students this term, a huge number for an obscure provincial town of 50,000-odd people. The crowd of freshmen, he says, testifies to the government’s rapid expansion of tertiary education; in the case of Arba Minch, enrolment has increased fourfold in seven years.
It is an inspiring story. The new university buildings springing up all over the south are tangible evidence that the aid and development money pumped into Ethiopia reaches the people it is meant to. Roads are clearly being built, funded largely by the Chinese; schools and water-treatment plants are being opened. And there are few complaints of corruption, a fact that continues to make Ethiopia popular with foreign donors.
Some of the results are encouraging, too. Infant mortality is said to have dropped from 141 per 1,000 live births in 2000 to 123 per 1,000 in 2005; over 70% of children are now in school, and access to clean water has more than doubled in ten years. Furthermore, the government can point to the rapid expansion of a few sectors in what is still mostly an agricultural economy. The great volcanic lakes of the Rift Valley south of the capital are now ringed by vast flower farms, mainly exporting to Europe. Flowers earn the country about $88m in exports annually, creating some 50,000 jobs in the past few years.
Yet despite this, after almost a decade of well-intentioned development policies, Ethiopians remain mired in the most wretched poverty. Officially, about 80% of them live on less than $2 a day. Often it is a lot less than that. An area like Sidama, in the south, looks green, tropical and improbably fertile, but existence there can be precarious. One foreign charity, Action Contre la Faim, recently found that the average cash income for households in one area was six cents a day. Shocked researchers concluded that the depth of poverty there was “far beyond what had previously been thought”.
Visiting the nearby villages confirms these cold statistics. In Garbicho Lela, high up in the hills, a nurse estimates that 13% of children are severely malnourished. The one shop in the village betrays the low level of economic activity; on the weekly market day, when over 500 people will walk for hours from the surrounding hill-villages to sell a few things, the shop will do only about 200 birrs ($23) of business. On an average day, it sells two Pepsis. After three years of good rains, aid workers reckon that the risk of severe food shortages has, for the moment, receded. But so marginal are the reserves of food and money here that one bad season could still spell disaster.
The fact is that for all the aid money and Chinese loans coming in, Ethiopia’s economy is neither growing fast enough nor producing enough jobs. The number of jobs created by flowers is insignificant beside an increase in population of about 2m a year, one of the fastest rates in Africa. Since every mother has about seven children, it is conceivable that Ethiopia, with 75m-plus people today, could overtake Nigeria (now 140m-strong) as Africa’s most populous country by mid-century. Just to stand still, let alone make inroads into poverty, the country must produce hundreds of thousands of jobs a year.
It is hard to see where they will come from. The government claims that the economy has been growing at an impressive 10% a year since 2003-04, but the real figure is probably more like 5-6%, which is little more than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. And even that modestly improved rate, with a small building boom in Addis Ababa, for instance, has led to the overheating of the economy, with inflation moving up to 19% earlier this year before the government took remedial action.
The reasons for this economic crawl are not hard to find. Beyond the government-directed state, funded substantially by foreign aid, there is—almost uniquely in Africa—virtually no private-sector business at all. The IMF estimates that in 2005-06 the share of private investment in the country was just 11%, nearly unchanged since Mr Zenawi took over in the early 1990s. That is partly a reflection of the fact that, despite some privatisation since the centralised Marxist days of the Derg, large areas of the economy remain government monopolies, closed off to private business.
Jobs for the boys
This is where Ethiopia misses out badly. Take telecoms. While the rest of Africa has been virtually transformed in just a few years by a revolution in mobile telephony, Ethiopia stumbles along with its inept and useless government-run services. Everywhere else, a plethora of South African, home-grown and European providers has leapt into the market to provide Africans with an extraordinary array of cheaper and more efficient services, now used even by the poorest of farmers, for instance, to check spot prices for agricultural goods in markets miles away. And the mobile-phone revolution has created thousands of new livelihoods; at times it seems as if every boy on a street corner is hawking a top-up card. Not in Ethiopia.
It is the same story in financial services, where, despite the growth of some smaller private banks, no foreign banks are allowed. Micro-finance schemes have expanded exponentially, but it remains almost impossible to find start-up loans for small or medium businesses.
There is no official unemployment rate, but youth unemployment, some experts reckon, may be as high as 70%. All those graduates coming out of state-run universities will find it very hard to get jobs. The mood of the young is often restless and despairing; many dream of moving abroad. It was this mood of resentment that the opposition tapped into in 2005, and the capital’s maybe 300,000 unemployed young men proved a combustible force on the streets. The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), underestimated the degree of disillusion with its policies, and thus overreacted when the opposition polled much better than expected.
Unless the private sector is allowed to create jobs, the country’s problems will continue to mount and the gains of development may be squandered. Sooner rather than later, 2m more people a year will overwhelm a state that is trying to provide most of the jobs itself.
The fractious tribes
Economic failings are Ethiopia’s biggest long-term challenge; but its worst short-term problems are political. Just as the government is slowing the pace of economic expansion for fear that individuals may accumulate wealth and independence, so it is failing to move fast enough from a one-party state to a modern, pluralist democracy. Again, the reason may be that it is afraid to.
The difficulties stem partly from the country’s ethnic make-up. Mr Zenawi and the ruling elite are Tigrayans, from the north, a group that is only about 7% of the population. The Oromos, mainly in the centre and south, comprise 40% of the population and provide most of the country’s food; but they feel excluded from its economic gains. The Amharas, comprising about 22%, are traditionally Ethiopia’s educated ruling class, providing the leadership both of the Derg and of Haile Selassie’s empire. The main opposition party in 2005, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), was largely Amharic; they resent the ascendancy of the Tigrayans. And in the south-east Ogaden region are Muslim Somalis, who have more in common with neighbouring Somalia than with the remote Tigrayans.
At one time or another, most of these ethnic groups have pursued secessionist ambitions at the expense of a greater Ethiopia. The government, to its credit, must have thought that it had drawn much of the poison of ethnic competition by introducing a new federal constitution in 1994, with many powers devolved to the regions, and by accepting the independence of Eritrea in 1993.
But recent events have reignited the threat of ethnic, and thus political, instability. The turmoil in Somalia has led to a reawakening of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which in April killed 74 workers, including nine Chinese, at an oil-exploration camp; the week before last it claimed to have killed 250 government soldiers in a gun battle. Some of its leaders want to be part of a greater Islamist Somalia, and are probably being helped by the Islamist militias there. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) also continues to be active; though its military activities are disavowed by most Oromos, many sympathise with the broad aim of getting a better deal for Oromia. The CUD is leading the battle across the Atlantic against Mr Zenawi’s rule, and Eritrea has tried to stoke each uprising, supplying arms to the Oromo rebels and even playing host to its leaders in Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
Unfortunately, despite all the talk of ethnic federalism, the government has chosen to crack down severely on what it sees as direct threats to Ethiopia’s integrity. This, in turn, sparks more opposition. The Ethiopian army has made it increasingly difficult to get into the Ogaden region, virtually one-fifth of the country; even NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières have been struggling to provide help there. Oromo leaders complain of continuing discrimination against them; one of them estimates that as many as 10,000 Oromo sympathisers have, over the years, been rounded up and put in prisons across the country. Hundreds of those were university and school teachers arrested for giving civic-education classes that stressed Oromo issues—inciting protests, claimed the government.
Bulcha Demeksa, an MP and leader of a minority Oromo party, the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, complains that in the past three months thousands more Oromos, many of them his own supporters, have been thrown into prison. He says that the government wants to extinguish any independent opposition outside the government-sponsored official Oromo party, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO). Many Oromos claim it is impossible to get state jobs in Oromia, such as teaching, unless they join the OPDO; farmers complain that they do not get fertiliser unless they join it.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby group, says that “while this government is an improvement over its predecessor [the Derg], its human-rights record is nonetheless extremely grim.” The government has also become highly sensitive to criticism. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that only Zimbabwe has produced more exiled journalists since 2001, though Eritrea is much fiercer at curbing the freedom of the press.
The Ethiopian government’s efforts at political control are supported by a wide network of informers and secret police. Critics say it is exploiting the jihadist terror threat to link many legitimate opposition campaigners and supporters with terrorist groups and take them off the streets. The threats from Eritrea, where a new border war could erupt at any time, and the Islamists in Somalia are real. But at this rate, argues Mr Demeksa, “the ethnic groups are on a collision course.”
It does not have to come to that. Many people are working tirelessly to bridge the differences. But if such tensions are not eased and the lack of jobs and opportunities not addressed, Ethiopia’s future could get much bumpier. In that case, its friendship in a dangerously volatile region would be of little use to the West.