Is Africa’s rising power on the brink of collapse?
Ethiopia remains more secure than its neighbors in the Horn of Africa, but the country is starting to crumble
On the closing day of the Rio Olympics, 26-year-old Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line of what may be the defining race of his life with his arms crossed over his head, as do the Oromo protesters defying the Ethiopian government for over a year now.
The Olympics have regularly been used as a stage for political statements, usually by organizing countries wanting to display national power and values, and more rarely by competing athletes. The most remembered and similar political act occurred during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third in the 200-meter race.
Both athletes gave the Black Power salute, raising a black gloved fist above their head on the podium during the national anthem, as a protest against racism in the United States. Yet even more than Smith and Carlos, whose family faced death threats as a result of their stand, Lilesa placed his life at risk as his home country drifts toward civil conflict.
Over the last decade Ethiopia has been praised for its economy, with an average annual GDP increase of 10 percent, far higher than any of its neighbors. Yet this spectacular growth, generated mostly by massive public investments and foreign aid, has not benefitted the population equally. Exceptional drought has led to 20 million inhabitants surviving on food aid.
Ethiopia remains more secure than its neighbors in the Horn of Africa, but the country is starting to crumble, not due to terrorism or an external threat, but because of the government’s inability to include all parts of the population in a common national project.
Since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the military regime of Mengitsu Haile Mariam, the country has stumbled into a new form of authoritarianism under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Recent elections ended in a complete sweep of the 547 parliamentary seats, as international human rights organizations denounced the systemic closing down of space for political dissent and independent criticism. The EU has condemned violations of freedom of expression and misuse of state resources by the ruling party.
As such, the population has taken its discontent to the streets. At the end of last year, for several weeks the central authorities lost control of a large part of the Oromia region, the economic center of the country and home to 40 percent of the population. Despite a military siege since, the return to calm is partial and fragile.
Large-scale development projects and systematic land-grabbing by the central authorities, without local consultation, is causing a resumption of local riots. Hundreds have lost their lives in demonstrations despite holding their hands above their head, as Lilesa did after winning the silver medal at the Olympics.
Rene Lefort, a recognized East Africa specialist, says the basis of bad governance and authoritarianism that hampers Ethiopia’s institutional development is to be found in the persistence of a culture and power system inherited from Abyssinian history. The country is characterized by a ruthless hierarchy and monolithic centralism in the hands of an elite: the Northerner Tigray ethnic group.
In the absence of counter-powers, and amid strong growth whose benefits do not trickle down to the rest of the population, the state apparatus is plagued by corruption and impunity. Ethiopia is thus both a rising power in Africa, and a country on the verge of explosion and ethnic conflict.
The danger has been underplayed by observers fascinated by economic development plans under former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012. His aim was to build in Africa’s second most populous country a “world’s workshop,” a prosperous industrialized nation that has successfully competed against South East Asian economies over the last decade.
Yet the success story could collapse quickly, especially amid severe drought. Some 100,000 students graduate each year, and unemployment is exploding since opportunities are limited to the very few. While some make the best use of legal and illegal opportunities offered by the economic boom, many struggle to make a living.
If Ethiopia is officially a federation, the truth is the opposite. Unrest has taken over several provinces (the Oromo, the Amhara in the west, the Konso in the south), which are now fighting for autonomy and decentralization.
The country’s future depends on the government’s ability to implement real federalism, integrate each community and distribute the fruits of growth. If it is unwilling or unable to do so, the possibility of large-scale civil and ethnic conflict can no longer be discarded.