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November 17, 2018

Ethiopia’s reputation shattered by political tensions

Ethiopia has always loomed large in my imagination from the time at prep school when my Ethiopian friend Ezana Haile, could not go home and came to spend the vacation with us in Mombasa. I recall reading The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński and in that book Kapuściński recounts the tale of Lulu, Haile Selassie's lap dog that was allowed to piss on the shoes of dignitaries, and the courtier whose job for 10 years was to wipe those shoes clean with a satin cloth. That book also speaks to how the cushion bearer [The Emperor was very short and therefore had to perched on cushions so as not to be beneath his subjects] became an all-powerful figure at the Imperial Court. Kapuściński was subsequently trashed for his poetic licence in his reportage but I accept his mea culpa:

"You don't understand a thing. I'm not writing so the details add up – the point is the essence of the matter."

Of course, Bob Geldof [once of the Boomtown Rats] also inserted himself into this Ethiopian montage of mine with his totemic ''do they know its Christmas?''

I first visited Addis Ababa in 2005. It was eerie and disconcerting sitting in the wonderfully well-appointed Sheraton Hotel perched on the hill and knowing that an almighty fracas had taken place a near enough 200 people had been shot dead a few short weeks before. It took me about three hours to send an email. The ruling oarty EPRDF [which overthrew the Derg and Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991] brooked no dissent then. We are more than a decade down the road from that time and what is clear now is that the dissent has metasized to the point that the regime has seen fit to impose a six month state of emergency.

Ethiopia has been a Sub-Saharan-African poster child with real GDP growth averaging 10.9 per cent between 2004-2014. Many folks tout a double-digit growth rate but the Ethiopians have done it and not for just a brief moment but for more than a decade. Ethiopia was measured as the second poorest country in the world in 2000 and was widely expected to reach middle income status by 2025. Ethiopian Airlines criss crosses the African skies. Just a few days ago on October 5, the Ethiopian government unveiled the country’s new $3.4 billion railway line connecting the capital, Addis Ababa, to Djibouti, on the Red Sea. Every multi-national company I came across was high-tailing it up there to set up shop. Kenyan banks were salivating at the prospect of unlocking this market opportunity. Justin Lin the former World Bank Chief Economist spoke of how Ethiopia was in prime position to reap the transfer of low-cost Chinese manufacturing from China into Africa.

When I saw the results of the last election where the ruling party won 100 per cent of the seats in parliament, I thought to myself why would you want to publish a result like that which is not only not credible its incredible. However, the government got a free pass from the international community not least because Ethiopia occupies a strong geopolitical position. It has been seen as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism and is able to marshal and project a compelling military spear in the region.

The government was able to also point at the trajectory of its growth and say look at the parabola of our GDP.

However, as Maplecroft said ''Ethiopia's reputation for stability has been shattered by an escalating series of protests in Oromia and Amhara regions.

The government is talking about a number of around 500 when it comes to protesters killed over the last few months. Most observers I speak to are talking of at least 10x.

 

Foreign companies have come under attack. Fana broadcasting reported on its website that 11 companies ranging from textile firms to a plastics maker to flower farms had been damaged or destroyed, while more than 60 vehicles had been torched. Dutch firm FV SeleQt said its 300-hectare vegetable farm and warehouse had been plundered. Another Dutch firm, Africa Juice, said its factory had been partially destroyed. The manager of one of the Turkish companies, textile firm Saygin Dima, told Reuters this week at least a third of his factory was burned down.

According to The Economist:

''One factor in the government’s decision was a spate of attacks on holiday lodges at Lake Langano, and on Turkish textile factories in Sebeta, both in the restive Oromia region south of the capital, on October 5. The attackers were well-organised and armed, some of them reportedly mounted on motorbikes. These acts, officials suggest, were the final straw''

In Paul Virilio's book ‘Speed and Politics’ he says: “The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production, but in the street, where for a moment it stops being a cog in the technical machine and itself becomes a motor (machine of attack), becomes in other words a producer of speed.’’

By announcing a state of emergency the government is double-downing on its one golf club [repression] regime survival strategy and trusting that Ryszard Kapuściński's dictum will appl.

“If the crowd disperses, goes home, does not reassemble, we say the revolution is over.”―

The government need to change tack and effect a course correction and history shows us that this course correction is one of the most difficult things to pull off.

 

 

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