Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Blurring Ethiopian blues

What are the implications of Ethiopia’s ruling party and its allies winning an overwhelming majority in last week’s parliamentary polls, asks Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Some assumptions are debatable as far as Africa’s second-most populous nation, Ethiopia, is concerned. The Nile Basin nation is of pivotal importance as a regional power-broker and Africa’s fastest-growing economy.

A palette of plans for Ethiopia notwithstanding, the “blue” visionary approach put forward by a range of civil society groups is generating a compelling new country and a fresh political dispensation. Smudging the country’s political canvas, Ethiopia’s recent elections shed some light on the cloudier politics of a promising economy.

“If we remain committed to the ideals of justice, liberation and above all the sanctity of human dignity, we can ultimately prevail over evil, no matter how stacked the odds are against us,” Ethiopian Prime Minister  Hailemariam Desalegn declared at South African leader Nelson Mandela’s funeral in Qunu in the Eastern Cape some years ago.

His oratory won him the respect and affection of people across the African continent.

The Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union (AU), one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities, is a magnet for entrepreneurs and investors from abroad, as well as for poor people flocking into the capital from the surrounding countryside.

Desalegn was elected head of the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), on 15 September 2012. The country adopted a federal system of government, and the EPRDF won a landslide victory in nine of the 11 regions and city states in the sprawling country. Yet, for all the ruling party’s flab, surprisingly few of the powers that be subscribe to Desalegn’s vigorous workout. It remains to be seen whether he has the character and experience to clear the hurdles before him.

Ethiopia has been feted by investors, but to create jobs for unskilled millions is no easy task. Desalegn was formerly president of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), and his ethnic background is key to the political stability of the country. The southern regions of Ethiopia are traditionally marginalised, but Desalegn is now enjoying a second spell in office.

Ethiopia, a 25-year-old democracy, has been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, registering over 10 per cent economic growth from 2004 through 2009. China has focused on Ethiopia as a gateway to Africa. Both the United States and China are competing to invest in Ethiopia, and Ethiopia has courted both superpowers. Desalegn, meanwhile, is a seasoned politician and has ingeniously opted for the Chinese playbook. He is expected to be confirmed as the EPRDF’s leader at the party’s congress in September.

The man who currently rules Ethiopia is a dedicated democrat. His name is   “Hailemariam” in Geez, the liturgical language of Ethiopia’s Tewahedo Orthodox Church, and means “grace of the Virgin Mary.” His surname “Desalegn” is Amharic for “I am pleased.” There is good reason to believe that the Ethiopian people are pleased with his performance. He hails from the Wolayta ethnic group, an Omotic community native to the southern part of the country. A hitherto underdeveloped and impoverished part of Ethiopia, the region is now one of the fastest-growing in the country. 

There is little in the way of bright news from neighbouring countries, and Ethiopia stands out as a beacon of hope and prospective prosperity in the region. But Ethiopia needs electricity, and at the moment only the most prosperous individuals can afford it. Life without reliable power is not easy in an emerging economy, though Ethiopia is often referred to as the “water tower” of East Africa because of the 14 major rivers that pour off its highlands, with the most important being the Blue Nile.

Ethiopia’s main opposition party on Friday condemned the elections, but few outside the country paid attention. Propping up the EPRDF regime is a policy adopted by most of Ethiopia’s neighbours and its most important trading partners. The good news from Ethiopia is that voters responded to this approach.

Strolling around Addis Ababa, one is acutely aware that the Ethiopian capital is abuzz with political intrigue, but nobody wants to rock the boat. With around 80 ethno-linguistic groups, Ethiopia is also potentially a powder keg. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group and make up some 35 per cent of the population, followed by the Amhara at around 27 per cent. The Amhara are Semitic-speaking, while the Oromo are Cushitic.

The Somali, another Cushitic-speaking people, are seven per cent of the population with the Tigrinya, a Semitic-speaking people, making up six per cent. Learning from former prime minister Meles Zenawi, Desalegn also sees parallels between his career and Zenawi’s. His political life will almost certainly have more acts in the years to come, and there is little evidence that the Ethiopian opposition parties are a force to be reckoned with.

Desalegn once worked as an assistant in the Arba Minch Water Technology Institute, and he was dean of the country’s Water Technology Institute for 13 years. Harnessing Ethiopia’s rivers, and in particular the Nile, is uppermost in his mind. The Ethiopian economy needs electricity, a cause of concern to downstream countries, including Egypt, and electric power generated by dams is destined largely for the country’s booming urban centres. The EPRDF has consistently advocated the construction of a series of hydropower dams, hoping to develop the country’s economy.

These dams will not produce power far in excess of the country’s needs. They also will not necessarily make electricity universally available in this vast country. Dams constructed in the Nile’s watershed could produce significant power with minimal damage to Ethiopia’s neighbours and hence maintain the ecological functioning of the entire Nile River Basin. Ethiopia therefore has an obligation to consult with its downstream neighbours. It is in this context that the way the Ethiopian opposition regards the regional dimension of how Ethiopia’s “water tower” is tackled comes into play.

Meanwhile, Europe and the US are pressing for pluralism and a freer civil society in Ethiopia.  The African Union deployed 59 observers for Sunday’s polls, but the European Union and Carter Centre were not invited this time round. The opposition has filed appeals with the election board and the Ethiopian Supreme Court over irregularities in elections before. In July 2010, the Court of Cassation, Ethiopia’s highest court, rejected the opposition’s final appeal in a recipe for more uncertainty.

The world has been watching as Ethiopia has elected a new legislature. The government has been fretting particularly over the spread of tribalist politics, and Ethiopians increasingly prize their local ethnic identities.  Nativism, or tribalism, might evolve into outright secessionism. Yet, the opposition parties are by and large not focused on ethnic identities. Ethiopia is ostensibly a multiparty parliamentary democracy, and during a visit to Ethiopia last week I witnessed young Ethiopians demonstrating in jeans and blue T-shirts and was bewildered by all the blue.

Blue apparently is a powerful unifying image for Ethiopians, reminding them of the Blue Nile. Even the taxis in Addis Ababa are blue. “The Blue Party does not accept the electoral process as free and fair,” an official party statement read. However, the African Union observer mission described the polling as “credible,” even if the West’s long-standing qualms about EPRDF hegemony are again becoming evident. To the Ethiopian authorities, semayawi, or “sky blue,” is a symbol of dissent.

The European Union was more critical. “The arrests of journalists and opposition politicians, and the closure of a number of media outlets and obstacles faced by the opposition in conducting its campaign, have limited the space for open debate and had a negative impact on the overall electoral environment,” a statement said.

Yet, there has been no “colour revolution” in Ethiopia. Young Ethiopians are just fond of blue. The failure of that “blue,” a loose array of individuals and civil society groups, is partly due to EPRDF bigwigs being mindful of the long-term. Overt calls for democratic reform or radical change are rare. Supporters of the opposition are systematically dismissed as belonging to a radical fringe.

But denunciations of a movement that barely exists could backfire. Portraying “blue” as a direct threat to national sovereignty and security may deter drawing inspiration from the cerulean, at least for the time being.

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