Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Is Ethiopia really rising?

While boasting of their country’s high growth rates, Ethiopian officials are calling for international help to avert an imminent famine, Haytham Nuri reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ethiopia’s hydroelectric ambitions have led to a tussle with Egypt and Sudan, the two downstream nations whose survival hinges on the quantity of water they receive from the Blue Nile.

But Addis Ababa’s problems may exceed those of antagonising its northern neighbours. In recent months, its government has warned of imminent food shortages, suppressed protests by a major ethnic group, and been accused of misrule by respected academics.

For most of the past decade the Ethiopian economy has grown at impressive rates, according to the IMF. Between 2003 and 2013, Ethiopia was one of the top five high-growth nations in the world. Its economy grew at an annual growth of 10.8 per cent, more than double the African average of 4.8 per cent. Agriculture, which represents 40 per cent of the economy, grew by 5.4 per cent, industry expanded by 21.2 per cent, and services by 11.9 per cent on average every year.

Major strides were taken in fighting poverty. In 2003, nearly 38.7 per cent of the population, or about 91 million, were deemed poor. The ratio had dropped to 26 per cent by 2013.

Optimism over the economy prompted the government to redesign the capital, Addis Ababa, adding to its perimeter large swathes of adjacent farmland areas.

To outsiders, this may seem like a sensible thing to do. But not to the inhabitants of the land that the government wanted to seize, who come from the Oromo ethnic group, who have long complained that the government neglects their needs.

The Oromo makes up 34.4 per cent of the Ethiopian population, and thus outnumber the Amhara ruling class, which constitutes only 27 per cent of the population.

At least 140 people were killed in Ethiopia in November and December 2015 when the government cracked down on anti-government protests sparked off by plans to expand the capital into the adjacent farmland, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported 8 January.

“Security forces have killed at least 140 protesters and injured many more, according to activists, in what may be the biggest crisis to hit Ethiopia since the 2005 election violence,” said Felix Horne, a researcher with HRW.

According to Amnesty International, Ethiopian authorities arrested 5,000 Oromo activists between 2011 and 2014, accusing them of taking part in anti-government protests.

The Oromos are not the only ones alienated by the current government. The ethnic Somalis of Ogaden in southeast Ethiopia also claim that the regime is failing to provide them with proper education and health care. The inhabitants of Ogaden, who have been demanding independence since Haile Selassie’s time, say that the current regime is treating them as second-class citizens.

Even the inhabitants of Benishangul-Gumuz region, where the Grand Renaissance Dam is being built, have shown signs of unrest.

Adding economic trouble to an already turbulent scene, an exceptionally poor rainy season in 2015 set off alarm bells for a possible famine in the country.

Rainfall in central and eastern Ethiopia was very poor during 2015, largely due to the weather pattern known as El Niño. Between February and May 2015, rain was erratic and below average, experts say.

“El Niño has led to Central America’s worst ever recorded drought and Ethiopia’s worst drought in 30 years,” said United Nations Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien.

“We need $20.1 billion,” O’Brien added. “This amount is five times the level of funding we needed a decade ago and this is the largest appeal we have ever launched.”

In late 2015, the Ethiopian government admitted that a severe food crisis was ahead. More than 10 million Ethiopians, nearly one-tenth of the population, are at risk.

The drought blamed on El Niño, itself caused by Pacific Ocean warming, was the worst in 50 years according to Save the Children. The charity added that about 8.2 million Ethiopians are threatened by hunger.

Ethiopia has experienced several famines in the past century, including the 1958 famine that killed 100,000, and the 1984-1985 famine that took more than 400,000 lives. But government critics, including Messay Kebede from the University of Dayton, Ohio, say that the absence of democracy, not the shortage of resources, is at the core of Ethiopia’s troubles.

“Awareness of the looming danger and of the unique opportunity to put an end to a hideous dictatorial and divisive rule should give opposition leaders the courage to come out in favour of unity and solidarity. Oromo political leaders and activists, including those of the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front), should openly state that the uprising is not only about Oromo land, Oromo peasants and Oromia, but that it is also a democratic movement that includes and speaks for other ethnic groups as well,” Kebede wrote 15 December.”

The current crisis in Ethiopia resembles earlier troubles that unseated regimes. Both Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam were ousted in the aftermath of famines.

Ethiopian activist and journalist Dawit Ayele Haylemariam, writing in The Huffington Post on 18 August 2015, challenged what he called the narrative of “Ethiopia rising.”

“Another major reason to question the ‘Ethiopia rising’ narrative is the role of democracy and good governance in the process. Despite being endorsed as a democratically elected government by [US President] Barack Obama during his recent visit to the country, the Ethiopian government has been criticised for being increasingly autocratic and designing a system that rewards party members and affiliates to the exclusion of dissidents,” Haylemariam said.

“The fast economic growth that has been witnessed in Ethiopia so far is a good reason to be hopeful,” he wrote. “However, it is too early to call it a miracle. There is a lot of homework to be done if this growth is to be sustained and more importantly translated into development.”

He called for transparency and accountability, and added, “Improving the bureaucratic environment to make doing business easier should be a top priority, so should introducing a transparent and accountable business environment to control tax evasion and corruption.”

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