Ethiopia: Fact and Fiction, Reality and Image

By Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

Earlier this year, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, Africa’s youngest leader and the first Ethiopian prime minister from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, took office on the back of years of massive and widespread anti-government protests.

Since assuming power on 2 April, Dr. Abiy has led an intense, far-reaching government crackdown on alleged corruption and gross human rights violations, leading to countless high-profile arrests of leading military, intelligence, and business figures.

During recent weeks and months, there has been a spate of arrests linked to allegations of massive corruption by the large military-run industrial conglomerate, the Metals and Engineering Company (Metec), while many officials were also arrested and charged with an array of shocking allegations including torture, rape, and sodomy.

As well, there has been a massive national search to locate Getachew Assefa, the former head of national intelligence, who is presumed to be in hiding. Significantly, the pursuit has received US encouragement and support, while the Secretary-General of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), Jürgen Stock, recently announced that the organization would cooperate with Ethiopia in bringing fugitives to justice.

In addition to these developments, over the past several months the country has experienced an outbreak of ethnic-related violence and killings. Several weeks ago, the Ethiopian government was forced to deploy its federal forces to secure and stabilize parts of the country rocked by deadly violence. Of note, the violence and insecurity has led to large-scale displacement in different regions of the country.

By mid-September, Ethiopia’s internally displaced population was estimated to be over 2.8 million, up from approximately 1.6 million at the beginning of the year, according to figures released by the United Nations.

First, it should largely go without saying that the violence and instability flaring across Ethiopia is deeply regrettable and unfortunate. Anyone with even a modicum of basic humanity should unreservedly hope that the violence and insecurity soon come to an end and that peace prevails. Peace, which is a virtue and important in and of itself, is to be encouraged and supported. Moreover, it will not only bring about numerous positive effects for Ethiopia and its people, it will also prove to be highly beneficial to the entire Horn of Africa region. For example, peace and stability will promote socio-economic growth and development in the region, as well as allow the countries of the Horn to cooperate and deal more effectively with various challenges, such as piracy or extremist groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Having said that, it is quite difficult to align or fit Ethiopia’s recent troubling developments and harsh realities with the rosy, glowing image of the country that had been widely promoted for so long. For years, Africa’s second-most populous country was heralded by many international analysts, experts, and observers as a “development darling”, an oasis of stability, and a poster child for successful development. It received billions in financial assistance and unquestioning international political and diplomatic support, while its leaders were invited to high-level meetings and conferences. A 2013 report by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative praised the Ethiopian government as an “accountable leadership,” while Britain’s Department for International Development even proudly stated that it had “a strong commitment to fight corruption.”

Additionally, many within the international development establishment admiringly branded Ethiopia as the African “lion” – inspired by the “tigers” label which had previously been applied to the rapidly-developing countries of East Asia – for its rapid economic growth. It is also very hard to forget how, during a 2015 visit to the country, former US president Barack Obama described the Ethiopian government as “democratically elected”, shortly after the ruling party won every single seat in the national parliament following elections where it brazenly used authoritarian tactics to secure victory, including bans on opposition media, intimidation, killings, widespread arrests, and violently breaking up opposition rallies.

However, as has become so abundantly clear in recent years, months, and weeks, the gaps and discrepancies between fact and fiction, objective reality and airbrushed image, are huge. As the new bold Ethiopian prime minister works to implement broad changes and dramatic reforms, for which he has received much praise (as well as some resistance), one may be forgiven for scratching their head in utter bewilderment and asking: if Ethiopia really had been all that it was made out to be by so many international observers and analysts, would all of these reforms and changes that are currently being implemented and pursued have been required?

Simply, the massive overhaul that has been taking place has been necessary because so much of the former government and military apparatus and establishment were broken beyond repair and rotten to their fundamental core. Do not forget how Hailemariam Desalegn, who preceded Dr. Abiy as Ethiopia’s leader, acknowledged the need for fundamental reforms in his letter and televised address announcing his resignation in February. The current situation is one that mocks years of experts’ analyses and starkly confounds supposedly informed prognostications for the country and region.

Observing the unfolding events, a number of other interesting questions arise. For example, were all those observers, experts, and analysts who narrated the shining story of Ethiopia – an account which has now been revealed to be full of glaring holes – just ignorant to the objective realities of the country or did they instead simply choose to ignore and whitewash the country’s considerable problems in order to continue business as usual? While many are expressing shock and dismay as past abuses and corruption are coming to light (although they were no secret to locals), why were no oversights put in place or questions raised as the arms and assistance were being delivered? As the international development establishment tirelessly polished Ethiopia’s image and lavished praise for its growth, why were there no considerations about the platform for that growth or regarding disenfranchisement, distribution, and inequality?

After the 2008 global financial crash, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth memorably asked, “Why did no one see it coming?” In similar fashion to Her Majesty, one may also ask why or how could none of the regional experts, pundits, and analysts that were granted so much media coverage over the years not see what was coming in Ethiopia? It is worth noting that a number of observers (including this author), in fact, did point out the considerable possibility for “trouble” on the horizon for the country. However, their analyses and observations were regularly dismissed, rarely given a second look or modicum of consideration, and occasionally even ridiculed.

At times, it seemed almost like a taboo to question the narrative and image of Ethiopia that was being promoted by large segments of the international development establishment, many of the country’s Western political allies, and the majority of the mainstream media. Remarkably, despite being completely blindsided by the recent events – which totally flew in the face of their prognostications for the region – the pundit class is now busily explaining those events to us.

It was interesting and rather quite ironic to see Tony Blair recently meeting with PM Abiy in Ethiopia, particularly since Blair had forged extremely close links to the repressive former Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi (who he appointed to his Africa Commission) and, after ending his premiership in 2007, served in an opaque “advisory role” to the former regime – which Abiy and the Ethiopian people have been dismantling.

The moral burden of history requires a more direct and far more candid acknowledgment of the role played by the international community – the pundit class, global partners, international institutions, and others – in the years of misrule and abuses by the former regime. Nobody who legitimately claims to be a defender of great ideals and virtues, such as peace, international law, or justice, can possibly justify silence (if not outright complicity and support) during the coordinated and pure assault on those virtues and ideals by the former regime.

The breathtaking events of recent years and weeks should serve as a useful reminder for us all to be highly circumspect and remain vigilant whenever considering the opinions of so-called experts, analysts, and pundits. Rather than passively accepting everything that we read or are told, we should think critically and analyze everything. Instead of simply trusting, we should be skeptical and look to verify.

Additionally, it is important that we demand greater accountability from the experts and analysts, who can continue to pontificate with an air of expertise because they are never held accountable for being wrong. Last, the events that have unfolded in the Horn of Africa during the past several months should also prompt self-reflection, self-criticism, introspection, and humility on the part of those who attempt to “explain” the region to us.

Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion