By Rafiq Raji, PhD
With an economy set to grow by more than 7 percent over the next few years – after about 10 percent on average over the past five, Ethiopia is a bright spot on a continent beset by stagnation as commodity prices remain tepid. Its growing success in replicating China’s manufacture-for-export model is a source of hope for peers and partners who desire an Africa that adds more value to its resources. Cheap labour, ample power generation capacity in view, and generous investment incentives are major attractions. Still, much of what Ethiopia has been able to achieve can be traced to its stable polity, held so by an autocratic leadership that has little tolerance for the slightest dissent. Erstwhile forceful leader, Meles Zenawi, was able to hold things together, because of his credentials. He led the rebellion that freed his countrymen from the much loathed Derg military regime. Under a more genteel leader, Hailemariam Desalegn, that model has become increasingly tested. Most recently, albeit intermittently hitherto, an uprising by the Oromo and Amhara tribes – about two-thirds of the population – over land and basic human rights threatens to unravel the country’s economic miracle. It need not be so. The most recent casaulties of the face-off with authorities are more than 50, adding to about 400 believed to have been killed since 2015 under similar circumstances. About 40,000 jobs are now at risk, after protesters attacked foreign-owned establishments. For Ethiopia’s economic success to continue, the politics can no longer be ignored. Room has to be made for the quite diverse polity. Mr Hailemariam has a chance to do this. But to succeed, he would need to be his own man.
Address the concerns
The Oromo and Amhara peoples feel marginalised by the ruling minority Tigray tribe, about 7 percent of the population, which dominates the government and military. The authorities have met their agitations with brute force. This approach worked in the past, on the surface at least. Not this time: this recent unrest was triggered precisely because of the authorities’ heavyhandedness to what are widely believed to be legitimate concerns. The troubles this time could be potentially more damaging than past ones: foreign investors are being targeted. Lingering terrorist threats from neighbours are daunting enough; add unrest by a majority of the population, and you have a combustible mix. And the protests are growing nationwide; these are not isolated and distant pockets of dissatisfaction. It is widespread. And they could spread even more. Solution then? Address the concerns. The Oromo want more self-determination. The Amhara likewise. Authorities might be quick to point out that the country operates a republic of semi-independent states, with enormous leeway guaranteed them in the Constitution, including the right to secede. That is not the case in reality. There needs to be more inclusion. A devolution of actual powers to the regions might be a good start.
Allow more room for dissent and political expression
It was always going to be a huge task for Mr Hailemariam to fill the shoes of his larger than life predecessor – Mr Zenawi had a force of personality that is palpably missing in his successor. Already perceived to be weak, he likely fears those views could become entrenched if the current unrest is treated with kid gloves. Still, Mr Hailemariam has an opportunity here. It is in time of crisis that leaders often emerge; tested at least, in a manner that cements their authority to the point where they are able to make bolder moves. The longer the Oromo and Amhara protests and deaths continue at the hands of the security forces, the more hardened the protesters would get. And now they may have caught on to the one thing that would get the attention of the ruling elite: targeting foreign investors. If there is anything that has made the autocratic leadership tolerable, it is the veneer of stability it has engendered, the type investors crave. They have shown that confidence with their pockets, pouring money into manufacturing and agriculture. Ethiopia has the only other light railway mass transit system in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa. And only just recently, it opened a Chinese-built railway to Djibouti, whose seaport it relies on. Its development-before-democracy paradigm faces its toughest test yet. Just as foreign investment gains have come about by the authorities’ strong grip, their reluctance to adopt a more democratic approach may be what unravels them. And frankly, a desire for equity by a genuinely aggrieved people is not farfetched. Land sold to foreign investors should be well compensated for. Locals should be given greater consideration in employment. And there should be a preference for dialogue over coercion. The Oromo and Amhara are too numerous and determined to be put to rest by force. The authorities must engage them and find a solution that is acceptable within the bounds of reason.
Tough love by powers could help
Democratic reforms would be easier under Mr Hailemariam. But to fend off likely resistance from the Tigray elite that dominates the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), his hand would need to be strengthened. He is not Tigray. Neither is he an Ethiopian orthodox christian. World powers have leverage: about $3 billion in aid. The United States has already raised significant concerns. Together with others – German chancellor Angela Merkel visits this week, they should engage the leadership, making the point that the protests provide a unique opportunity to finally embark on much needed democratic reforms. The Oromo and Amhara are likely to be less agitated if they believe they are able to participate in the democratic process. Not the charade midwifed by the authorities hitherto: how is it that not a single seat in parliament is occupied by an opposition party? Ms Merkel has refused an invitation to address the ‘lawmakers.’ She plans to speak to opposition parties though. Fact is, it is when people feel stifled and find no means to exert their opinions that they resort to insurrection. True, the minority Tigray worry if they did that, they could be overwhelmed. That is often not the case. And even so, they might have little choice now that more than half of the population has had enough. And in this age of instant news and social media, it would be foolhardy for the authorities to think that they could quell yet again another uprising with force. A state of emergency has been declared. Sadly, the authorities may yet learn a lesson.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/time-for-hailemariam-to-lead/