ETHIOPIA BECAME A PRIDE OF AFRICA lately. The East African country distinguished itself and provided a sharp contrast with a neighbouring Somalia that has been through 30 odd years of conflicts and power vacuum, followed by multiple power centres, since the departure of Siad Barre, the despot who left the country in disarray after his exit and is yet to experience political stability or economic progress. Ethiopia provided a breath of fresh air in an odious atmosphere of pervasive skirmishes and economic crunch in many African countries. It inspired confidence and provided good reasons for optimism about Africa’s rise out of the economic doldrums in the years ahead. Ethiopia was a symbol of determination and an epitome of the ability to overcome vulnerabilities and turn poverty into prosperity against all odds.
Nearly four decades ago, Ethiopia lived through a period of poverty, hunger and environmental disaster, with no rain for so long. The recurring drought, pests invasion, failed harvests and the consequential food scarcity led to widespread famine. The situation was further complicated by battle that hindered aid from reaching the people in occupied territory and by government policies that relocated families and channelled relief to certain areas. The adverse events led to the death of over one million people, with 2.5 million people internally displaced, almost 200,000 children orphaned and 400,000 refugees left the country. The largely avoidable crisis within the period of 1984 and 1985 prompted an enormous international response, including the Live Aid concert, many global charity donations and various humanitarian supports in aid of victims. Although the famine was predicted well in advance, bad local policies and large scale governmental mismanagement exacerbated the crisis.
The unwillingness of Ethiopian government to deal with the famine of 1984 and 1985 triggered universal indignation and denunciation by the international community, particularly as the ruling regime in Ethiopia withheld food shipments meant for rebel areas. The combined effects of famine and internal war led the nation’s economy into a state of ruin. Climatic condition leading to the drought was partly a consequence of popular practices within the countryside where the populace was already paying a heavy price in soil erosion caused by massive deforestation as peasants cut down trees for fuel. The same peasants were later to be engaged in conflicts with urban bureaucrats. Guerrilla warfare ensued and was made worse by the internal frictions within the Marxist government of Lt. Gen. Mengistu Haile Mariam that continued to hinder the relief effort.
A lot of positive things have happened since Ethiopia ended the two-year conflict. Over the years, Ethiopia has changed its national narrative and turned its national handicap into a positive story, in ways similar to those of China and India in years before and after the Green Revolution – an intervention involving a set of research technology transfer initiatives between 1950 and the late 1960s that increased agricultural production in parts of the world. Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth is one of the great stories of economic success in the twenty-first century. For a decade, Ethiopia has been designated as Africa’s fastest-growing economy year after year. According to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s economy has consistently experienced strong, broad-based growth averaging 9.4 per cent annually year from 2010/2011 to 2019/2020. It was only dampened in the past year as, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB), the country’s economy grew by 6.1 per cent in 2020, down from 8.4 per cent in 2019, largely because of the COVID–19 pandemic.
Ethiopia has been considered unusual in Africa for its focus on rapid industrialisation. It is also considered as having a growing economy that depends on industry without smokestacks, such as horticulture, seen as an alternative for boosting its economy. Its horticulture industry employs 180,000 people and it is rated as Africa’s second largest flower exporter after Kenya. The value of Ethiopia’s textile and clothes export has tripled over the past ten years. But whereas the manufacturing share of GDP is shrinking in much of the rich world, it has been growing in Africa since 2011, and in Ethiopia in particular.
Ethiopia has earned many accolades on its growing economy and has become an attractive foreign investment destination, with performance in procurement close to the emerging economy average. Ethiopia has embarked on some mega infrastructure projects in the past couple of years. One of them, the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) — which is expected to be fully operational by 2023 — was embarked upon as a project financed with crowd funding through internal fund raising by selling bond and persuading employees to contribute a portion of their incomes. In essence, the dam is funded by the Ethiopians. Another one, the 753 kilometre railway project linking Addis Ababa to Djibouti — constructed with a total investment of $4bn — is now in operation. A strategic transport infrastructure providing access to the sea for the landlocked Ethiopia was partly funded by the government and partly by external loan as the Ethiopian section gulped $3.4 billion, 70 per cent of which was provided by China Exim Bank and 30 per cent by the Ethiopian government.
Ethiopian Airlines, a national carrier, outperforms other national carriers and private airlines currently operating all over Africa and is easily the best managed airline with many international destinations within and outside Africa. It is heartening to know that Ethiopian Airlines remains profitable in spite of COVID-19 travel bans. It was considered one of the few profitable airlines in 2020 as it reportedly covered all fixed costs and made profit. Although it experienced some bumpy ride in 2020 after the COVID-19 struck, it reportedly recorded a profit of $44 million for the first half of the year, This was in sharp contrast with Kenya Airways which posted a net loss estimated at $330 million, the worst ever recorded by the airline, on account of COVID-19 disruptions that led to a sharp decline in passenger numbers, according to a source. The South African Airways was already flying through turbulent financial airspace even long before COVID-19. Things got worse in 2019 when it entered a local form of bankruptcy protection in December, after roughly a decade of financial losses. As of February 2021, government granted South African Airways $346 million to make severance payments to laid-off staff as part of its rescue plan. Its fortunes had plummeted after the COVID-19 pandemic grounded flights.
Ethiopia, a country on the rise, appeared to have recently taken some steps backwards after years of making some leaps forward. The country is being torn apart by ethnic uprisings. Tigray region and Eritrea – then part of Ethiopia – had been enmeshed in two decades of national liberation wars and other anti-government conflicts before the famine of 1984 to 1985. The use of indiscriminate violence against civilians by the Ethiopian army and air force led to the death of more than 150,000 people in addition to those killed by famine. History now seems to be repeating itself in the conflicts currently raging in Ethiopia. Tigray and Eritrea are the theatres of war again. This time, however, Eritrea’s involvement is in sympathy with the central government of Ethiopia in the latter’s onslaught against Tigray, a region that is just adjacent to Eritrea’s southern fringe.
The end of Ethiopia’s cross-border hostility with Eritrea must have thrilled the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to the extent that Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after he became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister for his role in ending the conflict. Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel prize was awarded partly because of his efforts to democratise Ethiopia. It seems, however, that the award was primarily because of the peace deal he reached with Eritrea’s President Isaias Akwerki to finally end the border war that has lingered from 1998 to 2000 between the two countries. But, could the Nobel Prize Committee have been too hasty, or have made a mistake or have embarked on a wrong judgment on Abiy Ahmed? The unfolding events may provide a clue. Now, this time, the Eritrean forces massacre Tigray civilians in what Abiy Ahmed described as Ethiopia’s internal affairs as there are reports that Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive against the Tigray people. According to a recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ethiopia Fact Sheet, Ethiopia is the third largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, sheltering 814,535 registered refugees and asylum-seekers as of 30 April 2021. The figure may have been as high because of asylum seekers from the neighbouring South Sudan. But the security and human rights situation in Ethiopia has deteriorated as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed struggled to maintain order amid growing unrest and political tensions.
Ethiopia desperately needs the leader who upholds the rule of law and fairness. The gradual erosion of these is what has plunged Ethiopia into the present conflicts, with no sign of an early resolution in sight. It is a pity that the epitome of Africa’s recent success story has gradually slid into chaos. How to get the country back to normal has now defied the Prime Minister’s power as the situation gets worse each passing day. To now imagine that a country that Africa has held up as a beacon of hope is now a place of despair is most unfortunate. Ethiopia’s war needs to end quickly and Africa’s success story, just begun, needs to keep unfolding.