There has been considerable media coverage lately for a number of Ethiopian Olympic athletes who’ve publicly proclaimed their support for ongoing demonstrations against the Ethiopian government, and expressed fear that they may be harmed, or worse, if they now return home. The government responded by guaranteeing their safety and stating that all Ethiopians should be proud of the athletes’ achievements.
Having just returned from taking a group of 10 U.S. universities to Ethiopia to explore partnership opportunities, I am more concerned about that country’s fate than at any time since my first diplomatic assignment there in the mid-1980s.
First, so what? When hearing “Ethiopia” I’d venture most Americans still think of a country emblematic of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with famines, droughts, conflicts and abject poverty. While once true, Ethiopia has made dramatic progress in recent decades and stands on the cusp of being one of the very few African countries which will likely achieve middle-income status within years, not decades.
In addition to being among the world’s fastest growing economies, the country has built more than 30 national universities during the past 15 years, and devotes 28 percent of its budget to education; perhaps the highest in the world. It is also a key ally of the U.S. and is the anchor country for peace and stability in the Greater Horn of Africa region — aggressively confronting the Islamic Terrorists of al-Shabaab in Somalia, and playing a key role to bring peace to South Sudan. Ethiopia, about 11/2 times the size of Texas, is projected to reach 180 million people by 2050 — from about 95 million now — which will make it the 10th most populous in the world.
And unlike all the other countries of Sub-Saharan Africa which are artificial creations from European colonial powers drawing imaginary lines on a map, Ethiopia is a result of its own millennia-long historical evolution and was never colonized. Its current government is also the most progressive in its long history and has instituted a system of “ethnic federalism,” which attempted to give the major ethnic groups control over their own affairs.
So what’s the problem, and why the ongoing demonstrations which expand week by week? Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences of “ethnic federalism” was focusing on peoples’ ethnicity instead of being “Ethiopian,” and this has amplified societal divisions which didn’t exist under the emperors or the Marxist dictatorship which preceded the current government.
In addition, while today’s government is in fact a tremendous improvement over the bloody regime it overthrew, it has hit a brick wall in its progress toward genuine democracy. There is the formal government with ministers and ministries, which includes highly talented technocrats who want to move the country forward.
But behind the curtain there is still the informal power structure, composed of veterans from the movements which ousted the Marxist dictator, who at their core don’t trust democracy, free elections or market economics. They would much prefer to maintain a Chinese-style authoritarian system, along with a Chinese-style state-controlled economy. As violent demonstrations spread through parts of Ethiopia, behind the scenes there is a power struggle going on for the future direction of the country between the old-guard and the younger generation of leaders.
Although the handwriting is on the wall, and change will come, it’s largely up to the Ethiopian leadership to determine whether this change will be managed and orderly, or it will get out of hand resulting in bloodshed, chaos and possibly decades of lost progress.
While the U.S. can certainly influence events and promote progress through deft diplomacy, there is a built-in contrariness in Ethiopian governments so that the wrong type of U.S. pressure can actually be counterproductive. (When I was ambassador I called this trait the “hedgehog response;” one small poke and all the quills come out.)
One factor which would help achieve a “soft landing” would be for Ethiopia to have a credible opposition in government, which could officially give voice to the peoples’ perceived or actual grievances. Currently, with zero opposition presence in the federal government, the population feels that they can only express their unhappiness through demonstrations.
It’s true that it’s not a government’s responsibility to create an opposition, but governments have tremendous influence over whether the environment is friendly or hostile for an opposition to operate. And historically all Ethiopian governments — to a greater or lesser extent — have considered opponents to be traitors.
The next elections are years away, and there is no certainty that the environment will be any more favorable to opposition gains than it was during the last round in 2015. Meanwhile, the demonstrations will not overthrow the government — but the government also cannot totally stamp out the demonstrations, as the army, which reflects the population at large, may not be willing to fully engage.
If I were advising the Ethiopians, I would suggest an immediate national dialogue with the government engaging (genuine) opposition leaders and key NGOs. Hopefully this could lead to early elections with the government making certain that there is a level playing field throughout the country to enable opposition candidates a fair shot at winning.
Sadly, if the current state of affairs persists, I see a continuing deterioration in Ethiopia’s internal stability and years of progress could be reversed. The country is too valuable a U.S. ally, and has made too much progress toward peace and prosperity, to allow it to slip away.
Ahead lies a potentially dynamic, entrepreneurial and democratic middle-income nation which can be an example and leader for the rest of Africa; behind is the renewed threat of the Four Horsemen. Don’t let them ride again.
TIBOR NAGY is vice provost for international affairs at Texas Tech and served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1999 to 2002 and to Guinea from 1996 to 1999.