An election in Ethiopia promises little change
THERE are two colours I associate with Ethiopia. Grey for the dust, the bare hills, stony soil and donkeys. Grey for the Soviet-era buildings in the towns and the fumes of ancient Lada cars. Then there is gold, in the fields at harvest time, in the sunshine at that lung-busting altitude, and the heavy jewellery worn by women.
Gold especially for the churches, the icons, the luminous curls in the crosses and staves, and in the golden plumage of archangels who many Ethiopians believe overlook the inner workings of their lives.
Religion is central to life in Ethiopia, as it is in the rest of Africa. But it is of a very different type. Neighbouring Kenya became Christian just over a century ago. Its Christianity still has a stripped-down missionary flavour. The Amhara and Tigray regions of Ethiopia, by contrast, were Christian long before St Augustine of Canterbury landed in England. The Band Aid anthem to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims in 1984 was in some ways ill-judged: of course they knew it was Christmastime.
Yet Ethiopia is also a country of revolutionary zeal. It is ruled by an inner circle of former Marxist guerrillas who are not evidently religious. That sets up a tension in the country. After this week’s election victory by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), I ask Ethiopians what they would like to ask their long-serving prime minister, Meles Zenawi. Most often they say they would like to quiz him about God. “I want to know if he is a believer,” says my driver in Addis Ababa. Teddy—his name changed to protect his identity—is critical of the government. They have done many good things. But they like to control us.” Even in heavy traffic Teddy takes his hands off the steering wheel and crosses himself when passing one of the many churches. He gently recounts his own story of last week’s elections. The organisers of the taxi fleet he drives for are card-carrying members of the EPRDF. “We are not talking about many people. Maybe 20 out of a couple of hundred cabs. But they decide on a lot of things, including the renewal of licences. They told the rest of us we had to attend government rallies in a procession during the election campaign. Most of us refused. After the election they will come for us.” What will he do then? Teddy shrugs. He is close to retirement, but has two small children. “A man cannot live on his knees.”
The fear among Ethiopians like Teddy is similar to that of citizens in the Soviet bloc in the 1970s. Those who prove themselves to the party will be awarded promotions and sinecures, however modest. Those who refuse to join in risk losing the privileges they have. And for the few who openly challenge the way in which the EPRDF muddles its own interest with the national interest there is the prospect of censorship, harassment and prison.
Ethiopia is an authoritarian state, not a totalitarian one. The choice is difficult, but it remains a choice. The situation is in some ways harder than in the Soviet Union though. There is no barbed wire holding the Ethiopians in, rather an overwhelming indifference in the rest of the world. Nor is there much of an alternative to the EPRDF. Whatever criticism is made of Mr Zenawi, he is more cogent and measured than the opposition. Its heroes include Birtukan Mideksa, a single mother who is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement for standing up to the government. But her heroics are undercut by the failure of the opposition to unite around a sensible manifesto for the future of Ethiopia.
Over the next five years critics of the EPRDF can expect to be further marginalised. Western donors are largely happy with this state of affairs. They hope for something like an African version of Yugoslavia under Tito. Stability is indeed a precious prize, if your goal is to eradicate extreme poverty. The danger though is that progress at the bottom will mean suffocation of a an independent-minded middle class. Lackeys seldom make the creative leaps a country like Ethiopia needs as its population swells to perhaps as much 30m in the coming decades (up from 40m in the days of Band Aid). At present a tenth of the country would perish without foreign food aid. The EPRDF is unwilling to give up control of farmland, telecoms, and the internet. Ethiopia’s banks, stocks, and insurance markets are far behind other big African countries. None of that bodes well. Ethiopians have historically always attacked the centre from the periphery. If the country cannot run ahead of its poverty, the risk of a Yugoslav-style denouement grows. Religion plays into the fatalism. Many Ethiopians believe that the opposition is incidental. Only God can change their government.
Source – The Economist