The results are not in doubt, only the prospects of millions of impoverished and hungry Ethiopians
May 20th 2010 | ADDIS ABABA | From The Economist print edition — PRESIDENT Meles Zenawi and his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) expect a landslide victory in the general election due on May 23rd, and are likely to get one. The bigger question is whether another five years of EPRDF rule will help ordinary Ethiopians, who are among the poorest and hungriest people in the world.
The austere and cerebral Mr Zenawi has ruled the country since 1991, when he led his Marxist guerrillas to overthrow a brutish dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mr Zenawi remains wedded to what he calls “revolutionary democracy”, which emphasises collective will over individual ambition. He contends that a strong hand and development in the villages—rather than liberalising markets—is the way forward. And after a worryingly good show by the opposition in the last election in 2005, after which about 200 civilian protesters were gunned down by the police, it is the strong hand that has been much in evidence in the run-up to these elections. Press freedom, as well as the activities of some opposition parties and human-rights NGOs, have been curtailed to ensure a smoother ride for Mr Zenawi.
The EPRDF made much in the election campaign of the country’s high levels of economic growth, averaging 8% or so a year. But that hides the puniness of the economy. Exports of $1.4 billion in the past financial year compare to $5 billion in neighbouring Kenya, which has half of Ethiopia’s population. Construction has boomed, but manufacturing continues to falter. Ethiopia has a cheap and disciplined workforce, but not the mulch of managers, accountants and commercial lawyers that investors want to see, and which they can find plentifully elsewhere in Africa.
The government’s instinct for centralised control continues to inhibit enterprise and depress growth. Ethiopia’s state-run banks are dwarfed by private-sector banks elsewhere in Africa. Mr Zenawi claims that communications are paramount, but his government has stymied the mobile-phone revolution for its own political ends. Elsewhere in Africa, the debate is about the relative merits of Blackberries and iPhones. In Ethiopia, it is simply about getting a phone. Equally devastating is state control of the internet. Connection is costly and slow. The official in charge of the internet at the state telecoms outfit appears to be a high-ranking secret-service officer. That is to combat hackers, say flustered EPRDF officials. More likely, he is employed to spy on citizens and block websites the government does not like—which include most produced by the Ethiopian diaspora.
The EPRDF counters criticism by saying it has held the country together against subversives. “Separatist attitudes are waning,” insists the information minister, Bereket Simon, referring to the rebellious Ogaden and Oromo regions. He adds that much of the opposition has “links to the Shabab [the Somali al-Qaeda group] and Eritrea”, but that is delusional. In fact, the opposition is more nationalistic than the EPRDF, and some, particularly from the important Amhara region, would like to drive Eritrea into the sea.
More reasonably, the government can point to road building and rural electrification initiatives. The massive increase in schools and clinics in villages is impressive. Regional governments have more autonomy and mobilise more money and support than ever before. Some progress has been made in diversifying the economy. Coffee growers earn more thanks to better branding and smarter co-operatives and a flower industry has opened up.
Yet party and state interests are too often muddled, with benefits denied to citizens who question the EPRDF. Many of those with the skills and creative thinking needed to help Ethiopia face up to its considerable problems are excluded from the political process. That includes journalists. Take Eskinder Nega. At the last election in 2005, he ran three Amharic language newspapers with his wife. Following the election violence, in which the EPRDF was implicated, Mr Nega and his wife were arrested on treason charges. Their son was born in prison. They have been pardoned, but continue to be harassed. A court has ruled out a relaunch of Mr Nega’s papers. “I am living proof this election is not free and fair,” he says, “if it was I would still be publishing”.
Ethiopia will probably remain one of the biggest recipients of Western aid over the next five years. The EPRDF may be authoritarian, but many think it is the best bet for cutting poverty at home and checking jihadists in Somalia. That may be ill-judged, and not just on moral grounds. Western money does not buy the leverage it used to. China is lending Ethiopia billions of dollars; $460m alone to build a controversial dam on the Omo river. Faced with the prospect of more nagging from the West about human rights and opening up the economy, Mr Zenawi can just choose the Chinese way.