Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ethiopia's "Authoritarian Developmentalism"

Ethiopia is both a darling of the international development community but organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) describe it as “one of the most repressive media environments in the world”.  Ethiopia is seen as a reliable police officer in the region, hosting a US military base and sending troops to fight the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab in neighbouring Somalia. Of 547 MPs, only one belongs to an opposition party. Activists and journalists describe an Orwellian surveillance state, breathtaking in scale and scope, in which phone conversations are recorded and emails monitored by thousands of bureaucrats reminiscent of the Stasi in East Berlin. The few who dare to take to the streets in protest are crushed with deadly force. Amnesty International has called it an “onslaught on dissent” in the runup to elections next year. An investigation by HRW noted the government had complete control over the telecoms system and virtually unlimited access to the call records of all phone users. Journalists have described telephone conversations they had years ago being played back to them during interrogations.

The country has enjoyed close to double-digit growth for a decade. One study found it was creating millionaires faster than anywhere else on the continent. The architect of this model of development – or “authoritarian developmentalism” – in east Africa was the late prime minister Meles Zenawi. Among the winners of the Meles legacy is Tesfakiros, the head of the Muller Real Estate company with a business empire that includes logistics, transport, food manufacturing and the wine venture with Geldof, which last year made a profit of $5m (£3m). “We’re trying to put Ethiopia as a wine-producing country like California or South Africa,” he said. Ethiopia imports about 10m litres of wine a year to serve a growing ‘middle’ class. Tesfakiros reflected. “There has been amazing growth in the last 15 years. People have got the work ethic and are investing. The real estates market is booming and will boom for a time.”

While tycoons such as Tesfakiros are showered in money from the property boom, Bekele Nega, general secretary of the  Oromo Federalist Congress, which has more than 10,000 members, has a different perspective. “This we don’t consider ‘development’,” he said. “This we consider the uprooting of the indigenous people, who will lose their culture and identity. The government say they are expanding Addis Ababa but the reality is they are getting rid of the people who don’t support the EPRDF [the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front].”

The frenetic economic expansion has uprooted thousands of farmers while, critics say, those who speak out against it are rounded up and jailed. The Congress, representing Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, is resisting the government’s “masterplan” for expanding Addis Ababa, claiming it has forced 150,000 Oromo farmers off their land without compensation. Witnesses say police killed at least 17 protesters, including children and students, during demonstrations this year and hundreds more are being detained without charge.

Bekele Nega challenged the west’s perceptions of positive change in the country. “Foreigners who see these tall buildings will say Ethiopia is developing. The reality is we are not developing. We are not having three meals a day. People like Bob Geldof and others consider they have helped our people and of course they have. But they didn’t come to the kernel of the matter. The EPRDF used the money from that time to build the empire they are in control of. Somebody hijacked the money from that hunger. It’s written in black and white.”

Ethiopia is still one of the biggest recipients of UK development aid, getting about £300m a year. Money also pours in from the US. Nega believes it is misspent: “The west has left us, left the people. The US is aiding dictators and turning a blind eye to us. Why? The same with Britain, which has democratic values. They give the taxpayers money for buying weapons or for the police station to handcuff people.” Donor aid is also helping the government to spy on its citizens and even turn family members against each other, he alleged. “For any five family members, one will be reporting to the police. Your brother or your sister or your mother...”

One senior official said: “The most basic human right is food on the table. If we’re doing that, why would we violate other human rights? This is a safe, secure place and we want to keep it that way. We’ll do anything to keep it that way. We have 90 million people – you try to control them.”

Tesfakiros asks: “What’s democracy? The opposition needs support by the middle class. When we have a middle class, we will have a stronger democracy. Until then, we have a nanny for the democracy. Democracy is a matter of education and civilisation – 85% of our population is farmers; we don’t know how to read and write. When you have a middle class, you push for your rights.”

Nega replies. “The west wants us to be democrats and build a democracy. This question is not comfortable for our leaders. According to them, we need only food. They don’t understand that poor people need democracy. They fact we are poor does not mean we are not human beings. We cannot be uprooted and tormented. As human beings we deserve democracy, human rights, rule of law. ..”

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