The oracles of Lalibela

IT was a big relief to all democratic forces in Africa when the Ethiopian military putsch of Saturday, June 22, was crushed by the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. It all began ominously with the assassination of the president of the Amhara region, Ambachew Mekonnen, whilst at a security meeting with key officials in the city of Bahir Dar. Almost simultaneously, in Addis Ababa, the Chief of the General Staff, Se’are Mekonnen, was gunned down by his own orderly. The alleged mastermind, Brigadier-General Asamnew Tsige, had apparently intended to instigate simultaneous attacks on prominent political and military leaders across the country so as to bring down the government.

Coming out in full military combat fatigues, Prime Minister Abiy rallied all Ethiopians to unite “against the forces of evil.” The coup plotters were rounded up and executed. Flags were flown at half mast while internet access was temporarily shut down. More than 250 arrests were made. Monday, June 24, was declared a national day of mourning while the casualties were given a befitting state burial.

These events underline the Carthaginian Peace that has haunted Ethiopia for decades like a dark phantom that would not go away. A few years ago, while attending African Union (AU) Summit, I caught up with old friends at an upmarket café in Addis. In the course of our conversation I asked if it’s ever foreseeable for Ethiopia to have a constitutional monarchy as obtains in England, Belgium, Norway, Spain or the Netherlands. You could hear a pin drop. My friends were from the old Amhara aristocracy. Their silence spoke volumes.

Ethiopia is an old society seemingly trapped in the Middle Ages until recently. It is yet to fully come to terms with the demands of modernity. Emperor Haile Selassie reigned as absolute monarch — Negus Negusa — from 1930 until his ouster in a military coup in 1974. Despite his foibles, he was a moderniser who invested in education and infrastructures; a champion of pan-Africanism who fought for the liberation of our continent and the dignity of black people throughout the world. But he was also a medieval despot who inflexibly believed in the Divine Right of Kings. During his long reign, he left the feudal lords pretty much to their own devices whilst the countryside was ravaged by famine. And that is why, when the revolution came, it was so brutal and so violent.

Ethiopia is the second most populous nation in Africa, with a population of 100 million, comprising some 80 odd tribes. The dominant ones are: the Oromo, 34.4 per cent; Amhara, 27 per cent; Somali, 6.2 per cent; Tigrinya, 6.1 per cent; Sidama, 4.0 per cent; Gurage, 2.5 per cent and Welaita, 2.3 per cent. For centuries, the ruling elites were drawn predominantly from the fair-skinned, Semitic Amhara northern highlanders. The Amhara language remains the national lingua franca. The violent revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1974 led to massive ethnic cleansing of the Amhara ruling elites.

The overthrow of the Mengistu dictatorship in 1987 ushered in a new era of hope. Meles Zenawi and the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in coalition with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) instituted modernisation programmes that set the country on a new path. But Meles was also an authoritarian leader who brooked no opposition. He also took a hard line against his former comrade Isaias Afeworki in neighbouring Eritrea. His development programmes nonetheless won him enormous respect. The nation mourned profusely when he passed away in 2012. I had the honour of meeting his successor Hailemariam Desalegn; a mild-mannered statesman far from the image of the repressive autocrat that was projected by the international media.

The path of modernisation has expectedly been fraught with challenges. The 1994 constitution abolished the centralised unitary state and replaced it with a confederation of nine regions defined by ethnicity rather than citizenship. The regions reserve a constitutional right to declare independence from the rest of the country should they choose to do so. Ethnic federalism has reinforced the power struggle between the Big Three – Tigrinya, Amhara and Oromo. Although the ruling EPRDF is a coalition of four parties, the minority Tigrinya have always called the shots at the expense of the others. All the regions jealously guard against encroachments on their territories and prerogatives. In 2015, when the federal government wanted to expand some projects outside Addis Ababa in a manner that encroached into neighbouring Oromo territory, there were wild howls among Oromians. This is in addition to strident demands for more human rights, greater freedom and more representation at the federal centre. The reflex response by the central government has been more repression and more brutal force, thereby compounding an already bad situation.

Ethiopia reminds me in many ways of Russia, with which it shares the Orthodox faith and a leadership tradition steeped in what the Marxist political philosopher Perry Anderson terms “the lineages of the absolutist state.” When faced with new pressures, the government has resorted to draconian measures that have only served to harden social and political fissures. Some ethnic leaders have bitterly complained that the hegemony of the relatively small Tigrinya political elites has come at the expense of the bigger groups, notably the Oromo and the Amhara. Over the last few years, ethnic militias have been growing in strength and audacity. In June last year, Prime Minister Abiy narrowly escaped a grenade attack that left two members of his entourage dead. In October, soldiers mutinied over pay and invaded the Prime Minister’s office. It was only his adroit handling of a potentially explosive situation that saved the day.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a young statesman, aged 42, dazzled the world with his whirlwind political reforms since coming to power in April 2018. He not only ended the 20-year border conflict with Eritrea; he also relaxed the repressive measures against opposition groups while releasing political prisoners from detention. He has also opened up the economy to foreign investors. The recent turn of events shows perhaps the limits of what reform can achieve in Ethiopia’s path-dependent political economy. Empirical evidence in political science shows that the most dangerous time for a reforming statesman is not when society is at point zero but when, ironically, things are looking up. Implementing reforms when things are getting better is like opening the lid on a pressure cooker.

I have always been fascinated by Ethiopian history and civilisation. I am impressed by medieval thinkers such as Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat; and curious about monarchs such as Menelik II, Tewodros and Janhoy Haile Selassie, all of them claiming descent from King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba. I am often entranced by the liturgy of the Orthodox Towahedo Church in the mysterious Ge’ez language and the spirituality of its mystical saints. I adore the stone-hewn monasteries of Lalibela and the ancient obelisks of Axum and Gondar. I love the exuberant wildernesses of Wollo and Harar and the island monasteries of Lake Tana, where the monks are praying earnestly for Menelik to return. Ethiopians are quick to remind everyone that they have never ever been colonised. Prophet Mohammed (SAW) enjoined the whole world to “leave Ethiopia alone.” I am always encouraged by how Christians and Muslims have lived together in genuine brotherhood in this ancient country. We in Nigeria are only slightly better than barbarians by comparison.

Ethiopia has made impressive strides in economic development, with a growth rate of 8.5 per cent last year – the highest on the continent. It is not only self-sufficient in electricity generation; it exports some of its 17,000MW capacity to neighbouring countries. The Chinese recently completed the 759km ultra-modern Addis-Djibouti railway that gives the country access to the sea. The US$4 billion project has been a rather heavy burden on state coffers. Each time I revisit Addis Ababa, I am always struck by the spectacle of glistening new skyscrapers, factories and hotels. This is not, of course, to downplay the grim realities of poverty and underdevelopment. Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

The latent tensions that have bedevilled the country of late derive from new forms of ethnic and regional identity politics and what one observer describes as “conflicting perceptions of nationalism and belonging — with multiple utopias, desires, belongings and identifications.”

Ethiopia’s prospects in the coming years will depend on how its leaders confront these challenges. Prime Minister Abiy and his colleagues will need all the wisdom and courage they can muster in the arduous task of rebuilding Ethiopia and reinventing their country as a prosperous democracy in the years ahead. To echo the nineteenth century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, nothing could be more arduous than freedom’s apprenticeship. While despotism promises easy solutions and quick fixes, “Liberty, on the contrary, is generally established with difficulty in the midst of storms.”

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