fano tessemara1
fano tesemara
bedur begedelu
ende Hochi Minh
ende Che Guevara

Ethiopia: the End of the Fano Road?

The extended and lavish funeral ceremony for the late Meles Zenawi is over. The fact that the Holy Trinity Cathedral was chosen as the burial site for this former revolutionary is quite ironic, and it hasn’t escaped the notice of some observers. After all, this cemetery was the “exclusive” resting place of the nobility during the former emperor’s rule, the class that was considered the arch enemy of the student radicals in the nation. [Not long ago, the remains of the last emperor, who was unceremoniously disposed of in some unholy place under the Mengistu government, were re-entered in this place.] They scorned him for not being interned at Adwa, his home town, or Dedebit, his former rebel hideout. The defamers include the supporters of the dystopia, that is Eritrea, and most importantly former Ethiopian revolutionaries in the diaspora who had lost the power struggle.

Unlike these strange bedfellows, Meles had during the last twenty years of his rule attempted to be pragmatic on issues both at home and in foreign affairs. Had some of the contending groups within the inner circle of the TPLF took over the helms of power, the alternative would have been difficult to contemplate. In a symbolic sense, the sharing of the cemetery and the desire to tone down the revolutionary doctrine of the guerrilla days is an important event. However, does the “post-liberation” statesmanship of Meles alone help end the violent civil war history that made havoc just as the famines did? The prospect for a stable Ethiopia with a fair representation of its people and just rule is without doubt not certain, for the experience of the past half-century direly lacked any traits of liberal politics.

The violent politics of the last fifty years, under the leadership of mostly student radicals, may be an enduring habit that no matter what the economic development achieved during the last twenty years may not be put to rest. Was it worth the sacrifice, and the economic backwardness that entailed it for a long era? Why are some journalists, important foreign dignitaries and political observers now heaping praise on the economic progress obtained under the Meles regime, and only restricting their criticism to the question of democracy? Had the country had the good luck for a relative stable political system, and the institutions for a smooth transfer of power, would it not have achieved what is witnessed now, and even more? If it had been spared the greatest “revolution” in the continent, what would have prevented it from joining the Middle Income Countries by now?  What would have impeded the construction of a huge dam, as the highly publicized “Millennium” dam now, and with entirely its own expertise? The answer is possibly none whatsoever. Counter factual arguments seem to be totally absent in the political discourse of the region.

Fifty years, and even less is what it took many countries such as South Korea and the rest of the South East Asian Tigers to pull their poor, and agricultural-bound populations into the industrial age. Their leaders took advantage of the aid and technology from the West available following the Second World War to improve infrastructure, education, industry, and rapidly catch up with the rest of the globalized world. In comparison, revolutionaries in the Horn of Africa were completely oblivious of this critical juncture, and bragged about the number of years they fought in order to overthrow their opponents. After the war, they were so unashamedly mired in crude propaganda of the Soviet type that they would parade tractors, and other agricultural machines imported with expensive money. The paradox of it is that, the origins of some of the machines were countries such as South Korea, and China.

The regime in Eritrea prides itself for espousing “self-sufficiency” and boasts for building sub-standard roads, farms etc., and that only with slave labor. This was a continuation of the extractive economic policy in the bush years. Likewise, the regime in Ethiopia had maintained a Marxist ideology until the very end of the war, completely ignoring the debacle of the Soviet Union that was in progress then. While the lure of Marxist ideology had faded in the rest of the world, it had its converts among the elite of Ethiopia. The irony is that the Derg, the regime they fought against, also emulated the same ideology either in competition with them or, in many cases, pushed from within the power center by other factions of the elite who tactically chose to ally with it. The statues of proletarian, peasant, and revolutionary leaders constructed at Churchill Street in Addis Ababa may seem odd for a complete bystander now, but not for those who witnessed the epoch.  Ethiopia’s “politics of emulation”2 has been dealt by Clapham, but the nature of the civil war in its Marxist garb has yet to be studied.  The isolation of the public from the rest of the world was as detrimental to Ethiopia’s development as the one that occurred almost 1,500 years ago, which will be briefly mentioned herein.

A writer commissioned by the World Bank to write its history once described Ethiopia and Siam (renamed since then, as Thailand) as two old civilizations with eager and bright students ready to absorb the modern technologies available from the West. The rapid and so far enduring development witnessed in Thailand has proved him right, but Ethiopia has since the sixties diverged. What explains this phenomenon?  There may not be an easy answer. But it is certain that Ethiopia had a singularly reactionary monarchy averse to any  reform and a youth who were not only impatient, but also violent and nihilistic. Having said this, it does not mean Thailand’s development was always smooth and peaceful. Communist insurgency, student rebellions in the urban areas, and coup d’ etas occurred regularly in its history, but were kept largely on the periphery without threatening the status quo.

A revolution that wasn’t

In contrast, what began as student rebellion in Ethiopia morphed quickly into a violent armed conflict encompassing mostly the northern provinces of Ethiopia, a traditional battle sites for the various lords of Abyssinia. Chirstopher Clapham’s exceptional remark about this event is original. Having first criticized himself for describing the revolt as “revolution,”3 he noted that the causes of the rebellion were instead the rivalry of regional groups in northern Ethiopia. Though belonging to the power center in the past, argued Clapham, they felt marginalized subsequent to the latter years of the monarchy’s rule. For revolution to have occurred then, the peoples inhabiting the southern empire of Ethiopia, who was the target of the slave holding system and the harsh serfdom until the early twentieth century, would have joined it in a major way. This political situation was not that dissimilar to what evolved in southern Sudan. This does not imply that they were only docile and prostrated people.  Sporadic and locally bound unrests happened, but did not threaten and finally topple the regimes as the northern rebels did to the Derg. None, however, of the elite seem to be heeding to this insightful observation from a foreign scholar.

The anomalous situation that materialized in the last fifty years has escaped the eyes of either the aging revolutionaries of the group in power or the ones who lost the political rivalry, and have since left the country in sizable numbers to wage again “war” on their northern cousins. Instead of disavowing the “revolutionary” road they prescribed for the country, they chose to romanticize it or allege that the “revolution” was betrayed. When Mengistu took power in Ethiopia in 1974, the student radicals accused the officers for “hijacking” or “betraying” it. In a like manner, many Eritrean intellectuals blame the current regime in Eritrea for the same sin. The discourse has turned into a “politics of betrayal”, and has resulted in the complete paralysis of the opposition groups that mushroomed lately.

This practice evokes what has been excellently termed as the “vicious circle” in the great book, Why Nations Fail. An avoidable political conflict that trapped the country in a political and economic quagmire for the last several decades has yet to be rejected and proscribed. Ethiopia’s future is uncertain largely because the politics of liberalism poorly understood then was fiercely resisted, and abhorred by most of the political actors to the dismay of the few educated elites who were serving in the bureaucracy of Haile Selassie. And yet, Meles and other rebel leaders were once infamously called as the Renaissance leaders in the African Continent.

Facts have so far proven this as wrong. Meles, Isaias, Museveni and Kagame were not rulers of prospering city-states, but “military princes” of starving African farmers who, notwithstanding their semi-subsistence economy, were coerced to billet rebel troops for the long duration of the war. History books about Europe often tell us that peasants fare well during war times relative to the urban dwellers, who are oftentimes either forced to pay exorbitant prices for smuggled goods from the countryside or are forced to migrate temporarily towards it.  To the contrary, Ethiopian farmers had time and again to completely abandon their dwellings for the urban areas under the incumbent regime, and in one instance made a long trek to the Sudan in search of food donated by NGOs. In extremis, the “revolution” in Eritrea has left the country, infamous for its political system so prostrate that its rulers do not have presently any serious threat from within. The stamina of the Eritrean masses has already been quenched.

Edward Gibbon’s excellent comment on Ethiopia’s past divergence is still relevant for the politics of the post-war-rebel-states particularly in Eritrea, and Ethiopia. “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten.”4 This time, what induced the Rip Van Twinkle moment for five decades is not religious ideology but nationalism and Marxist ideology blended together. Messay Kebede concurred with this assertion, when he stated, “Admittedly, the continuous political crises and economic stagnation of Ethiopia since the 1974 Revolution point to the leading role played by Ethiopian educated elite.”5 Marxist doctrine of the extreme type was uncritically and fanatically followed by the urban elite, who ironically benefitted from the educational aid called the Point Four Program.6

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, the wars led for years by former student radicals are still cherished with pride in certain circles. The elite of both nations have yet to cease glamorizing the times, which took the lives of scores of thousands of peasants and town dwellers alike.  During their sojourn, these African farmers were so destitute that salt was getting scarce in their kitchens, and even the age-old iron plow was difficult to find. The trials and tribulations of these victims are inexhaustible. The landscape may help explain the political circumstances better.  The mountains of Ethiopia famous for their escarpment topography had amazed a member of the British Expeditionary army in 1968 for their endless steep heights and sheer drops, so much so that a weary traveler loses hope of reaching his destination. In a different context, Moses Izgiwe, the author of the fiction Abyssinian Chronicles used the same mountains as a metaphor to narrate the fall of the regime from Obote to Idi Amin, and back to Obote again, until Museveni finally took over. Poignantly, the chronicle for a stable and legitimate state in Ethiopia has yet to end.

In summation, Thailand does not yet have a liberal political system in the proper sense, but a large majority of its elites have dexterously avoided the politics of violence until the twenty-first century. When it happened, as in the last few years, it was kept in control. A constitutional monarch and an elite corrupt but mature in politics was able to navigate the dangerous shoals of development that escaped Ethiopia. If Ethiopia is to spare itself from the “vicious circle” of civil wars, political power must soon devolve to the people in the true sense of it. More importantly, institutions, the most stable mechanism for peaceful governance and transfer of power, have to be established. The political apprehension that has manifested itself after Meles robustly needs it. The late Prime Minister was lately described as almost an “institution” by himself, but this unique attribute will surely not substitute for the absence of the real thing.


[1] A militant song of radical students for guerrilla war in Ethiopia of the early 70s possibly adapted from an Amharic folk song.

[2] Clapham, Christopher in “The Politics of Emulation”p.1.

[3] Ibid. “The Social structure of Regional revolts in Northern Ethiopia.

[4] Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 2003. The Modern Library V. 5, P. 849.

[5] Kebede, Messay in “The Roots and Fallouts of Haile Selassie’s Educational Policy”.

[6] Mcvety, Amanda in “Pursuing Progress: Point Four in Ethiopia” P.103.

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