Ethiopia: into the danger zone

Friday, 26 August 2016
Richard Dowden

Ethiopia seems to be heading for another breakdown. Since the war with Eritrea ended - or maybe paused in stalemate - the country has developed rapidly. The level of poverty fell from 44% to 30% between 2000 and 2014 falling and a new dynamism emerged in the cities. But most Ethiopians are still subsistence farmers and the economy is not changing fast enough to provide jobs for the millions of school leavers and graduates. 

Ethiopia, one of the world’s oldest nation states, has been ruled for millennia by emperors who often fought their way to power and tried to hold its  “nationalities” together. When the Tigrayans fought their way to power in 1991 they were not strong enough to hold the whole country. So they drew up a peculiar constitution that allows, in theory, the nations to rule themselves or even secede and become independent if a majority of that nationality voted for it – Ethexit. Of course there was never a possibility of that happening, but it created a political settlement that has lasted 25 years.

Unsurprisingly the Tigrayans found like-minded representatives from all the other groups and created parties for them that followed the Tigrayan line. Up to a point. The problem is that the largest nationality, the 35 million Oromo, live close to the capital Addis Ababa. When the government tried to extend the boundary of the growing city into Oromo territory, the inhabitants protested and their marches clashed with police and soldiers. The government backed off but frustration is growing among young Oromo and many other educated but unemployed Ethiopians. Despite reasonable if exaggerated economic growth figures, employment especially for young Ethiopians is hard to find.     

Ethiopia is fairly unique in Africa having a figurehead president while the country is ruled by a Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalagne. An efficient but uncharismatic technocrat, he is answerable to the Central Committee. But real power still lies in the hands of the behind-the-scenes Tigrayan generals and their allies. The constitution will count for little if they feel threatened.

A stable Ethiopia is vital for the region. To the north is Eritrea, repressive and turned in on itself, still smouldering with anger after two border wars with Ethiopia in the late-1990s. They have still not been concluded with a peace treaty. On the Red Sea is Djibouti where the French, Americans and now Chinese have huge military bases for guarding the shipping route through the Red Sea – the vital east-west route which is threatened by Islamist militancy. To the west is Sudan – historically an enemy of Ethiopia and South Sudan which is still wracked with civil war. To the east is unrecognised but peaceful Somaliland, and Somalia, which still lies broken, much of it dominated by al-Shabaab. If Ethiopia implodes, the shockwaves will shake the entire region.