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Ethiopia at a Midair of Transition – prospecting safe landing or demise/ disintegration

Image : USAID

Getahun Tafesse

Ethiopia is in the process of transition and needs to be assisted to complete this process.  The country has lost its traditional safe heaven ground but has not reached the so-called modern safe haven ground yet, hanging now in the middle.  This stage is filled with sharp contrasts, confusions and conflicts.  Many observers are perplexed with paradoxes with opinions divided among those who focus on the positive signs and prospects and those that focus on ruining and crumbling traditional livelihood.  The existing historic social fault lines are exacerbated by sharply divided feelings of hope/ aspirations and despair/ frustration.  

Indeed, in the last two decades, Ethiopia beamed contrasting images of a fast growing economy and sharply declining poverty on one hand, which is mainly based on official statistics, and mass civil unrest and widespread youth grievances, on the other hand, arising from rising unemployment and cost of living.  Such contrast prevails in different domains:  booming construction (high rising buildings, express roads, modern real estate residential complexes, etc. – vs- growing land value driven displacement of low income groups, housing shortage, continuously rising housing rent); large scale investments (growing share companies, private banks, organized businesses, including cluster farming and farmers cooperatives –vs- growing informal businesses, street vendors, struggling small businesses, land fragmentation, no more viable small farming or pastoral life); transport sector (modern phone call based and meter charge taxi services –vs- struggling Lada taxis, tuk-tuks, mini-buses); labour market (few but rising millionaires –vs- high youth including educated unemployment); high economic growth –vs- high inflation and unemployment.

The uneven spread of growth dividend and crumbling livelihood/ losses across society is fueling the current conflict.  This is exacerbated by the fact that some groups believe they deserve more of the growth fruits arising from perceived historical deprivation while others equally feel they deserve better life arising from vulnerable and insecure livelihood.   Notwithstanding livelihood pressure is a widespread problem, the level of deprivation severity differs across geographic areas/ sections of the society.  These differences and subtle discords across societal groups are driving the current conflict amidst survival edge livelihood pressure felt almost across the whole society.  

Over the past two decades, the balanced view agrees there was economic growth but no development.  TPLF – the incumbent government then focused on its economic achievements and was taken by surprise when faced by mass unrest and opposition about 5 years ago, which it failed to fully grasp.   TPLF and Tigrayan elites were focused on emerging new systems, structures and prospects underpinning the values of competitiveness, individual strive and achievement.  Key leadership positions of federal government and public institutions, booming businesses and the military were dominated by Tigrayans who, supported by such positions and marginally a bit higher edge of individual motivation, were posed to reap more the growth dividends.  This was not true, however, for the whole Tigray society but for the few in major urban settings.

On the other hand, some social groups (intersecting ethnicity) and their elites focused on existing but crumbling systems, structures and despair underpinning the values of communal welfare, similarity and conformity to a group.  Many other groups fall in between these extreme views.  Such differences are fueling the current conflict with government power shifting from one extreme group to another and clashes going beyond elite groups to mass society wide conflict.  The elite group, underpinned by ethnicity, who managed to grab power from TPLF is mainly driven by communal welfare and detest individual aspirations, competition and growth that leaves the majority to live in poverty.  Individual motivation and wealth amass that set it different from its social group is seen with contempt.  Such cultural values are in sharp contrast to the Tigrayan elites and society who cherish individual achievement.  The differences are driven by differences in ways of living where one group has to survive in harsh environmental conditions whereas the other group relatively earns living from conducive and fertile environmental settings.  In the former individual survival and effort is acknowledged and supported whereas in the latter communal livelihood and conformity to a group is cherished.   The evolving objective situation in Ethiopia is such that such differences are likely to evaporate in the coming short period.  Survival mode is an attribute that is going to be shared equally across all societies in the reasonable future period.  

The wide consensus is living conditions have mostly deteriorated, over the past 3 decades and that a growing number of people failed to meet their basic needs and became destitute.  A persistent pressure on the local environment of a continuously rising population led to deforestation, soil erosion and land degradation as consequences of change in cultivation practice, declining maintenance and destructive pastoral exploitation.  The frequency and severity of drought has continuously been rising.  2016 saw the worst El Niño in 50 years as more than 10 million people depended on relief food assistance, household and community resilience was eroded while vulnerability increased.  This was followed in 2017, with a deep Indian Ocean dipole-induced drought in south and southeastern Ethiopia and consequently 8.5 million Ethiopians needed relief food assistance.  Severe drought which used to occur every decade a few decades ago has over the past four decades or so began to occur first every five years and in most recent years every year.  This has significantly eroded the livelihood and resilience capacity of most people in rural areas.  

Ethiopia remained in a low equilibrium state characterized by low productivity, low income and poor living conditions.  This state was sustained over a long period while land degradation became severe in the northern and central part of the country leading to sporadic occurrences of hunger and famine.   This was one of the underlying causes that led to the liberation struggle which brought the TPLF government to power in 1991.   Those that carried the struggle and have been leading the government were economic hardship hardened and in principle deeply committed to resolving it.  However, their underlying understanding of Ethiopia’s socio-political history and the economy was tainted by misguided grievances and resentment that led to their application of wrong policies and strategies that not only created havoc to the lives of the majority of the people but also endangered the very existence of the Ethiopian state.  

While a relatively higher degree of economic severity witnessed in Tigray region over at least the past half century period has its root primarily in surrounding environmental degradation (including perhaps the expansion of the Sahara Desert), the Tigrayan elites wrongly ascribe the region destitution to national government subjugation, Amhara domination and conspiracy of other societies to undermine the society.  So, once in power, the TPLF felt rightly justified to dominate the governance structure, amass wealth at the expense of larger society and compensate for presumed past injustices.  This has fired back and led to the emergence of a group in power that detests private wealth and, instead, cherishes sharing, similarity and conformity.    The current government is likely set to slow down the economic dynamism, gradually dismantle private property and stand against the current of change necessitated in Ethiopia.  This will surely aggravate current conflicts which will surely become widespread and more violent leading the country to disintegration and statelessness.  

In the meantime, slowly but surely the underlying conditions are evolving and becoming ripe for rapid change in economic systems and governance that need to be placed to accommodate the sheer size of high and growing population size and fragile natural environment.  In fact, one can reasonably argue that much of the recent infrastructure based economic growth was driven by the need to accommodate the sheer size of the rapidly growing populace.  The expansion in road infrastructure, condominium houses, social infrastructure, etc. were driven by growing need on the ground and would have occurred under whatever type of government the country could have without which it would not have lasted for any reasonable period.  In fact, the most recent disintegration of the TPLF government is precisely because the government was unable to cope with the dynamic needs and changes on the ground on top of its corrupt practices.  So whatever rapid socio-economic transformations witnessed in recent periods were simply driven by objective underlying conditions rather than ascribed to renaissance drive or ingenuity of leaders.

Moreover, whatever economic growth was achieved, it has come at the cost of greater inequality, higher unemployment and weakened democracy.  So far the gains from the growth seem to be concentrated in the hands of the few. A research firm based in South Africa reported, the number of US-dollar millionaires in Ethiopia rose by 108 percent between 2007 and 2013 – faster than in any other country in Africa.  Similarly, the Ethiopian customs and revenue department recently reported that nearly 65 percent of Ethiopia’s tax revenue came from fewer than 1,000 individuals in 2014.  It seemed that the Government was intentionally over selling Ethiopia’s growth performance with a hope of probably attracting foreign direct investment.  This has created lots of confusion and desperation especially among the youth who have not seen the fruits of this claimed growth.  The situation in Ethiopia is such that any government that is not focused on the economy and set to bring broad based growth is likely to fail sooner or later.  

Ethiopia as a country has reached a stage where fundamental changes in economic organization is necessitated to accommodate the sheer size of over 112 million people.  The needs of the country are changing as it experiences high population growth and rapid environmental deterioration.  At that rate, the United Nations (UN) estimates that Ethiopia’s population will reach 130 million by 2025, and it is projected to be among the world’s ten largest countries by population in 2050.

Ethiopia is indeed changing, currently undergoing societal, economic and political transformations.  This process is challenging as the country is constituted through multi-ethnicity, livelihood and varying environmental settings.   The country has not become a melting pot and nation building is at an early stage with the process creating violent conflict and economic damage.  Lack of leadership with long-term vision, a drive for nation building and focus on national interest is witnessed now on both sides of the conflict on-going in the northern part of the country.  An all-inclusive national dialogue and emergence of leaders with understanding of underlying conditions and with a vision to unite the society are needed.  The hope is such leaders will inevitably come to power and Ethiopia will have a safe landing to a modern world.  

Editor’s note : views in the article reflect the views of the writer, not the views of 


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  1. The article, with all due respect to the author, makes no sense. Let’s dial back the clock to 1974. The early 1970s were a period in Ethiopia when commercial farming was on the rise, there was a burgeoning of a middle class and an ultra rich upper class with asymmetrical growth in urban vs rural Ethiopia. This period is a critical era in Ethiopia’s history. It critically shines light on the historical errors the so called intellectual class, elites and so called progressives have continually made in making the wrong diagnosis about the ills of the country and their wrong prescriptions to solve the issues.

    The 1974 Ethiopian government, military and civil service sector professionals and authorities were the most educated and most experienced workforce compared to any other period in Ethiopian history, including today. The PM was PM Aklilu Habtewold, a Sorbonne graduate with 30 plus years of government experience. There were at least two more PMs to follow, both Oxford graduates (PM Endalkachew Mekonnen and PM Michael Imru). The foreign minister was Dr. Haile Minase ( a Columbia law school graduate with a PhD in Economics). The Mayor of Addis Ababa was Dr. Haile Giorgis Workeneh ( a civil engineer registered in the US, with a PhD from Carnegie Mellon). And so on and on.

    The asymmetric growth of rural vs urban Ethiopia was wrongly diagnosed by the infantile student movement and misguided progressives of the likes of mesfin woldemariam, entirely in political terms. A “them and us” dichotomy was built as “ feudal”land tiller”,” capitalist” vs “socialist, communist” “revolutionary”vs “reactionary” etc. feuding political groups.

    Then just like the author mentioned as in today’s Ethiopia, the claim was made that only a few individuals benefited while the majority of Ethiopians still lived in abject poverty and destitution. So in the last 50 years, by the author’s own account of “ only a few becoming the rich “ in a nation of 110 million people, nothing but the name and class of the rich and famous has changed. Namely in Emperor Haile Selassie’s era they were “the aristocrats”, who got “replaced” by the Derg Military and Politburo echelons, who in turn got “replaced” by Tplf Elites, who now are “replaced” with OLF and Oromumma Elites.

    Has Ethiopia solved the urban vs rural asymmetrical growth today???? What has happened to the quality of the workforce, the education level of the government officials and military personnel today???? After all even the military had West Point and Sandhurst trained decorated generals and professionals then, compared to what we have today.

    The author claims the TPLF era had the wealth of the nation concentrated in the hands of a few with covert implications that the case is not so now? In today’s Ethiopia too, the wealth of the nation is concentrated in the hands of a few PP sycophants and the bosom buddies of the Abiy regime.

    On top of all these social ills and inequalities, the Abiy regime has failed miserably to uphold even the fundamentals of law and order. He has lost the support of the majority of the people. His recent inflammatory speeches in Bale are prime examples of “coded hate speech” mobilizing a group for violence and retribution against others who Abiy perceive as his “enemies”. This must be well documented and preserved to show the global world what this man is capable of inciting and cooking.

    • Dear contributor,

      When all said and done; I concur with your arguments in tandem. Having said that let me delve into where you and I differ. The last gov´t that had tried to anything peacefully was HIM and even then, he had more of a quasi/lukewarm approach to democracy than anyone that followed him. The fact that you compared the era of the HIM vs now is tantamount to redressing a hair saloon for a completely bald man. The reign emperor HIM begins and end in AA. All the above good things you mentioned about him were limited to Addis Ababa and even then, for the few who spoke the language and were lucky enough to have gone to school. HIM has committed many mistakes that are grandeur and indelible to date. Of those to mention are the lack of democracy in any shape or form, education, security, and above all poor economic foresight that led to devastation to a nation that could have been the basket case of East Africa. If there is any that you and I could agree on, then it will be the fact that he didn´t have enough time to achieve advancements; if he indeed had the intention to develop the country. His deficiencies were glaring given the fact that the population size was lesser but more malleable than now!! That effectively nullifies your arguments of comparing the Abiy gov´t to any, in the past, considering the fact both Derg and TPLF were wicked to their cores. HIM was more a semi-despot that derg and TPLF combined that wanted to hold the country together by force. Show me any country, from the universe, that, in this day and age, is held together by force? So, as I see it, you only have a problem with time and not with Abiy himself persé. And if you are genuinely concerned, well then lay it bare so that we can all read it….


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