Category Archives: Ethiopia

Ethiopia: A country suspended in time?

By Alpha Abebe

Image Copyright: Alpha Abebe

In development studies, it’s become rather stale to critique Walt Rostow – the grandfather of neoliberal ideology – and his 1960 book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. We’ve seemingly moved past the tempting notion that a country’s health can be measured along a linear path of economic growth. And it should go without saying that it is no longer useful or appropriate to talk about societies as “backward and traditional”. And the concept of ‘modernity’ –the idea that certain countries somehow exist outside of time and are waiting to catch up with the rest – is ironically outdated itself. However, one has to wonder whether mainstream representations of Africa have moved far enough away from these stubborn tropes.

I was left wondering this very thing after reading Mary Harper’s recent piece for BBC News Africa: Ethiopia’s ‘cupcake divide’ in Addis Ababa. From the title and content of the article, one gets the impression that the author was dumbfounded to stumble upon traces of 21st century existence in the middle of Africa. Her article is framed as a commentary on the rapid industrialization in Addis Ababa, juxtapositioned against the country’s chronic poverty and political uncertainty. However, this story is buried beneath a rather colourful depiction of Addis Ababa, a city apparently suspended between two centuries and trying to decide which to settle in:

“… Every time I go to Addis Ababa, more tall, sparkling buildings take me by surprise and confuse my bearings.

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‘We shall return’: elections, anxiety and prophecies in northern Kenya

 By Hassan Hussein Kochore

 Hassan Hussein Kochore writes about a ‘we shall return home’ narrative gaining traction in parts of northern Kenya. People are looking north to a post-Meles Ethiopia while worrying what the 2013 Kenyan elections will bring.

In his seminal work on nationalism, Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson suggested that a feeling of national community is produced by the knowledge that all over the nation people are performing the daily ritual of reading the same newspaper.  This idea is best captured in the name of our own Kenyan newspaper, the Daily Nation.  In Nairobi, one can take for granted the ease with which a newspaper can be obtained from the supermarket, roadside vendors, and hawkers in traffic jams or even by borrowing it from a fellow passenger in a matatu. Many matatus these days actually have a copy of the day’s paper and if you’re lucky enough to sit next to the driver, you can monopolize it. By the time you get to your destination, you’ll have read the whole paper for free!

Then picture a place where a newspaper is hard to come by, a place where you can only ever buy yesterday’s paper, asking a shopkeeper on a Monday morning, “Nipatie Sunday Nation ya leo.” (Give me today’s Sunday Nation). Welcome to Marsabit County in northern Kenya, the nation’s ‘B-side’. Northern Kenya has historically been marginalized, closed off from the rest of Kenya and development actors like the churches. It was only after independence that the Catholic Church, for example, was allowed to build schools in Marsabit. Roads are almost non-existent, with heavy trucks – the most popular means of transport – carving out new roads for themselves every few days in the sandy landscape. It still takes two days riding on the roof of a truck to get to Marsabit from Nairobi. Continue reading

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Meles Zenawi: Afterthoughts

By Toni Weis

Many obituaries have been written since Meles Zenawi died on August 20th. So many, in fact, that this is a comment on the obituaries as much as on the man himself.

The young Meles Zenawi, on a picture that lined his casket during the funeral cortege. Copyright unknown

There are many stories about Meles Zenawi. Here is one of them. The year is 1995, and the newly-elected prime minister is getting ready to sit the final exams for his MBA at the Open University. The proctor at the British Council tells Meles (who, like most former revolutionaries, sustains himself on cigarettes) that, unfortunately, he will not be allowed to smoke during the exams. “I am sure you believe in democracy?”, Meles replies. The proctor concurs. “So let’s put that to a vote”. There is a show of hands, and not much later the Ethiopian prime minister lights a cigarette, savouring one of the more marginal successes of his political career.

I wouldn’t exactly vouch for the accuracy of this little anecdote. But if it exaggerates, it does so for effect. It captures the essence of the Meles Zenawi we, as more or less distant observers, got to know over the last twenty years: his wit, his confidence, and his willingness to put people on the spot; the sheer boldness with which he played the games of others, but by his own rules; but most clearly perhaps his instinctive talent, honed by many years of Marxist exegesis, to see the political in everything.

This primacy of politics was a common thread running through Meles’ short but extraordinarily eventful life, from the 1974 student protests to the Hoxhaist years in the mountains of Tigray, and from the TPLF’s march on Addis to Meles’ later years as a pan-African statesman. So much so that, when I recently asked someone who knew Meles well about his legacy as a person, not just a political leader, my interlocutor rejected that distinction as artificial: “Meles was a profoundly political person”.

I’m not sure all of those who penned his obituaries – the eulogists as much as the detractors – have understood the importance of this point. If there is a consensus among the multitude of voices, it seems to be that Meles left behind a “mixed” legacy, a “checkered” or “conflicted” one: good for the Ethiopian economy (the famous ‘double-digit growth’), less so for Ethiopian politics (the infamous ‘authoritarian tendencies’).

What the commentators fail to understand is that, to Meles, these were two sides of the same coin. Development, in his eyes, was primarily a political process, not an economic one. Continue reading

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A Monument for Graziani: Italy’s unresolved relations to its violent colonial past

By Jacob Wiebel and Toni Weis

Opening of the Graziani memorial in Affile. Copyright holder unknown.

Earlier this month Affile, a small town in the Italian region of Lazio, has inaugurated a Mausoleum dedicated to the memory of the fascist Field Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. The Marshal’s name is well remembered in Ethiopia for his use of chemical weapons and for ordering massacres which cost thousands of Ethiopian lives, including those of a sizable portion of the country’s intelligentsia, during the Italian invasion and occupation of the country in the 1930s. Coverage of these news in the Italian media has remained marginal and has largely centred on the exorbitant price tag of almost 130.000 €, paid for with regional funds. The erection of a monument to a fascist leader has been denounced by some, but the violent colonial realities created by that leader have received little attention. The memorial to Graziani powerfully illustrates Italy’s ongoing flirtations with far-right politics; but it also acts as a reminder of the systematic human rights abuses and war crimes on which Italian colonialism was built, and of the sad fact that these have never engendered the public debate and societal soul-searching that their gravity, and their victims’ dignity, demands.

 The illegal use of chemical weapons in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, claiming thousands of lives, is well documented. For example, on the eve of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in March 1936, Graziani sent a secret memorandum on his preparations for the conflict to the Ministry of War in Rome. In this file, which has recently been purchased by the Library of Congress (see footnote 1), he outlined his strategy for overcoming the numerous but poorly-armed Ethiopian defense forces. Central to this strategy was the large-scale use of illegal chemical weapons:

 “Condizione essenziale per la riuscita dell’ operazione: […] libero uso di bombe e proiettili a liquidi speciali per infliggere al nemico le massime perdite e sopratutto per produrne il completo collasso morale.”

[“Essential condition for the succeeding of the Operation: […] the free use of special-liquid bombs and shells in order to inflict maximum losses on the enemy, and above all to effect his complete collapse of morale”] Continue reading

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Leading academics react to the Graziani memorial

The decision, by the Italian town of Affile, to erect a monument in honour of Rodolfo Graziani is not only an insult to his victims, but also a challenge to those who research and write the history of colonial rule.  Focus on the Horn has asked a number of international scholars to comment on this issue; below, we document their responses in full. Please feel free to add your own comments! (For our background article on the Graziani memorial, see here).

Bahru Zewde is Emeritus Professor of History at Addis Ababa University and author of A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991.

” I do hope that your blog and other initiatives would culminate in the dismantling of this shameful memorial. This is not an academic issue. It is a matter of honour and dignity, not only of those in Libya and Ethiopia who were the victims of his bloody reprisals but also of later generations who had kept those martyrs in their memory. In Ethiopian history, Graziani is particularly notorious for what has come to be known as the Graziani Massacre when, following an attempt on his life on 19 February 1937, the Black Shirts were let loose on the population of Addis Ababa. Three days of indiscriminate killing set in. But not so indiscriminate was the systematic liquidation of a promising generation of young Ethiopian intellectuals. Their crime: having been part of the Black Lion Resistance force. Although they had surrendered to the Fascist forces months earlier, they were rounded up and executed.” Continue reading

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ይቻላል: Ethiopia’s Distance Running Elite

By Jacob Wiebel

Firezar in a picture taken by Jacob Wiebel

Six mornings a week, Firezar Dugumma wakes up before sunrise, puts on his trainers and begins his first training session of the day. Soon he is one of hundreds of runners weaving their way through the Eucalyptus forests that line the steep mountain slopes to the north of Addis Ababa. Some run alone, some in small groups, lined up in single file to negotiate the narrow trails. By international standards, many of these runners are elite athletes; Firezar’s Half Marathon time of 64 minutes, run at altitude, would put him in the top 5 in the UK. Yet in Ethiopia, recognition and success are scarce commodities. The talent pool is deep, and emerging from it remains the preserve of a chosen few. As Ethiopia’s top athletes are in London to compete in the Olympic Games, let me turn to Addis to explore some of the background, challenges and impacts of the country’s running elite.

Firezar and I first met during a research trip in March 2010. Since then we have spent months training together on the trails of Kotebe, ‘Arat Shi’ and Entoto, giving me ample opportunities to be left in the dust behind him and to learn about Firezar’s journey thus far. Originally from a village in the Bale mountains, Firezar moved to Addis Ababa when he was still a teenager, an inevitable step on the road to athletic success in Ethiopia. In the capital he was supported by his older brother, an aspiring local businessman, joined one of the established running clubs and integrated in the community of athletes who live on the edge of the forest, between Meganagna and Kotebe. He enrolled at the College of Teachers’ Education, but the course demanded too much time and energy and had to be sacrificed in the interest of full-time training, at least temporarily. His decisions, whether it be the move to Addis, the postponement of college or the delay of marriage (“I will think about that once I have won”) are fueled by dreams of international running success and of the opportunities and rewards that attend it. His hopes of an international breakthrough, of recognition and of material rewards are shared by his family in Bale, one of the many threads in the urban-rural nexus linking the capital to the countryside. Continue reading

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What does Ethiopia represent in the 21st Century?

Ethiopia’s flag bearer Yanet Seyoum holds the national flag as she leads the contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

by Alpha Abebe

When Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Dejen Gebremeskel take their marks at this year’s Olympics, and that start gun goes off, it is more than their personal careers on the line. Millions of people in Ethiopia and the diaspora will hold their breath, bite their nails, yell at their TV screens, and (hopefully) cheer in jubilation in heroic displays of nationalism. The Olympics has a way of creating patriots overnight, even drawing in the most apathetic and cynical of the lot. For a few days every four years, the nation feels like less of an ‘imaginary community’ as Benedict Anderson so famously argues, and more of something very real, visceral and tangible. But what will people (and I) be cheering for above and beyond the incredible athleticism and dedication of these Ethiopian athletes? If (ahem…when) the Ethiopian flag is raised above the Olympic podium, what will those colours represent to the world?

I struggle to think of another country whose historical global image is as diverse and contradictory as Ethiopia’s.

This is meant as a statement, not necessarily a critique. Besides, all countries are dynamic, heterogeneous social and political constructions…right? So any effort to represent a country as something more stable and coherent than it is involves some level of fantasy, fiction and often subversion. But national images, however constructed and confused as they are, do matter. They matter in public diplomacy, they matter for tourism revenues, and they matter to individual identities. Unlike pop-stars and retail companies, countries cannot simply hire consultants and marketing firms to whip up a compelling global brand. As regimes rise and fall, geopolitical interests shift, economies grow and collapse, and culture does what it does – evolves – new layers and dimensions are added to Ethiopia’s self and global image. This generally evokes one of two responses – creative adaptation and innovation, or desperate attempts to hold on to things past. However, if there was ever a case to find the middle ground, it is with Ethiopia. It is a country with such a rich (albeit contested) history that is worth commemorating. Yet, social, political and economic conditions are rapidly changing the country’s landscape, as well as its position within the world.

Coming to grips with what Ethiopia represents in the 21st Century must involve a willingness to engage with the inevitable tensions between the past and the present, the personal and political, and the local and international. Continue reading

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