Ethiopia’s Challenge: Can it Rise after a Fall?


By the Strathink Editorial Team

The 6th century (B.C.) Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” During the past two years, Ethiopia’s EPRDF-led government has failed on a number of fronts, but the question remains: can they rise after a series of spectacular falls? Let’s look at several of these failures.

The Big Picture: The People Demand More

The unrest that took place in Oromia and Amhara signaled a threshold reached for a population with clearly rising expectations from the government. This should have been expected given the extraordinary growth in the economy as well as in the health and education sectors.

The term “revolution of rising expectations” was popularized in the 1950s to explain why revolutions occur. According to this theory, revolutions are likely to occur after a downturn in a system following a long period of expectations matching needs. In a downturn, the system lags behind the peoples’ rising expectations and the gap between expectations and reality is perceived as intolerable. This sets the stage for revolt.

We have said before that perhaps the Ethiopian government is a victim of its own success. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) said in its 2014 report on Ethiopia’s economic and social development:

At the centre of the country’s strong economic and social performance has been the Government’s proactive and leading role in shaping socio-economic policy. With its goal of making Ethiopia a middle-income country no later than 2025, the Government, among other things, has been investing heavily in economic and social infrastructure, streamlining public services, revamping the tax collection system, and supporting small and medium enterprises (SMEs). [1]

We include this direct quote here from UNDP to put aside the debate on Ethiopia’s economic and social transformation. Although detractors maintain a stubborn refusal to accept official statistics from the Ethiopian government, we find it puzzling how these detractors can conclude that there is some sort of conspiracy between multilateral financial institutions and Ethiopia to lie about the country’s growth. We proceed here on the premise that Ethiopia has experienced incredible economic growth (even visually apparent) and improving the lives of the people through the vast extension of social programs in key sectors such as health and education.

Ethiopia’s economic success coupled with a healthier and more educated population, particularly youth, resulted in a “revolution of rising expectations.” For youth in particular, this meant expectations for economic opportunities that did not keep pace with improvements in the distribution of public goods. In Oromia, the youth witnessed “land grabs” that displaced smallholder farmers in favor of big commercial interests. The accumulation of wealth was perceived as a function of party loyalty. Looking around, youth—either unemployed or underemployed—had no outlets to express their discontent. They had little to lose in taking to the streets and attacking those businesses that stood as symbols of the exclusion they felt in the country’s economic renaissance.

Although most dramatic in Oromia, the sense of exclusion has been a persistent theme in Ethiopia’s political culture. Democratic reform has lagged since 2005—the pinnacle of Ethiopia’s then rising democracy subverted by the opposition in its attempt to overthrow the government through street action. Since then, there has been a malaise in democratic development as the governing party spread its reach across the country in the absence of any viable and credible opposition. “First-past-the-post” combined with a vacuum of opposition created a monolith (the party) seen as a barrier to broad-based, equal opportunity, particularly for a new generation of Ethiopians separated from the previous generations by experiences not rooted in acute poverty and oppression.

An understanding of this new generation, we believe, is the key to quelling the rising discontent among Ethiopia’s “youth bulge.” What are the dreams and aspirations of Ethiopia’s youth today? What do they want? We can say with some certainty that they want meaningful employment. Driving around the streets of Addis Ababa or any of burgeoning towns and cities throughout the country is the same landscape of young people sitting in coffee shops, standing on corners, and walking down streets in a never-ending routine of idleness. Education keeps them from manual labor and small businesses need an elusive capital investment. And so they sit in the coffee shops waiting for life to happen—leaving them vulnerable to the demagoguery of opposition groups such as Ginbot 7 and the OLF. After all, they believe that the EPRDF is only for a select group of party loyalists. Moreover, the government is talking to them.

A Failure to Communicate

It is mind-boggling that a government with an extraordinary success story to tell has simply failed to tell that story—to its people and to the outside world. Since taking power in 1991, the EPRDF-led government has consistently and spectacularly failed to communicate any number of positive messages to the nation or to the international community. The government appears to be resolute in its reticence to inform or explain to the people what it is doing, how it is doing it and why it is doing it—resulting in a lack of transparency that surrounds the government with a thick veil of secrecy and, therefore, perceived nefariousness. The government cannot win the hearts and minds of the people—no matter how well it performs—without effective, frequent and consistent communication.

Why has the government failed in the very crucial matter of communication? We can offer some speculative answers. Perhaps it is the nature of the guerilla movement that led to the formation of the EPRDF that inhibits developing a culture of communication. Or maybe it is based on the historical antecedents of monarchy and dictatorship that set the tone for the government’s relationship with civil society. Could it even be an inherent arrogance that drives the government to a stubborn silence—a belief that people should just look around them and see what the government has accomplished in twenty-five years.

Whatever the reason, it is abundantly clear that the government has failed to communicate with the Ethiopian people. Right now, the situation is like a failing marriage where neither side is communicating to the other except in an explosive call and response. With each passing day, the situation deteriorates into greater mistrust and misunderstanding until one day there is no bridging the widening gap.

The Ethiopian government has failed as well to communicate its perspective to the broader international community. In doing so, the only voices heard are those of the diaspora. They mastered “fake news” long before America’s alt-right fringe, with the help of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, filled the Internet with lies, rumors and innuendo about Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Ethiomedia, EthiopianReview, and ESAT, to name just a few, are the main sources of information for “Ethiopia watchers” worldwide—Freedom House and the Fund for Peace use these websites as sources for their Ethiopia-bashing annual reports. Yes, it seems absurd and unscientific for so-called “think tanks” to use partisan and unfiltered media for their self-described objective reports; however, their funding depends on being watchdogs of “not free” states so it is to their advantage to have as many “unfree states” on their list.

The embassies reflect the same reticence as the government it represents. For example, when diaspora thugs forcibly occupied the took down the country’s flag at the Ethiopian Embassy compound in Washington, DC, where was the Ethiopian Ambassador’s press conference? Every single embassy in Washington, DC—except perhaps the Eritrean Embassy—would have supported Ethiopia’s case against these thugs who broke the law and insulted the nation. Instead, the Ethiopian Embassy maintained a public silence that send a signal of weakness to the diaspora and to the U.S. government about protecting its national interests.

What good is coming out of the government’s stubborn refusal to communicate? Nothing. This silence is only interpreted as nefariousness or weakness—the inability of the government to explain itself is undoing all of the progress made in the last twenty-five years.

The Answer is Simple

Let’s start with communicating to the people. In an age of instant communication through the science of information technology, the tools are right there. The most important tool in communicating with youth is social media. This is a suggestion for the government: instead of banning social media, learn how to use it. The technology is easy to master. What is harder to learn is the messaging. What does the government want to say to Ethiopian youth? This is a very serious question but the answer will drive a solution to the wedge now between the government and its youthful constituencies. The first step is to understand what this constituency wants.

Again, technology is the government’s friend, not enemy. The government needs to use scientific polling to ask the right questions. This could serve to solve two problems: employ the young to collect the survey data needed to understand what they think about and what they want. Once the government collects and analyzes the data, they will have a clearer picture of this new generation of Ethiopian. This kind of market research made billions of dollars for product manufacturers who built sophisticated models of consumer choice. The same is true for a consumer of the public goods and services. The new generation of young Ethiopians has a different set of values and reference points than past generations. What are these values and reference points?

Once a profile(s) is know about the concerns of youth, both short and long-term, the government can then develop its messages. This is the hard part. The government must be able to articulate how it can address the challenges of being young, educated and healthy in the new Ethiopia. What are the opportunities afforded this vast proportion of Ethiopia’s population and how can they access it? What are the government’s plans for expanding political space for its opposition? Most importantly, the government needs to develop messages of inclusion and the value of each and every one of its citizens.

To do this, the government needs to work in cross-generational teams to tap into the youth market. The language of struggle and sacrifice does not resonate with this new generation. The government has to remember that this generation was born under a new flag. They take for granted the new Ethiopia that was created on the backs of those who sacrificed their own youth for something bigger than themselves.

The technology for social media can reach millions of Ethiopian youth. While today social media has been used to create unrest and destruction, that same social media can be used to inform, explain and encourage youth to contribute to their country. Again, it is a different kind of contribution than that of past generations. Youth must be encouraged to reject violence and embrace change. That could be a message for everyone—reject violence and embrace change.

The Prime Minister’s new cabinet should be required to open a Twitter and Facebook account and attend a brief training on the technology. More importantly, ministers need to work with their communications teams to develop weekly messages to push out to their constituents. Social media should be content-driven; by using it, the government not only connects with the people but also uses it as a delivery system for messaging.

The government’s relationship with the press historically has been contentious—and for good reason. A free press is a relatively new idea and there remains a lack of discipline and self-censorship. In many cases, the Ethiopian media are partisan vehicles for the political opposition. Because the government seldom talks to the foreign press, stories coming out of Ethiopia tend to be formulaic and one-sided—mimicking the perspective of one side and dramatizing events to sell to editors looking for sensationalism. The kind of thoughtful journalism that seeks to analyze and even explain events is missing, creating a lopsided view of the Ethiopian reality.

The Prime Minister should hold weekly press conferences for both Ethiopian and foreign reporters. These press conferences should be open and journalists encouraged to ask the hard questions needed to communicate the very real challenges facing the country today. It is a win-win situation for the government and the Ethiopian people. Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalgne is an intelligent, articulate leader whose warmth and concern comes through even with the toughest questions. His cabinet ministers should follow his lead and hold weekly press conferences as well. By demonstrating transparency and accountability via the press, the government can make significant inroads in changing the current narrative. The Ethiopian government has the responsibility of answering to the people—and the people have the right to know. A more open, accessible government through regular press conferences can make a difference—particularly within the context reform.

Can They Rise After the Fall

Let’s go back to Confucius. Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” The Ethiopian government has made extraordinary progress in the last twenty-five years across every sector. With this progress have come some stunning failures. The economy has grown yet political space has shrunk. Ethnic federalism created inclusion yet the party bred exclusion. Ethiopians are better off today yet their expectations have risen. Communication technology has expanded the scope of communication yet the government remains relatively silent. Democratic institutions are in place yet corruption is the way the game is being played. What began as a government of revolutionaries committed to the Ethiopian people is perceived as a kleptocracy of rent-seekers.

Can Ethiopia’s leadership reform itself?

There is still hope. There is a number of the “old guard” still leading key institutions in the country. It is up to them to get rid of the bad guys in the Ethiopian government and restore the EPRDF-led government to its original form—a vehicle for serving the interests of the Ethiopian people. This generation toppled a monarchy and a military government that fought them with sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest army. This generation took a country mired in poverty and raised it to become the fastest growing economy in the world.

The next few years will be the final chapter of this generation’s leadership. If they fall again, 100 million people will fall with them. But if they rise…

[1] UNDP, Accelerating Inclusive Growth for Sustainable Human Development in Ethiopia (2015)

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