Ethiopia Still Rising!

By The Strathink Editorial Team

The recent bold and forward thinking moves by Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, to further advance the country are a reflection of Ethiopia’s continuously upward trajectory of transformation and modernization. Although the narrative of Ethiopian history has become a political flashpoint for groups to express past grievances and marginalization—and this is not at all to say that these grievances and marginalization are not accurate—it is also important to recognize and celebrate the achievements that have brought Ethiopia to this point in time.

It is a truism that history is written by the winners. Ethiopia’s historical narrative is dominated by a history of the highland monarchs who ruled the country until 1974. The history of the nations, nationalities and peoples of the current Ethiopian state are on the periphery of most narratives and are significantly underserved by historians. We acknowledge this upfront.

We also note here that the emperors we cite here have a very mixed record of governance and respect for human rights. The monarchy exercised absolute rule and were often cruel in their dispensation of justice. In 1974, with the ascendance of Mengistu, governance was exceptionally cruel and oppressive as Red Terror resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopia’s young people and the military rained bombs on the people of Tigray and Eritrea in a brutal effort to subdue resistance.

Having said that, the purpose of this article is to note the many remarkable achievements of reform and modernization that have taken place despite the enormous burdens of poverty, fractious politics and malevolent global neighbors.

Ethiopia’s Modernizing Rulers: A Snapshop

Beginning with Emperor Tedros (1818-1868), the modernizing instincts of the monarchy were not completely subsumed by the expansion and maintenance of power. Emperor Tedros is credited with re-establishing a cohesive Ethiopian state and attempting to reform its administration and the church. He instituted a system of appointed and salaried governors and judges—a nascent civil service. He raised a standing army instead of depending on local rulers to provide the Crown with soldiers. He set up a system of collecting books for a library and established a tax code.

At a time when Africa was being carved out and annexed by European powers, Tedros interacted with the mighty British Empire as an equal partner, proposing a joint expedition to conquer Jerusalem and requesting assistance to teach his men how to make modern weapons. Eventually, the British defeated his army at Magdala and he took his life. Imagining the context of 19th century Africa—at the height of European pillaging—puts Tedros’ achievements in the realm of the extraordinary.

Emperor Yohannes continued the tradition of confronting the European colonizers on equal footing. He negotiated with the British and Egyptians to recognize Ethiopia as a sovereign state and independent country. His military pushed back the incursions of Egypt, Italy and Sudan. He sent diplomatic envoys to European capitals and was the first Ethiopian ruler to appoint an envoy in London. He was interested in modern Western medicine and during his reign employed a Greek physician at his Court. He promoted the use of mercury to treat syphilis and was the first in the country to be inoculated against smallpox.

Emperor Menelik created the Ethiopian Empire through conquest and subjugation.—doubling the territory of the state by the beginning of the twentieth century. At the same time, historians credit Menelik as the father of the modern Ethiopian state—negotiating with the European powers, Italy, France and Great Britain, keeping colonialism at bay throughout the infamous “carving of Africa”.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea and Somalia, Menelik soundly and decisively defeated the Italians at Adowa, using the modern weapons of war he, with great foresight, provided his army. Ethiopia’s military under Menelik was the best armed and organized African state of its time. Menelik sought to create a modern government by setting up Schools, hospitals, roads, railway lines, telephones, a postal system, telegraphs, banks, hotels, and a ministerial cabinet.

Haile Selassie inherited the legacy of Menelik’s expansion and worked on setting up a modern administrative state apparatus to govern the 14 provinces. Ruling for almost 60 years, Haile Selassie ruled during a time of immense transformation and modernity. His achievements are too numerous to cite in this truncated summary of some highlights of Ethiopian history. Let’s just name a few: schools, hospitals, roads, banks, telephone system, military college, printing presses, trains and electrical grids. He promulgated Ethiopia’s first Constitution. He established a Cabinet and invited embassies and consulates. He established one of the country’s premier global resources: Ethiopian Airlines. He promoted the idea and established the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), positioning Ethiopia as a leader of a free and independent Africa.

These are just a few of the extraordinary achievements of Ethiopia’s government, led by the Emperor, which brought Ethiopia onto the regional, continental and world stage. No one can forget Haile Selassie’s statement at the League of Nations during the Italian occupation: “Now it is us; next it is you.”

It is difficult to write about the success of some of the policies undertaken by the government during the regime of Mengistu Hailemariam. His government destroyed more than it created. Suffice it to say here, and apologies to the many victims of his cruel and barbaric reign of terror, Mengistu’s government crushed the feudal system, replacing it instead with a weak and inefficient command economy. Nationalization and the establishment of collective farms wrecked havoc on the economy and Ethiopia’s poor got even poorer. However, land reform—the rallying cry for a generation of young Ethiopian student activists—fundamentally changed Ethiopia’s economy and social structure.

Literacy was another significant achievement of the regime. Despite Haile Selassie’s focus on education—education for Ethiopia’s elite, the best and the brightest—literacy for the masses remained low. Mengistu’s government, for the first time in Ethiopian history, used 15 of the country’s languages to promote adult literacy, reaching over 90% of the population. In addition, the government facilitated the development of established writing systems for 13 of these languages. The government’s National Literacy Campaign reduced illiteracy from 93% in 1974 to 25% in 1989.

Despite advances in land reform and adult literacy, by the time the EPRDF took power in 1991, the country was suffering from economic stagnation, political repression and social upheaval. Seventeen years of Mengistu’s villagization and cooperative programs in the rural areas proved to be disastrous to Ethiopia’s agricultural economy; a bankrupt ideology had decimate the country’s administrative infrastructure; and social upheaval had upended the relationships even within families.

The EPRDF, the Prime Minister’s party, can be credited with pulling Ethiopia out of the abyss and setting it on the path to becoming an economic powerhouse and regional leader. The Constitution enacted in 1995, enshrined democratic rights for the people of Ethiopia and established an ethnic federalist system that gave nations, nationalities and people the right to self-determination and self-governance. Economically, the Growth and Transformation Plan, which was developed to create an enabling environment for industry and manufacturing sectors to take the lead by replacing agriculture led industry policy into industry led policy. This was a major policy initiative that launched Ethiopia onto the road of becoming a middle income country by 2030.

The EPRDF government has travelled a clear path towards democratization. Despite the challenges, both internally and externally, Ethiopia’s federalist system has withstood the bumps on the road towards democracy and will continue to adapt to the changing political context while maintaining the constitutional principles and legal framework.

Internationally, Ethiopia’s government has made its mark on the global stage. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi successfully represented the African continent on the global stage—one example is his presence at the G8 meetings. Ethiopia, under the EPRDF, contributes the most of any country to global peacekeeping operations. It hosts more refugees than any other African country and has the most humane policy towards refugees in the world—providing a university education to young displaced young scholars and allowing refugees to work and live outside the camps. The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been a symbol of African political will, regional cooperation and Ethiopian engineering expertise. The GERD will provide power to Ethiopia, the region and across the African continent.

All Ethiopians can be proud of these achievements.

The new Prime Minister is carrying on a long tradition of transformation and modernization that began with the Ethiopian monarchy. Although successive Ethiopian governments had flaws—in some cases, more than flaws but assaults against the Ethiopian people—no one should fear change. Great things never came from comfort zones. In 1991, no one imagined that Ethiopia would transform itself into an economic powerhouse, be governed by rule of law, or stand tall on the world stage equal to the Western powers. Let’s imagine an even better Ethiopia and walk into the future with our legacy pointing the way forward.

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