Fixing Ethiopia’s Narrative in the West

by The Strathink Editorial Team

“Fixing Ethiopia Requires More Than a New Prime Minister,” an article written by Ms. Hilary Matfess and published on Lawfare, a foreign policy blog, is a perfect example of how not to write about African politics. In this essay, Ms. Matfess falls into the trap of Western scholarship and media coverage that diminishes Africa as something that needs to be “fixed.”

Articles written by Western scholars and news items penned by Western journalists about Africa are a repetition of the same descriptors—ethnic conflict, corruption, instability and incompetent leadership. Hence, there is a permanent subtext of needing “fixing.” This narrative has been a staple of Western political writing since the colonial period and reflects the core principal of framing Africa as “the white man’s burden.”

No matter that a Western country has essentially the same characteristics, it is all about how you say it. And when you say it about Africa, it must be said in a negative context.

For example, Ms. Matfess begins her article by noting: Though Ethiopia is nominally a democracy and holds regular elections, the EPRDF dominates the country’s political landscape. 

If she were writing about the United States, Ms. Matfess would say: Today the Republican Party controls the Executive branch, the Congressional branch and the majority of state governments.

It’s all in how you say it. In the American context, it is electoral politics. In the African context, it is party hegemony. Same facts. Different conclusion.

Further, she writes: Since suffering relative losses in the 2005 elections—in which opposition party candidates managed to win 174 seats in parliament, of the 527 —the party has doubled down on its tactics for maintaining political control. How? According to Ms. Matfess, During the 2008 local level kebele and woreda elections, the party essentially stacked the deck: The EPRDF increased the number of local seats up for contestation, supposedly as part of a “good governance” reform plan developed by the government after 2005, then won nearly 100 percent of the 3.5 million positions.

Unfortunately, Ms. Matfes leaves out some essential elements of the 2005 election story. Having won 174 seats in the parliament, the opposition not only refused to take their seats but also carried out a violent campaign to overthrow the government and take power by force.

This is a crucial fact in the narrative because it explains how the party [EPRDF] stacked the deck. The opposition was charged with attempting to overthrow the government using violence, detained, tried and then given amnesty. In a report released by the international NGO Lawyers Without Borders, the trial, save for some minor technical problems, was concluded to be fair.

Local elections were dominated by EPRDF wins because the opposition had imploded following their refusal to take their seats in parliament. Ironically, the opposition died a slow death not when the leaders were in jail but after they were released. Hailu Shawel, leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) became a businessman in Addis Ababa, where he prospered, and Berhanu Nega of the Rainbow Party linked arms with Eritrea’s dictator Isayas Afewerki to form Ginbot 7—an organization committed to the violent overthrow of the Ethiopian Government.

Moreover, Ethiopia’s electoral system, like that of the United States, is based on “first past the post”—meaning that whoever wins a majority of the votes wins all of the seats. The EPRDF mobilization campaign targeted the 85% of the population engaged in peasant agriculture. This is a constituency that voted overwhelmingly for the EPRDF in federal elections. With the opposition gasping for air and not having the organizational capacity to reach the farmers, it is no surprise that the EPRDF captured local elections.

Was this situation good for democracy—not at all. Strathink consistently has argued that democracy needs a credible and viable opposition. However, putting “good governance” in quotes leads the reader to conclude political ill will without the basis of a factual argument.

Why is Ms. Matfess telling part of the story without the full array of facts?

Ms. Matfess relies on a single anecdote to confirm her perception of the intentions of the Charities and Societies Act. She says, In a recent conversation with me, a researcher based in Addis Ababa estimated that in 2009, before the law went into effect, there were 3,000 civil society organizations; in 2011 when they re-registered, the number had dwindled to roughly 1,000.

Why is she using an estimate from a researcher? The numbers are widely published.

In 2009, when the CSO law was enacted, there were 2,275 national NGOs, which included 2,000 NGOs across sectors, 150 professional organizations and 125 civic advocacy organizations.

In 2011, following the enactment of the CSO law, there were 1,701 NGOs across sectors, 110 Ethiopian charities (including human rights organizations), 261 Ethiopian societies, 1,270 resident charities (including human rights and civic society organizations), and 60 Ethiopian resident societies.

In 2014, there were 3,181. In 2014, 174 new CSOs were registered, 158 CSOs were closed, including 133 involuntarily for failing project implementation due to lack of funds.

In 2017 there were 3183 charities and societies. Of these, 430 are foreign charities, 340 are Ethiopian societies, 2252 are Ethiopian resident charities and societies, 109 are Ethiopian charities, and 52 are consortiums.

Hence, the CSO law DID NOT reduce the number of NGOs in Ethiopia. Ms. Matfess’ assertion that the law had a debilitating effect on civil society in Ethiopia simply does not hold up. 

And finally, Ms. Matfess argues here that [t]he selection of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister—marking the first time in 27 years that the EPRDF has had an Oromo has occupied the office, despite the fact that the Oromo is the country’s largest ethnic group—is insufficient to stabilize the country.

Today’s Ethiopia narrative, successfully propagated by the Ethiopian opposition, is based on the mythology of 6% of the population (Tigrayans) dominating 35% (Oromo).

We can understand why the opposition perpetuates this kind of false narrative but are queasy at the notion that a scholar—a Yale Ph.D student—is not questioning how the poorest population in Ethiopia dominates 35% of the people in an ethnic federal arrangement of regional autonomy.

Moreover, is it even legitimate to assert that 35% of a country’s population is entitled to govern 65% of the population? Is that how democracy works? In the U.S., is the overwhelmingly Caucasian majority entitled to govern the country? Would anyone dare to make that case?

The genuine problems and shortcomings of the EPRDF are no secret. Indeed, the most recent party meetings laid out in detail the failings of the leadership. Western scholars and journalists, however, must conjure up their own shortcomings of the Ethiopian government to fit the narrative of Africa needing “fixing.”

It is easy to tell a story of ethnic conflict, corruption, instability and the incompetent African leader. It is much harder to master the facts, context and nuance of African politics to tell the whole story. This is the African’s burden to fix.

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