Moving Away from a Binary Narrative on Ethiopia: Land, Ethnicity and Governance (Part 2)

By the Strathink Editorial Team

Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi once said to journalist Jonathan Dimbelby, “Africa’s downfall has always been the cult of personality. And their names always seem to begin with M. We have had Mobutu and Mengistu and I am not going to add Meles to the list.”

This year’s anniversary marking the fourth year Prime Minister Meles’ passing reminds us of the dangers presented by the cult of personality. It is easy to fall prey to deifying—exalting to the rank of a deity—those we admire. At his funeral, everyone remembers his wife, H.E. Azeb Mesfin, looking out at the massive billboards of the Prime Minister’s photo, and remarking that Meles would not have liked it. Until his death, it would be nearly impossible to find a photo of the Prime Minister anywhere.

The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi defied the prevailing stereotype of Africa’s “Big Man” by living a simple life and always being himself—from the gilded halls of European governments to the humble villages of the Ethiopian countryside, Meles was always Meles. He was a great man but not a perfect man.

The same goes for a country. The political discourse surrounding the politics of Ethiopia either deifies the government or demonizes the government. Those who support the government cannot own up to the failings of a ‘democracy in progress’. Those who oppose the government cannot recognize the achievements and, instead, create conspiracies, rumors and innuendo about any Ethiopian success story.

In both cases, the rhetoric is cheap.

What is lacking on either side is a clear-eyed, empirically based analysis of the successes and failures of the state without the reductionist, binary narrative that neither serves to inform or explain.

For example, the situation in Oromia reflects a crack in the system where smallholder farmers are being dispossessed from their land without fair compensation. In the case of the former, their own leadership, the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), is cheating farmers in land grabs, using the state as cover for theft—despicable rent-seeking behavior. Contrary to the mainstream media who seem to rely on the political opposition as sources, there is no vast Tigrayan conspiracy to take away land from Oromo farmers. Oromia is governed by Oromos in a federalist arrangement.

In the case of the latter, the growth of Addis Ababa is a positive development for the country. The so-called Master Plan, despite the political blunders of neither informing nor consulting the Oromo people, was an attempt at planned growth for a city that is adding 50,000 new residents every year—many are Oromo.

Unfortunately, the Oromia government did not consult with the people, took advantage of smallholder farmers, and now what would have been a benefit to the region and to Addis Ababa has become a rallying point of discontent.

Symbolic of this binary narrative of either angelic or demonic is the Olympic runner Fayissa Lelisa. When crossing the finish line for a silver medal, Mr. Lelisa crossed his arms in solidarity with the Oromo protesters. Fair enough. The people of Oromia have legitimate grievances. However, he then stated that if he were to return home to Ethiopia, the government would kill him. Not fair. Not true. Again, Mr. Lelisa is repeating a binary narrative of Ethiopia and the international media is reducing a complex situation—as is most politics—to a photo opportunity.

Where is the analysis or even the narrative that explains Ethiopia’s federalist arrangement? Where are the questions, for example, about the degree of central government involvement in resolving the grievances of Oromia’s people. Instead of spreading misinformation about a Tigrayan conspiracy to overtake Oromia, we should be asking about the level of involvement of the federal government in the affairs of the regions—in other words, how does the federal system work and is it working. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current arrangement? Should this arrangement be changed and, if so, how? What are the frustrations of the Oromo youth who are taking to streets to protest. What are they thinking? What do they want? How can the government—beginning with the regional government and the OPDO—address the problems of Oromia’s youth?

The same binary narrative about the disturbances in Gondar fails to inform the people—both at home and abroad—of the complex situation of Ethiopia’s multiethnic state. Good governance is a problem that cuts across all the regions and Tigray is no exception. However, there are historical, linguistic and cultural facts on the ground contrary to the prevailing narrative of Amhara disaffection with presumed Tigray dominance.

Historically, the people of Wolkait are Tigrinya speakers and the names of all the villages, rivers, hills and mountains are named in Tigrinya. The Wolkait people, who include the wife of the late Prime Minister, Azeb Mesfin, fought in the TPLF during the struggle against the Mengistu government.

The Amhara region, with its capital in Gondar, was not the only region that lost land to the new map. Tigray had also to cede a very large chunk of its former territory (almost half of its size) to the Afar Regional State as far as Berhale, including the area where the largest mining and production of potassium is taking place right now. This was done simply because the people who inhabited the area were and still are ethnic Afars and had to form their own Regional State, incorporating all the Afars who were living not only in Tigray but also in Wollo and to some extent in the northern part of the former Hararge Awraja. But no one raises questions about the large territory that Tigray ceded to the Afar people to form their own homeland within the Ethiopian Federal State.

The government has said that people in Gondar who are speaking on behalf of the Wolkait people have ties to Ginbot 7. According to the government, there has been no interaction between the people of Wolkait and their so-calledspokespersons in Gondar. The media dismisses this point and reports instead about an Amhara revolt against the Tigray-dominated government.

In fact, these narratives are not mutually exclusive. It is possible that some of the people of Wolkait are dissatisfied with the regional government in Tigray. It is also possible that people in Gondar pretending to represent the people of Wolkait have ties to Ginbot 7 and Eritrea. Ethiopia’s political landscape is complex and these two facts may stand side by side. However, the outside world chooses one side of a binary narrative that sees Ethiopia through the lens of an African stereotype—heavy-handed subjugation of people with ethnic overtones.

We are not asking the right questions.

The international media is especially egregious in promoting a binary narrative. A recent Washington Post article criticized the Ethiopian government for using the phrase “acute watery diarrhea” (AWD) instead of “cholera” to hide the outbreak. In reality, cholera and AWD are interchangeable and both the CDC and WHO use the term AWD. Many countries uses the phrase AWD because, quite simply, it is more easily grasped by the public. AWD is different than regular diarrhea—it describes exactly how it looks. To the contrary, the Ethiopian government has carried out health campaigns and used the media to inform people about how to prevent AWD, or cholera.

If the CDC uses the label AWD, journalists assume that the choice of term is driven by the science of public health. In the case of Ethiopia, however, the assumption is that Ethiopia is trying to hide the cholera outbreak—despite the reality on the ground.

Another example of unfairly demonizing the government is the figures for people being impacted by the drought. If you declare the number too early, you are accused of soliciting food aid because of shortages in the system. If you declare too late, you are accused of hiding the number of people in need of food aid. One recent article quoted an NGO worker as saying, “We are not allowed to use the f-word (meaning famine), implying that the government is hiding a famine. The NGO worker, or the journalist, should research the use of the word “famine”—there are internationally recognized indicators of famine. Without reaching the threshold of these indicators, you can’t just call a situation “famine.”

On the other hand, supporters of the government see no wrong and this is equally destructive. Ethiopia is experiencing a number of setbacks that need to be addressed. For example, corruption is causing massive fissures within each of the regions. The parties are becoming divided into the good guys and the bad guys. The people see this corruption and are frustrated. This is a fact on the ground and the government, in many quarters, is discussing how to respond to the increasing level of corruption. Ethiopia’s skyrocketing economic growth has brought in vast sums of money for massive infrastructure projects. This money not only builds Ethiopia but, unfortunately, corrupts Ethiopia as well. This is bad news for a government that was created founded on principles of “building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring a lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing our economic and social development…” [1]

Taken together—the unrest in Oromia and Gonder—leads the international media to the conclusion that Ethiopia is collapsing under the weight of discontent. As we have said earlier, sensationalism sells and Ethiopia’s news is no exception. Again, there is a binary narrative that reports these setbacks—and they are not insignificant setbacks—as the “final blow’ against the current government. This is nonsense and does not reflect the reality on the ground.

Certainly, there are significant tensions that must be resolved over land and governance. Ethnicity is the villain only in the sense that the political opposition feeds the international media with an easily digestible narrative that sells news. What Ethiopia needs from the outside—and inside as well—is analysis that is empirically-based and devoid of easy stereotypes that obfuscate the issues. Let’s stop politically-driven polemics and focus on telling the whole story with facts and an objective analysis.

Ethiopia is a real country, with real people and a real government. The government has strengths and weaknesses. Civil society has strengths and weaknesses. Ethiopia has real problems that need real answers beyond the caricatures of Africa that satisfy lazy editors.









[1] Ethiopian Constitution (1995)

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