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Vol. IV No. 3   · Week of 11 August 2000   

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Despite war, Ethiopia growing and on the cusp of democracy

By David J. Craig

The image of Ethiopia prevaent among many Westerners is of a famine and war-ravaged wasteland.

James McCann


James McCann
Photo by Fred Sway


Media coverage of the 1984 and 2000 Ethiopian famines, including anguishing film of people starving, and the country's recent war with neighbor Eritrea a ruthless affair the BBC called "as senseless as two bald men fighting over a comb" has undercut the decade-old assertion by the United States that Ethiopia's leaders are level-headed and working earnestly toward democracy and a free-market economy.

But overshadowed by those tragedies is the fact that Ethiopia conducted a free national election this May, for just the second time, and is in the midst of an economic boom.

The election received scant press coverage in the West, but went off fairly smoothly, according to James McCann, a CAS history professor and director of the African Studies Center. He has been studying the agricultural and environmental history of Ethiopia for 25 years and was in the country for two weeks in May, monitoring the election for the Norwegian Institute for Human Rights.

"The war has damaged the image of Ethiopia, and I think because of it we've gotten back to the image of Africa as disaster," says McCann, who issued a report to the Institute analyzing the relationship between the country's economic growth and public demand for a more open form of government. "But from a formal standpoint, the election went amazingly well.

"And the place is growing like crazy," he continues. "If you were in Addis Ababa [Ethiopia's capital] during the war, you would have wondered, what war? Buildings are going up everywhere, people are building houses, and there is all kinds of entrepre- neurial activity. That's true in many smaller towns, too."

Inching toward democracy

Ethiopia, on the "horn" of eastern Africa, is a nation of about 50 million people. It was a client state of the United States from 1954 until 1974, when the Marxist revolutionary Mengistu Haile Mariam led a successful coup against Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's emperor from 1930 through 1974. Ethiopia has been controlled by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since shortly after Mengistu's regime was violently overthrown in 1991.

Zenawi's government is frequently criticized for strong-arm tactics it has proposed own- ing all land in the nation and has tenaciously squashed organized political opposition but practices an indisputably more open form of governance than Mengistu, whose government was suspected of torturing and murdering its own people. Soldiers no longer roam the streets, citizens openly criticize the government in the marketplace, and there is a free press, although, McCann points out, allegations that journalists are falsely arrested are common.

In 1995, Ethiopia held its first multiparty election, which was nevertheless boycotted by several opposition parties and therefore resulted in a sweep by the EPRDF. This year voting to determine members of the 548-seat federal parliament, nine regional assemblies, and two city councils was not as one-sided. A handful of opposition candidates won seats in Addis Ababa and in several towns in southern Ethiopia.

"The most important thing we learned from the election is that Ethiopians know how to operate secret ballots fairly, and that it's possible for the people to elect opposition candidates," McCann says. "The election commissioners were independent of the government, and very honest and straightforward. In areas where local officials were afraid of losing and violence occurred, the process was repeated until it was done right. In one place where voting was repeated, the opposition won."

One reason for the election of opposition candidates may be because of the economic growth in Ethiopia, which has resulted in a large migration of farmers to townships in recent years. "If wide support for democracy is going to occur, it is going to be through links between towns and rural populations," McCann says. "Remarkably, you find little of that in Ethiopia, but there is some evidence that it is beginning. It's not going to be something people do consciously. It's going to be part of a natural process of people organizing themselves around economic issues."

A long road

In a country with a past filled with hardship, serious political change can be a difficult sell. What little people have they are desperate to keep. Ethiopia has no social service system, and the nation's infrastructure is incapable of distributing food surpluses within regions hit by drought, but most Ethiopians are farmers who produce their own food and have seen worse times.

"In places where there has been a significant amount of economic growth, and in places where farmers are getting fertilizers and other resources," says McCann, "the government has a stronger hold because it can say, 'If you elect an opposition, look at what you won't get. You depend on us.' "

Another obstacle to political change in Ethiopia, McCann says, is that opposition candidates from different parts of the country have little in common. In the May elections, hundreds of independent opposition candidates ran, but there was no serious, organized opposition party on the ballot.

"The big question is, if there had been a real possibility that the ruling party would have lost power, would there have been more violence?" McCann says. "There was some violence and some deaths in May, so there's no doubt that the government is tough and is willing to play hardball. And at this point, it doesn't seem that the opposition is.

"A lot of the complaints I heard from activists at the polling places, for instance, were things that reminded me of Boston or Chicago politics," he continues. "Things like campaign posters being torn down. My response was, 'Well, you know, that's the nature of the game. Politics is a tough business. You have to be prepared to have the state use everything in its power to stay where it is.' The really frustrating thing to me is that so much of the opposition is in Atlanta, Dallas, and L.A. They talk a lot, and there is, of course, a need for an organized opposition both outside and inside the country, but so far they haven't shown that they're prepared to do the things they need to do to put their candidates on the ballots."

But Ethiopians do have the capacity to envision a collective mission, McCann believes. He says that a deep-seated reason for the war, which was fought mainly over tariff and trade issues and officially ended in June, was that Eritrea underestimated Ethiopia's cultural unity. "Eritrea thought that Ethiopia wasn't a real entity and that it wouldn't be able to pursue a war," he says. "But Ethiopia did organize itself, and Eritrea lost badly.

"Ethiopians have a deep sense of who they are, which to a great degree revolves around images of Christianity and Islam, and of Ethiopia being an important part of the world, in their view," he continues. "You can find the poorest people on the street and they have a sense of dignity in who they are. That's fascinating to see."

McCann is currently studying how Ethiopian farmers responded to corn when it was first introduced to the country in the 17th century. Corn is now the most widely produced crop in Ethiopia and one of the country's main exports, which McCann considers problematic because it is not the custom of Ethiopians to eat it.


14 August 2000
Boston University
Office of University Relations