Forget saving Ethiopians – let’s learn from them

|DOUG SAUNDERS-GLO and MAIL|This holiday season, as we search for messages of hope in a troubled world, let’s spare a moment of thought for the people of Ethiopia.

No, not that kind of thought. Our popular imagination is trapped in a time warp where Do They Know It’s Christmas? still gets radio airplay. Those 1980s pop stars missed the point back then – and not just because Ethiopians, among whom Orthodox Christianity is the largest religion, know it’s not Christmastime until Jan. 7.

Back then, Ethiopia was a formerly flourishing country caught in a murderous political interlude that led Westerners to see it as a permanent charity case – a misleading image that afflicted much of Africa.

In 2018, Ethiopia became something else entirely – an example of hope and transformation. By several measures, it has had a more successful year than any other country. While still a poor and fragile place, its 105 million people have made smart decisions that even some of those pop stars’ countries ought to follow.

Observers tend to credit Ethiopia’s joyous year to one man, Abiy Ahmed, who became the country’s 15th Prime Minister on April 2. This is a bit misleading, since the circumstances that brought Mr. Abiy to power are more than a decade in the making and involve a strong consensus.

That said, Mr. Abiy is an inspiring representative – even if representative democracy didn’t bring him into office. At 42, he is the youngest leader of any of Africa’s 54 countries (whose leaders are, on average, 65). And he is among the most experienced and educated, with a doctorate and years of experience in technology policy.

Two months after he became Prime Minister, Ethiopians around the world erupted in celebration as Mr. Abiy welcomed a delegation from neighbouring Eritrea and then, in July, signed a treaty ending the 20-year border war that has cost tens of thousands of lives and crippled the development of both countries.

It appears to be a lasting peace; Mr. Abiy agreed unconditionally to hand over territory that had been deemed Eritrea’s in 2000. And it has produced a sizable peace dividend, as airline flights have resumed and trade has boomed. Mr. Abiy opened trade, promised visa-free travel for all Africans, restarted big joint infrastructure projects with Egypt and privatized Ethiopia’s revenue-draining airline and cellphone company, boosting the economy.

The following month, he signed another crucial peace agreement, this one rooted in his singular identity. Mr. Abiy is the first Ethiopian prime minister to come from the Oromo community, which comprises the country’s largest ethnolinguistic group but has been largely excluded from government since the year 1270 or thereabouts. This has led to years of violent conflict between ethnic militias, which, more than anything else, has hampered peace and progress and has made Ethiopia home to 1.4 million internally displaced people (that is, domestic refugees).

So this autumn he lifted a ban on the Oromo Liberation Front; this, along with similar agreements with the Sidama Liberation Movement and other groups, freed their backers from prison (along with a large number of journalists and dissidents who’d been locked up for years), allowed their leaders to return from exile and offered them a chance to self-govern and freely contest a national election he has pledged to hold in 2020.

Mr. Abiy does not represent regime change in the usual sense. He is a loyal member of the EPRDF (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), a coalition party that has governed Ethiopia since 1991. That’s when it overthrew the murderous Derg dictatorship, which had been responsible for the terrible famine of 1983 to 1985 (the 400,000 deaths were the subject of that awful Christmas song).

Under the EPRDF, Ethiopia has experienced extraordinary double-digit economic growth every year for more than a decade, cutting its poverty rate almost in half, according to the UN – though it remains an extremely poor country.

That’s an extraordinary record for a landlocked country without much natural-resource wealth. But it’s been a troublesome boom, because Ethiopia has been championed as the leading example of the “China model”: It employed large-scale public spending on infrastructure and institutions to propel that growth, but it is also effectively a single-party state, with the EPRDF using repression to shut down most opposition voices and quash ethnic claims.

In 2018, Ethiopians decided to use those gains as a springboard into a more democratic, inclusive, economically liberal model – one Beijing wouldn’t condone. This showed African states that rising economies and falling poverty can be paths to democracy and equality, not alternatives to them.

A lot could still go wrong. Factional violence has not ended, the election is a long way off, and institutions remain weak. But Ethiopia has already changed the world, providing struggling countries with a different, more hopeful example



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