Dispatches From Africa

Ethiopia: Development or Democracy?

AU Ethiopia

Emma Hooper writes from Addis Ababa:

The African Union (AU) Headquarters sit to the east of Addis Ababa, a handsome array of buildings that symbolise a new era for the Continent, one of stabilisation and unity. Yet its foundations lie on a dark past, a past many visitors may not be aware of, for it has quite literally been buried beneath 24 floors of concrete.

The site is that of the former Addis Ababa Kerchele prison and its torture centre, ‘Alem Bekagn’, built in the 1930s during Italy’s brief occupation of Ethiopia. As such, the AU buildings now lay at the epicentre of where Rodolfo Graziani conducted mass executions, slaughtering a whole generation of young Ethiopians. Just 50 years later, the same site witnessed some of the worst atrocities of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s reign of terror – a full account of which can be found in a dark corner of the Red Terror museum in central Addis Ababa. The bulldozing of the prison’s walls in 2011 has metaphorically wiped out a section of the country’s past, a commonplace tendency of post-colonial elites attempting to suppress the memory of state sponsored violence. Moreover, such a tendency may be particularly unfortunate in Ethiopia, where state violence is not a thing of the past – most recently explicated in the killing of 75 protesters on 19 December 2015. Indeed, the country’s civil society remains under a government stranglehold and the opposition is increasingly and brutally marginalised.

Although the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime has not committed the mass atrocities carried out by the Derg, it is certainly one underlined by repressive legislation and widespread abuses. This is all too apparent when broaching the topic of politics in the capital, where attempts to discuss the current regime are regarded suspiciously and questions are left largely un-answered. I sensed that in many cases this was fear for, rather than support of, the incumbent regime. However, outside of Addis Ababa people are not so reluctant to discuss politics –  a group of students I spoke to even seemed sure there would be an uprising. With the current government having held power through a succession of dubious elections and an increasingly marginalised opposition, there appears to be a growing sense in the provinces amongst the younger generation that “something must be done”. Yet, with one of the strongest armies in sub-Saharan Africa, any such uprising is likely to be matched with superior force and quickly quelled.

Despite salient abuses by the Ethiopian state, investment and aid are still free flowing. Addis Ababa is a city under construction, the most recent feat being the completion of the wholly Chinese funded light rail system that runs from the city centre out to the industrial heartland. This is an impressive project which signals the direction in which the country is heading and is part of the government’s 25-year development “master plan” to extend the capital. However, this development model has already resulted in forced evictions, land grabs and the marginalisation of the Oromia region, the inhabitants of which were involved in the most recent violent protests. With the Prime Minister, Hailermariam Desalegn, promising further reprisals for protesters – a clear message has been sent to all; that industrialisation will occur in Ethiopia and at the expense of its citizens.  Unfortunately, any escalation in such abuses is unlikely to waiver continued external investment, especially with regard to Cino-Ethiopian relations. Nor are continued human rights abuses likely to prompt any serious ramifications in Ethiopia’s relations with the AU or its regional neighbours, which means that the country is likely to continue continue on its current trajectory.

Furthermore, with a strong army and an anti-terrorist strategy that could provide a useful model to it’s regional neighbours, Ethiopia is proving an increasingly popular tourist destination. And indeed, Addis Ababa is bustling with tourists – whether visiting Lucy at the National Museum of Ethiopia or enjoying the country’s jazz scene – there is a real sense that the city is alive. Additionally, donor aid has continued to flood into the country whose propensity to famine was first brought to the world’s attention in the 1980s when Bob Geldolf embarked on a mission to “save” Africa. Today, aid has continued to flood into the country with international donors seemingly preferring development to democracy.  As such, with ever-increasing tourism, investment and donor aid, Ethiopia is likely to witness continued economic development and political stability – created through oppressive totalitarianism – at human cost.

It seems that if the new AU building were viewed as a memorial of the past, rather than an erasure of it, it would allow visitors to question past atrocities in light of the present. Indeed, since the abolition of Cecil Rhode’s statue in a South African University, the topic of “reckoning with the past” has become a particularly pertinent one. It may be tenuous to suggest that in building the AU on the grounds of a former prison, it is a sign that the Pan-African institution is simultaneously refusing to acknowledge Ethiopia’s present as well as its past. So too would it be to suggest that had the prison stayed intact, the AU Elections Observer Mission may not have refused to mention the widespread human rights abuses that surrounded Ethiopia’s elections in June 2015. However, the ripping down of past symbols that could act as a stark mirror and reminder to the present seems to me to be an unfortunate one.

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