ETHIOPIA’S MISSED CHANCES—1960, 1974, 1991, 2005—AND NOW: I

 

Donald N. Levine

University of Chicago

 

Keburan’nna keburat!Enkwan dehena qoyachuhugn!

Nagaa, nagaati bula! Akam jirta?

Ale haye Melai woraysa!

Te’ena yehabille.

Tomas!

 

It is a great pleasure for me to be back in this special land--ye’egziabher agar aybalem?--and a privilege to be speaking to you in this special Hall. I give thanks to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology for organizing this occasion, and to Dr. Yaqob Arsano, Dean of the College of Social Sciences, for his truly gracious introduction. 

 

The last time I spoke in Ras Makonnen Hall I had the pleasure of being introduced by a grand colleague and a great Ethiopian--Dr. Eshetu Chole. I’d like to dedicate my comments today to the memory of Dr. Eshetu, and to his inspiring model of unflinching engagement with the problem of Ethiopia’s missed opportunities in a spirit that combined unshakeable hope with enormous intellectual integrity.  Seeking to emulate Dr. Eshetu’s spirit, I wonder how best I might look at the question of Ethiopia’s present opportunities.  Mindful that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of my scholarly engagement with Ethiopian Studies perhaps I might fruitfully adopt a perspective perspective framed by the boundaries of the past half-century.  What might be learn by comparing the Ethiopia of 1957, when my studies commenced, and the country today?

 

Many thoughts come to mind.  Most striking to me, perhaps, is that for all the changes that have occurred in the past fifty years I find this place very familiar indeed. Now as then, I find a people who are deeply and consistently human, people who always take time to greet each other personally before embarking on any sort of transaction.  I find people possessed of enormous dignity, and a culture that prizes habits of respect, politeness, loyalty to family, and hospitality to strangers.  I find people who love to talk, and to tell stories, and who characteristically find a way to bring wit and humor into their conversations, however grim the circumstances.

 

I find a socioeconomic system whose centerpiece remains the work of the gebare, the hard-working peasant whose lifestyle offers a meaningful complex of time-worn techniques and social values. And I find a class of people who like to make their living by accumulating rent rather than adding value, now by virtue of holding bureaucratic positions more than inherited rights to revenues from land, the same obstacle to economic development that Adam Smith identified more than two centuries ago.

 

Now as then, I find a culture that inclines people to distrust one another. I find people who are often on the lookout for bad motives in others, who indulge in backbiting, and who incline to deceive one another and themselves. Then and now, I find a governmental bureaucracy more concerned with exerting political control than in respecting human rights and promoting human welfare.  In 2007 as in 1957 I find a head of state who frequently intervenes when subordinates do not carry out their tasks properly, and who has made serious mistakes but is also blamed for nearly everything wrong in the country. I find a regime that is so insecure it restrains the public media and uses imprisonment as a tool for dealing with political opponents.  I find an opposition that is fearful, poorly organized, and confused. I find a bureaucracy so massively inefficient that investors and other clients quiver on the verge of despair. Now as then I find religious authorities who simply reproduce old traditions and tend to ignore the moral and social needs of the country. And now, as then, I find a small number of Ethiopians who manage, with awesome integrity and wisdom, to rise above the resentments and narrow slants of the day–those whom, in the 1965 dedication of Wax and Gold, I described as felsafi ye-honut ityopiyawiyan.

 

Now as then, I find a country that proceeds gamely and haltingly along the road toward electoral democracy. Yes, for those of you too young to remember, 1957 marked the first countrywide election of members of Parliament–a practice repeated every five years thereafter, and marked throughout by both hope and cynicism, both by a growing confidence in self-determination and by occasional accusations of fraud and mutual recriminations. And now as then, I find Ethiopia, for all its internal issues, intermittently playing a bold role in international relations, intervening to mediate disputes among African nations and asserting a leadership role as host to African multilateral institutions.

 

Yes, to be sure, today’s Ethiopia, good and bad, looks familiar to one whose impressions of it were formed fifty years ago.  But now, consider some of the changes.

 

        The growth in population hits you in the face: Ethiopia in 1957 had about 25 million people, in 2007 nearly 80 million.  The capital city numbered under a million and now stretches beyond four million.  Of all the world's countries, Ethiopia then had the smallest proportion of its citizens living abroad, and now, I am told, it has the largest percentage of its citizens living abroad.  Schools now are everywhere: with respect to schooling, something like 10% of Ethiopia's young people went to school; the current figure reaches close to 80%.  The infrastructure has expanded beyond recognition: highways branch all around the capital and fine roads promote traffic all over the country.  A hydroelectric power generation station on the Gilgel Gibe River generates 184 mw electric power and a second station there promises to boost the country's power supply by 52%.  On the other hand, the nation's health appears to be worse: by 1957, we could claim that chronic epidemics had essentially been wiped out; Ethiopia now suffers an epidemic of epidemics, with the return of malaria and tuberculosis in large numbers, the emergence of AIDS as a catastrophic health issue, and with rates of chronic serious malnutrition affecting around 45% of Ethiopia's young people.  The environment has deteriorated just as notably: fifty years ago, about 35% of Ethiopia's landscape was forested, the figure now is less than 2.5%.

 

Of the many variables one could choose to focus on, it is the matter of Ethiopia’s status as a nation to which I shall devote the remainder of my remarks, looking both at continuities and changes.  It may be difficult for Ethiopians today to imagine the sense of confidence and optimism about their nation that prevailed in 1957.  The country was still reverberating from the Silver Jubilee of the Emperor's Coronation in 1955, which was celebrated by an influx of foreign dignitaries, the launching of the Ethiopian National Theater, and the promulgation of a revised constitution, whereby the emperor retained effective power while extending political participation to the people by allowing the lower house of parliament to become an elected body.  The emperor maintained contact with his people by traveling frequently around the country, and wherever he went, people celebrated his presence with genuine ililtas and a sense that the Head of State was a reliable  to whom one could ultimately cry Abét

 

The First Five-Year Plan (1957-61) proposed a strengthened infrastructure, particularly in transportation, construction, and communications, in order to link isolated regions. It also sought to establish an indigenous cadre of skilled and semiskilled personnel to work in processing industries to help reduce Ethiopia's dependence on imports, and to accelerate agricultural development by promoting commercial agricultural ventures. The modernizing sector was starting to pulsate with the energies of foreign-educated young people.  New schools at home were starting to produce proud graduates: the Agricultural Colleges at Alemayhu and Jimma; the University College of Addis Ababa; and the Health College Gondar with its pioneering model of producing teams of medical officers, community nurses, and sanitary engineers (a model that did so much good until disbanded in 1974, and not resurrected to this day).  Things appeared so good that by 1960, a year when many former colonies gained independence and the question of viable statehood became prominent, it appeared that Ethiopia, thanks to its history as an independent nation-state, might avert the terrible internal conflicts that threatened to consume so many of the new states of Asia and Africa.

 

Needless to say, the decades dimmed such a hope. The four traumatic events alluded to in the title of this talk derailed Ethiopia’s development as a nation.  The coup attempt of December 1960 propelled the country into a pattern of modernization through violence. The Derg takeover in September 1974 escalated that violence against dissident internal groups and against the province of Eritrea.  The TPLF takeover of 1991 exacerbated ethnic antagonisms as it ensconced the rule of an ethnic minority.  The tragic aftermath of the May 2005 elections plucked disaster out of the jaws of triumph, yielding an unprecedented polarization of political attitudes.  The country today is streaked with lines of cleavage that have trickled down from all those earlier incidents.

 

Each of these episodes occurred at a time when Ethiopia experienced what might be called a “developmental opening.”  That is, there was at each juncture a need for the development of new structures together with the emergence of energies directed to filling that need and a popular yearning for that development to take place without violence.  The students who carried out the first open political demonstration in support of the coup attempt in 1960 carried signs that read “Le-agaratchn selamawi melewet.”  The watchword of the progressive forces who demonstrated in 1974 was: “Ityopiya tiqdem/Yala minim dem.”  1991 witnessed a great yearning for a long-delayed program of national unity linked to a quest for justice and economic progress.  The 2005 elections promised a springtime of freedom coupled with the growth of a more mature national consensus.  But instead, at each point the nation suffered internal conflicts that took engendered violence and impaired the nation’s capacity to address its basic needs.

 

At this juncture, it may be helpful to examine those four episodes with an eye to investigating what they might have in common in order to redirect the energies of Ethiopia’s citizens towards more harmonious and progressive paths.  Such a task demands more sustained treatment than that sketched briefly in the original presentation of these remarks. I propose now to develop them in a sequel to this talk, which will be presented at the Fourth International Conference on Ethiopian Development Studies to be held at Western Michigan University in August of this year.  But the outcome of that analysis will include some challenges that I offered to educated Ethiopians following my field work of five decades ago: to move from  a discourse of deceptiveness to one of openness and transparency; from an ethic of soldierly courage to one of civic courage; from a commitment to prideful individualism to that of social responsibility;  and to a pragmatic engagement with challenges of modernization that works creatively with Ethiopia's rich traditions toward a regime of self-discipline, personal industry, and national capacity-building.