Galloping ahead in Ethiopia

Source: Ethiopia Insight

April 29, 2020

When I settled in Ethiopia in 2001, Addis Ababa was a patchwork of villages joined by green valleys and wastelands and you could gallop in and out of town in a day. The city seemed to encapsulate Alphonse Allais’ quip on the ideal city—‘built in the countryside’. I had installed a horse in my home in Abo Mazoria, by converting the kitchen into a stable and filling one of the bedrooms with hay bales. It was a little eccentric on my part—but then again, not so much. For I had discovered that Ethiopia was an orthodox paradox—a country of individualist conformists. And I had, after all, only followed the lead of my friend Eskender Berhanu (a true phenomenon, with his stable of fifteen polo ponies, a stone’s throw from Arat Kilo).

Leaving my house in Abo Mazoria on horseback at dawn, and after following the valley of the Little Akaki to the west, at that time, you could still reach Menagesha Mountain in a couple of hours. And, on Saturdays, the day of the Guddu market, we raced our mounts over the meadows after drinking home-brewed tela out of tin cans. How distant those boundless gallops on the high plateau now seem! Back then, in Guddu, there was no bottled beer (or Coca-Cola) and the market was solely accessible on foot or horseback. In the year 2001, there were three internet cafes in Addis Ababa, not many more Chinese people—and 68 million Ethiopians. You could leave Addis Ababa on horseback and drink porter for lunch, before cantering back to the capital for supper.

In March 2020, I sipped my coffee every morning in the small kitchen of my brother-in-law’s ‘condominium’, not far from Mexico Square. During my first years in Ethiopia, I crossed Mexico morning and evening. Like most people in the city, I used the blue and white minibuses to get around. I remember the crowds, and the shoving, to get into a minibus. Living in Addis, you measured the population increase in the time it took to find transport.  There was an expansion of everything—people, yes, and the cars for the well-to-do, as well as the road expansion they required, and the buildings to house people, in the form of tenements categorized as ‘condominiums’—the only thing that did not multiply, it often seemed on a cold rainy night, were minibus numbers.

Then, as now, population growth was the great unmentionable. I remember often thinking about this in those early years, once I had managed to press my way into a minibus. I read about the subject. I asked foreigners and Ethiopians alike what we would do—in five years, in ten. No one had a plausible answer. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that people were not only born with stomachs, but with hands to work with, and this seemed to become the consensus. A consensus they took to calling the demographic dividend. Later on, I read in the central banker Tefera Degefe’s memoir, Minutes of an Ethiopian Century, that he had written a note on the need to curb population growth, only to be told it was not ‘an Ethiopian way of thinking’ (I should point out that I was one of the book’s editors, and also that I am quoting from memory, confinement oblige). Ato Tefera wrote that memo back in the 60s, back in the time of imperial pageantry. When Ethiopia was a more or less self-sufficient country of 25 million souls. Mexico was on my mind back then, a part of my daily routine, as displayed by a column I wrote for the Addis Admas weekly in the early 2000s (I forget the exact year, but you can tell from the context it was for the Eid-el-Fitr). It was titled Letter from Mexico:

‘One man in a very neat suit, urinating onto the pavement; a beggar with no arm; a beggar with no feet; a beggar with a patchwork of colours sewn together to form trousers—equipped with skiing sunglasses, he has, alas, no eyes to see his colourful rags; Sixteen sheep with fat tails on their way to celebrate a feast day; a man in a turban who asks my neighbour, in Amharic ‘What’s the farenji writing?’ Ten mountains of hay with four legs each, and nothing else—after careful observation, they appear to be a crossbreed between donkeys and a mound of grass. A nun in white who gets ten cents out of me; countless others who get nothing at all from me. A table of boisterous young men and women talking into their mobiles in a pidgin best described as ‘Bole Los Angelese’ –“You know, malet, he is betam askeyami, really, bawnet, I couldn’t believe it…” etc, etc and other such important discussions, conducted between two macchiatos, a haircut and a visit to the Sheraton’s sauna. Five more beggars, three with things missing; another with too many children. Volkswagen beetles that would be collection items anywhere else; cars that I’ve never seen, but are certainly very common in the trendiest parts of Miami Beach. Young people in threadbare clothes; others covered with enough gold to open a jewellery store. Middle-aged men full of injera and draft beer; starving young men wolfing down bambolinos with burning eyes; enough listros to polish the shoes of a thousand pilgrims on this feast day… And overall this, the smell of ground coffee, of human sweat, of cake, donkey dung and exhaust fumes. The smell of heat itself, hovering above all this, churning it up and serving it up piping hot. As to sound, well, just stop reading for a second. Prick up your ears: hear it? A thousand cars, a billion radios, horns, shouts, screeches, clashes, bangs, prayers, the bleating of sheep…’  

What life there was in Mexico Square! Humans find joy in other humans, and the more the merrier (in the same piece, I misattributed the phrase ‘He who is tired of London, is tired of life’ to Samuel Pepys, when in fact it was authored by the dyspeptic Samuel Johnson). Today, in Mexico the crowds have surged. The goings have gotten a little rougher, and the queues to get a minibus longer than ever. But back in those days, Ethiopia had seemed full of promise—you could never tire of Addis Ababa. Ethiopians were proud of their particularities and their hard-won independence. They liked to remind you that they had never been colonized and that they had prevailed over Mussolini’s fascist troops. There reigned a sort of Dolce Vita Abyssinica, made up of simple sociability and the sharing of the faith in the better days that were just around the corner. The rich had a little more injéra than the poor, and that was about it. You could eat dinner for 10 birr, and a Saint George beer cost 7 birr (or half that, if you drank draft).

But in March 2020, in the (Chinese) urban railway that passed at eye level in the condominium kitchen, I could see the number of passengers decreasing day by day. An unvoiced feeling of dread was spreading over the city. But if the virus was in the air, conversations continued to revolve around increasing prices and street crime, a new trend. There was no talk about social distancing yet, while rumours about violent clashes in the regions ran rife. Addis Abebans were reluctant to drive the Debre Zeit road down to the Lake Langano resorts. Ethiopia had been confined ever since the first state of emergency was rolled out, for ten months, between 2016 and 2017, to dampen what resembled more and more a general uprising.

An uneasy truce had prevailed ever since, with sporadic bouts of anarchy breaking out locally. The new state of emergency promulgated on 8 April (for health reasons this time round), and the postponement of the August 2020 elections froze a situation that was already catastrophic. The hold of the central government on the provinces was tenuous, at best. Not that you would know this from Ethiopian government press releases and international media reports (such as this film, that appeared on The Economist magazine’s YouTube channel in early April: How Africa could rival China). According to this narrative, Ethiopia has been recording growth rates of 10 percent for years (to put that in context, 10 percent growth means doubling of the economy every seven years). Winston Churchill could well have declared ‘lies, lies and damned (Ethiopian) statistics’—but it didn’t much matter if the numbers were ‘fake’ or not. The country, after all, was only conforming to global economic orthodoxy.

Read, if you like, the World Bank report on poverty reduction, (16 April 2020), which tells us that the rate of poverty has continued to fall in Ethiopia in 2010-2016 (a conclusion that beggars belief). The report, while stating that the percentage of the very poor has stubbornly stuck at 10 percent, fails to point out that population growth means the absolute number is increasing (10 percent of 90 million Ethiopians in 2010 is 9 million, while 10 percent of 103 million inhabitants in 2016 makes for…10 million). And Ethiopia’s poor are today equivalent to the whole population of the country in the 1960s when Tefera Degefe’s memo was turned down (a banker, Ato Tefera—he understood exponentials). If we believe the numbers, Ethiopia has produced the most millionaires (in dollar terms), in the African continent. Road coverage has expanded, mobile phones are in almost every pocket and factories produce t-shirts and shoes for export, albeit using imported inputs. A foreign flower farm, owned by friends of mine, exported roses, from Menagesha to the world.

Winston Churchill would have taken these economic gains with a grain of salt, but he would also have noticed a trend: rapid economic and population growth were a very good thing indeed—for the upper echelons of society. I should confess that I succumbed to the dream myself, and launched a horse trekking company. I only understood just how unlikely an endeavour it was when I had to continuously convince people my horse-riding venture was not a spoof of the book Trout fishing in the Yemen. But truly—the possibilities offered by limitless growth are, in a word, limitless (I remember one fellow, a Swede I think, who started a rabbit farm on a mountain top above Chancho. No, no, this is not a joke—he told me the 3,000-metre high peak was required as the acute cold made the rabbits’ fur grow.).

This sense of boundless opportunity partly explains why foreigners are so enamoured by what they discover in Ethiopia. A case in point is Tyler Cowen’s 2018 Ethiopia already is Africa’s China on Bloomberg, a gushing piece that is so ‘un-Straussian’, so oblivious to reality, that  I sought to rebuke Cowen with the humorous Ethiopian Economics 101. For a shorter take on Mr Cowen’s assertion, see Greg Cochran’s response: ‘Will Ethiopia be the next China asks Tyler Cowen. No’. That’s the full post (Including the title).

I remember a one-to-one meeting between a French minister and the current director of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (then the foreign minister of the FederalDemocraticRepublic of Ethiopia), for the Financing for Development extravaganza. They understood each other so perfectly, they held such a community of views, that I began to wonder why on earth they had requested my services in the first place (I was the interpreter for the meeting). If they spoke different languages, the Ethiopian and the Frenchman shared the same Newspeak: ‘more aid’ (and ‘increased exports’), ‘greater livestock exports’ (and  ‘sustainable development’)…etc.etc.). They would have their carbon and eat it too. This is a world in which Winston (Smith, from 1984), would have felt right at home.

Galloping to Guddu

Meanwhile, the country was bursting at the seams. Popular revolts by the jobless were harnessed by trouble-makers (branded ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’, perhaps ironically), and vast numbers were uprooted and chased into camps in the South. When the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera covered Ethiopia, they were prone to applying the grid they had learnt to use in the West to such disastrous effect—everything was about ‘rights’ and ‘ethnic grievances’.

They contrived to write about the internal refugee camps without mentioning the words ‘scarcity’ and ‘overpopulation’. The dramatic upheavals underway—3 million internal refugees!—were ascribed to teething problems, unleashed by the ‘democratic opening’. To be fair, to mention the word overpopulation would have invited immediate accusations of Malthusianism. But to recognise that ever-diminishing land plots, and a bulging youth population ready to be recruited by anyone with a digital megaphone, was one of the main factors in the unrest was plain common sense, and at least tacitly accepted by all. The problems supposedly unleashed by the winds of freedom had been steadily increasingly for decades. But the media seemed more interested in the announcement of Ethiopia’s first gender-balanced cabinet (hurray!), than they did in the towering elephant in the room—that they are not allowed to mention—even as it trumpets in their ears.

But alas—poor people have agency too, and it turns out that they ruin their environment along with the rich, just differently so. The lands lying around the Guddu market were a case in point—they ploughed steeper hills every year, human settlements expanded visibly from month-to-month, and cattle numbers soared and chewed up the depleted soils. Strangely, the billions (or was it trillions?) of new trees planted in 2019, breathlessly reported upon by the BBC et al, were nowhere to be seen; perhaps Africa’s second-largest population of livestock could help solve the conundrum.

Then there are the ‘intangible’ effects (to use a word favoured by UN reports), caused by high numbers. The first thing squeezed out by population growth is liberty itself (which is why thinking China would ‘democratize as it grew richer’, was always pie in the sky). Isaac Asimov called it the freedom of the bathroom. I remember Meles, in a candid moment, noting with satisfaction “unlike all previous governments our writ runs in every village”. Gone was the swashbuckling possibility of reinventing yourself over the next hill, of becoming a bandit and storming to power, of finding land to plough. The unlikely combination of individualism and conformism so vexing to fathom when gazing into the Ethiopian soul had vanished. Ethiopia never was the monolithic oligopoly (or ethnic dictatorship), that ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ and the media portray as responsible for the country’s current crisis.

The same could be said of dwindling resources, which entail careful allocation. But you could have screamed ‘it’s the growth itself, stupid!’ in their ears, that they wouldn’t have noticed. Nor were these economists and journalists, for all their righteous posturing, immune to the ‘romance of Africa’. Give a hard-nosed numbers man an audience with an African hard man, and he swoons. Give journalists an African white elephant, and they start doling out awards as if they were made in China. It is not that the wool is pulled over their eyes—they are actively colluding in weaving the emperor’s new clothes.

But, like the Addis Ababa Light Railway (still managed by the Chinese), limping along with what appears to be a dismally low number of daily passengers (oh, the grief that elephantine project caused us all during the years it took to divide the city into two!). And, similarly to the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway (the—Chinese—loans just extended, clauses unknown, for an extra two decades), the industrial parks financed partly by the Chinese have mostly failed in their goal of becoming the world’s next textile powerhouse (I may seem Trumpian in my obsessions, but when I returned to Menagesha for a stroll in 2019, the children who pointed fingers at me shouted ‘China! China!’—I guess we’re all made there now.). Meanwhile, jobless graduate numbers continue to rocket (Ethiopia should create a staggering 2 million new jobs per year, just to not fall back), and the pay in the factories is some of the lowest in the world. (monthly wages average around 800 birr while the cheapest meal of shurro and injéra costs 25 to 40 birr. Try squaring that). Today, there are 110 million people in Ethiopia, 60 percent of whom are under the age of 25—and the hope, so brashly stoked yesterday with loose talk of “middle-income country status to be achieved by 2025”, is today turning to ill-contained rage.

In early 2018, I got a lift back to the city from my friends’ flower farm in Menagesha with Christian Yoka, the director of the AFD in Ethiopia (the French equivalent of DfID, or USAID). We shared a lively back and forth about Ethiopia and Africa’s prospects on the way to Addis. Mr Yoka told me of the time it used to take his father to travel to the nearest town in the bush (a couple of days had been reduced to a few hours). He told me of the absence of schools, and of how people died from preventable diseases. And Christian Yoka was of course right. And therein lay the conundrum at the heart of our exponential growth—damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I offered up my readings of Ivan Illich (I always thought his analysis on negative feedback loops, largely based on the development of Mexico City in the 70s, transferred very readily to Addis Ababa). Mr Yoka countered with the urgent needs for education, health, and clean water. The Chinese had lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, he told me. Mr Yoka kindly dropped me off in Lideta. As I got out of the Land Cruiser I could not help but wonder how long his upbeat views of Ethiopian development would last, if he were to commute to work by minibus.

The reports Mr Yoka based his assertions of progress in Ethiopia, and in Africa at large, are by no means all false. The field trips he had taken to visit wind farms and hydroelectric dams, sugar plantations and brand-new universities—all these projects existed. Infant mortality had plummeted, school enrolment rates had soared—and Ethiopians had, overall, never enjoyed so much material bounty. And who could be against more, taken in this sense? But—to reprise William Gibbon’s conclusion about the future that was already present—only unevenly distributed—if Ethiopia’s development did exist, it was spread out too thinly, in too jarring juxtapositions. The country was caught in a dystopian nightmare, an explosive cocktail of the 19th century and an Abyssinian BladeRunner. Smartphones and ox ploughing, Facebook and sorcery, solar panels and beeswax candles. The contrast was too much to stomach, especially if the stomach happened to be empty (and no, there was no app for this, and drones would not be flying in for the rescue either).

It is as if Ethiopia had experienced the economic take-off after the Second World War, the stagflation of the 70s, and the neoliberal ‘winner takes all’ fever of the 90s and 2000s (plus the post-2008 crisis)—all packed into a scary speeded-up version—in those years in Ethiopia, everything solid turned to thin air. Enough to make anyone’s head spin, and certainly to turn the heads of the elites of one of the poorest countries in the world. A UN situation report from 14 April speaks of ‘30 million people’ going hungry in Ethiopia in the coming months. But the report fails to point out that the number of Ethiopians receiving food aid in one form or another has hovered around 15 million per annum for many years (and this with economic growth of 10 percent!). Meanwhile, a wide-eyed subset of the Twitterati revel, together with the pro-growth media, in the glow of this African success story, and hammer home the message that ‘it’s morning in Ethiopia’.

They are too busy showing up each other’s millennia-old ethnic wrongs in 280 characters (the iron law of the Diaspora is that nationalism levels are inversely proportional to the distance from the motherland—in Bishoftu people are relatively chilled-out while Ethiopians abroad hyphenate themselves into oblivion, as they jostle for status as the minority du jour).  In the last two months of 2019, Ethiopia was granted another 3 billion dollars (the prime minister jokingly commenting that ‘to borrow from the IMF is like borrowing from your mother.’). The economist Ayele Gelan soberly noted that Ethiopia was the only country in the world which reduces exports and increases imports the more debt it takes on. Besides—borrowing from the IMF is more akin to taking out a loan from your stepmother.

But it’s 2020—and Mr Cowen has tempered his enthusiasm, slightly (‘the potential trend of Africa as the “next big thing” has not (yet?) been crystallized [even if] the economies of Ghana and Ethiopia are doing quite well’, Jewish World Review). I quite like the ‘quite’. Oh, and did I mention the 3 million IDPs? (that’s Internally Displaced Persons or people hounded from their homes to you and me.). The height of Ethiopia’s internal refugee crisis happened in the first half of 2018, at the time of Tyler Cowen’s visit. Ethiopia—Wakanda it ain’t, my friend, and you can tweet that if you like.

Two days before flying out of Addis, I passed through Mexico on foot once more, stopping off at the Wabe Shebelle Hotel to greet Prince Beade Maryam, the late emperor’s grandson, who was kind enough to grant me an interview for my upcoming book (L’Ethiopie, la cire et l’or, Nevicata, Sept. 2020). I have long been partial to the Wabe Shebelle. Its rooftop terrace offers great views on the city, and we used to drink Mirinda sodas there with my soon-to-be wife who was a student back then, at the next-door Saint Mary’s University College. Prime Minister Meles (born Legesse Zenawi), got his nom-de-guerre here, claiming for himself the name of a 1970s revolutionary executed by the Derg for lobbing a grenade into the hotel in 75.

Nowadays, I visit the hotel because it reminds me of the old Addis Ababa, and because I am fond of Beade, and always eager to hear his views. He repeated to me his faith in Ethiopia’s youth. But when I exited onto the ‘square’—in reality, Mexico is a roundabout, a traffic circle—the crowds were so compact that a well-known beggar, a sort of Elephant Man with a face tumbling down onto his neck, had felt compelled to move from his spot of 20 years to a less busy location, opposite the Saint George’s brewery. The influx was harmful, even for begging, and I noted that instead of ten cents, it was one birr coins that were now placed in the palm of the destitute.

It was raining and the ambient greyness was amplified by the shadow cast by the train hovering above on its concrete rail. The minibuses were plastered with images of prime ministers Abiy and Meles, as well as Comrade Mengistu and Emperor Hailé Selassié—what a ride it had been! There were red posters on the pillars extolling the traditional injéra, washed down with Coca-Cola. The fast emptying train, the prim women decked-out all in white, the giant advertisements and the Chinese gunk for sale everywhere on tarps—forget boarding a minibus, on Mexico Square avoiding collision with other pedestrians was a full-time job. Ethiopians had never moved so fast to cover such short distances.

The city, bisected by the concrete railway and the new freeways, was no longer such an easy fit for Alphonse Allais’ bon mot. The emperor’s new clothes were fast unravelling and I had a hard time subscribing to Beade Maryam’s optimism. It was not so much the numbers that had made my head spin all those years ago, when I first arrived. We live today in awe of a virus that we have crowned king—but it is the exponential function itself that we worship (‘I’ll have mine with more of everything’). China picked up the baton from the West with gusto (‘to get rich is glorious’ said Deng Xiaoping), but today, the circle can no longer be squared. We’re running up against the physical limits of our planet, and the race for more is being called off (Chinese car sales were slowing and German exports faltering—before being hit by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic).

If Ethiopia is tomorrow’s China—it always will be. The country, after winning so many battles, has lost the war. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. To quote Pier Paolo Pasolini (lamenting the total obliteration of Italy in the decades after the war): ‘What fascism did not succeed in doing, will be accomplished by the consumer society.’ When I reached Lideta, I had one last Habesha beer in the kitchen—a bottle of which now cost 45 birr in the hotel managed by my brother-in-law. Looking up above the half-empty train, I could see the truncated cone of the Menagesha peak, beyond the urban sprawl of Addis. The grasslands I used to cross on horseback were now a sea of tin. I thought of Dida Dabi, who lives not far from Guddu, in Kolobo. I thought of Elias Negussié, shocked at the price of the oranges I had brought for his daughter. I thought of my friends’ rose farm and their 300 employees. I thought of the Elephant Man. In Ethiopia, the collapse was well underway, but no one was paying any notice. I had travelled full-circle, for a last gallop into Addis Ababa. On the ill-named Mexico Square, the crowds have subsided, for now—they’d shut the barn door, but the horse had bolted long ago.

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