by Belén Fernández
“This government is at least better than previous ones,” remarked a 74-year-old Eritrean man to me last month in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, his longtime residence. Clad in a tattered grey suit and speaking to me in Italian, the man was peddling a book of useful Amharic phrases he had compiled for the foreign visitor, proceeds of which would go toward the purchase of a second-hand comforter for his bed.
As it turned out, his assessment of the relative superiority of the current Ethiopian administration was for good reason: two of his children had been killed by a previous ruling outfit, the Derg military junta that took power in 1974 and began eliminating suspected opponents in droves.
Although that particularly bloody epoch came to an end in 1991, many a resident of Ethiopia might nowadays still have cause to complain about homicidal activity by the state. In the Oromia region surrounding Addis Ababa, for example, there are claims that more than 200 people have been killed by Ethiopian security forces since November 2015, when protests broke out in response to the government’s so-called “Master Plan” to expand the boundaries of the capital by a factor of 20.
As a Newsweek article explains, the Oromo inhabitants of the region viewed the plan as “an attempted land grab that could result in the forced eviction of Oromo farmers and the loss of valuable arable land in a country regularly plagued by drought.”
This was no doubt a valid concern given the government’s established tradition of wantonly displacing Ethiopians in the interest of “development”—that handy euphemism for removing human obstacles to the whims of international and domestic investment capital.
Comprising some 35 percent of the population, the Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group and have regularly decried discrimination by the ruling coalition party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which is dominated by ethnic Tigrayan interests. Politically motivated detention, incarceration, and other abuses have long characterized the landscape in Oromia, and the current protests have seen children as young as eight arrested.
Apparently, torture has also been a difficult habit for security forces to break.
And while the government has opted to shelve the Master Plan for now, protests in Oromia have continued. When I recently visited the town of Woliso, one of many protest sites in the region, residents pointed out that cancelling the plan wouldn’t bring back the dead people.
Events in Oromia have been described as the worst civil unrest in a decade. The United States, never too quick to condemn the excesses of its African ally, helpfully responded by emitting a “security message” for U.S. citizens and restricting the movements in Oromia of its government personnel; the British government, for its part, provided a color-coded map of Ethiopia on which a vast chunk of land around Woliso is designated inadvisable for “all but essential travel.”
Even without the Master Plan, meanwhile, the government is doing a decent job of courting investors. As I traveled west from Addis Ababa toward Woliso — a journey of about two hours — I passed sprawling factory complexes, including one featuring a Turkish flag flying alongside its more indigenous counterparts.
A January report by the Ethiopian News Agency outlines the government’s goal of luring Turkish and other investors to “priority areas” as part of an overall scheme to convert the economy from agriculture- to industry-based. Noting that “about 110 Turkish investment projects have become operational” and that “incentives from the government includ[e] electricity and cheap labor,” the report highlights the exploits of the Ayka Addis textile factory 20 kilometers west of the Ethiopian capital, in the Oromia region.
Launched in 2010 with a price tag of US$140 million, the Turkish factory is said to occupy several hundred thousand square meters of land.
The website of the Ethiopian Investment Commission furthermore lists Ayka Addis as one of “a number of private Industrial Zones” in Ethiopia, described as “success stories.” The site, which advertises thousands of hectares worth of “investment opportunities” in the country, cites perks including exemptions from customs duties for machinery and other equipment as well as certain exemptions from income taxes.
Indeed, the EPRDF can point to double-digit economic growth over recent years to justify plowing ahead with its development model. But there’s more to life than GDP — as sizable poverty-stricken sectors of the Ethiopian population can presumably confirm.
If we want to consider other, less superficial digits, we might take a look at the estimated 10.2 million Ethiopians currently “in need of urgent food assistance”— as reported, perhaps ironically, in a March edition of the English-language Ethiopian newspaper Capital, “the paper that promotes free enterprise.”
Additional troublesome statistics are contained in a 2014 BBC dispatch titled “The village where half the people are at risk of blindness.” The village in question is Kuyu, located in the Oromia region; the risk is due to infectious trachoma, “the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.”
At the time of the article’s publication, 200,000 people were reportedly in danger of trachoma-induced blindness in Oromia alone. Quoted in the piece is one Simon Bush of the Sightsavers organization, who remarks that trachoma is “a disease of poverty” that is “endemic in areas which have poor access to water and sanitation.”
All of this is merely to point out that, in the end, a lot of people in Oromia and beyond might have greater priorities than, say, income tax immunity for international developers. Because it doesn’t take a functioning eyeball to see that such development models are themselves in need of some serious development.
Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.