Independence you can trust
31 July 2014 09:16 (South Africa)
Opinionista Kevin Bloom

The Ethiopia of Ms Winter's discontent

  • Kevin Bloom
In her rebuttal to an article published while I was in Addis Ababa, Janice Winter told me where “the truth” regarding Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi lies. Having recently returned from that fascinating country, I rebut back.

Janice Winter, if one pays close attention to the tone of her column (a rebuttal to my article The AU Summit: A rare ring of truth), appears to have an expert’s grasp of Ethiopian realities, so I’m going to assume at the outset that she’s visited the place recently. I returned from Addis Ababa last week, after a 10-day investigative trip focused on research for a forthcoming book on Chinese influence in Africa. The only thing I can say about the country with certainty is that I didn’t meet a single local who professed anything near Winter’s confident expertise. In fact, I’ve got two notebooks full of complicated opinions, the results of interviews conducted with everyone from opposition journalists to victims of Mengistu’s 'Red Terror' to corporate directors working with the Meles regime. There are at most three threads common to the lot: none of the voices were non-Ethiopian, none were so critical of Meles that they didn’t point out his redeeming features and none complained that their country’s economic growth is a bad thing.

Still, given that this is a rebuttal to a rebuttal, I suppose I need to take a stab at an argument of my own. And the place to start, it seems, is with Winter’s most vocal contention about Ethiopia – the one that insists we view it as a highly repressive nation where journalists are in grave and constant danger; the one that demands we denounce it a nightmare-land where “arrests, torture, rapes, forced removals and political manipulation” are commonplace.

This is by no means an empirical statement, Ms Winter, but not once during my visit did I or my colleague and co-writer Richard Poplak encounter a representative of the government who indicated in any way that we – as foreign journalists asking uncomfortable questions about the self-same government – were on the verge of being quartered and drawn. Neither did we personally witness or even hear about two of the five horrors you mention above, although we did come across stories involving political manipulation, rape and arrest. As for the latter, we managed to get in a bit of 'Googling' before we left (thanks for the tip), and were therefore aware of the high number of reporters languishing in Addis Ababa’s prisons. Our concession to that unfortunate fact was not to publish stories critical of the Meles regime while still inside the country, but to wait, rather, until we had returned 'safely' to South Africa.

Turns out we needn’t have bothered. In an interview with the editor of the largest English-language opposition paper in the country, a man named Tamrat Giorgis – who had himself served time in prison for doing his job – we learned that the Ethiopian government is more than aware of the cost to itself (in reputation; in international bargaining power) when it incarcerates foreign journalists. Then what, you say, about those two Swedish reporters who got sentenced to 14 years last December? While Tamrat insisted they were acting “as any journalist would” and so should not have been locked up, many others – both within the profession and outside – noted that they’d crossed a closed border with an outlawed “terrorist” group and had pushed the envelope too far. Like Tamrat’s, my sympathies are with the Swedes. But then Ethiopia is not the only country following the state capitalism model where journalists are advised to take calculated (as opposed to outright hazardous) risks.

Which brings me to your extensive and very well-researched economic points. You are, of course, correct on all of them: Ethiopia’s may very well be an economy built on hot air. While I would like to address each item in your detailed argument directly, I am in Knysna on holiday right now and my notebooks and reference materials are in a cupboard somewhere in Johannesburg (I will, if you’re still interested, be referring to your sources in the relevant chapter in the book). Suffice to say, for the moment, that Meles Zenawi’s supervisor when he was a PhD student in the United Kingdom was a certain Joseph Stiglitz, and that it’s this economist’s models that the evil dictator follows. The hyperinflation of which you so eloquently speak is thus, it appears, a conscious decision to take the pain now in the hope of growth later. And Meles, as I was told, wants to be remembered above all as the man who made the country grow.

Will he succeed? I, for one, hope so. A few short years ago, the GDP of Ethiopia was around $10-billion; it’s now just under $40-billion. This awesome percentage increase may be off a low base, but it’s more than Mengistu (who really was a monster) ever accomplished. Politically speaking, there’s a lot to criticise about Meles, and I don’t like tyrants any more than you, Ms Winter. That said, the 2005 election was when Meles tried to make the country democratic, to open it up to opposition voices, and I heard from more than a few locals that the attempt backfired because the opposition “misbehaved” (an epithet used to refer to the riots and looting that ensued). All of which, while I can’t profess your obvious expertise, is to wonder aloud whether some places on our planet can be allowed their economic growth without the West’s esteemed governance principles.    

Just a thought, mind you, not a statement of belief. But here is a statement of belief: if you haven’t done so yet, book the next ticket to Addis on Ethiopia Air. It’s wonderful this time of year. DM

  • Kevin Bloom
KevinBloomBW

Kevin Bloom has written for a wide array of South African and international publications, including Granta, the UK Times and the Guardian, and is an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, having completed the fall residency of the International Writing Program in 2011. Kevin’s first book, Ways of Staying, won the 2010 South African Literary Award for literary journalism, and was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award. He is currently working on a book about a changing Africa.

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