Two decades ago Ethiopia was still suffering under a Marxist military dictatorship, funded by the Soviet Union. Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam had expelled Americans, welcomed Soviet and Cuban troops, banned many church activities, instituted military conscription and curfews, and created People's Committees to report on any who murmured against the government. He and his associates probably executed half a million people during Ethiopia's Red Terror in the mid-1970s.
Live by Soviet aid, die by its removal. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, a rebel coalition rolled into Addis, with Mengistu fleeing to asylum in Zimbabwe. Meles Zenawi, a Communist who publicly changed his views when his patrons were no more, became the "transitional" head of state after the dictator was overthrown in 1991. He is still in charge.
Economically, Ethiopia remains a predominantly agricultural country, with over 80 percent of its people trying to survive by growing crops on less than 20 percent of the arable land. Agriculture accounts for over half of the Gross Domestic Product and 90 percent of export earnings, with coffee the main export crop. Some farmers, though, are switching to the sale of Qat, which is an addictive drug, a money crop for some hardscrabble highland farmers, and a three-letter word useful in Scrabble. Ethiopia has also become a transit hub for heroin from Asia heading for Europe and cocaine heading to southern Africa.
Ethiopia's 1998-2000 war with neighboring Eritrea worsened poverty, and an army that had no trouble rolling over Somalian warlords last year also soaks up funds. Meanwhile, Chinese companies are making great inroads in Ethiopia, as in other African countries. The Ethiopian government on March 17 signed an agreement with a Chinese company for construction of an $800 million industrial zone, and it has also authorized China's Zhongxing Telecom Corporation to develop Ethiopian telecommunications. China is also trading road-building in some areas for mineral rights.
Some statistics are showing improvement. Over the past decade primary school enrollments and access to clean water have increased and child mortality has declined. But it's hard to know what to trust in a society filled with euphemisms: A "supermarket" is a hole in the wall. So is a "Mega Book Store." "Noble higher clinic" is a place where the sick normally become sicker. Signs for "better roads for better Ethiopia" stand over ancient cobblestones.
Experts differ on how to turn euphemism to reality. Some emphasize working through the United Nations and other international governmental entities. The United Nations World Food Program has done helpful work in many countries. Its compound on a street named Josif Tito (for the late communist Yugoslavian dictator) sits next to a metal, cardboard, and mud shantytown where children one morning were kicking a deflated soccer ball. Lined up in an alleyway adjacent to the compound were nine identical white Toyota Land Cruisers, each with UN insignia in blue on the side and special UN license plates.
Later that day four of the Land Cruisers had moved several hundred yards to the Hilton, where the UN was co-sponsoring a three-day conference on "Advancing Agriculture in Developing Countries Through Knowledge and Innovation." As soon as it ended, a new conference, "Supporting Good Governance in Africa," began, and the Land Cruisers were again in evidence. Some who are skeptical of international largesse emphasize the need to develop a stronger work ethic and a sense that economic progress is possible.
Others say the Ethiopian government should emphasize more the development of small businesses by the Ethiopians themselves. In Ethiopia, as in much of Africa, the informal ("gray") economy that exists under the radar of government regulators provides 90 percent of all non-farm jobs, according to the African Union Labor and Social Affairs Commission-but such small businesses have to keep a low profile, and have trouble growing.
Azad Jeetun of the Pan African Employers Confederation says, "The cost of obtaining a permit is very high. There are so many administrative bottlenecks. . . . We have to simplify the procedures to obtain licenses and permits to operate."