Revolution, Oppression, Ornithology and a semi-Charter City

One of the incredible monolithic churches in Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis

Apologies for my long blogging silence. I’ve been almost completely off the grid for a holiday in Ethiopia (with a short detour to Djibouti) for the last couple of weeks. I checked my e-mail only a couple of times, and completely avoided Facebook. It was glorious.

Still, Ethiopia gives one the blogging bug. Historically, culturally, archaeologically and politically it must be one of the most interesting countries I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit. Without claiming any kind of in-depth analysis, a number of things occurred to me in the last couple of weeks, things I’d be interested to explore further or hear about from people who have already done so. I also saw some interesting economic developments in Djibouti that I’d be really keen to get more of an insight into.

First are the politics. A while ago I wrote a post speculating as to why popular revolt and revolution are so rare in Africa, when so many countries seem to have many of the characteristics that would make them likely. Ethiopia is an exception to this rule. It has experienced a genuine revolution, which led to the fall of the Mengitsu, effected by civil war with the aim of regime change (not solely for secession, though this was the aim of a subset of the combatants). While in Ethiopia, I picked up a book, Ethiopia: Power and Protest, by Gebru Tareke, which shows that prior to the revolution, peasant revolt and rebellion was common enough to dissipate state resources and demand remedial action. Tareke argues that rebellion was a relatively rare phenomenon in Ethiopia compared to peasantries elsewhere in the world, but nonetheless, this still marks it out as historically more prone to rebellion than the rest of Africa.

Why Ethiopia? What has made revolution and rebellion occur here? One reason might be that the extremely strong influence of Orthodox Christianity provides an alternative source of authority to the state, thereby making challenge of the leaders more palatable. Historically the monarchy sought legitimacy by patronising the Church, once conversion was widespread – the incredible monolithic churches of Lalibela stem from this impulse. It may be that by providing an alternative authority, one which is relatively unified in voice, the authority of the state can more effectively be challenged by Ethiopians. Yet this could hardly be more than a minor part of the story. The organisation of so many people, encompassing a number of diverse tribes and linguistic groups must have been extraordinarily difficult if revolt was to be anything other than local. I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who knows more about this.

Yet, despite the rebellious and revolutionary past of Ethiopia, its polity has remained resolutely centralised and undemocratic. It was ruled as a serious of Kingdoms from the beginning of its recorded history (gorgeously preserved in Axum and Gondar, with many more treasures under the ground waiting for excavation); after a brief interlude of Fascist occupation, the monarchy was restored under Haile Selassie, before a military coup replaced it with the Communist Council or Derg, ruling as a dictatorship of enormous brutality. Following civil war, the Derg collapsed and was replaced by the ‘democratic’ Government of Meles Zenawi, which took 99% of the elected seats in Ethiopian Government in the elections of 2010, to general incredulity. This does not seem to be an especially open or subtle Government. In almost every place we went we either met or heard about communities that were being forcibly evicted from their land, often to make way for new commercial buildings, for what was usually claimed to be inadequate compensation.

Here’s another huge ‘why’? Is Ethiopia really that much more prone to dictatorship? Why has democracy made not even the modest gains seen in many other African countries, especially after the general population has shown itself willing to revolt against the state? Again, I can only speculate: Ethiopia is physically enormous and has a population of 85 million people. It could simply be that given infrastructure and other constraints, only a rigidly centralised bureaucracy can effectively govern – and these bureaucracies are typically anti-democratic. A similar argument has been made of Russia in 1917 – until the Bolsheviks imposed a brutal order on Russia, central governance was virtually impossible. This is obviously not a justification, but an attempt to explain why such states flourish where more representative ones flounder. Again, though, this is pure speculation, and any pointers on what to read to learn more about this would be gratefully received.

Despite all this, the superficial outward indications suggest that Ethiopia is on an upward path economically. Addis Ababa is filled with sites of construction work – often at the cost of poor squatter communities that previously occupied those areas. The road network is undergoing significant improvements funded and carried out by China it seems (I’ll touch on this in my next post). I’ve never bought the idea that democracy and economic growth were somehow related, so this does not surprise me. However, my trip to Djibouti did bring about a surprise. Djibouti has established a ‘Free Zone’ in Djibouti City – essentially leveraging the potential inherent in its port by minimizing all barriers to entry and exit in its economy in order to attract foreign investment. Companies setting up in the Free Zone pay 0% Corporate Tax, are allowed to operate under 100% foreign ownership and can repatriate 100% of profits. These are serious draws that cannot be matched by any other place in Africa that I can think of.

An even bigger surprise is in how it is managed. The Djibouti Free Zone seems to half way to being a Charter City, with different aspects managed by various entities based in the Middle East, though overall control is maintained at least nominally by the Government of Djibouti, through the Djibouti Free Zone and Ports Authority. The Free Zone is managed by Jafza, a major developer of economic free zones, industrial parks and the likes – whose major projects are found in the UAE and Dubai, where its head offices are. Djibouti customs, too, boasts that it has been managed by Dubai customs since 2005, presumably to signal to potential investors that the system will be low on red-tape and high on efficiency. Even the ultra-lush Djibouti Palace Kempinski is owned by the Dubai-based Nakheel Hotels.

I’m not sure how successful this model has been so far. Djibouti borders Eritrea on one side and Somaliland (though unrecognised) on the other. Given current Ethiopian / Eritrean relations, it’s the main port for Ethiopia, with its population of 85 million. It’s also very close to the Arabian Peninsula – virtually close enough to Yemen to throw a stone over. This gives it potential. A quick google search reveals that Gazprom, the Russian gas giant, has already established a base there. Anyone out there know more about the Free Zone?

Finally, one last note from the trip: Ethiopia must be the one of the very best birdwatching spots in the whole world. I saw more than thirty species I’d never seen before, many of which are endemic to Ethiopia, Ethiopia and Eritrea or those two countries and the extreme north of Kenya – and most of these without actively seeking them out. For the geeks among you, the endemics included: the Black Winged Lovebird, White-cheeked Turaco, Wattled Ibis, Ethiopian Black-Headed Oriole, White-Winged Cliff Chat, Ruppell’s Chat, Thick Billed Raven and White-collared Pigeon. If you’re into that kind of thing (and even if you’re not), I can’t recommend Ethiopia enough.

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