In my teenage years in the early 1980s, I remember Africa’s worst case of war, famine, disease and poverty was Ethiopia. For Americans it was a golden era when the US marshalled soft power at the height of the Cold War. Although the liberation movements in Southern Africa were politically aligned to the then USSR, we could not resist as children the U.S’s soft power channelled through music, movies and Western media including the likes of CNN.
I remember watching traumatising news about famine in Ethiopia while waiting for our favourite television series, Knight Rider. The US galvanized unprecedented global human solidarity for Ethiopia through the famous ‘’We are the World’ song for the famine in Sudan and Ethiopia. Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Marian (the man who killed Haile Selassie I in 1974) fought a devastating war with Siad Barre of Somalia, as the USSR was imploding, bringing to an end the cold war.
Ethiopia and Somalia had followed different paths. Somalia disintegrated and became a failed state when Siad Barre’s regime fell due to civil war. In Ethiopia on the hand, an insurgent Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by Meles Zenawi defeated the dictator Mengistu Haile Marian, ushering in a developmental state. Ethiopia’s fortunes drastically changed from one defined by famine, war, disease and poverty, to one that sheds a bright light on the African continent.
Former President Thabo Mbeki made remarks at the funeral of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who he called, ‘a great architect of the new Ethiopia’ in September 2012. He said, “He and his colleagues in the leadership of this country have done an outstanding job in terms of agriculture and rural development, education, health, the provision of water, electricity, telecommunications, infrastructure development, and generally the economic development of Ethiopia, as well as the national unity of this diverse country”.
Geographically well located at the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is the second most populous nation (with 102 million people in 2016) in Africa, after Nigeria. It is close to the Middle East and also serves as the gateway to the world’s second and third largest economies, China and Japan. There is absolutely nothing that will stop Ethiopia achieving its dream of reaching the lower-middle-income status by 2025 as its economy registered an impressive growth of 10.3% rate since 2005. Ethiopian Airlines remains Africa’s most profitable airline reaching more global destinations than SAA and Kenyan Airlines. Ethiopian Airlines is in the early phases of building yet another airport in Bishoftu area 48 km from Addis Ababa, with a projected annual capacity of 80 million people.
If Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was the ‘great architect of the new Ethiopia’, the current Ethiopian leader, Abiy Ahmed, appears to be a peacemaker with a developmental agenda for the wider region. He has wasted no time to end the senseless war with neighbouring Eritrea. The peace with Eritrea is part of Ahmed’s broad strategy reforms in Ethiopia’s politics, economy and security. He has filled half of the national parliament with female MPs, breaking with the tradition of having a male dominated national assembly like most African countries. In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has appointed a female scholar diplomat Sahle-Work Zewde to the position of President. Although this remains a largely ceremonial position it has nonetheless sent a positive signal to Africa’s male dominated body politics.
Prime Minister Ahmed has vowed to continue with his predecessors’ economic agenda, the second phase of its Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II). The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is halfway complete. It is expected to supply Ethiopia and its neighbours with much needed energy to power economic development in the region. The newly Chinese built 750 km Ethiopia–Djibouti railway which is fully electrified has shortened the time in getting goods from port. Ethiopia is attracting more investments particularly in the manufacturing sector from China. As the Chinese labour costs and market saturation increase, Ethiopia is becoming an alternative destination for Chinese companies. The country has already earmarked itself to be Africa’s manufacturing hub.
Although Ethiopia is heavily affected by climate change as it suffers from periodical droughts like most of its neighbouring countries, it is constantly producing sufficient food. The country still faces considerable challenges. Like most countries on the Horn of Africa, it still has a huge number of its youth dying in treacherous journeys to unwelcoming and racist Europe in the Mediterranean Sea.
The world’s attention remains fixed on South Africa and Nigeria as the most vibrant African economies, but it seems Ethiopia is rewriting its script and soon will have a seat at the table with the giants. It won’t be long before the world will see more South Africans and Nigerians heading to Ethiopia for a better life. Ethiopia is on the right path to development. It’s poverty curse has been lifted.
David Monyae is the Co-Director of the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute.