Ethiopia has in recent years experienced perhaps the strongest economic growth in the world. The winners have been the dictatorial regime, its allies and multinational corporations. If a certain layer in society has an increased purchasing capacity, the overwhelming majority of workers and poor peasants have gained little or nothing from the upturn. Since November, the country has been tormented by an incipient famine that could affect 15 million people. And in the last two months, more than 150 people have been shot dead when protesting against the regime’s land grabbing.
Last summer, at the third UN-sponsored Financing for Development Conference, the most prominent guest in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa was Barack Obama. This was just months after an election in which the ruling party claimed they received 100 per cent of the votes. However, at a press conference, Obama chose to call the government "democratically elected". The EPRDF government’s heavy-handed repression has been accepted by the West because the Ethiopian army is a key ally for the US in the war against al-Shabab in Somalia and north-east Africa. The US has a military base in Ethiopia. Several multinational companies such as Sweden’s Ericsson and H&M, see the country as a major new market and a source of cheap labour respectively.
Over the last years, the country’s rulers has been highly praised for its economy, which according to official figures has more than doubled in size in six years. Growth of 8-10 percent per year has been the highest in the world during the 2010s. The ruling party, EPRDF, in power for 24 years, is trying to follow a "Chinese" model, with a dictatorial regime, strong governmental control and substantial investment in infrastructure. Meanwhile, the leaders of Western powers and of China are now pushing for Ethiopia to give greater scope for the international "market" – the multinationals and speculators.
15 million people at risk
Now, the incipient famine has put this economic record in the shade. The UN estimates that 15 million Ethiopians are at risk of starving. 350,000 children risk extreme malnutrition, according to UNICEF. The number that receive UN food programmes increased from 2.5 million at the beginning of 2015 to 8.5 million in October. The triggering factor is El Niño, the world’s largest climatic phenomenon which causes marine winds and currents to change course. In northern Ethiopia, it means drought while other parts of East Africa are affected by floods.
Ethiopia’s population is estimated to last year have passed 100 million. 80-85 percent of them are subsistence farmers, using wooden ploughs. With so much of the food produced locally, drought affects almost everyone.
Internationally, and even more so for mainly elderly Ethiopians, this has brought back memories of the famine in 1984-85, when 400,000 died. Over one million died of starvation between 1965 and 1985.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared early in 2015 that the country would be able to feed its people, but the regime has now surrendered. They have requested the equivalent of $500 million in aid. Promises of food supplies from the US, China and EU countries will not be enough.
The regime fears that hunger will lead to its fall. The media and NGOs have been forbidden to use the word "famine" or refer to children dying daily. The latter is denied by the regime, which forced a mother interviewed by the BBC since her baby died to take back her statement that the cause of death was starvation. Since then, no journalists are allowed to report from the affected regions.
Being forced to admit that they cannot feed the population is a scathing indictment of a regime that promised to abolish poverty. The truth is that most people never noticed anything of the economic growth. The average income is only about 100 euro per month, or three a day, and many earn far less. A Human Development report from the United Nations ranks Ethiopia 173 of 187 countries. A small group at the top, however, has profited greatly. Reportedly, the country’s largest export commodity in the past year was gold to Switzerland.
The regime’s propaganda says that the food crisis is caused only by El Niño. But the consequences of the drought are a result of both the country’s position in the capitalist world order and the regime’s policies. The same is the case with neighbouring Eritrea and Djibouti, who are also seriously affected.
Repression and oppression is endemic to this regime and has been stepped up. Before the "elections" in May 2015, leaders and members of all opposition parties were arrested. Newspapers were closed down and journalists convicted as ‘terrorists’. Demonstrations are banned and those that go ahead attacked, including a small group that gathered for International Women’s Day 2015.
Reports from Amnesty International describe a state frequently using torture, including rape. There are also cases where Ethiopian opposition leaders in exile have been kidnapped and taken back to Ethiopia, where they have been tortured and sentenced for ‘terrorism’.
The government and the army is dominated by leaders from the Tigray people, the third largest ethnic group (the largest is Oromo followed by Amhara). The former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, was Tigray, while his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn is from a small ethnic group in the south. In total there are over 80 different people and language groups. However, most also speak the official national language, Amharic.
Mass revolts against land grabbing
This autumn has seen large protests organised in the Oromia region, started by students and spreading to large parts of the population. The protesters fear that a new regional division – the ‘Integrated Master Plan’ in which part of the Oromo merged with the capital Addis Ababa - will drive the peasants and the poor from their land. The regime wants to create a new ‘business zone’ in what is now an agricultural area. Since the poor farmers are not legal owners of the land - it belongs to the state - they can more easily be forced out of the area.
The regime responded to the protests with fierce repression. Since November, over 150 people have been killed by government forces. Opposition media report 2,000 injured, 30,000 arrested and 800 ‘disappeared’.
A similar movement took place in April and May 2014, when 30 people were shot dead, hundreds were beaten and several thousand were imprisoned without trial.
The difference this time is that the movement is broader and has involved not only Oromo people but also other ethnic groups. Protests have taken place in many parts of the country. A common message in the protests, also by Ethiopians in exile, is to stand together and not accept being split.
Concerns about losing their land are very real. The regime leases out fertile farmland and water resources to multinational companies and other states. This business is producing big profits for people inside the regime itself and their families, while it is a major cause of mass starvation. In total, seven million hectares of land have been sold off - an area the size of Belgium - and over one million people have been forced from their lands. (The combined land in poor countries exploited in this way corresponds to the entire land surface of France).
The famine crisis, which is expected to get much worse in 2016, is further evidence of the total failure of the regime and its international "friends".
The regime fears that widespread discontent could explode into mass protests in a revolutionary direction. Merera Gudina, the leader of the Oromo People’s Congress, told al-Jazeera: "In fact, Ethiopian society is simply fed up with the regime — especially the youth. The young people have lost hope".
The Economist made a similar observation: "Young people are angry and jobless. Outlets for their frustration are quickly shut off. Sensible opposition leaders are pushed into exile or prison, ceding the field to hotheads. Universities have grown more than tenfold, but there are insufficient jobs for all these bright new graduates”.
In early January, the government announced that its master plan was scrapped. However, this did not put an end to the protests, since people do not trust the government’s manoeuvres.
There is an urgent need to organise the struggle against the regime in Ethiopia, among young people and workers in particular. It is a strenuous fight for democratic rights and against poverty and exploitation, against the local rulers and imperialism. Examples from other countries in Africa show that it will not be enough to replace the present rulers with another pro-capitalist grouping or party. There is a need for a revolutionary and socialist alternative which brings together workers and poor from all ethnic groups to establish the use of the country’s resources for the mass of the population, not the few at the top.