Anti-government protests in Ethiopia: Is it their problem?

The Omoro people, who constitute around a third of Ethiopia's population, have long complained of neglect and oppression by central government
The Omoro people, who constitute around a third of Ethiopia’s population, have long complained of neglect and oppression by central government

Anti-government protests in Ethiopia have been a recurrent occurrence over the past year, and these are concentrated primarily in the Oromia and Amhara region, the homeland of the country’s two largest ethnic groups. The Oromos, who constitute about a third of Ethiopia’s population, have complained of historical oppression in various socioeconomic aspects, which has allowed the capital, Addis Ababa, to grow parasitically at their expense. The protests were sparked by the state’s plan to expand the capital city’s development into the Oromia region, and since then ethnic protests have been a regular occurrence. It is important to know the background behind these protests, but in this article I’d like to draw attention to the issue of representation which we have not given enough thought to.

Most of the time we obtain our news from online newspapers which woefully do not narrate about other societies in an ethical way, despite these stories appearing relatively harmless. The BBC and The Guardian’s versions of the protests direct our attention to the problematic and corrupt government of Ethiopia who is unable to unite different ethnic clans in his own country. We are encouraged to ascribe blame to Africans themselves who seem blinded with violence and not in a coherent state to negotiate their differences in a refined manner. Nowhere do we see the role of the Western colonizer, nor is there any historical dredging up of how the colonist so capriciously drew boundaries, motivated by eugenic beliefs, that had far-reaching effects on the newly ‘liberated’/’independent’ people. The governments of (ex)colonies (colonization has far from ended!) cannot be shallowly interpreted as representing the voice of the colonized masses, for these are usually the colonized elite whom the colonists have found valuable and maintained strong economic ties with. Often these leaders are not treated with the same violence and contempt because by according to the colonist’s ways, such as adopting signs of his behaviour and/or elements of his lifestyle, they show themselves as having the potential to be a civilized being like them. In the eyes of the colonist, such a person does not belong to the colonized masses because he is outstanding. This account is still crude, but it shows that our western media neglects to implicate itself as having responsibility for this ongoing violence, because the colonists have left legacies on the land upon which they conducted aggressive displays of armed force.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, has been the centre of fierce anti-government protests this year
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, has been the centre of fierce anti-government protests this year

When western journalists go to interview the leaders of other countries they classify as poor, they bring a lot of ethnocentric assumptions with them which inhibits their respondent’s capacity to express views which would be viewed as radical. In the interview with the Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, his reticence to critique western ideology was felt but this was one of the few news pieces that featured his critique of USA’s human rights and also his pride in following a model of democracy that western leaders “do not like because they want to prove their ideology is correct”. He also draws attention to the role of natural disasters like El Nino in causing famine, which runs counter to common-sense assumptions that the media likes to posit, such as Ethiopians are starving because their government’s allocation is insensible and unfair. This encourages us to do something the media has never done, which is to radically rethink what we mean by ‘development’. Accounts from non-western societies only show how western-centric this taken-for-granted ideology is, and this gargantuan body of knowledge includes simple ideas like maximising the export economy which in fact might not suit a great many people out there. Positive trickle-down effects of exports are unquestioned in economic theory for example, but in reality these do more harm than benefit to many rural farmers who could have been better off in subsistence farming. The colonizer continues to shelter their own farmers with generous agricultural subsidies at the expense of the ‘third world’ farmer who fails to benefit significantly, and sometimes even is worse off when forced to buy patented seeds and fertilizers he cannot afford. Remembering the (ongoing) Monsanto scandal of farmer suicides, I argue that it is in this sense, among others, that the ‘post’ in ‘postcolonial’ is a massive injustice which hides concurrent atrocities. Capitalism and consumption, sometimes excessive, seems to be an imperative in the West but we have not stopped to think if this is necessarily desired by other societies who work in family farm contexts. FairTrade is grossly romanticised such that it is often assumed that the farmers who appear in success stories in the press can be amplified to apply to general society when this is far from the case.

Ethiopia often suffers from famines and droughts, yet has outstanding natural beauty
Ethiopia often suffers from famines and droughts, yet has outstanding natural beauty

We in Durham belong to a relatively privileged class of millennials in the world, who while fretting over our near future and career satisfaction, are after all relatively comfortable in material terms. We can never fully inhabit the world-view of someone who lives a subsistence life and who feels the sharp end of the double sword of Capitalism because his goods are being bypassed for heavily subsidised ones in the global north. In contrast, our ‘problems’ seem abstract and up-in-the-air, because we worry about existential fulfilment and whether our jobs are meaningful to us, while there are people who find this type of worry a privilege they do not have time for, because that time is preoccupied with basic survival. It is not my intention to imply moral judgments about relatively affluent societies, for to an extent we cannot choose where we are born into and we are thrown into the environment we inhabit, learning to cope in it as we grow. But the least we can do is curb the insensitivity in the press, and among more everyday micro arenas, when we claim to understand, speak for and about other people whose life experiences are out of our reach.

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