Ethiopia’s political ripple a big test for infrastructure-led Chinese approach

Niv Horesh, Durham University
CNBC Africa
January 6,2017

Photo - shutterstock / cnbc africa
Photo – shutterstock / cnbc africa

Nearly three months into the state of emergency declared by Ethiopia, the atmosphere on the streets of its bustling and impressively modern metropolis and capital, Addis Ababa, feels tense.

At 2,355m above sea level, the climate is pleasantly mild most of the year. Its broad thoroughfares are studded with magnificent cultural attractions. These are infused with the glow of an ancient yet resilient civilisation that could withstand both Jesuit and Wahhabi encroachment.

Yet, at present, tourists are understandably few and far between. There have been reports of hundreds of deaths in districts surrounding the capital in recent weeks. But these have been played down as an exaggeration by Prime Minister Heilemariam Desalegn.




Violence broke out during an Oromo religious festival, and in some instances foreigners seem to have been targeted. In response, the predominantly ethnic-Tigrean government clamped down on social media, took a few TV channels off the air, and restricted the movement of the opposition leader and foreign observers.

For the past few years, Ethiopia has been able to partly shed its association with abject poverty and famine. Arguably inspired by China, the country became a developmental success story and one of the fastest-growing countries in the world. At much the same time, Addis Ababa was able to capitalise on being the gateway to the politics of the African continent and foreign aid.

It is evident just how rapidly China’s stakes here have grown over the past few years. Just as evident is China’s different approach to development as compared with the West. It is also easy to see why the recent instability in Ethiopia is a real test to China’s approach.

Behind the veneer of Ethiopia’s parliamentary federalism lies an authoritarian system of state-led development that is preferred by Beijing over the country’s ragtag opposition forces. The question is whether the fruits of fast economic growth can be distributed sufficiently effectively in Ethiopia so as to forestall ethnic rural unrest.

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