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Ethiopia’s political troubles are going to test its beneficial China relationship

The Chinese-backed metro rail system in Addis Ababa has been well used since launch.	(Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)
The Chinese-backed metro rail system in Addis Ababa has been well used since launch. (Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)
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 2,355 meters 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.

Behind the veneer of Ethiopia’s parliamentary federalism lies an authoritarian system of state-led development preferred by Beijing.

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.
Showcase infrastructural projects

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Rather than providing grants directly aimed at poverty alleviation or promoting civil society, Chinese state-owned enterprises have been busy erecting showcase infrastructural projects. The aim is to attract further private business investment and to boost tourism.

It would be a mistake to conclude China’s growing stakes in Ethiopia immediately offset Western interests.

The new sparkling African Union conference centre in Addis was fully funded by China. A new six-lane 87-kilometer highway to Adama has cut travel time from three hours to just one hour. And the international arm of China State Construction will soon give the capital a state-of-the-art stadium and upgrade its airport.
But perhaps a more persuasive productivity-booster is Addis Ababa’s new light-rail network completed in 2015 by China Railway Engineering Corporation. Often, the Chinese developmental approach is portrayed as construction frenzy ahead of genuine consumer demand.
Yet, far from being at risk of becoming a white elephant, it is already heavily used by local commuters just over a year after inauguration. In a city where taxi fares are exorbitant and buses are often in bad repair, the network is making a real difference to ordinary people’s lives.
But Beijing also runs a real risk here. In 2007, for example, 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese expatriates were murdered by Somali separatists in an attack on a Sinopec-run oilfield in the east of the country. There is clearly a strong case for Heilemariam to broaden his government’s ethnic support base and heed various regional and rural concerns about disenfranchisement as a result of foreign investment.
No zero-sum game

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Unlike the Chinese Foreign Affairs ministry, the US State Department has expressed concern over the imposition of the state of emergency.
But the Ethiopian government is likely to remain in the US’s good books. This is primarily because of its role in countering the spread of fundamentalist terrorism in the Horn of Africa. In fact, it is that role that has helped endear Ethiopia to the world, and facilitated Western relief aid.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to conclude China’s growing stakes in Ethiopia immediately offset Western interests. For one thing, Ethiopia’s recent troubled history suggests the enemies of government often denounce oppression. But they do not necessarily champion human rights when they seize power themselves.
In addition, Western aid is still far greater and more vital to the running of the country than anything China provides. For all the speculation about the Chinese currency replacing the US dollar as global reserve currency soon, most hotels here do not seem to readily exchange China’s currency for Birr yet.
There is, in short, no zero-sum game between the US and China over Ethiopia, at times quite to the contrary. Neither power is interested in Ethiopia purely for exploitative colonial-style mineral extraction, or is purely motivated by altruism. The budding, somewhat desultory Chinatown in Addis Ababa’s Rwanda Vegetable Market hardly comes across as an insular colonial outpost. And the Chinese embassy compound is vastly outsized by the American one.
What plays out instead are perhaps different approaches to the low-income world where the US has prized the diffusion of individual freedoms and human-rights norms and China has prized collective economic betterment. And both the US and China are set to lose out if chaos spreads in the Horn of Africa.
China’s approach

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Amid capital scarcity, China’s different approach seems to benefit Ethiopia. Put simply, it opens up another avenue for development where the World Bank and IMF doctrines have until recently been the only show in town.
In concrete terms, it means Chinese companies nowadays bid for projects often with concessional terms – where, in the past, only Western companies had the technological capacity to deliver.
Hydro-electricity is perhaps the best example for that: a healthy competition seems to be building up between Italy’s Salini Impregilo and Sinohydro when it comes to damming Ethiopia’s rivers. Local and foreign NGO oversight would still be vital in order to minimise the dislocation and environmental degradation that both companies can cause.
But, at the same time, with better planning, the untapped potential of hydro-power might mean cleaner and lower-cost energy in a part of the world where power cuts are all too common.The Conversation
Niv Horesh, Visiting Research Fellow, School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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3 Comments

  1. The author said “Violence broke out during an Oromo religious festival, and in some instances foreigners seem to have been targeted. ”

    Many agree Violence was not the case. The people thought aliens invaded their country. They thought the foreigners were aliens from another planet.
    Close to a thousand threw themselves of a cliff just because they saw a helicopter flying near them. Many are paralized hundreds died. Now the injured are trying to blame the helicopter pilot for their injuries by saying the pilot caused their injuries by scaring them flying like an alien abductor UFO would .

  2. Author said,
    “Arguably inspired by China, the country became a developmental success story and one of the fastest-growing countries in the world.”

    You are 110% wrong. Both China and Ethiopian government are well known for cooking economic data in order to portray themselves as progressive and productive countries. Neither are progressive nor productive. World bank uses economic data submitted by Ethiopia in order to determine it growth rate. It is the perfect case of, GARBAGE DATA IN GARBAGE DATA OUT.

    Author said,
    “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.”

    Ethiopia became the gateway of politics in Africa due to the presence of African union in addis thanks to emperor haile Selassie, the PAN AFRICANIST. Terrorist TPLF regime is the most anti PAN AFRICANISM regime in Africa since the time of colonialism. Consequently, they won’t thank the former emperor. My recommendation is to temporarily move the headquarter of African union from Ethiopia ASAP to another pro democracy/pan Africanist country until a true democracy is the form government in Ethiopia.

    Author said,
    “But the Ethiopian government is likely to remain in the US’s good books. This is primarily because of its role in countering the spread of fundamentalist terrorism in the Horn of Africa. In fact, it is that role that has helped endear Ethiopia to the world, and facilitated Western relief aid.”
    Ethiopian government haven’t done a damn thing to counter the spread of terrorism in the horn of Africa. In fact, it is not only the number one terrorist organization in Africa but also is the main reason for the spread of terrorism in the horn of Africa. So, it is high time to stop the foreign aide, which actually goes to the pocket book of TPLF leaders/cadre and to support the democratic forces opposed to them.

    Author said,
    “Hydro-electricity is perhaps the best example for that: a healthy competition seems to be building up between Italy’s Salini Impregilo and Sinohydro when it comes to damming Ethiopia’s rivers. Local and foreign NGO oversight would still be vital in order to minimise the dislocation and environmental degradation that both companies can cause”
    You are 110% wrong. The competition between Salini and Sinohydro is not healthy. It is not on a plain level field. Sinohyro, as a government entity, has an unfair advantage. Sinohyro can affort to underbid any private company even to a point of a loss on its investment in order to set foot in a given country and/or industry hoping to sure future contracts. Sinohyro unlike a private company can print unlimited amount of money in mainland china in order to cover its loss. Therefore, the WTO should not allow the corrupt Chinese government owned companies to compete with a private companies anywhere in the world.

  3. Continued,

    This article written by Niv Horesh contains lots of errors. Most of the so called educated government and international affair scholars of non-african origin, like Mr. Horesh, who claim to know about Africa and Africans are wrong the majority of the time. I don’t know why but most likely they do not talk to the right people like the everyday Ethiopians, independent thinking Ethiopian scholars with no government affiliation and the millions of Ethiopian refuges all over the globe.  For example, if American diplomats spend a little time talking to a variety of Americans of Ethiopia origin or even hire some of them their likelihood of understanding Ethiopia and Ethiopians will be high. Nevertheless, they would rather talk and deal with the very corrupt Ethiopian officials who will feed them a false information.
    Author said,
    “For the past few years, Ethiopia has been able to partly shed its association with abject poverty and famine.”

    Totally false. Last year and this year alone a total of over 20 million Ethiopians, about ¼ of the population, have been in need of urgent food aid. Ethiopian government has been begging the world community for few billions of dollars in order feed the hungry Ethiopians. Had the economy was well managed and if the over 10% growth year after year was true, the government would have been able to save billions if not trillions which in turn could be used for emergency needs. Instead, the government is #1 beggar country in the world and has been begging for 26 years.

    Author said,
    “Arguably inspired by China, the country became a developmental success story and one of the fasting-growing countries in the world.”

    Totally false statement. There is no significant development in Ethiopia over the past 26 years. In fact, the country has been regressing. If one is moderately or seriously ill and gets admitted in one of the hospitals in Ethiopia, the chance of that person getting out of the hospital alive is close of zero.  Most hospitals lack basic lifesaving medications, equipments and all the smart doctors had left and country to US or EU countries.  Ethiopia has been losing its intellectuals and productive citizens at an alarming rate. The BRAIN DRIAN is out this world and a lot worse than during the prior brutal socialist government. The over 10% growth rate reported by world bank is a total farce. World bank uses the data given to it by Ethiopian government, one of the most corrupt government in the world. World bank is fed false data engineered by ethio gov in order to show the world community and international donors that the country is progressing and growing and their handout is put to good use so keep it coming FOREVER.
     
    Author said,
    “Ethiopian gov is likely to remain in the US’s good books. This is primarily b/c of its role in countering the spread of fundamentalist terrorism in the Horn of Africa.  In fact, it is that role that has helped endeer Ethiopia to the world, and facilitated western relief aid.”

    Ethiopian gov did not do a damn thing to counter the spread of fundamentalist terrorism in the horn of Africa. In fact, it is the main reason for the spread of terrorism in the horn of Africa.  Moreover, the Ethiopian gov under TPLF is the number one terrorist organization in the horn of Africa. In addition, Ms Ana Gomes had recently said to EU parliament that TPLF led ethio gov is a terrorist organization. So, no need to cough up the hard working European and American tax payer money to one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Patriotic Ethiopians in US must engage president elect Trump’s team on a regular basis in order to let them know the true nature of ethio gov and to help them avoid the colossal mistakes the Clinton, Bush and Obama administration made for a total of 24 years.

    Author said,
    “US has prized the diffusion of individual freedoms and human rights norms and China has prized collective economic betterment.  And both the US and China are set to lose out if chaos spreads in the Horn of Africa.”

    Totally false. As I mentioned above, the last three US administrations over a period of 24 years had talked a lot about human rights but when it comes to action they are not where to be found. They did not WALK THE TALK.  Talk is cheap and action speaks louder than words. I give them B for talk and F- for action. China is in Africa to rape the continent as fast as possible where wise leaders take power. The current fool selfish African dictators and throwing African people under the bus again and again and again. Future democratic African leaders ought to aspire for made in Africa products not made in china products which is wiping out African private businesses.  

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