Imagining Ethiopia

Dichotomies of Rights and Development


As an applied anthropologist working in Ethiopia, I have found that it is very difficult to sort out the real and the ideal, the fact and the legend. What I do know is that the nation and its people are understood better if certain dichotomies are critically evaluated.

The plight of recent Ethiopian refugees, Ethiopians abused during the Red Terror of the 1970s, and Ethiopian ethnic groups generally, can partially be understood by “imagining Ethiopia” (to quote John Sorenson’s 1993 book of the same title). Ethiopia is extraordinarily complex, and what appears on the surface is not necessarily what exists below. Through centuries, exaggerations have become history and legends have become facts. Yet actual achievements in East African history have been monumental.

Ethiopia’s recent history exhibits both cohesion and fracturing. From the late 19th to the early 21st century, a combination of ethnic, economic, ecologic, and political forces have worked—often simultaneously—to bind the nation together and pull it apart. Ethiopia’s boundaries and constituent regions have varied accordingly. A strong man of one sort or another has been in charge throughout this 150-year period, and in fact, is expected to be by the citizens.Ecological and environmental challenges, compounded by severe famines, have wrought havoc on a landscape which usually provides adequately for the resource needs of one of Africa’s most densely populated countries. Forced migrations have been mirrored by voluntary migrations of former refugees back to the homeland. Parliamentary actions intended to open Ethiopia to entrepreneurial activity by all ethnic and tribal groups have been mirrored by behind-the-scenes maneuvers intended to favor Tigrayans from the north. Oppressive military muscle flexing has been mirrored by the flexing of expansive business muscle.

The late Meles Zenawi’s tenure as prime minister was marked by improved relations with the West, economic productivity, health and social services, and educational programming. He ensured that the country remained highly visible internationally, and that the African Union headquarters would remain in the capital of Addis Ababa. China provided some $50 million for the African Union’s new headquarters building, marking a different sort of dichotomy, as the West and East are played off each other. Some citizens I interviewed in June 2013, said simply that China’s infrastructure-oriented development approach—from professional buildings to metro lines to railroads to highways—is superior to that of the US humanitarian-oriented approach.

In my opinion, the strongest development surge in Ethiopia has been in education. Since 2000, 11 new university campuses have been initiated nationwide. This is both a strength and a weakness, because the availability of human capital cannot keep up. There are not yet enough quality instructors and administrators to staff these campuses, particularly in engineering and the applied sciences. In turn, there are not yet enough qualified graduates to keep up with the burgeoning transportation and building demands. That university development has not been mirrored by educational development benefiting (eg) disabled students, especially at the secondary school level, is a real concern.

Oromo–Tigrayan Tensions

Understanding Ethiopia through a number of dichotomies also plays out in the tensions between Oromo and Tigrayan peoples. The Oromo—the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia —comprises some 35% of the population. The Tigrayan—the ethnic group to which Meles Zenawi belonged—comprises about 6% of the population. Yet the latter have recently dominated politics and military office, and—as Oromo have told me—have done so at their expense.

I visited Oromiya (the Oromo region of Ethiopia) in June 2013. Spanning the central portion of the country, the landscape consists of vast savannahs, grazing lands, farmlands, and lakes that have formed as part of the Great Rift Valley geologic system. National parks are prominent. Southern Oromiya features forested hills and low mountains. Chinese-instituted enterprises are seen alongside Ethiopian-instituted enterprises, and near the town of Dukem is the Eastern Industrial Zone. Near Oromiya’s center, ironically, is the Rastafarian capital of Shasemene. Agricultural, floral horticultural, and livestock activities are extensive throughout the region.

Oromo people are generating a number of economic opportunities, but consistent employment is tenuous for most non-agriculturalists. Politically, there are few national-level political opportunities. Some perceive themselves to be marginalized. Some perceive the adoration given the late Meles Zenawi to be exaggerated and misdirected. A number of Tigrayans referred to him as a hero; no Oromo person I asked made this assertion. In the years prior to his death, he exerted tighter autocratic control over the country.

Community meeting in the Ethiopian village of Mai Misham. Photo courtesy Peter Van Arsdale
Community meeting in the Ethiopian village of Mai Misham. Photo courtesy Peter Van Arsdale

One of my graduate students at the University of Denver has been researching issues associated with Ethiopians’ integration and acculturation to the US. In recently contacting a center that specializes in Oromo integration, she found that using the term Ethiopian for Oromo people caused the center’s responsiveness to her research request to plummet. She should have said Oromo or Oromo nation. This is an indicator of the tension that exists among Tigrayan and Omoro peoples, even those who have emigrated; Tigrayans in the US are seen to be disproportionately favored as well.

Some Oromo are viewed by some politically-connected Tigrayans as members of a disparaged, and potentially dangerous, majority group. The Oromo are represented by the Oromo National Congress (ONC), the country’s main opposition group. That a majority of Tigrayans are Christian and a majority of Oromo are Muslims is a secondary, but nonetheless informing, factor. That the Oromo population has been growing at a rate greater than that of other ethnic groups also is a contributing factor.

Human Rights and Development

Through informal interviews I conducted in northern and central Ethiopia, in 2010 and 2013, I found that human rights usually are equated with improved development. In southern Oromiya, at the University of Hawassa, a well-regarded professor informed me that “human rights are much better now,” but by that she meant that “development initiatives are much better now.” She stressed that contemporary Ethiopians, including Oromo, talk about “three eras”: The Haile Selassie era, the Mengistu Haile Mariam era, and the Meles Zenawi era, and concur that the last was best. “More development, indicated by improved water supplies, has reached more people. But, there still is torture,” the professor said. Particularly troubling—as well as confusing to many everyday citizens—are land rights. Federal jurisdictional status over land causes many to believe themselves to be landless or land-alienated. Citizens understand themselves to be leasing their own land from the government. Ethiopia’s policy of ethnic federalism indirectly contributes to this, as do tensions among the nine ethnically based and semi-autonomous regions. Some former refugees I recently interviewed stated that these inter-ethnic tensions are worsening; at the extreme, one said, “another Rwanda is on the horizon.”

Overt police brutality has diminished considerably in recent years. More police officers are coming from police academies rather than from the ranks of the army. They therefore are better trained. Nonetheless, the payment of bribes is common. People told me that they feel more secure, but also noted that certain “criminals” are tailed by security agents. When questioned, they told me that a “criminal” could be an opposition party member. The wafach (“birds”) still watch, hidden among the crowds.

Another dichotomy is seen with freedom of speech. It is widely touted as having improved during Meles Zenawi’s reign, and indeed it did. The press provides a good deal of balanced coverage of issues, especially those involving development and international relations. Everyday citizens speak out on a wide variety of topics, including problems of employment and problems associated with mega-projects such as the Hidase and Gibe III dams. Yet criticism of the government is suppressed. Criticism of the late Meles Zenawi still can lead to severe penalties. There is not yet a truly free opposition in the country.

The symbolic power of Meles Zenawi as a “rights (read: development) leader” remains. My interviews with Tigrayans indicate that in death he has become bigger than life. Posters featuring him are found throughout Tigray Province, and, throughout Addis Ababa. No such visibility is afforded leaders of the Oromo National Congress, by comparison. Yet I would add that Tigrayans are among the country’s most vital people, are vibrant intellectual and religious leaders, and are those I’ve worked with most closely.

The Alemu Worku Case

The recent legal case of Kefelegn Alemu Worku, an Ethiopian immigrant living under false pretenses in Colorado for years, reminds us that human rights abuses are not forgotten and that the prosecution of torturers is essential. He lied on immigration forms about his status and about his involvement in the torture and murder of people imprisoned at Addis Ababa’s so-called Higher 15 prison during Mengistu’s Red Terror in the mid-1970s. On May 23, 2014, he was sentenced in US federal court to serve 22 years in federal prison. One of the witnesses against him, a man who had been imprisoned in Higher 15 for 19 months, recently told me: “I saw him every day in that prison. I can never forget his face. I heard the screams of those he was torturing.” The US Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions (HRSP) Section has been effectively assisting with this and other cases; I have helped HRSP with their outreach efforts in the Denver area and also am providing the community with information about HRSP’s work.

The Denver Post on July 26, 2013, featured a quote of mine, one which I strongly reaffirm here: “[Ethiopians] are industrious persons with a very rich history of hard work and making the most with modest resources.” The challenge will be turning this type of effort—and turning certain imaginings and dichotomies—into processes that confirm human rights as more than just development.

Peter Van Arsdale is director of African Initiatives at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Semi-retired, he continues work as an adjunct professor and community activist on human rights and humanitarian projects. Details on the work of HRSP are available at

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