Ethiopia is embarking on a set of extremely ambitious liberal reforms. All of them sound wonderful on paper, but there are serious risks involved. You should care about what happens next — not just because of Ethiopia itself, but because Ethiopia is set to be a rising economic and geopolitical force in the world.
Ethiopia is led by an authoritarian regime under one-party rule. The prime minister is typically only a figurehead for a small group of party and military bigwigs who actually run the country behind the scenes. When I write "behind the scenes," I mean it. Even country experts aren't quite sure who exactly really runs the show.
Unrest is frequent, and often leads to casualties. When I was last in Ethiopia this year, a few days after a state of emergency was declared, the northern city of Gondar (where I was) was shut down because of a strike prompted by the arrest of an opposition leader. The man was eventually released, which I guess was a harbinger of things to come, leading to a spontaneous celebration march — which was promptly put down by military men riding into town in pickup trucks. The crowds dispersed quickly — as the locals explained, everybody knew that after the show of force would come the batons, and after the batons the guns.
But now Ethiopia is reforming, and the number and scope of the reforms are dizzying. The new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has announced the end of the state of emergency and the release of a large number of political prisoners and regime opponents. For good measure, the government has also announced that it will accept a peace settlement with Eritrea, its neighbor and enemy, as well as the privatization of a large number of government-owned monopolies. Suddenly the country's journalists find themselves able to write what they want. As I said, dizzying.
Why the flurry of reform? Well, Ethiopia's leaders have long had to manage a tricky balance. Ethiopia is on a rocketship trajectory of growth, clocking in at 10 percent year after year after year. Ethiopia's rulers understand that too much oppression would be self-defeating, and they do not want a return to the days of civil war and crushing poverty.
At the same time, most development experts, chastened by too many examples to count, the most prominent being Iraq, have, rightly in my view, turned sour on the idea that instant democracy is a cure-all for poor countries. Functioning democracy is a political culture first and foremost, and not a ballot box, and in countries without an educated middle class, the ballot box tends to empower demagogues and kleptocrats — and foster ethnic strife, as people vote on ethnic lines for patronage since ideologies don't mean much.
In Ethiopia, there is an ethnic undercurrent as well. The regime is dominated by the Tigrayans, who defeated the Derg, which the country's Amhara, more numerous and historically the country's rulers, resent. All of which means that if Ethiopia liberalizes too much, too fast, that might not be as good a thing as you might think — it might lead to chaos, and thence economic deprivation, or sectarian conflict.
Now, why does it all matter beyond Ethiopia?
Because, if Ethiopia manages to keep its act together, it could be one of the most important countries of the 21st century. Ethiopia has 100 million inhabitants and its economic growth is booming. Everything about Ethiopia is unique: It has its own language, Amharic, a Semitic language related to Arabic and Hebrew, written in its own script, Ge'ez, and a nearly unbroken history of organized rule dating back millennia. Ethiopia has been Christian longer than almost any European country, and its own variant of Christianity is enormously powerful spiritually and culturally. It also happens to have one of the world's richest food cultures — and as a Frenchman, you can trust me on this.
This is all quite the contrast to many other African countries, whose borders were originally created by colonial powers as arbitrary lines and are, in the best cases, only now struggling to establish a cohesive and significant geopolitical identity of their own.
Ethiopia's regime self-consciously models its development strategy on China, and it's easy to see why. China is heir to one of the world's richest civilizations and has every asset to be a major global player. That this didn't happen for so long was the result of a sclerotic imperial regime, followed by a madman ruler, Mao, who did his very best to utterly destroy the country — as with the 20th century emperors and the Derg in Ethiopia. China's halting rise to superpower status strikes us in the West as an unanticipated event, but it's really a return to what should have been normalcy all along. ("When China awakens, the world's foundations will shake," Napoleon is said to have remarked, already in the day.)
Given the expected demographic decline of every region in the world except Africa, what happens in Africa will shape the future direction of the world, for good or bad. And within that, Ethiopia, with its size, strategic position in East Africa, and history, has all the assets to be a transformative country within a transformative continent.
That is, if its rulers manage to steer the ship of state. They have just banked the rudder hard in one direction. As with all large ships, we will only see the outcome some time from now.