Sunday, October 09, 2016

Brexit, Trump vs. Clinton and Current affairs in Ethiopia

I woke up this morning to news that 11 foreign owned businesses have been burned down by protesters in Ethiopia. Soon after, a reuters article broke the news that Ethiopia has declared a state of emergency. I was wondering when the the government was going to crank up the volume. It turns out today is the day. The funny thing about Ethiopian news is that even as we saw people getting killed, we all know (should know!) that that was the government showing restraint. After all, we have had government after government which have only been able to control the state through unrelenting force. How and why should this be different? Did the people change? No? Well then, the government can't change.

One mixed blessing / curse of increased information flow of our times is the ease with which people can compare where they are to where other societies are. If we lived in a closed system, a government that fights protesters with tear gas could have been an advancement in the Ethiopian context. Alas, we live in the internet age where people compare Ethiopia to the United States. We compare our infrastructure to countries that have had centuries to build theirs, we compare our education to countries in which a single institution of research may very well spend as much as Ethiopia spends on its entire population. We compare our democracy to 1st world nations which, again, have spent centuries building the democratic tradition and institutions that can support complex government mechanics. We saw democracy have " a glitch" in the UK recently, with Brexit, and the world has been watching the greatest entertainment/disappointment to ever come out of the United States of America in the form of the 2016 Presidential Elections. Still, we expect better of Ethiopia.

But Ethiopia is not the US or UK, and even if it had another 20 years of peace and prosperity it's not going to be in a position to be compared to them possibly for another century to come. I looked up the Ethiopian government's budget the other day -- it's about $100/citizen per annum. By comparison, federal government in the US requested for a $4 trillion  budget in 2016, i.e. $13,000/citizen per annum. The way Ethiopians scramble to protest the government and opine on better ways of governance, one would think they had tricks up their hats. What on earth is anybody going to do with a budget of $100 per person? To be clear, if Ethiopia were to grow at 10% for the next 50 years straight, a near impossible feat, it could have a comparable government spend per capita as the US today in 2066. But even then Ethiopia will still be behind the US on the account that it wouldn't have centuries worth of infrastructure, and of course, US will by then have surpassed its current state.  For all those clambering for power in Ethiopia, I have to wonder if they know what they're wishing for. I love how Americans always call the US Presidency "the toughest job on earth" -- give me a break. Give Obama a $100/person budget, a landlocked country prone to famine, warring and stateless neighbors, and watch him run away at faster than Usain Bolt's WR speeds.

This morning I had a discussion with Ethiopian friends in the US who woke up to news of the newly declared State of Emergency. One asked how it will work out -- a police state? Well, the same way every day has worked out for the past 20 odd years for some of the people who're now protesting. The country has always operated on a silently understood state of emergency basis since ...well, forever. The state of emergency is now just explicit.

Watching the anger that has now unfortunately called the iron fist back into the forefront of national operations, I couldn't help but compare how the situation parallels the populous rejecting the status quo in the US and UK in recent years. Back in the day, it was usually urban citizens who'd lead the revolts in Ethiopia. Students and cities. These days Addis is quiet. It could be for fear of repercussion but having been to Addis recently, I'd say it for lack of conviction. On the surface I'm sure there are many dissenters, but deep down, its questionable whether people have the desire to risk it all. Because they have something that's worth not risking, i.e. they are doing reasonably well.

The government used to be very good at strong arming the urban masses (20% of the population) and placating people in the countryside (80% of the population). For years, urban dwellers had come to understand (subconsciously, unfortunately)  that policies and concerted government efforts focused on the rural populations meant that cities were alone in their intellectual grievances. Without rural buy-in, who would fight the fight? Arada kids? Ha! This all worked for a while, but somewhere along the way the grand strategy lost track of an important detail till havoc became the name of the new game in the countryside. Like the US and the UK, the Ethiopian government lost touch of what matters to its largest demographic. The demographic which is difficult to raise once it falls, and one that isn't necessarily impressed by round-table discussions nor reason.

There may yet be salvation for the ol'strategy, depending on how far into the rural-scape these protests have spread. So far the smaller towns have roared the loudest, which are still within that 20% urban population spectrum. The key question is: is the quintessential Ethiopian, the farmer, angry? As far as we can see for now, who knows! Crafted urban/rural information flow has been the glue that's kept things standing so far.

Whichever way it's diced, this chapter that can't end well. But it's still a chapter, and the page will eventually turn. Let's hope somebody is already thinking about how the first paragraphs of the next chapter will read. For the sake of 100 million people caught in the story, those early paragraphs better be damn engrossing!

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