IN recent years, it seemed everything the Horn of Africa nations of Ethiopia and Djibouti touched turned into gold of some sort.
Ethiopia, Africa’s second largest country by population after Nigeria, and has notched up Africa’s fastest growth – nearly 10%, according to the International Monetary Fund.
It’s also a regional military power, and has troops keeping the peace in neighbour Somalia as part of the African Union force AMISOM.
Djibouti is one of Africa’s smallest countries, with a population of about 880,000 people. But few countries in Africa are as ambitious or punch above their weight as Djibouti.
Thanks to having some of the continent’s most competent governments, and the advantage of the authoritarian ruling parties having near total monopoly of power and thus less distracted by the noise of opponents or the constraints of liberal democracy, they are among Africa’s infrastructure kings.
In June 2015, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia and Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh launched a 752-kilometre (481-mile) railway linking their two capitals, Addis Ababa and Djibouti City, respectively.
The new line is partly the resurrection of an old one, built in 1917 by the Franco-Ethiopian Railway Company, but decades later it fell into disrepair and only worked erratically.
The two countries envision the railway as a step towards a trans-continental line reaching all the way to the Gulf of Guinea, in West Africa.
In addition, Djibouti is building six new ports and two airports in the hope of becoming the commercial hub of East Africa.
For its part, in September 2015, Ethiopia inaugurated the country’s first, and sub-Saharan Africa’s second, first light rail system.
With a price tag of $474 million, it can carry 15,000 people per hour in one direction, a big relief for Addis Ababa’s population of nearly 4 million.
No confetti for the chiefs
When a government in a poor country logs in these kinds of record, one would expect citizens would be lining to spray their leaders with confetti.
However for Ethiopia and Djibouti, the roots of growing internal tension lies exactly in these successes – especially the method in which they have been achieved.
The protests in Djibouti in 2011 ultimately ended without regime change. Now the government is tempting fate with a heavy hand. (Photo/AFP).
In November and early December, Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth clashed with hard political reality pitting the government against members of its largest ethnic group, the Oromo, more than 80 of whom have allegedly been killed in recent protests.
Demonstrations by Oromo residents against plans for the expansion of Addis Ababa have rocked at least 30 towns and prompted more than 500 arrests since Nov. 19, said the Oromo Federalist Congress, an opposition group.
The rare unrest highlights the conflict between Ethiopia’s authoritarian development model and its system of federalism, which guarantees the rights of more than 80 ethnicities.
Planners estimate the population of Addis Ababa and five Oromo satellite towns will more than double to 8.1 million by 2040 and require developing an area 20 times the current boundaries of the capital.
Addis Ababa was an Oromo village before it was conquered by Emperor Menelik II in 1886, who then imposed the Amharic language.
Ever since, the city has expanded to displace Oromo farmers, sometimes violently. And the Oromo complain they are not adequately compensated.
One of biggest challenges
The confrontation with the Oromo is one of the biggest challenges the ruling coalition has faced since it came to power after unseating a military regime 25 years ago, according to Milkessa Midega, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Federal Studies at Addis Ababa University.
“The party looks to have neither developed the society—we are begging food aid now—nor democratised the state- society relationships in Ethiopia,” he said.
In neighbouring Djibouti, seven people were killed last week after what on the surface looked to be a “small” incident. The deaths came after police tried to move worshipers gathered to mark a religious holiday to a new site.
It should be remembered that Djibouti’s $1.5 billion economy is home to the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa at Camp Lemonnier, along with French and Japanese military deployments. The Chinese are also in negotiation to set up a military there.
Citizens of small countries tend to feel a greater sense of pride when they are circling the same orbit with big world powers. Not so everyone in Djibouti, it would seem.
In this regard, the clashes in Ethiopia and Djibouti are both over space – land, and political space.
Political space is constricted in both countries. In Ethiopia’s election in May, there were 546 parliamentary seats up for grabs, and the ruling
Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) held all but one.
A more liberal-minded ruling party would have allowed the opposition to win a few seats, if only to keep up the cynical lie of a democracy. However, the EPRDF muscled the opposition even out of that sole seat, and took everything in a campaign that was often punctuated by violence against rivals.
In Oromia, Ethiopia’s federalist logic has run into its limits. It grants ethnic and regional rights, but strips them away when they clash with the agenda of a powerful centre.
Manufacturing consensus, illusion of consent
The problem is not so much that Ethiopia is not a free-wheeling democracy. Rather that the EPRDF seems not to care about manufacturing consensus, or the illusion of consent.
In Kenya, a noisy polity where power changes hands regularly at elections, the ruling Jubilee coalition has been able to push ahead with a controversial standard gauge railway project, that critics say is an overpriced white elephant, partly precisely because it’s able to work the democratic tools in its hands.
Opposition allows people to vent. When people can’t vent, they take their anger to the streets or it ferments and will blow up with fury in the years ahead.
But also at another level, opposition is useful for the government of the day as a mechanism of co-option. At the minimum, it tells the government who the real leaders of the opposition are, enabling them to buy them with favours or even the prestige of being taken seriously enough to be talked to, even if in the end the original plan proceeds unaltered.
No, a lie won’t get you to heaven, but a white lie has been known to smooth paths in politics.
In Djibouti’s case, it seems it is beginning to deal with a problem that all countries that allow foreign nations to have military bases on their soil face – there always get nationalist or anti-militarisation opposition.
Ordinarily, preventing a sheikh from holding prayers under a tree would not spark violent protests. But it becomes an emotional and politically-charged matter if a sheikh can’t be allowed to use 100 square metres of shade, when the Americans have 360,000 square metres a stone’s throw away in Camp Lemonnier.
The Ethiopian and Djiboutian people, clearly are happy to get bread and wine, but then they now also need a table on which to sit and eat and drink it. Or soothing words in their ears.
-Additional reporting by Bloomberg and AFP.