ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Thirty years removed from the devastating famine that left it reeling, Ethiopia’s economy is the fastest-growing non-energy-driven economy in Africa. The road to development, however, has not been an easy one.
Haile Selassie’s overthrow at the hands of the Marxist-Leninist Derg in 1974 precipitated an internal struggle for control of Ethiopia that quickly took on a Bolshevik hue. In what became known as the “Red Terror,” aspirant dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam consolidated his control of the Derg by force, resulting in the deaths of at least 30,000 Ethiopians.
For the next 25 years, Mengistu’s economically and socially restrictive policies fostered a period of economic and cultural stagnation. Mengistu’s miscarried attempt at a Soviet-style command economy disintegrated the nation’s merchant class and exacerbated the effects of the 1984 famine. Mengistu also instituted an evening curfew—effectively banning nightlife—and jailed or executed any musicians and artists whose work could be interpreted as inciting opposition against the regime.
Things took a turn for the better when Mengistu’s Soviet-backed government fell from power in 1991, in the wake of waning support from its communist allies. Ethiopian musician Girum Mezmur told the New York Times’s Rachel B. Doyle, “After the Derg time it was a lot freer. People started moving back home, and it was a revival not only for music but for other forms of art as well.” Change, however, was slow to come. “The curfew was there for so long that it really was a part of the lifestyle. It took some time for people to start to go out more, for nightclubs to flourish.”
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, is now home to a thriving jazz-scene and an increasing number of art galleries and fine arts schools. Demand for art of all forms is increasing, but some wonder whether increasing demand comes at the price of true artistic expression.
Elizabeth Giorgis, who runs a modern art museum in Addis Ababa, was concerned about the lofty sums being paid for pieces, reported BBC’s James Jeffrey, “Such fees lead the artist to produce what the buyer wants, which kills creativity and experimentation.” Whatever its impact on artistic expression, the emergence of an Ethiopian art market seems like a small miracle considering the aridity of the Ethiopian art scene just two decades ago.
Two decades of relative peace and stability have also bulwarked an impressive economic upswing. Buoyed by steadily increasing foreign investment, Ethiopia has become a major exporter of a diverse range of goods, from gold to textiles. Ethiopia is also poised to make strides in its energy sector, with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam set for completion in 2017.
Ethiopia’s economic resurgence does raise some questions about sustainability and economic equality. A push for agricultural commercialization in Ethiopia’s lowlands threatens the cultural autonomy of ethnic minorities in the region, and it remains to be seen if Ethiopia can weather the economic inequality that threatens progress elsewhere on the continent.
While questions exist, there is cause for optimism. The current administration spends over 60 percent of its budget on what it calls “pro-poor expenditures,” such as education and healthcare. Primary school enrollment rates are increasing rapidly, along with youth literacy rates. Maternal and infant mortality have both decreased significantly since 2000.
Ethiopia hopes to reach “middle income” status between 2020 and 2025. However, a 2012 IMF report noted that Ethiopia could reach middle income status even earlier, if its rapid growth is sustained.
– Parker Carroll