Alumni Short

Roundtable of Cornell Experts Discuss the Ethiopian State of Emergency

Ithaca, NEW YORK, Dec 12, 2016

Ethiopia has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, expanding at an annual rate of 10 percent over the past five years. But following the 2015 elections, when the ruling coalition won all 547 seats in parliament, there's been an increase in prosecutions of opposition party leaders, arrests of journalists, and widespread use of security forces, with thousands of people displaced and tens of thousands of people detained. On October 9, after a year of protests over a master plan to remake Addis Ababa, the government declared a state of emergency, and on November 11, a group of Cornell faculty members gathered to discuss the crisis.

"Far too often, Africa ends up being invisible," said moderator Judith Byfield, associate professor of history, opening the panel discussion on "Ethiopia: State of Emergency" in Myron Taylor Hall. "So it's really important to engage in this conversation, not just because of what is happening within Ethiopia itself but because of the larger significance. Ethnicity matters in Ethiopia, but it's not the complete explanation for what are ultimately issues of power and distribution. It's just one of the things that's deployed in the larger calculus of how to consolidate and control access to resources."

For the panel - Fouad Makki, associate professor of developmental sociology; Sara Marzagora, postdoctoral fellow at SOAS University of London; organizer Mostafa Minawi, assistant professor of history and director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative; Muna Ndulo, professor of law; and Dagmawi Woubshet, associate professor of English - much of Ethiopia's instability is built into its 1995 constitution, which created a federation of ethnic states. Led by one of the country's smallest minority groups, the central government retains the majority of control, with weak regional governments competing internally and externally over land and wealth.

“It’s important that people understand the complexity of Ethiopian society and the complexity of Ethiopian politics,” said Makki, whose research focuses on state formation and development. “What does it mean to situate a system of ethnic federalism in a society with a long history of cultural hierarchies, where culture is deeply enmeshed with power and power inequalities? How do you create a viable political framework that recognizes difference while being inclusive and ultimately egalitarian? It’s an enormous challenge.”

To underline that complexity, panelists talked about the government’s systematic dismantling of any potential opposition, the long-term effects of corruption and nepotism, the dangers of religious extremism, the underlying tensions between Ethiopia’s north and south, and the large-scale land reform that precipitated the 2015 protests in Addis Ababa. There has never been public debate about the shape of the state, and though panelists found reasons for hopefulness in the solidarity of street demonstrations, without consistent access to internet and telephone communications with the outside world, it will be enormously difficult to effect peaceful change within the country.

“This is a very highly combustible and complex situation, and of course, only Ethiopians can resolve the crisis,” said Ndulo, the Elizabeth and Arthur Reich Director of the Berger International Legal Studies Program and director of the Institute for African Development. “But they need the support of the international community to make sure there is sufficient pressure concerning how the government is treating its people. Ethiopia needs to work out constitutional arrangements that manage diversity and ensure inclusivity. You cannot deny diversity, you cannot deny political participation, and you cannot develop a country in a sustainable way with a continuing crisis.”

Ethiopia: State of Emergency was co-sponsored by the Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Institute for African Development, the Africana Studies and Research Center, the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative, and Cornell Law School.