The Oakland Institute has a history of opposition to the government of Ethiopia, consistently offering support to opposition elements in the Diaspora. It also makes no secret of its aim to try to persuade the US and international organizations to halt all aid to Ethiopia as part of its efforts to bring about government change. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the country’s long record of extensive pro-poor policies, exceptionally impressive economic development and its commitment to a green carbon-free economy. The Institute continues to make claims of “land-grabbing” and “forced displacement” despite the repeated failure of independent investigations to provide any evidence for this on the scale the Institute alleges. It has even resorted to suggesting there will be more violence when the state of emergency comes to an end later this month. Recent articles, “A fire under ashes” and “The numbers say the Ethiopian economy is doing very well; reality says many Ethiopian Citizens are not”, dismiss the Government’s Commission of Inquiry, totally ignore all government’s efforts to respond to the legitimate issues raised during the protests last year. They also suggest “protests will resume once the emergency measures are lifted”, as well as attacking the international community for supporting Ethiopia. They claim this sends a message “that the Ethiopian government can continue its crackdown on democracy and people without consequences”, and offering a picture of “a region spiralling out of control.”
Much of this is based on the repeated inaccuracies that the Oakland Institute is so fond of disseminating. Ms. Mittal, the founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute, which describes itself as “an independent think tank for international policy matters”, has been re-repeating her claims that the entirely ‘peaceful’ demonstrators last year were by “people [who] have been forcibly removed from their land to clear those lands for sugarcane and cotton plantations.” Quoted in an article from the Institute at the end of last month, and ignoring geography, facts and the reality, she even alleged that because of associated displacement there were “widespread protests last year that led to more than 36,000 people being arrested. So, you have every political opposition leader behind bars, you have no freedom of press, you have people being arrested for challenging the government’s plan to take over their land with no compensation, ” while the country’s “newspaper editors and indigenous leaders have all been locked up” and charged as “terrorists.”
Every part of this statement is quite simply wrong. The government has been involved for months in discussions with most of the opposition parties, of which they are a significant number, involving the possibility of improving the possibilities of opposition representation in the Federal and Regional assemblies as well as some proportional representation. Does Ms. Mittal know how many parties are registered in Ethiopia and at national and regional levels? Ethiopia actually has a vibrant and often highly critical press – it is clear Ms. Mittal hasn’t bothered to visit Ethiopia or to read (online) the Reporter (English and Amharic), Fortune and Capital, all of which can be and often are very outspoken. The demonstrations were in origin about local government problems related to good governance, and complaints about corruption and similar issues. They were, as the government itself admits, quite legitimate complaints about a significant number of issues of governance. The problem was that in a considerable number of cases the demonstrations were taken over by people looking to take advantage, either on the personal level, pillaging public and private buildings, including banks and hotels, or for political purposes, destroying plantations and factories providing hundreds of jobs, and deliberately causing violence as well as exaggerating the numbers of people injured or killed.
Of equal concern is the way the Oakland Institute continues to repeat its own exaggerations and falsehoods. It still continues to put its name to claims that government forces killed hundreds at the Irrechaa celebration in Bishoftu in October last year, when, in fact, it is now quite clear that 55 died in the tragedy caused by a stampede. No one died from the actions of security forces. It was, of course, after that terrible tragedy that Diaspora opposition elements called for five days of violence and destruction. This made it clear there were external elements involved in the disturbances, elements determined to try to make political capital out of the disturbances.
It was true that under the state of emergency the security forces were given greater powers, social media and diaspora news outlets were controlled. Over 20,000 people, detained for involvement in demonstrations that turned violent, were given courses in citizens’ rights and responsibilities and in lawful civil activity. The Oakland Institute did manage to note the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission report in April 2017 had concluded that 669 peoples lost their lives in last year’s violence, nearly seventy of whom were members of the security forces, but it largely ignores the explanations of the disturbances. The demonstrations were certainly violent at times and included the throwing of grenades and shootings as well as destruction and pillaging of property. They were certainly not always peaceful, The Commission’s report found that much of the violence resulted from the activities of opposition groups and certainly from the encouragement of violence by diaspora-based media outlets such as the Oromo Media Network and the television station ESAT. From this, the Commission concluded the use of force by security officials in many instances was “proportionate.” It also found in a number of cases that the force used was “disproportionate”, and it called for judicial action to be taken against those responsible. The report was endorsed by Parliament. The Oakland Institute, of course, dismissed the report. Since it did not agree with the Institute, it automatically regarded the report as unacceptable.
Political dissent, despite the claims of Ms. Mittal and the Oakland Institute, is not a criminal offense, though inciting subversion or encouraging terrorism is. These is a very real difference. Underlining its ignorance of the Ethiopia judiciary and indeed of the actual facts, the Institute claimed MereraGudina, chairman of the Oromo Federal Congress opposition party, was arrested after returning from a trip to Brussels in November 2016 because he spoke to the European parliament about the current state of emergency. No, he wasn’t. His case is currently sub-judice, but he was arrested for meeting publicly with the leader of an opposition group that has been declared a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian parliament. This is, indeed, a group, based in Eritrea and very publicly committed to armed struggle against the government. It has carried out dozens of terrorist activities in northern Ethiopia in the last decade including bombing of hotels and other civilian targets, blowing up buses and numerous cross-border kidnappings to seize people for its ‘armed struggle’. Eritrea, of course, also claims to be at war with Ethiopia and it has continuously armed, supported and funded this group in its activities for several years.
It should not be necessary to remind an organization such as Oakland Institute that among human rights are food, shelter, water and housing as well as democracy and freedom of the press. Ethiopia is very conscious of the need for all of these, and of all of the rights involved in the Sustainable Development Goals, as they were in the Millennium Development Goals. It really is time that Ms. Mittal and Oakland Institute removed their blinkers and looked at the real world rather than confined themselves to listening to the imaginary world of government opponents who have been living abroad for thirty or more years and who have little or no understanding of what has been achieved and of how things have changed and are steadily changing for the better.
The first half of the headline, “The numbers say the Ethiopian economy is doing very well”, is, of course, accurate, as a whole raft of recent reports by international, African and other independent bodies have underlined. The second half of the headline “Reality says many Ethiopian citizens are not” also underlines a truth. Ethiopia still has a long way to go. The average per capita GPD has risen from just over $300 a year to nearly $800, but the per capita GDP still has a long way to go to catch up Kenya and to reach the country’s aim of a middle-income state. The good news is the amount of effort the country is continuing to put into its pro-poor policies with some 70% of the budget tied to these policies as well as the massive effort going into the development of industrial parks to provide jobs and export earnings and to other policies geared into genuine and realistic development policies. It is a cause for celebration that Ethiopia has grown to be Africa’s third-largest economy, that it is one of the fastest growing, if not the fastest growing economy in the world and its projected Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will be $78 billion this year. Equally important is its commitment to resolve the problems of climate change and to green industrialization. These developments have been underlined by the opening of the Addis Ababa to Djibouti electric rail link and the other major developments in industry, irrigation and energy. Not surprisingly, in addition, Ethiopia has been attracting a significant amount of foreign direct investment.
Equally, unsurprisingly, it has been continuing to attract criticism from its political enemies, among them Oakland Institute. In fact, Ms. Mittal and the Oakland Institute make no secret of their wider aims. She argues that it is time to stop development aid: “we have to question the whole development paradigm”, she says. Ignoring the reality on the ground, she wants to see “international institutions such as the World Bank stop promoting very harmful development strategies which deliberately profit a few corporations” while a nation’s people are “starving.” To try to employ this argument for Ethiopia ignores the very clear and well-publicised budgetary concentration on pro-poor policies, policies that have made a very significant impact on poverty levels. Of course, there is a long way to go, and not every policy has worked as intended, but for Ms. Mittal to support, indeed to propagate, the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that is fed to her by opposition sources in California and elsewhere reveals her political naivety as well as her lack of knowledge of the actuality of development in Ethiopia and, indeed, of the reality of the progress being made today.
In fact, despite the efforts of the Oakland Institute, Ethiopia has continued to improve steadily in many key Social Progress Indicator categories including access to water, nourishment, health, movement and education. The criticisms of information flows and expression are largely ill-informed and based on criticisms from ignorance. Ethiopia’s strategic investment and development partners can actually point to significant developments at all levels, as, for example, in all the Millennium Development Goals. All this is totally ignored by Ms. Mittal and the Oakland Institute. It offers an entirely different paradigm, supported by fact not fiction, of Ethiopia’s remarkable progress and development.