Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

“Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?”

Why yes they do. It’s just that they celebrate it on January 7th and call it Genna instead.

What prompted the writing of this (extremely patronising, but helpful in fundraising) song was Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, back in the days of Ethiopia’s big famine in 1985. (Bono: “Well tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you!” Yikes, no.) But that wasn’t its first, so let’s go back a little bit further into Ethiopia’s modern history. (Okay class!)

We’ll start with Ethiopia’s final emperor, Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari, remember?). Having ruled as prince regent before even becoming emperor, his primary accomplishment was centralising control of all regions of the country, which at least brought some semblance of national unity. After a shaky five-year occupation by the Italians under Mussolini, who failed to colonise the country (leaving Ethiopia the only country in Africa never to be colonised) after a combination of a national revolt and appeals to the League of Nations, Haile Selassie resumed the throne. While modernising the country, Haile Selassie was a bit of an oblivious control freak.

In 1973, over 200,000 people died from a famine in which the emperor did nothing about, which led to an anti-imperialist uprising, headed by the police and military but supported by the hungry and dissatisfied people and left-wing students: that would be the Derg. Also control freaks. They deposed the emperor (ending the dynasty that claimed to descend from the biblical Solomon!) and set up their own “revolutionary” government. Still with me?

If you know any person who remembers the news pre-1991 (the fall of the Derg), this is their image of Ethiopia: famine-stricken and dictator-run. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam worked his way up the Derg then got rid of all his opponents within it, becoming the unopposed ruler of Ethiopia. With that, the Derg changed Ethiopia into a socialist state, taking over all private property, nationalising banks and businesses, resettling villages, and creating communal farms. This was supposed to prevent another famine from happening again! Instead… let’s return to that annoying song.

Okay, not yet, but I’m getting there, stay with me. Dissention grew within the Derg and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) became an opposing splinter group, supported by a Tigraian chapter (currently the northernmost state of Ethiopia) and an Eritrean chapter (back then the actual northernmost state of Ethiopia). Mengistu’s first response was the Red Terror, detailed very movingly (but propagandistically; I’ll get to that) in the museum in Addis that shares its namesake: breaking three bottles of blood and declaring death to the EPRP in a public speech, he instigated a major crackdown against this opposition in 1977. Up to 500,000 people died or disappeared, with many accounts of torture such as sexual assault, removal of fingers and toes, whippings, male and female genital mutilation, dipping in hot oil, and various other unimaginable and indescribable atrocities. Many were simply shot on sight without trial, and families wanting to bury their dead were first charged the cost of the bullet that killed their loved one. As shown in graphic detail in the Red Terror Martyrs’ Museum, mass graves were later found and exhumed.

The Red Terror only steeled the rebel opposition’s resolve (still socialists, mind you, who later grouped into the EPR Democratic Front), and they continued to fight. Meanwhile… back to the song, for real this time.

The famine in 1985 was entirely preventable, occuring in a year with a bumper crop. Instead, the political instability and the failed policies of nationalisation and resettlement made it worse, combined with Mengistu’s refusal to help the Tigrai region, the most-affected yet also one of the regions most opposed to his rule.

Now that I’m done with the song, let’s get to now. Long story short, the EPRDF defeated the Derg, chasing Mengistu out of the country. They became the ruling party and instituted democratic reforms. For some petty and near-inexplicable reason, their former allies in Eritrea, who voted 99% to peacefully separate in 1991, decided to start a war that still simmers even now along the border. The EPRDR are currently in their 25th year of rule, having multiplied by 10 the country’s average salary and increased GDP by a whopping 10% each year, and decentralising the federal government back to each tribally-defined state. Sound peachy?

Having talked to various people who I won’t name, there seems to be a measure of simmering political dissent, or simply resignation at the current situation of the country. There is no significant opposition party left in Ethiopia: they won a bunch of seats in the 1995 election, which the EPRDF said they “didn’t”, before following that dubious statement up by arresting thousands of opposition members and killing some protesters.

Put it this way: during Mengistu’s rule, only certain churches and mosques were allowed. Protestant Christians were pushed underground, and one lady I met was jailed four times for attending. According to her: you expect things from a dictatorship. As ruthless as they are, they are transparent about it. What they lack in due process and debate (both very important things), they make up for in efficiency. What really gets her is the current government: while there is religious freedom now, corruption is rife, journalism is controlled, and lofty ideals and self-righteousness are professed yet regularly broken. Take the Red Terror Martyrs’ Museum for example: it was created by the government. It neglected to mention that the EPDRF, while fighting Mengistu’s forces, used civilian human shields in the marketplace.

And the professed ideals of decentralisation: could it be a ploy to prevent formation of another large, pan-regional opposition force? Tribes and regions that have coexisted for decades back in the Haile Selassie days are now starting to resent each other. They used to all fly the Ethiopian flag, but now they fly their state ones. Everyone used to speak Amharic, and now there are tribes who don’t speak it at all, or choose to use the somewhat insufficient Latin alphabet instead of the Amharic one that covers all the sounds they use. The context of historical events and disasters has shifted in blame from specific government members to a narrative of self-serving tribes conspiring in government.

Plus the GDP thing: the country itself is doing better, but I’ve heard often that the people are not and the wage gap is increasing. An average government worker earns about 1600 birr ($80) a month. Most people still earn below $1 a day. (As poor as that sounds, it’s best to keep in mind that food still remains somewhat affordable for those earning little, and not to consider so much the conversion rate and spending power to American dollars.)

But with these competing narratives of the state of the country, how am I supposed to know what’s true? What remains is still a country that’s progressed far beyond its famine and dictatorship days, despite its problems. I have to say though, there’s been protests from the Oromo people this week with deaths involved, and I haven’t seen it reported anywhere outside of Ethiopia.

They’ve always known it’s Christmas. Even though they don’t celebrate western Christmas, there were a few Christmas trees and decorations scattered around. Joined by Befekadu now in his home city, we spent Christmas Eve in a traditional restaurant eating kitfo (spiced raw meat like beef tartar, mmm!), swigging beers and watching the musicians and dancers. Rosie and I celebrated our shared heritage (and my homesickness) with Chinese food for lunch and Canadian food (poutine!) for Christmas dinner. We knew it was Christmas, and with satisfied stomachs, it felt enough like one.

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