Within a week, Ethiopians were hit with a quadruple whammy. On April 19, the Libyan branch of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) released a shocking video purporting to show the killings and beheadings of Ethiopian Christians attempting to cross to Europe through Libya. This came only days after an anti-immigrant mob in South Africa killed at least three Ethiopian immigrants and wounded many others. Al Jazeera America reported that thousands of Ethiopian nationals were stranded in war-torn Yemen. And in the town of Robe in Oromia and its surroundings alone, scores of people were reportedly grieving over the loss of family members at sea aboard a fateful Europe-bound boat that sank April 19 off the coast of Libya with close to 900 aboard.
These tragedies may have temporarily united Ethiopians of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds. But they have also raised questions about what kind of desperation drove these migrants to leave their country and risk journeys through sun-scorched deserts and via chancy boats.
The crisis comes at a time when Ethiopia’s economic transformation in the last decade is being hailed as nothing short of a miracle, with some comparing it to the feat achieved by the Asian “tigers” in the 1970s. Why would thousands of young men and women flee their country, whose economy is the fastest growing in Africa and whose democracy is supposedly blossoming? And when will the exodus end?
After the spate of sad news, government spokesman Redwan Hussein said the tragedy “will be a warning to people who wish to risk and travel to Europe through the dangerous route.” Warned or not, many youths simply do not see their dreams for a better life realized in Ethiopia. Observers cite massive poverty, rising costs of living, fast-climbing youth unemployment, lack of economic opportunities for the less politically connected, the economy’s overreliance on the service sector and the requirement of party membership as a condition for employment as the drivers behind the exodus.
A 2012 study by the London-based International Growth Center noted (PDF) widespread urban unemployment amid growing youth landlessness and insignificant job creation in rural areas. “There have been significant increases in educational attainment. However, there has not been as much job creation to provide employment opportunities to the newly educated job seekers,” the report said.
One of the few ISIL victims identified thus far was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 2013. (Saudi deported more than 100,000 Ethiopian domestic workers during a visa crackdown.) A friend, who worked as a technician for the state-run Ethiopian Electricity Agency, joined him on this fateful trek to Libya. At least a handful of the victims who have been identified thus far were said to be college graduates.
Given the depth of poverty, Ethiopia’s much-celebrated economic growth is nowhere close to accommodating the country’s young and expanding population, one of the largest youth cohorts in Africa. Government remains the main employer in Ethiopia after agriculture and commerce. However, as Human Rights Watch noted in 2011, “access to seeds, fertilizers, tools and loans … public sector jobs, educational opportunities and even food assistance” is often contingent on support for the ruling party.
Still, unemployment and lack of economic opportunities are not the only reasons for the excessive outward migration. These conditions are compounded by the fact that youths, ever more censored and denied access to the Internet and alternative sources of information, simply do not trust the government enough to heed Hussein’s warnings. Furthermore, the vast majority of Ethiopian migrants are political refugees fleeing persecution. There are nearly 7,000 registered Ethiopian refugees in Yemen, Kenya has more than 20,000, and Egypt and Somalia have nearly 3,000 each, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Ethiopians will head to the polls in a few weeks. Typically, elections are occasions to make important choices and vent anger at the incumbent. But on May 24, Ethiopians will be able to do neither. In the last decade, authorities have systematically closed the political space through a series of anti-terrorism, press and civil society laws. Ethiopia’s ruling party, now in power for close to 24 years, won the last four elections. The government has systematically weakened the opposition and does not tolerate any form of dissent.
The heightened crackdown on freedom of expression has earned Ethiopia the distinction of being the world’s fourth-most-censored country and the second leading jailer of journalists in Africa, behind only its archrival, Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
There is little hope that the 2015 elections would be fundamentally different from the 2010 polls, in which the ruling party won all but two of the 547 seats in the rubber-stamp national parliament. The ruling party maintains a monopoly over the media. Authorities have shown little interest in opening up the political space for a more robust electoral contest. This was exemplified by the exclusion of key opposition parties from the race, continuing repression of those running and Leenco Lata’s recent failed attempt to return home to pursue peaceful political struggle after two decades of exile. (Lata is the founder of the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front, fighting since 1973 for the rights of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s marginalized majority population, and the president of the Oromo Democratic Front.)
A few faces from the fragmented and embittered opposition maybe elected to parliament in next month’s lackluster elections. But far from healing Ethiopia’s gashing wounds, the vote is likely to ratchet up tensions. In fact, a sea of youth, many too young to vote, breaking police barriers to join opposition rallies bespeaks not of a country ready for elections but one ripe for a revolution with unpredictable consequences.
Despite these mounting challenges, Ethiopia’s relative stability — compared with its deeply troubled neighbors Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti — is beyond contention. Even looking further afield, across the Red Sea, where Yemen is unraveling, one finds few examples of relative stability. This dynamic and Ethiopia’s role in the “war on terrorism” explains Washington’s and other donors’ failure to push Ethiopia toward political liberalization.
However, Ethiopia’s modicum of stability is illusory and bought at a hefty price: erosion of political freedoms, gross human rights violations and ever-growing discontent. This bodes ill for a country split by religious, ethnic and political cleavages. While at loggerheads with each other, Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups — the Oromo (40 percent) and the Amhara (30 percent) — are increasingly incensed by continuing domination by Tigreans (6 percent).
Ethiopian Muslims (a third of the country’s population of 94 million) have been staging protests throughout the country since 2011. Christian-Muslim relations, historically cordial, are being tested by religious-inspired violence and religious revivalism around the world. Ethiopia faces rising pressures to choose among three paths fraught with risks: the distasteful status quo; increased devolution of power, which risks balkanization; and more centralization, which promises even further resistance and turmoil.
It is unlikely that the soul searching from recent tragedies will prompt the authorities to make a course adjustment. If the country’s history of missed opportunities for all-inclusive political and economic transformation is any guide, Ethiopians might be in for a spate of more sad news. As long as the answer to these questions focuses on security, the door is left wide open for further exodus and potential social unrest from an increasingly despondent populace.