Between Rhetoric and Action

I first noticed him because of the shoes. They were light grey lace-up dress shoes, featuring unusually minimalist lines and shiny patent leather. The rest of him was rather ordinary… at least among this crowd of upper-class businessmen and thrifty expats “borrowing” internet in this four-star hotel lobby. Dressed in a perfectly tailored black suit, the elderly gentleman could have passed for just another Ethiopian businessman.

Except he wasn’t.

As I found out later, his name is Arhe Hamednaca and he is a member of the Swedish Parliament. Originally from a small town village in Eritrea, he became a guerrilla fighter when he was only 15 years old. “Ethiopian fighters were coming into the schools and killing people… I was a teenager at the time. It was the only way I could do something to defend my own people.” In his words, he would go on to take hundreds of lives in the subsequent years. Somewhere along the way, he sought refuge in Sweden, where he eventually entered the realm of politics and human rights movements. Today he was invited by Addis Ababa University, the oldest and most prestigious institution in the country, to give a talk on democracy.

“Leaders rise to the top of institutions, but the institutions themselves are still very weak,” he lamented. “You have to move the dialogue beyond just words–beyond the rhetoric of democracy and freedom.”

In just a few days, Arhe be traveling to the border region in Tigray to visit the refugee camps. There, 100,000 Eritrean refugees—mostly young men and children—have been living without basic necessities for years.

I wanted to dig into his story, the refugee issues, his experiences in the guerrilla movements, and what message on democracy he was planning to deliver to the country’s future leaders. But we had too little time.

Ethiopian history and politics is confusing — I won’t lie. Each time I think I have a better handle on the big picture, I learn something new that seems to flip it upside down. The current government which began under Meles’ rule has brought incredible development across sectors. It is mostly to their credit that there are now over 40 universities with health/medical programs, rather than just the three universities 20 years ago. Rural villages now have consistent access to health services for the first time in collective memory.

Yet the government has been criticized for its repression of opposing voices, acting as what is essentially a one-party democracy. Even my new roommate, who has been organizing TEDxAddis for the past four years, explained that they are careful to avoid political topics or overtones.

A few tables away in the same lobby, I met Lica and Efua–two public health students from Boston University here to work on NGO capacity building. Efua explained that the NGO scene has been decimated by the government in recent years. In 2009, the government passed the Charities and Societies Proclamation law (CSO law) — a law designed to strictly control and monitor civil society in an atmosphere of intolerance. Under this law, no NGO that receive more than 10% of funding from foreign sources can participate in human rights and advocacy activities. This effectively silenced civil society in Ethiopia. As a result, more than half of the NGOs in the country shuttered its doors overnight, as they were no longer able to sustain their activities without foreign support. Efua explained that many people believe this crack-down was tied to the NGO sector’s support for opposition political parties leading up to the 2010 elections.

Indeed, Ethiopia’s track record on accountability and transparency is hardly optimistic. An assessment of the country’s international rankings looked bleak:

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 174 (2011) 1 – 169
World Bank Rule of Law Index 27.5 (2010) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 11.4 (2010) 100 – 0
Transparency International 120 (2011) 1 – 178
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Not Free
Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 6
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Failed States Index 17 (2012) 177 – 1


Perhaps there is no ‘truth’ to be found. But the people I have met this far — from young twenty-somethings to older generations — have all been consistently opinionated and candid about their views. Many are optimistic about their country’s future. My hope is to gather more stories in the coming weeks and look forward to sharing them here.


One response to “Between Rhetoric and Action

  1. In my experience, the CSO law has dangerously stifled civil society in Ethiopia, and the effects are widely felt at the grassroots level. So glad to see you writing about this.

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