Talk of Ethiopia conjures a whole range of metaphors and contradictory perceptions and misconceptions. With the ascendance to power of Dr. Abiy Ahmed, as Prime Minister of Ethiopia on April 2, 2018, the strategic Horn of Africa country is back in the global limelight. The political excitement in Ethiopia has not yet died out even though there is guarded or cautious optimism. Part of the reason why there is such great excitement about both Ethiopia and Dr. Abiy is the manner in which the political transition took place. First, there were massive protests across the country that nearly tore the country apart. Second, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn did the honorable thing and resigned amidst rising political tensions, supposedly to pave way for radical political reforms and to be part of such process. Analysts are still guessing what this process would be. What is well known is that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)–a coalition of ethnically based parties—painstakingly held lengthy meetings and finally settled for Dr. Abiy as the chairperson of the ruling party and subsequently was endorsed as the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The rest, as they say, is history.
While Dr. Abiy’s political honeymoon is still on, it is important to ponder and ruminate over the mythical and mysterious polity known as Ethiopia, which has puzzled scholars for centuries if not millennia. A lot has been written and will continue to be written about this fascinating African polity, popularly nicknamed the “Land of origins.” This is because of the archeological findings of the oldest hominid called “Lucy” or “Dinknesh” in Amharic. By this fact alone, Ethiopia is placed in an interesting historical epoch and stands in a class of its own in the entire world. Not to forget that Ethiopia also is very much talked about in the Biblical narratives right from the Old Testament (Cush in Genesis, Moses having married an Ethiopia in Exodus, the Queen of Sheba’s historical visit to Jerusalem to seek the wisdom of King Solomon, the Ethiopian Eunich of the Acts of the Apostles who was baptized by the Apostle Philip, after he had read from the book of prophet Isaiah).
I will use Pan-African and Afropolitan conceptual and theoretical frameworks to shed some light on Dr. Abiy’s Ethiopia in the broader global political economy. It is important to state right away that Ethiopia remains an enigmatic polity that defies clear cut categorization and conceptualization. One of the main goals for this piece is to start what will be a long discourse about Ethiopia amidst the current political trajectory that Dr. Abiy has embarked on, as a dynamic, forwarding looking, Pan-African, peace and security analyst and young leader. This is an aspirational and prescriptive approach since it is too early to tell what Dr. Abiy’s political and economic performance will be in the years to come.
The continental context and mood is that of the much talked about Africa rising narrative, Agenda 2063, Sustainable Development Goals, demographic dividend, African Continental Free Trade Area (AFCFTA), and the increasing attractiveness of Africa as a choice destination for foreign direct investment. Since Dr. Abiy’s Ethiopia is home to the AU, one cannot talk about the destiny and fortunes of one ignoring the other. Ethiopia is, in a way, the mirror of the entire African continent’s paradoxes and contradictions: (1) rich and complex cultural diversity; (2) simmering ethno-politics; (3) underdevelopment amidst enormous natural resources and financial illicit flows; (4) brain-drain amidst limited capacity; (5) nascent democratic and governance institutions; (6) tension between tradition and modernity; (7) centrifugal and centripetal political and economic forces; (8) tension between the sacred and the secular; (9) increasing gap between rich and poor; (10) Quest for home-grown solutions while heavily relying on foreign aid, foreign direct investment and imported goods and services. We can call these challenges as ten problems with African development. Fix them and you claim the 21st Century.
Dr. Abiy’s Ethiopia: A Paradoxical Mythical and Mystical Polity with Manifest Destiny in Global Affairs
That Ethiopia still fascinates scholars, politicians and development agents, is not in dispute. But it also intrigues many in equal measure. It is a political enigma in the Horn of Africa, and no scholar has been able to fully grasp the territory that was once referred to as the “Land of Prester John.” Few countries on earth can claim to have a history that goes back to the mythical biblical times, share narratives with ancient Egypt, provide one source of the might Nile river (the other source being in Uganda), be home to ancient and medieval monasteries, host dozens of World UNESCO World Heritage sites, have the hottest area on earth, be home to all major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), have its own alphabet, be home to over 80 ethnic communities each with a distinct language, and be both modern and ancient.
Psalm 68 states that Ethiopia shall lift up its hands in prayer to God. This prophetic pronouncement that reappears in other forms in other Old Testament passages, situates Ethiopia in the divine plan of God. And truly in Ethiopia hands are lifted up in prayer to God. Numerous Orthodox and other Christian churches decorate the entire expansive land of Ethiopia, followed by numerous Mosques. There are also animist religious traditions that are not usually spoken about. The most dramatic religious monuments are the rock hewn churches in Lalibera and the controversial belief that the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant is kept securely in Axum at the Church of Our Lady of Sion. Millions of pilgrims and tourists have flocked to Axum and Lalibela to catch a glimpse of these amazing sacred spaces. The connection of Ethiopia to the Solomonic dynasty is narrated in the famous ancient book Kibre Negest or the Glory of the Kings, that claims that when the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, she conceived a son with King Solomon. This son, it is believed, was Menelik I. The veracity of these claims defies verification since historians have not reached consensus on what in fact was Ethiopia of that time, or even where Sheba was actually located. However, if you cannot prove something to be true, you also cannot categorically deny it to be true. Joseph Flavius, a famous Jewish historian also narrates the story of the Queen of Sheba whom he says was a queen both of Egypt and Ethiopia: “There was then a woman Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia; she was inquisitive into philosophy, and one that on other accounts also was to be admired.” Ethiopia will remain a land where myth, mystery and history meet, for centuries to come.
It is not only the Old Testament that speaks a lot about Ethiopia (regardless of how one defines Ethiopia of the Old Testament), even the New Testament has several references to it. Philip the Apostle met an Ethiopia treasurer of Queen Candace who was reading a book of Isaiah (Acts of the Apostles 8:26-39), and after explaining to him what he was reading without understanding, he baptized him. Tradition has it that it is this convert who brought Christianity to Ethiopia.
A terrain where you have all major world religions converging, you will definitely have world civilizations converging, if not competing. So you will find Chinese, Indians, Americans, Europeans, and Africans, side by side on the wide and recently tiled streets of Addis Ababa. This is not Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” but the convergence of civilizations, for the moment. Chinese, Indian, Ethiopian, Turkish, French, Kenyan, and Italian restaurants are shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Addis Ababa. A stop at Edna Mall around Bole will bring you face to face with Hollywood Movies like Black Panther, and if you move a few meters away you will be at Yod Abyssinia watching traditional cultural music and dance from the various ethnic communities of Ethiopia. Food at Yod Abyssinia will be traditional Dolo wat, Injera, Kitiffo, tebs and traditional gomen vegetable. While at Edna Mall the main food and drinks will be chicken, chips, pop corns and coke. A few meters away from Edna Mall you will find an imposing Orthodox Church. Tradition and modernity live side by side—malls as temples of global capitalism and churches or mosques as temples of global faiths.
And yes, even matters of health and wellness carry the consistent paradox. Spas with sauna and massage parlors for the affluent Afropolitans and expatriates provide stress relief, while ordinary pious Orthodox and other Christians immerse themselves in or sign themselves with holy water at the entrance of churches. Hot springs near Hilton and in Sodere in Nazareth, are choice destinations for those who seek wellness infused with divine aroma-aquatherapy. On the feast of Timkat or Epiphany (celebrated by millions of people from Ethiopia and abroad), the pious faithful are sprinkled with Holy water, while others immerse themselves in the pool of water in Gondar.
You may hold you own beliefs on the supernatural, but I do not see how such a country fully immersed and imbued with sacred and religious symbolism can decline in reverence and awe for the divine. Forget the once trending scholars’ secularization thesis that dominated Western academia. Even during the tense times of the mass protects, state of emergency that rocked the country since 2016, religion and divine invocation was a dominant theme. When there was some claim of a supernatural phenomenon in Bole Bulbula to the effect that Mary might (since the investigation is still going on) have appeared to a Salesian Polish Nun Alexandra, those who strongly believe in such supernatural phenomena were quick to link the phenomenon with divine intervention to save Ethiopia from a political cataclysm. And indeed hundreds of devout Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox) flocked to Bole Bulbula to see the alleged apparition but also to pray for peace in Ethiopia. The image of Our Lady that supposedly appeared on a piece of cloth has since gone viral. The cloth was taken to the Vatican for careful examination. This phenomenon, if it is validated, will also add to the global visibility of Ethiopia and contribute to the sacred global political economy of the Land of Prester John.
By Odomaro Mubangizi