Coffee delivers a taste of Ethiopia to Americans daily. Coffee beans were discovered in Ethiopia, and a morning Starbucks is generally as close as most Americans get to that African nation.
Ethiopia hit closer to home last week, however, when UC Davis plant biology researcher Sharon Gray was killed by rock-throwing rioters outside the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa. Gray’s car was pelted and she became the first foreigner to die in anti-government protests that have already claimed hundreds of Ethiopians since last November.
In the wake of Gray’s death, Ethiopia’s domestic tensions seem to have worsened. Last Sunday, Ethiopia’s leader declared a six-month state of emergency, recognizing the growing unrest and hoping to quell further political violence.
Gray was a victim of Ethiopians demonstrating against their single-party government, accusing it of taking property and abusing human rights. Gray was in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught in a simmering political conflict that came to a boil that day.
Up until recently, Ethiopia was considered a relatively stable African country, offering foreign investors economic opportunity. Recent attacks on foreign-owned companies and factories, however, as well as increasing protester deaths threaten to further damage the country’s reputation and rights record.
Landlocked Ethiopia still also has border disputes and grievances with neighboring countries and the country’s rulers blame the current unrest and violence on perpetrators from abroad. The prime minister says the state of emergency was in part a response to “armed gangs” underwritten by foreigners.
Ethiopia’s promise and potential are great, but the country may be at a crossroads. Global forces are competing to define its future. Will it be an open, diverse, more liberal democratic state or move toward a perceived more expedient, authoritarian state? The imposed state of emergency could foreshadow something more troubling.
There are two strains of pressure on the current governing party. One is for the leadership to open up slowly, carefully diversify and trust more in democratic approaches. The other is to maintain its monopoly on power, activate and emphasize policing powers, and crack down on instances of violence and protest.
Just as there are two directions Ethiopia could move, there are two international factions supporting each approach. The West – predominantly the United States and Europe – favor a more democratic approach.
China, on the other hand, is less experienced, trusting and supportive of democratic structures. Both the West and China are invested in a developing Ethiopia that is still experiencing rapid double-digit economic growth.
This Ethiopian struggle between systems of the West and China is playing out across the African continent, with some countries already deciding that China is the investor and political partner of choice. Will countries like Ethiopia decide that China is a more important friend than continuing to sidle up to a West that is demanding, critical and challenging to illiberal governing rule? Must it choose between the West and China?
China is funding and building critical Ethiopian infrastructure – roadways, railways, housing, energy. But Beijing’s leaders are not known as champions of dynamic pluralism, generally preferring status quo stability and authoritarian structures.
President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia last year and told the leadership that it needed to embrace pluralism because it would help the country grow and add to its economic success. Germany’s Angela Merkel reinforced Obama’s message last week, telling the Ethiopian government that “in a democracy there always needs to be an opposition that has a voice.”
Rock throwers helped catalyze the current crackdown on legitimate democratic demands. They took an innocent American’s life in the process. Who must now wake up and smell the coffee?