Beware of Ethiopia’s Angry Pessimists

Philippe Legrain, a former economic adviser to the president of the European Commission, says that pessimists can come in three forms: they can be accepting, anxious or angry.

He was mainly talking about Western politics, but he raises issues that can relate to our present experiences and dilemmas. The accepting and the anxious pessimists are both centrists but on the right and left wing of the political spectrum. They are both, in the end, comfortable with a socio-political or economic decline of their states, but can make do if this decline is manageable or tolerable.

Then there is the worst sorts of pessimists: the angry ones. The ones who see a deep state, unrelenting political corruption, and historical and ongoing injustice. There fears may be true but that would not matter as the manner in which they prefer to deal with their alarm is to feed their insecurity using conspiracy theories, and hateful rhetoric. The endgame for the likes of this is the destruction of the status quo.

This is Legrain’s theory, and it applies to all countries.

Ethiopia has pessimists of all kind. This has been evident over the centuries as kings were felled and regimes were violently overthrown by successors who believed their way is the best way. It is often not. Although there is the usual agreement that the nation has a complicated history and diverse sets of religions and lingo-cultural groups, too many incumbents have been induced to believe they have found the magic bullet.

That magic bullet has been deadly, though. It has given way to an increasingly unnerving state of affairs.

There is a lesson to be learned in the round of conflicts that have been erupting in Ethiopia, that gained the most attention after the ethnic unrest in Hawassa that reportedly left over a dozen dead.

It was an indication that the unrests of the past three years have in part been in resistance to the state that the incumbents tried to impose instead of the incumbents themselves.

It should mean something that a change of guard at the higher echelons of power has not arrested the unrests. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has lately been acting as a member of an opposition party than the incumbent. He has decided to implement the Algiers Agreement without preconditions and partially privatise state enterprises in most of the commanding heights of the economy – both highly divergent decisions than revolutionary democracy has preferred it for the past 27 years.

This is not to mention his appearance before parliament last week where he did not give a ringing endorsement for his party, which faces an election in just two years’ time.

Instead, we should not see the past three years as resistance waged merely against the government but the state itself. This makes it a far more complicated problem with an outcome we can barely predict.

It is not a mere question of institutionalisation of power. If that ever came to fruition, it would just be the beginning. It is then that we have to walk the painful and arduous path of negotiating on the sort of state we want.

I too am a pessimist, the sort that settles for making “an uncomfortable decline more tolerable.’

But this is because I am factoring in the angry pessimists into my calculations. They are the sort that does not have accurate information on current or historical matters, rarely compromise and lack foresight. I am not talking about the “group,” that secret and organised force that is said to be the force of destabilisation every time there is a conflict.

I am talking about that part of the public that cannot handle the truth – the outcome a peaceful dialogue and democratic culture can bring.

The fluid movement of people and goods across borders and administrative demarcations is a hope many share. But it has often been thwarted by feelings of insecurity, loss of culture or economic privileges or extreme nationalism. These are grossly prevalent in Ethiopia, and let alone serving as a binding force for the larger and complicated Horn of Africa, will likely end up eating the Ethiopian state from within.

We need strong institutions. And perhaps just as importantly, we need the centrists amongst us that can moderate the divergent sides of the argument. Without that middle ground, it is unlikely that a form of state just to all its people can be created.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is Fortune’sOp-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Jun 23,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 947]



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