Why Ethiopia is not the voice of Africa

Prospect Magazine

Why Ethiopia is not the voice of Africa


It gets a disproportionately large slice of Africa’s aid, but the Ethiopian regime does not act in the best interests of its citizens or its neighbours. So why has the G20 made the country a spokesman for the entire continent?

Last week the leaders of the world’s largest economies met at the G20 Summit in Toronto. The key items on the agenda were global economic recovery, sustainable and environmentally-friendly growth, and the impact of the recession on social justice. Special invitations were also issued to Vietnam, Malawi, and Ethiopia. Vietnam attended as chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Malawi came as chair of the African Union (AU). Ethiopia, it seems, was invited in a somewhat ambiguous role, as the “voice of Africa.” You can always tell a lot about a party from the guest list. So what agenda was served with this group?

At first glance, it looks as though Ethiopia was there to represent African development issues in the discussion about the global recovery. Ethiopia was, after all, chair of NEPAD—the New Economic Partnership for African Development. NEPAD was an AU initiative that aimed to help develop Africa internally, mobilising the continent’s own resources instead of seeking foreign aid; creating a new vision and direction for Africa in place of one shaped by donor interests. But herein lies a problem. NEPAD has been so unsuccessful in achieving its goals that the AU recently voted to disband it—an outcome that does not exactly reflect well on Ethiopia’s leadership of the initiative.

Indeed, was it ever in the Ethiopian government’s interests for NEPAD to succeed? Part of NEPAD’s mandate is to ensure good governance in African states, and the Ethiopian leadership is hardly a model of this. It has been accused of serious human rights abuses, persecution of political opponents, and anti-democratic governance. Human Rights Watch has called Ethiopia’s recent record “poor…and on a deteriorating human rights trajectory.” The US State Department has cited reports of “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity.”  Foreign policy magazine has just ranked Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi the 9th worst dictator in the world, while the country’s opposition leader and former judge Birtukan Mideksa languishes in prison on a life sentence for treason. In the recent national elections, which returned a 99.6 per cent majority for the government, EU observers reported that the polls “fell short of certain international commitments, notably the lack of level playing field for all parties and transparency of the process,” with a “climate of apprehension and insecurity” in the weeks leading up to the vote. Ethiopia therefore seems a strange choice to be the “voice of Africa” in discussions about African development.

Furthermore, the G20 summit ended with an announcement of $6bn annual lending to the African Development Bank for 2012-2020. This amount may seem impressive at first, but shrinks in comparison with the $0.95bn cost of the security operation around the one-off summit in Toronto, and with the $10bn annual lending agreed to the Asian Development Bank and the $11bn to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Why didn’t Ethiopia, as the “voice of Africa,” express disappointment at this?

Perhaps because Ethiopia is already Africa’s largest recipient of aid from many of the individual G20 nations. Britain awards Ethiopia $250m per year; and the US gives it $862m per year. These individual aid agreements dwarf the G20’s collective aid contribution to Africa: agreements with Britain and the US alone, for example, is equal to nearly 20 per cent of the $6bn the G20 collectively has now pledged, with Ethiopia’s symbolic approval, to Africa overall. This has two major implications: the priority of Ethiopia’s government will be to sustain its relationship with individual aid donor countries, in order to protect its own domestic position; and the question of G20 aid for “all of Africa” is not something about which Ethiopia’s government is likely to be too concerned.

Why, then, might G20 nations want a “voice of Africa” representative like Ethiopia? The answer may in part lie with the second item on the economic agenda: sustainable and environmentally-friendly growth. The G20 nations are under considerable national and international pressure to deliver green treaties. But green treaties come with short-term economic costs; and any commitment to international climate aid finance will have an impact on already strained domestic budgets. Enter Ethiopia. In December 2009, the UN climate talks were in deadlock: the G77 bloc of developing world countries were insisting on a 1.5C restriction on temperature increases above pre-industrial levels, and $2trn climate aid financing by 2020, while the EU and the “Umbrella Group” of non-EU developed countries would only commit to a temperature restriction of 2C, and would not offer more than $123bn in climate aid financing. At the eleventh hour, Ethiopia broke ranks with the G77 bloc to offer a settlement that enshrined the EU’s and Umbrella Group’s 2C and $123bn offer; and hence was born the Copenhagen Accord. When Ethiopia made this solitary move, it was reported that it was “representing Africa.” In fact, the official body representing Africa was the African Group, at the time chaired by Algeria. As a body it vehemently rejected—and still rejects—the accord. But Ethiopia’s support of the agreement conveniently allowed—and continues to allow—the G20 governments to look green, without actually having to be so.

This brings us to the third key issue on the G20 agenda: social justice. The G20 nations are also increasingly under pressure by their citizens to demonstrate a commitment to fair trade, to anti-poverty measures, and to reducing global inequalities. But as with the climate agenda, a wholehearted commitment to these principles will create short-term shocks to national economies. Enter Ethiopia—again. Because of the devastating 1984-5 famines the country suffered, and the international and cross-demographic goodwill inspired as a result, Ethiopia is a potent symbol for the “suffering of Africa”—and its presence at international economic summits helps give these summits a particular moral legitimacy. This image of supporting the “suffering of Africa,” rather than learning from the success stories of somewhere like Senegal or Namibia, is the sort of “social justice for Africa” picture that is easier for governments in the rich world to sell to their citizens.

G20 governments may be right to be nervous about short-term shocks to their economies. But in their refusal to think long term, or to recognise the diversity of Africa, they are doing the continent great disservice. Instead of indulging in tokenism, they could be drawing more on success stories like Ghana, Botswana, Senegal, Namibia and Tanzania—and we could all be learning more from what actually works.

As for Ethiopia’s citizens, whose iconic suffering seems to be what has earned their prime minister the right to be the “voice of Africa”—their suffering continues. “Even so distant, I can taste the grief, / Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp,” wrote Philip Larkin in Deceptions. “Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare / Console you if I could.”

CHART 1: G20 annual lending to international financial institutions in $bn


AfDB: African Development Bank
AsDB: Asian Development Bank
EBRD: European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
IADB: Inter-American Development Bank (includes Haiti debt relief)

CHART 2: Climate aid financing vs recession financing in $b


The Green Deal 2020: G77 bloc developing countries’ total climate aid request until 2020
The Copenhagen Accord 2020: EU and Umbrella Group developed countries’ total climate aid offer until 2020 through the Copenhagen Accord
IFIs 2008-10: G20 provision of funds to IMF and other International Financial Instiutions (like AfDB, AsDB, above) for recession 2008-10

  1. June 30, 2010


    Please get the facts right before publishing an article. Other states have been running the affair of NEPAD before Ethiopia took over. And since Ethiopia took over things have been happening ask, NEPAD itself.I won’t go into other basic facts distortation.

  2. July 1, 2010

    MG Zimeta

    Hello Facts,

    I appreciate it’s a thorny field. But all the figures and facts quoted above and in the charts are from official sources as follows:

    * The information about Ethiopia’s leadership role in NEPAD comes from the G8 Summit delegation factsheet

    * The information about the aid financing and recession financing agreed at the G20 comes from the Summit declaration:

    * The information about Britain’s aid contribution to Ethiopia comes from DfID:

    * The information about the US aid contribution to Ethiopia comes from the US State Department:

    * The information about climate aid financing and the Copenhagen Accord comes from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

  3. July 1, 2010


    For a guy named Zimeta, you sure have a lot to say!! lol

  4. July 1, 2010


    This is highly fallacious report. At glance it looks the report is targeting at damaging Ethiopian image but it is the usual colonial view about Africa.Believe it or not Ethiopia and Africa at large is on the right track of development.As for Ethiopia, it is the only non-oil economy that has been on fast growth for half a decade.

  5. July 1, 2010


    there is way too little control over the west’s aid to African megalomaniacs. Private jets, air-conditioned limousines and Swiss bank accounts are where much of poor western taxpayers “aid” goes. Western governments should get a grip and give our money away only when they can see precisely where it is being spent and who is benefitting.

  6. July 1, 2010

    sileshi mekuria

    oh mr democrat dont talk about a country u know nothing about one day we will reach at every point we want if meles leads this state meles is the true ethiopian leader with clear visions what ethiopia will be in the future he seeks ethiopian solution to ethiopias problem not european thats why ethiopia becomes strong we will never give up to foreigners and bandas of them like you you wash their ass dont talk about ethiopias government if you are outside ethiopia and meles is the most genius of geniuses than obama and cameroon he have a solution to humanity but unfortunately he is in ethiopia viva meles we ethiopians are proud of you forever……..

  7. July 1, 2010

    Elias Kifle

    The title of the article (‘Ethiopia is not the voice of Africa’) is misleading and insulting to the nation of Ethiopia. Meles Zenawi is not Ethiopia. His genocidal regime does not represent the people of Ethiopia. Meles and his tribal ruling junta have not been given mandate to speak on behalf of Ethiopia. So I would urge you to change the title to: “Meles Zenawi is not the voice of Africa.”

    Thank you
    Elias Kifle, editor

  8. July 1, 2010

    John Ellis

    Seemingly as much an indictment of European and other G20 nations as of Ethiopia. Just looking at Sebastiao’s photos of Ethiopia during th ’80s famine makes one wonder what makes politicians tick.

  9. July 1, 2010



    Wow, Ethiopian Prime minister Meles Zenawi must be doing some thing good for you to concoct bogus stories to smear his reputation.

    FYI, as an African I am well represented in Meles Zenawi.

  10. July 2, 2010


    This article for me is full of clemency. To begin with Meles doesnot represent Ethiopia let alone Africa. He does not have legitmacy among the people of Ethiopia. We, most of Ethiopians, I can surely say 96-97% of Ethiopians doesnot believe in his leadership. Why would African’s think. This guy is killing and detaining Ethiopians since he is in power. The 2005 election is a good example that how far Ethiopians abhor him and his leadership. For me he is far worse than he hadbeen before 2005, so why do u think he represents us. So as someone has said, pls change the title to Meles ….

  11. July 2, 2010

    Tchoq yale Zimeta

    That you have to write with a pseudonym is telling of the state of affairs in Ethiopia. I understand.

    Bravo and thank you for your analysis!

  12. July 2, 2010

    Daniel Abraham

    Definately Ethiopia is The voice for african as well as black race in many ways .If you speak about Meles Zenawi and his Ethnic-Aparthheid rule -Its diffrent Story

  13. July 2, 2010

    Daniel Abraham

    Dear Writer “Mr Zimita”
    African dictators choose Dictator Zenawi as their Representative ,Since he is the Dictator of Dictators ,not as you Suggested Zenawi Picked by G20 to Represnt africa …Get your facts together

    Thank you

  14. July 2, 2010

    Daniel Abraham

    Dear Writer “Mr Zimita”
    African dictators choose Dictator Zenawi as their Representative ,Since he is the Dictator of Dictators ,not as you Suggested Picked by G20 to Represnt africa …Get your facts together

    Thank you

  15. July 2, 2010

    Tihitena Solomon

    I Wish you get your facts straight before you rush to write an article
    Where do you got the idea that with the Title called “Why Ethiopia is not The voice of Africa” ????
    Since When Midget Zenawi means Ethiopia ,Since When He represented Africa ?? Let alone africa He does not Even represnt Ethiopia ,he was a rebel leader and gorilla fighter for One Ethnic Group in Ethiopia TPLF(Tigrean People Libration Front) who used to boast not long ago Soviet union is not Communist Enough and Albanian Communist party leaders was his mentors Only Since 1991 and took Power in Ethiopia,Masked his name as EPRDF “Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front” Once you unmasked his fake mask you Will see the true Ethnic war lords who is cash cowing the NAtion of Ethiopia for his Ethnically based organization and treating the rest of Ethiopians as the Second class Citzens in their own Country .

  16. July 4, 2010

    Francine Last

    The G20 is an aristocratic exclusive club that does not represent the interests of the world, but of a select few. The Norwegian foreign minister explained very eloquently. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,702104,00.html
    Needless to say, with such a club choosing its friends, the whole trickle down effect is likely to be highly suspect.

  17. July 5, 2010

    Roland Baker

    The article is confusing and so are the comments. This seems like a private conversation between Ethiopian factions.

    DFID budgets are ring-fenced. China has shown no reluctance to invest in Africa where its advantage can be secured. Is it investing in Ethiopia? If not, why should DFID be ring-fenced to permit UK pensioners to beg in the gutter for scraps whilst dictators prosper?

  18. July 25, 2010


    For a starter, I am gutted to see Zenawi and Ethiopia confused. I am rather angry to see Zenawi representing Africa on all sorts of global forums. It is a shame African leaders have literally abandoned their responsibility of choosing a visionary and pragmatic representative to speak on the continents’ behalf on the global forum.

    Aside his cooked Economic growth credential, Zenawi is leader who has stolen the people’s voice election after election. His human right record is dismal. So, apart from his polished polemics, what reason does one have to select him to represent Africa when he is trampling on the wishes and hopes of Ethiopian people and by extension that of Africans’.

  19. August 26, 2010


    whatever we think of meles zenawi, he is an ethiopian and is definitely acting as any ethiopian, asserting anything in itself is racist and can only be serving divisive purposes and nothing else

    now this article is making the case of not having ethiopia as the voice of the african continent, and which ever way you turn it and however sad it is, its mere fact, for which we don’t even need to turn reports as the author certainly did. there are more aspiring and far more developed nations which deserves that role.

    no doubt ethiopia is also making its way, but it is simply behind and we as ethiopians should stop moralizing and getting too nostalgic and instead focus on the future and what lies ahead

    let me give you some 101 on self development and if you need more in depth coverage go out and get yourself one piece of such…there are many excellent one

    change doesn’t always have to be political…if you really think you have something to contribute with other than high level political bs join or start your own grass root movement doing social/educational work and in the process benefit yourself and your brothers and sisters instead of doing all of us the disfavor of spreading hate just because you see something differently from your couch in any western country you may find yourself at this moment where i know you are complaining about those back breaking labours you are lifting yourself through, have a concrete and achievable goal for yourself as well as those you seem to feel so compasionate about and not promoting farfetched dreams and hatred, of which the danger is as the one we saw 2005 where you helped derail a descent development in our country or even more worse you create frustration among those living and making effort here and create a situation where everybody and everyone wants to flee and join you in your miserable exisance (excuse me for being blunt, but don’t see any reason to play the game of words here)

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M G Zimeta

MG Zimeta is an Honorary Research Associate at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, UCL, and a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton 

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