Comparative history is not an exact science. It can be a fraught business. I’m sure there are a number of ways in which today’s video could be portrayed as condescending or even a bit racist. “What do you mean Ethiopia is 100 years behind Europe!!!”. But comparative history is too useful a tool, to not use. Unfortunately, it’s often used poorly. With this video, and a follow up I’m still drafting, I hope to debunk some of the dumber comparisons that are made. I also want to show that while Ethiopia’s civil war is horrible, it’s not really much of a detour from normal development.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. On November 4th Ethiopia fell into open civil war, but the instability dates back years before that. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise in 2018 was part of it. Erhiopia’s growing instability is surprising to a lot of people, because Ethiopia has been getting a lot richer.
Over the past two decades Ethiopia has been experiencing annual GDP growth around 10% a year, and sometimes as high as 13%. This growth has been from a very low base, but the progress has been undeniable.
Up until this Covid year a real middle class was forming, and investment was pouring in from everywhere. Yet Ethiopia was getting consistently more and more violent. This has surprised a lot of people. Shouldn’t more money make people happier and less interested in ethnic tensions? Well that certainly isn’t happening in Ethiopia. Today we’ll explain why.
The most famous example of the way we in the United States expect things to work is probably Northern Ireland. Ireland became independent in the 1920s. But the United Kingdom held on to six counties in the north west, in part because Protestants were more highly represented there than in the more Catholic South. This was always an uneasy compromise, and in the 1960s violence escalated. This violence was known as the troubles, and it killed many more people than Ireland’s brief war of independence back in the 1920s.
This seemingly immortal cycle of violence ended in 1997 with the Good Friday agreement. A conflict that was supposed to go on forever just stopped. People wondered why this agreement had been so successful, and economics looked like a plausible explanation. Through a savvy use of Ireland’s human capital and the European Union’s tax laws, over the past 50 years Ireland has gone from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. This explanation seems intuitive, and I think it makes sense. Reaching a certain level of prosperity does make peace and democracy more likely. But that’s not the whole story. Not at all. Looking at Ireland’s trajectory over centuries rather than decades makes this clear.
England sent waves of invaders into Ireland for 1000 years. But it was only in the late 1600s, after Cromwell and William and Mary, that they established complete totalitarian control of the island. For almost a century the Irish were too crushed and too poor to push back in meaningful ways. Irish nationalism only became a thing once the Irish developed the resources necessary for political action, and then the Great Famine crushed it again. It was only in the late 19th century that Ireland became rich enough to really threaten British rule, and it was only in the 1920s that they finally won their freedom. What I am saying here is that yes it was getting richer that helped finally make Ireland peaceful around 20 years ago. But it was Ireland reaching an earlier level of prosperity that made Ireland’s large scale violence possible in the first place. It’s not a one step thing. It’s a two step thing.
We can see this replicated in Europe in general. The 19th century was truly miraculous. Industrialization spread across the continent. It did so very unevenly, but it made unheard of levels of prosperity possible in every country, transforming everything. One result of this was hyper-nationalism and the horrors of two world wars. Now eventually, of course, the continent attained a level of prosperity where the boring peace and prosperity of the European Union was possible. But it was a two step thing. First you get rich enough to try to kill the people you see as your enemies. Then you get rich enough to appreciate peace.
I am afraid what we are seeing in Ethiopia right now is very much the first stage. The country has a grand history. It was one of the only countries in the world to successfully keep European imperialists out. But the Ethiopian kings did this by creating an empire of their own, basically an anti-imperial empire. My crappy map here doesn’t even begin to describe the country’s ethnic and territorial complexity.
Throughout the 20th century, extreme poverty made this empire easier to govern. It’s hard to get excited about your people’s rights when you can’t feed your family. It’s a fantastic thing for humanity that Ethiopia has gotten rich enough to feed itself. But it also means that the country’s many groups now have a lot more to fight over. Which they are now doing.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s invasion of the Tigray region has disappointed the folks who gave him the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But it strikes me as an attempt to solve a complicated problem. The Tigrayans were the dominant voice in Ethiopia for decades. By attacking the old boss Abiy may hope to keep all of the country’s groups from attacking him and attacking each other. If he plays it exactly right, this war could even help him win a free and fair election.
The wealth of nations is vitally important. But it does not work as straightforwardly as we assume it does. Countries don’t just pass an arbitrary GDP number and morph into Switzerland. Wealth can bring peace and the wisdom to avoid Wars, but it usually brings nationalism and the urge to fight wars first. If you are wondering if this has implications for the way we think about China you would be absolutely right. I hope to do a video on that at some point soon. By
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