By Markos Kounalakis
Ethiopia is the latest nation where an international aviation accident is in sharp focus, but the country itself is treated merely as the hazy backdrop and tragic context for a larger geopolitical story.
This one involves Boeing, China trade wars, and the credibility of American regulatory institutions.
All important stories, for sure, but Ethiopia is more than the tragically fatal scene of a plane crash. With more than 100 million people, Ethiopia is the second most populous African nation after Nigeria. Landlocked Ethiopia is also the continent’s fastest growing economy with arguably its most dynamic young leader.
While other African countries, such as Algeria, struggle to put to pasture their near-comatose leader-for-life Abdulaziz Buteflika, Ethiopia broke the old clichéd mold of African strongman leaders who were generals or geriatrics and instead, almost a year ago, appointed a fresh and energetic reformer, the 42-year old prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.
When I last wrote about Ethiopia in 2016, the country was embroiled in violent street demonstrations and ethnic strife that led to a six-month state of emergency. The political leadership in the capital, Addis Ababa, and the nation’s direction were at a crossroads. While Ethiopia had a thriving economy, continued economic progress and breakneck growth were threatened by domestic political discord and uncertainty. Further, a long standoff war with its next door neighbor, Eritrea—a nation that fought to secede from Ethiopia—also jeopardized Ethiopia’s prospects for long-term success.
Since taking office, Ahmed has been transforming the country, first and foremost by putting an end to a decades-long military stalemate with Eritrea. The end of the low-grade conflict on the Horn of Africa suddenly made the long Eritrean coastline and its productive ports safe and accessible to Ethiopia. This entente was not assured, and it took great political will and leadership on Ahmed’s part, sacrificing territorial claims to Eritrea as the price for peace.
The dividends of that peace, however, are already paying off. Ahmed’s government is hard at work rebuilding the Ethiopian Navy, and the country is developing infrastructure to gain better access to global trade and shipping.
Ethiopia is also building a massive project on the Blue Nile known as the Grand Renaissance Dam. When completed in 2022, the dam will generate 6,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power, making Ethiopia Africa’s largest electricity exporter. All these grand projects, however, require both global financing and partnerships. The Navy is getting help from France following President Emmanuel Macron’s four-day Ethiopian visit this week. The airports, train system, and the final stages of the dam are all heavily underwritten by China. Despite an active Ethiopian-American community and a Washington visit by Ahmed last summer, U.S. economic investment in Ethiopia is lagging that of rival China.
What will it take for the United States to wake up and smell the coffee?
Covering this week’s
Ethiopian Airlines crash has brought journalists to Addis Ababa via the newly expanded Bole International Airport—the busiest airport on the African continent and one that has recently tripled its capacity. Ethiopia is now a busier regional transfer hub airport than Dubai. Not long ago, Ethiopia also set in motion the building of three new regional airports.
By contrast, in 2016, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump noted that the deterioration of American terminals and tarmacs make it so “our airports are like from a Third World country.” The example candidate Trump highlighted? New York’s LaGuardia Airport, selected the world’s 14th worst airport. LaGuardia is currently in the middle of an $8 billion overhaul, but other American transportation and infrastructure projects remain dormant.
While Trump’s infrastructure plans were largely stillborn during the last Congress, it does not mean that all American infrastructure projects went unfunded or ignored. In fact, a brand-new American government-funded airport was recently completed.
The project? A 2,200-acre, $110 million desert airfield built by American forces for surveillance and attack drones. The location? The African country of Niger.
As president, Trump unjustifiably continues to have both low regard and degrading wordsfor African nations, their politics and people. America needs to take a closer look and more rational approach toward these labor and commodity-rich nations’ growing capacities—clearly they are showing their abilities to build airports, rapidly develop their economies, and engage in peaceful political evolution.
If these factors are any indication of an African renaissance, it would be wise for Washington to rethink America’s relationships and recognize Africa’s investment potential.
Aviation tragedies like the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 bring suffering to the victims’ families and make us all reflect on our own fickle mortality. When these accidents occur abroad—whether the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing or the Lion Air Indonesia crash—they also bring international scrutiny to otherwise little covered or entirely ignored communities and countries. Along with the intense global demand for investigations and answers around these accidents should also be an intense look at the places where these incidents occur.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.