Editor's Note: This is the final installment of a three-part letter from a trip around the Horn of Africa.
By Jose Mora
After a trip around the Horn of Africa, it felt odd to be back in the Ethiopian highlands. The contrast between the searing, dry heat of the desert basin that is the "territory of the Afar and Issa" — the French colonial name for what is now the nation of Djibouti — and the cool, lush mountains of Ethiopia is astonishing. It is not surprising that the Abyssinian states (predecessors of modern Ethiopia) historically have been unable to hold a firm grasp on the nearby coastal lowlands and their harsh, barren moonscapes. It is equally unsurprising that European colonizing powers did not rest content with only holding the coast. Along the coast, one can hope to at best eke out a simple living raising cattle or trading salt. During the summer, the heat brings all activity to a standstill between dawn and dusk. In the mountains, however, one can live life — quite literally — without breaking a sweat.
The coastal areas do, however, have the advantage of access to sea trade. Upland Abyssinia, by contrast, is landlocked. This means that, throughout history, goods produced abroad have been hard to find in the highlands. Even today, brand-new goods from distant foreign lands are harder to come by in Ethiopia than in neighboring Djibouti or even officially unrecognized Somaliland. The local taxi fleet in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa is made up entirely of decaying Soviet "Ladas" and 1980s Toyotas — a metaphor for the whole upland economy, which seems to sputter on with patched-up appliances or new but low-quality Chinese imports. But geographical isolation is only part of the story — the severity of Ethiopia's problem is, in part, politically engineered.
Up From Djibouti by Road
To explain this point I need to backtrack a few days to the ride I took back to Ethiopia from Djibouti's capital, Djibouti, to Lake Assal, a crater lake in the country's west. As we rode through the hills overlooking the Lac du Goubet — connected to Djibouti's main strategic asset, the Gulf of Tadjoura — we passed what appeared to be a major immigration sting in progress right in the middle of the parched countryside. Immediately words popped into my head from my upbringing in Mexico, "la migra!" at this familiar sight half a world away.
About 200 people, perhaps, whose appearance betrayed them as illegal immigrants: many of the young men wore that Ethiopian soccer jersey that is so ubiquitous in the Ethiopian towns and countryside. The authorities were rounding many of them up into lorries. Others sat on the ground in front of what seemed to be a police station.
"Ethiopians," my taxi driver, named Camel, sneered. He was a proud Djiboutian, although ethnic Tigray and Afar by ancestry — two groups with roots in Ethiopia. His English was peppered with words and expressions from French, the official language of Djibouti, and he used the odd, hybrid phrase "on buy water now" and pronounced the word "chance" in the French way. Although Camel openly acknowledged his Ethiopian roots, he didn't show ethnic loyalties and came off as a nationalist, boasting about Djibouti's strategic location, neutral stance, tolerant society and government open to the world. He was even proud of Djibouti's controversial president, Ismail Omar Guelleh.
"They are mostly Amharas," he went on, gesturing toward the detainees.
This led to one of those typical conversations in which your cabby provides the political and economic lowdown on the region. He told me he believed that Ethiopia's infamously high taxes on certain imported goods — a 200 percent tax on secondhand cars, for example — are selectively applied, with people of the Amhara ethnicity being by far the most severely affected group. The Tigray, whose members make up most of the core leadership of the country, receive preferential treatment not only in terms of import duties but also in terms of business opportunities and state loans.
Camel compared the cultural, religious and linguistic ties between Tigray and Amhara to that between the Italians and Spanish, but noted that the Tigray are still wary of the historical domination and exploitation that they long suffered at the hands of Amharas.
"The kings — Haile Selassie, Mengistu — all Amharas," he said.
Now, though, that through "chance" the Tigray had managed to get a hold on the government, they were actively taking measures not only to ensure that Tigrayans got the juiciest deals but also to prevent the rise of any other ethnic power. This meant a particular focus on the Amharas. The Tigrinya and the Amharic languages are both descended from Ge'ez and both groups are mostly Orthodox Christian. The Tigray, however, live in the old highland core of the Kingdom of Axum while the Amharas inhabit a more recent (though not the current) core. Until very recently, this made them the dominant agricultural — and military — power of the Horn of Africa. The other ethnic groups feared them as aggressive empire builders, a fear that drives the now-powerful Tigray to stifle an Amhara re-emergence.
We took a northward turn on the road that leads west and carries Tigray-owned trailer trucks and containers full of cars and other imported goods into Ethiopia. We got onto a beat-up, Yugoslavian-built road that leads to the far side of the Gulf of Tadjoura, where you can spot more young Ethiopians walking to the shore of the Lac du Goubet, each carrying only a bottle of water. They are headed toward where we just saw the police rounding up migrants.
Camel told me how, if they are not intercepted, these migrants board dinghies under the cover of darkness that take them on a $300, 45-minute ride to Yemen. These same waters, however, are off-limits to leisure boats because of endemic piracy. The people smugglers — East African equivalents of northern Mexico's "coyotes" — seem to be left alone by the pirates. I imagine there is an arrangement not unlike the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border between coyotes and local cartels.
"There are problems that are coming to Ethiopia," says Camel, "But this is not Djibouti's problem."
By drawing this clear line, he distances himself and his country from Ethiopia in a way that reminds me of the way Hong Kong residents distance themselves from mainland China.
"Why would there be problems and why would they not be Djibouti's problem?" I ask.
"These Ethiopians, they are poor, in the best case they go to Yemen and on to Gulf countries were they are exploited and abused. At worst they are turned back to Ethiopia, where they remain poor, unemployed and without opportunities. I've seen it before. There's trouble coming," he says.
We pass another lonely Ethiopian walking the road. He doesn't know that there is an immigration roundup in the cards for him.
"Why wouldn't this be a problem for Djibouti?" I ask, "Wouldn't Djibouti have to host the refugees?"
Camel avoids a serious discussion and sticks to the idea that this is not Djibouti's problem. Djibouti, he explains, does well because it does not engage in racism or discrimination, because it welcomes all and it is stable, because it has a polyglot, French-educated secular Muslim at the helm.
And I can see the roots of Camel's optimism. Although Djibouti City did not strike me as overly rich, I imagine that Dubai looked much the same 40 years ago. Djibouti feels like a poorer African Singapore, but with a smaller city and a much larger hinterland. Despite Djibouti sitting in an unstable region split by ethnic discord, the pursuit of trade subsumes (though perhaps not completely) these factional ethnic loyalties under a proud commercial patriotism. It reminds me of the American (or Roman, or Singaporean) melting pot.
Djibouti, however, was created to profit from trade with Ethiopia and the fate of the two nations is intimately connected. Djibouti might work to protect its sovereignty by building ties with world power players — the European Union, the United States, Japan and China — but its affluence is still, in part, a product of its position as the gateway to Ethiopia. And as Djibouti charts a pro-Western course, Ethiopia looms behind like the sword of Damocles. Ethiopia is both a source of wealth and an inescapable threat. Just up the mountains from Djibouti is an authoritarian government, a large population riven by ethnic divisions, religious splits and economic inequities. Ethiopia is a ticking population and poverty bomb, even if the Ethiopian government has no ill will toward Djibouti.
This is what Camel was talking about and, although I do not attempt to forecast unrest in Ethiopia, Camel's arguments are not weak. One thing I can say for sure is that Djibouti cannot expect to profit from Ethiopia but remain unaffected by its travails, and pressure seems to be building in Ethiopia.