2021/11/24

What happened in Ethiopia? Simplistic narrative

My previous posts were deep dives for readers already familiar with the basic facts. Today, I just want to respond to this request: It's not very simple, sorry Matt, but the following is about as simple as it can be made:
  • In 1991, the communist regime of Ethiopia was overthrown by a coalition of rebel groups led by the TPLF and the EPLF, and joined by OLF and others.  This alliance masked a contradiction, EPLF was a multi-ethnic party fighting for independence of the then-province of Eritrea from Ethiopia, and TPLF was an ethnic party, while the two were led by members of the same ethnic group.
  • OLF sooned fell out with TPLF and became an armed opposition group and it's leaders went into exile.
  • In 1993, under EPLF (renamed PFJD), Eritrea became an independent country.
  • The TPLF became the dominant party in Ethiopia and instituted a system of ethnic apartheid where different ethnic groups had separate regions and parties.
  • In 1998 the former allies had a falling out and war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. After 2 years the massive war ended in a stalemate and the two governments remained enemies for the next 18 years.
  • Economically, the formerly Marxist TPLF adopted a "developmental state" model, where the government had tight controls on many areas, but was much freer than the fully communist system that preceded it. GDP growth was very high in the 2000s. However, party affiliated businesses dominated the economy,  cronyism and corruption were high and resentment of the TPLF elite grew.
  • The TPLF ruled until 2018 with an iron fist, within a coalition called EPRDF. In the 2005 elections, opposition parties made significant gains for the first time and TPLF responded with a massive crackdown, opposition leaders were imprisoned many receiving death sentences. In the following elections, the ruling party "won" 545 out of 547 seats in 2010, and 100% of the seats in the  2015 elections. Ethiopia often topped the world charts of number of journalists and opponents imprisoned.
  • Discontent grew to a boiling point and after several years of massive protests TPLF lost power in 2018. Abiy Ahmed a member of a junior party called OPDO was chosen to lead EPRDF. Abiy dissolved the coalition and formed a new party called PP. All the constituent parties in EPRDF merged into PP, except TPLF which refused and retreated to their home province of Tigray where it continued to dominate.
  • From 2018 to 2020, Abiy started a series of reforms, liberalizing key economic sectors, freeing political prisoners, inviting exiled opposition politicians to return, including the OLF,  and making a peace treaty with Eritrea, which earned him a Nobel peace prize.  
  • Meanwhile, TPLF repeatedly defied the federal government, including harboring individuals indicted for assassination attempts, corruption, etc. During this period TPLF still dominated the top ranks of the federal armed forces and the economy, and it's regional militia was widely believed be larger than the federal army. TPLF used its considerable resources to instigate ethnic conflicts throughout the country.  From the OLF, which was now a legal political party, a more radical group called the OLA split off and launched an armed struggle.  For 2 years the federal government bent over backwards to avoid direct conflict with TPLF, attempted negotiations,  sent groups of "elders" to mediate, etc. At the same time Abiy was working to reduce the TPLF's grip on the military. 
  • In 2020, the independent Electoral Commission, led by a former opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa, postponed federal elections due to Covid-19. All major parties except TPLF agreed to the postponement. In September, TPLF held its own elections in Tigray where it "won" 100% of the seats, and declared that it no longer recognized the federal government.  In October, when the government appointed new leaders for the federal military bases in the Tigray region, the TPLF rejected and turned back the appointees. 
  • Finally on the night of November 3-4 2020, the TPLF launched what it called a "pre-emptive" attack and seized 5 federal military bases in Tigray (the Northern Command) which held an estimated 80% of the country's military hardware.  As part of it, TPLF loyal soldiers in the federal army attacked their colleagues from within the barracks, murdering hundreds in their sleep, a move which was seen as deep betrayal in the Ethiopian military.
  • In response, the federal government launched what it called a "law enforcement operation" to bring those responsible for the attack to justice.
  • On November 9-10, as fighting raged throughout Tigray, a TPLF group called Samri killed hundreds of civilians in a place called Mai Kadra. Mai Kadra is in a region which was annexed to Tigray in the early 1990s, but was previously part of Begemder (aka Gonder) province, which is now in the Amhara region. On November 29, following battles where control of the city of Axum changed hands from TPLF to the Eritrean army,  Eritrean soldiers conducted house to house raids and killed hundreds of men they claimed were part of the fighting. 
  • The federal army, with the help of Amhara region forces and Eritrean military, managed to regain control of the main cities and towns in Tigray region and declared the "law enforcement operation" finished  by the end of November 2020
  • However the war continued, with accusations of war crimes being made by TPLF against Eritrean and Ethiopian military and echoed by mainstream media in the West. The Ethiopian government prosecuted a number of individuals for war crimes,  but denied systematic war crimes.  The Ethiopian government also said that it was supplying the overwhelming majority of the aid to civilians in Tigray affected by the war, while outside forces were using aid as a cover to provide military support to TPLF.
  • In June 2021, the postponed federal elections were held and the PP won a large majority. A few parties including OLF boycotted, and the elections were delayed to September in about 20% of the country.  But overall it was the freest vote ever held in the country. In terms of popular mandate, PM Abiy is by far the most legitimate head of government the country has had in our lifetimes.  
  • Meanwhile, the TPLF had regrouped and by June 2021, with diplomatic (and possibly covert military) support from the US, regained the military initiative in an operation it called "Operation Alula" throughout Tigray
  • The federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire on June 28 and withdrew from Tigray. 
  • From July to November 2021, having regained control of most of Tigray, the TPLF  went on the offensive outside of Tigray on three fronts going deep into neighboring regions: east into Afar, as well as south into Wollo and south-west into Gonder in the Amhara region.  The offensive was defeated on the eastern and south-western fronts, but successful in the southern direction, capturing the key city of Dessie and, with help from the OLA, advanced to less than 300km from Addis Abeba.
I've tried to be as objective as possible, and left out speculation on motives and other analysis, in favor of just relaying facts. But it's probably obvious that my answer to Matt's question is the same as what the overwhelming  majority of Ethiopians would say: the Bad Guys are TPLF.  

2021/11/14

Ethiopia and the ethnicity rat race - part 2: history

Part 1 looked at ethnic federalism in Ethiopia through a geographic lens, and showed it has a bug: that it's not feasible to geographically separate ethnic groups.  

In this post, let's take the historical perspective. The philosophical foundation of ethnic federalism emerged in the early 1970s, as a solution to the problem called "Ethiopia as a prison of nations". Here's one summary:


So, the Ethiopian Student Movement, along with the ethnic nationalists it spawned, referred to Ethiopia as a "prison of nations". 

This idea produced a number of ethnic political parties, often named X Liberation Front, where X is an ethnicity. The most successful of these is of course the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)  founded in 1975. I guess they had to add the P because there was another group called the Tigray Liberation Front (TLF), the two apparently fought each other and TPLF eliminated TLF in the late 70s. The history of the XLFs is very complicated, full of isms and schisms, featuring different flavors of Marxism-Leninism and extremely violent struggles. The Marxist aspect is not very relevant to our discussion, however the Leninist strategy of "sharpening contradictions" has some bearing. I won't try to summarize that history here, for that see e.g. the excellent History of Modern Ethiopia by Bahru Zewde. Instead let's just focus on one basic assumption of this "prison of nations" concept, namely that ethnicity comes first and the country comes after. Does this assumption have any historical basis?

Ethiopia is 1,700 years old. (The specific number  doesn't change the point I am making here so I put discussion of it in a different post). What about the 80+ ethnic groups that exist in the country?  Consider the Amharic language. During the Axumite period, Ge'ez was a living language.  Many people believe that Amharic is a descendant of Ge'ez, which is not wrong but is an oversimplification:
"As early as the middle of the fourth century, military expeditions may have reached the area later known as Amhara. By the mid-ninth century, four centuries later, a distinctive Amhara region was recognized. The conquering Semitic-speakers spoke a language which was perhaps only four to seven centuries removed from the common origin with Giiz" 
Source:  The origin of Amharic, Ethiopian Journal of Language and Literature, Vol. 1 No. 1 (1983)
The oldest surviving written Amharic documents are 14th century praise songs in honor of the kings.  In biology, there is no precise moment when one species evolved into another. Similarly, as cultures and languages evolve, it is hard to pinpoint a specific date when a new language or ethnicity is born.  The consensus among the linguists seems to be that Amharic gradually evolved, not directly from Ge'ez but from a Semitic language related to Ge'ez, which got mixed on top of a Cushitic "substratum" (or base) which was a member of the Agew family.  The Agew family includes the Qimant and Bilen languages, which are still spoken in the region today.  But whether you consider the earliest or the latest time frame, it's clear that Amharic did not exist before Ethiopia. Certainly it doesn't make sense to think of the Amhara ethnic group as  being "imprisoned" in Ethiopia. 

Speaking of Agew (also spelled Agaw), a few months ago, in August 2021, something called the Agew Liberation Front popped up in a Facebook post and a Twitter post.  The first thing that comes to mind regarding Agew history is the Zagwe dynasty (1137-1270AD) and the amazing churches they build around Lalibela. Tradition has it that the first Zagwe Emperor, Mara Takla Haymanot, married the daughter of the last king of Axum.  One of the most fascinating characters in Ethiopian history is the insurgent Queen Yodit Gudit (940-80AD).  The information about her is from oral tradition, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but apparently she was Agew, her religion was Jewish, when she reached Shewa  she encountered Oromo resistance (more on that below), and according to one source, the Zagwe founder Mara Talka Haymanot was her relative.  Though these details are far from  proven, even if they are completely legendary, they show that the Agew are glorified and viewed as part of the continuum with Axum in Ethiopian history, hardly what you would expect if the ethnic group was a "prisoner".  In short, you could say no one is more Ethiopian than the Agew. Back to the present... The first strange thing about the ALF is that the social media posts announcing its existence and alliance with TPLF were by people whose social media activities consist almost entirely of advocating for TPLF. Second, I did a thorough web search, and found no web page, no news article, no press release, nothing referring to this group before that week. Even after the announcement, no member or leader of the group could be identified. Now that a couple of months have elapsed, perhaps there's more info, I would love to hear who these individuals are, and their actions or thoughts before this year.  But so far,  it really looks like ALF was just manufactured by TPLF in 2021! A move straight out of the Leninist playbook. 

Speaking of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), there's a puzzle there too. The Tigrinya language is Semitic intermixed with Cushitic, it emerged in the middle ages, and the earliest known written examples date from the 13th century -- parallel with Amharic. And just like Amharic, Tigrinya didn't exist before Ethiopia.  The people are found in a number of historical provinces: AgameAkele Guzai, Enderta, Hamasien, Serae, etc. But today we are told that there's an ethnic group called Tigrinya people in Eritrea, and a different ethnic group called Tigrayans  (also known as Tegaru) in Tigray. Nobody seems to be able to explain the actual difference between them! Of course there are different accents, families, etc.  But the distance from, say, Senafe in Eritrea to Adigrat in Tigray is less than the distance from Senafe to Asmara, physically, and even in the blood relations. The separation is political: they ended up on different sides of a border from 1889 to 1936, when Eritrea was Italian but Ethiopia remained independent.  Other groups were also split by this border like the Afar, but nobody says Afars on either side of the border are different ethnic groups. Forty seven years is like the blink of an eye on the timescale of ethnic groups and language evolution. Yet, if you read the news today, you would think the Tigrinya speakers of Eritrea, and those who are in Tigray are different people, capable of committing "genocide" against each other. It's a category error.  Eritrea is multi-ethnic like Ethiopia, and the majority ethnic group happens to be the same one as in Tigray. A naive outsider who has only been following the news of the past year would be surprised to hear that Isaias Afewerki (President of Eritrea) and the late  Meles Zenawi (long-time leader of TPLF and Prime Minister of Ethiopia) were cousins. Another example is Yemane Kidane. The history of EPLF and TPLF is way more complicated than we can describe here (again I refer you to the book by Bahru Zewde as a starting point), but the bottom line for us here is that framing their current enmity as ethnic makes no sense. You can call it intense, brutal, horrifying, many things, but not ethnic, it's political.

Yohannes IV, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1871 to 1889 was from Tigray. Yet he chose Amharic as the official language of his government.  Haile Selassie I, who today is cast by XLFs as the ultimate symbol of Amhara domination, was half Oromo through his mother.  His wife, Etege Menen, was also part-Oromo. Her grandfather was Ras Mikael Ali of Wollo, who famously played a huge role in the battle of Adwa. The Yejju Oromo, from the area around  Weldiya (a city which has been very much in the news in the last few months!), are well known as having dominated the politics of the empire during the Zemene Mesafint era (1769-1855). The picture that emerges when examining the last 300 years is of power alliances and rivalries as frequently within ethnic groups as across ethnic groups. In other words, the exact opposite of  the idea of a "prison of nationalities". 

The 18th century, by the way, was not the beginning of the Oromo presence in what is now called the Amhara region: 
"According to one written source obtained from the Yajju Oromo inhabitants of the Amhara National Regional State, these peoples are mentioned as inhabitants of northern Ethiopia already before the 14th century. This document deals with the rise and fall of the Yajju dynasty. According to this source, the Bokoji clan was the first Oromo settler of Yajju. Later on, however, the Muslim Oromo of the Yajju known as Warra-Sheih family took the territory of the Bokoji clan. From the early settlers of Bokoji clan in Yajju, the same document cites the names of the founding fathers like Kumbi, Marso, Shekka and Abba Dimbar. Maliye, Gammada and Ilman Oromo. At present, this region is found in southern Waldiya. The man named Abba Dimbar Maliye occupied and settled in the present region of Gubbaa Laftoo."

Source: "History of the Oromo to the Sixteenth Century", Alemayehu Haile, Boshi Gonfa, Daniel Deressa, Senbeto Busha, Umer Nure (2004) 

According to the same source, this time frame  is corroborated by an Arabic account of the war of Ahmed Gragn entitled "Futuh al Habasha" which says that when he got there in 1533, the Yejju had been in the area for 6 generations, i.e 14th century, which also agrees with oral tradition from the region, and with the chronicle of King Amda Tsion (1314-44).  Going further, from the same book, we learn that Yekuno Amlak, the king who overthrew the aforementioned Zagwe dynasty in 1270 and established the Solomonic line that lasted until 1974, was from Sagarat, near Lake Hayq (another place that's been in the news a lot lately!) which was ruled by an Oromo Azaj named Challa. Still earlier, archeological evidence shows that in the Menz province of the Shewa region, the Oromo presence goes back to the 8th century, which, as we saw above, is right in the thick of the origins of Amharic. In other words, there has never been a time when Amhara and Oromo were not deeply intertwined.

Moving a bit further north, in the same book, we find this about Oromo presence in present-day Tigray:
"The present-day settlers of Wajirat named Dobba are difficult to identify whether or not they belong to Offla or Marawa Oromo, but they are known to have been old Oromo settlers of Northern Ethiopia. Igguy and Marawa Oromo are said to have been settled in Wajirat since ancient times and that they are prior settlers. This period preludes the reign of the renowned Christian King Amda Siyon (1314-44) and this king himself is said to have recruited Oromo into his army  [...]  At present Wajjirat is bounded by Afar in the east, Inderta in the west, and Rayya in the south. The settlement area of Rayya which begins from southern Wajirat extends southwards as far as Amba Alage or Endamehone. The southern part of Rayya territory is known as Rayya and Azebo whereas the southern territory is known as Rayya and Qobbo. The Dobba Oromo that settled over the mountainous highland territories is traditionally known by the name of Chittu-Ofa. There are several Oromo tribes known with the name Dobba that are living in Hararge, northern Shawa and other Oromo regions."

It might surprise some readers to find ancient Oromo presence so far from present day Oromia.  Further, how can you reconcile that with the common (mis)conception of Oromos as "invaders" who arrived in the 16th century? One possible explanation, from the same source, is:

"Oral tradition collected from the Macha Oromo elders tell us that there are two groups of Oromo settlers in Western Oromia. One group consists of pastoralist Oromo that came and settled in the region during the 16th century organizing itself under a military leadership of the Gada system. Another group consists of sedentary agriculturalists that lived in the region long years before the advent of the pastoralist Oromo. The earlier group called itself "Orom-Duro." It means the ancient or prior Oromo. They used this term to make a distinction with the pastoralist Oromo" 

Note that the word "d'ro" means "long time ago" in Amharic.  There are indeed many basic words in modern Amharic that are similar to Oromo words, which should not be surprising given all of the above. History shows that the Oromo culture is one of, if not the most successful in Ethiopia,  in the evolutionary sense. It has been expanding, assimilating, and influencing others for over a thousand years. (Another source is this book by Martial de Salviac, a fascinating read for modern readers with a thick skin, I will post a review when time permits).

But XLF doctrinaires of the last few decades, e.g. in the OLF, tend to cast the Oromo as victims. A very sad misconception. Unfortunately it's a very effective strategy for ambitious politicians to exploit. I am reminded of this comment by Tigist Gemeda on a previous post on this blog (see also her more recent tweet). Her grandfather was a Balambaras, a high ranking Ethiopian during the reign of Haile Selassie I, but some of his family in the present day are key OLFites who "manipulate" people and exploit a sense of "persecution" for political ambition. Very courageous and powerful stuff. 

My meandering through history is very incomplete, I only mentioned 7 out of the 80+ ethnic groups, focusing, not coincidentally, on the areas at the heart of the current war. The point is not to give a complete history. Nor is it to debate whether there has been ethnic discrimination and conflicts. The answer is obviously yes there has!  Nor is it an argument for centralization. I happen to believe in decentralization and localism, but not along artificial "procrustean" ethnic lines. Rather it is to show that the "prison of nationalities" concept of Ethiopian history is wrong. You can call it a melting pot, a chessboard, a game of thrones etc. But it's not a recently built "prison" of pre-existing ethnic groups yearning for separation.  

And ethnic political parties and ethnic regions, i.e. apartheid, as a solution to this "problem" is a very recent phenomenon. It's a bug, which was formally implemented in the constitution of 1994. It goes against history and it doesn't work. The concept was invented by some university students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And hasn't improved with age. But they mastered armed struggle and perfected the ideological tactics of Leninism, they were successful in co-opting thousands of people to their way of thinking, and passed it on to another generation of ideologues and political opportunists...  Kudos to them I guess. They are still at it. Most recently with UFEFCF (I think it stands for United Front of Ethnic Free Cash Flow) a pathetic collection of XLF puppets manufactured by TPLF masterminds in 2021. How long will this trick work? How long is the country going to be hostage to the bankrupt ideas of a bunch of unwise 20-something year old undergrads from 50 years ago? 

I don't expect to convince any XLF true believers with this post. It's almost impossible to change someone's mind when their livelihood or public persona is deeply invested in an idea, no matter how wrong it is. But many well-intentioned people have fallen for this false solution. They think: "if only X group was free from Y ethnic group...", "X has always oppressed Y...",  etc.  So they buy into "solutions" based on the false conception, judging people by their ethnicity, ascribing collective ethnic guilt for political injustice, blaming present individuals for past sins committed by members of their group etc. They are like the poor old lady who, a few years ago, wanted to repair a deteriorated fresco in a Spanish church. She had the kindest intentions, and she thought it was a simple matter of applying a bit of paint here and there. But the more she did, the worse it got, and she tried to fix her mistakes with more of the same. The result was perhaps the "worst art restoration of all time":

Ethiopia is like that painting: old, damaged, but can only be understood as a beautiful whole.

In my previous post, I tried to show why geographically, ethnic politics lead to doom. Here I hope that I have shown the richness of our different languages and cultures is not fixed, it's a dynamic process. A country evolves. But a person can't change their ethnic identity. So if your politics are based on ethnicity, you are asking to be trapped in conflict. Reject ethnic apartheid! Don't support any political party that has an ethnic group in its name. Believe in politics as a process of learning from mistakes, of forgiveness, where good ideas rise and bad ideas sink. Be resolute in defense of an Ethiopia that transcends ethnicity, and magnanimous in victory. 


2021/11/04

Ethiopia and the ethnicity rat race - part 1: geography

On the first anniversary of the start of this horrible war,  let's take a moment to examine the concept that bedevils the country.  Obviously, there are much more urgent things going on right now, but this is something that's been bothering me for more than half my life, and my cup runneth over.  For a simple minded engineer, if something is broken, you debug it. And like many many other Ethiopians, I think there's a bug in the operating system of the country, a bug which was introduced by a system update about 30 years ago.  And this bug made it vulnerable to infection by catastrophic viruses,  which are now threatening a system crash.  

I'm referring of course to the idea that the ethnic group, rather than the person, is the fundamental unit of society. In this design, the country is a collection of ethnic groups. The name of your administrative region, the name of your political party,  your ID card, everything is based on ethnicity. That's a bug. Whether you like it or not is irrelevant, it just doesn't work. To see why, let's look at just one aspect: geography. In a follow-up post I will look at it from historical perspective. (Update: part 2 focusing on history is posted)

A few months ago, I tried to answer a basic question: is it feasible to separate ethnic groups into different geographic regions in Ethiopia? I gave it the fancy title of ethnogeography and posted a snippet at the time. What follows is a more detailed explanation.
 
If you are not technically inclined, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs and go to Results.

Metric: To make the point objective, let us introduce a precise definition of  "ethnic diversity".  For example, if region A has three ethnic groups each representing 1/3 of the population, and region B has 4  groups with 55%, 15%, 15%, 15%, which one is more "diverse"?  You could say B is more diverse since it has 4 groups and A has only 3. Or you could say B is less diverse because there's a clear majority group.  So what's a good metric of diversity? You could ask similar question about anything that is based on a probability distribution. For example for income inequality, they use the Gini-coefficient. Here, I decided to use the following metric: if you take two random people from a population, what's the probability that they belong to the same group? This captures the following intuitive idea:  how likely is it that your neighbor, or your classmate, or a person you meet on the street is from another group? This metric has a simple formula, which is 1 - Σipi2, where pi represents the fraction of the population that belongs to group i.

Data: For the data, we can use the Ethiopian census of 2007 which you can find on statsethiopia.gov.et. There are also copies on other websites run by the UN, World Bank and the US government.  This data is not ideal (more on that below) but at least it's consistent, I've cross-checked the different copies and archives and it is the real data. To be on the safe side, I've also saved a copy of the data here. Unfortunately the data is in PDF files! So I had to write a  custom parser (code at the link) to extract it into usable form.

Results:  Now we can look at ethnic diversity at each available administrative region level: country, province ("k'l'l") or district ("zone"). A diversity score of 0 means there's no diversity at all, everyone in the region is from one group.  A diversity score of 1.0 means every person belongs to a different ethnic group.  A score of 0.25 means there's a 25% chance that any two people chosen at random are from different ethnic groups. Here's what it looks like at the zone level. The darker regions are more diverse.

This gives us a sense of diversity spatially.  But of course, this doesn't tell the whole story. Some tiny regions have huge populations and vice versa. So to get a better sense we can view diversity and population size together as follows:

Keep in mind the colors represent the degree of diversity, not the ethnic groups themselves, of which there are more than 80.  So if the country could be neatly divided into ethnic regions, it would all be light yellow. If it was completely mixed everywhere, it would all be dark brown.  For details, including the code to generate these results, see this notebook on github.

Note we can assume this data understates the degree of diversity.  One hint is the number of people classified as "Ethiopian National of different parents".  For example, according to this data, there are only 20,724 such people in Addis Abeba, less than 1% of the population, which is absurdly low.  One explanation for this is that the census was done in 2007, when ethnicism was the governing philosophy, and the 2005-2007 period political repression and fear were at a peak. We can assume that most people who are mixed just chose one ethnicity, out of convenience or necessity.  I had a couple of personal experiences during that regime which corroborate this -- one before this period and one after this period.  Both times,  I was asked for my ethnicity when interacting with the government (one instance was local, the other was federal). When I said I am a mix of three different ethnicities, both times the officials refused to accept the answer, and demanded that I choose one. In the end, both times I just told them to choose for me.  To this day, I'm not sure what they filled in.  Of course my anecdotes don't  prove anything about the census data, but given the political environment of the last few decades, the real number of individuals with mixed parentage is most likely higher than the above shows.

What we see in the above pictures is a very very diverse country. Not just in the superficial sense of having 80 different ethnic groups. But in our precise sense that they are geographically deeply intertwined. Some highlights: In Addis Abeba, if you pick two random people, there's a 71% chance that they are of different ethnic groups! In Dire Dawa it's 69%. But it's not just the major cities that have a deep ethnic mix. In Mezhenger, it's 81%; Metekel -- 76%.   Looking more closely, the Awash river, the Rift Valley lakes, the Omo river, and the Nile valley are apparent in the pattern of colors, even though they are not drawn on the map.  If you think about the history of civilization, it kind of makes sense. People need water, so  rivers and lakes attract populations, and over hundreds of years, those areas will become more mixed, while desert and mountainous area populations remain relatively isolated. (I could be totally wrong about this explanation, happy to learn more!)

Most importantly, it's clear that in most areas,  separating ethnic groups geographically is practically impossible.  Behind our technical metric is a grim truth, almost too horrific to contemplate. When we say the diversity score is 0.71, what we are saying is that if your region had to become ethnically homogeneous, there's a 71% chance that either you or your neighbour are not gonna make it.  And homogeneity is the inexorable direction of ethnic political parties in ethnic regions. Now look at that map again, and think of the tens of millions of people in the brown parts.  For many people, the dividing lines would not be just between neighbours,  they would be inside the house, in the bedroom, inside my own body!

It's like the story of Procrustes from Greek mythology. Procrustes owned a hotel, and he was very proud of a key feature -- he had designed the perfect bed. Then, guests of different height  started showing up. Some too tall, some too short for his bed. But Procrustes was so convinced of the perfection of his bed that he decided the problem was the guests. So he insisted on making them fit by chopping or stretching their body to fit his design.
Ethnic federalism is the Procrustean bed of Ethiopia. 

And that's the bug.  It's even right there in the Amharic name for the administrative regions: ክልል (k'l'l) . I had never really thought about  until I heard it broken down by an erudite Ethiopian (not sure who it was, citation needed!) but the word is not neutral like province, state, etc.  The verb መከለል is to put a barrier, a shield, a fence etc.  It implies protection from the other, assumes hostility and need for separation, apart-ness. When combined with ethnicity,  the closest analogue we can find in another language is ... apartheid.  We must fix this bug. 

The changes that started in 2018, including (re)formation of some political parties on a non-ethnic basis, the removal in some regions of ethnicity from IDs etc.  Those were hopeful signs! But the bug is still there, and it has never been more threatening than today.

Oh what a rat race!
Some a gorgon-a, some a hooligan-a, some a guinea-gog-a
In this here rat race
....
Political violence fill your cities
When you think there's peace and safety,
A sudden destruction!
Collective security for surety? Yeah
...
Don't forget your history
Know your destiny
In the abundance of water
The fool is thirsty
...
Oh it's a disgrace
to see the human race
in a rat race.


2021/11/03

How old is Ethiopia?

There are quite a few possible answers:  

  • At one extreme, you could argue Ethiopia is just 27 years old, since the current constitution of the federal republic was implemented in 1994. But that's obviously silly, no one argues for example that France is only 63 years old because the current system (their fifth republic) started in 1958.
  • Or you could say it's 28 years old since Eritrea separated in 1993. But no one argues the US is only 62 years old because the 50th state joined in 1959.  
  • How about the claim, fashionable since the 1970s, that it's 150 years old. This dates it to the reign of Menelik II during which many of the neighbors became European colonies, thus setting roughly the current shape of the map.  Or to Tewodros II (1855), the end of a few decades of "zemene mesafint" where the central government was weak, which many consider the start of the "modern" period.  But just the fact that II in the names is already a hint that this doesn't make sense. The people who were there at the time saw themselves as continuing something, not inventing a new country. 
  • A well established answer is that it started in 1270 AD, the end of the Zagwe period of Lalibela fame, and the start of the Solomonic dynasty's rule.  From that point forward, there's a huge amount of written history, both internal and external.
  • Another answer is to the reign of Ezana, when the name first started being used internally, around 330 AD.  
  • The word Ethiopia itself is of course older, and is believed to be of Greek origin. It can be found in Herodotus in the 5th century BC, and throughout antiquity. But this was an "exonym", and some say it applies to the entire continent which they didn't even know the shape of.   
  • Many Ethiopians say it's 3000 years, going back to Queen of Sheba and Solomon, who lived around 900 BC.  But, while this is the legendary foundation of Ethiopia, it's not exactly documented history. 
  • And some say the first Ethiopian was Lucy who lived about 3 million years ago.  But, while this archaeological find is monumental in the history of humanity, and a great source of pride for Ethiopians, it's a bit silly to call her Ethiopian, especially since she was just a random  Australopithecus whose bones we happened to find. Politics is hard enough even for us Homo Sapiens, let's not drag the poor little "girl" into this. 
So what's the right answer? The best definition -- one that is consistent with how we say how old is China, or Iran, or the USA ---  is not based on a specific shape on a map,  nor a particular political system. What counts is the entity, it's existence as a distinct polity with that name and in that region. And that is well documented as being around 330 AD:


So the most reasonable answer is: Ethiopia is 1,700 years old

2021/07/14

A brief experiment with Truth

In my previous post, I mentioned in passing that an article by Declan Walsh in the NY Times about the war in Tigray seemed to have reversed facts and created a false narrative about who was the aggressor.  Well, this subplot took a dramatic turn today.  Long story short, in addition to the blog post, I asked him publicly repeatedly, and today he publicly admitted it! It is an extraordinary admission but since the editors of the NY Times are apparently sweeping this reversal under the rug, I would like to  relay the story more completely here.

On June 21, the NY Times published this article: "From Nobel Hero to Driver of War, Ethiopia’s Leader Faces Voters -- Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed plunged Ethiopia into a war in the Tigray region that spawned atrocities and famine".   It's quite long and there's lots of "color", but it basically has two pieces of new information.

First about Feltman meeting Abiy in Addis Abeba in May. The meeting itself is not news, what's being reported is an anecdote about how the meeting went, showing Abiy trying to clumsily charm Feltnan and failing, with details like coffee spills, etc. to show the info comes from someone who was there.  So basically this is relaying  the story of the meeting from Feltman's perspective. Not really reporting but ok...  

Second, it reports that Coons spoke to Abiy in "early November". What happened in that conversation is the real substance of the article. Here's what it said:
  • "Washington" heard about the war before it started 
  • Coons called Abiy and tried to talk him out of starting the war
  • Abiy wanted the war and predicted swift victory before it started
  • There is no mention in the article of the actual event that started the war, namely the Nov 4 attack by  TPLF on the national army
The story a normal reader would get is basically that the Ethiopian government was the aggressor against TPLF.  

But if you are not naive a  few things jump out. 
  • First it is saying the call happened in early November before the start of the war, and before the US election, so it must have been Nov 1-3.  At that time Coons was running for reelection.  It is hard to believe that a US Senator is making phone calls to foreign leaders in the last 48 hours of his own election campaign.  
  • Second, the reason Senator Coons has been involved lately is as a personal emissary of President Biden. They are both from Delaware, Coons took  Biden's seat in the Senate when Biden became VP, and it is not unusual for a sitting president or a president-elect to have personal emissaries do some international diplomacy for them.  What is unusual is for this to happen before he's elected.  And it is even more surprising that candidate Biden would be focused on Ethiopia while he is in the final hours of his own very intense presidential campaign!  
  • Third, consider how might have "word reached Washington" about a war that hasn't started. Who gets "word" about alleged secret military plans of a foreign country? Is the claim that Biden was getting secret foreign intelligence while he was still a candidate? The Trump adminstration and Biden transition  were not even cooperating *after* the election, so if there really was a secret channel of intelligence to Biden this would be news!
  • Fourth a quick look at Senator Coons website shows that his calls are logged.  For example the Nov 23 call is there and is consistent with what was widely reported at the time.  But there is no record of a call in early November. Strange exception.
What makes more sense is that there was no pre-Nov 3 conversation. It was the Nov 23 conversation. By taking what Abiy said three weeks after the war was started by TPLF, and placing it before Nov 4, the article creates a false narrative about who the aggressor is. Literally reversing the truth!

This was part of a pattern in all the other articles by the same Declan Walsh. In a June 28 article he wrote ENDF "invaded" Tigray back in November, a strange statement considering ENDF was attacked on its own bases in Tigray.  (I'm using links to tweets as neutral timestamps since publication dates on nytimes.com can change).  In May he wrote that "Abiy began a military operation on Nov. 4" , as if he just happened for no apparent reason.  In February article, he describes the beginning of the war by saying "Abiy launched a surprise offensive".  A surprise! A few people have noted this amnesia. By June, he had written over 6300 words in 4 articles on the war without once mentioning the Nov 4 attacks. The phrase "Nobel prize" appears in every single article in sentences with a negative or ironic tone. Every Ethiopian government or army action is portrayed as if it was done personally by Abiy himself on a whim, a typical "third world dictator" trope.  But the Nov 4 attack by TPLF was not mentioned, not once. Finally, after months, and thousands more words, perhaps as a result of the criticism,  "Nov 4" appeared in the 20th paragraph  of an article on July 3. In the most recent article, perhaps he has retreated  to  using passive voice formulations like ""war erupted in November".  All this to say this detail appeared on Jun 21 against a backdrop of consistent, shall we say, omission.

But this time it was more than just an omission and subjective tone, it was a blatant true or false question. So I asked him directly on Twitter And again two weeks later.

Finally today, (thanks to @Noslata and many others) Declan Walsh responded! He said the article was updated, and blamed the falsehood on Coons misremembering the dates.
Here's what the updated article says as of now 
So basically the main point, the meat of the story, is now completely different. 

Vindicated!  

But I'm not celebrating. The whole thing is still a loss for Truth. Either the reporter was  lying in the article and is also lying now on Twitter when he blames it on Coons; or he simply writes  what a politician tells him without even the most rudimentary checking --  more secretary than reporter. One might wonder how a "bureau chief" of a major newspaper could be such a clumsy liar or so gullible. I guess we are lucky that we are dealing with the B team here. Check this out:  "The New York Times shows how not to write an Africa job advert" a hilarious deconstruction of a job ad. That might even be the actual one that was filled by Declan Walsh!  Reading it you can totally see how the position could go to second-rate hacks who are easily manipulated by their sources.  This is not the first time either -- I've complained before.

More depressing is that on the article itself, even now there is no indication that a correction was made! No editor's note, no diff.  It just says updated as if it was a minor punctuation change.  It's hard to overstate the impact of this.... One of the most influential newspapers published a completely false narrative about one of the biggest most tragic events, then after millions had read it, quietly reversed the facts.  It's much worse than the old problem of print corrections not getting as much visibility as the original falsehood. In this case the damage is done and what little evidence there was is erased....  

Another disappointment is that  this  July 11 artcile in Al Jazeera  covers the same conversation with the same tone, and misses the opportunity to clearly put in the right context (i.e. after not before Nov 4). Before today's admission by Declan, I had asked the author privately if he had more info on this conversation but didn't hear back.  

So what can we do?   When this kind of stuff happened leading up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the NY Times played an infamous role. Here is their own list of articles that contributed to deceit about the war. Their ombudsman aka public editor, whose role was to hold the paper  accountable on behalf of readers wrote a scathing rebuke of the Time's failures. Sadly, this position was abolished in 2017 it seems. So I resorted to asking the question on Twitter. And that is the silver lining. You are now the public editors!  And unraveling falsehoods  can now happen in a few days instead of years.  And of course, the evidence was never really erased merely swept under the rug. We can see on archive.org that the change occured between June 25 and June 27.  Also I usually don't grab screenshots but for some reason something made me latch on to this  on June 21.   The summer solstice maybe?  Anyway  I hope  this little experiment shows there's hope for truth. Strengthen your mind we are living in serious times

P.S. The title of this post is borrowed from the autobiography of M. K. Gandhi, one of my favorite books

2021/06/24

Pay any price, bear any burden


There is so much to say about the tragedy currently unfolding in Tigray, so much propaganda, so many paranoid conspiracy theories on all sides in the conflict, and this being Africa, such low quality media coverage...  If you don't know much about it, don't get Gell-Man amnesia and start with a random news article. Instead, the best place to start is probably the Wikipedia pages on the war, the timeline, and the start (check the citations if anything seems biased!) But my assumption is that you have already done all of that.  

My focus here is just the US foreign policy aspect.  What is going on in Washington, how do we explain US government  actions vis-à-vis Ethiopia?  Is it  "responsibility to protect" or is it  "neocolonialism"? Is it all part of a broader strategy related to China or is it related to Egypt? I have not seen anyone answer this adequately, so this is my humble attempt to make sense of it.

Throughout this post I try to remember three principles.  Occam's razor: The simplest explanation is usually the best one. Hanlon's razor: never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. Third, every complex problem has a simple neat explanation which is wrong, so we won't oversimplify. 

Let me explain where the question arises. First let's take a snapshot -- the very eventful week of May 23, 2021:
  • May 23:  the US State Dept imposed imposed visa restrictions  on Ethiopian government officials, which had been rumoured a couple of days earlier.
  • May 24 Blinken spoke to the UAE foreign minister. The same day, the UAE pulled out of Ethiopia-Sudan dispute mediation.
  • May 26 Blinken met with Al-Sisi 
  • May 26 USAID said in a press release and in a US Senate hearing on May 27, that a "USAID partner" had been killed by "Ethiopian and Eritrean" and that the killing was " clearly intentional".  A few things stood out: 
    • I've tried but can't find the name of the partner organization.  It's not mentioned in the press release, or in the statements to congress the next day, or in any press interview. Why would it be secret? 
    • In congress, USAID's Sarah Charles said it happened in April. But for some reason, USAID did not speak bout the murder for a month.   Here's a CNN story where "a top USAID official working on the ground in Tigray" talks about the situation with partners on April 30, and does not mention the murder.
    • the press release says the killing was by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops. As described by Ms Charles, it was not in the heat of the battle. And she also says "and".  It would be understandable if they said "or". The "and" means they know it's both. It seems strange that both armies would simultaneously shoot one unarmed person, especially given that most reports have them in different territories, and there was no battle going on. 
  • May 27 In Senate testimony, Sarah Charles said that it was critical the US be allowed to bring in  "right kind of people" and "right kind of equipment" to Ethiopia, but that some people were denied visas.  Which raises the question, why would the Ethiopian government deny some visas but not all? WFP, World Vision and CARE don't seem to have visa problems. The government says it not only grants access but also provides security to aid workers when they go in areas where fighting is still going on. And adds that it has intercepted weapons and ammunition in food aid trucks,  so checking the trucks is necessary.  The subtext here is obvious.  It is not a  secret that USAID sometimes has secret programs  and after all, as it's current head Samantha Powers said in her confirmation hearing, USAID is a national security agency.  So a bit of disagreement on the "right kind of people" should be expected and the USAID reaction seems a little disingenuous.
Then there's the election. Despite all the flaws, the Ethiopian federal elections on June 21st are objectively an improvement over the previous ones. The flaws of course include the fact that two major parties OFC and OLF boycotted. And that the election has been delayed in some regions, including Tigray, which together represent almost 20% of the seats. On the positive side,  the independence of the judiciary, independence of the  election board, number of parties participating nationwide, number of voters are all better than ever  (admittedly a very low bar). Yet over the last few weeks, the US statements started sounding very negative about it. It started with "deeply concerned" on May 27,  to being "gravely concerned" on June 11.   They also keep talking about "post-election dialogue" before the election,  which sounds a lot like encouraging people in advance to not respect the outcome.  All we hear from the US state department  is glass half-empty rhetoric, and almost constant predictions of violence. Wouldn't it be strange if, while doctors are working hard to deliver a baby, a "friend" just kept repeating over and over that they are deeply concerned about the complications, and that the family should be prepared for a funeral? 

Now zoom out and consider the think tanks and media figures that form the bench of the foreign policy establishment. We have ex-CIA people like Cameron Hudson at the Atlantic Council and Judd Devermont at the Center for Strategic & International studies, consistently pushing the most pessimistic narratives about the election. We have Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute, ex-Pentagon neocon who worked on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, writing extremely negative articles about Ethiopia predicting trouble with Kenya and Somalia, and even predicting the break up of the country.  If we look at the NY Times, the chief Africa guy Declan Walsh  seems to be on a campaign to rewrite the history of how the war started: he wrote 4 long articles on it, without once mentioning the actual event that started the war,  namely the Nov 4 attacks, and each time stating the opposite of what happened -- that the first attack was by the government rather than TPLF.  (His most recent article seems to deliberately change the date of a conversation between Abiy and Coons to support that reversal).  This is really bizarre and reminds me of the scandal of the WMD stories  leading up to the Iraq war. 

If you know anything about US-Ethiopia relations, regardless of your views, it should be obvious that something is going on. It almost feels like a new product launch. The Biden administration and the broader foreign policy establishment in the US seem to be executing a policy which views the current Ethiopian government as an adversary. Most importantly, there is a clear push for "intervention".  What is the thinking behind it? Let's consider some hypotheses:

1. R2P: Our null hypothesis is to take it at face value.  The US actions simply reflect "the international community's responsibility to protect" and should be welcomed. No doubt that this motivation is true  for many of the individuals involved, so I will give this some weight, but overall, the pattern of actions listed above refutes this as the only explanation. Why would they go to such lengths to not acknowledge the cause of the war for instance?

2. Scorpion:  the opposite hypothesis is that the US and Ethiopia are like the scorpion and the frog in the fable, that "they" just want to harm Ethiopia period, because it is in their nature as an evil empire.  We can simply dismiss this hypothesis. And throw pure racism in this bucket too. Yes of course racism is a factor at various levels, especially the subtle racism of condescending "experts", but it is just silly to think that is the main force driving the policy.

3. Puppets: This hypothesis is that the TPLF is successfully manipulating "the west" using money and propaganda.   It's true that many journalists, crisis experts and activists on social media probably serve TPLF. Some may be paid agents, and  some may be "useful idiots".  But the idea that people at the highest levels of power in Washington are unwitting puppets of TPLF seems implausible. How about the idea that they are consciously doing it? Indeed much has been made of Susan Rice's history with TPLF, or Tedros Adhanom's connections etc.  Relationships matter a great deal of course, like Chalabi for Iraq, but  it seems like a stretch to say these personal relationships are the main reason for the overall policy.

4. China peril:  maybe it is just part of the geopolitical chess game with China. Ok that seems plausible on the surface, China has been very investing in Ethiopia, way more than the US. And containing a "surging China in Africa" definitely fits the bill as something big enough to drive policy in Washington.  But on deeper analysis... It doesn't explain our situation. Over the last 3 years with the current government, the trend in Ethiopia is slightly leaning more towards the West than before, including famously in the telecom sector.  So "growing fear of China" does not make sense as an explanation for US interventionism in Ethiopia at this time. Ditto for "fear of Russia".  

5. Neocolonialist resource grab:  this hypothesis is that "The West" has a strategy to exploit resources in the region in the long run, which requires a pliant government, which it had until three years ago with TPLF, but the current government is not, so they want to destabilize and ultimately replace it. Given the last 150  years of African history, this definitely deserves consideration. But in this case that doesn't really make sense as a root cause. Ethiopia is not a very good place for pure extractive exploitation... Not much oil and gas etc.  What there is is a lot of water, which is indeed very valuable. But even if you think of water converted to electricity, or water converted to food through irrigation, so what? It's not like the US or Europe need to take food or electricity from Ethiopia, so that doesn't explain it. 

6. Oak:  But of course water is the key and it brings us to our final hypothesis, which is the Egyptian angle. It is no coincidence that all of this strange stuff is overlapping with GERD.  Fundamentally, GERD itself is actually not harmful to Egypt,  and there is a reasonable way to share the Nile long term - the Cooperative Framework Agreement. But politically, GERD is a threat to the Al Sisi regime right now.  The military government in Egypt lives in constant fear of the  Muslim brotherhood, fear of a new iteration of the Arab Spring of 2011, etc. The exaggerated almost caricatural "strongman" image Al Sisi cultivates is because he needs to project strength. 
That's how he got there in 2013, it is in the nature of his power. The moment he shows weakness, he's toast.  Like the oak tree in the fable, if he bends he breaks. And nothing makes him look weaker than Ethiopia going ahead with GERD despite his intransigence. Egypt will be fine but the current Egyptian government is at risk, and the best way to minimize that risk is to destabilize Ethiopia enough that GERD is stopped or at least  delayed until it can be done in a "pliant" way that makes Al Sisi look "strong" domestically in Egypt. 

But why does the US care about this oak tree regime more than peace in the horn of Africa? Well the oak is a necessary part of the regional axis with Saudi Arabia, and UAE. If Egypt is run by the Muslim brotherhood or a secular civilian government, or anything other than a military dictator,  it may no longer be a reliable ally of Saudi Arabia and opponent of Iran.  And this is definitely the type of thing that could cause neo-cons, and the liberal hawks and all the other interventionists to coalesce.  So it seems plausible that there is a faction within the Biden administration and the broader "establishment" that believes in trying to weaken Ethiopia to help Al Sisi as part of the the overall strategy in the Middle East.  It explains the "launch" events of the week of May 23, it fits Feltman going to Saudi Arabia, the  UAE and Qatar to discuss GERD. It fits with the US policy in Yemen. And it is similar to the convoluted logic on Syria that you see from all the "serious people".  It is of course not wise to attach yourself to a doomed oak and it's not like they don't know it. Listen to this interview with Ben Rhodes  who was in the white house during the Egyptian coup of 2013. But a policy in an organization as complex as this is not like a logical thought in a single brain, it's the outcome of many competing interests.  If enough factions want something, it can happen even if their reasons are contradictory.  A great explanation of this is in an interview of Al Gore in 2006 which really struck me at the time.  Skip ahead to 27:20 where he says  "the decision to invade Iraq was the worst strategic mistake in American history" and goes on to very clearly explain the "perfect storm" of four policy forces that led to it.  It is really one of the most remarkably clear segments I've ever heard on recent US foreign policy.

And as in the case of Iraq in 2001-2003, here in 2021 with Ethiopia, it's not one thing, I would say US interventionism is driven by 
  • 60% stability of the Al-Sisi regime,
  • 20% fear of China,
  • 15% R2P
  • 5%  pro-TPLF feelings
For now this seems like a powerful mix, and the interventionists  have the upper hand in the Biden administration. They will "pay any price, bear any burden" to pursue these deeply flawed goals. As long as the price is paid and the burden is born by others of course.  That's the big picture. Not very glorious. Just the same type of mess that in the past has led to the US supporting military coups overthrowing democracy when the "wrong" party wins elections like in Egypt, talking about humanitarianism while favoring war like in Yemen, "accidentally" arming Al Nusra Front (aka Al.Qaeda) in Syria, lying about motives and bringing perpetual war like in Iraq etc.  I'm sure Samantha Powers and Susan Rice try to rationalize that they are the good guys, the ends justify the means, mistakes are made etc. But they have been staring into the abyss for too long, the abyss stared back at them and sucked them in. 

The best hope is for the interventionists to be slowed by the weight of their past disasters and blocked by other factions in the US. American interventionism has been failing a lot for a long time. The Iraq invasion gave birth to Al Qaeda in Iraq, then ISIS. They made Iran, which they want above all to contain, stronger than ever in Iraq. Assad won in Syria. Even Libya,  despite Egypt the supposed big force of the Arab world being right next door, is a dismal failure.  In Yemen $100B and five years of bombing, the Houthis are still there.   In Afghanistan, after 20 years and $2T US intervention, Al Qaeda moved and the Taliban won.  More important than the failure to achieve US goals, the incalculable damage to the people in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen is impossible to ignore and the strategic blow-back keeps getting worse.  So despite the strong interventionist cabal in the Biden administration, it's not clear they can beat the "isolationists", some evangelical Christians like Inhofe that are pro-Ethiopia, maybe even some "anti-imperialists" from the left,  and other factions in the administration and congress.

An additional weakness of the interventionists, which may seem paradoxical, is that they don't pay the price of their mistakes personally. No matter how wrong their predictions and disastrous their policies,  the same people keep shuffling in and out of think tanks and  the Pentagon and the state department, progressing their careers, with no evolutionary pressure, no natural selection.  So in effect, neo-cons and liberal hawks and Clintonites and Cheneyites in the foreign policy establishment have been in-breeding for so long their ideas are getting weaker, and their failures are getting more expensive.  Samantha Powers and Susan Rice are like inbred descendants of Henry Kissinger. Michael Rubin is like Paul Wolfowitz's mini-me.  So one possibility is that it all just fizzles out in incompetence and they end up doing nothing significant in Ethiopia.

There are also forces outside the US at play. GERD is kind of a pan-African rallying point. Practically six Nile Basin countries are already aligned with Ethiopia on this issue. Another key variable appears to be the UAE. They are usually aligned with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But, they have had a good relationship with Eritrea and Ethiopia,  helped with the peace treaty between the two governments, offered to mediate with Sudan (until suddenly backing off mentioned above). Qatar is famously not aligned with Saudis so a possible balancing force. Turkey is a other big source of investment in Ethiopia and is a potential stabilizing force and of course China is as usual against US interventionism.  Finally, there's the fact that no matter how many times they pooh-pooh Abiy's Nobel peace prize,  whatever his flaws, they can't make him look like a Saddam, Gaddafi or Assad because he isn't.  And the election will make that even clearer.

2021/05/20

Five books: Pandemic Pentateuch

During the last 12 months,  I read quite a few books that I really liked.  I doubt my overall reading volume increased during the pandemic (more time at home, but also less time in trains and planes), but for some reason, the past year yielded a memorable crop of books. Here are five of them: 

  • Apocalypse Never, an interesting and timely book, with solid coverage of the fundamentals of climate change. Besides being full of information, as I wrote in a previous blog post, it helps you think more clearly about what is good for the environment.
  • Apollo's Arrow  a very good book about the topic of the year: Coronavirus.  It covers all dimensions and is very educational on how to understand the pandemic in terms of medicine, epidemiology, sociology, evolutionary biology, public policy, history, etc. Lots of interesting details about how the pandemic unfolded in different places from  Wuhan to New York City.   It also helps to understand how things might evolve going forward.  For example, are future mutations of SARS-CoV-2  likely to be more lethal or less lethal? I won't tell you the answer because you should really read this book!
  • The Shadow King: "Fiction is a shadow of real life, great fiction is Truth! Furious, illuminating, warm, fantastic, can't say enough about this book. Highly recommended",  I  tweeted.  The author is a childhood family friend, and I was really happy to see it short-listed for the Booker Prize. But I can honestly say that was not at all on my mind while engrossed in the story.  
  • The Plot to Kill Graziani. "Deeply researched, meticulously sourced, highly readable account", was my brief review on goodreads.   This real life historical thriller would be fascinating to anyone interested in Ethiopia, Fascism, etc.  As a personal bonus,  I was able to use this book to fill in  a few specific details in my family tree. Interestingly I read both Shadow King and this book before the current war in Ethiopia started in Nov 2020.  Having the 1930s fresh on our minds is helpful  perspective on the current crisis. In the darkest hours, it helps to remember two thousand years of history, could not be wiped away so easily.
  • The Monk of Mokha, a real-life story of a guy who decides to make Yemeni coffee "great again" (my silly choice of phrase).  Nice deep dives into the ancient history of coffee,   the technicalities of high quality coffee in the modern world. A real tragic, dramatic and hilarious story, brilliantly  told.  If Shadow King shows how fiction can be very real, the Monk of Mokha is the converse, it shows how non-fiction can be as good as a novel. 
As usual with my "five books" -- not definitive. If I did it again, I'd likely come up with a different list. Some honorable mentions:   The Master and Margarita, an absolute classic; and  Le naufrage des civilisations a poignant personal view of history from one of my favorite authors, who has appeared a few times on this blog. 

2020/12/24

Five books: historical fiction

By historical fiction, here I don't just mean novels that are set in the past, but more specifically, accounts of actual events and people, but that are not strictly historical. While the main story is real, the author takes the liberty of imagining the details like thoughts, conversations, relationships, even some side characters. These details of course can't be known for sure but imagining them allows us to access a deeper truth. Here are some of my favorites in the genre:

  • Mémoires d'Hadrien by Marguerite Yourcenar. A brilliant imagining of the inner thoughts of the great Roman emperor. I read it a pretty young age, having found it while browsing the bookshelf out of sheer boredom. At the time I didn't really read this kind of stuff but to my surprise I ended up completely engrossed.  Much later in life, I came to appreciate stoic tradition, which makes me appreciate it even more in hindsight.
  • Léon l'Africain by Amin Maalouf.  Imaginary "auto-biography" of Ibn Battuta aka Leo Africanus. A great explorer who traveled a huge part of the Africa, Europe, and Asia, and had many incredible adventures. Everyone learns about Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus etc. But this guy should really be covered more.
  • Samarcande by Amin Maalouf. Another fantastic book by Maalouf, describes the life and times of Omar Khayyam, a great poet of the middle ages.  The city of Samarkand still exists, in present day Uzbekistan. It's fascinating to think that this place,  which we think of as so remote nowadays, was once a major world city, the equivalent of Paris or New York today.
  • Burr by Gore Vidal. The story of Aaron Burr, the second vice-president of the US, famous for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. I read this a long time ago, before the current Hamilton craze, and never formally studied American history in school, so  knowing more about Burr than Hamilton gives me an unusual perspective.  Very vivid description of life in the early 19th century New York. Every time I pass by  Jumel Mansion, I remember this book.
  • Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Imagine real life in the times of Buddha, how people lived and what they thought. Very wise book, historical, spiritual, took me a while to appreciate this gem.


2020/08/25

What is "good for the environment"?

Consider two pretty obvious statements. First, living in dense cities is much more energy efficient than living in rural areas, especially in cold places where you need heating. Second if we had 1,000 cities the size of New York City, that would be all of humanity, and they would only occupy a small fraction of the earth's surface. A somewhat larger fraction would be used for producing food and extracting some resources but  the vast majority of land on earth could be devoid of humans.  Yet, for years, I've been surprised at how often people are surprised by these points. Somehow, people assume that cities are bad for nature and that living in a rustic rural cabin or hut, using wood fires for energy is more friendly toward nature. Obviously the flaw in such reasoning is that they are thinking not of humanity as it exists today or in the future, but subconsciously going back to a time when there were very few humans, and so it didn't matter if we were extremely wasteful of resources. Of course the reason there were few humans is that most of them died very quickly.  It's a  "wet streets cause rain" type of reasoning that is surprisingly prevalent.

Another bit of inanity is that many people believe using bio-fuels is "good for the environment". Indeed the US government mandates blending corn ethanol in gasoline.  This is good for corn farmers, and good for politicians who depend on them, and maybe even good if you think foreign oil is a problem.  But in fact, when compared to just using gasoline without corn ethanol,  it results in an increase in green house gas emissions, not a decrease.   Yet the belief that it's good for the environment persists.

A new book, Apocalypse Never, by Michael Shellenberger covers  these as well as many other such points, in making a very good case that the current global alarmism around climate change is doing more harm than good.  Normally, the title and the marketing of the book would have turned me off. The last thing I want is more political BS from climate change deniers.  But this book is not that at all. The author not only agrees with the conventional view that the climate is changing due to greenhouse gas emissions, but he's actually one of the pioneers in the space.  Second what actually made me notice the book in the first place was that people were trying to get it banned or de-platformed. Which naturally kind of proves the point that he's making. And it made me want to look into it. (So maybe giving it a provocative title is a good strategy after all!).  Which I don't regret.

He also does a good job debunking the idea of "extinction of humanity". Of course we won't go extinct because of global warming. Isn't it enough to say it will cause a huge problem and enormous suffering? Similarly "saving the planet" is misguided hyperbole. The planet will still exist, even if it's boiling hot or completely frozen, and certainly more CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature changes of a few degrees are no big deal on a geological timescale. So this is just misguided and confused language that is counter-productive. It's like when people scream about "genocide" whenever there's some political violence or war that is ethnically motivated.  Constantly calling everything a genocide is not helping the cause of peace.  Similarly saying that smoking a joint is exactly the same as a heroin overdose is not helping kids avoid drugs.   

If you care about solutions and the well-being of humanity, you should be more precise in your thinking. What we care about is how we live, and what we mean by "we" is critical. The book does a good job of explaining this and the underlying basic concepts, perhaps the most important of which is "energy transitions", and he generally summarizes the science and arguments pretty fairly 

Still there are a  few points where I disagree with it, three in particular.

First, in a section on the "Tragedy of the commons", a paper and concept with which I'm intimately familiar, he  seems to imply that the "tragedy" in the paper is uncontrolled breeding of humans, which is inaccurate. But the "tragedy" is that when shared pasture land (aka commons) is not properly managed to align incentives, that leads to over-grazing and destruction of the shared resource. The real legacy of that classic paper is about mechanism design, pricing, property rights etc. But Schellenberger seems to reduce this classic insight to just the Malthusian aspect. This is a rather small technicality and doesn't change the main point he's making so I can give it a pass.

The second one is a much more serious problem. In discussing solar power he says "the achievable power density of a solar farm" is "up to" 50 watts/m2 (p. 188). But the solar constant is 1.37kw/m2 and the maximum solar energy on the surface of the earth is about 1,000 watts/m2. So he's assuming solar conversion achieves 5% efficiency at best. But this is not true, as we can see from this chart, we're at about 20-30% now and gaining about ten percentage points per decade, as I've written about before.  So his take is really unduly pessimistic about the future of  solar power.

Third, he makes a really good case for nuclear power for electricity generation. But he fails to address what to me is the strongest argument against it. Chernobyl and Fukushima are "supposed" to happen once every few hundreds of years.  But if we do a Bayesian update on those priors, the probabilities are much worse than advertised. Or to put it more simply: How come no nuclear power plant can get private insurance? If the risks are as low and manageable as he and other advocates claim, then one should be able to get free market insurance for it. But that has never happened.  I used to be pro-nuclear power, but I've become more skeptical over the years. And despite devoting a lot of the book to it, Schellenberger didn't quite convince me.

Overall, this is a good book, it helps the reader think of many of the questions in a more holistic way, and paints a coherent big picture of environmental humanism. Recommended reading.