By all counts that matter, Ethiopia is a large country. At 1.1 million square kilometres, it is the 26th largest country in the world and is twice as large as the average African country (559,000 square kilometres). With 110 million people and counting, it is the 12th most populous country in the world, the second most populous in Africa (after Nigeria) and the most populous landlocked country in the world.
Yet it’s a safe bet that half the world’s people never gave a thought to the country until another Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed there on March 10. Or if they did, it was back during the mid-1980s famine, when Bob Geldof’s Band Aid group and their Live Aid campaign brought that disaster to the global masses.
But Ethiopia today is a force to be reckoned with. Its economy has grown at an average of over 10 percent since 2005. In 2017, it overtook Kenya to be the seventh-largest in Africa. By many estimates, it is poised to be “Africa’s China.” Even more, its national airline has grown fast to become Africa’s largest. With a fleet of 112 planes, Ethiopian Airlines flies to more countries than all but three airlines in the world (Turkish Airlines, Air France and British Airways).
Even temporally, Ethiopia looms large. It has one of the longest continuously recorded histories in the world. It makes solid appearances in ancient texts like the Pentateuch. Its alphabet is one of the oldest extant in the world. It uses its own calendar. For a time, its name was even used to refer to the rest of Africa. It gave birth to the civilisation of Ancient Egypt, whose influence on European civilisation is acknowledged by all.
Of the many great states that flourished in Africa during the medieval period, only Ethiopia has survived as an entity to our times. While other medieval African states, like Mansa Moussa’s obscenely-rich Mali Empire and the little-documented Great Zimbabwe, collapsed just prior to the European expansion into the continent, Ethiopia survived to defeat Italy in war, becoming the only African state to avoid the sickle of European control.
However, despite its rich history and increasingly dominant present, the country has gone largely unappreciated by the rest of the world. In this, and in its tumultuous recent history, it has shared the fate of fellow African countries. Every now and then, a calamity will cause interest in Ethiopia to surge. Often, the narrative around these tragedies is driven by poor reporting coloured by the romantic idea of Africa as some pitiful and distant place.
Google trends, which tracks historical search (and therefore interest) trends, shows the first recent spike in interest in Ethiopia around 2005. It is easy to correlate this with the marred elections of that year. Had Google been around in 1984, it would certainly have captured the country’s notoriety during the deadly famine of that year, which came to define what famines look like in Africa, as well as the paternalistic responses they receive from international charity organisations and philanthropists.
The latest surge in interest in Ethiopia, the greatest since 2005, came this month after an Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 157 people crashed shortly after take-off from Addis Ababa, the country’s capital city, killing all on board. The crash thrust Ethiopia centre-stage in world news and transformed it into a new checkpoint in the aviation industry’s ongoing quest for absolute passenger safety.
The worldwide storytelling around the plane crash also revealed, once again, the paternalistic conceptual frame of international media, which has led them historically to misrepresent the story of Africa. It is a frame characterised especially by lazy reporting. The Wall Street Journal’s first headline, for instance, was “Africa Plane Crash.” This is like talking of an accident in Japan as an Asian event. Technically correct, but an Israeli could care less.
The Washington Post, on the other hand, titled its first story with “Eight Americans among 157 people killed in Ethiopian Airlines crash.” Framed thus, the story transformed into one of Western loss tacitly caused by African ineptitude and neglect. Never mind that Kenya, my country, lost four times as many people as the US. Never mind that the victims hailed from 32 countries in total. No, only the Americans mattered.
A lot of ink has been spilled already to castigate flawed media perceptions of Africa. When the New York Times published photos of victims of the terrorist attack at a hotel and office complex in Nairobi in January, it felt the legendary fury of Kenyans on Twitter, who rightly accused The Times of having different standards when reporting similar events in its backyard – or in New Zealand last week. One would have thought the lesson would still be fresh barely two months later for the rest of international media.
The coverage of the Ethiopian crash proves it went right over their heads. And, as I see it, the only way to avoid exasperation is to accept that old habits die hard. This way of looking at Africa has been current at least since the zenith of the Atlantic Slave Trade. As the Abbé Grégoire, French priest and anti-slavery campaigner of the early 19th Century put it, “people have slandered [Africans] first to get the right to enslave them, and then to justify themselves for having enslaved them.” The slavery might have ended, but the slander continues, because it is still useful as an angle for storytelling.
Interest in Ethiopia will wane as the questions behind the tragic air crash are answered. In fact, the world has already moved on to talking about other things, a fact which it would be foolish to begrudge. But Ethiopia will also continue to transform into an economic powerhouse, first for Africa and then beyond. And, as its population grows, it will also become one of the most important countries in the world.
If this means anything, it means that Ethiopia has a big role to play in the world’s future. And when it comes into its own, its story will have to be told as it is. The media house that does not realise this soon enough risks irrelevance.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.