Ethiopia’s misguided political trajectory seems to threaten the very existence of the nation

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What are the challenges and potential solutions?


In summary: A slow and dramatic political and economic change is underway in Ethiopia under the semblance of a developmental and democratic governance. Miscalculated politics along with entrenched economic, cultural, social and demographic challenges appear to drive the country to uncertain future.

First, it may be useful to provide some basic context to motivate my observations about the recent political and economic challenges and transformations in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has been under the rule of an ethnically-assembled ruling party called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) for the last 26 years. Led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), this political group put the right for ‘ethnic self-determination’ at the center of its political agenda. The key rationale, according to TPLF, is that regimes before EPRDF were pro-Amhara and discriminating against other ethnic groups. As such, the new Government created ethnic-based federal regional states, which granted semi-autonomous regional Governments with the right to determine their regional working languages, flags and local government structures, among others. TPLF strongly promoted that the ethnic federal system is a cornerstone of sustainable peace as it addresses the decades-old national question on equal rights to all ethnic groups in Ethiopia effectively. However, the veiled reason, some argue, is a political agenda aimed at disempowering and subjugating ethnic majority groups, particularly the Oromos and Amharas, by creating distrust and animosity between them and by doing so ensure the political and economic dominance of ethnic Tigriyans. According to some elites, this explains why ethnic Tigriyans exclusively control the Federal Government and key security and military positions. The Government openly promotes a narrative that ‘poverty is the number-one enemy of the country’, and should be defeated under its leadership. It therefore formulated ambitious economic policies that put the state at the center of economic activities. Key economic sectors, such as telecom, banking, infrastructure development and electric power remain under government monopoly while international investment in several other key sectors is prohibited. Land, a fundamental resource to an agrarian country, remains under the control of the Government and often used as a political instrument.

This system of governance and economic policies and strategies resulted in remarkable growth over the years. For example, in my recent observation, I have seen few seemingly well-off people both in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar city. One can see new private saloon cars parked in Bahir Dar city streets, which is a rarity a decade ago. New, although largely shoddy and sub-standard, buildings are sprawling in many towns. New industrial zones are being constructed, following Chinese and East Asian development experiences. Roads, dams and railway lines are being built in different parts of the country. This positive outlook however seems to mask the perilous political situation the country is in. For example, nearly everyone I had a conversation with recently appears to delve into political subjects quickly, with extreme sentiment and deep hatred towards some ethnic groups. People from all walks of life seemed to disapprove EPRRDF, especially TPLF. There is a strong held belief amongst ordinary people that TPLF desires ethnic conflicts and purposively instigates them. For example, in early December 2017, it was reported that university students across the country have been engaged in ethnic conflicts in which ethnic Tigriyans targeted Amhara students whereas ethnic Amhara and Oromo students carried out retributions. A university student told me that some students have thrown students off building balconies. Whether this graphic story is true or not, it is sad and sickening to hear it. More sadly, perhaps, ordinary citizens strongly believe that this is the work of TPLF agents and ‘Rwanda-style’ ethnic civil war is in the making.

To avert escalation of the mayhem beyond universities, Mobile Internet is blocked across the country except in Addis Ababa since mid December 2017. This means, for example, that most Ethiopians will not read this commentary right now.

Due to cyber blackout, perhaps, I noticed that groups of people gathered in cafes, barbershops, restaurants and beer corners in Bahir Dar publicly talking about outlandish rumors about the prime minister and regional government presidents without fear of undercover intelligence and spies, which are widely considered to be EPRDF’s extreme strength.

All of these lead to a key question: what went wrong in this once proud but increasingly fragmented and weakened and, paradoxically, economically promising country?

In the following I would like to briefly highlight the political, social, economical, cultural and demographic issues that may have contributed to this situation, largely based on public sentiment. I will also suggest potential solutions that may help avert the looming crisis and perhaps contribute to Ethiopia’s sustainable development.

Ethnic-based ‘divide and rule’ political system

As mentioned earlier, there is an overwhelming consensus among many Ethiopians that much of the current political instability is a direct result of the ethnic policies that TPLF-led forces deliberately put in place about 26 years ago. Some strongly argue that TPLF’s long-term and ultimate goal is to establish an independent Tigray Republic, with a strong industrial hub, economy and military force in East Africa. They mention TPLF-related business conglomerates and industries, Ethiopian Airlines and the military, all of which are controlled by ethnic Tigriyans, as cases in point. They also indicate that TPLF was not even ready to change its name from ‘Tigray People’s Liberation Front’ to something that reflects ‘Ethiopianess’. People also state that TPLF has included a clause on the right of ‘self-determination up to and including secession’ in the current constitution intentionally to use it when the time is right. Other elites have long argued that TPLF has rewritten Ethiopia’s past history (or at least wants to rewrite it) to suit its political agenda and narratives. Many think that it has intentionally exaggerated ethnic elements of past mistreatments, tribal conflicts and grievances and at times encouraged retributions and divisions. One young woman recently told me that she has seen ‘Agazi soldiers’ chasing and torturing a couple of teenagers that were selling a new book by Professor Fikire Tolosa entitled the ‘True origins of Amhara & Oromo’. Indeed, most people believe that TPLF has repeatedly attempted to create a sense of war between nationalistic (unionist) or ‘Ethiopianistic’ Amharas (what TPLF calls ‘chauvinists’) and ultra tribal and secessionist groups (what TPLF often calls ‘narrow tribalists’) by exploiting identity sensibilities and belief systems. In this scenario, TPLF presents itself as a savior from an impending ethnic time bomb, and as such argues that it is important that it has to remain in power until the democratization process of the country matures.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, TPLF has started to ‘reap what it sow’ in recent years. Ordinary citizens now seem to be on top of the political drama and government propaganda; and they believe that most EPRDF cadres are uneducated, self-centered and unsophisticated opportunists who do not care about what happens to this poor country as long as it serves their interests. It has now become evident to everyone that Ethiopia is prone to disintegration merely by Facebook posts.

I believe that a ‘true’ geographic federalism based on ‘Ethiopianess’ as a shared identity may be a potential solution to this dangerous political trajectory. In this sense, I can imagine at least eight federal states in the Current Amhara Regional state. This would, for example, include North Gondar Regional state (where Gondar City is its capital), West Gojam Regional State (where Bahir Dar is its capital), East Gojam Regional State (where Debremarkos is its capital) and South Gondar Regional State (where Debretabor is its capital city), among others. In this scenario, I can also imagine another supper-federation of the federal states. These may be divided, again geographically, into four: Federation of Northern Ethiopian Regional States, Federation of Eastern Ethiopian Regional States, Federation of Southern Ethiopian Regional States, and Federation of Western Ethiopian Regional States. At the center of the four supper-federation states will be the Federal Government, with Afaan Oromo and Amharic as its official languages. This would truly devolve administrative power and as a result each state could have its political and economic autonomy. It would result in equal wealth distribution among the regional states. The new regional capitals may rapidly develop and support rural-urban migration in their respective regions. It would also not be (comparatively to the current system) prone to ethnic politics and ultimately to disintegration.

Additionally, all economic activities, sectors and government positions and opportunities must be equally open to all Ethiopians based on acquired merits regardless of their natural ethnic origins or personal religious or political and other belief systems.

The Government should foster a genuine democracy in which individuals’ basic and human rights are respected. It has to strive to put in place strong institutions with neutral military and judicial systems for sustainable peace. Ethnic politics must be shunned off, and if necessary it should be banned from public discourse and criminalized. The notion that ‘Ethiopia’s democracy is nascent and needs time to mature’ should not be exaggerated and taken as an excuse. It is possible, and indeed some African countries have already shown that it is feasible to expedite the process of democratization.

The Government should allow for open political discourse in which alternative views and ideologies are entertained. People then will learn that they have the right to reflect their views but it is wrong to engage in destructive and violent protests. No person should be prosecuted or jailed for his/her political views!

Population growth and high-level of illiteracy

The population in Ethiopia has dramatically grown over the last 25 years. Most rural youth, especially in the central and northern highlands, do not have (sufficient) land to farm, forcing them to become day laborers to survive. The ethnic federalism policy has practically limited the movement of farmers from one region to another in search of better jobs and farming opportunities. While this may lead to an increase rural to urban migration within regions, most cities across the country are not prepared to accommodate such influx. Due to artificial and natural reasons, housing and rental prices have dramatically gone up over the last decade or so with property trade being at the center of major commerce (although in theory the Government bans land trade in the country). The key urban environment that has historically received large number of rural migrants has been Addis Ababa. However, the ethnic federal system has effectively limited Addis Ababa’s boundary, and it can no longer sustain poor rural immigrants.

Despite increasing rhetoric to have increased access to formal education in the country, Ethiopia remains one of the least literate countries in the world. Yet, a great percentage of new university graduates remain unemployed. A person recently told me that one regional Bureau in Bahir Dar received job applications from over 3000 BSc Degree holders for a single vacant position. Clearly, one of the greatest challenges for the Government is to ensure access to universal education and at the same time to put its increasingly educated youth to work.

I believe that well-managed population growth may be a source of wealth. However, in countries like Ethiopia, population explosion may indeed be a source of crisis. It is high time for Ethiopia to have a long-term vision. This vision should include strategies that put the high rate of population growth in check. One strategy could be to declare ‘one-child-one-household’ policy for those who cannot afford to raise more than one child, and ‘two-child-one household’ policy for those who are relatively well off. Such disrupting and bold policies are likely to be met with tough resistance. The current regime however needs to be prepared to take the necessary risks to make such serious decisions, making calculated comprises between short-term political and long-term national objectives.

Petty trade and retailing of imported goods and commodities

Nearly all, big and small investors and traders in the country are engaged in petty trade, retail or services sectors. One can observe that most residential homes in cities are converted to commodity shops, restaurants or teashops. This might not be surprising in a poor country. However, wealthy businessmen, with millions of dollars in their bank accounts, often prefer importing sub-standard consumable goods and commodities from China or other Asian and Arabian countries at cheap prices and retail them at exorbitant profit margins. Most of these businessmen do not seem to appreciate or know the value of investing in productive sectors, such as in agriculture and manufacturing. The Government simply focuses on collecting tax revenue, and does not meaningfully encourage investment in productive and relatively high-risk business sectors.

I do not believe that petty trade, in which Kebede boils water and tealeaves and sells a cup of tea to Taye, should be a business that the Government encourages. This reminds me of my encounter with a British Youngman in Bahir Dar several years ago. He was sitting besides me in a juice shop and began a conversation with me. Quite quickly, the man bluntly shared his observation with me, which I was a bit offended about but agreed with. He said: “Ethiopia’s economy is all about producing bananas and selling them on the streets”. As I thought about his remarks deeply over the years, I realized that the problem is much worse than the young man’s observation.

A business in which one imports paper or garment from China is probably important but it should not be the only business that every other businessman in the country is engaged with. Similarly, selling hot tea will only take Taye’s money to Kebede’s pocket, but it will not add a penny to the net national gross domestic product. The Government may have called this with fancy jargons, such as ‘rent seeking’ or something else, but it has not clearly articulated what it practically means or taken appropriate measures.

Major investments in the country should add value and bring in additional revenue to the country in the form of hard currency. In short the Government has to create incentives and awareness on the importance of investing in productive sectors that not only bring in wealth to the investor but also additional revenue to the country.

Dysfunctional government agencies

One of the challenges that increasingly frustrate most people, especially in cities, is the poor quality of basic services, such as access to clean water, electric power, mobile telecommunication and the internet. In the case of internet, for example, Ethiopia remains one of the least connected countries in the world. Despite this, the government cuts and blocks internet access for trivial reasons. Sub-standard electric power transformers and cables often lead to frequent electric outages. Uncontrolled electric power surge often results in untimely damage to electronic equipment belonging to poor households. One Bahir Dar resident recently told me that even the street traffic lights function when a federal official or guest visits the town. “Really”, he said “no body cares about what happens on the ground. They [EPRDF officials] only care about the control of power at federal level. As a result there is total anarchy at local level. If you observe the daily activities of some people, you might be tempted to think that there is no government in this country, especially over the last two years.”

Others in rural areas are bitter about the act that food aid (from donor countries) is often used for political objectives. Those that support the government and corrupt officials often receive food aid while others don’t.

Historically Government services in Ethiopia have been prone to corruption, nepotism and favoritism. Some people feel that these unfortunate crimes have now grown to the level that is not seen before. They argue that they are so rampant that they have become part of the ‘normal’ way of doing things, especially between Government officials and local businessmen. This reminds me a story that a friend told me a few years ago. A person bought a house and went to a city municipality to transfer the property. The officials and the surveyor who oversee the transfer refused to expedite the process. One of them finally whispered to the poor guy that it would have been shorter and easier if he has come “on his hands instead of his feet”. This was to tell to the ‘naïve’ guy that the official was allegedly looking for a bribe to do his very job that the city municipality pays a monthly salary for.

To prevent the looming crisis from exploding, I believe that the government has to connect well with the citizenry and ensure quality services through its administrative structures. It has to meaningfully fight all forms of corruption and mistreatment by public officials at all levels.

A trade system that favors the ruling elite and some minority groups

One of the great tragedies in Ethiopia over the last 20 years or so is the rise of the so-called ‘delalas’ (brokers), ethnic-based business conglomerates and ethnically-favored business men and women that artificially hike the price of houses, house rentals, cash crops and even simple food items, such as sugar and cooking oil. The issue of sugar scarcity could tell it all. One has to be registered using an identity card or passport at a ‘Keble’ to buy a killo of sugar. Supporting this, I saw a minibus taxi in Addis Ababa, which posted: “Teji bebirilie, sukuar be kebelie”. Strangely, and perhaps amusingly, I was told that local cadres blackmail or intimidate households who do not support or vote for the regime by prohibiting access to sugar. One farmer recently told me that the self-proclaimed ‘birhanu mengist’ or ‘Tsehayu mengist’ tells people that sugar is scarce because of the rapid development that has enabled poor households increasingly afford for sugar. I asked if that is the case. The farmer smiled at me sarcastically and said that “one of the commodities that we, farmers, can not produce is sugar. The fact is the Government can not produce sugar that satisfies our demand.”

While it seems difficult for Ethiopia to supply sugar for its growing population, it has now become ‘normal’ to see ‘Overnight Millionaires’ due to unfair and dishonest but legal commercial practices. Because of ‘delalas’ and bad business practices of ethnic minorities (without proper regulatory checks and balances), the price of basic consumables and commodities has soared more than 10 times over the past decade. While this has created fortune for some, it has made life extremely difficult for the vast majority low-income households (for example government civil servants). Recently, I visited an ill woman who makes a living on selling ‘Injera’ for civil servants. She was dismayed that the very people who used to buy her Injera a decade ago have now become ‘Injera-sellers’ themselves. Curiously, I asked her about the reason why that has happened. She replied: “they are now poorer than she is”.

A party or Government, which is concerned a little about the country it leads, should put the welfare of its citizens on top of its priority. It should not be engaged in business practices that put the very survival of its poor society into jeopardy. It should punish evil ‘delalas’ and ethnically-favored businessmen who ‘legally’ steal from poor people’s meager resources. Ethiopia is now the only country in the developing world where uneducated street smarts earn tens of thousands of Birr (perhaps more) every month while highly educated university academics and other civil servants are struggling to put bread on their tables. Ethiopian children are now growing up wishing to become a ‘delala’ one day and become rich without the effort and handwork that earning a penny deserves.

The writer of this commentary believes that many of the current economic policies of the Government are highly appropriate and ambitious. Indeed the Government is actively building infrastructure, which has to be commended. However, it has to also create appropriate incentive mechanisms and business-enabling environment for the private sector to engage in manufacturing and commercial agriculture. It has to facilitate the provision of both human and financial resources, facilitate entrepreneurship in risky business sectors, ensure the development and diffusion of appropriate knowledge and innovation in strategic sectors, empower civic society and enforce the ‘rule of law’. It has to foster the growth of industries by local investors based on the competitive advantage of the country and its natural resource endowments. But at the same time, it has to allow for a free market and the entry of international investors in relevant economic sectors. It, fore example, should allow for the entry of international and regional supermarket chains and shopping malls. This may introduce modern commerce practices and ease the ever-rising cost of commodities.

Above all, Ethiopian diplomats based in diplomatic missions overseas should explore and learn from international best practices in trade and other activities. In East Africa, for example, the experiences of Kenya in ICT, telecommunications, modern shopping malls and supermarkets, as well as the lessons on city neatness and modernization of Kigali in Rwanda could be taken as good examples to learn from.

Being land-locked

It is common knowledge that Ethiopia pays a significant fee to use seaports of neighboring countries for its overseas trading activities. Some figures even seem to suggest that Ethiopia’s seaport fee might be as high as its total export earnings from coffee. Because of this, perhaps, the cost of imported goods is extremely high and increasingly unaffordable to the vast majority of the population. The price of imported used-cars in Ethiopia, for example is, nearly three times the total price of similar cars in Kenya. Such challenges have led cars to become unaffordable for most residents of Addis Ababa and other regional cities. As a result, Addis Ababa has become a city of public transport nightmare.

The issue of cars, although it affects the minority few, really reflects what loosing a seaport is all about for a poor country. As is known to everyone, Ethiopia was naturally endowed with seaports. Due to intended and unintended historical errors of politicians, it has now ended up being among the largest land-locked countries.

Although reversing this quite unfortunate fate may seem difficult, concerted efforts should be made to change this situation sooner or latter.

EPRDF’s distrust and dislike towards educated citizens of the country

Recently, I had conversation with some Ethiopian academics about their views on the current regime. Strikingly, all of them told me that some EPRDF officials hold a deep hatred and suspicion towards educated Ethiopians. They told me, it has always been difficult to know their motives but TPLF leaders might have believed that educated citizens could be against their ‘divide-weaken-and-rule’ political strategy. EPRDF’s party agents often approach less-educated but talkative individuals and teach them their core ideologies. Once a person becomes a party member or an official, he/she will be used to enforce the regime’s ideologies using highly effective ‘carrot and stick’ incentive mechanisms. These members will also be systematically subjected to self- and peer criticism sessions.

Because of this, perhaps, most educated citizens of the country have chosen to look for opportunities in western countries. Nearly all high-ranking students, which I had attended high school with, are now professionals in other countries. These bright citizens would have contributed to their society in many ways if the Government has created attractive mechanisms of incentivizing and participating them in their countries political, social and political affairs.

I believe that any regime should not push aside its educated citizens. Like any segment of society, some scholars might oppose the government while others may support its policies. But, educated citizens should not be viewed as a source of concern, rather an opportunity to work with. Sufficient incentive mechanisms that attract highly educated citizens should be put in place. People from all walks of life should, at least ideally, believe that knowledge is the ultimate source of power to lead others or to become rich in the modern world.

Overall, it is true that Ethiopia is affected by complex historical, political, social, cultural, geographical and economical challenges. So, it would not be fair to put all the blame on EPRDF. Frankly, EPRDF has succeeded in many ways that regimes before it have utterly failed. However, the author of this commentary believes that these real or perceived challenges (highlighted above) may create a vicious cycle of causation—one negatively reinforcing the other—putting the country in a perpetual state of instability and poverty. The turmoil over the past two years has indicated that politics built on hatred, greed, extreme propaganda and deceit does not do any good to anyone. If EPRDF fails to take concrete measures urgently to correct some of its historical mistakes, it might not be too long for the country to descend to an all out civil war in which there won’t be losers and winners. It is everyone’s wish in Ethiopia that EPRDF realizes that it would be in the best of its interest to steer the country to the right direction so that it [EPRDF] will go down in the right side of history!

Note: the writer of this commentary is an academic who simply aims to contribute his insights based on current public opinion on Ethiopian politics. He is not a member of any political group, and does not support, endorse or condemn any political party in Ethiopia for personal or other reasons.