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Ethiopia�s Challenge is our Challenge

Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D.

May 7, 2011

Great things are achieved by guessing the direction of one�s century1

Giuseppe Mazzini

These days, some Ethiopians entertain the idea that the last two decades are EPRDF�s moment, not the moment of the Ethiopian people in general and the opposition in particular. This is a pessimistic and parochial view of history. Every moment in the making of Ethiopia�s history is the moment of all Ethiopians regardless of the type of regime in power. Moreover, Ethiopians should not wait for the powers that be to render miracles and or furnish the socioeconomic and political needs of the people; the latter in fact should be proactive and deliberate its own agenda in the total liberation of their country. They must transcend the current political skirmish tainted with ethnocentric psychology that could ultimately undermine not only the sovereignty and independence of Ethiopia, but also its very survival.

Out of the chaotic Diaspora Ethiopia seemingly discussion forums, two recent essays that stand out are Professor Mammo Muchie�s �Revisiting Ethiopiawinet� and Professors Aklog Birara and Getachew Begashaw�s �A Mission to Attract Diaspora Funds.� The former was addressed many times by many Ethiopian scholars (including myself) but Mammo came up with additional flavor and new vistas in critiquing the prevalent ethnic politics in Ethiopia, and I will only supplement his ideas and constructively engage his thesis in this article. The latter, without doubt is topical and timely but other Ethiopian economists, including Professor Seid Hassan, also addressed the central theme of their essay. I will further explore the parameters of development agenda in Ethiopia in its comprehensive and broader political economy dimension, and not only in its macroeconomic synthesis.    

I am in full accord with Mammo�s critique of  �the mistakes of our generation� but I would like to add that our generation has indeed paid a heavy price, not only for its dogmatic assertion of leftist ideologies and belittling its own Ethiopian wisdom but also for being patriotic and for being at the forefront in striving to change Ethiopia for the better. It is true that the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie had exhibited excesses with respect to the question of nationalities in Ethiopia; the movement had gone beyond self-determination of nationalities to the right of secession of the latter and this, to be sure, was a theoretical conception carbon copied from Stalin�s �Question of Nationalities� blueprint. It was dogmatic on the part of the students, but it was not aimed at deliberately dismantling the Ethiopian polity. Now, the EPRDF has officially installed the right of secession of regions/nationalities as it is clearly enshrined in Article 39 of the present Ethiopian constitution. This is a problem superimposed on Ethiopians; it is Ethiopia�s challenge, but it is also our challenge. In the final analysis, it is we, Ethiopians, who should (as one unified people) correct the mistakes of the EPRDF.

On the other hand, although there were excesses among the ESM militants and extreme measure was taken by the EPRDF with respect to the question of nationalities, we must also acknowledge that there was national oppression in Ethiopia. I have cited in one of my previous works Bahru Zewde�s thesis of comparing the denial of national oppression during the ancien regime to the lack of knowledge of Ethiopian history. There is nothing wrong in recognizing the achievements and pitfalls of Ethiopia; the question is how to go about and overcome major socioeconomic, political, and cultural problems challenging Ethiopia. That is our challenge.

Moreover, we Ethiopians have one major challenge in regards to ethnic politics. I have addressed this issue several times in the past but I don�t mind repeating myself over and over again for the sake of dialogue and discussion of current events in Ethiopian circles. I strongly believe that ethnic politics in Ethiopia, though initiated by the EPRDF, was also exaggerated and practiced by Ethiopians in the Diaspora, and this troubling phenomenon is reflected in the way Ethiopians are organized along ethnic and even sub-ethnic levels. If indeed Ethiopians in the Diaspora love their country and aspire to transform Ethiopia for the better, they must find a pan-Ethiopian organization or pan-Ethiopian parties (not just in name but in composition as well) that could unify the people and come up with a solid Ethiopian agenda. To date, we don�t have it and what we have instead is vanishing solidaristic vision; a vision of unity that our forefathers entertained and practiced in the past. This is the challenge of the present generation; it cannot be left to the ruling party in Ethiopia as if it is an EPRDF problem only.

What I agree with Mammo�s characterization of Ethiopian nationalism or Ethiopiawinet is the fact that Ethiopian nationalism has historical foundations. I would like to address the myth perpetrated by anti-Ethiopian elements in regards to the evolution of the Ethiopian state. The enemies of Ethiopia wanted to portray the country as a fictitious polity and/or an artificially constructed socio-cultural entity. This argument is not only devoid of historical analysis and logical (rational) synthesis, but it also negates Ethiopian nationalism that actually evolved out of a long state formation (from antiquity to present) historical process that really constitutes the Ethiopian nation. Therefore, Ethiopian nationalism is not an abstract ideal but a reality born out of the state formation factor already mentioned and out of resistance against foreign forces. Tewodros, Yohannes, Alula, and Menelik fought not as Gonderies, Tigrayans, or Shewans, but as Ethiopians.           

While I appreciate Aklog and Getachew�s macroeconomic analysis of Ethiopia and why it �is not conducive� to invest in Ethiopia today (the exact opposite of the Government�s claim of  �10 reasons to invest in Ethiopia�), I am of the opinion that the complex Ethiopian scenario requires a more comprehensive political economy analysis.

Aklog and Getachew�s article is aimed at educating Ethiopians abroad to being extra cautious about the April 9 and 10, 2011 Ethiopian Government delegation-led town hall meetings in 14 North American cities. I don�t mind the authors critical scrutiny of the Government�s intention to grab �Diaspora funds� (as the title of their essay insinuates). But most of the Diaspora opposition that participated in the conference did not follow the two professors footsteps. On the contrary, those that were in the conference halls and their colleagues who were outside and were protesting and calling names to the conferees, had aimed at disrupting the meetings at any cost. A good example of this protestation was the action taken by the Diaspora opposition in the Washington metro area and in effectively paralyzing the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) meeting.

Ethiopians, of course, have the right to participate and support the GTP or participate in the conference and oppose it, or even completely oppose and derail its objectives.  Whether we like it or not, however, the GTP could be one challenge to Ethiopians. I would have preferred the Diaspora to have joined the conference rooms in all 14 locations and participate in a civil way and challenge the EPRDF delegation on its turf. The opposition groups should have challenged members of the delegation not in the form of clutters accompanied by noises but by clashing ideas.

It would have been wise for the Diaspora Ethiopians to use the very platforms employed by the EPRDF delegation by bombarding them with questions and effectively inundating them with challenging or alternative strategies to transformation, instead of simply disrupting the meetings. This kind of action and attitude reminds me of an incident that took place at Addis Ababa University (AAU) in the early 1970s. A group of students were gathered at the entrance of the New Arts Building of the Sidist Kilo campus of the University; they made me curious and I joined them, and although I arrived in the middle of a heated debate, I instantly got the gist of the pro and con exchanges. The debate was on whether students must go to the Asmara Exposition or not. Some of them were in favor of going and others were vehemently opposed to the idea of going to Asmara. On the opposition side was Girmachew Lemma, a prominent student leader, and he told us in no uncertain terms, �We should not go to Expo Asmara, because it is tantamount to respecting the invitation of the Emperor and celebrating the reactionary agenda of the government.� However, some of the students, at the risk of being labeled �reactionary,� went to Asmara. I did not mind the positions of both groups, but I believed then and now that it is preferable to participate in nay venue of any conference and take advantage of it.

Beyond participation, however, our challenge is to come up with some sort of blueprint, a working paper, or a policy-oriented document and the rest of this essay will focus on the ideas behind this proposal. I am of the opinion that a political economy analysis and critique of the EPRDF and its policies will benefit Ethiopia in the long run, and an attempt will be made here to discuss the contradictions that would preclude investment in Ethiopia and I will propose alternative ideas for meaningful investment and development.

  1. The Government cannot invite Ethiopian investors unless it has an industrial rationalization policy that encourages or fosters competition in the strategic sectors of the economy. The bulk of the strategic sectors are now either owned or indirectly controlled by the EPRDF (TPLF, ANDM, OPDO). The ANDM and OPDO are major beneficiaries and shareholders with the TPLF and it is not only the latter that is in complete control of the economy. With respect to my argument here, I am implying that Aklog and Getachew are wrong in consistently mentioning TPLF and completely ignoring the EPRDF.
  1. The Government cannot claim �absence of corruption�2 in Ethiopia when in fact corruption is endemic that could be likened to a metastasized cancer. There is no need for the government of Ethiopia to hide a major Ethiopian problem, which was in existence as part of the socioeconomic and political fabric long before the EPRDF assumed power. Corruption, after all, is not unique to Ethiopia and instead of simply denying the elephant in the room, it is better to acknowledge its existence and try to deal with it. Now, the question is how can Ethiopians invest in Ethiopia in the presence of rampant corruption, especially in the bureaucracy? Investors don�t want any hassle, let alone pay extra money for corrupt officials in order to facilitate their investment plans. Once Ethiopia is free of corruption, there is no doubt that the Diaspora will pump the investment sector of the economy, ranging from tourism and hospitality management to agriculture, to mining and industry.
  1. Ethiopia must give priority to Ethiopian entrepreneurs over foreign investors: By this, I don�t mean to disregard foreign investment; the latter is equally important in the development of Ethiopia. Foreign investment, including foreign direct investment (FDI) would have a positive impact on development especially if there is no string attached to it. However, if Ethiopia is to become truly independent from �dependent development�, it must decidedly give priority to Ethiopian investors and entrepreneurs. So far, the country has been rewarding foreign investors by turning itself into a Mecca of land grab for agricultural development. One of these investors, for instance, is an Indian investor by the name Pradeep Mannemela and according to him, his company now has a 25-year lease in Gambella, one of the nine regional states, and �has plans to expand its agricultural endeavors and may acquire up to 100,000 ht in Ethiopia��3            

I argue that Ethiopia must give priority to Ethiopians for the simple and profound reason that the country must ultimately stand on its own feet, and this could be attained only if a new middle class of entrepreneurs emerges in Ethiopia. The GTP is perhaps meant to invite investors, but it could not guarantee the emergence of a middle class insofar the Ethiopian investor is fiercely competed by foreign investors.

  1. Education must be given priority in investment and development: The government of Ethiopia claims that �Ethiopia presently turn out more than 10,000 university graduates per year� and currently the country has �151 technical and vocational education and training schools.�4 There is no doubt that some progress in education has been achieved in the last decade or so, but the quality of education is questionable. I have had some conversation with some Ethiopians who graduated from college and some who simply corresponded with me on line, and I found it astounding that most of these students could not write a coherent essay. Out of historical necessity, thus, Ethiopia must heavily invest on technical education so that it could produce technicians, engineers, and business leaders (the would-be middle class that I have discussed above), and in turn propel economic growth based on manufacturing industries. In this regard, Ethiopia can learn from the Asian Tigers, and especially from Taiwan, a country that deliberately restricted the proliferation of universities in favor of vocational schools.
  1. Ethiopian policy directives must be compatible with international market forces: By this, I don�t mean the �100 Investment Project Profiles� that the Ethiopian government seemingly wants to offer to Diaspora Ethiopians. Beyond the plethora of projects, the policy directive must necessarily and succinctly put forth allocation of scarce capital; energy resources and appropriate technology; infrastructure development; tax credits; budgetary policies and incentives; mass education; and labor regulations. Only when the above component parts of the policy directive are clearly defined could Ethiopians (and other investors for that matter) begin to invest in their country.
  1. Ethiopia must overcome patronage politics: One of the major assets of the EPRDF that enabled it to stay in power for so long is patronage politics, and without the latter the ruling party could have not easily manipulated the power nexus and govern Ethiopia. The EPRDF, in fact, is a patron-client network party apparatus   and those Ethiopians who think that only the TPLF is ruling over Ethiopia are wrong. Wide spread patrimony (the inheritance of power and property by family members of the ruling elite or by their close loyal associates) is not confined to the TPLF or the EPRDF; it has also tentacles in the dominant regional states of Oromia, Amhara, and Tigray as well as in the peripheral states such as Afar, Beni Shangul Gumuz, Gambella, and Somalia. Because of this solid patronage linkage, the ruling EPRDF party, through its Ministry of Federal Affairs (MoFA), monitors the local governance of the regions. The MoFA literally runs the affairs of the Somali region, for instance. However, the regional leaders (presidents) as well as the leaders of the parties that make up the EPRDF have also formed their own patronage networks and hence they govern their own constituents. By focusing on the TPLF only, Ethiopians in the Diaspora were unable to fathom the complexity of the current governance in Ethiopia. Now, the regional governors have their constituents not only in their regions but also in the Diaspora, very much like the TPLF has. When the president of the Somalia Regional State came to the United States, his supporters and clients, i.e. the Ethiopian Somalis that reside in Minnesota, received him like a king; draped him with an Ethiopian flag, and chanted and danced with him. The event clearly demonstrates the patron-client relationship in the Somalia region and by extension in all Ethiopia.

However, while patronage politics was an effective mechanism for the EPRDF to stay in power, it effectively alienated other Ethiopians that are not affiliated to the EPRDF; it also seriously undermined the democratic process that Ethiopians thought had a chance to mushroom. Unless Ethiopia overcomes patronage politics, meaningful development programs could not be realized and investors could not be forthcoming.

  1. The GTP cannot take place at the expense of democratic transformation in Ethiopia: Over the last two decades, I have encountered arguments on the primacy of democracy over development or whether one is compatible with the other. Frankly, I found the argument frivolous because, while democracy is not necessarily a precondition to development, it does not however mean that democracy and development cannot operate in tandem. Therefore, we cannot say �lets have development first and let democracy stay� when we know very well that democracy is a healthy political culture that we can all cherish. Therefore I argue that we can implement development agendas while incipient democratic culture flourish simultaneously. In this context, thus, Ethiopians must steadfastly demand not only fundamental democratic rights for citizens, but also structural implementation of a democratic system. The EPRDF is not expected to forge a democratic system, but it can at least allow a modicum of democratic rights such as multiparty democracy without restricting or alienating the opposition. If the EPRDF cannot tolerate the opposition (as has been witnessed in the 2005 and 2010 elections), it is highly likely that it will not tolerate business leaders (hence investors), educators, and other professionals who would come up with different ideas other than that of the ruling party�s ideas.
  1. Transformation in whose interest? I will answer this question in light of the welfare of the Ethiopian people, the ultimate source for the development of Ethiopia. Is the GTP of the EPRDF going to benefit the multitude poor of Ethiopians? Is it going to salvage the famine-stricken Ethiopians? Is it going to solve the chronic unemployment in the country? Is it going to change the livelihood of the rural Ethiopians for the better? Is it going to trickle down to the one million plus beggars and aimless young Ethiopians in Addis Ababa? Is the GTP accountable to the national government or to the regional governments as well? If Ethiopia is willing to open up and learn from other countries experiences, it can uplift itself like the Asian Tigers, China, India, Brazil, and Botswana did. Compared to China and the Tigers, India and Brazil are still considered as poor Third World countries, but because they have visionary leaders and open democratic systems, they have scored tremendous achievements in development in just two decades. China too is a Third World country, but it made spectacular achievement in economic development and managed to liberate more than 400 million people from poverty. But the most important success story of the Tigers, China, and also Japan is their ability to install egalitarian socioeconomic and educational systems. In this regard, the Tigers, China, and Japan have surpassed even the Western democracies. Can Ethiopia surpass (or has the potential to) its Horn and/or East African neighbors? Transformation in whose interest? If it is for the welfare of the Ethiopian people, it is worth investing; if it is meant to enrich a neat circle of nomenclature bureaucrats, it is not worth it.

By way of concluding, I like to address a development strategy that Ethiopia must pursue. The market-oriented approach to development was a failure and yet Ethiopians at home (the government and the opposition) and in the Diaspora still adhere to the liberal agenda without critically examining the Ethiopian situation in the context of globalization. The so-called market policies pursued by many developing countries, in fact, exacerbated economic and development crisis in these countries. Ethiopia is no different from these developing nations and on top of the wrong strategy, the focus on cash crop, which is now frenzy in Ethiopia, would ultimately damage the national economy although it may have a short-term advantage in garnering hard (foreign currency). The obsession with cash crop is part of the liberal agenda and simply emulating the latter could be a recipe for disaster.

What Ethiopia needs at this juncture are visionary leaders who could lay out holistic development strategies and policies of a mixed economy type. Above all, the leaders should be able to address poverty, inequality, illiteracy, appropriate technology, dependent development, environmental degradation, and unequal partnership in global trade. A comprehensive development strategy could genuinely transform Ethiopia for the better, but it could be realized only if we Ethiopians, or more specifically our leaders, begin to envision the distant future because as Mazzini aptly puts it, �Great things are achieved by guessing the direction of one�s century.�


TPLF: Tigray People�s Liberation Front

EPRDF: Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Party

ANDM: Amhara National Democratic Movement

OPDO: Oromo People�s Democratic Organization



1.       Giuseppe Mazzini was Italian leader in 1848. The maxim is taken from World Politics by Charles W. Kegley, Jr. and Eugene R. Whittkopf, St. Martin�s, 1999

2.       Investing In Ethiopia: 10 Reasons to Invest in Ethiopia, Ethiopian Embassy, view www.ethiopianembassy.org and see Item #1, �Stable Economic Environment�

3.      Addis Fortune, Vol. 11, No. 545, October 12, 2010

4.      Investing in Ethiopia, Ibid, p. 3

All Rights Reserved. Copyright � IDEA, Inc. 2011. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via g.araia@africanidea.org