Tag Archives: China

Are we thinking about the digital future?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

If God wills, I shall be particpating in what I hope would be an exciting event on 31 January. Themed “Nigeria in the World, the World in Nigeria”, panelists at the “Nigeria Economic Outlook Conference 2018” (#NEOC18) would discuss what Nigeria’s place could be in a post-oil world. Tony Seba, a Stanford University scholar in entrepreneurship, disruption and clean energy with an enviable record of correct predictions, posits crude oil demand would peak at about 100 million barrels per day (mbpd) by 2020, three years from now. A decade after, by 2030, he supposes it could be about 70 mbpd. That is not so bad, you probably reckoned just now. If his estimations are vindicated, the price for a barrel of crude oil would not be so tolerable at about $25 by 2021-22; that is about 4-5 years from now. Why would these happen? Mr Seba believes 95 percent of passenger miles would be self-driving, electric and on-demand by 2030. His analysis is not sentimental. It is economic. By his reckoning, it would be ten times less expensive to ride electric, autonomous and on-demand than owning a car. While the likelihood that these new transport technologies would make it to African countries within these timeframes is slim, the impact would almost certainly be immediately felt by oil-producing ones like Nigeria. So are we preparing for this future? Our education system remains an archaic rote-style nonsense. Our job market teaches little of tangible utility for a digital world. And our government wants to grow more yam tubers for export. If our country remains in its current ill-prepared state, this near digital future could be bleak for us indeed.

Action talk
Incidentally, the #NEOC18 is coming after the just concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. The flurry of ideas was simply extraordinary. I followed the proceedings extensively from my very warm abode in Lagos – if you are left behind, there is nobody to blame but yourself. (See my Premium Times column for my observations: https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2018/01/26/davos-insights-for-africa-by-rafiq-raji/.) Artificial intelligence was on everyone’s lips. Its unimaginable possibilities, good and bad, have everyone’s antenna up. What really intrigues me is that these happenings are also discussed animatedly by the Nigerian intelligentsia. Unfortunately, these conversations are not translating into policy and action. We cannot continue like this. The Nigerian who designed the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car, is back home. As far as I know, his mandate is to develop an auto industry in the country. I suspect his efforts are geared towards the futility of trying to build a fossil-fuel based car industry. If that is the case, I do not need to be a seer to know his years doing that are going to be wasted. Why not an electric car industry? He knows how to build one, doesn’t he? Someone might ask: where is the power? I would reply: why not a solar-powered one then? The sun is free, is it not? Besides, a solar-powered car is not just a concept: it has already been builit.

Step up
If we are serious as a country, we will put building a robust power and internet infrastructure at the top of our priorities. Off-grid power solutions are already taking off. And some well-meaning entrepreneurs have also been doing their bit in broadband access and developing coding capacity. MainOneand Andela are world-class Nigerian companies. They operate here and are run by Nigerians. They are evidence of our possibilities if and when we decide to put on our thinking caps. Nigeria needs more of them. The inequality of the future is not going to be so much between rich and poor as it would be between those acting on their knowledge for change and those who know but are doing nothing or are simply just ignorant. The knowledge gap would become contemporaneous with the wealth gap.

What else can we do? We could start acquiring the skills that allow us speak the “language of technology”, at least. You could also ask yourself how what you currently do for a living could change in the next decade or so because of technology; and what you are going to do about it. Digital banks would get better. Cars would become autonomous. Robots would be able to perform surgery. Manufacturing is going to become totally automated. Retail would become entirely online. In that event, what are you going to become, be able to do, and how are you going to earn a living? Of course, as these technologies evolve there is the sometimes mistaken assumption that human beings would be static and not similarly dynamic. Instead, it is more likely that as our current needs get cared for by machines, new ones would evolve precisely because of these disruptions. And it would likely be humans who are first able to handle or innovate to solve these new problems before machines are able to do them far better. So whether it is artifical intelligence, big data or something else currently just the pigment of the imagination of someone somewhere, no one can say for sure what the digital future would be like exactly. One thing is certain, though, unless poor economies step up their game, they would be left behind. Again.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/thinking-digital-future/

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Davos insights for Africa

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Africa’s representation at the 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF), themed “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”, was small. The forum has always been primarily focused on America and Europe anyway. Last year, China stole the spotlight. And a few years ago, Africa got its chance. With regional forums now, the Davos meeting is increasingly focused on global themes and issues. And the major attraction this year was none other than Donald Trump, the American president. Once he arrived (thank goodness, it was on the last day), everything became about him. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi was probably delighted he gave the forum’s keynote speech on the first day (23 January); long before “The Donald” arrived. Mr Modi made some deep points. But the part that resonated with me was that about data. He posited that in today’s world and in fact the future one, data is the biggest asset. And he who controls data controls the world. He is ahead of the curve. It was also a veiled boast, I think. India is firing ahead on the technological front. Like China, it is racing ahead to ensure that it would be an active participant in what would entirely soon become a digital world economy. China has a date for when that time might be upon us: 2025. That is the target year for its ambitious technological plan, which if realised, would put it at the forefront of technological leadership globally. There is the pertinent question, of course, about whether that digital future would not be exclusionary. Ever-evolving tech skillsets would be required by anyone who desires to be an active participant in the digital economy. So steps need to be urgently taken by African countries to ensure their citizens are able to compete in that future world. The mastery of basic technologies has to be the least qualification for anyone who passes through the education system. Technology has to be seen in the same way as English (or French and Arabic in other countries) is regarded as a foundation subject for basic education.

Technology as language
Technology is a language. If you do not know how to speak a language, you cannot participate in a conversation in that language. If the language of the future world is technology, what then would be your fate if you cannot speak it? You hear talk about up-skilling and re-skilling. What I think the focus should be on is what I call “dynamic skilling.” It is not entirely novel; you may have heard of “continous learning.” It is similar. But my concept of dynamic skilling is premised on how if the world of work would likely continue to change as technology evolves, then the individual that desires not to be changed (i.e., replaced) must also ensure that his skills are similarly dynamic. The foundation for any such eventuality is basic knowledge about technology. Thus, vocational skills of the future are not likely to be how to be a good plumber, carpenter, or electrician. Instead, it would be “simple” things like being able to code an app, use a digital currency, and so on. Any country which is not thinking in this manner, right now, would again be left behind. Fortunately (for African countries, at least), the extraordinary thing about emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, big data, and so on, is that they are equalizers; up to a point. Vintage is an advantage. One who starts early may remain ahead because of the advantages of experience and ownership of data acquired in the process. Even so, African governments could, for instance, momentarily start to insist on the ownership and control of the data of their citizens and all digital activities in their domain. That way, they would be able to ensure that their citizens benefit from whatever technological progress happens on the back of their data assets.

New paradigm
Benedikt Sobotka of the Eurasian Resources Group, in an interview with CNBC Africa during the WEF, made a point that all African governments need to muse on. Electric vehicles (EVs) rely on cobalt-based batteries. Where is cobalt found in abundance? The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia. In the next decade or so, EVs would probably replace all fossil-fuel vehicles. That future can be Africa-led if the relevant governments put in place policies that ensure the cobalt mined in their jurisdictions would be used to build an African EV industry; as opposed to a mining one just for the taxes. By insisting on the batteries being built on the continent, or adding some meaningful value to the cobalt at least, before it is shipped to China and elsewhere, the DRC and Zambia would be able to participate in what is likely going to be a very lucrative global value chain (GVC). What is happening now? China is buying up the precious mineral. Cobalt is being mined and shipped abroad to build batteries that would power EVs the future world would use to wean itself of oil and gas that some key African countries rely on and failed to build industries around. African countries can be part of the new world right now. By the way, did I travel to Davos to arrive at these insights? Go figure.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2018/01/26/davos-insights-for-africa-by-rafiq-raji/

Flattered Trump achieves little in Asia

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Donald Trump, the American president, concludes his 5-country Asian trip in The Philippines today (14 November). Heralding his arrival in Beijing a week earlier – his third stop after earlier ones in Japan and South Korea – was a reminder of China’s trade surplus with America, data for which came out at US$26.6 billion for October; about US$223 billion thus far this year. And if he thought his trip would make China buy at least as much American goods and services as go the other way, he was a tad disappointed. Of course, there was much pomp about the US$253.4 billion in deals signed between the two delegations. But much of these were not substantive. And some were actually just old deals. The extent of the divergence in the views of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and President Trump, would become writ large in Da Nang, Vietnam, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, where they both headed afterwards. They provided sharply contrasting visions on trade in their speeches to the gathering of Asian-Pacific leaders. While President Xi espoused multilateralism, openness, and globalisation, Mr Trump was unapologetically insular in his views. Brief incidental interactions with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, at the APEC summit, in place of a much anticipated formal meeting, did not yield much either. Because even though the Kremlin published a joint statement on the crisis in Syria, there was not much there that was new; a missed opportunity. It did not help of course that the controversy over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential elections would not just go away; no doubt made worse by Mr Trump’s equivocation on the matter. In fact, what little progress that was made during his time in Asia was actually on matters antithetical to his agenda. A deal was reached by the 11 countries remaining in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement he ditched, for instance; albeit there were a few hiccups here and there before that came about.

Playground rhetoric
Mr Trump came out a little bruised on the North Korean matter as well. After initially striking a somewhat conciliatory tone towards the communist regime, urging it to do a deal over its nuclear weapons programme, he adopted an aggressive posture shortly afterwards in his address to the South Korean legislature; defiantly telling the volatile man up north not to test America’s might. Unsurprisingly, the North Korean regime replied with insults, calling Mr Trump an ‘old lunatic’, ‘warmonger’ and ‘dotard.’ Not one to take such expletives lying down, the American president threw back a few of his own, suggestively referring to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as ‘short’ and ‘fat’. Even so, if there is a slight chance of some deal with the communist regime, Mr Trump’s unusual style probably makes him best-placed to make it happen. China remains crucial to any potential progress, however. Unfortunately, they did not offer more than they already had on the matter.

Flatter to naught
The Japanese were more gracious at least; they imposed additional unilateral sanctions on North Korea. Not that this could necessarily be attributed to Mr Trump’s powers of persuasion: North Korea fired missiles over Japan in mid-September. And this was despite Mr Trump’s taunts at prime minister Shinzo Abe: He went on unabashedly about how the Japanese were inferior to Americans and wondered aloud why the Japanese did not shoot down the North Korean missile, suggesting how if they had American-made weapons, they would have been able to do so easily. (The Japanese are officially pacifist but have a military for self-defense purposes.) Little wonder then his Japanese trip turned out to be a failure somewhat. He did not get much from them on trade; a major issue for him. (Like China, Japan also maintains trade surpluses with America; albeit at 9 percent of the total American trade deficit, it pales in comparison to China’s 47 percent.) As if to buttress the point, the Japanese ruled out a potential Free Trade agreement (FTA) with the Americans, Mr Trump’s preferred route to dealing with trade imbalances. Instead, Japan led the effort to ensure a deal was reached on the so-called TPP-11. The Asians were all smiles but gave him little.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/flattered-trump-achieves-little-asia/

What is the point of Trump’s Asian trip?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Donald Trump, the American president, arrived Beijing today (8 Nov), the third stop on his 5-country Asian trip, after earlier stops in Japan and penultimately, South Korea. Heralding his arrival was a reminder about China’s trade surplus with America, which came out at US$26.6 billion for October; making it a total of US$223 billion thus far this year. President Trump would like the reverse to be the case. Unfortunately, it would continue to be a source of frustration for him, and in fact any other American leader who desires that China buy at least as much (if not more) American goods and services as go the other way. Incidentally, China is already making headway in the sophisticated industries that America may have once relied upon to stay ahead; which often are in partnership with American companies in China itself. And even as Mr Trump tries to bring back American companies back home from places like China, with jobs in tandem, the economics still favours them staying abroad; albeit not necessarily in China but in cheaper Southeast Asian countries. Turns out, Mr Trump is scheduled to address the 2017 ASEAN summit on 14 November in The Philippines, where bashful and often uncouth president Rodrigo Duterte may be just the ideal host for his similarly mannered American counterpart. And such is the importance the Americans attach to it that Mr Trump’s itinerary was extended by a day to accommodate the ASEAN speech. He would not be leaving China empty-handed, though. At least US$9 billion in deals are expected to be made between chief executives of American companies on Mr Trump’s entourage and their Chinese counterparts, commerce secretary Wilbur Ross is reported by CNBC to have said. (Another official is reported to put potential deals to be signed at US$250 billion.)*

Rocket man
With a belligerent leadership at the helm and reckoning by the Russians that in two to three years, it could have missiles able to hit America, North Korea remains a thorny issue. On his first day in Seoul (7 November), Mr Trump struck a somewhat calm tone on the great matter; urging the North Korean regime to come to the negotiating table and do a deal. Next day, while addressing the South Korean legislature, it was the reverse; defiantly telling the communist regime up north not to test America’s might. These are all very well; but fact is, Mr Trump achieved nothing there. And the elements came up against him en route to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, as his chopper could not risk an unanticipated fog. The Japanese, who he visited (5-7 November) before the Korean leg, tried to be gracious at least; they imposed additional unilateral sanctions on North Korea. Not that this could be attributed to Mr Trump’s persuasive powers: North Korea fired a missile over Japan in a show of strenght recently. Of course, Mr Trump could not stop himself from taunting prime minister Shinzo Abe on why the Japanese did not shoot down the missile. Ever the salesman, he did not forget to make a pitch for how American weapons would be able to easily do just that, though. (The Japanese are officially pacifist but maintain a handful of troops, supposedly for self-defense purposes.)

Emperor’s new clothes
Of course, Mr Trump did not see how ill-fitting it was to boast about American might to the face of Mr Abe; going on unabashedly about how the Japanese were still second fiddle to Americans. Little wonder then his Japanese trip turned out to be a failure somewhat. He did not get much from them on trade; a major issue for him. Like China, Japan also maintains trade surpluses with America; albeit at 9 percent of the total American trade deficit, it pales in comparison to China’s 47 percent. As if to buttress the point, the Japanese ruled out a Free Trade agreement (FTA) with the Americans, Mr Trump’s preferred route to dealing with trade imbalances; as opposed to the now 11-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that he ditched but which the Japanese are keen on, for instance. An FTA with the Japanese would have been hailed by Mr Trump as a victory. A highly likely meeting with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, his next stop from China, would no doubt be overshadowed by ongoing investigations back home into Russian links of Mr Trump’s associates during his presidential campaign. In the meantime, he should enjoy some relief at his current stop: the Chinese reportedly plan to treat him like an emperor. That is not usually a compliment.

*Trump & Xi announced US$253.4B in deals on 9 Nov 2017; albeit a significant portion is not substantive, as they are simply MoUs and so on.

What about the 2017 BRICS summit?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

The BRICS group of five emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) held its 9th summit in the Chinese city of Xiamen this year (3-5 September). Originally just an idea by former Goldman Sachs (an investment bank) executive Jim O’Neill in a 2001 publication dubbed “Building Better Global Economic BRICs”, BRICS countries today constitute almost a quarter of global output. They have not proved to be as inspiring since those heady days, though. Since its first substantive summit in June 2009, only China (GDP: US$11.2 trillion) and India (GDP: US$2.3 trillion) have proved to be consistent good performers, albeit China has since 2015 adjusted to a new normal of below 7 percent growth. India is forecast by the IMF to continue powering on above 7 percent, though; over the next two years, at least, after a 7.1 percent headline in 2016. But that is where the good story ends. Brazil (GDP: $1.8 trillion) only emerged from a 2-year recession (the longest in its history) in the first quarter of 2017. And South Africa (GDP: $0.3 trillion) exited a relatively short-lived one in the quarter afterwards.

Mostly about China
The 2017 meeting was somewhat overshadowed by coincidental negative global geopolitical happenings; top among them being the firing in late August 2017 of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) over Japan by the communist North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un. China, which consititutes more than 60 percent of BRICS output, was called on by world powers to reign in the North Korean regime, which depends a great deal on it for sustenance. Naturally, the key headline from the final communique was related to the crisis. In any case, BRICS has become a veritable platform for China to project power and influence, as it seeks to have more say in international affairs. (As the second largest economy in the world, China would like the IMF to be more representative of the new global economic order, for instance.) And judging from the paltry US$80 million funding commitment ($76 million for an economic and technological cooperation plan and $4 million for projects by the group’s development bank) China made at this most recent BRICS summit, the group probably serves no greater purpose than that; especially when you consider its US$124 billion funding commitment in May 2017 to its ambitious Belt and Road initiative or so-called new Silk Road plan. (It did pledge $500 million for a South-South cooperation fund, though.) As a counterweight to recent American insularity, China used the occasion to once again make the case for globalisation and climate change; two major global issues the Americans have been reluctant to show leadership on under its current president, Donald Trump. Specifically, Chinese president Xi Jinping posited the group “should push for an open world economy, promote trade liberalization and facilitation, jointly create a new global value chain, and realize a global economic rebalancing”. 

BRICS plus
The 2017 summit had one major distinction though. It was its largest gathering yet, with non-BRICS countries like Guinea, Mexico, Egypt, Thailand, and Tajikistan in attendance as observers. Their presence was informed by a so-called “BRICS-plus” initiative proposed by China, which could see the current 5-member group include more countries, although this was not formalized at the summit. Of course, it is not too difficult to see why Mexico might be interested in more global outreach, as it faces an imminent dissolution of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which if successful would see it lose lucrative market access to America. Considering it is a major campaign promise of President Trump, it is probably only a matter of time before this happens. Mr Trump desires that America get more from NAFTA, which he believes is currently lopsided in favour of neighbours like Mexico. In any case, China indicated it was interested in entering into a free trade agreement with Mexico; in line with a trend where it now increasingly fills the gap left behind by a less-ambitious America. One of the observer African countries, Guinea, got something as well: it secured a US$20 billion loan over about a 20-year period from China in exchange for mining concessions on its bauxite deposits. Structurally, it did not seem like a bad deal, as revenues from projects the loan would fund would be used to service it. They include a planned alumina refinery and two bauxite mine projects. Roads, a power transmission line and a university are other projects earmarked. Still, considering how shrewd the Chinese are, it is not likely the Guineans got the better side of the deal; especially as the Chinese would get to keep any potential gains down the line, often beyond that which could be reasonably valued at the early stages. Like its other international trade and foreign policy initiatives, the ulimate beneficiary of BRICS is China itself.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. http://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/09/08/what-about-the-2017-brics-summit-by-rafiq-raji/

Itinerant Nigerians

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

It is almost always true that when abroad and you sight a black man, it is well worth taking the risk that the person is Nigerian. You’d be surer if in response to polite entreaties, the passerby is deliberately snubbish. It depends on the setting though. Wait long enough, there would soon be the occasional irritation, the response to which would almost definitely confirm his origins. One out of every five blacks on planet earth is Nigerian. And no matter how much he feigns the perfect British or American accent, his archetypal Nigerian mannerisms are hard to conceal. Some argue we travel a lot because of our chaotic situation back home. Not necessarily. Yes, a lot seek the good life. Most are just curious. But a lot really travel just to show off. Take away the pictures of them at popular foreign landmarks, showing how ‘they are enjoying life,” some Nigerians might consider the trips a waste of money. Even the uber wealthy ones want to show how much ‘jollofing’ they are doing, posting pictures of themselves in their first or business class plane cabins or seats on social media. And these are the ‘small boys’. Big boys fly their private jets, with our stolen foreign exchange neatly tucked in their luggage it turns out – pictures of their vanity never include those for sure. You’d think with that much wealth they wouldn’t need the phony gratifications that soon pour afterwards. Nigerians are very curious and vain cats. We want to know: Where is it? What is it? What do they do there? Who runs things? (That curiosity, unfortunately, has not extended to science, innovation and progress. And it is not because of a lack of capacity for hard work. We are rarely slothful. In that vanity that we all seem to share perhaps lie the answer to our continued suffering, well-hidden under forced but outwardly believable smiles.)

Act, not bicker
So, imagine the anxiety of itinerant Nigerians when the nightmarish campaign promises of now American president, Donald Trump – especially on immigration – began to become reality. In the typical Nigerian fashion, our officials – when they are not busy behaving like we don’t exist – took to bickering over jurisdiction. The presidential adviser (‘senior special assistant’) on foreign affairs and the diaspora, the ever dynamic Abike Dabiri-Erewa – whose long-earned reputation for candour and palpable compassion from her days as a government-employed journalist is well-known – in her characteristic way, took to her first constituency, the media, advising Nigerians to re-consider non-essential travel to America, after a number of Nigerians were detained upon arrival at American airports and subsequently returned; even as they had valid visas.

You would think the Nigerian foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, a meek personality, would be a little pleased. He was not amused. Ordinarily, there is usually a power-play of sorts between presidential advisers and ministers. In most cases, the advisers prevail; because they often have the mandate of the chief of staff, who functionally acts for the president in most administrations. One does not know if Mrs Dabiri-Erewa consulted Mr Onyeama before going on air about her concerns. Bear in mind, the American incidents came not too long after the most recent xenophobic attacks on Nigerians by South Africans. Considering how slow the wheel of governance turns in the public service, I would not be surprised at all if what actually transpired was that the no-nonsense Mrs Dabiri-Erewa finally lost her patience. And quite frankly, she is a more credible figure. After spending an entire career exposing untruths, advice coming from her is instantly credible. By his own admission to a local radio station, Mr Onyeama did not have a conference with her before his ministry issued a counter-advisory asking Nigerians to ignore her advice. The stakes are much too high for such pettiness. Mr Onyeama is a gentleman. But leadership requires dynamism as well.

Between getting an American visa, purchasing a ticket and so on, a Nigerian would have parted with at least a million naira (more than US$3,000), never mind the unbelievable stress in between. And upon getting to the American airport, the Nigerian typically has to endure myriad questions by security officials. With the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance, however, this scrutiny has taken on gargantuan proportions. So is the Nigerian better served by being told to travel only just to be served the bitterness of the many indignities Africans tend to endure at foreign airports? Or is it better to wait till one is sure all that toil ahead of the trip would not come to naught at just the time when one was beginning to sing praises? Surely it makes more sense for Mr Onyeama to focus on addressing the latter concern.

Give more than hope
There are numerous tales of woe by Nigerians, who upon reaching a foreign airport, are made to go through all sorts of screening. And this scrutiny is even more enhanced in Asian airports. Some candour here though. It is said Asians have difficulty differentiating African faces, hence why if you land in a Chinese airport, say, they single out Africans for more ‘enlightening’ pictures. At least that was my experience at the Shanghai airport some years back. Most Nigerians would ordinarily bear this (not that we are left with much of a choice) – as did I – if at the end of it all, with their documents deemed valid, they are allowed to go about their legitimate business. The uncertainty that comes with the possibility that even after all these, one may be ‘returned’ is hard to imagine.

Could it be that Mr Onyeama, a blue-passported minister, has so soon forgotten the experience of what it feels like to be a Nigerian abroad? Perhaps it is true then that not until our leaders compulsorily experience our daily challenges, they might not be more sensitive to our plight: our undeservedly pampered government officials must now ply the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, after the forced closure of the Abuja international airport for repairs. Needless to say, the road has become virtually anew overnight. Regardless of what motivates Mrs Dabiri-Erewa, the passion with which she does her duty is refreshing. Undeterred, she gave South African politicians covertly encouraging xenophobic attacks against Nigerians a piece of her mind only this past weekend. Stars just shine. Those who can’t bear the glare should shut their eyes.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/itinerant-nigerians/

Time for Hailemariam to lead

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

With an economy set to grow by more than 7 percent over the next few years – after about 10 percent on average over the past five, Ethiopia is a bright spot on a continent beset by stagnation as commodity prices remain tepid. Its growing success in replicating China’s manufacture-for-export model is a source of hope for peers and partners who desire an Africa that adds more value to its resources. Cheap labour, ample power generation capacity in view, and generous investment incentives are major attractions. Still, much of what Ethiopia has been able to achieve can be traced to its stable polity, held so by an autocratic leadership that has little tolerance for the slightest dissent. Erstwhile forceful leader, Meles Zenawi, was able to hold things together, because of his credentials. He led the rebellion that freed his countrymen from the much loathed Derg military regime. Under a more genteel leader, Hailemariam Desalegn, that model has become increasingly tested. Most recently, albeit intermittently hitherto, an uprising by the Oromo and Amhara tribes – about two-thirds of the population – over land and basic human rights threatens to unravel the country’s economic miracle. It need not be so. The most recent casaulties of the face-off with authorities are more than 50, adding to about 400 believed to have been killed since 2015 under similar circumstances. About 40,000 jobs are now at risk, after protesters attacked foreign-owned establishments. For Ethiopia’s economic success to continue, the politics can no longer be ignored. Room has to be made for the quite diverse polity. Mr Hailemariam has a chance to do this. But to succeed, he would need to be his own man.

Address the concerns
The Oromo and Amhara peoples feel marginalised by the ruling minority Tigray tribe, about 7 percent of the population, which dominates the government and military. The authorities have met their agitations with brute force. This approach worked in the past, on the surface at least. Not this time: this recent unrest was triggered precisely because of the authorities’ heavyhandedness to what are widely believed to be legitimate concerns. The troubles this time could be potentially more damaging than past ones: foreign investors are being targeted. Lingering terrorist threats from neighbours are daunting enough; add unrest by a majority of the population, and you have a combustible mix. And the protests are growing nationwide; these are not isolated and distant pockets of dissatisfaction. It is widespread. And they could spread even more. Solution then? Address the concerns. The Oromo want more self-determination. The Amhara likewise. Authorities might be quick to point out that the country operates a republic of semi-independent states, with enormous leeway guaranteed them in the Constitution, including the right to secede. That is not the case in reality. There needs to be more inclusion. A devolution of actual powers to the regions might be a good start.

Allow more room for dissent and political expression
It was always going to be a huge task for Mr Hailemariam to fill the shoes of his larger than life predecessor – Mr Zenawi had a force of personality that is palpably missing in his successor. Already perceived to be weak, he likely fears those views could become entrenched if the current unrest is treated with kid gloves. Still, Mr Hailemariam has an opportunity here. It is in time of crisis that leaders often emerge; tested at least, in a manner that cements their authority to the point where they are able to make bolder moves. The longer the Oromo and Amhara protests and deaths continue at the hands of the security forces, the more hardened the protesters would get. And now they may have caught on to the one thing that would get the attention of the ruling elite: targeting foreign investors. If there is anything that has made the autocratic leadership tolerable, it is the veneer of stability it has engendered, the type investors crave. They have shown that confidence with their pockets, pouring money into manufacturing and agriculture. Ethiopia has the only other light railway mass transit system in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa. And only just recently, it opened a Chinese-built railway to Djibouti, whose seaport it relies on. Its development-before-democracy paradigm faces its toughest test yet. Just as foreign investment gains have come about by the authorities’ strong grip, their reluctance to adopt a more democratic approach may be what unravels them. And frankly, a desire for equity by a genuinely aggrieved people is not farfetched. Land sold to foreign investors should be well compensated for. Locals should be given greater consideration in employment. And there should be a preference for dialogue over coercion. The Oromo and Amhara are too numerous and determined to be put to rest by force. The authorities must engage them and find a solution that is acceptable within the bounds of reason.

Tough love by powers could help
Democratic reforms would be easier under Mr Hailemariam. But to fend off likely resistance from the Tigray elite that dominates the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), his hand would need to be strengthened. He is not Tigray. Neither is he an Ethiopian orthodox christian. World powers have leverage: about $3 billion in aid. The United States has already raised significant concerns. Together with others – German chancellor Angela Merkel visits this week, they should engage the leadership, making the point that the protests provide a unique opportunity to finally embark on much needed democratic reforms. The Oromo and Amhara are likely to be less agitated if they believe they are able to participate in the democratic process. Not the charade midwifed by the authorities hitherto: how is it that not a single seat in parliament is occupied by an opposition party? Ms Merkel has refused an invitation to address the ‘lawmakers.’ She plans to speak to opposition parties though. Fact is, it is when people feel stifled and find no means to exert their opinions that they resort to insurrection. True, the minority Tigray worry if they did that, they could be overwhelmed. That is often not the case. And even so, they might have little choice now that more than half of the population has had enough. And in this age of instant news and social media, it would be foolhardy for the authorities to think that they could quell yet again another uprising with force. A state of emergency has been declared. Sadly, the authorities may yet learn a lesson.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/time-for-hailemariam-to-lead/