Tag Archives: Ethiopia

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/

My Coffee, My Addis. #Travel #Ethiopia

By Rafiq Raji

The Africa you should seePicture I took from my hotel room of a building I dubbed “the falling tower of pisa”

Ethiopians love their coffee. Well, I love coffee as well. I’ve recently had to cut back on my intake – apparently drinking too much coffee could be problematic for the digestive system. Too late. However, I’m skeptical that caution would apply to Ethiopian coffee. At least, not the coffee I drank during my first visit to the country in late 2013. That caffeine kick you get when you drink instant coffee is an intrusion, I think. You drink Ethiopian coffee (got another chance in London at the Africa Utopia food market in September 2014); you don’t feel any of that. Instead, your senses are enlivened by the aroma, taste and smoothness of the coffee. At least mine were. And since one drank a lot of awful instant coffee most of the time, believe me it was not too difficult to tell the difference. You drink it and you want to know how much it had journeyed to finally make it to your cup. You want another cup, and then another cup; until afterwards you say maybe I should stop now. But it certainly wouldn’t be because you fear the coffee would burn a hole in your stomach. Ethiopians take their coffee seriously. And whether you are rich or poor, it is the same coffee.

On holiday and being in Ethiopia for the first time in late 2013, I was curious. First of all, I wanted to know how they’d manage to do so well with their national airline unlike a lot of other African countries. Well, how do you get a feel for that? Well, you fly the airline. So I did. Once in Addis Ababa, I took my time to survey the airport. The Bole International Airport is functional. The first thought that came to my mind was: Chinese. The Shanghai and Beijing international airports are not extravagant. They are simply functional and efficient. Bole was built by the Chinese. You could tell instantly. One thing I did observe was the caution around foreign exchange. One was able to procure goods and services in the convertible foreign currencies quite easily. To acquire foreign currency (to convert your Birrs to US dollars, say), however, you had to go to a bank. You could also change currencies both ways at any of the international hotel chains. Since I was also attending The African High-Growth Markets Summit organized by The Economist at one of them, I made enquiries. Yes, you could. But at the smaller and less pricey ones, you get your change in Birrs. At least, that was my experience at the hotel I stayed at. As you can imagine, I was on a budget. When paying my hotel (not an international chain) bills, the receptionist gave me change in Birrs for my US dollars.

On the road to the hotel, I kept trying to benchmark the size of the city with other African cities I had been in. Nigeria’s northwestern city of Kaduna was the closest city I could think of that compared with Addis. But Addis is a much more international city than Kaduna. The African Union, United Nations and a myriad of other multilateral agencies and NGOs have made Addis their home. It is somewhat of a paradox that a supposedly “closed” country would be host to so many international agencies (and many international conferences) on the African continent. First thing I did when I got to the hotel was to pick up the local newspapers at the lobby. There is just no way you can get a feel for a country without actually going there, meet its people and get a feel for what makes the country tick.

The other thing I try do when I visit a city – not that I’ve visited many – for the first time (and even subsequently) is go for a walk/jog around the city centre. There is a lot that you miss if you try to get a feel for a city from behind the windows of a car. You have to breathe the air. You have to lock gazes with the locals. You have to get into conversations with them. Even make a few mistakes. For instance, I thought the ornate surroundings of this particular compound was worthy of a photo. Well, in no time, the guards came out from their watching posts and wondered why I was taking a photo. Unbeknownst to me, it was an official residence. I did think though the surroundings were eerily calm. It was so for a reason. I was not too eager to take out my camera afterwards though. My caution was unnecessary. Soon enough, I’d see other tourists clicking away. Unlike most of them, however, I didn’t get a chance to see the hinterland. Not that I’d planned to do much spending on this trip. I was on a budget, remember. I did acquire some books on Ethiopia that I doubt you’d find readily elsewhere. But there was a lot of sightseeing I didn’t get to do.

For instance, Abyssinia (in today’s Ethiopia) is of great importance to Muslims. The first set of Muslims to flee persecution in Makkah (in then pagan Arabia) found refuge in Abyssinia and were settled in Negash (northern part of today’s Ethiopia) by King Armah (“Ashama ibn Abjar” in the Arabic tradition) of Axum. As a Muslim, I would have loved to visit (still do) where they were buried. Time and money were constraints. I also didn’t get to visit any of the nine World Heritage Sites in the country. The stone castles of Gondar, rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, and Lake Tana monasteries are marvels I’m told. The country’s high mountains – some over 4,500 metres high – are also breathtaking, I gather. These are sites I’d certainly like to visit on my next trip, which I hope would be some time soon. I’d definitely like to travel the so-called Historic Circuit, which includes some of the above-mentioned sites and more.

I did enjoy my walk through the city though; often a round trip that started on Tito street where my hotel was located, through Menelik II Avenue, Taitu street and Yohanis Street and then back on Tito street. It was also surprisingly (for me) cold at night. I visited during the dry season, usually between October and May. Although it was chilly in London at that time of the year, I was a little surprised I had to hang on to my jacket at night the entire time. As you can imagine, I didn’t get to see a lot of the many sites I would have loved to see. Having happened on quite some time lately, you wish you could move time and money to coincide with a travel opportunity. And even when that happens, you want to go somewhere different. The lesson I’ve learnt, however, is to make sure to be more exploring of the cities I travel to. So the next Ethiopian trip – though likely more adventurous – would have to wait. But then coffee is best-enjoyed one slow sip at a time!

Opinions expressed are mine and not that of any institution(s) I may be affiliated with.