A significant milestone was registered at the Ethiopian Parliament recently when, at his latest question and answer session with the parliamentarians, the Prime Minister was confronted by one of the MPs to respond to a very simple question: who takes responsibility for leaving Ethiopia (notably Addis) dark and cold during the current rainy season?
I begin with such hyperbole for a number of reasons. The first of these is the repeated assertion by many that, perhaps, it is impossible, if not outright dangerous, to confront the Prime Minister on any number of issues affecting the country. To be sure, the concerned MP registered his queries in a very public place where the stated agenda was specifically to question the Prime Minister.
The second reason is that whenever questions of import are directed to him, one usually finds the ‘straight-talking’ Prime Minister responding both acerbically as well as definitively if not sarcastically leaving the questioner in a state of befuddlement or bewilderment. In most instances, those who have the opportunity---err permission –to ask questions are very careful in using appropriate language so as not to offend.
The third reason is, as I understand it, members of parliament who wish to ask questions of the Prime Minister must, in accordance with the rules of the Parliament, submit their request in writing ahead of time to the Speaker of the House who may or may not allow such questions to be heard in the first place.
Let me get to the specific question at hand. Ato Lidetu Ayalew, an MP from Addis Ababa had several questions for the Prime Minister. Having earned and acquired the right to speak, the MP questioned the Prime Minister on matters including, the need for adjusting the salaries of civil servants due to the high rate of inflation, the state of the economy, the shortage of foreign exchange, and other pertinent issues of concern to him. The MP became a bit passionate and spirited, however, when he implored the Prime Minister as to who was responsible for leaving Ethiopia dark and cold during the current rainy season. Who should we hold accountable, he implored, a low ranking bureaucrat, an administrator or you the Prime Minister? For those who are unfamiliar with the issue, Ethiopia is said to have lost equivalent to one percent of its Gross Domestic Product as a result of the chronic power shortages that have plagued the country recently.
MP Lidetu’s question was not only intended to bring the situation to the attention of the Prime Minister, but it was also meant to show both displeasure and dissatisfaction at the perceived lack of accountability in all matters of governmental affairs in the country, and as conducted by the ruling party.
We have seen the Prime Minister engage in question and answer sessions with business people, community leaders, special interest groups and citizens many times. In most of these sessions, the groups or individuals in attendance state their views first, and the Prime Minister has the last word as he responds to the concerns that have been brought to him. For obvious reasons, the opportunity for dialogue in such settings is quite limited.
What was astounding to me, however, was the Prime Minister’s response to the question of accountability: simply stated, he placed it on poverty. He stated that there was no need to look for an individual or groups of individuals who should be held accountable for the extant conditions as the blame should be placed squarely on the country’s poverty.
Why is this astounding? It is so because after 18 years in power where else but in Ethiopia can a ruling party place blame for things that have gone wrong on the poverty of the people. To be sure, poverty has something to do with it. But what about planning, what about contingencies and mitigations, what about efficiency, what about governmental effectiveness, what about government regulations, and what about corruption and graft? I respect and admire the Prime Minister’s intellect and his acumen as a superb tactician, and I have stated so in my other commentaries. In my opinion, however, his response to the MP’s question regarding his government’s inability to assure a reasonably constant supply of power and blaming the regrettable fiasco on poverty is simply disingenuous. After all, Ethiopia was poor during previous regimes as well, yet the interruption of the supply of power today is unprecedented. In truly democratic countries, the provision of public services is such a sensitive issue, no government anywhere else could have gotten away with turning off the power spigots under normal circumstances.
The wealth of a nation is not simply the accumulation of its currency or the number of people who have accumulated cash and other valuables. The true wealth of a nation is its productive capacity---the goods, products and services it has the capacity to produce. Viewed in this manner, Ethiopia’s poverty stems, in part, from its inability to produce goods and services to satisfy the needs of its citizens.
Ethiopia can not attract foreign investment if the supply of power is not assured; there can not be progress made in the manufacturing sector without a reliable power supply; there can not be progress made in the improvement of public security when there is a lack of power; modern societies are mobile and mobility requires energy and uninterrupted supply of power; public safety can not be enhanced under dark or badly lit streets and alleys; small businesses can not thrive under conditions where the power supply is interrupted frequently or is entirely unavailable; the education system suffers when students are forced to read only during the day time; provisions of health services are poor when the power supply is inefficient; and one can not assure increases in productivity and, hence, economic growth under conditions where the supply of energy to run whatever manufacturing there exists is uncertain.
In one recent study, an economist from the University of Addis Ababa found that, on average, people worked only four hours a day---that is only 20 hours a week compared to 40 hours in the United States and 35 in France. There can be no doubt that the shortage of power supply in Ethiopia would further reduce the number of hours devoted to the production of goods and services. It would not be too farfetched to imagine if people began blaming their lack of productivity on the overall level of poverty in the country following the Prime Minster’s lead!
There has been enormous progress over the past several years in the building of dams, the development of the river systems, as well as in the building and improvement of infrastructure of the country. Regardless of the source of the information, the economy has been growing steadily and impressively. And even though the leadership may suffer from the lack of capacity, it does not suffer from the shortage of an attitude for growth. And for this, the government must be afforded all due credit. While the future is bright, it is difficult to think of the long term because getting there requires a minimum level of preparedness that appears to be somewhat lacking today. It would be nice for the leaders to accept some shared responsibility voluntarily. The way to begin is by demanding an ethics of accountability!
The author resides in the United States and is not a member of and does not endorse any political party in Ethiopia, and can be reached at email@example.com.