Spring Commentary 2009

 

Here are my Spring commentaries where I comment on current issues and events (20 of them). 

 

1. Bravo Meles Zenawi

 

Whether we liked it or not, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has become a household name in the African diplomatic community. But, why did some Diaspora people condemn his participation during the London G-20 meeting? I am not talking about those who braved on the street of London to let the world know that they had political grievances against the Ethiopian government. They were entitled to do that. I am talking about those who have been writing very mad that Ethiopia, through Prime Minister Meles, represented Africa at the G-20 meeting, which was more about economic survival? Could anyone help us explain the behaviour of such people?  Are they simply a bunch of losers with self-perception problems or genuine people who are doing things in the wrong way? 

 

2. Constructive engagement has become the norm

 

We do not necessarily agree politically with EPRDF.  The issues of poverty and development bring us together. The Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Philippines, Egyptian and other Diaspora, all have political grievances, yet they set aside their differences to contribute in the development processes of their countries of origin. As you know, the problem in the Ethiopian Diaspora is that yesteryear political and intellectual elites have settled in the West and, although they are a minority, they have used their writing and organizational skills to shift attention to their politics (state power) including lobbying against foreign aid, international investment and tourism to Ethiopia. As I write, there are those who have taken charge of agitation against buying bonds issued by the Ethiopian Power Corporation, knowing that access to electricity helps to stimulate rural economic growth and immediately end the medieval-like isolation of our relatives.  In spite of this, we are very pleased to see an increasing number of our compatriots setting aside their differences to stand together with Ethiopian political and civic leaders to fight poverty.

 

3. Who will replace Prime Minister Meles Zenawi?

 

These days the concern is not about leaders leaving power, as a measure of strength of electoral democracy, but whether democracy is taking roots in developing societies in the first place. Last month, the Canadian national magazine Maclean’s interviewed some of the renowned thinkers on democracy and their anxiety was clear especially in this time of economic crisis which could led to democracy reversals. In fact, Maclean’s said that many developing countries could be looking to the Chinese and even to some extent Russian models which allow economic freedom while limiting political rights. This is not to say that democracy is not a desirable development goal. Democratization efforts in Ethiopia should continue.  In talking about Meles’ replacement (potentially by 2015), I have three people in mind: 1) Arkebe Iqubay, 2) Girma Birru and 3) Ayalew Gobeze. Arkebe is a real genius but I am not sure whether it can be politically feasible to replace a Tigrean (Meles) with another Tigrean. This is very sad but it may be true. The rise of Girma Birru to power could appease many Oromo intellectual and political elites who have dominated Ethiopian politics since the 1970s, especially Derge. The question is whether Girma would be able to give EPRDF a new make-up. Ayalew Gobeze, cool, confident and self-disciplined, would be good for the job. Yet, some ethnic groups may feel uneasy with a hardcore Amhara as a prime minister, given the fresh memory of exploitation and repression under Shewa elites, even though they included Oromos and from other ethnic groups. Nor would Ayalew get the sympathy of Addis Ababa elites who know the tendency of the growing powerful Bahir Dar political class to identify itself with the North (Tigray) rather than with central Ethiopia.  I am for Ayalew Gobeze.  Of course, all this is a Diaspora person’s perspective. We have no idea of what is being debated inside EPRDF.

 

4. “Meles Vindicated?”

 

In 2006, Meles wrote that the role of a modern African state was not different from the role of a night watchman - guarding property. In the aftermath of the current world economic crisis, the leaders of “night watchman” state in Washington, DC, have no choice except to acknowledge the responsibility for letting the market reign free. Meles may be vindicated for predicting the decline (he wrote the end) of neo-liberalist development agenda in Africa. But the fact is also that African people remain faced with many development challenges.  His own state (the Ethiopian state) still remains dominated by bureaucrats and rigged with chronic corruption, although it has improved its capacity in the delivery of public services and goods.

 

5. Birtukan Mediksa

 

Prime Minister Meles should summon his legal experts to find a way of releasing Birtukan Mediksa from jail. Birtukan is a victim of the political environment influenced by the old folks in Addis and Diaspora hooligans. As I said above, we do not agree with EPRDF politically and this is one example. We are fully aware of the legal issues and complexities. It is just that we see things differently – as a moral issue. For example, why would EPRDF send an inexperienced young woman to jail while former Derge people like Hailu Shawel are vying for power? 

 

6. To Bereket Simon

 

Why are Ethiopians going on television and radio to speak mixing English with Amharic? Do they know that 90% of Ethiopians do not speak English or they think that they are speaking only to English speaking Ethiopians? There should be some communication rules or directives that require every word spoken on the public media by politicians, journalists, professionals, etc, to be crystal clear to the Ethiopian people. Since I was educated in the Diaspora and speak English every day, I may find it difficulty to speak in Amharic at professional level. What will be the problem with people who live and work in Ethiopia, unless they want to show off their English speaking abilities? Which is stupid.  By the way, you are doing a good job these days. Keep it on brother.

 

 

7. To the “Diaspora intellectuals”

 

The average literacy level in the Diaspora may be in the range of grade 7 to 11. If your intention is public education, please write simple. If not, you should consider taking your papers to Journals and other publishers, assuming that you are not writing garbage.

 

8. Who are the Diaspora actors?

 

If you are from places far away from Addis Ababa such as Gondar, the possibility is that you know little about the backgrounds of many of the self-claimed political, media and civic actors that have overrun our Diaspora communities. You only know them when they “expose “ each other, and as a result, you might probably have begun to feel that many of them are in fact tribal, ethnic and Shabia thugs who used your community resources including your own money to wage propaganda war against their political adversaries.  In fact, today one may not be wrong to say that the Ethiopian opposition camp (both abroad and at home) has become a gathering place for fanatics, thugs, reactionaries, dictators, thieves, defectors, opportunists, former TPLFs, former EPRDFs and Shabias. The Diaspora opposition is effectively dead, save EPRP at least for showing a sign of heartbeat and if God can bring an experienced medical doctor to resuscitate it before it is too late. Inside Ethiopia, the only disciplined national opposition party is Lidetu Ayalew’s Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP). Whether or not the next election will work in favour of EDP is an important question, since the Ethiopian public has lost faith in the opposition parties and each one of them would be a causality of this.

 

9. Al  Moudi’s fortunes rose

 

We continue to appreciate Al Moudi’s generosity in support of many social projects in Ethiopia. His fortunes are rising and Mama Ethiopia should be pleased with this.

  

10. Eritrean refugees

 

I arrived in a refugee camp called Emrakuba in Easter Sudan in the early 1980s. Within weeks I was working in farm fields and within months I entered the cities to work in hotels and restaurants, ending up in Khartoum within two years. It is rather regrettable that the movement of the so-called Eritrean refugees in Northern Ethiopia has remained limited to refugee camps. I am also of the view that the Eritrean refugee situation has been highly politicized by the Ethiopian government.

 

11. Railway construction: long overdue

 

We congratulate the Amhara Regional State for conceiving a project to construct railway in the region. This is a critical factor in economic development and we know that the federal government will provide leadership to replicate this project in other regions.

 

 

 

12. American foreign policy + opportunity for the Diaspora

 

The progressive Hilary Clinton got appointed as a Secretary of State. Her husband happens to be a beneficiary of Sheik Al Moudi. Meles Zenawi once belonged to a “pack” of centre-left world leaders to which Bill Clinton belonged. President Obama has spent part of his childhood in a country shattered by poverty (Indonesia) and it is not surprising that poverty is his priority.  These and other factors combined have shut out the vocal Diaspora. Perhaps all this can be a good thing. We can start real politics all over again, focusing on how the opposition could outsmart and out-perform EPRDF, not how the opposition could remove EPRDF from power by mobilizing popular discontent.  I believe it was Lidetu Ayalew who said that EPRDF had readied itself to rule not for years but for decades. What he meant was also that the opposition must work harder in the face of a mighty and an increasingly innovative political force called EPRDF. At the end of the day supporting a genuine opposition is not to oppose EPRDF and vice versa. The fact of the matter is that nurturing Ethiopia’s young democracy requires the presence of a strong opposition that safeguards the plurality of electoral democracy and open and accountable decision-making systems. Perhaps it is time that that we reclaim our Diaspora political space and stand united to create and support genuine opposition forces that reflect the interest and aspiration of our poor relatives.

 

13.  Who gets more aid?

 

The two tables below are from official development assistance statistics prepared by the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development). They show the top 10 aid recipient countries for Africa (table 1) and developing countries as a whole (table 2) for year 2006. As you can appreciate, Nigeria, an oil rich country, ranks 1st both in Africa and developing countries, while Ethiopia ranks 4th in Africa and 7th in developing countries overall. Just for your information and also to show our appreciation of international donors for helping out Ethiopia as well as to praise the professionalism of Ethiopian government bureaucrats who manage a plethora of donor organizations. Our Diaspora thugs call Prime Minister Meles Zenawi a “professional beggar” , angry because he has been able to raise international resources for Ethiopia and Africa? I don’t know whether these people have a self-perception problem.

Table 1.

 

Africa

Aid Disbursement (US$ billions) in 2006

 

 

Percentage

1. Nigeria

11.434B

26%

2. Sudan

2.058B

5%

3. Dem.Rep. Congo

2.056B

5%

4. Ethiopia

1.947B

4%

5. Tanzania

1.825B

4%

6. Cameroon

1.684B

4%

7. Mozambique

1.611B

4%

8. Uganda

1.551B

4%

9. Zambia

1.425B

3%

10. Ghana

1.176B

3%

Others

16.636B

38%

Total

43.402B

100%

Table 2.

All developing countries

Aid Disbursement (US$ billions) in 2006

 

 

Percentage

 

1. Nigeria

11.434B

11%

 

2. Iraq

8.661B

8%

 

3. Afghanistan

3.0B

3%

 

4. Pakistan

2.147B

2%

 

5. Sudan

2.058B

2%

 

6. Dem.Rep. Congo

2.056B

2%

 

7. Ethiopia

1.947B

2%

 

8. Vietnam

1.846B

2%

 

9. Tanzania

1.825B

2%

 

10. Cameroon

1.684B

2%

 

Others

68.633B

65%

 

Total

105.292B

100%

 

 

14. “Haile Sellassie”

 

Why do some people talk about “haile sellassie”? Maybe they have found out that, without using “haile sellasie” and other labels, it has become difficult to manipulate the Ethiopian masses politically? We recently saw a video posted by Aiga Forum showing Hail Sellassie boosting, “even in the 20th century, David can defeat Goliath”. He certainly “defeated” Ayalew Birru of Gondar, Belay Zelake of Gojam and many, many patriots and intellectual reformers. What did he achieve? He drove the proud ancient national down the fill, only later to die a humiliating death in the hands of his own beneficiaries who also ensured that nothing remains on Ethiopian soil bearing his name. 

 

15. When Ethiopian children excel

 

Students in Jimma University have generated electric power on small river (Walta Information Centre). If I remember correctly, a group of students from the same university have also previously designed an aircraft. All this is good news for us who have been told by some people that the quality of education in Ethiopia is poorer. When you have village children learning engineering technology, they will be studying how to generate power using small rivers or how to design appropriate technologies for building roads and bridge in rural areas.

 

16.  Diaspora “model citizens”

 

You might have come across a Diaspora media glorifying Diaspora Ethiopians for getting appointed to government and faculty positions or even getting a research grant. A big deal! Many of them were educated by Ethiopian taxpayers money and ended up here when their services were needed. And their offsprings wanted to be anti-foreign aid lobbyists claiming that “their country” (America, for example) should not give “their tax dollars” to Ethiopia to support poverty reduction programs.  You will remember a rich NASA engineer who created “a patriotic front” (guerrilla fighting force) to topple EPRDF. Well, he died shortly and that ended his story. He could have left a legacy if he had opened a technical school for the education of Ethiopian children. As a man who came to North America young with nothing more than a little English, my heroes are those poor and illiterate village Falasha boys and girls who went to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s to become doctors, army officers, scholars, entertainers, and so on, after enduring a lot of hardship including the near possibility of death in refugee camps in Sudan. They are role models for my children.

 

17. Habesha dialogue?

 

I sense that there is a circle (or circles), perhaps from both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Diaspora, starting to talk about “Habesha dialogue”. The socio-cultural aspects of Habesha are appealing and dialogue is always important. But the political aspects can be equivalent to OLF’s notion of Abyssinia. This then creates dilemma for us as it could divide our communities. In Addis Ababa, I once chatted with a young soldier from Gambella in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Actually he was guarding the Ministry. If this young man does not identify himself with Habesha sentiments, there is no point for an Ethiopian to accept an idea of Habesha for the sake of an Eritrean. A Habesha dialogue, if it happens, is not a good idea.  This Eritrea-Ethiopia issue is also a bitter household quarrel which could disappear once the leaders of Asmara and Addis Ababa governments start talking. The better ways is then to try to get the two government talking. 

 

18. Catching up

 

Ethiopia:

 

 

2004

 

2005

 

2006

 

2007

 

2008

 

2009

 

2010

GDP (US $) Billions

9.7

12.3

15.1

19.1

27.9

28.6

32.1

Population

67.9

69.1

70.3

71.6

72.8

73.9

75.1

GDP per head ($US)

 

565

 

684

 

773

 

870

 

967

 

1,023

 

1,080

 

These data are taken from the Economist Intelligence Unit forecast March 2009.  It is forecasted that the Ethiopian GDP (the values of all goods and services produced in the country) will grow by threefold with per capital GDP of US $1,080 by 2010.  According to this forecast (my interpretation), Ethiopians are trying to catch up with their neighbours Kenya whose GDP per head is forecasted to rise from US $1,272 in 2004 to US $1,602 in 2010 or that of Sudan from US $1,549 to US $2,336, in the same period. But it will take a long time to catch up with lower middle income countries like Egypt whose GDP per head is forecasted to rise from US $4,292 in 2004 to US $6,039 in 2010.  If my calculations are right, Ethiopia’s GDP would have risen by 91% in 2010 (from 2004 level), while that of Kenya by 25% and Sudan by 33%. Yet saying that GDP for Ethiopia will rise by a much higher percentage provides little comfort. Tough challenges lay ahead.

 

19. TPLF/EPRDF massacred Amhara villagers in Southern Ethiopia?

 

Let us not waste time fabricating lies. OLF did it. It is well documented by independent entities and the documents are kept. Oromo villagers who tried to save their Amhara neighbours are still alive, as are the children and relatives of victims. The fact was that EPRDF people were horrified by what they saw (dead bodies hanging on cliffs, for example). To their own surprise, TPLF people also learned that the “definition” of Abyssinia included Tigreans, so that OLF would have no mercy on their own people. They would act immediately to root out the OLF militia. Instead of covering up fact, we should rather help each other to confront the past and move on, as the Rewandans have done. 

 

20. Blame Westernization?

 

It irritates me when I heard or come across some of those intellectuals “narrating” (tell a story of) how Westernization has kept Ethiopia backward. Then I ask myself, if this were the case, wouldn’t India, which was ruled by British for 200 years, have remained backward? The Japanese hurried to Westernize and caught up with the West. Emperor Tewodros successfully attempted to Westernized his military machinery and would have modernized the country’s agriculture and industry had his life not been cut short. The rulers and elites that inherit Ethiopia after Tewodres became more concerned with political survival which meant monopolizing knowledge, technology and state power to ensure their fellow Ethiopians remain poor, backward and ignorant. That was where the problem lied, not with the Westernization of Ethiopia. In fact, every time I return to Ethiopia, I get amazed by how much the society has been penetrated by Western influence, yet Ethiopia progresses. I think some of those old guard intellectuals have not yet realized the advancement in thinking of the new Ethiopian generation, which is more self-critical (instead of externalizing) and forward looking.

 

 

Getachew Mequanent

April 10, 2009

Ottawa, Canada