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Ethiopia Squanders Geopolitical Opportunities and Blames the West

Yonas Biru, PhD
November 24, 2022


Ethiopia will remain forever poor until its political class, including its intellectuals at home and in the diaspora find it possible to free themselves from shadow boxing with the ghosts of neo-colonialism and imperialism. The Ethiopian government and the political class must come to the realization that Ethiopia CANNOT pull itself out of abject poverty and put its economy on the path for prosperity without massive international aid and foreign direct investment (FDI) from the West.

Nations such as Japan and China who in the past saw the West as a menace to their development aspirations and relied on economic self-sufficiency as a coiled spring to leap forward found themselves falling behind. Japan under the Meiji Restoration and China under Deng Xiaoping turned to the West and registered phenomenal growths and technological advances.

Behind Ethiopia’s #NoMore street diplomacy resides articles of faith that the US and EU are afraid of Ethiopia’s potential to become a black economic power, that they are against PM Abiy because of the East African alliance he built with neighboring countries, and that they want to return the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF) to power to keep Ethiopia poor and unstable. These are staple in Professor Al Mariam’s weekly documentaries and People-to-People’s moderated discussion forum whose managers boast that it has 100,000 Ethiopian professionals and scholars on its distribution list.

Less colorful #NoMor-ians say the US and EU want to keep TPLF as a checkmate to PM Abiy whom they do not see under their control. This is meritless and utter nonsenses because, by any measure, PM Abiy is more pro-west both by philosophical disposition and policy than the late PM Meles or his TPLF successors ever were.

A friend wrote to me that the #NoMore movement has brought together Ethiopian voices that were otherwise dormant. However, its lack of well-though out guiding principle and policy prescription leave much to be desired to address the complex geopolitical power alignments and serve as a power of influence in the contemporary world. This is a politically correct way of pointing the fundamental shortcomings and flaws of the movement.

Its good intention aside, the campaign has detrimental consequences on Ethiopia, causing the political class to harbor an anti-West animosity. This, in turn, has led the government to flirt with the idea of relying on Pan Africanism and self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, Pan Africanism has been around since 1903 and its stunted growth is no more than a footnote in the grand scheme of world history. In like manner, self-sufficiency as an economic engine was tried in China and Japan and proven to be an illusionary mirage and abandoned.

The problem with Ethiopia is that the dominant intellectual class is dominated by two groups. The first, led by the ሙአዝ and Professor Al Maria, is a hermitized group that sees Ethiopia as a holy land still living in its glorious past. The second group consists of intellectuals who have lost their soul and virginity to Marxism-Leninism. They see the world through the prism of predators vs. preys and imperialist vs. indigenous.

It is the unholy matrimony of hermitized traditionalists and unrepentant communists that begot and hardened #NoMore as a militant movement without an intellectual paradigm and policy framework. PM. Abiy was right to say that like the 1970’s student movement, the #NoMore movement has neither concept nor sober analysis behind it.

For example, the movement believes “Africans must solve their problem by themselves” and the US and EU must stay out of Africa’s business. This argument was heard loud and clear during the settlement negotiation between the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF. Soon after the agreement was signed, ambassador Radwan Hussein thanked the US for pressuring the TPLF to sign the agreement.

Further, soon after the agreement was signed, the Ethiopian government turned to the US and EU to pay for the reconstruction of war-torn areas to the tune of $20 billion. So much for Pan Africanism doctrine that portends “Africans must solve their problem by themselves.” There is something inherently unsavory and even shameful about it.


The West Will be Happy if Africa Feeds Itself and Prospers

The most idiotic thing we often hear in Ethiopian political discourse is that the West does not want to see Africa prosper. Sub Sharan Africa alone has 1.17 billion people. If Africa prospers, it will be an enormous market for western products.

Africa’s protracted underdevelopment has little to do with the West. Being critical of colonialism half a century after the end of the scourge is not enough to explain Africa’s lackluster economy and perennial internal conflict. Colonialism’s past has not stopped Asia from developing. Do not forget Ethiopia was never colonized and it still is one of the poorest of the poor even by Sub Saharan Africa standard.

This is not to say there is no residual and lingering effects of colonialism. But to lament about colonialism as an albatross on the neck of Africa half a century after its abolishment is tantamount to declaring oneself a permanent victim without a cure.

On its part, the International Community (IC) has failed to address Africa’s economic and political problems with forthrightness, courage, and sense of global responsibility. In April 2000, the World Bank released a comprehensive report with a pregnant question: “Can Africa Claim the 21st Century.” The question was positively answered with an assortment of caveats, including an overdose of what African governments “must do” and what the IC “should do.” The report’s “must do” and “should do” prescriptions were employed to validate its rosy prospectus.

A month later, the Economist Magazine took exception with an explosive cover page title: “Africa: The Hopeless Continent.” The editors faced strong criticism and accusation of being “mouthpiece of Western capitalist paternalism” and outright racism. A decade later, the Economist’s pendulum swung past the point of rationality and declared “Africa Rising.” Eighteen months later, it dialed it down by a notch to “Aspiring Africa.”

More recently, experts are elbowing each other to get to the first row to sell Africa as part of “the final frontiers of the fourth industrial revolution” fueled by a growing young and educated population.

The truth is starkly different. As the world gets out of poverty, it is leaving Africa behind. The Africa Rising, Aspiring Africa, and Africa Claiming the 21st Century narratives represent futile attempts at fictionology. Africa is increasingly becoming an existential threat to global security and economic order. The UN projects Africa’s population will double by 2050. According to the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa now accounts for 60% of the world’s poor. By 2030 it could be home to 90% of the world’s poor.”

To add to the list of Africa’s misery, the World Economic forum rings a warning siren that more than 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25 and by 2030, young Africans are expected to constitute 42% of global youth. Add to this a sobering statistics that in some African countries 43 percent of young men are unemployed. Population explosion weighed by a ballooning and restive unemployed youth coupled with festering poverty makes Africa a recruitment heaven for global terrorists and a source of massive migration of biblical proportion.

A 2022 Global Terrorism Index notes that Sub-Saharan Africa has emerged as the “global epicenter of terrorism.” The Index revealed Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 48% of global terrorism deaths. Al-Shabab in Somalia, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Sahel region, Boko Haram in Nigeria, are the primary culprits, with less known groups scattered in other parts of Africa, including Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A 2022 survey of more than 4,500 young Africans, aged 18-24, found 52% of them are likely to emigrate out of Africa “in the next few years.”

In 2020, 11,315,826 Africans applied to the US’s Diversity Visa Lottery. This accounts to nearly one percent of the total population. Applicants are required to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. The corresponding figure for Asia is 1,417,841. It is 594,954 for South America, Central America, and the Caribbean region. Moreover, in 2021, 123,300 souls tried to cross the ocean by boat and 3,231 perished or disappeared at sea in the Mediterranean and the northwest African routes,

Africa’s misery does not end there. The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates 71.8% of urban dwellers in Africa live in slums, the highest proportion in the world. The World Bank’s IFC flags Health care in Sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst in the world.” Africa is fast becoming a social Petri dish for pandemics. The World Health Organization (WHO) report found “1843 substantiated public health events” in Africa between 2001 and 2022.


A Shift in Global Geopolitical Paradigm

There is a general understanding and legitimate fear that Africa is a ticking timebomb posing an existential threat not only to itself but also to the world at large. The IC has vested interest in launching a Marshall Plan for Africa, because the alternative is a breakdown of global economic and health security. This realization has triggered a shift in the global economic development paradigm.

The IC understands the need for imaginative and scalable solutions that match the scope and seriousness of the challenge. At the current level, nations like Ethiopia are getting $4 billion to $5 billion in international aid annually. Such meager resources will not move the needle on the economic development scale.

Ethiopia requires an annual infusion in the order of $30 billion to $50 billion to dislodge its economy from what the economist Richard Nelson called the low-level equilibrium trap and set it on the path for industrialization.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia has no means of mobilizing $30 billion to $50 billion from internal sources. Ethiopia is a resource poor nation in terms of exportable natural resources. Sadly, the Ethiopian intellectual colony that draws its nation’s image from holy books and Greek mythology has difficulty accepting economic data from international sources such as the World Bank, and Statista.

We often hear Ethiopian intellectuals at home and abroad saying “we have massive natural resources to finance our development. Besides we rather be poor and proud than beg the West.” I do not see a source of pride in a nation where nearly half of the population shares drinking water from the same sources with their cattle, over 20 millions of its citizens rely on food aid, and children stunting is among the highest in the world at 38%.

No matter how you slice and dice it, Africa’s development depends on international aid, most importantly from the West. Given the fact that Ethiopia is in far worse situation than most African countries, its dependence on international aid from the IC is more acute. It is long past time that the Ethiopian political class jumps off its mythological high horse and accept this harsh reality and find a sober and realistic way out of it. Accepting the fact that we have hit bottom can be the beginning of our journey up the totem pole.

Fortunately, there is growing consensus that Africa’s development is a strategic imperative for the West. This realization has brought to the fore urgent needs for innovative approaches that can mobilize a globally supported Marshall Plan without unduly burdening Western taxpayers.

Some of the viable policies include: (1) Stopping illicit capital flight out of Africa that amounts to $89 billion annually; (2) shifting supply chains from China to Africa; (3) increasing foreign direct investment, giving Western corporations tax incentives to invest in Africa and giving the African diaspora in the US exemptions from restrictive diaspora bond and equity investments to complement FDI investments,

  • making technology and innovation a strategic priority, giving technological giants such as Alphabet Inc (Google), Meta Platform (Facebook), Sysco Systems and Microsoft, among others.

As I have noted in earlier articles, the watershed moment for the paradigm shift was President Trump’s US Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act that was signed into law in 2018. This was followed by the EU’s New Africa Strategy. The upcoming US-Africa Leaders’ Summit hosted by President Biden is borne out of this.

Developing nations in Asia have taken proactive measures to take advantage of the change in the global geopolitical and geoeconomic landscapes. African governments are falling behind. The discussion on Africa is led by experts outside of Africa. The following are published articles on this issue.

German firms promised ‘Marshall Plan’ tax breaks for African projects (Reuter, 2018); Marshall Plan for Africa Now or Doom by 2050 (Yonas Biru, 2019); Germany’s Marshall Plan with Africa will Promote Innovation (German Parliamentarian Gerd Müller, 2020); US should adopt a Marshall Plan for Ethiopia (Aubrey Hruby, 2020); Marshall Plan for Africa (Dambisa Moyo, 2020); and Marshall Plan for Africa – the Strategic Imperative for the West (US Congressman Dave Brat and Yonas Biru, 2020). Has the time come for a Marshall Plan for Africa (Atlantic Council Conference, 2020), We need a Marshall plan for Africa (US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, 2022); and A Marshall Plan for Africa (Harry Sandhu, 2022).

Led by Congressman Brat, Liberty University organized an Africa Summit in April 2021 and October 2022 to help Africa benefit from the geopolitical paradigm shift. See my article in the Washington Times titled “Liberty University emerges as a moral voice for Africa.” The April 2021 Summit was attended by several Africa presidents and vice presidents via zoom. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened it in person as a keynote speaker.

The 2022 Summit attracted 500 CEOs from the US. Ghana sent its former President John Mahamat to attend. Also in attendance was a big delegation from Democratic Republic of Congo, including the President’s senior advisor, as well as Ministers of Trade and Agriculture. A Total of 10 African countries, including Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leon were represented. Nigeria’s delegation included Several billionaire businessmen and women who took the Summit as an opportunity tap into the billions of dollars that the US-BUILD Act avails.

Ethiopia was a no show both in 2021 and 2022. This is the consequence of the #NoMore አሲዮ ቤሌማ that sees the US and EU as an enemy and falls back on a misguided theology of self-sufficiency. Our embassy in Washington is busy mobilizing resources on the Go-Fund-Me platform and fundraising dinners. In a good month such endeavors pull $50,000. It is hard not to be cynical about it being the devaluation of Ethiopia’s most important diplomatic post to a ስሙኒ ለቀማ enterprise.


Squandering a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

Ethiopia is as an anchor country for the stability of the Horn of Africa that is a critical corridor for Asia and Europe trade and energy security. This accords it an enviable opportunity to leverage geopolitical interests for its economic agenda. Sadly, the PM and the people he has put in Charge in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diplomatic posts in the US and key European countries leaves much to be desired in understanding and leveraging geopolitical opportunities.

In the old days, Ethiopia was the Mecca of Africa’s diplomatic universe. Today, our diplomats are random walking the geopolitical landscape without strategy or coherent policy. In the geopolitical universe, we have become #NoMore. That is not all. In a sardonic twist of irony, PM. Abiy, who bills himself as a champion of free market and a friend of the West, is aspiring to be the 21st century Thomas Sankara (aka the African Che Guevara) to revive Pan Africanism in a quest to promote an Africa centered economic progress and transformation.

The problem is that Pan Africanism is nothing more than a zero-calorie political slogan. It has existed for 80 years before Sankara and 35 years after his demise at the hands of his own lieutenants. Pan Africanism may produce heat in the blood veins of Anti-West activists, but it produces neither light nor enlightenment.

Granted that self-sufficiency is critical in some areas, such as food. In this regard, the PM is doing a phenomenal job and the goal is not only achievable, but it is a spitting distance away. Nonetheless, development is more than food security. Both China and Japan were able to achieve self-sufficiency in agriculture. But this was not sufficient to build an industrialized nation. That is when they realized that turning to the West was unavoidable for their transformation from agrarian economies to industrial ones. China’s Xiaoping had it right when he said our strategic choice is to be with the United States.

Small wonder why the so-called Asian tigers’ (Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan) development is attributable to their close ties with the West. Similarly, the so-called South American Jaguars (Chile, Argentina, Brazil) are closely tied with the West. The smart strategy is to partner with all nations that can further Ethiopia’s development ambitions.

If one must choose between the West and East, the picture below can serve as a demonstrative handbook. The picture is a satellite image of North and South Korea taken at night. The bright light shows the amply developed South Korea. North Korea, the poster child of Russia and China, looks like it is in the dark ages. The simplest and basic guidelines in the choice between the West and East is “ጨው ለራስህ ስትል ጣፍጥ.”

This by no means undermines the destruction the US has created in countries such as Iraq. There is no country that has tasted the wrath of the US more than Vietnam. This did not stop Vietnam from normalizing its relationship with the US and benefiting mightily from it.

In 1994, the bilateral trade between the US and Vietnam was $450 million. This was the year Vietnam started to take off. By 2019, its trade with the US alone shot up to $77 billion – an increase of 177-fold. Today, the US is Vietnam’s largest export market. In the early 1990s Ethiopia’s GDP percapita was higher than that of Vietnam. In 2021, Vietnam’s GDP percapita is 4 times that of Ethiopia.


The Geopolitical Market is a Dog-Eat-Dog Market

The geopolitical market is where every country is vying to benefit itself. This requires having a strategy that is both robust and agile to navigate through a maze of competing demands as well as leveraging opportunities and mitigating challenges. Nations do not cry #NoMore every time they are elbowed or undermined. They dust themselves up, find an entry point and jump back into the ring with skillful diplomacy and clear goal.

The problem with the Ethiopian political class is that they see the geopolitical marketplace as a cross between a Crusade domain for religious showdowns and a theatre stage for clashes of civilizations. They are quick to summon the Bible and Greek mythology as alibi to show the US-led geopolitical sphere is

a source of Ethiopia’s existential threat rather than as an opportunity for a leverage. Consequently, the nation’s reflexive action often is recoiling into a state of reclusiveness and defense.

Ethiopia can still put itself on the front row to leverage its strategic geopolitical importance to its advantage. This requires having a new frame of mind and developing a geopolitical strategy free of Pan Africanism’s imaginary depictions and illusionary fantasy. It also demands appointing qualified people in the nation’s finance, economics, foreign affairs, and international investment establishments.


In Conclusion

At bottom, Ethiopia’s misguided goose-chase to find a solution for a geopolitical existential threat that does not exist springs from the lack of understanding of the fast-evolving geopolitical landscape. Past geopolitical power structures, the systems underpinning those structures and the cost-benefit calculus that governed the policies of geopolitical powers were different from current realities. Understanding this phenomenon is critical to develop a robust geopolitical strategy.

Ethiopia’s economic future in the short to medium term depends on its ability to navigate the geopolitical landscape and leverage its enviable strategic importance in the global geopolitical calculus. It will be a travesty if PM Abiy fails to capitalize on a once in a lifetime geopolitical opportunity.

The geopolitical market is never smooth. It has bumps and cracks. Not every misunderstanding and differences of opinion are driven by sinister objectives. Sometimes, geopolitical interests clash. The challenge is to navigate such occurrences with strategy and skillful diplomacy.

Accusing the West of a plethora of mischiefs of wanting to keep Ethiopia weak and poor and of wining and dining Ethiopians to oppose the PM’s pet projects may have domestic political expediency in the immediate short term. But its utility is myopic and its benefits short-lived.

On its part, the IC must help finance a Marshall Plan for Africa. In the absence of effective domestic institutional and constitutional bulwark against corrupt and incompetent governance, the international donor community must play an assertive role to use its aid portfolio as a leverage and guard-rail to combat corruption. God knows that Ethiopia where corruption has become an over-the-counter transaction of doing business needs it.

The Ethiopian model that on the one hand accuses the IC of being an enemy and on the other hand pleads for an economic bailout from the same group of countries must not continue unchallenged. The IC must stop being a bailer of last resort without holding African governments accountable. The World Bank and IMF model that continues to fund failing governments must be eradicated and a new development paradigm must be developed. This is the only viable way to get Africa out of its structural underdevelopment.


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