Yonas Biru, PhD
In 2018, the people of Ethiopia hung their hopes and dreams on Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed’s transformative reforms. His administrative failure turned their euphoric hope to painful despair. The purpose of this article is to provide a diagnosis of the tension between Ethiopia’s hope and despair and reimagine its future, considering the nation’s vast opportunity at the nexus where national, geopolitical, and geoeconomic interests intersect.
April 2, 2018, was the day a national uprising forced the Tigryan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led government to relinquish its 27-year ironclad reign over Ethiopia. It was also the day the nation celebrated the rise to power of PM Abiy. The PM’s ascendence to power and his transformative reforms coincided with two favorable global developments.
The first development was a fundamental shift in the geopolitical order that made Africa’s development a strategic imperative for the West. Trump’s 2018 Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act represents a cornerstone of this shift. It incentivized flows of private capital to Africa by providing loan guarantees and insurance to private sector entities. It stipulates a “preference” for U.S. investors, steering away from past laws that imposed a “requirement.” This was necessary to use US investment as a leverage to attract investment capitals from other nations.
The UK followed with its own initiative, declaring “Post-Brexit Britain will be Africa’s Largest G7 investor” and will help “African economies grow by trillions.”
The second factor was Ethiopia’s geographic position that became a first order strategic importance in the global geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape. In a 2018 essay titled “Ethiopia: Enigma and Dilemma”, Lieutenant -Colonel Joseph Guido, a US Army sub-Saharan Africa Foreign Area Officer, wrote: “Ethiopia is the most important and capable security partner in the region and guarantor of stability ranging from Somalia to South Sudan.”
Ethiopia’s geopolitical importance grew following Trump’s Africa Strategy. The strategy focused on creating lasting stability, build the capacity of African nations to combat terrorism, and curbing China’s and Russia’s influence in Africa.
Reimagining Ethiopia as a prosperous nation requires understanding the nexus where the evolving geopolitical order and Ethiopia’s strategic geopolitical importance intersect and developing an appropriate strategy to judiciously balance the tension between national and international interests.
It was from this nexus that the international community assessed the PM’s transformative agenda and touted him as a model for the rest of Africa. The West led by the US started bankrolling his visionary reforms. From April 2018 to 2020 (before the war), international community committed well over $20 billion in grants and concessional loans.
To name just the large price items, it started with UAE’s pledge of $3 billion in 2018. Between 2018 and 2020, the US alone disbursed $3.05 billion and committed an additional $5 billion as part of Trump’s BUILD Act. World Bank and IMF along with other donors provided $9 billion in 2019. This was unprecedented and more was in the pipeline. Ethiopia was the highest aid recipient from the US in the entire Sub-Saharan Africa. This remains to be the case, even after the war.
Ethiopians at home and abroad felt the dark cloud was lifted from the sky in one stroke. Ethiopians in every tribal land and in the diaspora joined voices and praised the Lord with a thunderous hallelujah, believing rays of sunshine have finally made their way to the land of 13 months of sunshine. The dampened social psychology of the nation gave way to euphoria and Abiy-mania.
The stars were well aligned in favor of Ethiopia, but for one asteroid that swung like a wrecking ball and dumped the nation’s spirit of hope like a bad omen. The TPLF saw the PM’s reforms as the antitheses of its “developmental state” and “revolutionary democracy” socialist doctrines. To derail and thwart the PM’s reforms, the TPLF launched a war on two fronts: Military and public relations (PR).
The Third Way is Ethiopia’s Escape to Peace and Prosperity
Because of the TPLF and its paid lobbyists, in four years, the international community’s view of PM Abiy Ahmed changed from a “hope for Africa” to a “belligerent warmaker” and from “saving the country from civil war” to “committing genocide in Tigray.” Domestically, in no small part because of the PM’s administrative failure, ተደምሬያለሁ gave way to ተቀንሻለሁ to a notable degree.
The PM’s ardent critics, who see him as the root cause of the nation’s ills, call for his removal. Even some of his ardent supporters are increasingly murmuring about the state of matters on his watch, but are still defending him from his critiques with such a lackluster question as: “What Alternative Do We Have?”
His supporters, who are resigned to accepting the status quo, are encouraging him to stay the course. His detractors, who are quick to weaponize his failings as a tool to wadge a war against him, are engaged in a zero-sum game. Such a binary culture of blind support and spiteful opposition has kept Ethiopia in a Hobbesian state where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
I believe there is a third way. Acknowledging and celebrating the PM’s gift as a visionary leader, critiquing his failings as a poor executive and demanding change in his administration. Only then can we reimagine the future of Ethiopia together.
Credit Where Credit is Due
The PM’s critics must find it possible to see the positive and transformative things he has accomplished. One of the most important achievements that has not received enough attention is his systematic handling of Oromo extremism. In three years, he managed to defuse the deeply entrenched Oromo Liberation Theology (OLT) that was threatening the very survival of the nation.
Lords of OLT such as Jawar Mohamed, Bekele Gerba, Ezekiel Gabissa, and Tsegaye Ararsa exist in the rearview mirror of Oromo politics. This is a momentous achievement despite the lingering problem of OLF-Shene in isolated areas of Wellega and Shimeles Abdisa’s unpredictable tribalist sentiment that appears and disappears like herpes.
The PM’s resistance not to succumb to the call for, and temptation of, abruptly overhauling the Constitution is what has averted political crisis. The PM’s approach is nothing short of praiseworthy. Though the Constitution is the root cause of Ethiopia’s current problem, overhaling it by decree or political manipulation would lead to political crisis of catastrophic proportions. The path to constitutional reform must be judicial and gradual.
The PM’s courage to stand up against the TPLF’s bullying to thwart his reform agenda earlier in his premiership are critical elements in the positive accomplishment side of the ledger. In terms of institutional building, the National Election Board and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission have earned international praise.
His greening vision is another unsung initiative that will leave his footprint on the nation for generations yet to come. The establishment of an agricultural research center and the plan to revamp the agricultural sector with modern irrigation systems is another area where the PM has shown leadership in vision and excellence.
Resuscitating the stalled GERD project, withstanding international pressure and financial difficulties is worthy of mentioning. Furthermore, the City Center projects, notably the Museum of Art and Science, Abrehot Library, and numerous parks and roads are not flashy projects as some critics suggest. They are transformational endeavors in terms of uplifting the city’s social psychology with demonstrative and inspirational externalities to other cities and to the nation at large.
The Negative Side of the PM’s Leadership Ledger
Let us zero in on factors that continue to undermine the PM’s transformative reforms. As an old poem goes, “Some men die by shrapnel, and some go down in flames, but most men perish inch by inch, in play at little games.” The PM’s vision is laudable on big picture policy matters. Where he has failed is in little games of administrative executions that are attributable to three factors.
- The PM’s exorbitant exuberance in positive thinking that undermines the need for critical reflection on challenges and risks.
- Lack of administrative capacity. The horsepower and efficacy of his cabinet is akin to a Volkswagen engine to his Ferrari vision.
- Absence of consensus building culture where economic and political policies are debated. Top-down policies are dictated by the PM and are implemented without in depth analysis or proper consultation.
Ethiopia’s current economic and political crises are attributable to these three problems. If they are not addressed, the crisis will proliferate and grow as large and small entropic forces spin out of control.
How the TPLF Derailed Ethiopia’s Hope and Pushed the Nation into Crisis
Undaunted by the growing chorus of national and international support for the PM’s reforms, the TPLF continued its preparation for war on two fronts. On the military front, it recruited over 250,000 militia and accumulated weapons from domestic and foreign sources. On the PR front, locally, it carried
out an intense propaganda campaign to garner support among the Tigrayan masses, following a propaganda blueprint Germany used in the years leading up to and during WWII. Internationally, it hired lobbyists to tarnish the PM’s image and present the people of Tigray as his victims.
Enamored by positive thinking that is partly reflective of the ethos of Prosperity Gospel and partly driven by the mundane psychological doctrine of mind over matter, the PM ignored the negative energy that was building around TPLF. Consequently, his administration failed to develop a crisis management strategy to deal with TPLF’s gathering storm. There was no war game exercise to avert a surprise attack of the Northern Front where nearly 80 percent of the nation’s military firepower was stored. There was no effort to defuse and refute TPLF’s propaganda onslaught.
After two years of unanswered propaganda at home and abroad, the international community started to echo TPLF’s narrative. The US and EU demanded not to conduct the scheduled 2020 national elections. Instead, they advocated for a national dialogue about the PM’s reforms and an all-inclusive government. By the beginning of November 2020, both the domestic and international environments were ripe for the TPLF to launch what its spokesperson called a preemptive war.
The war wreaked havoc and the TPLF gleefully saw its unanswered propaganda succeed in having the world condemning the PM as the culprit. By destroying the PM’s image, the TPLF managed to starve his reforms of badly needed international aid.
The unprecedented volume of international aid that the world was infusing into Ethiopia’s economic vein started to drip and drap just enough to keep the economy’s heartbeat going. Ethiopia still was the highest African aid recipient, but the volume was a far cry from what it was before the war.
The international media, which, in the past, happily published the PM’s articles, closed their pages on him. When he penned an op-ed piece titled “Toward a Peaceful Order in the Horn of Africa,” he had to settle for second and third tier local and regional media outlets. He wrote an open letter to President Biden. None of the prominent international papers published it.
The PM’s domestic reputational image followed a nearly identical trajectory. The war led to an enormous loss in treasure and human life, weighed on the economy and dumped the social psychology. The focus on the war with the TPLF in the Northern part of the country created opportunity to armed oppositions in the South to gain momentum. Consequently, OLF-Shene launched a tribe-based mass murder spree against Ethiopians of Amhara heritage.
Devastating inflation literally obliterated the purchasing power of both urban and rural communities. A considerable number of the PM’s supporters who jumped on his መደመር bandwagon with enthusiasm jumped off of it with a sense of betrayal and resentment. Under pressure and rejection, the PM’s humbleness and humility gave way to an air of aloofness and chilliness, if not of contempt. His speeches increasingly grew resentful and at times threatening.
His administration started to violate law and order routinely, kidnapping journalists and keeping them incommunicado for days on end, and refusing to release them even after the courts ordered their release. The PM who released 30 thousand political prisoners in 2018 and promised that his administration will never imprison anyone before a criminal action is established, now has tens of thousands political prisoners whose criminal actions his administration is yet to establish.
Changing Mindsets, Undoing Past Misdeeds and Reimagining the Future
Ethiopia is at a three-way crossroad.
- One path peeling off to the left leads toward a continued political and economic hardship or a relapse to an authoritarian system and possibly to total disintegration. Thought this may be unlikely it cannot be totally discounted.
- A second path directs straight to a relatively stable political system, limited intentional aid, and a relatively mild economic growth. This is a very likely outcome where Ethiopia’s development will fall far short of the transformative progress Ethiopians hoped for when the PM took office.
- A third path veering toward the right leads to a bright future with explosive economic growth and stability. This is possible if appropriate measures are taken by the PM and Ethiopians remain supportive, committed, and relentless in ensuring this path is taken.
Taking the third path requires reimagining Ethiopia’s future with strategic focus on four key areas.
- Bringing the war with the TPLF to closure in a way that will lead to urgent reconstruction and durable peace.
- Addressing the PM’s“irrational exuberance” and what management experts call the “tyranny of positive thinking” that is putting the nation’s future in quite a bleak bind.
- Developing a bold economic plan that is concomitant with the nation’s strategic importance in global geopolitical and geoeconomic systems.
- Restoring the PM’s image as a reformer and upgrading his cabinet by appointing people of stelar expertise, capacity, and repute.
Ending the War with an Overture for Peace
Just because the government can militarily crash TPLF and smoke its leaders out of their foxholes and make them face the wrath of justice does not mean it is necessarily the right thing to do. The genius of a negotiated settlement is being a part of the solution to find a path toward peace, not taking an inflexible position even when the truth is on your side.
Winning a civil war is one part of a three-part challenge. The other two are creating a robust public relations ecosystem and changing the social psychology of the victims of war.
In 2020, the PM’s administration made a colossal mistake of entering Mekele. It tried to completely crush the TPLF’s military power and hunt its leaders. The PM needs to understand that taking over Mekele may end the conventional war. It will not end the TPLF’s operations as an armed insurgency. TPLF will shift its strategy to hit and run operation in a civilian cloth in cities large and small. They will make the entire Tigray ungovernable as they did in 2020 and early 2021.
The TPLF’s backbone has been broken in the current war. Its future military threats are significantly mitigated. The government can mitigate it even more by winning the heart and minds of the people of Tigray. The focus should be on creating a conducive environment to reach a negotiated settlement. The TPLF’s future and as a political entity should be left to the people of Tigray.
At this critical juncture, the government must shift its focus on PR both on the national and international fronts. It needs to encourage TPLF fighters and political operatives to integrate themselves within society. They need to be convinced that the benefits of being a part of the reconstruction effort is higher than the psychological, material, and human costs of joining newly forming insurgency groups or guerrilla units. Erring on the side of accommodating them will pay more dividend in terms of lasting peace than erring on the side of alienating or humiliating them.
As part of winning the PR narrative and shaping the people’s social psychology, the question of disarming TPLF must be handled carefully. The people of Tigray have a legitimate reason to fear that if TPLF is disarmed fully they will be a victim of Amhara militia and special forces that are fully armed. Disarming TPLF must, therefore, focus on weapons that other tribal militia and special forces do not have, such as rockets, tanks, and other heavy artillery.
As part of the peace process, the government needs to see the international community as a partner not as an adversary. A friend asked me to “shade a little bit of light on why #AntonyBlinken called Kenyan President, South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, the King of UAE, the AU Commissioner, the Canadian PM (inc. visit to Ottawa) all about Ethiopia in just less than one week?”
Such a question comes from a place of not fully appreciating Ethiopia’s strategic geopolitical importance. The international community’s pressure to end hostilities and find a peaceful solution is a legitimate position to avoid long term insurgency-driven conflict in what it considers to be a very critical geo-strategic country.
The US and its allies rightly understand “there is no military solution to this conflict”. Therefore, they are pressuring and threatening the Ethiopian government with sanction not to enter major population center cities such as Shire. For the same reason, in 2021, they threatened TPLF with sanction when it was marching toward Addis, stating “we oppose any TPLF move to Addis or any TPLF move to besiege Addis.” The US went as far as threatening to send American troops to Ethiopia during TPLF advance towards Addis. Similarly, the US pressured the TPLF “to halt its advances in and around Dessie and Kombolcha.”
Obviously, to date, the US’s intervention has not been effective due partly to its myopic policy and partly to its an uneven handed pressure and sanction on the Ethiopian side (for example AGOA) without taking concrete action against the TPLF. Nonetheless, knowing the reason behind the asymmetry in the US pressure is a critical step to address the problem.
The international community has legitimate interest in the stability of Ethiopia. It was spending billions toward the nation’s development before the war and still providing financial support to avert an economic collapse. It is also offering to finance reconstruction efforts after the war ends. The IMF alone has $4.5 billion ready to be disbursed to help Ethiopia overcome its foreign exchange shortage. Therefore, the narrative that the US is out to harm Ethiopia that people like Professor Al Mariam peddle is a welter of nonsense and a pile of bullshit.
The Ethiopian government needs to pull-in not push-out the international community from the peace process. If the international community continues to exert uneven pressure, the Ethiopia government should insist it must bear future costs of life and treasure caused by a TPLF instigated war.
It is time to end the war and focus on economic challenges that are worsening by the day. Ethiopia’s dogged pursuit of TPLF may lead its economy to collapse and consequently push its political system over the cliff. Remember Ethiopia’s economy is on a life support with a drip drap foreign aid to avoid its collapse.
Addressing “The Tyranny of Positive Thinking”
There are plenty of bad things happening on the nation’s economic, political, and social fronts. On the political front, the vagaries of tribal politics are manifested in mass killings, forced displacements, and conflicts. On the judicial front, the nation’s prisons have become revolving doors for journalists and opposition leaders. Ethiopians feel the economy has declared a war on their livelihood. The people are keenly aware of their hardships and sufferings.
Rather than lending ears to the worries and sufferings of the people, the PM keeps cranking up the volume of his positive sermon. A day after hundreds of people were murdered in Wellega or Benishangul, he was seen cutting ribbons of finished projects or breaking ground for new once. Evidently, this is a deliberate action to shift the focus from negative to positive news.
In an excellent study titled “Prozac Leadership and the Limits of Positive Thinking”, Professor David Collinson warned the danger of “too much positive leadership.” He refers to leaders who govern by excessive reliance on positive thinking as “Prozac leaders.” His study’s focus is on corporations but draws from nearly 200 studies including those who found relentless promotion of positive thinking reflects the dark side of optimism that undermines national governance.
Collinson makes a compelling case that irrational exuberance “discourages critical reflection, leaving companies [and countries] ill-equipped to deal with setbacks.” Prozac leaders often “wind up believing their own narrative that everything is going well. Consequently, they ask fewer and fewer questions and become deaf to feedback that is ‘off message,’ leaving them dangerously insulated from economic and social realities.”
In a recent article in the New Yorker, journalist Jon Lee Anderson wrote: “As Abiy and I toured Ethiopia, he seemed to want to talk about everything but the conflict that had engulfed his country. From inside his motorcade, it was as if there were no war going on at all.” Anderson also quoted Oxford economist Stefan Dercon as having described the PM’s economic policy as “a kind of faith-based economics.” Dercon added: “It’s the prosperity gospel—he’s directly coming out of.”
At the writing of this article, there is a global economic storm gathering momentum with grave consequences to Ethiopia. On September 28, 2022, Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, World Economic Forum, puts the threat as follows: “What seemed to be dark clouds overhead in May, is now turning into a full-blown economic storm” with “a bleak outlook” for Sub-Saharan Africa.
Failing to learn from past mistakes, the PM is focused on isolated positive developments such as wheat production and other projects, ignoring sirens of calamitous economic emergency looming over
the horizon. The people of Ethiopia have a choice. Follow the proverbial ostrich and burry their heads in the sand or demand change. Change must focus on the following areas.
Restoring the PM’s Image and Developing Geo-economic and Geo-political Strategies
Before the war, the PM was the darling of the West. International leaders were taking turns to visit Addis Ababa to express support and provide financial assistance to the tune of unprecedented billions. They included, the Presidents of Germany, France, the World Bank and the European Commission, the UN Secretary General, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Austrian Chancellor, the Crown Prince of UAE, the Crown Princess of Denmark, and Foreign Secretaries of the US and the UK, among others.
Leading global media outlets treated the young Ethiopian leader as though he was the leader of Africa and availed him prime space on their highly coveted pages to write on issues of continental matters. “Why the Global Debt of Poor Nations Must Be Canceled” (New York Times), “If Covid-19 is not beaten in Africa it will return to haunt us all” (Financial Times), and “What African Economies Need to Survive the Coronavirus” (Bloomberg)
Fast forward to October 2022. Where are we today? The PM’s image has been tarnished, not because he deserved it but because he refused to protect it from the TPLF’s propaganda campaign. Once again TPLF’s propaganda campaign benefited from the PM’s positive thinking that does not pay attention to negative narratives. Rather than fixing the problem, both the government and the Ethiopian intellectual class blame the US and its European allies.
Assume large diamond mines are the source of Ethiopia’s foreign exchange earnings, racking in nearly $10 billion per year with far more to be mined and traded. Assume also the mines are adjacent to the Tigray border. No doubt that the PM would have put Ethiopia’s best fighters and weapons around the mines to protecting them from the TPLF.
Ethiopia does not have known diamond mines. Its equivalent is its strategic geopolitical position that is the source of its foreign exchange in terms of generous concessional loans and grants. That was exactly why TPLF spent millions on lobbyists and international media influencers to block international aid.
The PM did close to nothing to protect the nation’s geopolitical capital. He refused to invest $5 million on lobbying and media influencers. Even worse he appointed unqualified people to run the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ethiopia’s diplomatic outposts. None of the ministers of foreign affairs or the Ambassadors to the US he appointed has track record or pedigree in diplomacy or geopolitics.
The diplomatic vacuum was filled by the #NoMore street protest, hoisting “Down with Imperialism” and “No More Neo Colonialism” banners. Professor Al Mariam’s “Clash of Civilizations: Ethiopia and the US” and Mehari Degefaw’s ግጠም አለኝ became the spirit and creed of Ethiopia’s geo-political strategy. Déjà vu the 1970s. Ethiopia is trying to go forward in a reverse gear with አካኪ ዘራፍ and street ዳንኪራ.
Lacking a well-developed strategy, the PM’s administration is random walking in search of a serendipitous solution. At one point Ethiopia was flirting with China and Russia as an insurance policy. At another point, salvation was sought from Pan-Africanism. At the writing of this article “self-
sufficiency” is called upon to the rescue. The likelihood that random walking can lead Ethiopia to prosperity is no better than the likelihood that it can push her over the proverbial political cliff.
Global powers tolerate a geo-strategic country whose policy they do not always agree with than one that is unpredictable, unreliable, or parochially reclusive. The PM must raise his administration’s diplomatic skills to the level that the nation’s geopolitical importance demands. Ethiopia’s geo-political location is a blessing if the PM administration can strategically harness it. Ethiopia can learn a lot from the four Asia tigers (Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore) who leveraged their geo-strategic opportunities to mobilize development funds and attract foreign direct investment.
Understanding the Driving Forces of Geopolitics
In planning Ethiopia’s development ambitions, we must start with the understanding that Africa’s growth and development have become the international community’s strategic interest. There are fundamental factors behind the new international development paradigm.
To name just a few: The fear that Africa’s population explosion and lackluster economic reality can result in immigration exodus of biblical proportions; the lack of employment opportunities to the proliferating young generation can create a hotbed for global terrorist recruiters; the West’s interest to contain China’s and Iran’s growing influence; and the growing threat of pandemics that originates in poor countries.
Some important data are worth mentioning. The UN projects the population of Sub-Saharan Africa will double by 2050. In some countries 43 percent of young men are unemployed. According to the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa now accounts for 60% of the world’s poor. Thirty-five percent of the population lives in poverty. Africa is a ticking time bomb, posing danger to the global security and economic order.
The West is keenly aware of the fact that cost of not supporting poor countries can be enormous. According to a UNDP report, The total direct and indirect costs of global terrorism runs in hundreds of billions of dollars. The average cost estimate of Covid to the US economy is $16 trillion (with a range of $10 trillion and $22 trillion).
What needs to be done?
The answer resides at the nexus where three factors intersect: (1) the PM’s reformer image to inspire national and international confidence, (2) Ethiopia’s strategic importance in geopolitical governance, and (3) Ethiopia’s development strategy in line with the evolving international development paradigm.
First and foremost, the government needs to launch a PR campaign to reestablish the PM’s brand as a reformer and capable leader. Neither positive thinking nor time will restore his image. It took lobbying firms to tarnish his image. It takes lobbying firms to clean it up.
The PM can learn from Rwanda and the late Ethiopian PM. Meles Zenawi. Rwanda’s effort to attract foreign investors started with cleaning up its genocide-stained image with the help of American lobbyists. PM. Meles spent more than $2.5 million on three U.S. lobbying firms to salvage his international image after his administration committed mass murder following the 2005 election.
Spending $2.5 million to $3 million on lobbying is minuscule compared to the potential damage of a tarnished international image of the PM that may carry direct and indirect cost running in tens of billions in terms of international aid and foreign direct investment.
Developing Geopolitical and Geoeconomic Strategies
Evidently, PR campaign alone will not do the trick. Ethiopia must craft robust geopolitical and geo-economic strategies and develop a bold economic program that is aligned with the international development paradigm. This depends on two critical actions: Reforming the nation’s policy formulation process and appointing cabinet ministers with remarkable experience and reputation.
Ethiopia needs a deliberative constitutional governing culture. The PM must change his top-down policy making practice. One example would suffice to make this point. The Ethiopian Investment Holdings (EIH), Ethiopia’s first sovereign fund, was established without consulting the CEOs of the 27 State Owned Enterprises that are placed under its command.
At the first meeting of the EIH Board, Frehiwot Tamiru, CEO of Ethio Telecom and one of the eight EIH board members, expressed bewilderment that the decision was made without consulting the SOEs affected by the creation of EIH. Abe Sano, the president of Commercial Bank of Ethiopia echoed Frehiwot’s points, stating “There is a dilemma in the way the EIH is structured.” The Director General of the Information Network Security Service (INSS), Shumete Gizaw joined Frehiwot and Abe in the chorus of protest asking: “Did the government assess existing SOEs, before establishing the EIH?” These are among the most senior officials in terms of the size of SOEs they manage. If the government did not seek their input when creating NIH, who did it consult?
It is abundantly clear that the PM put the nation’s fate in his hands. He sees no value in subject matter experts and intellectuals. He was not shy to publicly express his disdain toward economists. Though the PM has created an Independent Economic Advisory Council in December 2020, neither he, nor the Macro Economic Team in his office, nor the Minister of Finance has met with the Council in nearly two years.
In South Africa the president meets with his Economic Advisory Council quarterly. In Nigeria, meetings between the President and his Advisory Council happen periodically. In the US the President is required by law to meet with the Council of Economic Advisors at least four times per year. In Kenya, one of the first decisions the newly minted President Ruto made was establishing the Council of Economic Advisors a month after his inauguration. The President has already met with the Chair of the Council.
Prime Ministers and Presidents around the world value, seek and benefit from subject matter experts. PM Abiy is an exception to the detriment of the nation both in terms of lost opportunities and faulty policies that are implemented without critical analysis.
The PM can learn from Korea’s and China’s experiences. They both closely involve their intellectuals and subject matter experts as part of their policy making endeavor. Korea’s astronomical growth started during Park Chung Hee period (1961-1979). Initially, his economic development policies leaned heavily toward economic nationalism, focusing on achieving economic autonomy for his country. Korean think tanks and his independent economic experts believed economic nationalism would limit the nation’s growth potential. They put their weight on attracting foreign investment. To
his nation’s benefit, the President listened to them and opened Korea’s economy. This is one of the reasons why Korea is one of the top 15 economies in the world.
China growth and modernization is attributable among other things to Deng Xiaoping’s decision to create and nurture the “epistemic community” – a plethora of network of professionals with recognized expertise serving as think tanks. Deng relied heavily on the epistemic community particularly in economic and geopolitical domains. The debate between government officials and members of the epistemic community is often lively and free in closed door meetings. The government listened to their recommendations with an open mind.
PM Abiy needs to encourage intellectual debate and pay heed to the wisdom of consulting subject matter experts and building consensus.
Upgrading Ethiopia’s Cabinet Ministers
The PM must make sure that his cabinet members and those who hold key Ambassadorial positions measure up to the task that the nation’s geostrategic importance demands. This is not limited to finetuning his Cabinet. It requires overhauling – particularly the ministry of foreign affairs, finance, and economics. These are critical because they are the windows through which Ethiopia communicates with its geopolitical partners that are key to financing Ethiopia’s development ambitions. It is not only knowledge. International reputation matters just as much.
Obviously, there are political and institutional constraints that make it difficult to appoint capable people outside of the Prosperity Party’s confines. This is a serious problem that the nation must address as a matter of urgency. The nation cannot wait until the Constitution is revised and the nation’s political architecture is reformed. Just to bring the point home, let us see the profiles a sample of Ministers of Finance from Africa.
Nigeria: When Nigeria was in financial and economic crisis, its president searched for the best
Nigerian economist in the world that met two criteria: knowledge and global reputation. They found Negozi Okonjo-Iweala. A Harvard PhD in economics and a high-level official at the World Bank. She helped Nigeria avert an existential economic crisis. She is currently the Head of World Trade Organization. Before that she was a runner up for the World Bank President position and a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development Program.
Ghana: Ken Ofori-Atta brings to the Ministry over 30 years’ experience in Ghanaian and international financial sector. He was an investment banker at Morgan Stanley and Salomon Brothers on Wall Street in New York. He was the first African to be honored as a Donaldson Fellow at Yale University and a John Jay Fellow at Columbia University. He holds a BA in Economics from Columbia University in New York and an MBA from the Yale School of Management.
Zimbabwe: Mthuli Ncube was chief economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank. He holds a PhD in Mathematical Finance from Cambridge University. Before joining the African Development Bank, he was dean and professor of finance at Wits Business School and then dean of the faculty of Commerce, Law and Management at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) as well as a lecturer in finance at the London School of Economics.
Sudan: Ibrahim Elbadawi was the Minister of Finance during the transition period. Before he assumed his post as Minister of Finance, he was Director at the Economic Policy & Research Center, the Dubai Economic Council, Lead Economist at the World Bank, and Director of the African Economic Research Consortium. He has edited 13 books and special editions of referred journal and published about 90 articles on macroeconomics, growth, and development policy. He holds a PhD in economics from North Carolina State and Northwestern universities in the USA.
One can go down the list of countries and look at the professional profiles of African Ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Economics. Ours leave much to be desired. Ethiopia is the most important strategic geopolitical nations with 120 million population. Neither its policies nor its management measures up to its international standing. The nation urgently needs to address this problem.
In summary, restoring the PM’s image and upgrading his cabinets, leveraging Ethiopia’s strategic importance in geopolitical affairs, and aligning Ethiopia’s economic strategy with new and evolving international development paradigm should be seen as priority of first importance. Three factors make this an existential emergency issue.
First is a looming global recession that will reduce the volume of international aid. Second, a Marshall Plan is in the works for Ukraine, which will suck most, in not all, international aid resources. Third, Ethiopia’s economy that is suffering from foreign exchange famine.
Ethiopia must proactively leverage its aggressive development agenda. It needs to discourage the cacophonous #NoMore dogma and enter the world of geopolitical diplomacy from a position of knowledge and understanding of the determinants of geopolitical plays. Ethiopia has a slim chance of bouncing back and recreating the 2018 and 2020 environment when it was treated as the leader of Africa’s renaissance. The PM should not squander this opportunity.
Speaking of recreating the 2018 and 2019 environment, the PM needs to have his own personal back to the future expedition. In 2018, he started his reign with sincere apology for past atrocities by the TPLF-led government of which he was a part. Ethiopians saw him as a personification of humbleness, humility, sincerity, and hope.
He needs to take a pilgrimage back to 2018, and bring with him the humble, sincere, cool-tempered, and apologetic Abiy to the future. That will complete the recreation of the nexus from whence we can reimagine Ethiopia.
Then and only then can we say let the እምቢልታ trumpet and the እልልታ echo from the top of Ethiopian majestic mountains to the underbelly of her deepest gorges.