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The poverty-bad governance conundrum simmering conflicts in Ethiopia

July 28, 2016
6 mins read

by Getahun S. Gesso*

Ethiopia is praised for a booming economic growth over the last decade in consonance with the Africa rising mantra. Indeed, the Ethiopian economy registered consistently over 10% growth for over a decade. The structure of the economy is also changing from a predominantly agrarian economy. The service and industrial sectors are expanding fast. Other sectors such as education and health have also shown tremendous improvement albeit with their own shortcomings. Infrastructural developments in the water, power, road and rail sectors are becoming worthy examples for the rest of the developing world.


Further, Ethiopia has strong diplomatic ties with the east and west. Its positive contribution to peace and security in Africa and particularly in the eastern Africa Region is well recognized.

However, the level of poverty and bad governance in the country is still frightening despite reports of a small dent the economic growth has caused to the level of the large percentage of people living below the poverty line. These vices are feeding into each other making the country remain impoverished.

The recent events unfolding in Ethiopia are proving this point more than ever. Ethiopia is in the news this time around for the wrong reason: drought, hunger and violent conflicts.

In terms of drought, the number of people needing food aid and humanitarian assistance is increasing exponentially from time to time with close to 20 million citizens badly in need of help. Of these, over 6 million are children according to VOA report of 2 May 2016.

The drought is reported to be the worst of its kind in the last half century. To one’s consternation, the Government does not seem to know the extent of the drought; every month or two, we hear that the number of affected people and amount of request for humanitarian support has been revised upwards. Ethiopia seems not to have taken good lesson from the past similar droughts. It is business as usual for the Government in Addis, which leads Africa’s second most populous nation of close to 100 million.

Whitney McFerron and Frank Jomo of Bloomberg news wrote on 22 March 2016 that the Ethiopian Government “has appealed for $1.4 billion from international donors” in the form of humanitarian assistance. This is over 12% of the country’s annual budget for 2016. Taken by surprise, the Government exhausted its domestic food reserve immediately and started importing wheat and maize in a frantic manner. What is surprising is that this is happening immediately after Ethiopia declared itself food secure about three years ago. Even the dust from that declaration has not settled well.

Unfortunately, the drought and hunger occurred at a time immediately after the discourse on bad governance started heating. The extent of bad governance in the country has reached an uncontrollable level as often admitted by the Government. This becomes further complicated by the depth and breadth of abject poverty. This vicious connection between poverty, bad governance and lack of will to listen to the people led to several violent conflicts all over the country.

Bad governance is fueling questions of identity to be raised overtly or covertly. There is a wide protest in Oromia Region (including by elementary school pupils), the largest and most populous Region, with the pretext of an Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan for developing the surrounding towns. It resulted in wanton deaths and destructions. The Plan, however, got withdrawn later. The Kimant people in Amhara Region are demanding for autonomy, which led to deadly confrontations with the security apparatus. There is a simmering grievance, since many years back, on issues of identity in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region where more than about 45 minority ethnic groups are lumped together as one Region. The main ethnic groups in the Region like the Gurage and Sidama have been murmuring about this for decades. It is difficult o think this will not go the Kimants way. A clear evidence to this is the ongoing protest taking place in the north of the country particularly in and around Gondar resulting in several deaths including about a dozen police officers.

The situation in the country is worrying. In April, it is reported that over 200 Nuers were killed by militia groups (cattle-rustlers) from South Sudan in Gambella Region. To make things worse, these militia groups kidnapped over 100 children and took away over 2,000 heads of cattle. This is baffling to the Nuers and others in Ethiopia. It is also reported that subsequent to the Nuer attack, tribal clashes resulted in dozens of highlanders killed in Gambella. These are being taken, and rightly so, as weaknesses of the Government to provide basic security to citizens.

It appears, nonetheless, that the Government’s willingness to listen to public complaints is still at its lowest. While all of these discontents are raging, it attempted to introduce new penalty system for traffic offenders (taxi drivers) in Addis Ababa last February resulting in another frightening confrontation. When the protests got worse, the Government subdued and suspended implementation of the new regulations. Though this giving-in could be taken as a positive development, given the stubborn nature of the Government, it shows a lack of coordination and weakness to properly understand the situation in the country. This is bolstered by what happened in the aftermath of the Oromia protests: the Federal Government and the Regional Government were giving different explanations and solutions to the problem. There was manifest deficiency in coordination. These are just anecdotes of the troubles simmering in the country.

As an aspect of bad governance, corruption is making unscrupulous bureaucrats and businessmen millionaires from nothing. Flawed policies, including loose ethnic federal arrangement, are adding salt to the injury. These policies, though professed to be pro-poor, are advancing the interests of few cronies and party affiliates. As Jacey Fortin writes in The Africa Report of 9 March 2015 about “Addis Millionaires Club”, the number of dollar millionaires in Ethiopia is on the rise quickly while the the number of people getting poorer is also on the rise. This contradiction and disparity, caused by cronyism, nepotism and rent-seeking politicians and businesses is strangling the country impeding and frustrating free and fair competition.

The number of grand corruptions being exposed is shocking the public conscience, with a good case in point being that of the former minister in charge of national revenue and customs and his aides and staff in 2013. That fear is compounded by the fact that corruptions are only exposed when there is political fallout.

The state of bad governance in the country is exacerbated by the unfettered ethnic political formations that are operating under a Front, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This loose ethnic political formation is making difficult for the center to pull together. The different parties forming the Front are kings unto their respective Regions and are pulling the country apart. This is making control of corruption and bad governance extremely difficult and is creating more conflict than it resolves. This is being taken advantage of by irredentist movements, terrorists and others who wish to either overthrow the Government or create havoc in the country. Bad governance is mainly responsible for the several conflicts manifested in recent months allover the country.

As noted above, all of these are exacerbated by the prevailing poverty and food insecurity problem. The dissatisfaction and disgruntlement is rising and people need to vent their anger. However, the Government is not positive to comments ad criticism. Those who wish to oppose have to choose to trade expressing their opinion with loss of their freedom and liberty guaranteed in the constitution. Although the country is party to several international human rights conventions and covenants, they are manifestly disregarded by the regime. This adds salt to injury as it exacerbates bad governance.

Human rights defenders have reported time and again that citizens are being persecuted for having a different opinion an stand to that of the Government. Obviously, not everyone can be expected to defend the Government line. This divisive thinking that “if you are not with us, you are against us” is a recipe for disaster. Criticisms and opposing voices need to be nurtured. The Constitution is very clear about fundamental human rights and freedoms including freedom of expression. Respecting it is not an option. It’s mandatory.

Thus, there is need for the country to embrace democracy to effectively fight poverty and bad governance. It’s usually professed by the regime that democracy is an existential issue for Ethiopia, but it is not practiced. The country has become practically a one-party state. In the last national election in May 2015, the ruling party won 100% of votes raising several questions: why do we have all these protests and conflicts in the country ranging from opposition to development projects to implementation of government policies to identity issues etc in a space for a few months? After a quarter-century in power, it is clear that the policies are not serving the country well. It’s time to walk the talk and introduce improvements, even if that means amending the Constitution. There is need to fundamentally rethink the process of democratization in Ethiopia.

If the Government does not become responsive to such critical issues, the little development witnessed over the last few years seems to be at risk. The situation is bleak. There is need for democratization, good governance, taming the ethnic agenda and dismantling corruption. With elementary school pupils taking part in protests and being killed in public by security forces, the writing is on the wall: “prevention is better than cure”.


*Getahun S. Gesso is an international lawyer with specializations in international development laws and peace and security matters in Africa. 

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