Yonas Biru, PhD
Bagdad Ali was the Iraqi Minister of Information under President Saddam Hussein, during the US invasion of Iraq. He got the nickname Bagdad Ali in the US, Comical Ali in the UK, Ali il Comico in Italy, and አሊ ቀውሷ in Ethiopia because he was making laughable media briefings about the war that was wildly at odds with reality. One of his signature briefings included a claim that there were no American tanks in Baghdad, when in fact they were within a spitting distance from the press room where he was speaking, and the briefing’s attendees could already see through the windows of the briefing room American tanks rolling toward them.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s yesterday’s briefing before the Ethiopian Parliament appeared a reincarnation of Bagdad Ali christened with Prosperity Gospel theology and driven by a mission to transcend Ethiopia out of its poverty and political ill through ecclesiastical devotion and positive thinking. The speech reminded me of a high-octane evangelical mother who refused to take her cancer-stricken child to the hospital, choosing instead to praise the Lord, believing her devotion to God and positive thinking will save her child. Almost always such children die when they could be saved by medical doctors who themselves are creations of God.
If the Prime Minister’s speech about Ethiopia’s economic progress over the past five years was translated to English and read by a native English-speaking person without naming the country, people would think the speech was about Singapore or Korea. Considering the claimed impressive growth in every sector of the economy, unsuspecting economists would think the economy is overheating from excessive economic growth and advise the government to slow it down to avoid hyperinflation.
Here are the highlights of the Prime Minister’s speech.
The Prime Minister claimed that this year alone some 180 new manufacturing outlets were established. The reality is different. According to Melaku Alebel, the Minister of Industry of Ethiopia, in 2022, 446 manufacturing industries stopped production. Rather than admitting the government is trying to salvage the manufacturing sector from disaster, the Prime Minister talks about a flourishing manufacturing sector. This is right out of Bagdad Ali’s handbook of comical deception.
The speech further highlighted that the country’s phenomenal growth in wheat production is acknowledged and praised by international partners. He also added that when he took power in 2018, only 300,000 loaf of bread was produced in Addis Ababa per day. Today, he claimed the figure is 4 million. The average food inflation between 2003 to 2018 was 16 percent. The corresponding figure from 2022 to 2023 is 33 percent. The question is: if production of bread increased by 13.3 fold, how can food inflation go from an average of 16 percent to 33 percent?
Speaking of inflation, IMF’s projection for Ethiopia for 2023 is 31.4 percent. By 2024, the projection is 23.5 percent. The median inflation for Africa is projected to be 5 percent by the end of 2024. Ethiopia’s inflation is amongst the worst 10 inflationary countries in the world. Yet, the Prime Minister tried to deceive the nation by mentioning the worst inflationary countries in the world such as Venezuela, Argentina, and Zimbabwe. Somehow, he tried to make Ethiopia look better by comparing her with the worst countries in the group of 10 worst countries. Think of your leader bragging about being 190th out of 200 countries, by nothing he was the top best amongst the bottom 10 countries. This is the positive thinking of Prosperity Gospel going awry.
The most absurd claim is the decrease in imports that the Prime Minister touted as a sign of his policy’s success. Let us cut the crap, Mr. Prime Minister. Import is down because of shortage of foreign exchange, not because of some successful import-substitution policy. The drop in imports is bad, not good. This is one of the reasons why the manufacturing sector is dying or functioning below capacity. This has been documented in a Harvard study that found the chronic forex shortage was harming manufacturing firms who need imported inputs.
Another area the Prime Minister peddled as success was the drop in debt to GDP ratio. He claimed this was because of his success in paying the debt. This is utter crap. There are two factors for the decline in the debt to GDP ratio. First is the drop in foreign borrowing because of sanctions. The IMF and World Bank have held up $5 billion in new loans. There are other loans in the pipeline held by sanction. This is not a success. The second factor is the inflated fictional GDP figure. Simple arithmetic tells us that when the numerator drops because of sanction and the denominator is inflated, the result is a drop in the ratio.
The Prime Minister’s lack of integrity was manifested in his claim of tons of food delivered to starving people in Tigray, Amhara and Afar. Even Bagdad Ali would roll his eyes at this. The world knows the Prime Minister’s government was engaged in massive theft of international food aid that was meant for the starving poor in Tigray, Amhara and Afar and exported it.
The Prime Minister claimed he donated 3 billion Birr to regional governments from his last book sales. This amounts to $55 million. For those who are wondering why the Book has not made it to the New York Times bestseller list, the story is different. The Prime Minister allocates hundreds of thousands of books for each regional government. Each regional government is required to cover the cost of publication allocated to it and sell the books to recover their cost and use the rest for development projects. They publish the books and require businesses to buy them in bulk and distribute them to their employees, friends, and relatives. This is a double-decker extortion that the Prime Minister touts as success.