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The US-Africa Leaders’ Summit: Is Ethiopia Ready for Such an Opportunity?

Yonas Biru, PhD
November 12, 2022

Yonas Biru, PhD

November 12, 2022

President Biden is hosting the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington, December 13-15, 2022. The State Department Website presents the preamble of the summit’s communiqué as such:

“The Summit will demonstrate the United States’ enduring commitment to Africa and will underscore the importance of U.S.-Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared global priorities. Africa will shape the future — not just the future of the African people, but of the world. Africa will make the difference in tackling the most urgent challenges and seizing the opportunities we all face.”

The website itemizes Seven Priority Items for the Summit: Foster new economic engagement; Advance peace, security, and good governance; Reinforce commitment to democracy, human rights, and civil society; work collaboratively to strengthen regional and global health security; promote food security; respond to the climate crisis; and amplify diaspora ties.

These are all good. The question is: What are Africa’s priority agenda items? Are the African’s coming with a common agenda or basically listen to what the US has to offer? Let us for now forget the Africa part and focus on Ethiopia.

As I have noted in numerous articles, since 2018, there have been important geopolitical transformations that have made Africa’s economic development a strategic imperative for the West. The watershed points for the strategic shift on Africa were President Trump’s (1) US Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act enacted in 2018, and (2) New Africa Strategy developed in the same year.

The Trump administration officially declared “lasting stability, prosperity, independence, and security on the African continent are in the national security interest of the United States.” The European Union followed suit with a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa with the aim to achieve an “enhanced cooperation on global and multilateral affairs.”

Consequently, the US and EU new Africa strategy triggered fundamental changes in the international development aid modality, requiring international agencies such as the World Bank and IMF to align their work programs with the US and EU policies.

Ethiopia, a strategic geopolitical anchor for the Horn of Africa took center stage in the US and EU Africa strategies. Not surprisingly, the World Bank and IMF expanded their loans and grants to Ethiopia to an unprecedented level. In 2019, they pledged $9 billion to help finance PM Abiys economic reforms. In March 2020, the US committed additional $5 billion investment through its newly created International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) that was established by the BUILD Act.

In early 2021, Ethiopia sought international debt relief under the G20 joint debt restructuring framework. It was one of the only three African countries that were selected for debt restructuring, among Zambia and Chad. Since the PM came to office, Ethiopia has been by far the number one aid recipient.

The rapid globalization, the immigration crisis, Africa’s unsustainable population explosion, ballooning youth unemployment, protracted poverty (extreme poverty in Africa is nine times the average for the rest of the world), and the continent’s lackluster economic prospect are creating a potential ground zero for terrorist recruitment, not to mention an exodus of refugees of biblical proportion.

Add to this Africa’s unsustainable urbanization rate. Africa is projected to have the fastest urban growth rate in the world. According to the African Development Bank, “urbanization in Africa has largely been translated into rising slum establishments, where sanitation are inadequate” In sub-Saharan Africa, 71.8% of urban dwellers live in slums, the highest proportion in the world. Consequently, the potential for a pandemic is a ticking timebomb, as population explosion growth and urbanization interact with extreme poverty in sprawling slums.

According to the IMF, owing to the ravages of COVID, the median global GDP dropped by 3.9% from 2019 to 2020, making it the worst economic downturn since the great depression.

For reasons noted above, the world is increasingly seeing Africa as a vector of threat to global economic order and security. Africa’s development is not only the West’s strategic imperative, but also a priority of first order.

Why the only the West, but not China and Russia? China and Russia are the least affected by global immigration and terrorism. When it comes to crisis in Africa, China and Russia are missing in action. Chinas annual contribution to Africas health aid is estimated to be $150 million. By

comparison, the US invested over $100 billion in public health in Africa over a span of 20 years or an average of $5 billion per annum.

To give a more specific example, China’s contribution during the 2014 Ebola crisis was $47 million (1.3 percent of the total global support). Compare this to the United States’ 1.8 billion dollars, almost half of the total, or the UK’s 364 million dollars. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, China is the only member of the G-20 countries that remains reluctant to bear its fair share of global obligation, especially considering that it was the source of the pandemic.

What Should Ethiopias Strategy be to Leverage the New Development Paradigm?

On June 16, 2018, I wrote an open letter to PM Abiy underscoring his administration should proactively leverage Ethiopia’s aggressive development agenda and position its strategic development framework at the nexus of the emerging global geopolitics and the ensuing international development policy. I stressed further that he needed to make Ethiopia an active international development aid seeker, not a passive recipient of it. The international community is readily and excitedly available for such a partnership. They want a success story to replicate across Africa. Therefore, positioning Ethiopia to such a global play should be Ethiopia’s priority.

In September 2018, Professor Lemma Weldesenbet and I recommended establishing an Independent Economic Advisory Council to help the PM formulate an economic vision and strategy, taking the evolving geopolitical and geoeconomic landscapes into consideration. More than two years later, in December 2020, the PM established the Council. I was privileged to be appointed as one of the 15 members of the Council and served as its interim chair for a brief period until my resignation. Nearly two years after its establishment, neither the PM nor his Macroeconomic team has met with the Council. For all practical purposes, the Council is a cross between a sitting duck and the resurrection of the classic Ethiopian novel “አልሞትኩም ብየ አልዋሽም.”

Evidently, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the PM has neither interest nor intention to seek council and advice from reputable and globally recognized subject matter experts. Sadly, when it comes to expertise and international repute, his cabinet leaves much to be desired, to put it generously.

When the PM’s administration developed Ethiopia’s so-called ሃገር በቀል economic plan, no effort was made to seek input from the Economic Council some of whose members are internationally acclaimed leaders in their field. Instead, it sought help from the IMF. An IMF staff was stationed in

Ethiopia to serve as an advisor and help draft the economic plan. The falsely named ሃገር በቀል plan is neither ሃገር በቀል nor bold enough to capitalize on Ethiopia’s strategic geopolitical importance.

Anyone who believes Ethiopia’s economic plan is bold and concomitant with the nation’s strategic geopolitical importance neither knows geopolitics nor deserves to be anywhere close to developing an economic plan.

In May 2020, I had an opportunity to talk to PM Abiy by phone. During our brief conversation, I brought to his attention that the Trump administration has put a policy in place to “rip global supply chains from China.” I also let him know that India’s Prime Minister Modi had established a committee that was chaired by him to take advantage of Trump’s policy and make India “the global nerve center of multinational supply chains in the post-Covid-19 world.”

I added to note that countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia were following India’s steps. I kindly asked the PM to set up such a committee, consisting of three domestic and three diaspora experts chaired by him. I offered my service if needed to be a part of the Committee to develop a strategy to put Ethiopia on the map in the new supply chain landscape. Nothing came out of the proposal.

In the meantime, nations such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam are making the best use of the opportunity that greater diversification and the shifting of the global supply chains entailed as Western multinational enterprises decided to shift their supply chains away from China.

Global newspapers are heralding headlines such as “India Looks to Lure More Than 1,000 U.S. Companies Out of China”; “How India can seize the global supply chain opportunity in the post COVID-19 era”; “Vietnam emerges as focus of Japan’s post-pandemic supply chain diversification”; and “With effort, Indonesia can emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger.”

The supply chain shift is not happening by happenstance or accident. These nations are busy lobbying the US government and courting and offering incentives to multinational corporations. For example, a report titled “Indian Lobbying and Its Influence in US Decision Making” highlighted India’s effort “to shift toward a focus on economic partnerships in the post-Cold War era.” The report took note of the role Indian Americans play in the effort.

By comparison, the Ethiopian intellectual class at home and in the diaspora is bracketed and confined between two extremist views. On the right, the ሙአዝ enthrones that against all odds Ethiopia will build itself using stones that outsiders throw at her. On the left, Professor AL Mariam claims

American politicians and lawmakers are “doggedly committed to destroying Ethiopia.” He believes they want “to avenge the humiliating and devastating double loss of a white army in Africa in recorded history.”

In the intellectual barren land bracketed between the ሙአዝ and the nutty professor exists the clownish #NoMore panorama, እንዘጭ እንቦጭing on the streets of Washington and Brussels with “Down with Imperialism”, and “Down with Neo-Colonialism” slogans. Their domestic counterparts follow the same strategy with such slogans as “አንቺ ሳማንታ ፖወር ወዮልሽ አርፈሽ ብትቀመጪ ይሻልሻል”. A diaspora even went as far as proposing to burn US flags in front of the US Embassy. አይ ዳያስፖራ!

Steps to De-dumbify and De-ደነዝify the Ethiopia Diaspora Colony

In one of my old articles titled “An Intellectual Culture Unfit for Progress”, I made the case that the Ethiopian intellectual colony both at home and in the diaspora needs emancipation from cultural backwardness. As intellectuals, we are plenty screwed and pretty doomed. Pedagogically, we stand at par with the world’s best scholars. Culturally and socially, we exist in the bygone’s era of yester century. The tension between the liberating spirit of pedagogy and the gravitational force of backward cultures that resist transformative change often favors the latter. Hence the #NoMore craze.

Nations cannot grow without the contributions of its intellectual class as opinion leaders. As opinion leaders, Ethiopian intellectually have failed to sustain our nation much less to lead an Ethiopian renaissance. A first critical step in this journey is pushing back against cacophonous and unruly intellectuals among our ranks and freeing ourselves from the gravitational force of change-resistant cultures. Seasoned and true intellectuals need to build a critical mass to free themselves from their parasitic cousins. That can be the first step towards the emancipation of the intellectual class from backwardness.

My advice to the Ethiopian diaspora colony is to sit down, shut up, listen, and learn from India. Since India’s independence, India’s and US’s relationship has been rocky often engaged in diplomatic rows. At some point the row was escalated, leading the US Ambassador in India to resign. The New York Times described the two nations’ diplomatic rows with a fitting tile: “India and the United States: Two Countries That Can’t Live With Each Other or Without Each Other.”

Currently, the US and India have a strained relationship under US’s pressure over Russia. India stood firm on its ground. Its supremely qualified diplomats are engaged in እሰጥ አገባ with US State Department. In the meantime, its economic leaders are working closely with the US Treasury and US multinational corporations to bring more US supply chains to India. Their lobbyists are schmoozing

and hobnobbing with US policy makers to create a cordial environment without surrendering India’s sovereign right to determine its diplomatic and business relationships with Russia.

This is how complex geopolitical diplomatic differences are dealt with. Your street protests neither serve any meaningful purpose nor fill the oceanic diplomatic gap created by PM Abiy’s failed geopolitical and diplomatic establishment. You would do your nation and your PM service if you could find it possible to pressure the PM to upgrade his diplomatic establishment, appointing capable officials and hiring lobbying powerhouses.

Is Ethiopia Ready to Capitalize on the Opportunity the US-Africa Summit Avails?

The simple answer is a resounding No. But given Ethiopia’s strategic geopolitical importance the opportunity is still there. The most relevant question is: What critical steps should the PM take? Three critical steps stand out as priorities of first order.

  • Overhaul his economic, finance, and foreign affairs establishments.
  • Develop a bold economic plan that is concomitant to the nation’s geopolitical importance.
  • Actively seek the council and advice of reputable experts both inside and outside of the country.
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