Press encounter with PM highlights dire need for new vision for Ethiopia

September 30th, 2009 | by addis portal |

By Genet Mersha, October 1, 2009In the wake of his ‘involuntary anointment’ as chief executive of the state and the ruling party, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia has once again shifted to a high gear with a new five-year term securely under his belt. Although his decision was not unexpected, the 360 degrees shift of from the spring, winter, summer and beyond of his oft-expressed decision to quit his job as prime minister has not gone unnoticed. Owing to that, the prime minister has encumbered himself with expectations.

People wonder whether he has a new vision for the country. No surprise, for a while the foreign press also seemed unable to control their eagerness to learn of the country’s prospects and future direction, if any. Clearly, they have been looking for something huge from a person who could observe his quarter century in power by 2015/16.

Hence, Ato Meles walked into pressroom in the afternoon of 16 September, already his second encounter with the press in September alone and suggested, “Shall we start!” As a person now empowered to look as far away as seventy months at a glance, the gathering expected him to shed light on everything. Whereas it is not easy to tell how much the press got, at least, the prime minister was generous with his time, if not with his candour, patience and the much-sought vision for the country that he has ruled with an iron hand for the past eighteen years.

Consequently, a simple summary of that press conference is that there would be no change in the coming seventy months in the politics, policies and TPLF/EPRDF governance practices. In that sense, what the premier has put on the table is more of the same, including his perspective on the 2010 election, which his party is certain to win, and in the politics and policies of post-election Ethiopia that it would rule, possibly not with the same undiminished authority and strength.

The only certainty is that there would be total cleansing of the house, with the rise and fall of several individuals; at least he has confirmed that much. In brief, the impression one can glean from the press is strong puzzlement why government could not see the reality they observe daily both in the capital and out there in the country. This became manifest subsequent to questioning by the VOA and IPS journalists following their attempt to pin down his reaction regarding the report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) (“Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontent).

Ambience, substance and expectations

In response to questions from local journalists and members of the foreign press, the prime minister discussed extensively specific issues pertaining to Ethiopian politics, the economy, peace and security in the Horn, and the country’s relations with other countries, especially with the US. One could see that Ato Meles was never short of answers, even when he had nothing new or concrete to say.
Language and instinct have been his potent tools to gloss over knotty political and economic problems or fend off slippery grounds. At times, he shot back questions at his questioners, a case in point being the above-mentioned two journalists, growling whether their points were a question or a debate in response to their offer of examples to amplify their points. He cannot stand it when his view is not taken as the last word, even if he has made habit of repeating ad infinitum the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’. On September 16, he got away with shooting back questions on two occasions jolting everyone in the room to subdued giggle realizing the brink was closer than they thought.

His stamp of authority over press conference is usually characterized by habitual resort to citing data. It gives him latitude to display authority, while overstretching meaning and implications of subject under discussion. At times, his world of cause-and-effect-relations seems narrower with his attribution of all the ills of society to his opponents. To all of them, he appends a descriptive suffix of sorts “and their international connections.’ This applies to the opposition at home, the diaspora, insurgents and leftovers from the previous regime and finally to poverty. It is a long list for political cleansing. All said and done, however, Ato Meles has hardly come across as much as he would have liked to show everything is under control, except that it is not.

This conclusion does not belie the importance of his bi-monthly press conference. It has become an indispensable inlet into the thinking of the top TPLF/EPRDF leadership and the policy directions of the government. In brief, it is the best yardstick by which to gauge the thinking and actions of the regime. It is also good indicator of how much the regime learns from time to time and corrects its mistakes, although none is seen to date.

Unfortunately, in a country where division is deepening, poverty worsening and popular disaffection too naked for evasion, it is never clear where one policy measure begins and the other ends. Nor is there any indication, if at all there are interconnections. Consequently, nowhere do the failures of government, especially its lack of vision, become more apparent than in this bi-weekly press conference, where even defensiveness lacks cover.

Admittedly, this article is sprinkled with a touch of frustration. This is because, since the prime minister began this biweekly conclave with the media in late March or so, there was hope that, at some point he would use it to articulate coherent policy lines. There was also expectation that he would be compelled to use it to convey policies and actions that would help or aim at breaking the logjam in our complicated and dicey politics—the root of the country’s journey to a political dead-end. In that sense, it is disappointing that the job of his highly paid British media consultants is limited to designing propaganda, not assisting the transformation of Ethiopia.

Let it be known, more than anything the nation is eager to see an end to the worsening of human conditions, especially in times of high economic growth and great achievements that government claims. One last hope now is that government and its British consultants may summon courage and re-examine steps taken so far in October in London in their mill of assessments against benchmarks of progress and see things through their proper lights.

Among other things, the meeting would evaluate the impact of this new media approach and chitchat over progress on the fashionable business reengineering exercises. This latter one has become an end on its own, instead of a means to an end. Nobody seems to give a hoot to outcome, for instance, in government offices, it being an exercise divorced from the central concept of delegation of authority and accountability at all levels within the bureaucracy and in individual offices. Briefly put, the consequence is that, if the expected outcome is efficiency, it is not showing. If it is accountability, it is non-existent. If it is productivity, the wherewithals are lacking. What then is the value of such forum, which only serves government to justify its policies, practices, likes and dislikes? Mere empty propaganda to hungry people? The same doldrums to the young aspiring to own their destiny?

The point here is that the nation is hungry for a new vision and a new approach. The starting place is action and vision that would heal the polarization that since 2005 has divided the country, thereby eroding the very fabric of Ethiopian society, both at home and abroad in our communities. The country has witnessed enough of the constant triumphalism of power in the midst of overpowering fear, deepening national and political dissonance, continued suppression of rights, organizational capriciousness and fragmentation, recurring hunger, mass wretchedness, rising foreign and domestic debt and desperation of the human person. The other side of this is empowerment and enrichment for the politically well connected. A case in point is made by the investment promotion video featuring an Ethiopian American businessperson, who returned to the country after nearly three decades now glorifying how efficient the Ethiopian system is to do business with utmost speed if one has the right connection!

At this point, there is not evidence worth citing to highlight improvements in human welfare and citizens’ sense of security. Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin seems to be fully cognizant of that. However, his strategy is to look for an untidy heap of justifications to exonerate government from its responsibilities. Therefore, for the consumption of the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly, he has chosen to marshal a gamut of excuses, as follows,

We have had Mr. President, yet another challenge to our development and to the effort we have been making to deepen the process of democratization in our country over the last eighteen years. This has to do with the less than conducive international economic, and, I might add, political environment that we have to operate within. What we have faced, on both scores, economic and political, has been lack of tolerance to diversity, to policy-space experimentation and to independent thinking. Unjustified conditionalties abounded, both for economic and political reasons, either because of objectives growing out of market fundamentalism or because we dared defend ourselves against unjustified aggression. Ethiopia’s first real attempt at economic development coincided with the period when market orthodoxy made the role of the state anathema.

Inevitably, judgement gravitates towards the fact that not anyone side has won in the past eighteen years. Much as important infrastructures are to the nation’s development, the mere invocation of expansion of road networks, rising buildings and the power projects in progress or number of schools have proved inadequate to feed the constantly rising number of hungry people or heal broken spirits and strengthen loosening ties. If infrastructures were the only yardstick or goal in a political system, capitalism with its efficiency and immense creativity would have not been accused of disregard for human conditions.

On the other side of the equation, listen to Robert Mugabe’s jabberwocky on CNN’s Amanpour that was re-broadcasted on 27 September. Mr. Mugabe shamelessly prides himself with the success of his democracy, human liberation and increased food production, in a nation where his rule cannot accept election results. The country has been known for some time now for record holding hyperinflation since the French Revolution, societal disintegration, for his rule repression and the squalor he has forced on the people and the evil that pushed that wonderful country closer to the gates of hell.

In fact, it should not come as a surprise that Ethiopians are now asking why so many of the successes the TPLF/EPRDF has been claiming have not touched their lives. It is human to wonder why so much folly and unrewarding toils! The signs are that, not far is the moment of reckoning when the search for a new vision that would put citizens and the country’s interests first becomes everyone’s preoccupation. That is the only thing that would redefine politics in a healthy way. Going forward, it would render governance and institutions responsible, honest and interactive, and efforts toward national development everyone’s responsibility. Perhaps in most unexpected ways, this forthcoming election may send the right message to the people.

This writer is convinced that only government is better placed to get the ball rolling in that healthy direction, lest the alternative is unthinkable. If there is political will, everything is possible. If not, consider an over-loaded train heading downhill in the example of the following…

Government would treat the 2010 election much in the same way as it did in 2005

It is understood that the forthcoming election has already become a topic of serious conversations between Ethiopia and other governments. It is a sign of the international community’s concerns whether this time around Ethiopia could pull it off by organizing a truly free and fair election and reap its benefits. That concern is getting stronger, as the time draws closer. The haggling over everything is just beginning, especially whether to open up public space that is now taking toll, casting more doubts by the day. Everything, literally everything, including presence of foreign observers, which government is itching to pick and choose in its own way, is likely to drag the process further. What government does is to distract attention from the substantive issues of the economy, democracy, social issues and peace and security.

Recognizing that, the government conversation has become full of promises for fair and free election. At the same time, as signal to foreign observers, especially the prime minister of late has ratcheted up attacks on alleged foreign interference in the internal affairs of the country. Thus, he sees things that others cannot. Nonetheless, bear in mind that many of the questions that were asked in the September 16 press conference and are of interest to Ethiopians and the international community have not been answered.

The interest of Ethiopia’s friends can be gauged by the vast increases in the last three years in their funding of research to election-related issues, especially in countries of the Horn. Unlike before, two specific reasons drive interest why the international community should pay serious attention to the organization and conduct of fee and fair election in Ethiopia in 2010.

The first is the desire to see how much the government they have been bailing out has learnt from its mistakes in the 2005 election. It would be recalled that that election had been cause for the loss of hundreds of young lives throughout the country. Tortures have been inflicted on survivors, long prison sentences imposed on many, some of whom, such as Judge Birtukan Mideksa, continue to languish in prison to this day. Equally destructive has been the ensuing polarization of Ethiopian politics, which to date, without a doubt, has hampered national consensus, trust, and confidence in government. Not a single individual, officials or institutions have been held accountable for this horrendous crime—not by the national courts and not by the highly politicized system of international crime. For Ethiopia’s partners, this press conference has afforded them opportunity to see if government is moving in respect of democracy from words to practice.

Moreover, implications of the election related problems are not limited to one area or Ethiopia and Ethiopians alone. The international community has shared with us, and is continuing to do so, by providing funds to help reform institutions for better governance as basis for democracy, although entrenched interests have hijacked the processes and the outcomes. Through the provision of project and ‘indirect budgetary support,’ efforts have been underway to help flicker in the country the distant rays of democracy.

The World Bank’s Protection of Basic Services (PBS) was borne as a response of many bilateral donors through multilateral channels to minimize the fallout of the election, which today has become a significant part of regional budgets. PBS goals have been to scrape off impenetrable poverty and its disabling conditions, even though most of the beneficiaries are government sponsored civil societies. The funds were provided against the backdrop of disruption of governmental activities and aid flows on account of state violence and fraudulent practices during the election that forced some donors to withhold temporarily direct budget support.

It did not stop there. Many partner countries have also opened their doors for several hundreds of Ethiopian refugees. Many fled their country fearing for their lives owing to election-related violence and/or political vendetta and disruptions of life. In spite of all these efforts, five years later much of the tide has not been reversed, as Ethiopians continue to flee their country and distance themselves from government.

A journalist raised the question of protests and violence control during the forthcoming election. The prime minister’s response was a firm no; it would not repeat. He based his assumption on the adequacy of preparation of law enforcement officials and equipment and gears provided. Even then, while the admission of guilt is evident, the ambivalence of this response is unmistakable.

The said preparation and control seems to portray violence as single directional, as if the only culprit in town is the opposition. One can assume that this time around the state and the ruling party could keep in check the security forces by not giving them the shoot to kill order, as they did last time. Recall in this connection that, in the morrow of the 2005 election, the prime minister told President Carter that he would not be in any position to control his own supporters if rallies and demonstrations were permitted, according to Mr. Carter’s interview in Addis Ababa after talking to Ato Meles. Therefore, downplaying the politics of violence now by zealous state and regional actors and ruling party activists may be analogous to an encouragement given by an owner of recently acquired wild lion to a neighbour not to worry or be afraid of the beast.

The second reason for the focus of international attention on the coming election is the very scrutiny invited by the prime minister’s ascendance on the global scene to advocate justice for Africa. For many, the prism they hate to part with is the hard and fast rule that charity begins at home. Hence, there would be many taxpayers in the international community that would pressure their governments to ensure that the prime minister dispenses justice to his people.

They expect him to create conditions for the full exercise by citizens of rights and freedoms to form a government of their choosing. In translation, this means, the ruling party needs to go beyond the cosmetics and learn to desist from detracting its opponents’ legal activities, or pressure the electorate by threatening to withhold entitlements such as food rations, or endanger their jobs, if they do not vote for it.

Government-Opposition blames and counter-blames risk relegating country’s interests

For the first time in his political career, Ato Meles acknowledged that the much-publicized disruption of meetings of one of the major opposition parties in August in Adama was the work of members of his party. In that connection, he pledged that it would not repeat. It does not matter whether the impetus for his response comes from the wide dissemination of the typicality of the crime or the fear of it being evidence of the shadows threatening the coming election. Irrespective of what compelled him to step up to the plate, it is an encouraging step. Unfortunately, even following this latest press conference, the opposition have been crying foul louder. They say the government is continuing its usual practice of arresting opposition members, especially promising candidates.

Already at the press conference, a thing or two were clear. Despite this positive step regarding harassment, the danger cannot be glossed over, if the pledge by the prime minister becomes no different from cherry picking of violations/crimes. In other words, what experience is showing is the fact that government/ruling party do not lift finger to stop many other violations/crimes in different parts of the country. For the next several months, the standard of denial would be to remind the nation at every turn, ‘you know it, and we take actions, as we did in the Adama case.’ For many, this pretence brings to memory Robert Mugabe/MDC’s unity government, which has set Mugabe free to reduce MDC’s majority in parliament by throwing some of its members in Harare prisons. In Ethiopia’s case, this latest charge by the opposition now stands as a test of the prime minister’s pledge to end all harassments by members of his party.

Do the opposition tell lies, for instance, when they claim now 480 opposition members have been arrested? If so, government has the opportunity now to prove its innocence. The onus is on it to come out with evidences showing the said individuals are not in its custody. Ato Gebru Asrat, Chairman of the Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia (FDDE), told the Sudan Times on 23 September, “As of today our party has received a list of 250 opposition members jailed in Oromyia region and another 230 in the Amhara region.” It is implied that the arrests are aimed partly to intimidate voters and partly to disable opposition parties. A new element now is its use to pressure the opposition to drop their demand to include other issues in the negotiations on the code of conduct. The ruling party sees a major pitfall in that.
What is the ruling party’s argument? That very question was presented to the prime minister during the press conference. However, in his response he chose to focus mostly on the independence of the election commission and neutrality of the nine members that he picked out of the 25 on whom, he said, all sides have agreed. He then proceeded to dismissing the opposition as motley of Mengistu loyalists pointing thereon a finger at their “international connections”, which he did not elaborate. Briefly, his response on the matter is, “Those parties that are apparently concerned about harassment are not concerned enough to participate in devising that code of conduct, which is designed to put an end to it if it exists or prevent it from happening. My feeling is that the intent of some of these individuals is not to contest and participate in any meaningful way in the election, but to try and discredit the election process form the start.” This is the true predictor of the fate of the forthcoming election.

The opposition countered that by saying they do not see a meaningful outcome of the negotiations on the code of conduct, as proposed by the ruling party. They want the inclusion of issues of freedom of expression and movement to campaign around the country without fear, restrictions or attacks and stress the need to end intervention by security forces in election-related matters. What is the government’s problem here?

Already even foreign and Ethiopia observers have foreseen such problems the opposition claim. For instance, the ICG report worries, “The next federal and regional elections, scheduled for June 2010, most probably will be much more contentious, as numerous opposition parties are preparing to challenge the EPRDF, which is likely to continue to use its political machine to retain its position.” This has infuriated government, since it came from the ICG. No wonder, government is now determined to present it to the people as posing a threat to the country. In truth, a number of Ethiopian experts have also argued in the same tone. To date, that has remained their point of separation from government position.

Those in power need to realize that continuation of such practices and political shenanigans would not serve the interests of the ruling party itself. This is more so especially if they are serious about the goal of the next election being free from intimidation and harassment and if they want to convince the Ethiopian people and the world community its conduct is on a level playing field. If at all, the basis of availing justice to all those in need of it is guided by some cherry picking of harassment to expose and harassment to close eyes to, it would backfire. This in view, it is up to government to reassure the nation with concrete actions that it need not surrender to fears carried forward from 2005 or question whether the country is ready for fair and free election. People need reassurance and encouragement that they should vote for their own individual interests.

Is Ato Meles’s confidence about the economy warranted, or a permanent election ploy?

The prime minister exudes optimism about the Ethiopian economy, although reality and many citizens and foreign observers do not agree with his assessment. As far as citizens are concerned, in the past government pledges and statistics have promised them the sky and the moon, even when inflation has been in double-digits for over two years now, food prices are skyrocketing and the danger of drought has been imminent and crushing. For fact check, look around to see what the common person is confronted with on a daily basis.

Ato Meles is now claiming that, at its worst, the economy would grow in 2008/09 by 9.2 percent, if not 10.2 percent. The question why economic growth numbers are barely impacted by the huge number of adverse factors the country keeps on experiencing, especially in the last eighteen months, is becoming a miracle of epic proportions. Ominously, poverty alleviation is no longer government priority, the evidence of which is its rampant increase in both rural and urban areas. In a country with high unemployment, many people have already lost their jobs. Drought is ravaging parts of the country. More people are turning to begging, while the number of food aid dependent has increased significantly, although government does not admit it.

Disruption of power supplies has disabled many enterprises. Even when power is available, most factories and industries operated at less than fifty-seven percent capacity, by admission of government statistics. Bankruptcy-related impoundment of properties by banks has increased and the sales of seized properties have become new sources of enrichment to those connected politically and by other ties. At the same time, the infant manufacturing sector has been the worst hit by the lack of operating capital, foreign exchange and entanglement by back taxes that government is now demanding prompt payment.

The country’s exports have been hit hard, the evidence of which is the terrible foreign exchange shortages that had shaken even the prime minister, forcing him to take possession of the properties of some coffee exporters. In a number of speeches and press conferences, he spoke clearly that the country was in crises. Not so much comforting to the premier, but his Minister of Trade and Industry Girma Biru by the end of May reported that Ethiopia would face a shortfall of a billion dollars in 2009, out of its targeted $2.5 billion in export revenues. The interesting part of this story is the inability of government to control imports, which have grown four-fold.

On top of that, Ethiopia has been arming itself for possible war in the north. Since its withdrawal from Somalia, it has been carrying out intermittent missions into that country. For several years now, lack of political settlement for the conflict in the Ogaden and the insurgency in Oromia has hardly silenced Ethiopian guns. All the weapons used in these theatres are imported with scarce foreign exchange. Even US military support is counted as foreign aid. Ethiopia is an agricultural country, although through the years it has remained net food importer. The question then is how is it that not any of these negative factors have any implications on the country’s GDP growth, I mean, GDP growth figures?

Let us say, the prime minister is right. However, what is the meaning of high GDP figures when even civil servants find it increasingly difficult to support themselves and their families? It is good that there is growth, roads are being built and power generation installations are creeping up. Nevertheless, the lives of ordinary people are becoming more and more unbearable. How could the regime see criticism of its neglect of the immediate needs of the people as politically and ethnically motivated hostility? This is not to deny the intractability of the problem. Nonetheless, why is corruption rampant amongst those in its ranks? Why is it that some or most of its agencies and officials are incapable of delivering? Is it not time to see the need for change of policies?

In this connection, it is instructive to recall, what Mahbub ul Haq, the respected Pakistani economist, wrote in 1971, “We were taught to take care of our GNP as this take care of poverty. Let us reverse this and take care of poverty as this will take care of the GNP.” Nearly forty years later, several mainstream economists have now turned in droves to the truism of Haq, Sen and many visionary human beings. Just in the past week or so, it was headline news when Joseph Stiglitz urged the abandonment of “GDP fetishism” (Economist, Sept 25). He articulated this view speaking in his capacity as chair of the commission President Sarkozi appointed to look into Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. The commission, composed of 25 prominent social scientists, several of them Nobel Prize winners, emphasized in its report,

Time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being…Changing emphasis does not mean dismissing GDP and production measures…But emphasising well-being is important because there appears to be an increasing gap between the information contained in aggregate GDP data and what counts for common people’s well-being.

The question to the prime minister now is why does the IMF not share his optimism? If indeed it is sympathetic, its latest report does not show it, not for now, not even beyond 2012. It writes,

Looking beyond the program period [2008-12], Ethiopia’s macroeconomic policy context remains challenging, given the competing pressures on domestic credit availability from the public and private sectors, the need to build budgetary revenues to meet spending pressures, the large trade imbalance and the associated heavy dependence on aid flows and remittances, the modest level of foreign reserves, and the fast build-up of external debt levels.

As regards, foreign reserves, Ato Meles is saying, “there is adequate room for optimism.” Elementary economics would have liked this optimism to be based on the country’s capacity to produce for its imports and earn the requisite foreign exchange. Ethiopia’s foreign exchange level now shows some improvement. This is not because of new earning capacity in the country, but because the funds provided in the form of aid and some of the grants are deposited in the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE). Of course, there is nothing wrong with that as short-term strategy to ameliorate crunches in times of low international reserves or in the face of aid inflow volatility.

In the past, reviews were undertaken in the international financial institutions to see the implications of aid on developing countries. In the case of Ethiopia, similar study was carried out in 2004 recommending improvements in trade policies, strengthening legal and regulatory environment, institutions, and trade-facilitation services, in order to encourage greater integration into the world economy and increased foreign direct investment (IMF, Projecting the Impact of Increased Aid on Economic Growth). The report’s conclusion is,”Resource windfalls in developing countries can lead to a dissipation of resource wealth and even negative growth [without such measures]. This reinforces the importance of aid being delivered within a policy framework supportive of the efficient use of the additional resources.” In the current Ethiopian economic environment, it is less likely that these conditions have been fulfilled. Nevertheless, temporarily the IMF may see advantages on the limits forced on imports and expansion of government expenditures and taxes not being lowered. Given the reality of deteriorating human conditions in the country, however, either hording aid money, grants or loans in the national bank is a solution for the long run, since the country’s ability to tackle poverty with economic expansion is completely curtailed.

The prime minister has asserted in the press conference that by the end of the year inflation would go down to single digit. In other words, he has taken it upon himself to extend the time from July, in his earlier forecast, to end of the year now! So what even if it goes down in the current policy environment? Furthermore, he claimed that, other than coffee growing areas, the prospects of the rainy season is good and that there would be higher agricultural production. Is the meaning of this, according to that forecast, the country would see another year or two of terrible decline in coffee exports and further foreign exchange squeeze?

Is this all a sign of policy haziness, problem of communication or constancy of the country’s reality, or evidence of EPRDF’s failure? I fear that, every time the government resorts to unspooling the oft-cited GDP data in the midst of such terrible declines, it may be stocking the wrath of the people the consequences of which cannot be predicted.

Prime minister resorts to dismissal of opponents, instead of battling their ideas

There has always been tension between Ethiopia and the ICG. This is because the government sees the ICG as pain on its neck, or, at its worst, as Eritrea’s agent. However, portraying it as Ethiopia’s enemy is a gross misrepresentation. The fact of the matter is that the ICG’s job is to follow and report on causes of conflicts and dangerous tension spots. Thus, in the case of Ethiopia it has focussed on the democratization processes in the country, the 2005 election, the war with Eritrea, the invasion of Somalia and relations with the Sudan.

The reports on those issues were not without merit, although government does not agree with them. For instance, ICG was one of the first international entities to express disapproval of Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia. Its experts testified in the US Senate holding that view. They criticized the Bush Administration for egging on the country into invasion.

In its report of last February, in article entitled “Somalia’s Slim Hope”, ICG wrote,

Ethiopia’s occupation was an unprecedented disaster. The last two years have been among the worst since Somalia descended into anarchy in 1991, with huge displacement of civilians, a massive humanitarian crisis and grave violations of human rights. The Ethiopian military campaign, combined with US bombings of suspected militant hide-outs, also set in motion a chain of events that in mid-2008 culminated in the recapture of much of the country’s south by the hard-line Islamist insurgent group, Al-Shabaab. They used the Ethiopian presence to rally support from and recruit amongst those marginalised by the transitional government, and they radicalised the Islamist movement.

Is not this borne out by the reality we now know? Surprisingly, the charge and pillory the prime minister has heaped on the ICG during the press conference began with the words it “has cried wolf once too much against Ethiopia.” Ato Meles tried his best to portray the Group as Ethiopia’s enemy, instead of addressing himself to substantive issues by isolating things that he thinks are wrong or false in the current report. He accused the Group of being determined “to pursue its objective of undermining alternatives to the paradigm its financiers are hell-bent on imposing on everybody.” Even this, he tried to exploit to rally other developing countries to his cause. So much for TPLF/EPRDF diplomacy!

What is not clear is which financiers are hell-bent on undermining his government? For all we know, he is enjoying the support of most of the Western world as well as China and India.

The prime minister could have come across better by refuting the report on factual and intellectual grounds. Sadly, he preferred to engage in hostility and ad hominem, that has taken too much from him as head of government. What was under attack was not only the report, but also the institution, for that matter on erroneous information. As if Ethiopia’s own colossal and multifaceted problems are not enough, the fact that Ethiopia’s leader chose to invite the ill will of those many international opinion-shaping personages is unfortunate. Clearly, this does not serve the interests of the country nor reflect on him positively as leader of the country. Ethiopia needs more friends today than enemies, especially out of people who are known to harbour no bad intentions towards the Ethiopian people.

ICG’s funding sources

As to the ICG’s funding sources, the prime minister has it wrong from A to Z. He may not have been informed or perhaps considers sixteen foreign ministries as mercenary of sorts—12 of them from Europe, one from North America, two from Middle East and one from Asia. They were amongst ICG’s funding sources for 2008-2009. Moreover, nine development agencies of partner countries that support Ethiopia’s development efforts have funded the ICG in 2008-2009. In addition, twenty-five international foundations, some of which have dealings with his government have funded operations of the Group during the same period.

The ICG board is comprised of important personages with significant influences in global affairs. In both the past and the present, many of them have been known as good friends of Ethiopia, irrespective of type of government, including for their sympathy toward the TPLF in its humble days in the trenches. Ato Meles dismissed their report as not being worth the cost of the paper on which it is printed. Interestingly, by his own admission, he has not even read it. What this harsh and hotheaded judgement has done is a great disservice to the country’s interests.

It is important to say that many find the report’s assessment realistic in many areas. It does not mean everything is right. Surely, the ICG view of linking election and conflict may be exaggerated. Even then, it should not have invoked such vehemence. After all, was the prime minister not in a similar state of mind especially between February and April when the country’s exports crumbled and the national bank’s vault was naked?

Recall that in early May he told Africa Confidential about the worrisome link between the country’s economic performance and the danger to a peaceful election. That open concern or admission of serious challenge is the first of its kind I know from his regime. Bearing this in mind, what is wrong if the ICG reached the same conclusion the prime minister had spoken publicly when international reserves dwindled to a few million dollars for six weeks? It should not go without being said that, what the ICG report highlights, is continuing concerns of the Ethiopian people.

Ato Meles is not concerned, as he makes us believe, about ICG’s financing sources or its mission, or the alleged Eritrean influence being politically and morally repugnant. To him, indeed it is the conclusion of the report about the forthcoming election that got his government hitting the roof. In a statement attacking the ICG, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry has revealed what is troubling the government, as follows.

But the ICG is dangerous as a peddler of crisis. The title indeed gives the game away, and raises a number of questions over the appearance of such a partial document at this juncture as the run-up to next year’s federal and state elections is beginning. These doubts are reinforced by the report’s call to the Government to consider a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition, and for the international community to put on pressure on the Government over the issue of governance rather than emphasize support for food security. ICG’s suggestions bear no relationship to current actuality or to the progress made in institutionalizing multi-party democracy in Ethiopia since 1991.

Help me out here! What is wrong, if the ICG calls for power sharing between government and the opposition in a country where political polarization and repression is cutting society asunder? Government could have simply dismissed the report making seasoned arguments, if it has one. In the circumstances, it has forced upon itself the speculation what spooked Ato Meles and his foreign minister is ICG’s revelation of TPLF’s unyielding determination to monopolize power in Ethiopia. Of that, counselled by experience, the ICG writes the truism, with which every Ethiopian agrees, as follows,

The EPRDF firmly monopolises political representation, decision-making and public space. The contradiction between its de facto one-party state and its promises to deliver multi-party elections, human rights and self-determination has been the defining trait of politics since 1991. This has produced tensions between the government and the opposition, communal and inter-ethnic animosities and armed conflict between ethno-national rebels and the government, culminating in the 2005 election crisis.

Move beyond blame to a new vision

The Ethiopian government gives the impression of being persecuted by the ICG. If at all it is, it could have ended it by turning its attention inward and addressing its problems with a new vision. Unfortunately, the government is bent on exploiting the fear of terrorism, the crises in Somalia and Sudan to put itself as an intermediary and peacemaker in the like of Egypt in the Middle East, which commands a lot of influence and the foreign financing this brings along. Ethiopia hopes to replicate that in the Horn of Africa. This posture would help the government to put the ring on the nose of the international community as the indispensable peacemaker and terrorism fighter. Review carefully, what Ato Seyoum Mesfin told the General Assembly a few days ago,

It is therefore unlikely that the Horn of Africa will rid itself of the crisis in Somalia pretty soon, with all the consequences of this for the work we have in our country in development and fighting poverty and in speeding up the democratization process. That is why, indeed, the peace process in the Sudan, most particularly, the effective implementation of the CPA, is so critical for us. The Horn of Africa cannot afford the consequence of failure in the Sudan peace process. We are very close to both parties in the Sudan— an asset which we want to use wisely. It would be naive to believe that the conditions of peace and stability in our region have no influence over our domestic agenda. They do. Open societies are manifestly vulnerable to the kind of situation prevailing in the Horn of Africa. The mix of extremist forces and rogue states is not conducive for the growth of democracy in close proximity [emphasis added].

If the threat of conflicts in Ethiopia itself is a lie, consider the following. In submitting performance report his office on 12 June, Commissioner Workineh Gebeyehu, chief of the federal police, informed parliament that within ten months of fiscal year 2008/2009 (six months already in 2009), twelve ethnic conflicts had taken place in different parts of the country and hundreds of people, including policemen, had died. Not only this, on 13 July 2009, the Ministry of Federal Affairs issued a statement informing the public that in a country that has passed through centuries of religious tolerance, religious conflicts are now threatening public safety and order. Many such conflicts have claimed several lives in different parts of the country. Why the need then for vain attempts to block efforts [if indeed it could] to report on such worrisome signs that experts see as telltale signs of future conflicts.

Uniquely troubling is the question the prime minister has not elaborated; this is why the ICG should want to undermine the unity and stability of Ethiopia. Why would members of the board, as responsible international citizens that are responsible for the publication appearing in their names, look for handouts least of all from Eritrea or some millionaires who could not find good cause or a place to park their millions? Are not some of them partners in foundations that provide funding to the Ethiopian Ministry of Health to help in the fight against malaria and early childhood diseases?

No doubt, all said and done, they would come back and say this article is a defence of the ICG report or the organization. Rest assured it is not. I am reading the facts, analyzing them, and agreeing where they have addressed the problems and disagreeing where I find nonsense conclusions. Read for instance the following.

The EPRDF firmly monopolises political representation, decision-making and public space. The contradiction between its de facto one-party state and its promises to deliver multi-party elections, human rights and self-determination has been the defining trait of politics since 1991. This has produced tensions between the government and the opposition, communal and inter-ethnic animosities and armed conflict between ethno-national rebels and the government, culminating in the 2005 election crisis.

Since it is true, I agree with the first two sentences above. However, I find troubling their build up to a conclusion in the third sentence that the 2005 election crisis has to do with ethno-nationalist rebellion. By extension, the implication is that the next election would be marred by ethno-nationalist rebellion. I do not agree with that. It is a false early warning that misreads the situation. It is possible that fury of the people may get a chance to express itself, especially if something unjust happens during the election. Moreover, that sentence would also contradict ICG’s own reading of the situation, wherein it has stated in the same report,

Since ethnic mobilisation is a rewarding strategy [at the local level], numerous conflicts, both political and violent, have been sparked by decentralisation. These are routinely described as “ethnic conflicts”, but they are more often the result of rivalry over state resources than of irreconcilable ethnic differences. Many are about administrative boundaries.

In the light of this, Ato Meles should realize that to date his entire approach to politics is dictated by self-interest, showing serious shortcoming. It is time he became willing to articulate a new vision for the country, instead of aiming all the time at escape goats for all his policy-induced problems.


The time is calling for a new vision. That must be a vision that helps cast fear out of the lives of the people and help them focus on their daily lives in freedom and dignity. Only free people know how to express freely what they need and go about getting it. So far, the past eighteen years of Ato Meles have only shown preference to imposing fear that has been stifling citizens. If the problems of democratization of the country were dealt politically, aiming at building national consensus, today things would have been much different and easier. The country would have been in a better position to ensure its stability without terrorizing citizens and impairing national development with wrong policies.

TPLF/EPRDF has now lifted itself to a status of OPEN SOCIETY! If true, government dedicated to the cause of the people should not be intimidated by them. It should have no interest in suppressing the fundamental human rights of the people that already are recognized by the country’s constitution. Judges need to be able to practice their profession in line with the constitution to afford justice to the common person, ensue full respect to fundamental human rights and civil liberties. The country needs a new beginning with no political prisoners. There are no better actions than these to mobilize Ethiopians toward a new vision and a common goal of national salvation. Only a government with a new vision could take Ethiopia along such a dignified path.

Anyone side rejecting this does it at its own peril. Ethiopians, both at home and abroad, are tired of the endless accusations and senseless blame games sand counter-blames that have proved sterile through and through. What is astonishing is, in spite of all its actions and restrictive legislations, the government has not become the winner, although it continues to hold onto power by the force of arms, imprisonment and disappearances and heightened militarization of civil society and, at times, bribery to ensure maintenance of the status quo.

Admittedly, in view of the country’s stubborn problems of human and institutional deficiencies, the task is not easy for any government. However, anyone with a better vision and willingness can change the direction of history in Ethiopia and help improve the lives of our citizens. All that it takes is winning the hearts, minds and respect of all the people with a newer and better vision.

I decided to write this piece, not to accuse the government or disparage its politics or policies. I felt a few things needed to be said now, especially after I watched video of the 16 September press conference by the prime minister. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to speak truth to power to encourage introspection and rational thinking to help common sense to prevail.

In the months ahead, the country heads into another difficult chapter, not in terms of the fait accompli, but in search of meaning and more answers, better wisdom and a new vision to a challenging future. The prevailing policy and mindset has no place, given the changes in public thinking that has clearly shown its disaffection. Order is borne of disorder and, it seems now, the international political and economic environment is favourable for that change the people are seeking in earnest.

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