Why has economic growth reduced poverty in some African states but failed in others?

This is from an excellent paper by Rumman Khan, Oliver Morrissey and Paul Mosley:

Between 1990 and 2012, for most of the developing world, poverty has halved or more than halved except in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The simple poverty headcount fell from about 60% to 15% in East Asia; 50% to 25% in South Asia; 20% to 10% in Latin America; but only from 57% to under 43% in SSA (Beegle, Christiaensen, Dabalen and Gaddis, 2016: 21- 22). This is despite more than a decade of impressive growth in SSA, averaging 5-6 per cent per year since the late 1990s (Devarajan, 2013: S9). Some countries did (almost) halve poverty, such as Ghana (McKay and Osei-Assibey, 2017) and Uganda (Kakande, 2010), and many achieved significant reductions. In contrast, populous countries such as South Africa and Nigeria, on the available evidence, have not achieved significant poverty reduction.

The authors note that the effects of growth on poverty reduction across Africa has been bimodal. And this is their explanation:

povertyTo explain variation within SSA in poverty reduction, we consider aspects of colonial experience associated with the emergence of differing potential for redistributive policies to emerge after independence. Following the approach of Myint (1976) and others, we classify SSA countries into two groups according to the economic strategies used by the colonial authorities, using pre-independence data on factors such as inequality, land ownership by Europeans and political participation by Africans (the process is detailed in Appendix A, with validation by cluster analysis). In smallholder production economies, African agricultural smallholders had economic and some political participation. In contrast, extractive production economies dominated by foreign-owned mines and large-scale farms fostered the emergence of an elite politics characterised by urban bias and capital-intensive production technologies. During the colonial period African economies became clustered around a bimodal structure, which provided better opportunities to the poor in countries whose production was based on the development of labour-intensive smallholder exports than in countries whose growth strategy was based more on capital-intensive mines and large farms. We then test if the growth elasticity of poverty differs between these two groups of countries, using available (PovcalNet) poverty data since 1985, noting that mean growth rates for the two groups were very similar. The analysis shows that the smallholder group significantly outperformed the extractive group, smallholder experience is a significant predictor of poverty reduction, and inclusion of other potential explanatory variables does not alter the conclusion.

I recommend you read the whole paper (including the very rich appendix).

Africa-China Fact of the Day

This is from the South China Morning Post:

The number of students globally joining Chinese universities surged sixfold in the 15 years to 2018, rising from 77,715 in 2003 to 492,185 last year, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Over the same period, the number of African students in Chinese higher-education institutions increased an astounding fortyfold, jumping from about 1,793 in 2003 to 81,562, last year, according to the Chinese education ministry’s statistics.

With that increase, Africa had the most students in China of any region after Asia, which sent 295,043 students to Chinese universities last year.

Do Gulf States have too much influence in Eastern Africa’s capitals?

That is the question that   and  ask over at Foreign Affairs. Here’s an excerpt:

Faced with expanding Iranian influence, the destabilizing precedent of the Arab Spring, and a shrinking American security umbrella, Crown Princes Mohammed Bin Zayed and Mohammed Bin Salman have sought to radically transform their countries’ relationships with their neighbors across the Red Sea. In 2015, the UAE established a military base in Eritrea, from which the Saudi-Emirati alliance has waged war in Yemen—often relying on Sudanese troops and paramilitaries for ground operations. The UAE is now building a second military base in Somaliland’s port of Berbera while the Saudis are planning their own military facility in neighboring Djibouti. Both countries have also expanded their commercial ties to the Horn, and provided large cash infusions to Sudan and Ethiopia. A major goal of these efforts is to align the Horn states with the Saudi-Emirati axis against Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. To that end, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi find it useful to protect the region’s autocratic regimes, because the Gulf states’ interests don’t always align with popular opinion in the Horn. In Sudan, for example, the government has supported the Saudi-Emirati intervention in Yemen despite vocal criticism from across the Sudanese political spectrum.

The Horn’s two most important African-led bodies have quietly but persistently set themselves against the region’s emerging Gulf-led order. The African Union and an East African regional bloc known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, seek to craft a regional order that rests on the sovereignty and collective security of African states. The commitment to democracy within these institutions remains weak, as evidenced by the many authoritarian leaders in their ranks, but the organizations do embrace norms of constitutional governance and civilian supremacy in politics far more than the leaders of the Gulf states.

Read the whole thing.

 

 

How quickly can you regrow a forest?

Apparently, 20 years.

Here’s evidence from Brazil:

reforestation….. Salgado was to take over his family’s sprawling cattle ranch in Minas Gerais—a region he remembered as a lush and lively rainforest. Unfortunately, the area had undergone a drastic transformation; only about 0.5% was covered in trees, and all of the wildlife had disappeared. “The land,” he tells The Guardian, “was as sick as I was.”

Then, his wife Lélia had an idea: they should replant the forest. In order to support this seemingly impossible cause, the couple set up the Instituto Terra, an “environmental organization dedicated to the sustainable development of the Valley of the River Doce,” in 1998. Over the next several years, the Salgados and the Instituto Terra team slowly but surely rebuilt the 1,754-acre forest, transforming it from a barren plot of land to a tropical paradise.

Now a Private Natural Heritage Reserve, hundreds of species of flora and fauna call the former cattle ranch home. In addition to 293 species of trees, the land now teems with 172 species of birds, 33 species of mammals, and 15 species of amphibians and reptiles—many of which are endangered. As expected, this rejuvenation has also had a huge impact on the ecosystem and climate. On top of reintroducing plants and animals to the area, the project has rejuvenated several once dried-up springs in the drought-prone area, and has even positively affected local temperatures.

forestcover

Here is the Guardian story.

Perhaps there is hope for countries like Nigeria (see graph) to eventually reverse the deforestation trends across the Continent over the last five decades.

Urbanization might help in the medium-to-long term, although its effects will be moderated by what happens to agricultural productivity. Climate change will matter, too. Finally, Kenya and Ethiopia provide suggestive evidence that the Continent’s ongoing population explosion might not decimate its forests after all. On Nigeria, it would be interesting to determine if the decline in forest cover is due to population growth or climate change effects in its central and northern regions.

China & Civic Architecture in Africa

China just finished a 150 million Yuan four-year project to build Burundi a new presidential palace in Bunjumbura. This is but one of many installments of China’s ongoing influences on civic architecture on the Continent. The Burundian presidential palace is grand, and sitting on an elevation appears to have been designed to project the occupant’s power. While likely not the best use of that much money in Burundi, it is an important investment in the physical manifestation of Burundian stateness.

Other major civic buildings on the continent funded and (to be) built by China include the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, and Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar.

dakarmuseum.jpg

The Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal

Concerns over costs (and espionage) aside, one of the under-appreciated effects of Sino-Africa relations in China’s continuing influence on African architecture. From train stations, to hotels, to high-rise apartment blocks, to libraries, China’s influence is making an indelible mark on Africa’s landscape. At the moment much of this appears to be cut-and-paste jobs with little, if any, African influence. But it is ineluctable that over time many of these foreign designs will be infused with local sensibilities and tastes in the continuing process of architectural evolution on the Continent (no more fake marble and chandeliers please!).

It is fair to say that the state of civic architecture in many African states is wanting. Many civic structures exist as physical embodiments of the malaise afflicting the African state.  The last golden age of public buildings died with the independence generation. The era’s designs focused on function, but also the implicit desire to project state power — Dar es Salaam’s austere public buildings with their long hallways and exposure to the elements (for ventilation) quickly come to mind. The economic crises of the long decade (1980-1995) virtually stalled much of the region’s architectural evolution as far as civic buildings were concerned.

The current iteration of Sino-African relations is changing this. More capitals (sub-national, national and regional) are seeing the construction of civic buildings befitting their stature. The influence of these developments will likely travel beyond their aesthetic impacts on Africa’s architectural landscape. Civic buildings are also monuments to the idea of the state.

 

Why does Al Shabaab target Kenya?

Ngala Chome, PhD candidate at Durham University, has a great review of Al Shabaab recruitment and attacks in Kenya since 2011, and why the group has been able to stage a lot more attacks in Kenya (96.4% of recorded attacks between 2008-16) relative to other troop contributing countries engaged in Somalia (see map):

Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 10.50.23 AM.pngKenya may have suffered these attacks since it is considered a key ally of the West. But why is Al-Shabaab (an Al-Qaeda affiliate) targeting Kenya more than it is other countries in the region, such as Ethiopia and Uganda, which also have close ties with the West and have fought Al-Shabaab in Somalia? To what extent does Al-Shabaab attack Kenya for the reasons it publicly gives? Will Al-Shabaab, for example, stop targeting Kenya if the Kenya Defence Forces pulled out of Somalia?

…. The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) recorded 14 more attacks before September 2011, and then 49 in 2012, 35, in 2013, 80 in 2014, 42 in 2015, and 45 in 2016. While the GTD is yet to provide figures from 2017, existing evidence shows that of the 302 trans-border attacks perpetrated by Al-Shabaab from 2008-2016, 3 occurred in Ethiopia, 5 in Uganda, 2 in Djibouti and 291 in Kenya. Brendon Cannon and Dominic Pkalya, in a recent article, have argued that beyond sharing a border with Somalia, Al-Shabaab targets Kenya more than other frontline states because of the opportunity spaces linked to Kenya’s international status and visibility, its relative free and independent media that widely publicizes terrorist attacks, a highly developed and lucrative tourism sector that provides soft targets, expanding democratic space and high levels of corruption. In sum, these variables play into Al-Shabaab’s motivations and aid planning and execution of acts that aim to fulfil the group’s quest to survive – as it losses more ground in Somalia – by maintaining its relevance on the global stage.

Read the whole thing here. For more on the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISON), Paul D. William’s new book looks fascinating (I haven’t read it yet).

For a broader understanding of the dynamics driving insurgency in the Horn, check out Michael Woldemariam’s Insurgent Fragmentation in the Horn of Africa: Rebellion and its Discontents and Inside Al-Shabaab by Harun Maruf, Dan Joseph and Christopher Anzalone.

 

Is China Doomed to Fail in Africa?

This is from Wilson VornDick, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, writing in the National Interest: 

It is unclear whether China could handle the financial repercussions of a larger, more systemic default or debt-forgiveness program across the African continent. Seeking relief, debtors to China would likely overwhelm existing mechanisms, like international arbitration, or China-backed forums such as the Export-Import Bank of China , China Development Bank , and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank . More importantly, debt restructuring, recoupment, and, in the more extreme case, seizure may not be viable, reasonable, or sustainable for Chinese interests or presence continent-wide. Just such a dire economic scenario might push China to use its nascent military force to protect or even seize its interests. Looking back at the previous period of Great Power Competition more than a century ago, leveraging military might to force repayment was commonplace. The U.S. military made multiple incursions into Caribbean and South American nations as did the Western powers in Africa and Asia.

It is reasonable to assume that China would have little or no experience in any dire economic contagion across Africa. The one primary example, the take-over of Hambantota Port, was an isolated incident during calmer times, before the financial uncertainty stoked by a slowing global economy or the current U.S.-China trade war. Moreover, the port takeover has now become a watershed moment in Chinese behavior that has attracted significant international scrutiny and ire.

More broadly, VornDick articulates the potential merits (from a U.S. standpoint) of a “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy as part of Washington’s Great Power global competition with Beijing. The whole argument is worth a read.

A glaring omission in VornDick’s analysis, however, is the interests and roles of Africans in this whole game (note that this is a gap in the “China-in-Africa” genre more generally).

chinafricaA key weakness that I see in the “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy is that it vastly underestimates the extent to which Africans will be willing to work hand in hand with China to make the Sino-African relationship work.

China’s forays in Africa is creating complex tapestries of personal and institutional relationships that will become ever harder to undo. For example, in both electoral democracies and autocracies in the region, citizens have come to expect political elites to provide public goods — many of them financed and built by China. Demands for more of the same will likely only get stronger. The desire to secure funding for more public goods will likely push African elites even closer to Beijing. Furthermore, at a time when the U.S. is working hard to signal that Africans are not welcome on its shores, tens of thousands of African students are earning degrees in Chinese universities. Many of these students will probably go back to their respective countries and maintain ties with Chinese business and academic contacts. These kinds of investments in soft power will matter in the long run.

Global diplomacy is not just about crass material interests. It is also about values and shared commitments to respectful mutual cooperation. If African elites become convinced that they are better off bandwagoning with China, they will do so.

And most importantly, having made that choice, they will make specific investments (whether deliberately or not) to make their nations ever more closely allied with China. They will adopt specific technologies. Establish specific market relationships. Acquire specific weapons systems. And yes, more of their students will learn Chinese and go on to earn degrees in China. The closer the military, economic and “soft” ties, the more African elites will be willing to make costly investments in order to ensure that their respective states’ relationships with China work.

A good lesson in this regard is francafrique. The relationship between France and its former colonies in Africa is not winning any awards soon. But for almost six decades African elites have remained committed to the relationship and worked to give the French military free rein in the region and French firms access to vast natural resources. The French state, in turn, has worked to prop up the same elites despite massive economic and political failings.

The point is: China’s failure in Africa (if it comes to pass) is not what will determine the future of Sino-African relations. What happens before any such failure will likely matter more.

Here’s why African states value their economic and political ties with China

This is from an excellent essay by  in Foreign Policy:

…. when former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised a cautionary alarm for Africans to be wary of Chinese predatory investments just a few months ago, his lecturing tone did not go over well. Many African leaders reacted negatively to the underlying assumption that they were not qualified to figure out profitable from predatory investments on their own.

Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio rebuked the warning as misguided, saying, “We are not fools in Africa. … At difficult times, when we needed help most, China was there for us.”

The expansion of Confucius Institutes across Africa is another part of the push worth engaging with. With more than 50 Confucius Institutes teaching Chinese language, as well as the Communist Party’s version of Chinese history and culture, more and more Africans have the chance to study Chinese and travel to China on cultural scholarships. In 2015, approximately 50,000 African students attended Chinese universities, compared with 40,000 in the United States and the United Kingdom. Elementary and middle schools in several African countries are now offering Mandarin as a foreign language.

I highly recommend that you read the whole thing.

H/T Judd Devermont

Are Metros Overrated?

This is from a story in The Guardian:

The ITDP bemoans Africa’s obsession with metros. Lagos in Nigeria – the largest city in the world without a functioning mass transit system – has been trying to build a metro since the 1980s. In the latest of many incarnations, the project was supposed to begin operations in 2012 at a cost of $2.4bn (£1.9bn). Six years after the supposed start date, construction is “nowhere near complete”, says Kost.

Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, began construction of a metro last year. The French-financed and -built line is projected to carry 500,000 passengers a day at a cost of $1.7bn. Dar es Salaam’s bus system, by contrast, has capacity for 400,000 people and cost less than a 10th of that – about $150m.

Addis Ababa in Ethiopia opened a Chinese-built and -operated light rail line last year at a cost of $475m. Shenzhen Metro Group has a deal to run it for the first five years.screen shot 2019-01-09 at 4.03.54 pm“With a metro, an international firm will often just parachute in its own system,” says Kost. “Bus rapid transit allows existing stakeholders to get involved. That’s what we did in Dar es Salaam and what we’re planning in Nairobi, where the bus bodies will be built in the city and local operators will look after tickets, fare collection and IT. It’s good for the development of the local economy.”

Regular readers know that I have a bias for Kost’s argument. Read the whole thing here.

H/T Dina Pomeranz.

How can African governments increase their bargaining power vis-a-vis China?

Folashade Soule has answers.

First, a reminder that African governments are not uniformly bad at negotiating with China:

….when you look closely at what happens on the ground, some African countries are much better at negotiating with the Chinese than others. Railway projects in East Africa appear to be a good example. In Kenya, the Standard Gauge Railway is the largest infrastructure project since independence from Britain in 1963. China Eximbank provided most of the finance for the first phase – 472 kilometres of track between Nairobi and Mombasa – at a cost of US$3.2 billion.

In neighbouring Ethiopia, an electric train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, which is also Chinese-financed, opened two years ago. The cost for this more expensive type of railway was US$3.4 billion – for 756 kilometres. Kenya claims that its railway cost more for reasons like the terrain and the need to carry higher volumes of cargo. At the same time, however, many believe other issues to have been at play – including failures around the negotiation process.

Second, there are Soule’s suggested remedies:

Involve everyone: When all relevant government departments are involved in a negotiation, it does take longer. The process is more coherent, however, and the resulting project is less likely to breach national regulations.

Empower negotiators: The Chinese often adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach. In many cases, Africans are not confrontational enough in return. They don’t appreciate that China has a surplus of domestically produced materials they are seeking to offload, for example. Wiser negotiators will play China off against other countries seeking to finance infrastructure projects on the continent, such as South Korea or the United Arab Emirates.

Keep the public onside: China tends to be popular in Africa – more so than the US in around 60% of countries on the continent. Yet the public also see negatives: many think Chinese products are poor quality, while there is a growing perception that dealing with China tends to favour Chinese labourers.

Increase knowledge: African governments are still relatively new to dealing with China; they should take every opportunity to share lessons with one another. There is a role for African universities here. They should set up more centres of Asian studies to close the gap in information and knowledge.

I fully agree.

While it is true that China has geopolitical ambitions in Africa, a lot of Chinese infrastructure plays in Africa are commercial in nature. It is in China’s interest that these projects succeed. That means that African governments could get better deals (in terms of value for money) by doing their homework (on Chinese politics and commercial and institutional architectures) before chasing the money. Similarly, public opinion presents a potential bargaining chip — (the threats of ) transparency and robust public participation should force Beijing’s hand in settling for better deals (from the perspective of African governments). 

All this, of course, is predicated on the assumption that African elites get loans from China to finance infrastructure projects; as opposed to dreaming up projects in order to get loans that then find their way into private bank accounts. 

Read the whole thing here.

H/T Zainab Usman.

Public Debt in African States

This is from the IMF:

Screen Shot 2018-11-23 at 10.27.45 AMCountries in sub-Saharan Africa accumulated external debt at a faster pace than low- and middle- income countries in other regions in 2017: the combined external debt stock rose 15.5 percent from the previous year to $535 billion. Much of this increase was driven by a sharp rise in borrowing by two of the region’s largest economies, Nigeria and South Africa, where the external debt stock rose 29 percent and 21 percent respectively.

Export growth is not keeping up with rising levels of external debt:

….In 2017, the ratio was largely unchanged from the prior year, at an average of 138 percent. However, this ratio was close to double the average of 70 percent in 2010. Moreover, the average ratio masks wide disparity between countries. At the end of 2017 54 percent of countries in the region had an external debt-to-export ratio over 150 percent, as compared to 28 percent of countries in 2010 and the number of countries where the ratio surpassed 200 percent more than doubled, from 6 countries to 14 countries, over the same period. Most of these countries are ones that benefitted from HIPC and MDRI relief, including Burundi, Ethiopia, Niger, Senegal and Tanzania.

Bond issuance is dominated by a handful of countries:

Bond issuance by sovereign governments and pub- lic-sector entities in the region rose to $27 billion in 2017, a more than fourfold increase over 2016, driven to a large extent by a surge in issuance in South Africa to $19 billion from $4 billion in 2016, 70 percent of bond issuance in the region last year. An important factor was non-resident purchase of bonds issued in the South African domestic market. Bond issuance by other countries in the region totaled $8 billion, a tenfold increase from 2016, reflecting continued investors’ confidence and search for yield. Issuing countries in 2017 were Nigeria ($4.8 billion), Cote d’Ivoire ($2 billion), Senegal ($1.1 billion), and Gabon ($0.2 billion). Nigeria’s $3 billion Eurobond issuance marked the country’s largest such operation to date, and at end 2017, bond issuance accounted for one third of the country’s outstanding external debt.

Overall, while the data suggests that things may not be as bad as they were over the lost long decade (1980-1995), the trends are not encouraging. Total reserves as a share of external debt peaked around 2010 and have been in decline since. Screen Shot 2018-11-23 at 10.54.37 AM

It’s getting easier to do business in Africa

At least according to the World Bank Group:

Sub-Saharan Africa has been the region with the highest number of reforms each year since 2012. This year, Doing Business captured a record 107 reforms across 40 economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the region’s private sector is feeling the impact of these improvements. The aver- age time and cost to register a business, for example, has declined from 59 days and 192% of income per capita in 2006 to 23 days and 40% of income per capita today. Furthermore, the average paid-in minimum capital has fallen from 212% of income per capita to 11% of income per capita in the same period.

See the 2019 Doing Business Report here.

Here are some questions from last year on the integrity of the Doing Business Index.

The U.S. tops list of FDI projects in Africa

This is from EY’s 2018 Africa Attractiveness report:

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 5.27.43 PMMature market investors continue building on their deep-seated ties to Africa. In 2017, the US remained the largest investor in the continent, with a noticeable 43% growth in FDI projects. Western Europe, another well-established investor, also built on its already strong investments into Africa, up by 17%. However, emerging-market investments fell, with both intra-regional and Asia-Pacific investment declining by 12% and 13%, respectively. This is, in part, attributable to slower emerging markets growth and weak commodity prices.

It is odd that this report does not give the dollar values of FDI projects. But it has a summary of the distribution of projects and the number of jobs created. This is an important indicator because it reveals projects’ real impact on the real economy — as opposed to projects designed to create enclave economies. Notice that China is far and away the leader on this metric — with Chinese projects resulting in nearly three times as many jobs as American projects (FDI from Italy appears to be particularly good at producing actual jobs).

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 5.40.30 PM

Here’s another interesting observation on the sectoral focus on FDI projects from the report:

Over the past decade, we have discussed a shift from extractive to “consumer-facing” sectors, thanks to Africa’s growing consumer market. Mining and metals, along with coal, oil and gas, previously the major beneficiaries of FDI flows, have slowed, while consumer products and retail (CPR), financial services, and technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) have risen.

In 2017, FDI shifted somewhat, with consumer-facing sector investments slowing, in line with challenging operating conditions. The focus changed instead to manufacturing, infrastructure and power generation.

And finally, here are of “FDI-to-jobs” conversation rates. On this measure South Africa and Kenya stand out for their apparent inefficiency in converting FDI projects into jobs.

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 5.54.29 PM.pngMore on this here.

 

 

Peace is coming to the Horn and beyond

This is from The Economist:

Isaias Afwerki Abiy Amhed Eritrea…. In a display of unexpected warmth, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, embraced Issaias Afwerki, the ageing Eritrean dictator. In the Eritrean capital, Asmara, which no Ethiopian leader had visited since the war, the two pledged to normalise relations, putting an end to one of Africa’s most bitter conflicts. “There is no border between Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Mr Abiy declared in a televised address. “Instead we have built a bridge of love.”

After a long war for independence, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, following the toppling of the former Marxist regime and a referendum. Ethiopia was the largest trading partner of the newly independent Eritrea. With the first gunshots, though, centuries of commerce abruptly ceased. Lucrative potash deposits straddling the border have since been neglected. Eritrea’s enormous potential for tourism—a sparkling coast and, in Asmara, one of the continent’s most beautiful cities with a wealth of Art Deco buildings—has been mostly squandered. Renewed ties with its much larger neighbour now offer Eritrea’s ailing economy prospects of revival. Ethiopia has already promised to buy a 20% stake in Eritrea’s national airline.

The piece dividend from the end of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war will extend beyond the two countries. Eritrea has been linked to armed groups in Somalia and Ethiopia. Egypt has considered Eritrea as a check on Ethiopia. And Sudan has seen tensions rise with both Eritrea and Egypt as it has drawn closer to Ethiopia.

A theory of Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed

Since getting into office, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has moved swiftly to implement both political and economic reforms. On the political front, he has released political prisoners, unbanned blogs, described violations of human rights by security officers as terrorist acts, and called for term limits for Prime Ministers. On the economic front, he has sounded the alarm over Ethiopia’s $26b foreign debt, wants to privatize important sectors of the Ethiopian economy, and has been working Ethiopia’s neighbors to strengthen economic ties (including ports deals with Somalia and electricity markets in Kenya, Sudan, and Tanzania).

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 11.10.38 AM.pngWhy Abiy and why now? It is certainly still early days, but I think he might be a case of a lucky draw at a critical time. In the face of sustained popular protests that began in 2015, Ethiopia was definitely overdue for reforms. But it was not a given that the TPLF (a key player in the EPRDF) would be willing to give power to a popular leader like Abiy. They took a guided gamble with a young former military man and lost (guided because they were somewhat forced to select an ethnic Oromo as Prime Minister).

And as a result the TPLF found themselves with a Prime Minister that is more popular than the EPRDF. That makes him harder to manipulate.

Once in office, Abiy took on the reform agenda with a lot more zeal than they had anticipated. His peripatetic approach to governance can be explained by Ethiopia’s headline economic indicators. The country exports a mere $3b worth of goods (against $18b in imports), which at 6.2% is the second lowest export/GDP ratio in Africa. Ethiopia has also been burning hard cash at a clip, forcing a 15% devaluation of the Birr and a recent $3b lifeline from the UAE. It goes without saying that the country needs to export more if it is going to create jobs at a faster rate for its youthful population. 70% of Ethiopia’s 100m citizens are below 30, and 80% of them live in the countryside.

This is from The Conversation:

The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front which has been in power for nearly 30 years, is decaying. It lacks the political will to introduce fundamental reforms which would address issues like endemic corruption, the incarceration of journalists and political opponents and widespread economic marginalisation.

These concerns precipitated protests from various segments of society and forced former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign.

Abiy emerged from within the ruling party amid this disarray. His message was markedly different. He spoke the language of the people and tapped into society’s aspirations and fears. While it was expected that he’d be a safe pair of hands for ordinary people as well as the ruling elites, nobody expected him to be as direct and decisive as he has turned out to be in his reform efforts.

These have met with resistance, particularly from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which is the dominant wing of the ruling coalition. It’s started to act as an opposition from within to Abiy’s work.

The rally at which the attack occurred was called to disentangle Abiy from the establishment and give him a unambiguous mandate to run the country.

People are enchanted with his message of “medemer”, or togetherness, as opposed to ethnic compartmentalisation. They support his systematic and nonviolent removal of corrupt leaders who thrived on spreading fear and using violence to cling to power.

In what appears to have been an assassination attempt, on Saturday a grenade attack killed two people and injured dozens in a rally addressed by Abiy Ahmed. So who might want Abiy gone?

…… one can say with some level of justification that whoever made this attempt must have felt threatened by Abiy’s popularity, message and reform efforts. Ethiopians are accustomed to fearing their leaders. But Abiy is loved.

And despite his refreshingly reformist record so far, it is also worth highlighting the risk of relying on Abiy the individual as opposed to a system of governance that can survive the man:

There is also good reason to question whether or not he is producing supporters who would see him as a cult hero rather than someone who can be criticised, questioned and held to account when he crosses the line.

While this should be a source of caution, the gravest danger to lasting reforms is likely to come not from personalist rule by Abiy but from the TPLF old guard. There is also the real danger that Abiy will under-deliver and create even greater frustration among hopeful Ethiopians.