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.

 

Who’s interested in democracy?

According to Google Trends the answer is Ethiopians. Between 2004 and now they score the highest in the search index for the word “democracy,” at least among the English speaking countries of the world. Ethiopians have lived under successive military and quasi-military dictatorships since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

It is also interesting to see the relative concentration of searches for the word in eastern and southern Africa compared not only to other regions in Africa but also to the rest of the world. Besides Ethiopia, the other countries in Africa with a high search index have recently had somewhat high levels of political contestation through reasonably competitive elections.

Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is dead at 57

The BBC reports:

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57, state media say, after weeks of illness. A government spokesman said Mr Meles had died in a hospital abroad – but did not say exactly where or give details of his ailment. Speculation about his health mounted when he missed an African Union summit in Addis Ababa last month.

Mr. Zenawi is believed to have died in a Belgian hospital – the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels (where he was allegedly receiving treatment for an acute case of hematologic cancer). The last time he was seen in public was on the 19th of June 2012 at the G20 summit in Mexico.

For now the leadership transition in Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country, appears to have gone smoothly. According to the BBC report, the deputy Premier – Hailemariam Desalegn – will take over.

Mr. Desalegn is from the south of Ethiopia, away from the political centre of gravity of the country, which for centuries has been to the north – in Tigray and Amhara dominated areas.  

It is not yet clear if the smooth transition will stick. As the Economist reported a couple of weeks ago:

“power [in Ethiopia] has still rested with a clutch of Mr Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, many of them once members of a Marxist-Leninist group that used to admire Albania’s long-serving Communist leader, the late Enver Hoxha. This hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style”, according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn. Were Mr Meles to leave in a hurry, relations between the young modernisers and the powerful old guard might fray.”

Under Mr. Zenawi (May 1991- Aug. 2012) Ethiopia was a mixed bag. His rule was characterized by one of the worst human rights records in the world. But he also brought some semblance of stability following the misguided and murderous Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of the Derg under Mengistu Haile Mariam; and presided over an economy with one of the fastest growth rates on the Continent.

It is also under Meles Zenawi that Ethiopia invaded Somalia to rid it of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was beginning to spread Somalia’s chaos into Ethiopia’s Ogaden region (it helped that the U.S. also wanted the ICU ousted from Mogadishu because of their alleged links of al-Qaeda).

A recent profile in the Atlantic summarizes it all:

“for every Muammar Qaddafi there’s a Meles Zenawi, the shrewd, technocratic Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Inside of the country, he’s known for imprisoning his political opponents, withholding development assistance from restive areas, stealing elections, and cracking down on civil society NGOs. In the rest of the world, he’s often praised for his impressive economic record, though not for his human rights. Zenawi has attracted Western support by being a responsible steward of aid money, a security partner in a rough region, and a G20 summit invitee.”

I remain cautiously optimistic that the Ethiopian ruling elite will pull through the rocky transition period. The next elections are due in 2015. In the current parliament the ruling party, the EPRDF, and its allies control nearly all of the 547 seats.

Beyond Ethiopia’s borders, the absence of Mr. Zenawi will certainly be felt in Somalia (which is presently struggling to get on its feet after decades of total anarchy and whose government partly depends on Ethiopian troops for security) and South Sudan (where Addis Ababa has been a broker in past conflicts between Khartoum and Juba). Ethiopia’s hostile relationship with Eritrea might also experience some change, most likely for the worse as whichever faction emerges victorious in Addis engages in sabre rattling in an attempt to prove their hold on power.

Quick hits

UPDATE:

The Atlantic has a nice piece on the legacy of Meles Zenawi, the ailing Ethiopian Premier.

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The African Union elected South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to head its executive arm, the AU Commission. Ms Dlamini-Zuma is a former wife of the polygamist South African President Jacob Zuma. I hope that with Pretoria’s success in having her elected to head the AU South Africa will take a more proactive role in leading the regional organization. As I have stated before, I think the organization needs “owners” in the form of diplomatically powerful custodians. Being the region’s biggest economy, South Africa is well placed to provide strong leadership to the African Union, if it wanted to.

Still on the AU Summit, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been conspicuously absent, fueling speculation that he is critically ill. Rumors abound that Mr. Zenawi has left the country for a Belgian hospital – the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels (where he is believed to be receiving treatment for an acute case of hematologic cancer). Some opposition groups have suggested that Mr. Zenawi may have died in hospital. The last time he was seen in public was on the 19th of June. Mr. Zenawi has led Ethiopia since 1991. His record has been a mixed bag of aggressive and ambitious development projects (with results, growth has averaged over 8.4% over the last ten years) and militarism and authoritarian tendencies that have seen many opposition members detained, exiled or killed.

And in Somalia, BloombergBusinessweek reports on the massive corruption in the Transitional Federal Government.

The nearly 200-page report lists numerous examples of money intended for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) going missing, saying that for every $10 received, $7 never made it into state coffers.

The report, written by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea and obtained by The Associated Press Monday, says government revenues aren’t even clear: The Ministry of Finance reported revenues of $72 million in fiscal year 2011, while the accountant general reported revenues of $55 million.

The Somali Government remains an unrepresentative shell, propped up by African Union forces and barely in control anywhere outside of Mogadishu. No elections are in sight (and rightly so. I have never been a fan of rushed post-conflict elections. See Liberia circa 1997 for details), instead the UN and the AU are presiding over a process in which Somali power brokers will put together a list of electors to appoint the next parliament. The current government’s mandate expires the 20th of August (next month).

Maintenance of infrastructure still a major challenge in Africa

A good measure of state effectiveness is how well stuff is maintained. In well run places repainting is always on schedule. Potholes are fixed. And the light bulbs are not loose. I was reminded of this fact while on transit in Addis last Friday.

In 2006, the last time I was there, Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa was a swanky new airport. It made me feel like JKIA in Nairobi was a joke. But only five years later the place is a shadow of its former self. The loos are poorly maintained, especially the one near gate 8: It only had one urinal and there was only one elderly lady cleaning both the gent’s and the ladies’ thus creating a lot of awkwardness.

The problem at the Addis airport ails the infrastructure of most of the developing world. Roads, buildings, gardens etc are all poorly maintained. It’s like no one sees the potholes, the peeling paint or the overgrown gardens. Or may be no one cares. Either way the lack of maintenance imposes very high costs since the once in a while maintenance drives oftentimes start when it is too late – which invariably means that the whole thing (especially with roads) has to be done again.

This is a void (infrastructure maintenance) that can be filled by the private sector. IFIs that finance these major infrastructure projects to begin with can, in conjunction with domestic governments, hire private companies to maintain the expensive roads, bridges, airports, etc. This will not only save money but also create jobs for millions of young men and women who have very little prospect of finding gainful employment

Welcoming Southern Sudan to the EAC

UPDATE: A related article on Uganda’s influence in the soon to be independent South Sudan can be found in the New York Times.

In three days the East African Community will celebrate the independence of its next newest member. Because of SPLM connections in Kenya, among other East African nations, the Southern Sudanese economy will most likely orient itself southwards.

Kenya’s Vision 2030 development plan, for instance, will link Southern Sudan to the Indian Ocean coast via a pipeline and railway line. Oil from South Sudan is currently exported through Port Sudan, 3,000 kilometres away. The planned link to Lamu would reduce that distance to 1,700 kilometres.

For Southern Sudan, economic ties with its southern neighbors will not only grant it access to much needed capital and skilled labor but also implicitly guarantee it security against its menacing neighbor to the north.

I doubt that Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda will sit on their hands if the north decides to bomb local offices of Equity Bank, Ethiopian Airlines or Ugandan retail outlets in Juba (Remember the “Kenyan” tanks fiasco?). It also helps that IGAD has suddenly woken up to the security challenges posed by proxy wars among its member states. Kenya’s president, and current head of IGAD, recently chastised Eritrea for its ties with militant groups in the region.

IGAD will provide yet another forum for the region to put pressure on Khartoum to honor the CPA and not resort to war.

Several Kenyan companies have already set up shop in Juba. About 70,000 Kenyans live and work in Southern Sudan. According to the Business Daily:

Although several major Kenyan companies like Equity Bank, KCB, UAP Insurance and many small enterprises operate in South Sudan, the independence declaration on July 9 is expected to trigger another wave of corporate movement there.

Bidco Refineries that has a dealership in South Sudan, for example, is expected to consider having a physical presence there, said the company’s CEO Vimal Shah in an earlier interview. Kenyan manufacturers are, however, discouraged by low consumption levels and shortage of power, water and sewerage systems.

Co-operative Bank of Kenya is also expected to start setting up its banking infrastructure with a new venture that will be 30 per cent owned by the Government of South Sudan.

The new bank is expected to benefit from government business as it will process salaries of government employees and enjoy business arising from the government’s shareholding in the venture. The peaceful aftermath of the January 9 referendum that voted for secession from the North has helped to improve the country’s risk profile.

Paul Kagame: Rwanda’s “savior” turned despot

Rwandans go to the polls on August 9th. There are no prizes for guessing who the winner will be. President Paul Kagame, who is credited by most to have ended the Rwandan genocide in 1994, has recently had to resort to his darker tendencies to continue his stay in power, even as he walks the tight rope of political liberalization. Given the instability that the whole process has created in the country (grenade attacks in Kigali, murder of opposition leaders, attempted assassinations in foreign lands, ever rising ethnic tension etc etc) one wonders whether Mr. Kagame should stop trying to have his cake and eat it.

Political liberalization means being willing to give up power. But it is obvious that Mr. Kagame is not ready for this. Instead he wants it both ways – by holding sham elections to keep the liberal international community happy and singing his praises while he continues to muzzle the Rwandan domestic democratization movement. He may yet succeed at this, or in the more likely scenario go the way of the proverbial man who tried to ride two donkeys at the same time.

As Bratton and van de Walle have pointed out, “Liberalized authoritarianism…. is an unstable form of regime. Its political openings are easily and summarily shut as strongmen place ever heavier reliance on a shrinking circle of military loyalists. In the worst-case scenarios, blocked or precluded transitions lead to an intensification of political conflict, to anarchy (a regime without rules of any kind) and to the implosion of the authority of the state.”

President Kagame came to power in 1994 after leading the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front in the conquest of Kigali. Since then he has had a largely positive role in an attempt to heal Rwandan wounds and spur economic development. But 15 years is a long time and it is increasingly becoming clear that Mr. Kagame has overstayed his welcome in State House, Kigali. Like Uganda’s Museveni, Ethiopia’s  Zenawi, and other Continental autocrats, he seems convinced that he is an irreplaceable God’s gift to Rwanda. Someone needs to disabuse him of this belief.

Links I liked

A nice piece by Moussa Blimpo on Aid Watch highlights the urgent need to improve general conditions at African universities. On a related note, I totally agree with Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda’s position that Aid should be more targeted – and perhaps at times even to the middle class – if it is to make much impact in Africa. African development in the 21st century will not come from subsistence farmers and vegetable kiosks in the informal settlements. The Continent needs big business. I am not downplaying the entrepreneural ability of those target by pro-poor development initiatives. Far from that, all I am suggesting is that the better educated African middle class have a higher chance of being able to scale up their enterprises and create the kind of firms that will create much needed jobs in most of Africa.

Also, check out Texas in Africa’s posts on the increasingly authoritarian Rwandan government and the goings on in Kivu on the eastern reaches of the DRC. The Ethiopian Strongman Meles Zenawi seems to have gotten away with sham elections (the Ethiopian economy is doing well enough, I guess, so enough Ethiopians still love him) but it is not clear if Kagame will this August or his next door neighbor Museveni next year. Given Rwanda’s recent history the Rwandans will most likely opt for stability at the expense of an open free and fair democratic process. Whatever happened to Kagame, Zenawi and Museveni being the new generation of “enlightened” African leaders….

Quick hits

No surprises in the Ethiopian elections. Sunday’s elections most certainly resulted in a mandate for Meles Zenawi. It still will be interesting though to know how many seats the opposition won. Final results are not out yet.

In other news, the junta in Niger has decided that future presidential candidates must have university degrees. Don’t tell them anything about President Lula of Brazil who has done a fabulous job over the last ten years even though he did not finish primary school. My suspicion is that there is a specific Nigerien who is planning to run for office but does not have a university degree. It’s hard to imagine that the junta had the plight of Nigerien peasants in mind when they came up with this requirement.

And lastly, it is beginning to appear like the referendum on Kenya’s new constitution may not be a done deal. The NO camp just got more ammo thanks to this court ruling.

after sudan, ethiopia

Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir is here to stay. Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi is up next on a list of African autocrats who face elections this year. Ethiopia holds parliamentary elections on May 23rd in a vote that will determine who becomes Prime Minsiter. Africa’s second most populous country cremains under tight rule by the increasingly despotic Meles Zenawi. It is a foregone conclusion that Mr. Zenawi’s party will win. The only non-academic part of these elections will be how many seats the opposition is allowed to win. Mr. Zenawi has run the country since 1991 when he led a rebellion that overthrew the tinpot dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

More on Mr. Zenawi’s rule here.

The other elections coming up in the next month include Mauritius (May 5th) and the Central African Republic (May 16th). Keep track of these elections here.

as if somalis did not have enough problems….

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is implicated in a leaked report that suggests that corrupt officials have been diverting food aid intended for displaced Somali refugees. It is feared that al-Shabab (the Islamist insurgency group that is fighting against Somalia’s transitional government and its international backers) is benefiting from the diversion of food aid.

Diversion of food aid for other ends is not new in this region of the Continent. In the 1980s when the Ethiopian government under tin pot dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was fighting Eritrean and Meles Zenawi-led rebels, both sides of the conflict diverted food aid and used it to purchase weapons, with disastrous consequences. The CIA seems to have forgotten about this particular case. The agency is a key nemesis of al-Shabab in Somalia.

togo goes to the polls

Togo, a tiny West African country of 6.6 million, goes to the polls today. Faure Gnassingbe, President of Togo and son of the late strongman Gnassingbe Eyadema, is hoping to be re-elected for a second term. His father ruled the country uninterrupted between 1967 until his death in 2005. The younger Gnassingbe was then installed by the military as interim president before elections were held. Most observers believe that these elections were not free and fair. Many hope that this time round things will be different.Yeah right.

African democracy’s teething problems will not go away just yet. 2010’s busy elections schedule will surely bring some of these problems to the fore. The top four to watch include the elections in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Ivory Coast. Paul Kagame will most certainly win in Rwanda, but the question is how much room he will give the opposition this time round. Mr.Kagame has been president since his forces ended the Rwanda genocide in 1994 and has been touted to be among the more economically liberal strongmen on the Continent (he is no Tutu but he is good for business). In Ethiopia Meles Zenawi’s party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDP), is also expected to win. Mr. Zenawi has been in power since he deposed the tin pot despot Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Here too it remains unclear just how much opposition Mr. Zenawi will tolerate in parliament.

Madagascar, as you may remember had a coup in March of last year. It will be interesting to see who emerges as winner in this election. The contest is between the factions led by former DJ and mayor of Antananarivo Andry Rajoelina and the man he kicked out of office Marc Ravalomanana.The political instability in this island country off the east coast of the Continent has not gone without economic consequences.

Ivory Coast, once a paragon of stability in West Africa, is also holding elections this year. This year’s polls were originally planned to be held in 2005 before a bloody civil war that divided the country in half got in the way. The land of Houphouet-Boigny has not known peace and stability since the strongman’s passing in 1993. Mr. Houphouet-Boigny was president between 1963 until his death in 1993. Among his accomplishments was the relocation of the capital of Ivory Coast to Yamoussoukro, his home town, and the construction there of the US $ 300 million Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (which the Guinness Books of records lists as the largest church in the world).

keeping them honest, Aid Watch style

For those into famines and famine politics, here’s one for you…

And more of the same

And here is more news on Ethiopia’s second insurgency waged by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The Oromo Liberation Front in the southern parts of the country is the other major thorn in Addis Ababa’s flesh. For a man into military victories and invasion of other states I must say I am disappointed in how Zenawi has handled both so far.

lessons not learned

It has been 25 years since the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine that inspired Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to write the song do they know it’s christmas?

The Ethiopian government is marking the anniversary in the most appropriate way: by appealing for food aid from the international community to assist the more than 6.2 million of its citizens who are faced with starvation sans food aid. Yes, over the last 25 years the government of Ethiopia has not been able to put in place systems to guarantee its people food security. It is almost like 1985 never happened. Agriculture  (which is dominated by coffee) accounts for over 40% of GDP and makes up 60% of Ethiopian exports (CIA factbook). Now, I am no expert on agricultural economics or on Ethiopia per se but I am willing to bet a few hundred shillings that Addis must be favoring cash-cropping over basic food security. I guess it is just a lot easier to tax coffee exports than peasant agriculture – especially if you have an expensive autocratic system to maintain.

I say food aid should be conditioned on Meles Zenawi loosening his grip on power. Just like food aid during the last famine helped prolong the civil war at the time (see Alex de Waal), giving Zenawi food aid without any preconditions will just continue to perpetuate the very system that has been unable to guarantee food security for Ethiopians. Sen’s beliefs on autocracies and famines are partly true. Ethiopians continue to have these cycles of famine because Addis does not have to listen to the average peasant in Afar.

This does not mean that we should heartlessly sit back and watch millions of people die. No, those that can should assist as many people as is possible. However, while at it, the international community should insist on fairer government in Addis. It doesn’t have to be about regime change through elections or those other democratic stuff. All is needed is a guarantee of the chance for average Ethiopians to live decent lives without having to worry about major famines every decade or so.

chadian government may fall soon

Idriss Deby, the president of Chad, is in deep trouble. Rebel forces are reported to have entered the capital, Ndjamena, and are marching to the presidential palace “surprisingly easily.” The rebels have been waging a war against the government of Mr. Idriss Deby for some years now and this time they managed to march into the capital and seem to be ready to topple the government.

Many had expected that the French army was going to step in to help Mr. Deby but it seems like the French are taking a wait-and-see position on this one. Mr. Deby accuses the government of Sudan of supporting the Chadian rebels. Sudan on the other hand accuses Chad of sponsoring the Darfuri rebels that have given Khartoum very bad press since 2000.

The African Union has condemned the attempted violent seizure of power but done nothing else. As the rebels marched towards the capital no country within the organisation offered any kind of support for Mr. Deby.

It is a bit surprising and disturbing at the same time that the government of Chad is being toppled so easily by a rebel movement. The march to the capital was well known and documented by the international media yet the government seemed to lack the capacity to take the fight to the rebels in the North East before they reached the capital. May be the government ought to be removed – because it has proven to be weak and unable to protect its people against these marauding desert rebels.

It is unclear what the rebels intend to do once they seize power. The success rate of such movements in forming governments is very low. Only Museveni, Kagame, Kabila, Zenawi and Charles Taylor have ever pulled this off before. All the other coups on the continent have been carried out by disgruntled government soldiers.

Meanwhile, as the men fight it out for power in this hot and dusty country, hundreds of thousands of people face crises on both sides of the Sudan-Chad border. The refugee camps are crowded, disease infested and unsafe. Aid workers have scaled down most of their operations due to the security situation leaving thousands without much hope for a better life.