Yonas Biru, PhD
Thomas Jefferson, America’s founding father, who coined the phrase “the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable sacred rights” has also given the world another phrase: “The government you have is the government you deserve.” Nations governed by constitutional consent, democratic reflection, deliberation, and choice enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those who allow their leaders to determine their nation’s destiny and fate outside of the constitutional framework and democratic principles neither get nor deserve liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
When it comes to Economic development, Ethiopia is cursed with monocratic leaders. From 1974 to 1991, President Mengistu Hailemariam promised a socialist nirvana and left behind a bottomless pit of economic abyss. His successor, the late Prime Minister (PM) Meles Zenawi’s economic doctrine was “developmental state” (a misnomer for kleptocracy) under which the nation’s economy was reduced to the eminent domain of the PM and his tribal cronies.
Currently, under PM Abiy Ahmed, mega projects are created and managed outside of the purview of the Legislative Assembly – parallel to the national coffers in violation of the law of the land. Regional governments are following the PM in circumventing constitutional guard-rails to finance their pet projects. Ethiopia is already suffering the consequences in four short years: Proliferation of mafia-type oligarchs.
In a recent speech before the National Parliament, the PM announced that one of his signature mega projects is estimated to cost up to 500 billion Birr (US$9.33 billion). The nation’s budget for the 2021/2022 fiscal year was 563 billion Birr ($10.48 billion). Ethiopia’s GDP in 2021 was $111.3 billion. This means only one of the PM’s mega projects accounts for 8.4 percent of the nation’s economy.
The PM defended his off-budget projects, stressing that he is raising the necessary funds, including from foreign nations. The question on what terms and conditions he gets the funds is unknown and no one dares to ask. The PM stands in gross breach of one of the most important pillars of the Constitution encapsulated in Article 50, Section 3: “Supreme power of the Federal Government shall reside in the Council of Peoples’ Representatives which shall be accountable to the Ethiopian people.” This includes “Approving general economic, social development policies and strategies” (Article 55, Section 10).
The more one studies the Ethiopian Parliament, the more it resembles the North Korean Parliament. Many of the Parliamentarians were clapping with smile when the PM told them he will undertake his pet project whether they approve of it or not.
This is worrisome because the Ethiopian Constitution has only two branches – executive and legislative. The Constitution does not provide for a separate and equal judicial branch. Having stripped the legislative branch of its constitutional power of oversight, the PM has done away with the constitutional check and balance mechanism on the power of the executive branch.
Alas, the most encouraging example of democratic progress for which the US Freedom House praised the PM has been aborted and abducted by none other than the PM himself, who has assumed the role of a sovereign king over the nation’s political and economic sphere.
The Anatomy of PM Abiy’s Descent from a Democratic Reformer to a Monocratic Leader
It was not long ago that the US Freedom House praised PM Abiy as the architect of one of the “most encouraging examples of democratic progress.” He liberalized the economy championing free enterprises. As former US Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffry Feltman rightly noted, he took a “decisive shift away from discredited Marxist theories” championed by the late PM Meles. Professor Paul Collier of the University of Oxford believed Ethiopia’s change agenda “could ignite economic change [in Africa] through emulation equivalent to South Korea’s influence on Asia in the 1970s.”
Soon after he took the levers of power, the PM established truly independent and globally praised institutions, including the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) and the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission (EHRC). He appointed respected former prisoners of conscience and supremely qualified people – graduates of Harvard and Oxford – to run the two institutions. By and large, he kept his promise to conduct fair and free election and allowed the NEBE and EHRC to conduct their businesses without government interventions. In a short time, he achieved a level of success that no one at home or abroad expected. He deservedly won the Nobel Prize for Peace.
His ascension to global recognition and fame as a visionary reformer was phenomenal. So was his descension into a know-it-all and have-it-all one-man monocrat driven by a self-absorbed personality wrapped in a messianic ጭምብል. People say he has good intentions and vision for Ethiopia, forgetting “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and vision alone cannot resolve the tension between human characteristics as fallen angels and risen apes.
In full disclosure, I was one of the analysts who praised the PM to high heavens when he stormed the political scene with transformative reforms. One of my June 2018 blogs read: “Ethiopia gave birth to [PM Abiy] out of pain, with a cacophony of ኡኡታ (screams). She awaits to be born out of [him] with a symphony of እልልታ (adulation).”
I still admire his visionary reforms and never question his intentions to transform Ethiopia to a peaceful and prosperous nation. The question is: Does he have transformational leadership skills. I have come to the realization that he lacks key traits of a statesman: (1) respect to the constitutional order, (2) an ability to build and inspire a transformational leadership team with emphasis on knowledge, experience, operational excellence, and management skills; (3) a desire to seek the counsel and advice of independent subject matter experts and advisory councils; and (4) an interest and skill to listen, reflect and build consensus to achieve his vision.
I for one have been raising these shortcomings since April 2019 in over two dozen articles. Many other analysts have done the same. Not only has the PM failed to correct path, but he has also made it clear that he has no intention to listen to public opinion. His cavalier disregard of the constitutional power of the legislative body and his systemic trampling of the people’s right to speak against usurpation of illegitimate power are manifested in the following two examples.
In his last week speech before the National Parliament, a parliamentarian representing Addis Ababa expressed fear of being “abducted” by government agents. Further, she alleged that she could not properly undertake her duties entrusted to her by the people of Addis Ababa because she has been denied entry to the municipal center (Addis Ababa city government office).
The PM’s reply was as disturbing. He told her: “The people of Addis Ababa do not know you. They voted for the Prosperity Party (PP) under whose banner and manifesto you run for office. It is the PP party they voted for, not for you.” As to the denial of access to the Municipal Center he advised her to sort it out with the people in charge.
The second example is just as disturbing. During his speech, he accused critics of his mega project as agents of foreign powers in Ethiopia who do not approve of the project because of its proximity to their embassies. Given the proximity of the American, German, French and Italian embassies to the project in question, it requires little imagination who the PM was referring to. This is a cynical attempt to exploit the paranoiac Ethiopian political elite who tends to see these nations as enemies of Ethiopia. People who are opposed to the PM’s controvertial mega project are accused of being against Ethiopia’s progress working at the behest of the enemies of Ethiopia.
The Path to Neither Peace nor Prosperity
Western nations are the most developed societies because they are governed by democratic reflection, consultation, and consent. The economic successes of a few of the non-democratic nations have three things in common: (1) visionary leaders; (2) competent bureaucrats who are empowered and held accountable; and (3) strong subject-matter advisory councils with the aim of fostering consultation, dialogue, and consensus building.
China’s phenomenal growth started after it moved from vertical to horizontal authoritarianism. In 1978, in a significant departure from Mao Zedong’s one-man authoritative rule, his successor Deng Xiaoping relied on a deliberative process. China’s “epistemic community” – a network of local and diaspora professionals – was created to foster broad dialogue between the government and the intellectual community. The aim was to facilitate constructive engagement in policy debates. Further, subject-matter advisory councils were formed, and their guidance and council were actively sought.
Another important change Deng introduced was reforming China’s bureaucracy. He replaced political cadres by knowledgeable and competent professionals. In the Journal of International and
Area Studies, He Li, noted “the rise of technocrats is one of the most salient changes” that China has experienced under Deng and following his passing.
Ethiopia’s bureaucracy is run by political appointees, possessing neither subject-matter expertise nor experience. The PM is on the record, for example, announcing on TV that economists with PhD bring no value added to society. Evidently, he also sees no value added that geopolitical and public diplomacy experts bring to the table. His diplomatic appointees are people without relevant training or professional experience.
In the past, the PM has established several independent advisory committees, councils, and commissions, consisting of subject-matter experts that ended up being nothing more than window dressings. The Privatization and Economic Advisory Councils have been around for four and two years, respectively. The Border Dispute Commission has been in existence for close to five years. Though they were all established to advice the PM, he has never met or consulted them.
Ethiopia under PM Abiy is governed by one man who sees no value in subject matter experts. Cabinet members are neither empowered nor encouraged to undertake policy decisions. Let me provide a concrete example.
In January 2021, a small group of diaspora experts of which I was a part met with high-level officials of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the need to help fill the gap in Ethiopia’s international public diplomacy work. We were asked to prepare a strategy paper. The strategy included a $5 million budget for lobbying. Foreign Minister officials liked he proposal, but they needed the PM’s approval. The fact that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, by far the most powerful line minister, who also happened to be the Deputy PM of the nation does not have a $5 million discretionary budget to discharge his duty, shows all decision are made by the Prime Minister. As time has proven, the PM’s rejection of the proposal proved a costly mistake to the nation.
The Autocratic Seduction of the Constitution and the Birth of Mafia-Type Oligarchs
The French say the Constitution is like virginity. Once assaulted it will never remain intact. The constitutional assault by the PM has led to the emergence of regional mafia-type oligarchs. Rogue oligarchs not only have their own off-budget projects, but also have private squads to terrorize and silence their critics.
Journalists are kidnaped, blindfolded, taken to private prisons in unknown locations, and kept incommunicado for days on end. They are eventually released blindfolded and driven to city centers and let loose. Though this is widely reported, neither the PM, nor his administration has done anything about it. This is not a matter of exception.
One cannot rule out, for example, the Addis Ababa Parliamentarian’s above-noted allegation that she is afraid of being “abducted” as a politically motivated hyperbole. Nor can one reject off-hand
her accusation that she was denied entry to the Addis Ababa government office. Dr. Hangaasa Ibrahim (a member of the National Parliamentarian representing the Oromo tribal land) and Taye Dandea (State Minister of Peace) are on the record, accusing the government of the Oromo tribal land of rampant corruption. They both expressed fear for their lives for speaking up.
Taye went further referring high-level Oromo party and government officials as “mafia groups” who threaten people like him with bullet in their head. Taye, who is a member of the Oromo Regional Parliament, alleged he was denied the right to speak at the Oromo regional Parliament meeting. He was forced to air his views in an open letter.
Further, the current Mayor of Addis Ababa was accused of corruption, after a journalist revealed 40 million Ethiopian Birr (over $1 million at the time) was deposited in her bank account. The journalist was arrested, and the mayor’s explanation was that she did not know who deposited the money in her account. The journalist was eventually released but no accountability was established. Neither the Mayor nor the businesspeople who deposited over $1 million in her account were investigated.
Who would have thought corruption under PM Meles would pale in comparison to the endemic corruption under PM Abiy. The PM is aware of the rampant scourge on his watch. Since he came to office, he has been lamenting about widespread corruption that has become endemic to the bureaucratic and judicial systems. For four years, he failed to act. Two things warrant mentioning.
First, the PM’s failure to act can be explained by his obsession with positive thinking. He refuses to nip negative developments in the bud, choosing instead to talk about positive progresses, real and imagined. It is only after the problems grow out of hand and reach a point of crisis he acts. This was the case with the war with TPLF, the war in and the mass murder of Amharas and others in Wellega, and now with the endemic corruption. The economy is next where avoidable dangers are simmering and lurking under the surface.
Second, last week, the PM established the National Anti-Corruption Committee. But there is little reason to hope the committee will work. In the past the PM has established several committees, councils, and commissions that ended up being nothing more than window dressings. This is not necessarily he does not want to stop corruption. The problems with his administration are many: (1) the bureaucracy is not empowered; (2) the bureaucracy lacks competence and capacity to ensure the successful implementation of government directives and policies; (3) the PM’s attention span is short as he jumps from one crisis to another.
For example, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is allowed to function fairly freely and has produced voluminous reports on human rights violations, including illegal arrests and violations of law and order by government officials, the government has done little to nothing to address them.
In the Federalist No1, in 1787, Alexander Hamilton took note that “If Americans failed to deliberate and choose well, they would prove forever that humans are incapable of founding just and successful governments based on ‘reflection and choice’ — that in fact, governments necessarily come into existence by ‘accident and force’”.
In 2022, 235 years later, Ethiopia is run by default and the fate of the nation is determined not by “reflection and choice” but by “accident and force”, as the PM jumps from one crisis to another.
PM Abiy is leading Ethiopia into a frightening meta constitutional blackhole and economic abyss. The people are misled, if not outright lied to. Inflation in Ethiopia is the fourth highest in Africa. Industrial parks are closing. In a recent report dated November 3, 2022, the World Vision noted “globally, acute food insecurity continues to rise. Ethiopia joins Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen as countries with populations that are facing or are at risk of starvation or catastrophic conditions.” But what the government media outlet herald is Ethiopia producing surplus wheat. The PM was unhappy when international news outlets reported a ship load of donated wheat was on its way to feed Ethiopians.
As journalist Jon Lee Anderson wrote in a recent article in the New Yorker, the PM lives in an alternate reality of Queen Marie Antoinette’s universe. During the French Revolution, the Queen wondered why her starving peasants were crying for bread when they could eat cake.
The slide into an abyss is not limited to the economy. It is also manifested in the nation’s diplomacy that is accentuated by the PM’s recent decision to side with 13 such nations as North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Belarus at the UN General Assembly’s Vote on Russian reparation to Ukraine rather than abstaining with 74 nations. One day, the PM declares he would “die for America” and the second day he aims to lead African nations to the nirvana of Pan Africanism. The nation lacks coherent diplomatic and geopolitical strategy to navigate through a fast-evolving geopolitical landscape. This is an issue I will address in my forthcoming piece titled “From the Mecca of African Diplomacy to a Caricature of Thomas Sankara.”
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