An open letter to Dr Eleni Gebere-Medhin – Jawar Siraj Mohammed, Stanford University

August 18th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

“Let’s be like the market”. Sure but what if the market is monopolized? (more…)

“Let’s be like the market”. Sure but what if the market is monopolized?

Dear Dr Eleni,

I just finished reading an article you recently wrote titled “Let’s be like the Market” in which you made a passionate call to your critics not to engage in destructive ethnic bigotry but rather focus on rebuilding a country in need of grass root economic development. You have stressed the importance of being like the market – a market that does not care about who is selling and who is buying but what is sold and for how much, hence we should not judge people based on their identity but by their characters and deeds. In an ideal world, I agree with you. But what if the market is imperfect, distorted, manipulated and has been for the most part monopolized by a single company or group? Can you still advocate embracing such an imperfect market?

To me the problem in Ethiopia is not only the fragmentation of ethnic diversity per se, it’s rather the manner in which those several ethnic groups have been unjustly brought under one state and are ruled. When people with different cultures and views live side by side, in the absence of effective interaction, it’s natural for them to make assumptions about the other. When such neighboring groups compete over resources, or when there is conflict of interest, those assumptions develop into prejudices and bigotry. Therefore, assumption, prejudices and bigotry are present in any diverse society and they often die out as interaction and interdependence among communities increase. But if and when one group dominates its neighbors and imposes its cultural, political and economic will, those preexisting assumptions and prejudices become fertile ground for dehumanization, discrimination and exploitation. In other words, what we call racism today is a situation in which the powerful suppresses the powerless based on those preexisting social differences.

Everyone knows that Ethiopia was built by one group subjugating the rest, and ignoring that history will not help everyone to get along Therefore, from the very beginning, the market was imperfect. This imperfection continued to worsen as the subjugating group further monopolized the market, by strengthening its own cultural, linguistic and economic domination. I hope your wonderful grandmother has told you about Minelik’s soldier in Hararghe when they used to own at least 10 families including their land, property and lives. All members of that family worked on their land and gave the product to their owner. That monopoly lasted almost a century, and put the then powerful group ahead of the subjugated, and much of the problems and disparities we are facing today are the product of such imperfect beginnings. Can you imagine what a market monopolized by a single company for such a long time would look like? The Ethiopian market today remains as imperfect as before if not worse. The only difference is that it is monopolized by a new company. Therefore, in a country where the system has been monopolized by one group or another for over a century, and the majority has been severely repressed, marginalized, exploited and dehumanized, we cannot simply wish away bigotry and ethnic hatred – We must face it head on and deal with it.

Let me go straight to my point. It is because of this monopolistic market that people automatically assume you are a Tigrean. By they way you are not the first to be a victim of such erroneous assumptions and deliberate mislabel. Dr Nagaso Gidada was called Neagsi Giday and once it was widely rumored that Dr Brehanu Nega was a brother of Sebehat Nega. Some of the reasons why people either assume or label individuals working with the current government as Tigrean is as follows:

First, it is an undeniable fact that the current system, be it political or economic, is fully dominated by the Tigrean elites loyal to the regime. From the oligarchy enterprise known as EFFORT that has taken a big chunk of the market to all real political power posts within bureaucracy, military and security apparatus, the regime has deliberately and openly excluded individuals of other ethnic groups from the system and filled it with Tigreans. Therefore, when a new and potentially powerful entity like ECX surfaced, it was unthinkable for people to imagine a non Tigrean would be allowed to run it. People automatically assumed that it’s just another entity established to run a new kind of scam.

The second reason is that as a product of the 70′s radical left, the elites of all ethnic backgrounds and political grouping are accustomed to using labels and conspiracy theories as the primary weapon of discrediting whomever they disagree with. As you probably know, the ruling oligarchy is mercilessly notorious for using people, especially “outsiders”,as use-and-throw

Learning from Not So Distant Past: Would ECX Perfect the Market or Would it Strengthen the Monopoly?

When I first heard about ECX I was excited on its potential to transform the grain market but I was also worried about problems you would face from two sides. One, from the larger public who have been excessively exploited by the regime over the last two decades that they have lost trust in any institution run by the government. Two, from the very regime that is known for taking advantage of genuine individuals like yourself to advance its narrow economic and political agenda.

I hope my fear will not be realized and you succeed in fulfilling your dream of making ECX a great market place. But growing up under this government, I am too familiar with its scams and injustices that I cannot help but remain suspicious. I share the fear that ECX will become just another facet through which the regime will systematically impose its market monopoly and force independent businesses out of the market as it has done since it came to power.

Here is a recent historical reflection: There was a farmers’ cooperative in Hararghe known as East Oromia which was engaged in trading jimaa (khat). The regime, eying the luxurious jimaa business, falsely labeled the cooperative as an OLF property, and decided to “nationalize” it. However, it was not really nationalized in a real sense but the finance and operation of the cooperation was simply transferred to Dinsho, a company owned by the ruling party. Former board members and officers of the cooperative have been killed or are languishing in jail. Today Dinsho has been bankrupted and the jimaa business is believed to be owned by none other than the Prime Minister’s wife and is estimated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars per year. To make sure that the business would not be scrutinized and disturbed, the prime minster directly intervened and “federalized” the entire Awaday district so that the company would not have to pay tax to the Oromian regional government. This is as free as the current market is in Ethiopia.

Because I have heard and witnessed so many stories about such scams and injustices, I was not surprised when all of a sudden you were ordered to trade the coffee that was “nationalized” from the six renowned business people. I cannot believe for a minute that coffee was nationalized because of “hoarding” as it was claimed by the government. It was said that those businesses hoarded coffee to wait for better pricing, but since the world coffee market has been fluctuating for quite a long time how come a corrective measure hasn’t been taken before. And, most importantly why now and why through ECX that was supposedly established to trade grains?

I believe that the ruling oligarchy robbed those business people for one simple reason; the coffee business was the only major sector that was not monopolized by companies owned by the ruling clique or EFFORT. This has been done to several other major businesses in the past. For instance, there was a business man in Finfinne who was one of the most respected business people since the emperor’s era. He was believed to be one of the first people to import fertilizer. His business was so important for the country that even the communist junta did not nationalize it. When the current regime came and began expanding its business monopoly, they wanted to take the fertilizer market as well, due to its profitability and more importantly to make farmers directly dependent on the ruling party. But there was one problem, the old business man and his company had been so established that he had strong loyal suppliers and consumers. First, the regime tried to push the man out of business through competition. A tax exempt company got established to bid and import fertilizer. But the old man kept winning. You won’t believe what they did next. They told him that he can import the fertilizer but had to share the profit with them. The man, being a conservative businessman of the old days, rejected their demand. At last they simply moved on him, seized his entire property and forced him into exile. At the age when he should be sharing his experience and wisdom with aspiring young business minds, he lives in a foreign land, while those who robbed him have been relaxing and enriching themselves on the very land where his umbilical cord was buried. Then who should we be surprised when owners of EFFORT publicly claim that it is the biggest company in Ethiopia if not all of Africa, after all the oligarchy was built by properties gained through such daylight robbery.

Beyond The Horizon: We Must Face and Deal with the Imperfection Before We Embrace the Market

Ethnic diversity, prejudice and bigotry are not the real issues why people question your identity, therefore while your call to be like the market is correct it is not realistic in a condition in which the market is so imperfect and highly monopolized by a few cliques. Can this market be perfected? Yes and it better be. How?

The first thing to do is to recognize and acknowledge that Ethiopia was built and has been sustained on discriminatory system where the majority has been marginalized from the economic and political affairs. . And also it’s essential to admit that the current government is run by powerful business oligarchy that has been using ethno-racist policies to monopolize and exploit Ethiopia’s economy for the exclusive benefit of a few individuals. Let me be clear here. I do not believe the current system is serving ordinary Tigreans, but the small clique that runs the country has been using Tigrean nationalism to hide their sinister personal motives. The Tigrean people themselves are the victim of this system. The ever increasing anti-Tigrean sentiment within some segment of the society is the product of deliberate and calculated move by the ruling oligarchy that have been promoting racist policies to anger and agitate other ethnic groups. The oligarchy believes that facing hostility, the Tigrean people would be isolated and insecure that they remain loyal to the system. Thus, the current anti-Tigrean sentiment can only be contained from spreading to the wider society if this regime is stopped from implementing racist policies. As long as these individuals and their policies remain, bigotry and ethnic tension will persist or even increase making it difficult for people like you to serve their people without distraction.

Solving this problem requires two approaches, I) Political solution by democratizing the country which will free the market by breaking the monopoly of a single group over the economic and political system and making it accessible to all. II) Promoting integration through grass root social activism. These two approaches will gradually create an environment free of ethnic and class prejudices and bigotry through self-actualization and innovative indigenous social engineering.

Let me explain. Much has been debated about the correlation between economic development and democracy. Some have persuasively argued, using the Asian Tigers as example, saying that regimes strength and stability, not democracy, is more important for economic growth. That might be true in few countries where their society is more or less homogeneous. In my view, in such an ethnically fragmented country like Ethiopia, an authoritarian system can never be strong and sustainable because it always creates presumably advantaged and disadvantaged ethnic groups – leading to permanent tension and instability. This is because the primordial ethnic differences and grievances make it easy for elites to create and mobilize an ethnic support base. As a matter of fact the current regime is a clear example of this phenomenon and even the communist Derg did not escape the perception of being an Amhara government. As long as a regime uses an ethnic support base or perceived to prefer a particular group, those who feel disadvantaged will move into an opposition camp. More dangerously in the absence of democracy and rule of law – hey often use violent methods. This eventually widens ethnic fragmentation and polarization.

For a positive, transnational and courageous people like you to succeed in using your wealth of knowledge, experience and wisdom to help the people of Ethiopia without distraction, the current polarization and exclusiveness needs to be replaced by an environment that is based on mutual business trust which is the anchor of any enterprise and free market. This can only be done by democratizing the state and establishing an all inclusive government. Successive authoritarianism has allowed small but well organized vocal and vicious groups to monopolize politics both in the ruling groups and their opponents. Seasoned and rational individuals have abandoned the field of political dialogue due to the kind of smear tactics that was thrown at you. The silent majority has either abandoned the country or has chosen a “non-political” way of helping the country like you are doing now. But for genuine people to make practical, stable and sustainable difference in the country, it is essential for the political system itself to be stable and progressive. Any authoritarian regime is doomed to fail no matter how long it lasts. The longer it remains in power, the more likely that it would face a violent demise With the fall of such a regime, the succeeding group often destroys whatever positive institutions that were left by the previous one and starts from ground zero. We have seen this during the past two successions. The current rulers do not seem to have learned any valuable lesson from their predecessors. So I fear that, the few great institution such as ECX that have been built through such hard work might become the victim of a new cycle of showdown.

Finally, in no way I am trying to discourage you from doing the great work. In fact I see you as a role model for all Africans including myself. I disagree with those who advocate for completely boycotting the country because of the nature of this regime. I strongly believe that the problems of the country can only be solved from within. Let me share with you a story a friend told me. A man came across an old lady searching outside her house for a needle she lost inside. The man asked her why she was looking outside if she lost it inside. Her response was that there is no light inside. The man asked ” what is easier, finding light for your house or searching outside where you know the needle is not there?” The situation in our country is similar, there are too many problems, but the solution must come from inside not outside. You are trying to do exactly that.

However it’s also very crucial that, while lighting up her house, the woman I mentioned above works on properly covering her roof so that the next rain will not take out the light. She also needs to clean her house so that next time she drops a needle it does not get lost in the midst of the trash. Similarly while returning home to solve gigantic economic problems is important, we need to make sure that we tackle the root cause of poverty and ethnic tension, which is the monopoly of the politics and economy by self-anointed dictators and the disenfranchisement of the majority. Any activity should be directly or indirectly aimed at solving this root cause, and we need to be careful that our actions do not prolong the rein of tyrants. In light of this, the direction EXC is heading is not clear. It has a huge potential to solve the market stagnation and catalyze innovative entrepreneurship. On the contrary, it can also become an important mechanism in which the ruling oligarchy can expand its monopoly over the market and increase the already rampant dependency of the farmers on the state. So far the later seems the case, but I urge you to not let that happen.

The Author can be reached at

  1. Guest
    | #1

    I read her article on ‘Awramba times’. She appears to be very upset believing that people are trying to villify herself and her effort pointing at her ethnic background. She may have genuinely good intention when starting the Ethiopian commodity exchange market (ECEM); we never know. However, what she should have seen beyond technicalities was to consider the political conditions (contextual situation) that could either enhance or totaly derail her effort. As we see it now ECEM is becoming a very efffective tool for Woyane in repressing and controlling the whole country. It seems to progress in a very dangerous direction. Probably, it is the next highly systematised move by TPLF, next to privatisation, to control every aspect of Ethiopian life, whether urban or rural. She must seriously think about this destructive effect of her effort and devise a means or halt everything before things go in undesirable and catastrophic way.

  2. fish
    | #2

    dear Jawar Siraj Mohammed you give an excellent point of view and it should be as you have forwards. Eleni is presenting herself as naive but i dought taking her education in to perspective. She must be after some ill agenda. Any way you present a very good analysis and exposed her ill intention.


  3. koster
    | #3

    It is well written but does not convince a HODAM. Woyanes are doing whatever they are doing i.e. killing or looting openly not secretely and Elleni has good eyes and brain to see the injustice and judge that this is an anti-Ethiopian government.

  4. aha!
    | #4

    The political and economic crises in Ethiopia is multi-layred and hierchical. Thanks for your detailed anlaysis on the third layer of political and ecomonic strangle hold of the country by TPLF and TPLF affiliated enterpises,using the negative attributes from the second layer together with security,Aggazi, and police forces as party apparatus, the Judicial and the Election Board under its control, with no apparent balance of power between the brabches of the government and with all poer vested in the Prime Minister.

    ECX is another way supported by foreign benfactors to monopolize the coffe and sesame commodity markets by TPLF and TPLF enterprizes, who are well positioned and favored. There is genuine effort to organize, educate the public from the farmer to the processing and warehousing and quality standards and initiate a grass root organizational effort with farmers, the processors, the marchents and/or exporters with ware house-facilities and the auctioning process into this new form of trading.

    All Dr. Eleni was doing running from place to place to different warehouses acting like inspector talking about the condition of the ware house, nor did sound like an economist in her interview with Aaron Brown. I appears it that ECX does not qualify for an employment agency’s offoce, let alone for high tech trading agency to say the least. There is neither a computer nor a filing system, no board meetings and no discussion forums. It was only verbal exhanges with her associates after her trip to the various locations and how she runs her household as a single mother in a luxurious villa and ambition and willingness to make sacrifices in order bring about changes in this new market format by accepting the position.

  5. JIGSA
    | #5


  6. aha!
    | #6

    Corrigendum: In the second pargraph, second sentence should read, Theis no genuine effort….

  7. Nagasso Gidada
    | #7

    I don’t know why the author of this article is wasting his genuine concern for country, time and energy on this person called “Elleni”. She is nothing but Woyane mistress ( the latest version of “Selome”) who returned to Ethiopia to be part of the looting of Ethiopia. She can lie, manipulate facts but she can’t handle the truth!

    Her patronizing lecture for “love of country” BS may serve a Woyane cadres audience but not to patriotic Ethiopians. That may impress her crime partners. She is simply a broker (“delala”) on behalf of Woyane in the looting of Ethiopia. She is the educated version of “Aba Dula Gemeda”. It is only obvious that she is blinded by the love of money aka GREED not love of country. Despite her BS smoke screen, she remains enemy of the Ethiopian peasants in becoming a tool for the looting of the coffee, hydes, oil seeds and others from the Ethiopian peasants. In the process provide legitimacy for the Woyane money Lanundering scheme!

    Needless to say that she is doing more damage to the struggle of the Ethiopian people who are fighting the Tigre occupation of Ethiopia than the likes of Aba Dula Gemeda, Kassu Illala, Girma Biru and others. She will one day be answering to the Ethiopian people for partnering with Tigre criminals as well as providing a cosmetic cover for Woyane looting of the Ethiopian treasury in the eyes of the international market. It is also obvious she is serving as a main tool in the woyane laundering of wealth into save havens around the world.

  8. Gudeta Mamo
    | #8

    The article is well worded regarding the TPLF treachery but failed to express the efforts of Dr. Eleni. Eleni is a headache to TPLF and its surrogate traders, merchants, consultants, businessmen/women and Tigrean/Amhara bureaucrats that fan the ethno-apartheid ideology. The writer is absolutely right in that the TPLF will steal the idea, “nationalize” or criminalize it and later adopt it as its new invention through its secret servants called consultants. It is interesting to note that TPLF has consultants at every corner for every conceivable idea or effort. Almost all inventions and ennovations are controlled by TPLF consultants who are typically political cadres with some degrees or foreign expatriates. These people collect new ideas from the streets, alleys, bars, internet caffes and process it and baptize it as thier original thought(This is called research). These young political cadres are given the money and access to organize big business or trade conventions within no time at ECA hall or Shearton Hotel. TPLF ministers would open and close those meeting and give their blessing to the new ventures to run by those cadres. Almost all sectors of Ethiopian economy is owned or controlled by TPLF institutions, Ala Moudin and associates. But what do you expect if all land belongs to TPLF? If Dr. Eleni can navigate through these muddy waters and make something out of her efforts, we should appreciate it. Not all Ethiopians are politicians or politically motivated. Ethiopia and Ethiopians are still there and still continue to exist despite the prevailing situations. Professionals like her may still work inspite of those conditions.

    I do not like the rude comments here by someone who dared to say she is a Woyane mistress. This is uncalled for in this place. There is no need for such a comment when you try to communicate your great idea of national importance to serious people. I do not think you know her that well.

    We should stop disrepecting our educated women (mothers, wives and sisters) by calling all kinds of names is nothing but arrogance. Why do we not express our points without attacking the personhood of the person? Is this how the educated Diaspora who expect to lead our country, think and act?

    My fear is that Dr. Eleni would not be burn out or worn out and settle for less like the Diaspora. Keep up the good work, Dr. Eleni.

  9. aha!
    | #9

    Gudeta Mamo! What are you talking about the Dr. Eleni is working outside the framework of of TPLF and TPLF affiliated enterprizes, when she is an appointee, but not elected Chair person by the organization, without intergjecting the gender politics: as if she is conducting a revolution contrary to the monopostic effort by TPLF and TPLF affiliated enterprizes equiivalent to the fertilizer importing enterprizes, airline transportation and other goods and services on the export side of the economy by stating that “DR. Eleni is a headache to TPLF and its surrogate traders, merchants, consultants, businessmen/women and Tigrean/Amahara beurocrats that fan-ethno apartheid ideology”. You may be right about this last statement but she has nothing to do to counter that, if she does she she is biting the handthat feed her ie. TPLF/eprdf regime. There is no evidence to that effect, although I did not read her article, nor explanation from you in support of your statement.

    In reality. and modular context of a polical model, this scheme falls under the third/fourth multi-layer and hierachical scheme of the political and economic crises in Ethiopia with respect to import and export side of Ethioian economy. The question is: is she part and pacel of this scheme or not, not that about her gender, not about her ethnicity.

  10. The enlighten one
    | #10

    I would like to make it clear that I am not the tribal regime apologist. I do not like to express our brothers and sisters leaving outside the country as “Diaspora” knowing that categorizing peace loving people in such a derogatory terms will not benefit our beloved country. Also any one can disagree with the respected economist Dr. Eleni on her hard work on the ECX. I have been following her work as well as her oppositions. The above writer Mr. Jawar Siraj Mohammed, wrote a well informed analysis. The ruling tugs do not have transparency, accountability and legal monitoring skims to the ECX. Our poor people’s money has been used for serving one group. I share my worries with the writer that her hard work will serve the ruling tugs. Please stop name callings instead address what is on the table

  11. Anonymous
    | #11

    In my view, Jawar’s open letter to Eleni is a finely analyzed, well-considered, polite and at the same time a stingingly designed comment to cause a moral anguish to those who couldn’t yet understood woyane’s intrigue for taking advantage of ‘genuine’ individuals like Eleni to advance its narrow economic and political agenda. Well-done Jawar!

    Its worth reading,
    KMT, Geneva,

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