DEFIES ALL COMMON SENSE, REASON & STATUS – By Genet Mersha
“No political party can long pursue advantage at the expense of public honor or by rude and indecent methods without protest and fatal disaffection in its own body.” (more…)
“No political party can long pursue advantage at the expense of public honor or by rude and indecent methods without protest and fatal disaffection in its own body.”
(Inaugural Address by US President Benjamin Harrison on March 4, 1889
—Avalon Project, Yale University)
Why do I now turn to Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States, who left the political scene over a century ago? The answer is simple. There is a pressing need today in my country for such a discerning and insightful message to reach the political establishment. Already at the time when President Harrison was making his inaugural speech, Ethiopia was in serious situation fighting for its survival against invasion by Mahdits and warding off the scramble by European colonialists to seize parts of its territory. At the battle of Metema, Emperor Yohannes IV gave his life in defence of his country and his people.
The purpose of this article is not to look back into history, but to assess critically the present. The pursuit by the Ethiopian government of its advantages with utmost expediency and at the expense of public interests has become reminiscent of the situation President Harrison had faced over a hundred years ago. Worried by internal political struggles that seemed to override the nation’s good, the president sought to stop it by devoting his Inaugural Address to awaken public awareness.
Of late, I have been reading stories on The Reporter of recurring themes pertaining to the actions of government that are undermining the honour, rights, privileges and sense of belonging of Ethiopian citizens. Therefore, this article aims to draw attention to those actions that give the impression that foreign companies are more deserving of first class treatment in than are citizens and indigenous enterprises. To give the benefit of the doubt, I may even consider it might be unintentional. However, when consistency in different situations is the defining characteristic of some actions, the adverse nature of the message is unmistakable howsoever one dices it. I would be the first to admit that this is a very serious charge against a government. Nonetheless, these charges came from home and they have been on the news. Government has added to it its voice with its attractive offers of tax breaks and financial incentives to foreign investors on farmlands that is denied to Ethiopian citizens.
Good hospitality is a part of our country’s tradition. Indeed, it is the hallmark of a generous people and a civilized culture. Moreover, I am empathetic to the decision to attract foreign food producers or exporters that earn the country better income and modern technology. However, the present agreements with foreign investors on farmlands give me little confidence that in this new environment of competition between David and Goliath our farmers could fare well. Compensation to employees is also an issue lacking clear policy. Its negative effects have already become clear, as the experience of an Indian farm company manager has shown. His response to wage complaints was to imply that that was all he could do since wages levels in the country are very low (“A Stranger Comes to Town”, Addis Fortune, 23 August). When the generosity and warm hospitality given to foreigners denies citizens the same or proximate privileges, it means national policy has become unmindful of the needs and interests of our farmers and businesses.
Ethiopian governments, past and present, have treated foreign businesses, residents or visitors with particular attention. Today, the smug and the politically arrogant attitude of policy-makers have notched up that to policy level. As a result, when foreign companies are given attractive offers and incentives, no extendable to citizens, the experience becomes negative, and in some respects reminiscent of the Dergue days. A family friend of ours who had lived in Ethiopia until 1990 recalls his and his family’s experiences with bitterness because of the long queues near the national stadium to get cooking oil. He saw again and again foreigners walking in and walking out with gas tanks in no time and without any queue. Today, the queues may be shorter, or may not be there for some goods, as long as one has the money.
The Reporter, a popular weekly bilingual magazine based in Addis Ababa, has done a duty expected of journalism at its best exposing such malfeasance and political corruption. In the last two months, the magazine has printed four specific cases or instances of these. In the next few pages, this article will treat those issues that I learned of because of the gallant work of the reporters of The Reporter.
In July, our national heroes, athletes Tirunesh Dibaba and Gete Wami, were dispossessed of lands they have acquired from the state. The reason is before them the land was given to Saudi Arabia to build its embassy. After a while, the Saudi government notified the foreign ministry of its rejection of the land alleging security considerations. Thus, ownership of the lands was passed to two Ethiopia’s internationally acclaimed sportswomen. After a lapse of sometime, the Saudis wanted the land back and the Ethiopian government in the person of the Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin agreed, with no thought of how any Ethiopian would feel in that situation, let alone those decorated national heroes. I feel sorry that we have not imbued ourselves with the culture of respecting and honouring our own, especially our heroes in every field of human endeavours.
Some farmers complain that their lands have been taken away under flimsy or false pretexts—without appropriate evidences or justifiable reasons. Others complain that they were looking for suitable lands that they neither could work on nor denied, despite waiting for considerable time. Similarly, several coffee producers complain that they have been denied of access to bank loans, others to land to work on. Specific cases would be discussed in the next few pages.
In recent days, farmers in possession of land certificates in areas adjoining foreign investors in agricultural development are uprooted unceremoniously. At the same time, coffee producing lands established by a group of Ethiopians residing abroad could not benefit from the offer to foreigners the government has promised. After investing a capital of 13 million birr and providing jobs to 37 employees, one such group of Ethiopians could not utilize the 1,000 ha it was given for coffee production. The reason is that after four years of efforts, the bank loans it has been looking for could not materialize. The question is would party businesses be treated the same way. This arbitrariness has brought to mind the words of Plato from as far back as 350 BC. “Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state” (Plato, source, Complete Works by Plato, Cooper, John et al).
This fourth issue is of a different theme knocking at the door of insensitivity to cultural landmarks and patients’ needs. Against the appeal of hospital officials, government seems ready to allow Yekatit 12 Hospital—formerly Emperor Haile Selassie I Hospital and before that the Beit Saida Hospital—to be demolished partly to allow road construction/expansion. The case has been under consideration and negotiations for three years now, with no resolution yet.
Ato Amare Aregawi, owner and editor of The Reporter, has for sometime made it his magazine’s crusade to expose such malfeasance and political corruption, even at the expense of his own personal security and safety. In 2008, Amare Aregawi endured kidnapping allegedly by agents of the state in collusion with a manager of a business enterprise run by an endowment fund, whose board chairperson is Ato Bereket Simon, Minister of government communications. The second time, Ato Amare was physically attacked by ‘unknown assailants’ in the capital city in 2009 again in broad day light. Amazingly, the state has shown reticence to identify and punish the culprits. Many Ethiopians expressed their fury and dismay, as did international patrons of free press. This writer joined that camp in a 12 September 2008 article entitled “Rhetorical Good Governance Fails to Mask Rights Violations & Abuse of Power in Ethiopia” http://www.abugidainfo.com/?p=5941. Surely, The Reporter must have touched very sensitive nerves at the higher circles of power.
I presume The Reporter is convinced that both the attack against him and the behaviour of the regime are symptomatic of the reality in undemocratic country where the ballot box is rather ineffective to tame power. Therefore, the paper appears to have realized that the medicine for such sore is providing the public credible information that exposes unacceptable and unethical behaviour institutionalized power and corrupt businesses. The bottom line in all this is that officials have become too smug and insensitive to the concerns of ordinary citizens and businesses. Let us now look closely into each of these four cases.
Tirunesh Dibaba and Gete Wami’s dispossession
|After a lapse of some time and a reversal of mind, Saudi Arabia requested the Ethiopian foreign minister to take back the land they had already rejected. Without any hesitation, the foreign minister agreed. He immediately instructed the city administration to take action to return the land to Saudi Arabia’s ownership and to report to him within two months the action taken to give effect to the decision.|
I used the word ‘instructed’ advisedly not because the foreign minister is supervising the city administration. However, in the hierarchy of power, the foreign minister is only second to Meles Zenawi as deputy chairperson of the TPLF, the core of the ruling party in Ethiopia. Therefore, there is no room for the city administration to reason out with him, if at all, the thought had crossed their minds.
Therefore, protesting the action and expressing their disappointment is left to the two athletes. They have written a letter to the city administration pleaded their case. They had relied on the good faith of government as to the validity of their possession when they received the land. They indicted that they had finalized arrangements to build their houses, including the import of construction materials estimated at 70 million birr. At the time of writing, there is no evidence that the government has taken measures to respond or redress its disgraceful actions to please Saudi Arabia.
Bear in mind, these two athletes have brought enormous prestige and glory for our country, breaking records after records that lifted Ethiopian spirits and our country’s image when everything we hear has been psychologically killing. I bet these two women and our other sportsmen have done much better in that respect than the foreign ministry. In spite of that, all that it has done is fail in its duties to uphold their rights as both citizens and national heroes. Thanks to them, Ethiopia’s name and its flag are held up high in the international community. With the sincerity of heart and mind, I know that they did not deserve this kind of treatment!
Uncertainty prevails over land titles
Experience has shown that any party cadre or bureaucrat could take away one’s lands, so allege some farmers, for not pushing the ‘bakshish’ or as revenge. All that it takes to lose ones property is a piece of paper from party or government office. This shows that the law on property rights is more dead than alive, if at all it has been in existence in the first place. At the same, this and the problem of corruption fall under the lack of rule of law and breach of property rights. As mentioned earlier, a signed paper by a bureaucrat is sufficient for unceremonious dispossession of properties of citizens, irrespective of whether they have incurred costs and investments to develop the land and execute their projects. This is another dimension of the problem discussed above in respect of the two athletes.
Not only members of the coffee association poured down their grievances about being cut from finance and land, they also complained about some officials forcing those who have invested on the land to leave under unthinkable pretexts. The Reporter cited the case of a farmer investor from Kaffa who was given 250 ha and was growing coffee. Sometime ago, the farmer was ordered to return the land within 48 hours, despite the investment on it. The reason for this decision is belated realization by the authorities that the land was touching a farm already given to a company. The ex-owner complained at the meeting that no alternative land was provided nor restitution made for the investments on the land.
There are many similar stories. For instance, model farmers organized in Chida Agricultural Cooperative are under threat of losing their 350 ha of land on which they are producing pulses, oilseeds and cereals. In the past members of the cooperative had been acknowledged as model farmers and awarded prizes. Their success, they allege, invited a greedy official asking them to give him money. Their refusal made him write a letter accusing them of having passed their land to a third party. The farmers say that was all false. They have appealed for government intervention. There is no response so far. Government drums repeatedly its commitment to agricultural development. However, the law protecting the rights of property owners is not in effect. Pleas and complaints often do not get a response. a farming woman from Kaffa Zone whos says the land she had rented from farmers was taken put her experience well at the meeting of the Coffee Producers Association at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development saying there is great dissonance between the policy of the government and its practices.
This has reminded me of the words of James Wilson, a lawyer and academic by profession, and delegate to the Philadelphia Convention. It is said he was one of the few individuals to sign both the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. As a leading legal theoretician, he was also one of the six original justices appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States. Summing up his knowledge and experiences as a lawyer, he observed,
“Laws may be unjust, may be unwise, may be dangerous, may be destructive; and yet may not be so unconstitutional as to justify the Judges in refusing to give them effect.”
(Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1  The Online Library of Liberty)
TPLF/EPRDF says everything to foreign investors on agricultural lands
For several years now, businesspersons in Ethiopia have been complaining about lack of access to land (not for farming in this case) and finance, according to years of responses to questionnaires compiled by the Central Statistics Agency (CSA) and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MOFAED). Beyond empty promises, government has not been forthcoming in practical terms to help ordinary farmers and businesspersons.
In its 2006 survey of the investment climate in Ethiopia, which was analyzed for almost two years and finalized in 2009, the World Bank observers, “Too many businesses continue to complain of serious shortcoming in almost every aspects of the current business environment. For example, more than half of the respondents to the 2006 Enterprise Survey reported that they were being held back by lack of access to land. Some 60% complained of lack of access to finance, and 47% of businesses rated problems of tax administration as moderate to severe obstacles to their growth.”
This latest twist emerged after Ethiopia spoke publicly in June about its open door policy favouring foreign investors on farmlands. The irony is that, based on the executive decision of the prime minister, Ethiopia has been giving land to foreign investors since 2004. However, the formal endorsement of this decision within the TPLF/EPRDF government came only at the Front’s mid-July executive committee meeting (eprdf.org, “E.P.R.D.F. Executive Committee Endorses Rural Land Administration System”).
The information released after the meeting stated, “The Executive Committee discussed in detail and approved the new plan of rural land investment system [!], which it said clearly stipulates the roles of the federal and state governments in providing the vast arable land that exists in various parts of the country for investors.” It is not clear why such belated formalization came now, especially after FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)] exposed the secret deals of the regime since 2004 in their report Land Grab or Development Opportunity? Agricultural investment and International Land Deals in Africa, released on 29 May.
At the same time, businesspersons feel discriminated in their own country, as mentioned earlier because of the lack/denial mainly of access to land and financing. Government denies that is the case. On 22 August, Magdi Amin of the World Bank, author of Ethiopia’s investment climate and the competitiveness report reiterated that was the case before government officials in Addis Ababa. He noted, “Sixty percent of the managers of the 600 respondent firms said finance is one of the major problems challenging the competitiveness of private firms.”
The government does not agree with the findings of the report, especially the land question. To that effect, it put a video message on Aigaforum to dispel that and portray Ethiopia as a favourable country for investors. However, a central conveyor of the message in the video, a returnee from the US, finally gives a short shrift to the central message saying finance is the most crucial problem for investors in the country. He suggests as a solution, one needs to have many assets for huge collateral required.
Understandably, the original motive of restricting bank loans is to put tight rein on money supply to fight inflation that continues to this day to kill many businesses and sap life energies out of working people. Nevertheless, when that same policy disregards its original purpose by providing financing up to 70 percent of original capital to foreign investors, tax haven, and tax-free import of equipment and export of goods, as the government promised, there surely is something not sounding right with the politics and economics of the government.
Under-utilized resources, such as excess liquidity in Ethiopian banks are rising faster for various reasons. The main reason is, however, the 25 percent bank reserve requirements that came into effect as of January 2009. They have left banks sitting on mounds of birr. This is an equally misguided policy, especially at a time when the economy is repressed by all sorts of shortages falling utilization capacity. In other words, inflation is a serious problem in Ethiopia whenever there are food shortages because of drought. Does it mean that government is going to resort to tightening monetary policy whenever droughts occur?
When the economic crisis began to show turns to the worst in Sub-Saharan Africa as of February this year, one of the first things the IMF asked African governments is to review carefully the status of liquidity. At the Twelfth African Union (AU) Summit, Takatoshi Kato, Deputy Managing Director of IMF, drew attention to this saying, “The liquidity and usability of reserve assets, the status of non-performing loans in the banking sector, and the availability of trade credit deserve particular attention.” I fear that that message has yet to reach Addis Ababa.
There is reason why the IMF suggested this. The economy cannot be shut down because domestic inflation is still high and markets have contracted or the outside world has withheld financial flows. It is important to view these problems in their proper contexts, instead of mere theories. Moreover, although the national budget shows an annual increase, for instance 10 billion birr for 2010, the absorptive capacity of government offices has not been in excess of 85 percent, as the last several years of government budget performances indicate. For instance, towards the end of the budget year in 2008 offices forcedly revealed their programme under-performance by returning billions of birr of unused budgetary allocations. In the science and art of budgeting, it is understood that budget is a means to an end the entitlement of which is justified by its contributions to the achievement of both national economic and political objectives.
One way of measuring its effectiveness is in the ability of the national budget to allocate resources on realistic basis and influence the direction of public and private investment in the country to areas of proven productivity that could facilitate growth and development. In view of this, it is important that government review its budgetary policy of excess financing of government enterprises. The monies could be utilized for financing of the private sector.
Yekatit 12 Hospital condemned (partially)
Addis Ababa has undergone enormous face lifting; it deserves it as Africa’s capital city. However, most distasteful is the recent gravitation to bring down part of the Yekatit 12 hospital, formerly known as the Haile Selassie 1st Hospital and before that Bete Sayda to make way for a boulevard construction from Semen Hotel, through Afincho Ber, to Heroes’ Monument at Sidist Kilo. The street planning requires passing it on the hospital building. The alternative for the city government, they say, is either the hospital building or fence of the Addis Ababa University campus at Sidist Kilo to be knocked of. It is unbelievable that the city administration is open to accepting the destruction of the landmark hospital building that was constructed in 1923.
More importantly, the hospital has nine major departments and six related units, laboratory facilities and diagnostic examinations with routine and special radiological investigations. While it is a referral hospital, it also accepts emergency cases without referral, according to information available regarding the hospital. In paediatrics and maternity alone, Yekatit 12 treats well over 15,000 patients annually. In the last ten years, with the help of the Norwegian government, Yekatit 12 has succeeded in building a superior department of plastic and reconstructive surgery. The Ethiopian minister of health praised the burn care unit as a very successful undertaking during the visit last April by parliamentary delegation from Norway. The unit takes care of fire victims and undertakes skin grafts and reconstruction surgeries, as necessary.
The hospital has 265 beds. If the decision to demolish part of it is carried out with its 70 beds in that wing, the mortuary and the newly refurbished generator room will have to go down. The hospital administration says the 1.9 million birr earmarked for the hospital to build somewhere else is woefully inadequate. The question of the demolition of the building has been argued back and forth without any resolution. Frankly speaking, I get billions of goose pimples from the thought of its proposed destruction, not an ordinary building but 83 years old with that many hospital beds and other service units, in a country where one hospital bed serves 5,626 people today. The CSA in its 2008 abstract indicated that there are 14,930 hospital beds in Ethiopia.
There is no doubt that, as an Addis Ababan who had spent her young days in the proximity of Sidist Kilo, I admit I also attach sentimental values. Moreover, I feel severe constraint for the part of the university campus as well. Above all, the memory from the 1960s is part of our formative years for many women and men of my generation who had passed through the Haile Selassie I University. We had lived and journeyed through that majestic campus or in its proximity, with the Heroes’ Monument at the centre of the square imposing a guarding stare on Arat Kilo, things in between, with the Hospital standing with an ever-readiness for service at its lower right side and the Lions’ Zoo at its lower left.
Sentiment has its place and real values. If we are not capable of preserving and protecting landmarks buildings and monuments, we would not be able to protect and preserve what the country is building today. It is no different from a demolition of history or culture. As to the fence of the university campus on the south side, I must confess I never liked it. That is mostly because of its forbidding loneliness and its unusual early darkness. On top of that, it used to be frequented by either those with tendencies for isolation or those that could not stand their sense of guilt because of early age indulgence in alcohol far away from maturity and control of parents in their young lives. Still I see no justification in knocking it out. In the circumstances, I only hope that the planners would wakeup one fine morning thinking what they could have done, if their confrontations were with an insurmountable natural deterrent or the prime minister’s residence, instead of a hospital or a university fence.
Alternatively, if their primary concern for the city is aesthetics rather than functionality of the road, from top my head I suggest that they explore possibilities for turns and detours. They could use the 1.9 million birr for the additional costs the change in the original plan entails.
Making the country attractive to foreign investors within reasonable bounds is essential. At the same time, that very policy must have the brain, the ears, the eyes and the hands, above all, principles to ensure that the same opportunity exists for enterprising citizens, the very backbone of the country’s development and future. After all, that is the only path for Ethiopians to become productive citizens and emerge as competitive people in the world market. As it stands now, although the government has dismissed it, the World Bank in its report has rightly cast Ethiopian workers as the least competitive in the world, even by Sub-Saharan African standards. Nonetheless, whether or not we like it is a factual conclusion by that low labour productivity in Ethiopian industries is a reflection of how much our country has been undercapitalized. We should not allow this to become the permanent feature of our farms. The consequences would be too difficult to fathom with many farmers throwing away their rudimentary implements to move to the cities.
In my opinion, the latest discriminatory actions of the government would only worsen this situation, instead of addressing it seriously.
The place to start the reform is in the institutional behaviour that makes citizens second in terms of getting services in comparison to foreign investors and companies. If government were to listen to citizens, the five-day meeting of Coffee Producers Association at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is the right place. Its conclusion is that Ethiopian farmers and businesses are still queuing without being able to see the entry point to land and capital.
It is no exaggeration to say that today it is much easier for foreign companies to get virgin farmlands in Ethiopia than it is for Ethiopian investors. I did not create this. The minutes on the meetings of the members of the Ethiopian Coffee Producers Association are a testimony. Officials on the scene had an earful. I hope government would do what is right by them.