A Personal Observation and Impression
The following is a personal observation and impression of the political and economic situation in Ethiopia. It is not a research-based analysis. It is an account of what I observed, heard, and thought about during my recent short visit to Ethiopia. Take is for what it is worth.
Any keen visitor to Ethiopia will immediately observe how helplessly that country is languishing under Woyane’s tyrannical rule. No surprises here, one might say, but seeing is more powerful than hearing about it. This is my third visit to Ethiopia in the last seven years. The social, political and economic situation in the country has gotten worse over this time period contrary to what the Woyane trumpeters want us to believe.
The Woyane cadres inside and outside the country talk ad nauseam about the astounding development achieved under the Woyane rule. Don’t believe a thing of it. These are either mercenary liars or delusional. The much bragged about infrastructure development is anything but impressive. There is some road construction for sure. And for some one who hasn’t seen much in their lives, even the little is a lot. It is the perception that is hoodwinked. Even some of the people I talked to in Ethiopian tend to compare the little with the nothing and betray a slight sign of contentment. But, I asked, why compare the little with the nothing? Why not compare the little with what could have been had?
All sane Ethiopians agree the Derg was one of the worst regimes in Ethiopian history. However, by comparison, Derg has done more in terms of infrastructure and developmental investment. Especially when one takes into account the non-peaceful period of the Derg regime and the dearth of developmental aid Derg received from international donors. By contrast the Woyane regime has enjoyed a much more peaceful period, has received tens of billions of dollars in aid money and has the advantages of learning from the mistakes of previous regimes.
Building and house construction is happening feverishly throughout the country, particularly in Addis and some major provincial capitals. The Diaspora Ethiopians are in the game of rush for land. At face value this might be seen as a welcomed development. However, the abject lack of infrastructure that is supposed to go with new residential construction (road, sewage, etc) aside, I have an eerie feeling that a lot of shoddy construction work is going on without proper planning and inspection that most of the newly constructed buildings will be the woes of tomorrow. Actually the complaint regarding the sub-standard work is happening today.
Take condominiums that are being built throughout the city. In many cases water does not reach the third floor and above; doors don’t close; washrooms don’t flush water; cracks appear on walls and floors just completed, big enough for rats to go up and down from one floor to the next. In many apartment or condominium complexes dripping water is a major problem. If you are taking a shower on the third floor, don’t assume all of the water is going down the drain. It is draining all right, but some of it is draining down to the floor below you, i.e., you are giving the folks below you an involuntary shower. Builders are after quick profits and dwellers in over-congested Addis are after a roof over their heads. Who would be concerned about quality control and the like? Certainly, Woyane is not.
A minority rich is getting richer while the poor are getting poorer by the day. Inflation is galloping the whole gamut of goods and services with no reins in sight. The shortage of electricity power has crippled the weak economy. Factories were closing doors or were functioning way under capacity when I was there. Nobody knew when the rationing would end so that residents and businesses would get electric power whenever they wanted it. No official felt a sense of duty to explain to the people what was being planned and what was being done to resolve the situation. People are used to live in the dark half of the month. Yet their electricity bills have gone up. According to the economics Meles learnt by correspondence and for which he claims to have earned a Masters degree, this made perfect economics sense: supply and demand is the name. Electricity supply is in shortage and demand is going up, so should price to equalize demand to supply. Meles says “don’t blame me; if you want to blame anyone, blame your poverty that has shortchanged you on the supply side.” It took Ethiopia three thousand years to crop up this kind of leader.
Do you want to register your complaints by calling the Electricity and Power Agency? Good luck. For a starter, you have no guarantee that your cell phone will connect to any other phone. The probability is 50 percent. That is true. Any time of the day in any day of the week, the probability that your cell phone will connect you to another human being is 50 percent. The name of the problem is network. Call a person sitting beside you, everyone in Ethiopia would bet with you that there is a 50% chance that you will get an automatic network message that the number you called is outside of the service area. Your cell phone works only if the door of the house you are in is open or you are calling from the front end of the house; the network is too sensitive to all these things.
Denbissa Moyo, the Zambian economist who wrote a book about “dead aid” talked about the low level of cell phone penetration in Ethiopia which at 2% is perhaps one of, if not the lowest, in Africa for which the average penetration rate is 30%. At a 50% probability that your cell phone is functional at any attempt to connect, the effective penetration rate of cell phones in Ethiopia is 1%. I have not talked about how expensive it is to own and use a cell phone in Ethiopia. Many, perhaps the majority, of the people who own a cell phone do perhaps have no landlines. For these folks, their cell phones are the only means of communication, which means that if they have to keep up with their social and business networks they will have to use them quite frequently. To give you an idea of the price tag for cell phone cards, a 100 birr prepaid card has “kept me connected” only for a length of one hour, 90 minutes at most. If you call a landline phone you would be finished in less than half of this time.
It is not just the cell phones though that has problems. Even the landlines in many parts of the country are malfunctioned many days of the month. What does all this have to do with Woyane? Well, this entity is what has constricted the telecommunication sector. If Woyane had opened up this sector for private business and free competition, the network quality would have improved and prices would have declined greatly. Everywhere state control has given way to private business these two outcomes have invariably resulted.
What about the double-digit economic growth the country has achieved year after year under the Woyane rule? First of all, you cannot trust the statistics put out by Woyane, because these are pathological liars. Don’t also trust the numbers put out by international organizations, such as the World Bank. After all every raw data they cut, paste and manipulate comes from the central statistics office of Ethiopia. Where else can they get them from? The World Bank or the IMF or the various departments of the United Nations don’t have data collecting agencies in Ethiopia. Besides, these organizations have to say positive things to convince donors and financiers that their programs are working. The data supplied by all poor countries are helplessly flawed. For example in Ethiopia, we know that there is no any way or means of accounting to measure economic outputs throughout the country.
Even if one were gullible enough to take the economic growth numbers spewed by Woyane at face value, as somebody has debunked them on one of the websites, they do not account for inflation, one of the highest in Africa. Meles’ response to inflation is to say it a sign of a healthy economy. Of course it must be so for a half-baked economist. Even common sense tells you that inflation is bad news to business and savings. At the minimum, one has to know the source of the inflation. If the source is an enhanced economic activity, meaning, increased investment, consumption and government expenditure, yes it is a sign of a growing economy – worrisome all the same, but a positive sign nonetheless. However, if the inflation is caused by higher cost of inputs or supply shortages or unbridled printing of money, then it is a sign of a sick economy. In Ethiopia the money supply has gone through the roof. The economy is not generating much by way of new value. Money enters the country through various channels: aid and remittance in particular. These foreign sourced monies have to be converted into domestic currencies at the going exchange rate. Normally, one would expect the value of the Birr to go up. It is doing the opposite because Woyane’s night shift must be busy printing new paper money. All of which result in too much paper money chasing too few goods and services the economy generates each year. Naturally this shoots the price level through the roof. This is inflation 101.
Agriculture, which still is the backbone of the nation’s economy, is still as primitive as it was centuries ago and every year the nation comes to the brink of starvation – 9 million for the coming year. When I was in Ethiopia reports from around the country were that the major harvest season was a complete write-off. In a country where there is no irrigated agriculture worthy of mention, no rain means no agricultural production. But a lack of rain should not necessarily lead to starvation if the rest of the economic sectors were doing well and generating employment and income. Food security is not a production problem; it is an income problem. The meagr industrial activity has been hampered – indeed incapacitated – by the ongoing rationing of electricity. Many factory shops are closed down. Unemployment has continued to climb. The fake sectors – those who don’t add new value to the economy, i.e., those in one way or another are connected to aid and “developmental” money only absorb a bit of the well connected or those with a college degree. The rest – the high school graduates, the dropouts, those who migrate from the villages – join the ever-swelling pool of the chronically unemployed.
The chronically unemployed have turned into professional thieves. Thievery has become so commonplace and pretty open. Even in small towns and villages, people don’t leave their houses without someone staying behind. Fantastic stories we heard about thievery in Lagos or Nairobi are now being played out in Addis. People cannot park their cars outside and get into a house for a coffee unless they have someone watching over their cars. Nobody is doing anything about it.
Private hospitals and clinics are mushrooming everywhere. They are the new business with the highest profit and investment turnover. The public health care system is in shambles giving way to greedy medical businesses. So medical expenses are so sky high that people have to sell anything and everything they own to get treatment. Still the sick are growing in number and death rates don’t seem to be abating. Preventive efforts and measures are as rudimentary as they always have been throughout the country. Typhus, typhoid, malaria, TB, you name it, are all rising not declining.
Addis is full of dirt and stench. This is a good measure of how low the morale of both the people and the government has stooped. Men and boys urinate most anywhere and whenever they have the urge – that is in front of dwellings, restaurants and shops, on the tire of taxis, by the Church sides, in front of Mosques, in Merkato, Piassa, Arat Kilo, you name it. It is as if that city has no city council. What is more depressing is no one cares.
We heard recently that Meles Zenawi is not after all going to resign. You have read how the “news” was presented: Meles and other high-ranking EPRDF officials will be required to resign in the next five years. So the news was given a negative twist, i.e., putting a timetable, sort of, for Meles and his thug friends to step down. The news didn’t say EPRDF denied Meles his request for resignation. The reason has to be that Woyane is scared of public reaction. They know how much the Ethiopian people love to see Meles go. So in their elementary way, they are trying to assuage the Ethiopian people by promising them that their desire will come to pass a few years down the road.
How this “news” was communicated is of small consequence on the ground. We all knew all along that Meles would not resign. Why should he? He is a brute dictator and, like all dictators, he would like to stay in power forever. A former Canadian Prime minister has once said that those who should hold a leadership position in government should be the ones for whom this position is their second best choice or something to that effect. Such individuals would not cling to power if they feel they are not wanted and/or feel they are not adding value. They will readily leave office to go back to their first best choice. At 54, Meles’ first best and only job choice is staying in power. In other words, once out of power, he is good virtually for nothing remotely comparable to his current position.
And don’t forget that, like all dictators who have committed horrendous crimes against their people, Meles is fearful of what legal actions awaits him once he is out of office and power is transferred to a legitimately and democratically elected government. Under his watch and most likely direct personal orders, in recent years alone close to 200 innocent demonstrators and by-standers have been killed following the last general election. That is a crime committed in broad daylight – a noose dangling around Meles’ neck. Loose for now but will get tighter once he is out of the Menelik Palace.
It is not just Meles who wants to stay as leader of the Woyane party. His party and colleagues-in-crime need him where he is now for their own sustenance. They know there is no one to replace him. They know the other party and government officials around him are either nameless, faceless opportunists or common hooligans like Berket Simon. Remove Meles, then Woyane is a house of cards that will crumple at the slightest breeze. They are almost sure that with Meles at the helm they will have at least a few more years to pelage that poor country.
But, one should ask, why should it matter whether Meles stayed on as leader of the Woyane party? Is it a foregone conclusion that Woyane will stay in power for another term or more? A yes answer should fundamentally worry every freedom yearning Ethiopian.
The Woyane government seems to have realized that none of its gimmicks are working – economic, social, and political. Nothing is working. They are scared too. Trust me, what these thugs feel inside and the bravado they show on TV are not the same thing. They haven’t forgotten the near-death experience of four years ago. You know their insecurity when you observe what they are doing to overcome it. I was told, in Addis the police patrols and disbands any group of three, four or five if they are standing and talking. You would remember this practice started right after the 2005 election.
Another example is that currently, the Woyane government is making all civil servants and higher institution students EPRDF members. It does so through cajoling, blackmailing and direct orders. Almost no one says no because everyone else is saying ok. Almost everyone who told me that they are registered members of EPRDF have told me that they have nothing but detest for the regime and that their membership is nominal to allow them get a job or keep their jobs if they have one. What does this mean when they go to the ballot box next year? They reminded me of what happened in the last election. They say even the soldiers who were instructed by Woyane to register in some Addis ridings such as the riding of Genet Zewdie, former education minister, didn’t vote for her.
We have heard of the alleged coup. Almost everyone I talked to don’t trust Woyane’s story. Most see it as another paranoid action by Meles and his cronies to lock up a select group of high ranking military officers. People say the objective was to weed out non-Tigrian officers, particularly those of the Amhara origin, from the military. Be that as it may, history has proven time and again that no dictator has saved his ass by the sheer support of the military.
You may wonder, the opposition is in shambles, the Ethiopian people are in resignation; so what should the Woyane be afraid of?
It is true the opposition is very weak by all measures. Yes most Ethiopians seem to be giving up. The fact is however the weakness of the opposition does not make Woyane stronger. It could make it look stronger but by no means makes it stronger. This is a fundamental reality which no one should lose sight of. Woyane, like all repressive, undemocratic and unjust systems before it, is getting weaker by the day because of its own internal dynamics. A government stays in power when things are going for it. Woyane has traded deceptions and pretensions for goodwill and aid from the international community for nearly two decades. For all the hoopla and hype, eighteen years later, Woyane has absolutely nothing to show.
Woyane will never again relent its repressive, unjust and undemocratic actions and risk another “fair” election. So it is hampering every small movement of the opposition. It is close to claiming a one-party rule. The reason is simple. At least ninety nine point nine percent of the Ethiopian people don’t like, hell hate, Woyane. A regime cannot stay in power when these many people hate it. Even in Tigray where Woyane had historically enjoyed uncontested support, the reality has changed dramatically in the last few years.
Eighteen long years later the Woyane propaganda machine is still at work belaboring the unconvincing. Opportunistic acolytes of the regime of various ethnic stripes appear on TV every now and then to talk at length how great life has become in their respective jurisdictions. Shamelessness has conquered all boundaries in the traditionally God-fearing country. Funny enough the propaganda target is the Derg regime. True to script, these opportunistic and parasitic elements uniformly confess how social, economic, governance and political situations have improved in comparison to previous systems. This in itself tells you that things are not going well even by Woyane standards. Otherwise, why should the regime waste some much airtime comparing itself to a regime it uprooted 18 years ago?
When Woyane took power, its trademark political gimmickry was ethnicism. It has not resolved any ethnic problem. On the contrary, it has created new ones and there is more ethnic friction and tension in the country now than when Woyane took power.
Who and what will sustain Woyane for the foreseeable future? The answer is the Opposition parties. Woyane is the worst scourge Ethiopia has yet to produce. But, you know what, the opposition sucks. It really does. I know this is not a politically correct statement, but truth has to be told. The opposition can complain ad infinitum about Woyane’s repression, intimidation, harassment, etc., which is all absolutely true, but in the end complaining is not what is going to get them where they want to get. They have to have their acts together. The ball is their quarter. They don’t seem to see it. They still think it is in Woyane’s quarter. Sad.
Woyane could be removed from power in the next election. I truly believe that. As I said 99.9% of the Ethiopian people would like and pray to see Woyane go to the dustbin of history. Woyane has outlived its potential and its luck. However, the Opposition is in a sad state. It is in a self-inflicted comatose state. I know it is easy for someone like me to say such awful things about the opposition from the comfort of my chair. But let’s face it. If you claim yourself an opposition and ask people to give you their trust, money and support, you better act like one heck of an opposition who can at least stay together. If the main business of the opposition is breaking itself up into mini-groups it cannot put up any discernible challenge to Woyane.
But the root of the problem is us, I mean, the Ethiopian people. When someone breaks up a party and come to us with a different name and logo, we endorse them without reservation. Indeed political breakup is an Ethiopian thing, even historically. From Kinijit to UDJ we have tacitly encouraged breakups. We have heard or read about what happened within UDJ. These are opposition leaders who went through thin and thick together for four years including going to jail for close to two years. The best they can offer now is a breakup. The other opposition parties, looked at collectively, are pathetic. I have watched a televised debate between the opposition and the ruling party when I was in Ethiopia. Ignoring the ones who are in Woyane’s payroll, the seemingly true opposition parties used up most of their allotted time bickering at each other. Truly pathetic. The opposition outside the country has always been a laughing stock. Makeup-breakup has long been its specialty. After three decades in exile, the Diaspora opposition still lacks sophistication and a civilized political culture.
When I say the opposition, it includes ethnic organizations as well. In fact, their situation is even more pitiable. Instead of coming together and forging a common front to put a system in place that will truly address their particular issues and interests within our common motherland, they put themselves at the service of Woyane by fracturing the country into artificial ethnic boundaries and groups. They are now easy targets for attack and ridicule by Meles and his semi-literate gangster. No one, including these ethnic organizations, believe that they will get what they want under Woyane. The one’s that are wasting their time in the capitals of Western countries are even in a more pathetic state than the ones inside the country. Even though they live in countries of overflowing knowledge, invention, and constant change, these entities remain stubborn and ignorant playing the same old and boring song which appeals only to Woyane.
Conclusion: It is an all rounded depressing political reality. I have no idea how this could be turned around. But I strongly feel that it is up the Opposition. I never did and will not expect Woyane to create conducive political space for the opposition. But I don’t believe that a lack of political space is the Opposition’s problem. The Opposition’s problem is internal, not external. The Opposition is its own saboteur.