A Place Where Names Shouldn’t Count for Much

By Teshome Abebe*
May 17, 2015

I begin this essay by paying tribute to the men who perished in the hands of the cowardly, ignorant, despicable, and abhorrent criminals who murder men and women and enslave children for political gain in search of power. Though their aim was, in part, to provoke inter and intra-religious antagonism and conflict in Ethiopia, they must have discovered, to their surprise, that in matters of peace and war, Ethiopians do not have a history of begging for mercy. In the spirit of the age-old Ethiopian tradition, the young men who perished never begged for mercy knowing fully that those who plead for it never get it.

Emperors Libene Dingel and Gelawdewos never begged for mercy when Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, (‘Ahmed Gragne’) and his cousin Nur Ibn Miyahid, took turns horrifying the land; Tewodros never begged for mercy in the face of a superior invading foreign force; Yohannes never begged for mercy—instead he presented his neck; Abuna Petros never begged the Fascists of Italy for mercy—he died willingly. The countless ‘arbegnotch’ and scholars whose heads were chopped off by the Italians never begged for mercy—they knew they would be remembered as heroes by the future sons and daughters of Ethiopia.

A man alone is an easy prey even for a hyena, and the men who perished didn’t die rich. But they died stubbornly, committed to their individual faith, and whether we agree with their faiths or not, we admire their resolve and acceptance of their fate. We only wish that the Ethiopian government will do everything in its power to determine who was behind the dastardly criminal act so that we will be able to figure out and understand the real force or forces that perceived a license to spill the blood of its citizens.

Now, to my intended essay. In this essay, I wish to argue that acknowledging one’s errors is never a sign of weakness. Instead, it can be a sign of confidence and the acquisition of new knowledge—i.e. learning. I believe it must have been one of the former presidents of the United States who once said that there could be no effort without error or shortcomings! This is true for every undertaking, and it certainly is true of politics in general. Furthermore, we can safely state that there can be no single authority in a multidimensional world. And there can be no single arbitrating authority in a world with a multitude of issues and multiple identities. Whenever there is some sort of authority, it is usually authority based upon the largest audience or followership. Even a dictator’s authority is divisible in that he or she has to at least have the concurrence or acquiescence of some.

Over the past several years, there have been numerous individuals who have argued as well as counseled that the Ethiopian economy needed to be diversified, and that the private sector needed to be opened up to those with investment potential and capabilities regardless of their domicile. Without ignoring completely the government’s arguments that the infant industry at home needed some protection as well as the compelling argument that there are activities where the private sector would not willingly make investments, like road building, bridges, and other essential infrastructure of the ‘public good’ nature, some adjustment of current policy is essential. It is in this sense that I welcome the news that the government is planning to make changes or a course correction in at least some sectors. For example, it is now common knowledge that the government is going to open up the housing sector for foreign investments, and to make 2.3 million hectares of land available for investors. In addition, even the most strident supporters of the government are raising serious questions about the government’s inability to remain impartial in the market place, and for its perceived inability to curb rent-seeking activities including in the more high-profile cases in the country. This should be viewed as a welcome development, and here are some of the reasons why.

The first of these is the government’s optimistic and erroneous assumption earlier on that the local entrepreneurs have the expertise and capital, and thereby the ability, to satisfy demand. To the surprise of the government, it has now discovered that there is no talent that outsiders possess—including the Diaspora– which the country cannot now use. In addition, and the second reason, it appears that the government has learned that sometimes it lacks knowledge rather than skills; at other times it lacks skills rather than knowledge to solve problems.

The practical consequence of this condition is that the resolutions for the many problems the government has faced have either been arbitrary or politically inspired and/or dogmatic. This in turn has denied it the ability as well as the flexibility to find irrefutable solutions to current problems. Therefore, overtime, the problems have become dilemmas to which practical solutions have not been considered or available. I am not suggesting that the problems are easy or simple to manage. What I am suggesting is that because the problems are so intractable, ideology and politics should never be allowed to exclude consideration and adoption of potential solutions.

In that sense, let me address the new elephant in the room, as an example. Regardless of what the government and its supporters have to say, in my opinion, the feature of a huge country like Ethiopia with multiple identities, and where people are divided along instrumentalized killil lines based on instrumentalized ethnicity and to the possible detrimental effects on the free and unencumbered movement of skilled labor, capital and entrepreneurial expertise, will always have an instrumentalized shortage of one thing or another.

Add to this the other old elephant in the room—the lack of meaningful, determined initiatives at population control where the norm today is for inflated families that cannot be fed adequately, the impact of geography on absolute poverty will be further accentuated rather than being minimized. If this persists, the current condition of ‘leading’ and ‘lagging’ regions or killils will be the norm—a situation that is contrary to the notion of equal development.

I am in agreement with the government’s conclusions that political stability along with macroeconomic stability is key to economic development. Yet, the concept of instrumentalized killils is contrary to the forces of globalization, which are irreversible. Instead of forging a new enlightened path to more integration where regions are subject to a common freedom of resource exploitation without exercising national sovereignty, the government had in effect decreed that certain things are not object of private rights, and others are insusceptible to being influenced by the natural forces of outside influences. In this sense, the practical effect of the killils is that Oromia, for example, has to rely on its own labor force for economic development, as do Amhara, Tigrai or any of the other killils. The observable result is, for example, not much else is being developed outside of Adama and Addis Ababa in Oromia where the federal government has not taken interest. Stretches of communities from Messela, Tullo, Burka, Deder, Kobo, Kersa, Bedeno, Gara Muleta, and many, many other communities are in some ways worse of today than they were decades ago.

By similar illustration, one can find examples of communities in the other killils through out the country where the regional governments have simply not been able to develop on their own. The inherently unsustainable doctrine of self-sufficiency originating with the creation of the instrumentalized killil system is partly to blame. Just as a country that can draw on the world’s population for its development is far better off than the one that is closed (think of the USA here), a region (killil) is better off when it can rely on the labor force, resources and skills of other regions (killils).

It is admirable that the government talks about national collective unity, and indeed, has made this one of its pillars of economic development and progress but in a perverse way. I assert here that the government can achieve national collective unity by other means as well. A good place to start would be to begin giving people good choices that are meaningful. Economic development, in part, is about giving people good choices.

A third reason for the perceived change of course, I believe, is the government’s realization that it can not continue to be the single largest employer of the labor force in the country. The generation of jobs and creative employment for the multitude of the young unemployed and underemployed requires the cooperation and contributions of the private sector. That the government seems to have recognized this should be of no surprise to anyone as it has created many higher education institutions each graduating many of the young people who in turn expect value for their education. The alternative would be an unwelcome disillusionment followed by cynicism and, in the worst case, chaos.

It is a forgone conclusion that the government will still be in power after the scheduled political ‘contest’ this month. By the end of its next term, the TPLF/FDRE government will have been in power for nearly thirty years—a rule that is one of the longest in the country’s history. This experience should have given it wisdom and knowledge along with confidence to trust and embrace not only just some Ethiopians but also all Ethiopians, and to allow for the correction of some of its missteps and errors. Others would write and speak about the political and social missteps, and could do so in more informed ways than I could. With regard to the economy, however, it is always worth remembering that a healthy respect for market-led resource allocation is essential for economic development. This is so because all economies are guided by macroeconomic goals, but function according to microeconomic rules and principles. To illustrate this point or cite an example, the government has done quite a bit to help farmers export food because of prevailing high prices overseas. The consequence of this is that not all of the poor are worse off: farmers (who happened to be poor for the most part) benefit, but the urban poor suffer. Helping farmers become more productive and sell overseas is good for their income, but does very little for food prices at home. The government collects whatever taxes it levies on exports, never mind the foreign exchange generated, but the poor still pay the higher domestic prices.

Few objective observers could seriously argue that the intractable problems Ethiopia faces today, including absolute poverty, underdevelopment, fleeing citizens and a degree of polarization, are due to lack of theories, facts or knowledge and skills or even thoughtlessness. Instead, it is partly due to the values and beliefs as well as the policies and stories the government allows to be played out. It is these beliefs, policies and stories that are going to serve us as our trust worthy landmarks come the next ‘election’. Once again, every generation holds the promise of a fresh start, and that begins with what we think. And what we think is that names shouldn’t count for much, and that a course correction is both desirable and necessary. It can even be a sign of confidence and maturity!

Professor Teshome Abebe is a former Provost and Vice President, and may be reached at: teshome2008@gmail.com