By Yonas Biru
A CANDID OPEN LETTER TO PRIME MINISTER ABIY: ETHIOPIA NEEDS A STATESMAN NOT A PARTY LEADER
It is estimated that the current war has cost Ethiopia over 500,000 lives in just 14 months and is still counting on the Afar front. Only God knows the number of the wounded and maimed. During the two-year Ethio-Eritrean war, the number of dead was estimated to be below 100,000. Evidently, God was more merciful then than now. Even God seems to have given up hope on us and resigned from Ethiopia’s affair.
This is my umpteenth Open Letter to you. My first was published on June 16, 2018, a bit over two months after you took the prime ministership. It read in part:
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Ethiopia gave birth to you out of pain, with a cacophony of ኡኡታ. She awaits to be born out of you with a symphony of እልልታ. The stars are aligned, the birds are chirping, the rainbow is sparkling across the sky and the spring flowers have painted a masterpiece mosaic of colors using the earth as their canvas.
Truth be told, there will be challenges. The melancholy and vagaries of tribal politics cannot be wished away. But one thing I know for sure. Dawn has arrived to announce the arrival soon of a high noon for change.
You have come to office as the US and Europe are witnessing major social and political transformations. Supporting Africa’s development has become a strategic policy anchored in national interest fueled by anti-immigration sentiments and the need to combat the threat of terrorism, not to mention competition from China.
Europe and America are trumpeting your economic and political reforms in their newspapers. Conservative newspapers who do not normally clamor to cover African stories are giving you coverage, some of them several times a week.
Ethiopia needs to do its part. It must position herself as a grand experiment to showcase an African success story. Your administration should proactively leverage Ethiopia’s aggressive development agenda and position its strategic development framework at the nexus of the emerging global geopolitics and the ensuing international development policy.
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Historically, consequential leaders are those who are the right people at the right time. You emerged along Dr. Lemma, Ato Gedu and Ato Demeke rather abruptly onto the Ethiopian political landscape. As the leader of the pack, you said and did all the right things at the right time. You calmed the cacophonous environment and lifted the dark cloud from what had been a country of horror. Indeed, the stars were aligned for you to lead. Ethiopians at home and abroad gave you unconditional support. Their euphoria gave birth to Abiy-Mania.
Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora hoped for a statesman but, as time went by, they realized what they got is a party leader. Four years into your stewardship, you have not risen to the mantle of statesmanship. You are increasingly losing the people’s confidence and trust, including those who want to see you succeed.
Unfortunately, you have shown no interest in seeking the guidance and counsel of subject matter experts and experienced practitioners. Sadly, you have allowed yourself to be sandwiched between a rotating roster of activist intellectuals who praise every step you take, and tribalist Amhara and Oromo extremists who see nothing right in what you do. Thank God TPLF is like an old truck run out of gas and parked on a roadside with deflated wheels. Grass has started to grow on its body.
The Ethiopian political landscape echoes the cacophony of the stampedes of የጉራጌ ጭፈራ from your supporters and the symphony orchestra of ደረት ድለቃ and ሙሾ ወረዳ from your Amhara and Oromo tribal detractors. People of reason and knowledge are crowded out by the noise and marginalized by your indifference.
Independent advisory expert councils you have established such as the Economic Advisory Council have not met with you or your Macro Economic Team. The Privatization Council you have established in 2018 is another example. After four years, you have not summoned it for consultation or advice even though the privatization process is in progress, albeit in slow motion.
I continue to believe you have genuine interest in transforming Ethiopia. Some of the things you are doing such as planting trees and beautifying Addis are more transformative both in the physical and psychological spheres than people give you credit for. You have also done a lot more in gradually shifting the center of gravity of the Oromo political sentiment from tribal to pan-Ethiopian than people acknowledge. Today, the Oromo tribal land is calmer than before you came to power, barring some areas in Welega. I continue to believe that you have vision to make Ethiopia reclaim its great history.
Obviously, visions alone are not sufficient. They need to be articulated and supported with well-developed strategies, road maps, goalposts, policies, and implementation, follow through and monitoring plans. You cannot do it alone. The task is too much for any one individual to tackle. The last four years are more than enough to ascertain this. Allow me to reiterate part of my April 2019 open letter addressed to you.
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The success of every President or Prime Minister hinges on the Office of the Chief of Staff (COS). It is widely acknowledged that “When government works, it is usually because the COS understands the fabric of power, threading the needle where policy and politics converge.”
The COS’s primary duties fall into two broad areas: Strategic overview and program execution, including crisis management. Strategic overview comprises bridging the leader’s visions and weaving together his strategy and priorities into a coherent policy. Program execution involves translating the leader’s agenda into a reality.
The position not only demands vast experiences in administration and management, but also requires intelligence and strong personal character and integrity with courage to remind the President or the Prime Minister when his actions undermine his agenda.
As you reflect on the year past and look ahead, there is no office that should command your attention more than the Office of the COS. Is it fully empowered, adequately funded, capably led, and up to par with its duties and responsibilities? The success of your reform hinges on your answer to these questions.
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Since you came to office in 2018, you are functioning without a COS. In the US and many other nations, the COS is a cabinet level position. What you have is a personal assistant. This is the source of the general management and governance dysfunction that we see in many areas of your administration. In short, you tend to concentrate power in your hands and surround yourself with obedient assistants rather than recruiting capable people and empowering them.
What we currently have in Ethiopia is a system you have developed to dictate your wishes, not a deliberative constitutional governing culture. I respectfully invite you my article titled “Prime Minister Abiy’s Problem is Partly Rooted in Religion”. You are running the country like a private corporation or an evangelical ministry. This is plenty wrong and dangerous, no matter how good your intentions may be.
Your governing style has led to grave mistakes before, during and after the war. One of the colossal mistakes was entering Mekele in the first place. The time to reach a negotiated settlement was after the Ethiopian forces took over Adwa, Shire, and other strategic places. TPLF was militarily defeated and all but politically dead.
Some of us warned the danger of entering Mekele, stressing (1) it would be an overkill and will change the social psychology of the people of Tigray, (2) your decision to destroy TPLF and capture or kill its leaders was not worth the cost, and (3) the only solution to the crisis was a negotiated settlement. Sadly, you seem to have come to understand the wisdom of these points after we sustained unimaginable loss in life and treasure. This is the cost of not considering alternative views and the lack of a deliberative process in decision making.
The Cost of Lack of Transparency, Credibility and Trustworthiness
Increasingly, your statements have become neither credible nor believable. It took you three days after you withdrew from Tigray to make an official statement, long after the international media and TPLF had a field day spinning their spins. Your subsequent denial that we did not sustain loss when we pulled out of Tigray conflicted with reality.
True, the decision to leave may have been political, but Ethiopia sustained a heavy loss when you pulled out. TPLF captured and paraded over 10,000 military personnel along with heavy equipment which it later used to invade the Amhara and Afar tribal lands.
More recently, speaking at a diaspora dinner in Addis, you explained why you kept all Ethiopians in the dark about the status and progress of the war. Your explanation did not inspire confidence.
“በተፈቱት ሰዎች እኔ የተማርኩት ነገር ቢኖር እንኳንም ለዲሞክራሲ ብየ፤ እንኳንም ዳይስፖራዎች እንዳይከፋችሁ ብየ፤ እንኳንም አንዳንድ እትዮጵያን ወዳድ አችቲቪስቶችና ነጋዴዎች እንዳይከፋችሁ ብየ የጦርናት እቅድ ያላወያየሁዋችሁ። እውነቴን ነው የምነግራችሁ አውያይችህችሁ ቢሆን ኖሮ እስካሁን ደብረሲና እና ደብረብራህን ውጊያ ይኖር ነበር።”
Truth be told, this was an absurd explanation. Ethiopians at home and/or in the diaspora never demanded to see your military strategy, let alone to debate it for approval. Democracy requires you to be transparent and truthful about the nation’s affair without exposing military strategy or national security. The problem is that you tend to be opaque when you need to be transparent, and you are silent when the people want you to communicate with them.
Please allow me to reiterate a recommendation I provided you in my April 6, 2019, open letter.
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If there is one specific area that your administration needs to focus on with a fierce urgency of now, it is setting up an agile communication facility and establishing an effective public relations strategy. Your communication officials need to explain, promote, and defend your agenda constantly. Your supporters need to be kept abreast of the progress your administration has made. You also have duty and obligation to be transparent and forthright about the challenges the nation faces.
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Your focus seems to be on building the Prosperity Party (PP). You seem to treat the people as background props, forgetting the nation’s sovereignty and the legitimacy of your authority to govern it are vested in them. You should remember that TPLF did not crumble for lack of card-carrying members. It crumbled because its leaders ignored the concerns and desires of the people. They felt they had the right answer to every challenge. When the day of reckoning came, they had no chance to weather the storm.
You seem to be oblivious to the signs of national disaster looming heavy on the horizon. Led by local and diaspora extremists, a Shene-Amhara movement is gathering momentum. Your failure to address the genuine concerns of the Amhara tribal land and your inability to reign in some Oromo extremists in your party is putting Amhara politicians in a difficult position. On the other hand, it is fattening extremist Amhara forces like steroids and giving birth to conspiracy theorists.
It is important to know that the political dynamics that you feel confident about will start to change the moment the growth rate of PP membership is overtaken by the growth rate of the number of people who lost hope in you and your government. The equilibrium will break the moment the number of people who see you as part of the problem becomes more than the number of card-carrying members of PP.
The PP party is your tool to carry out your agenda. It is not a bulwark against dissent. Ethiopia came close to the brink of collapse during the war but was saved by the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of people. You owe them to change course. You owe yourself and your legacy to change course. You owe the nation you genuinely love to change course. የኢትዮጵያ አንጀቷም፤ ድርና ማጓም፤ የስሪት እሴቷም ሳስቷል. The next political crisis may break her.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy at Its Historical Worst
The success of your reforms depended heavily on foreign aid, but your foreign policy is the worst Ethiopia has ever seen. This should not come as a surprise, considering the people you routinely appoint to lead the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even worse, our foreign emissaries are out of their league and unprepared to navigate through a complex geopolitical universe.
Ethiopia was the Mecca of Africa’s diplomatic relations. Today, Nairobi is increasingly becoming the go-to African capital. This was evident when US Secretary of State Blinken visited Nairobi to talk about regional issues and flew to Senegal skipping Addis. Candor obliges me to repeat what I have stated in various published articles. Your administration has degraded the quality of our nation’s international public diplomacy to a level that would make the likes of Yilma Deressa and Ketema Yifru role in their graves.
Your administration’s poor performance on the international arena has damaged Ethiopia’s image. It is also undermining Ethiopia’s once in a generation opportunity for peace and prosperity.
Soon after you took office, the international media cheered you with a cascade of accolades for opening Ethiopia’s “path for prosperity.” The US-based Freedom House flagged Ethiopia as one of the five “most encouraging examples of democratic progress over the past two years.” They hoped your success could ignite economic transformation in Africa “through emulation equivalent to South Korea’s influence on Asia in the 1970s.” In October 2019, you won the Nobel Prize for Peace for ushering in “important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future,” among other things.
The world was your oyster. Head of States from far and near including Austria, France, and Germany visited you in Addis during your first year in office. This was followed by the President of France and President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in 2019 and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2020. No African leader has seen such a recognition in such a short period.
They all rooted for your success and provided you with an unprecedented level of financial aid. This was the case even in 2021 when the Biden administration was engaged in saber-rattling gimmick about sanctioning Ethiopia. In 2021, the top three US aid recipient countries were Ethiopia ($1.13 billion), Jordan ($1.03 billion) and Afghanistan ($860 million).
In 2019, Ethiopia was the second largest recipient of aid from the UK, next only to Pakistan that got a mere £5 million more. In 2020, Ethiopia was the number one African country to receive aid form the UK. In General, Ethiopia is the only Sub-Saharan Africa in the top 10 aid recipients countries in the world. It is the 5th largest recipient, following India, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Syria. South Sudan (11), Jordan (12), Tanzania (13), Nigeria (14) and Kenya (15) round up the top 15 positions.
Since you came to office, Ethiopia received $8.92 billion generously low interest rate loans from the World Bank. During the same year Nigeria, which has twice the population of Ethiopia and far more loan absorbing and paying capability, received $8.38 billion. Egypt got $5.77 billion. In addition, the World Bank provided you with a near $1 billion grant to reduce the burden of additional loans. In 2019, the IMF approved a $2.9 billion loan that was 700 percent larger than Ethiopia’s quota.
The West was willing and ready to bankroll your reforms. Your mismanagement of the war and the international public diplomacy squandered the once in a lifetime opportunity.
Your administration and the ignorant diaspora establishment accused the West of perpetrating a regime change to put TPLF back to power. Sadly, this gave birth to the cacophonous and idiotic #NoMore movement.
True, the US has intervened to end the war. As misguided and myopic, and may be even dangerous as the US intervention may have been, their objective was far from getting you out of power. Part of the problem can be attributed to your failure to play by the rules of geo-political engagement.
You refused to hire lobbyists and media influencers. There is no country that is closer to the US than Israel. Pro-Israel groups spend $100 million a year on lobbying politicians and sending members of Congress on trips to Israel. You refused to spend $5 million, when TPLF was spending millions a year. TPLF lobbyists controlled the narrative and methodically influenced US Senators and Congressmen and women.
In an increasingly integrated and globalized world, nations take into consideration the geopolitical concerns of other nations. This does not mean compromising their sovereignty. As a member of the global community and a geopolitically critical nation to boot, Ethiopia cannot live in isolation. Your administration must recognize Ethiopia’s collapse will have regional and global repercussions. This is the reason the international community is spending billions to prop up our economy.
In short, as the leader of such an important geo-strategic nation you need to be a reliable and predictable partner in the geopolitical theater. You need powerful lobbyists to represent Ethiopia. Every million you spend on them will bring hundreds of millions. If countries such as South Sudan could spend nearly $2 million per year, Ethiopia must find it possible to spend $5 million.
Ethiopia’s geo-political location is a blessing if you can strategically harness it. Ethiopia can learn a lot from the Four Asia Tigers (Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore) who leveraged their geo-strategic opportunities to mobilize development funds and attract foreign direct investment.
No country has used lobbying more effectively than Israel and Korea. Governmental and non-governmental Korean entities spent about $70.5 million on lobbying in just two years (2017 and 2018). In the 1960s, Koreas GDP per capita was lower than several African countries. Today it is $31,000. Thanks to its brilliant strategy to leverage its geopolitical blessings. Your failure to assemble seasoned diplomats along with your refusal to spend $5 million a year on lobbying is costing the nation billions in terms of lot opportunities.
Global powers tolerate a geo-political country whose policy they do not always agree with than one that is unpredictable, unreliable, or parochially reclusive. You must raise your administration’s diplomatic skills to the level that the nation’s geopolitical importance demands.
Let me conclude with seven words: There is still time to change course.