Lawrence K Freeman
August 3, 2018
On June 28, thousands upon thousands of smiling Ethiopians poured into the Washington DC convention center to listen to their new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. They began gathering in the morning hours before the noon starting time of the event. Standing for hours, on a line that snaked around the convention center, with the last of the crowd finally entering the hall at 3pm. I was fortunate to witness this joyous occasion. The entire ground floor hall of the convention center was filled, as far as the eye could see, by the Ethiopian community that came to celebrate the new leadership of their nation.
Only three days earlier on July 26, in Addis Ababa, Simegnew Bekele, the chief engineer of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam-GERD, was found murdered in his car. His assassination was followed by a large funeral at Meskel Square where he was mourned by tens of thousands. His body was taken to Holy Trinity Church where he was honored by being buried alongside Emperor Haile Selassie, and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The juxtaposition of these events, an ocean apart, foretell the challenging course ahead for Ethiopia. A future brimming with optimism, but fraught with danger. There is more than symbolism involved.
Progress Under Attack
Engineer Bekele, in the minds of Ethiopians, embodied a true patriotic spirit, who led their nation forward. He will be remembered for his lasting commitment to develop Ethiopia into growing sovereign economy in the Horn of Africa. Before overseeing the construction of the GERD in 2011, he worked on the Gibe I and II dams. The completed Gibe III hydro-electric project generating 1,872 megawatts, has doubled Ethiopia’s power supply. When the construction of the GERD- 6,450 megawatts-is finished, Ethiopia will be the second largest producer of electricity in Sub-Sahara Africa behind South Africa. The multi billion-dollar GERD, is being built with help of China, but financed by Ethiopia. The GERD is on the Blue Nile close to the border of Sudan and will be the biggest dam in Africa at 1.8 kilometers wide and 155 meters high.
Ethiopia’s ambitions to create a modern-advanced economy and lift its 100 million people out of poverty is evident in its commitment to also expand its rail and road infrastructure. The operational Addis-Ababa to Djibouti electrified train (the first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa) will transport manufactured goods from Ethiopia’s industrial parks, to the port of Djibouti for export. Their Growth Transformation Plan II (2014-2019) emphasizes Ethiopia’s intention to expand its manufacturing sector by 25%.
It is Ethiopia’s unwavering devotion to progress to “eliminate poverty, not manage it” that is the real target of Simegnew Bekel’s assassination.
(Artist drawing of completed GERD, whose completion will allow Ethiopia to become an energy exporter)
Abiy’s Life Threatened
In a mere four months since assuming office in April of this year, the 42-year-old Prime Minster has created a fervor in the population, causing waves of unbridled excitement, not seen since the overthrow of the bloody Derg regime in 1991 by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front led by Meles Zinawi. In what is being called a revolution, Prime Minister Abiy has released thousands of political prisoners, reached out to all ethnic regions of the nation, and unexpectedly ended the state of war with Eritrea in a ceremony held in the Eritrean capital Asmara on July 8. By taking this giant step to normalize relations with its neighbor Eritrea after a generation of armed hostility, Prime Minster Abiy has now become a living symbol for peace and security in the Horn of Africa.
Let us not forget that a month before coming to the United States, Prime Minister Abiy escaped an assassination attempt when a grenade was thrown at a rally where he addressed millions of his fellow citizens. Although he was not harmed, over one hundred were wounded and two died from this attack on June 23, in Addis Ababa’s famous Meskel Square.
Steeped in the ideas of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia, unique among African nations, has demonstrated an understanding of principles fundamental to economic growth. To wit: the necessity for the state to direct public credit into vital categories of infrastructure necessity for the economic security of a nation (dirigisme). The government not only has the right, but the obligation to intervene into the economy to foster “pro-growth” polices that benefit the general welfare of its people. Ethiopia’s relative success in this effort has produced enemies internally, regionally, and internationally, who oppose any progress towards achieving economic stability in the Horn of Africa. Economic independence by Africa nations challenges the dominance of financial predators, who still view Africa as a pawn on their “geo-political” chessboard.
Ethiopia Should Stay the Course
For many years there has been enormous pressure by the international financial community including the IMF to force Ethiopia to “liberalize” its economy by; decentralizing its economy, reducing regulations, allowing foreign investment in state-owned enterprises, and deregulating its banking system. Thus far Ethiopia has resisted, but under increasing duress, there are reports that some in the leadership of Ethiopia may be ready to open the floodgates to intrusions by international financiers, who are not interested in the welfare of the citizens.
Ethiopia, a poor country that suffered from a wrecked economy twenty-five years ago, has emerged as a leader on the Sub-Saharan continent. Ethiopia’s commitment to expanding its physical infrastructure has served the nation well, though it still faces serious impediments. Providing meaningful employment for the 500,000-young people, who are seeking to join the work force each year will remain a significant challenge. However, Ethiopia should not permit itself to be coerced into deviating from its thus far successful economic policy.