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    CommentaryHave our leaders got the priorities right?

    Have our leaders got the priorities right?

    Date:

    It is public knowledge that the past four or so years have been worrisome for Ethiopians – first the turmoil that led to the leadership transition and then the current state of dilemma. After decades of rule under the same political banner and leadership style, change was inevitable and when it happened, it was embraced with so much of hope and enthusiasm. The new Prime Minster was granted by Ethiopians a carte blanche or “popular legitimacy” hoping that he would lead the country out of the political deadlock, and if not anything else, he keeps the country together until an elected government takes over. In less than two years, however, that “popular legitimacy” many would argue, has diminished. Peoples’ hope dimmed quickly, and apprehension set in. People are now concerned about their safety more than anything else – one can’t even travel outside of Addis Ababa without having security concerns. Overall, Ethiopians seem to have lost confidence on the prime minister’s government. Yet, the same government is busy embarking on major socio-economic and political decisions that have long-term implications on all Ethiopians.

    Privatization – the conversion of state-owned enterprises into privately managed assets – has been among the most contested economic policies since it was set in motion in the 1980s. Dissatisfaction with the performance of public enterprises is the justification for privatizing public enterprises. It is alleged that many of the government owned enterprises suffer from inefficiency and are exposed to embezzlement. That is why the decision taken by the new government to privatize key public enterprises was considered a natural next step after more than two decades of protectionism. However, the speed at which matters are developing has started to become a source of apprehension. Experts in the field suggest that privatization should be a well-designed and sequenced reform process supported by complementary policies, appropriate regulatory systems and capacities, strong public communication, and of course, preceded by a review of implications on poverty and social impacts. Looking at Ethiopia’s current state of affairs, not only are the aforementioned policy grounds yet to be established, the political situation is also not at its best to warrant fruitful debates. The politicians are divided more than ever while the academia remains largely a distant observer.

    The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is another area of concern. The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Washington DC under the patronage of Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury Secretary. We were told that “the foreign ministers agreed to work toward resolving their dispute over the filling and operationalization of the massive dam.” What happened to the tripartite agreement which clearly defines the principles of engagement if and when issues arise? What provoked Egypt to embark on a new round of negotiation at this particular time? Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) already conceded defeat by accepting the reduction of the number of turbines at Egypt’s request. Following such a concession and given Ethiopia’s level of political turmoil, Egypt may have felt it is time to bargain for more. But why should Ethiopia be pulled into this at this time? Even if the country was coerced to negotiate, can this government make binding decisions just a few months before the election?

    What I am asking is that, should issues that may have detrimental consequences such the peace agreements between Ethiopia and Eritrea, matters related to the GERD, and the privatization of major public assets such as Ethio-Telecom, Ethiopian airlines, the sugar factories, the fertilizer factory, and so on be handled by a government that has disputed legitimacy and diminishing public support or should these matters wait until Ethiopians elect their leaders next June? Of course, the groundwork has to start now by way of gathering relevant information from experts in the field, seeking council from other relevant countries; and drafting of policies that lay the foundation for effective privatization processes. However, I argue that, under the current circumstances and in a polarized political environment where no or little open conversation takes place among the country’s elites, none of these issues should be finalized. My greatest concern is that decisions made on such key but potentially controversial issues without demonstrable popular involvement will probably be reversed by the next leadership – repeating the same political circus that characterized the Ethiopian politics.

    I am not, in any way, implying that the government has compromised the country’s interest. Despite valued allegations, I have no evidence to back that claim. However, just a few years after the Prime minister’s promise to make his government transparent, even his entourage confess that they know almost nothing about some of his dealings with President Isaias, not to mention what he promised to the Egyptian leadership during his first visit to Cairo. Arguably, we are at a time where Ethiopia’s diplomatic account has been depleted – old strategic allies have been sidelined and new and unreliable ones brought forth. Besides, Abiy’s government has yet to demonstrate its understanding of world politics and the diplomatic sophistication needed to deal with such delicate matters. Hence, our new leaders should be able to learn from the country’s past mistakes. The Ethiopian political elites have, for years, squandered historic opportunities handed to them by popular movements. The 1970s student movement, and the 1991 transitional period are recent examples. Can the premier’s government escape from another historic leadership failure?

    It goes without saying that every leadership transition creates uncertainty. But Ethiopians seemed more confident and hopeful when the prime minster took power almost two years ago. His inauguration speech suggested that he had his priorities right. The first thing that needed to happen was defusing the political and ethnic extremism that makes any meaningful conversation almost impossible. Fast forward to today, the situation seems to have spiraled out of control. Some attribute the failure to the prime mister’s misguided priorities. He is being openly accused of being deeply involved in matters considered to be secondary – such as the renovation of the palace; the beautification of Addis Ababa, which could have been handled by relevant bureaus – while giving lip service to key issues that require his attention. I wish to believe that Prime minster Abiy has the will and the courage to compensate for the lost time. He can invest the time leading to the upcoming election to rebuild relationships among major political parties and to create a renewed political engagement where comprehensive and inclusive dialogue can take place to tackle major issues that have not be decisively addressed in the past.

    Without a conducive environment, the upcoming election can lead to more violence and extremism. If, on the other hand, a healthy political space is created, the plights of Ethiopians can come to an end. It will be up to the competing parties to educate the public on how they plan to proceed with the peace process with Eritrea, their vision for the GERD, what they plan to do with the major public enterprises, and if they believe privatization is the best option, how they plan to handle the process. Ethiopians can then elect their future leaders based on the menu presented to them by the competing parties. Besides, Ethiopians can experience their first free and fair election, and ultimately, regain their confidence on the political system. The tough times ahead can only be dealt with a legitimate government that enjoys public confidence. Wasn’t this the reason why Ethiopians put their trust on the premier when he came to power? If he too squanders this opportunity and instead engages in party politics in order to stay in power, history will judge him with harshness – much harsher than his predecessors. I hope our leaders will act wisely and decisively when the time and the space is in their hands.

    Ed.’s Note: Maereg Tafere (PhD) is based in Toronto, Canada. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

    Contributed by Maereg Tafere

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