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“I would like to serve the people of Addis Ababa as their mayor”

“I would like to serve the people of Addis Ababa as their mayor”

Kebour Ghenna is the Executive Director of the Pan African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PACCI) and the founder of Initiative Africa. He is prominent among the Ethiopian business community for his diverse contribution and initiatives in the sector. During his tenure of leadership, the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce was vigorously engaged in non business agendas as well that included social and political matters.Though he was not a member of any political party, he is well known for his political and economic analysis and commentaries. Recently, he joined the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party, a.k.a. EZEMA. Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter sat down with Kebour to discuss multifaceted issues including, the reasons why he decided to become an active politician and why he choose EZEMA, the liberalization and privatization of public enterprises, the ongoing war in Tigray and its impacts, as well as issues related to the problems and questions raised by the residents of Addis Ababa city. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Did you ever participate in any political party as a member, If not why now?

Kebour Ghenna: This is actually my first time. I believe there is no time limit or a date limit to join a political party, run for Office, and participate freely in politics. So I felt simply this is the time for me to contribute and bring peoples’ voice to the Parliament; in my case, to the city council. You see, many young people shy away from politics and with my action I hope to bring all these people back into the discussion of city and national politics and invigorate Ethiopia’s political discourse.

There are many political parties in the country. EZEMA is relatively the youngest party around. So why did you prefer EZEMA? Is it possible that you joined the party because its stance is almost similar to your views over the issues of liberalization and privatization of government owned enterprises?  Or what is your specific reason that compelled you to join EZEMA?

I decided to join EZEMA simply because they approached me and invited me to join their movement. It took me time to decide, but in the end they promoted views that I felt comfortable with. EZEMA is a party advocating national interests and unity. It is a party that condemns and rejects division on ethnic lines, and it’s a party that advocates social justice.

On economic issues, the Party clearly favors a free market with a stronger role for the government to correct the flaws or defects of the market mechanism, climate change, unemployment, poverty, infrastructure development and some more.

A modern economy today requires an effective government that promotes and pushes for efficiency, find ways to support infrastructure, promote equity, foster macroeconomic stability and smart growth. And finally, let me just say EZEMA is an inclusive party that ensures the political inclusion of women, by fielding at least forty percent female candidates of the total candidates it nominates for the elections.

There are some criticisms against EZEMA both from members of opposition political parties and even within the academia that EZEMA’s focus is on citizen based politics while the politics of the country is designed based on ethnic politics. What is your reaction for such critiques?

The choice is between party politics mostly based on ethnicity and party politics based on a centralized federation. Let the people decide. In these difficult times where political polarization has become so familiar and entrenched, where Ethiopia is pulled apart, to have an EZEMA type political force fighting for a national agenda is rather hopeful indeed.

I’ve been writing and speaking about national polarization and division since before the election of PM Abiy. I have written a number of articles describing our challenge, outlining how we could divide and how we can heal. I understand the prescription isn’t easy. We have to flip the script on the present political narrative. We have to prioritize accommodation.

We see today that most parts of the World are trying to come together; in our continent, we see African countries united under a free trade agreement. We see in Europe, even with BREXIT, Europeans are trying to strengthen their union. Today in Ethiopia, most of our problems are beyond national solutions, it’s almost the same in most countries, including countries like the US. Clearly, EZEMA is not only the only party spelling out some home truths to the country, but is also starting to provide some answers to the problems.

Do you to think the current political landscape provides an even field for all political views?

No, not yet. I think there are great concerns and fear over election security and possible violence triggered by cadres.The success of this election depends on trust and trust is under attack from many corners. That is why there is also doubt whether this election can take place, let alone making sure the election will be fair and honest. You have various parties claiming harassment, violence and discrimination. Some report that their candidates or supporters are persecuted. You have lots of difficulties to travel within the region and more. Now, this election is a clear choice between PM Abiy’s record of success and future vision for Ethiopia and the anti EPRDF forces and those with a new vision claiming for a better tomorrow.

In any case, I believe the election will take place as per schedule. In case of serious security problems, areas or pockets where violence is clearly evident, election officials may consider targeting those regions with a different kind of arrangement. But in my opinion, election has to take place. I don’t see how this government can postpone the election and retain legitimacy.

Coming back to EZEMA, the party has been criticized of staying dormant amid the transgressions happening across the country. Many view it as being sympathetic to Prosperity Party. In this regard, in the past, you have been very vocal and have appeared in different media outlets to reflect your views on numerous issues. So do you think joining EZEMA might stop you from making those bold statements?

No. Frankly, I haven’t seen any rules that restrict me or any other candidate.  Surely voters of different ideological stripes, ages and agendas will vote for EZEMA knowing that it will consider their viewpoints.

So, if there are things that need to be said, I will not refrain from voicing my concerns. I know that the Party is open to ideas, open to pragmatic alternatives. As for the Party’s coziness with the government, I am not sure that’s the case. I assume there may be discussions and consultations going on; I don’t know much about these things but I know for sure the government, on its own or with EZEMA as a partner, will not solve the many problems that we are facing. The stakeholders have to be widened.

Finally, I don’t see power hunger at EZEMA; but if there is, I will be the first to criticize and warn EZEMA not to rush for power. 

How do you characterize the ongoing fighting in Tigray and its effect on the upcoming general election?

From the start, it’s a tragedy. I have said it two, three times before, it’s easy to start a war but hard to end it. War is always violence; we have seen thousands displaced; thousands lost their lives, a lot of development projects, institutions and schools destroyed. This is really tragic; I don’t have any words to describe it. How are we going to at least bring the people of Tigray to the certain sense of stability? It requires the resources of the entire Ethiopia; it is not an easy undertaking and I think for this, we need to have all Ethiopians, and we really have to come together and help out. It’s not about handing out something to the people of Tigray but rather working together and trying to bring at least some closure to this tragedy.

Following the war in Tigray region, reports of a humanitarian crisis are surfacing and many in the region are suffering from hunger and shortage of basic needs. So in this regard, what do you think should be done to avert the looming humanitarian crisis?

I think there is still a feeling that this was the right decision and what is happening in Tigray and what has been happening in Tigray is fully justifiable. In my view, that narrative is wrong. We need to quickly address the humanitarian, social and economic challenges of the region. We need to mobilize the entire country to partner with Tigray and help the people run a normal life. When we have a region with 700,000 people displaced and thousands killed, and hundreds of millions in assets destroyed, the trauma is profound.

It is well known that you are an ardent critique of the liberalization and privatization agenda by the government. By taking into account your stance over these agendas, many consider you a proponent of socialist ideology. So, is it possible to say that your political orientation has tilted to socialism?

It’s definitely not neoliberal, not even neoclassical. We have to realize that the Ethiopian telecom if I am not mistaken, has issued a press release saying it had made a profit of 40 billion birr. Tell me then the logic of selling such a profitable company to Vodafone or any other foreign company, it does not make sense. Sell it and you will see that we the people are going to pay more for ‘efficient’ services. I argue don’t rush to sell it; you have lots of debt to pay up. Instead, improve or strengthen the management.

ethio- telecom’s head office is six kilometers away from the Ethiopian airlines office; ask why telecom’s management is so different from ET’s? Why do we want to insist on taking a public asset and give it to a private asset that is non-Ethiopian? The Chinese didn’t do it; where are the Chinese today? What I am trying to say is that the whole thing doesn’t make sense. Also, why the rush? Why can’t we wait another five or ten years to see whether this really is the right move?

You have raised issues related to how policy makers in the country are somewhat tilted to neoclassical readings. In this regard, what’s your take on the recently launched homegrown economic agenda?

I don’t know what it means by homegrown. I don’t know if it’s because it’s printed here. This document wasn’t even participatory. It was certainly something that has been developed, I don’t know where, but has definitely attracted the attention of the World Bank, which they have endorsed. Why? Because it contains all the elements that these institutions want such as privatization, liberalization, the market and the stock exchange. Is the home grown strategy bringing jobs to the youth? I don’t see how it will do that. Is it reducing the poverty gap? We don’t know how it will do that. Is it prioritizing projects properly? The answer is no.

Residents of Addis Ababa city keep complaining about the services that they receive. And the problems in the city have increased from time to time. What do you think should be done to address the myriad of problems of Addis Ababa? 

A million birr question. These problems will not disappear because there is a change of government or members of the council in Addis Ababa. Some of these problems have been there for quite long time; some of them require attitudinal change and a different way of doing things. One of the things for example that can be done is to make the young entrepreneurial, bring citizens to participate in the development of their neighborhood, bring new innovative ways of financing projects and bring the private sector to participate in the development of the city.

I understand that many things have been tried out; some successful others not. We need to do more in terms of addressing the issue of transportation, housing, employment, corruption, services like water, electricity and so on. My own approach is to ease involvement of the residents of Addis Ababa to solve their own problems, to mobilize the private sector, the banks, the insurance companies to support their neighborhood businesses.

There was a social media hype following the news that you joined EZEMA and many were saying the city is going to get a well-deserved mayor. Is it your ambition to become a mayor of Addis?

I will be honest with you. I would like to serve the people of Addis Ababa as their mayor. But that’s not easy. There are lots of capable candidates from within EZEMA and other parties. There is a long way to go. My last challenge and question to Addis Ababa residents is: Who is going to solve our problems if we are not taking charge, engaging, and contributing to the development of our city? Who?