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Much fuss over obsequious “recognition” for lip service

“Upping the Ante against the Silent killer”, goes an article published on June 6, 2020 issue of this paper, accompanied by a generous and spacious advert, ostensibly against tobacco product and smoking. Having read the article, I found out little that is no more than an attempt to praise and self-congratulate the supposed “recognition,” said to have been given by the World Health Organization to Mathiwos Wondu-YeEthiopia Cancer Society (NWECS), to its “public relations effort of the sector,” seemingly for its anti-tobacco production and smoking campaign.  

Over the past few years, NWECS spearheaded its  campaign primarily against the only legally established tobacco manufacturing enterprise that is operating under the strict regulatory legal regimes in the country, the National Tobacco Enterprise (NTE), to such an extent that its campaign reached climax last year through its orchestrated protest against the government, for NTE’s attendance in an event organized by the Ministry of Revenues in which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was the guest of honor, and the subsequent recognition given to the NTE as an outstanding tax payer while NWECS is enjoying a tax exempt entity status.

Even though NWECS advocacy effort may be argued to be important in creating awareness on health hazard of tobacco smoking, its recognition for its claimed effort by the WHO, however, could not provide any help to curb the steady growth of contraband cigarettes flowing in to the country and causing far more adverse health consequences than legally produced and imported cigarettes that are strictly controlled, have created employment opportunity, fetch earnings to tobacco grower farmers, safeguard government tax revenue and even could generate foreign currency from export of the product.

On the other hand, as if there does not exist any specific law that impose an obligation on NTE on its duty against contraband to earmark necessary resources, collaborate with concerned public offices and work together in a fighting and controlling contraband, the flow of which has been negatively affecting the health of the society and undermine the tax revenue basis of the government.

Ironically, with its sophomoric and imbecile understanding of the issue involved, NWECS claimed that NTE’s contribution in the fight against contraband cigarettes is mainly prompted by its interest to expand the market and to boost its “self-interest.”

What is strikingly strange in the article is the pompous and noisy propaganda that NWECS attempted to trumpet against NTE’s legitimate undertaking, lawful products and even the unpublicized support the enterprise is said to have provided in relation to the fight against COVID-19, by producing and freely distributing hand sanitizer that has been characterized in the paper as “an opportunity for (NTE) to regain its image and acceptability among the government and the general public.”

Interestingly, the paper nowhere mentioned its supposed revelation when and how NTE lost its claimed image and acceptance among the public and the government or by whom it was declared illegal/criminal to boldly assert that it “attempted to regain its image and acceptability.”

It now appeared to me that such malicious attack on duly licensed and legally operating tax paying business undertakings has never been new and without precedent to NTE and local cigarettes and tobacco leaf production and development bodies by charitable bodies or civil societies as  I will show in the following historical account.                

In as much as COVID-19 has complicated our work life and forced us to restrict our movement, for avid book readers that are fed up to follow up mainstream and social media, or the monotonous news stories and articles in the print media, like the one I mentioned above, newly published books have also brought good opportunities. The voluminous biography, such as the one authored by Dejazmatch Woldesemayat Gebrewold, titled “My Life For My Country Ethiopia and My Insatiate Urge For The Development Of Fellow Ethiopians” offers so much resources, facts and evidences worth reading, enjoying, talking about, writing  and entertain in mental gymnastics to all Ethiopians.

Dejazmatch Woldesemayat, one of the foremost progressive and workaholic administrator of unparalleled patriotic fervor, produced this carefully organized, chronologically excellent and highly impressive accounts that is strongly substantiated by evidences of his meritorious public services as well as his childhood and elderly school as well as university life. He belonged to the early post occupation generation that was enrolled to higher education at home and abroad whose student life was earlier interrupted due to Italian Invasion.

The abrupt termination and early retirement from his distinguished and honorable public service following the 1974 communist revolution, brought to a sad end to all Ethiopian civil servants that could have set good model and lessons to emulate his enterprising leadership.

In this article, I shall examine on one activity related to tobacco leaf growing farm that Dejazmatch Woldesemayat initiated and  graphically described in his book from page 298-301, in which, I have made comparison of what he has done and achieved in the past, in terms of employment creation endeavor, revenue generation of thousands of farmers, saving wastages of foreign currencies, creating highly demanding markets for tobacco growers at Wolayta Awraja beyond lip service, for which he should have been recognized and rewarded to his outstanding contribution and feat to his country and people against the supposed recognition that NWECS said to have obtained in its public relation activity.

As part of his all rounded and large scale administrative and good governance reforms within Wolayta Awraja, Dejazmatch Woldesemayat indicated that he set to replicate and expand the trial production of tobacco leaf that he saw in Awassa to Wolayta Awraja.

To this end, he initiated discussions with his erstwhile college mate, Bekele Tinsae, the Manager of Imperial Tobacco Monopoly Board, if the later would pledge to buy tobacco leafs from producers. Following the discussion, Bekele promised to buy unspecified amount of tobacco leaf, according to Dejazmatch Woldesemayat.

Accordingly, the General Manager dispatched Niloskov, a Yugoslav Tobacco leaf expert and confirmed that Wolayta’s weather and soil type was very suitable to a renowned tobacco leaf brand called “Oriental Tobacco” and based on his report, the Board accepted the proposal to provide training for the first ten thousand tobacco grower farmers.

Following the training, farmers were provided with “Oriental Tobacco” seed and the tobacco leaf production was undertaken extensively. Among the seven Woredas of the Wolayta Awraja, Dejazmatch Woldesemayat wrote, the Damote Gale and Damote Woyde Woredas farmers were highly motivated and passionate on this tobacco growing farm and managed to fetch high value of money.

Since 1964, the Imperial Tobacco Monopoly supported the production of Oriental Tobacco and helped more than 10,000 tobacco grower farmers to produce the product and supply for the enterprise. This product also helped the company to quite its purchase from foreign suppliers in foreign currency.   

While this commendable initiative for the production of Oriental Tobacco was progressing well and making a remarkable headway, sadly, an evangelical charitable body known as the Sudan Interior Mission Hospital, which had been providing medical service in the Awraja, along with its missionary activities, started to preach tobacco grower farmers that “growing tobacco was a sin.”

This sermon, which had demotivating and inhibiting effect that eroded the enthusiasm and morals of the tobacco leaf growers, resulted in many farmers abandoning their tobacco growing farm. News of this adverse act reached to Dejazmatch Woldesemayat attention rather late and only through a formal letter written from the Imperial Tobacco Monopoly Board, on Ginbot 30, 1956 EC, attached on pages 569-570 of the book.

“More than three months,” the letter underlined, “we have worked for organizing tobacco production in Wolayta Sodo district. According to our investigation really there are favorable conditions for a large production. There were enough farmers willing to grow tobacco. Even at first we were worried of having… should we reduce them to a number about 10,000 (that is our capacity) having in mind… that much number were willing.

…..A large part of the farmers now are not willing to plant tobacco. They are declaring they do not plant it because of their religion (they are protestants) – adding that the missions are advising them (not to) do it. The protestant churches and priests are performing an active propaganda against tobacco…..

…. Your excellency, we beg you to do your best stopping the missionary propaganda against tobacco….”  

Having received this letter from Niloskov, the Yugoslav Tobacco leaf expert, he recounted,  “I summoned the head of the hospital, an American national, along with his missionary colleagues to my office and discussed on the issue in a biting manner, in the presence of Judges, Police and heads of all sector public offices of the Awraja. “I advised the missionaries finally in no uncertain terms” Dejazmatch Woldesemayat emphatically retorted, “rather to go and preach to US farmers of tobacco leaf growers to cease millions of tonnes of tobacco leaf production.”

He further warned them that he will fire them from the hospital and replace by Swedish medical professionals “if he found them sabotaging again.”   After this strict warning, the problem created by the Missionaries was resolved once and for all and the production competition among farmers’ of tobacco leaf growers resumed unabated.

While the production of Oriental Tobacco leaf in Wolayta Awraja greatly helped the farmers earn money, contributed to meet the demand of the local Tobacco enterprise and saved the foreign currency required for its import from abroad, Dejazmatch Woldesemayat regretted that notwithstanding the choice and freedom of individual persons to consume,  “considering the health hazard of cigarette, the production of Oriental Tobacco leaf that was extensively carried out in Wolayta Awraja is currently totally abandoned and the enterprise is presently confined in the production of Virginia Tobacco leaf type on its own farm near Blate river.”

After reading the above story in the biography of Dejazmatch Woldesemayat pertaining to the short lived Oriental Tobacco leaf production in Wolayta Awraja, I tried to browse on internet, the significance and current status of Oriental Tobacco Production worldwide and among tobacco industries.

I found an article, under the title, Oriental Tobacco: Important Yet under Radar, published on “tobacco Asia” by Thomas Schmid dated May 2, 2019. The author wrote that the crop has a unique aroma that no other type can provide and it is, thus, a key ingredient in premium American blends and “light” cigarettes, as well as in certain pipe, RYO/MYO, and HNB tobaccos.”  He also explained that over the last years, Oriental Tobacco, has shown marked increase of prices in international market.

As a consequence,” the Author emphasize, “prices for Oriental Tobacco almost doubled and especially caused the İzmir variety, a core component of premium American blends, to become one of the most expensive tobaccos used in cigarette production.”

The Author mentioned that there has been a decline of European Country producers of Oriental Tobacco due to labor intensive nature of its production that demands substantial cost overhead.

However, the Author anticipated big opportunity for its production in “Asian nations like India and Thailand (if they) decided to fill the gap and expanded their outputs of the crop. After all, farmlands in some regions of these countries are indeed perfect for Oriental Tobacco while labour costs remain low.”

Thomas, does not envision in his article any country from Africa, as previous or potential future producer of Oriental Tobacco.  It is very sad that, Ethiopia, which started the production of Oriental Tobacco more than 50 years ago, with a visionary leadership of Dejazmatch Woldesemayat and the support provided by the local Imperial Tobacco Monopoly Board, imprudently abandoned to pursue its production to meet local demands and at a time when export to overseas market to fetch highly needed foreign currency was increasing.

The weather and soil condition of Wolayta Awraja and possibly many other places in the country might be suitable for the production of Oriental Tobacco Leaf and we still have the opportunity to produce it. “After all, Oriental Tobacco requires arid weather and very specific soil to flourish -- and these conditions exist in only a handful of countries.”  “Oriental is a very undemanding crop due to its minimal water and fertilization requirements, and because it is sun-cured, one could probably also claim that it is environmentally friendly.”

Ethiopia is in a cross road in its fight against poverty to ensure food self-sufficiency, create employment, increase productivity, boost its export to generate foreign currency. Diversifying its economy and agricultural products to satisfy inputs to its local industries is the demand of the day. In order to achieve these objectives, the country must introduce fundamental changes in its orientation and outlook. The nation must only look on how to take itself out of poverty and alleviate the economic burden on its people.    

For anti-tobacco campaigners such as NWECS, talking about health hazard resulting from tobacco products and launching persistent attacks against duly licensed and legitimate local or international cigarettes manufacturers or venders is much easier and may be even supportable public relation activities that has led it to its supposed “recognition” by WHO.

But the challenge is on how to increase productivity, secure the foreign currency reserve of the country, supplying local industries from locally produced inputs and diversifying exports, create employment, enhance government tax base safeguard the health of citizens from flooding contraband and harmful tobacco products. The nation cannot develop and escape from poverty with charity and advocacy works of civil societies but tax paying and value adding agricultural, industrial and service rendering undertakings.  This can only be achieved by hard works and various supports provided to farmers and industries as exemplified in Dejazmatch Woldesemayat tireless effort and not on donor sponsored public relations activities and obsequious recognition supposedly obtained by organizations based overseas.

Ed.’s Note: Yohannes Woldegebriel is a legal expert. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Yohannes Woldegebriel