An Open Letter to Prime Minister Abiy: Do or Die Reform Imperatives

25 mins read

Yonas Biru
abiy2

Mr. Prime Minister

The contents of this letter are a rehash of earlier blogs, open letters, and published articles. The conflation of economic pressure points and the convergence of national and international political compulsions give the issues in question new urgency and importance.

Before I share my concerns, candid opinion, and suggestions, I find it important to set the background. The year 2020 was a referendum year. Proponents and opponents of the current constitution were gearing up for a showdown during the national election that was scheduled to be held in August. The election was expected to give the people an opportunity to choose between those who wish to maintain the existing tribe-based federalism and those who call for reform.

In March, the Ethiopian National Election Board (ENEB) suspended the election due to the COVID-19 pandemic and announced that it will schedule a new timeline once the pandemic has subsided. The federal government and all regional governments complied with the ENEB’s decision. TPLF and Team Jawar challenged the constitutionality of ENEB’s decision. The Constitution empowers the Council of Federation to settle constitutional debates. The Council of upheld ENEB’s decision.

Though two prominent Oromo opposition parties boycotted the elections, the Oromo people did not. Over 15.3 million registered, and 96% voted. The 15.3 million figure represents well over 75% of eligible voters. The fact that Oromo opposition parties lost the people is nowhere clearer than in the rapid decline in the number of viewers of the Oromo Media Network. Before the election, the Network attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers. Today, it rarely pass the 20 thousand mark.

In like manner, the fact that Amhara extremist forces suffered a landslide electoral defeat attests to your success. The National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), that once flirted with Team Jawar in a love-to-hate courtship to form an alliance, is now a part of the Pan Ethiopianist governing coalition.

The softening of tribal polarization in Oromo and Amhara tribal lands attest to your judicious, subtle, and gradual detribalization of Ethiopia’s political space. With the Oromo and Amhara extremist dynamism losing steam and the taming down of the Qerro and Fanno fiefdoms, TPLF saw its leverage against your administration dissipate. The war it ignited was an impulsive and foolhardy adventure, signifying a botched political resuscitation attempt.

At bottom, the current war is between the will of the people who handed you a landslide victory and TPLF that wants to subvert it through war. Unfortunately, your transformational accomplishments are being crowded out by the war and by the cacophony of chaos your detractors continue to perpetrate and propagate.

 

Mr. Prime Minister:

I can list many areas where you have shown vision and leadership in excellence, but the purpose of this letter is to flag areas in need of urgent attention. As an old poem goes, “Some men die by shrapnel, and some go down in flames, but most men perish inch by inch, in play at little games.” I believe you are a visionary leader, but your vision cannot be realized unless all attendant matters, large and small, are attended to as integral parts of the broad vision.

On the domestic front, your reform agenda is undermined by two shortcomings. First, your administration did not do enough to build robust PR strategy and communication ecosystem. This allowed your detractors to spin your transformational achievements into a narrative of unmitigated failure, using episodic events of ethnic killings some of which they perpetrated. If there is one area that demands your attention as first order of priority, this is it. It is important to keep in mind that the highways of history are riddled with corpses of excellent government visions, reforms and policies that were killed by unanswered negative propaganda.

The second area needing urgent attention is the management of your reforms. There are two issues of first order priority: The concentration of power in your office and the absence of a competent and capable chief of staff. Members of the newly elected Parliament were right to raise concern about the concentration of power in your office.

As human beings, we all have limitations and blind spots, resulting in honest mistakes and/or bona fide errors in judgment. Even when one can do both, time limitations and human fatigue stand in the way. Ethiopia is home to over 110 million people with deep-seated political challenges and economic woes. No matter how much driven and committed you may be, you need all hands-on deck. Erring on the side of over-delegation of authority is more prudent than otherwise.

Apart from power sharing, your administration can benefit from a competent chief of staff who is charged to translate and actualize your vision. In countries such as the US, the chief of staff (COS) is a cabinet-rank position, constituting great power and influence, including directing all policy developments and overseeing their proper implementation. In a recent book titled The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple wrote: “When government works, it is usually because the COS understands the fabric of power, threading the needle where policy and politics converge.”

President Obama had four deputy chiefs of staff for policy, planning, operations, and policy implementation. The deputy chief of staff position in the US is not a junior position. People like Dick Cheney (who would later become the vice president of the US), and Robert Zoellick (who ended up being the President of the World Bank) were deputy chiefs of staff. People with brilliance, talent and established track record are people you need to populate your chief of staff office.

Mr. Prime Minster:

Allow me to move to foreign affairs. In my June 2018 open letter, I took note that you became Prime Minister as the US and Europe were witnessing major political transformations. Part of this was what casted the TPLF out of favor in Washington, London, and Brussels. I stressed in the letter that your administration should proactively and aggressively leverage Ethiopia’s importance as a geopolitical real-estate and position its strategic development strategy at the nexus of the emerging global geopolitics and the ensuing international development policy.

A robust foreign policy requires the art of diplomatic jujitsu to leverage the power and resources of geopolitical forces to Ethiopia’s advantage. This, in turn, requires a clear understanding of their governance architecture and decision-making centers of influence and finding a way to forge a relationship with the movers and shakers of the system.

Let us for a moment consider Prime Minister Meles and his relationship with the West\. His economic and political policies were anchored with socialist governmental development and revolutionary democracy principles. Yet, he was the darling of the West until his death.

He was uncompromising on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, despite military threats from Egypt and diplomatic pressure from the West. He was never a yes man for the West. If anything, he was arrogant and often lashed out at the US and EU for criticizing his authoritarian regime. He still managed to maintain a cordial if not cozy relationship with them.

He understood international public diplomacy. He had $150,000 a month for a US lobbyist. He also had close friends deep in American policy centers of influence, running the gamut from Susan Rice to Nobel Laureate Professor Joe Stiglitz and many in between. He vacationed with Professors Stiglitz and Paul Collier (British’s most influential authority on African economic development) in ሶደሬ to have undisrupted discussion over drinks and dinner. He had the likes of Tony Blair on speed dial.

He was a vicious autocrat whose security forces gunned down peaceful demonstrators with impunity. The Human Rights Watch characterized Ethiopia under him as “one of the most inhospitable places in the world, bearing the hallmark of crimes against humanity.” The US official report regularly wrote about “torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatments” of opposition leaders. His critics got a straight jacket reply from Washington, Brussels and London: “He is better than Mengistu.”

Your transformative reform agenda is bold, fundamentally substantive in its vision, and mechanically robust in its elemental coherence. Your economic and political policies are in line with the West’s governance philosophy and guiding principles. Your reform agenda was fully endorsed by the West lock, stock, and barrel.

In October 2018, the Guardian wrote: “Abiy Ahmed has turned the region’s politics on its head with a string of reforms since being appointed in April, earning comparisons to Nelson Mandela, Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev.” Three of the four are Nobel Laureates. A year later you joined their ranks.

Beyond bestowing the coveted Nobel Peace Prize on you, the West championed you as the hope for Africa. Many held the opinion that Ethiopia’s path for prosperity under your leadership can “ignite economic change” across Africa “through emulation equivalent to South Korea’s influence on Asia in the 1970s.”

The international community shaped your brand in the most positive light. Having a stellar brand is not enough. One needs to nurture and protect it. The world’s best brands such as Samsung Electronics, Alphabet (Google’s Parent Company) and Coca Cola spend billions each per annum on advertisements. Public Relations and Communication are lifelines for governments and corporations alike to create and maintain positive awareness. Just like in the domestic front, your administration failed to use PR and communication as tools of public diplomacy.

The West has a legitimate reason to worry about the risk of instability in the Horn region, which is a vital shipping and maritime route linking Europe and Asia and the strategic heartland of US energy security. Instability in Ethiopia impacts the Horn region and by extension the world at large. Therefore, we cannot say “we are a sovereign nation leave us alone.”

The world is an incredibly interconnected and deeply globalized. The fact that the West has keen interest in our stability and that our instability is a geo-political concern for the global community is God’s gift to us that we can capitalize and leverage on.

As a leader of a nation with enormous geopolitical importance, you must navigate the tension between national and international interests. Your leadership is measured by your ability to strike a delicate balance between the two without relinquishing the sovereignty of your nation and undermining legitimate concerns of the international community. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

The West has a strategic interest in seeing a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Ethiopia. It has been generous to your administration. In 2019, they mobilized and committed $9 billion to help finance your reform agenda. In 2020, the US DFC committed additional $5 billion. This amounted to 25% of what was in the US DFC account earmarked for the entire Africa. Given our geopolitical importance and your transformative reforms, Ethiopia is well positioned to receive far more.

TPLF’s ultimate goal is to starve your reform of international aid, nip your transformative reform agenda in the bud and deliver it still born. It will keep the war going no matter what the human cost, with the aim of spiking the international community’s concern about regional instability. Dr. Debretsion and company knew it is hard to discredit your reforms that have won global praise. They achieved their goal by smearing you as “a reckless and incompetent” leader. Without directly attacking it, they left your reform orphan by discrediting you

 

Mr. Prime Minister:

Ethiopia’s poverty is structurally entrenched and stuck in what the economist Robert Nelson calls low level equilibrium trap. Without massive international aid and FDI from the West, your chance of dislodging the economy that is over-weighed by massive population explosion is near zero.

Sadly, QAnon type paranoia seems to have gripped the imagination of a large swath of the Ethiopian political and intellectual nomenklatura. This, in turn, has birthed a milieu of conspiracy theorists who accuse the West of breaching the sovereignty of Ethiopia with the aim of reinstating TPLF.

The colorful among their ranks allege the West is against Ethiopia because Ethiopia is the apex of black civilization and pride. Allowing this craze to penetrate and prevail in your administration is a death sentence to your visionary reform agenda and Ethiopia’s once in a lifetime chance of breaking free from a pervading poverty.

It warrants noting that the Four Asian Tigers also known as the Four Asian Dragons (South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore) who have registered phenomenal growth in a relatively short period have one thing in common. The West considered them as geopolitically important, and they capitalized on it to build their economies. All four knew how to play the game. In no way did they have to surrender their sovereignty. If South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore could navigate the intricate maze of international affairs, so could Ethiopia.

 

Mr. Prime Minister:

It would be remiss of me if I fail to say, of late, your foreign policy and public diplomacy is worrisomely heading in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, an anti-West sentiment is being embraced and peddled by people in positions of political influence. This is nowhere clearer than in the invitation that someone in your administration extended to PLO Lumumba to lecture your newly minted cabinet members. Professor Lumumba is a demagogue who has made West-bashing and championing Pan Africanism a lucrative business enterprise. Candor obliges me to state that his lecturing our top officials signals Ethiopia’s public diplomacy has hit bottom.

I am by no means rejecting the formation of an African economic community or trading block. That is something African nations need to aspire for. But that is a long-long term plan. It requires having well developed institutional and physical capital, which African countries do not have and are unlikely to have in the near future.

Sadly, the way Pan-Africanism is being sold and consumed by a large section of the Ethiopia political nomenklatura signifies the equivalent of puffing hookah (ሺሻ) from which members of the nomenklatura get intellectual high. Pan Africanism has been around for over a decade. No country has benefited from it. African nations whose leaders championed it such as Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, and Guinea are African basket cases, struggling to survive at the bottom of the totem pole of world economic ranking even by African standard. The utility of pan Africanism is limited to providing a refuge to failed and nostalgic communists and Africanists.

Equally misguided local and diaspora intellectuals propagate turning to China and Russia. I cannot think of a country that is aligned with China and Russia that has registered sustained growth. Let us not mention North Korea. Let us not compare its estimated GDP per capita of $1,700 to that of pro-West South Korea at $31,500. Instead, let us look at Cuba.

Visiting Cuba is visiting the ghost of what once was a beautiful island when it was a subscriber to the genius of the capitalist system. According to PBS, Pre-Castro Cuba was “a glittering and dynamic city. Cuba ranked fifth in the hemisphere in per capita income, third in life expectancy, second in per capita ownership of automobiles and telephones, first in the number of television sets per inhabitant. The literacy rate, 76%, was the fourth highest in Latin America. Cuba ranked 11th in the world in the number of doctors per capita.”

Today, Cuba is a nation that uses handkerchief and wire coat hanger as spare parts to fix its car engines. Access to the internet is hard to come by. One internet advice posted on January 24, 2021, is to “stop wherever you see a large number of Cubans staring at their phones.”

 

Mr. Prime Minister:

And finally, the war. You were not only right but also duty bound to launch the law enforcement campaign. Dr. Debretsion would turn the clock and unwar the war if he could. TPLF has learned three lessons from the war. First, its perception of its military invincibility proved to be an untamed fancy run amok.

 

Second, during its 27-year reign over Ethiopia, TPLF built a Tgrayan military structure within the Ethiopian military structure. The Tigrayan structure run both horizontally and vertically through the Ethiopian defense architecture, controlling critical nodes within the Ethiopian military network. Ethiopia’s defense force was built in such a way that if Tigrayan structure is withdrawn, the Ethiopian national defense will collapse. TPLF’s blind spot in this process was the Ethiopian spirit of nationalism and love for the country. The people rose to shore up the military.

Third, TPLF’s tribal calculus that its war will ignite similar conflicts in the Oromo, Somali, Afar and other tribal homelands proved to be a mirage. To the contrary, Ethiopia’s unity proved indestructible and perennial.

TPLF’s war strategy has been reduced from taking over Addis in two weeks to creating a quagmire. The question is: How long will you allow this war to drag and, in the process, undermine your transformative reform agenda. The ill-advised campaign to destroy TPLF must give way to finding a path to a negotiated settlement.

Ethiopia’s need not submit to the West’s myopic and one-sided approach to ending the war. Public diplomacy is the space where we build consensus to narrow existing gaps. We need to find it possible to engage our international partners candidly and even forcefully. For Ethiopia, the starting point is producing a game plan for a peaceful resolution. Public diplomacy is the space where we build consensus to narrow existing differences.

It is peace that will ultimately destroy TPLF, not war. The sooner you find a peaceful path for ending the war, the sooner you will revive and put your visionary reforms in high gears. This is a do or die reform imperative to sustain Ethiopia’s hope and dream for peace, security, and prosperity.

Above all, the humanitarian crisis and the death and mayhem of our people must weight on our shoulders as deeply religious and God-fearing nation. As a life-long communist followers of socialist principles and with a track record of terrorist lineage, TPLF is devoid of moral tenets. This burdens you with heavy moral dilemma. You are in a very tough position. But world leaders are born through such challenges. I pray that you will rise to the challenge and give a negotiated settlement a chance without undermining the inalienable will of the people. Where there is a will, there is a way.