Economic Reform, Peace with Eritrea and Medemer: Some Questions

By The Strathink Editorial Team

The trajectory of change that has taken place in Ethiopia since the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn this year has been extraordinary. What was once unthinkable, such as privatizing public enterprises and peace with Eritrea, is now on the table. The euphoria, bordering on almost religious fervor, with which a large segment of the Ethiopian population seems to be embracing these changes is a positive sign after more than a decade of apathy following the 2005 election debacle.

At the same time, given the relatively brief period since the election of Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, the changes have been more form than substance. Perhaps it is time now to take a step back and consider some of the hard questions that are raised by these articulated, yet not operationalized, policy shifts to better understand future implications.

Privatization of Public Enterprises

Ethiopia has announced that it will open its state-run Ethio Telecom, Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Power, the Maritime Transport and Logistics Corporation and Ethiopian Airlines to domestic and foreign investment. The new Prime Minister cited foreign currency shortages and the need for economic reform to boost exports and sustain the country’s astonishing rapid growth.

Research shows that private ownership by itself automatically economic gains in developing countries. Has a study been conducted that provides an evidenced-based rationale for this policy shift?  Is there a regulatory system in place and an appropriate process for privatization? How will these economic reforms be sequenced? What will be the impact on poverty alleviation? What are the complementary policies that are needed to align economic reforms across the economy? Will a speedy privatization work better than a slow, deliberate approach?

And what about Ethiopia’s flagship airlines? Will privatization affect the management of Ethiopian Airlines? Ethiopian Airlines is consistently ranked “Africa’s best airline” as well as having achieved an outstanding reputation globally. It has been a source of national pride since its inception in 1945 and has had an extraordinary run. What are the implications of opening the airlines up to foreign investors?

Peace with Eritrea

Arguably the eighteen years that followed the end of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been harder on Eritreans than their brothers and sisters to the south. The stalemate, a situation described as “no war, no peace,” was used by Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki to justify the country’s stalled advancement towards greater individual freedoms and democratic governance. How Eritreans address the state of their political system and the grip President Isayas has on virtually every facet of their lives—from indefinite national service to limited freedoms of speech, press and assembly—is clearly and unequivocally in the hands of the Eritrean people. At the same time, conditions in Eritrea affect Ethiopia and its future policies towards its neighbor.

For example, what will happen to the Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia who have fled their country in vast numbers—a rate, according to the United Nations, of 5,000 per month? Will Eritrean refugees be forced to repatriate? What guarantees do they have that, should they be repatriated, they will not be punished by President Isayas upon their return.

It is difficult to forget the “shoot to kill” orders at the border, the large numbers of people in prison (including people who practice the religion of the current Ethiopian Prime Minister) and the G15.   Eritrean opposition groups, finding haven in Ethiopia, have been instructed to cease all political activities against the Eritrean government on Ethiopian soil. Although the Ethiopian government has assured these groups that they will not be handed over to the Eritrean government, their radio stations have been closed.

International laws and norms addressing the provision of haven to armed opposition groups of neighboring countries, called transnational armed groups, is both inadequate and almost impossible to enforce. We can safely say here, however, that it is generally a recipe for conflict and instability for the region. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Eritrea for providing support to al-Shabaab and Ginbot 7, both groups intent on using violence to overthrow the sitting governments of Somalia and Ethiopia, respectively. However, by ordering the cessation of all political activities, barring violence, of Eritrean opposition groups, Ethiopia is silencing what most people agree are legitimate grievances against an oppressive state.

Both countries need a peace that is a win-win for people on both sides of the border. Ethiopia has agreed to cede Badme to Eritrea. There are lingering questions about the fate of the Irob, a population of 30,000 people who straddle the Eritrean-Ethiopian border. Identifying as Ethiopians, Irob communities will be split between the two countries.

On a more positive note, one of the most important dividends of the peace includes mobility of people and goods across the border. People are now free to travel and to buys and sell their goods. The elephant in the room is the exchange rate between the Ethiopian birr and the Eritrean nakfa. This unresolved issue—one of the causes of the war—is a complex equation of economic realities and national pride.

Will Ethiopia require Eritrea to pay for goods and services with the U.S. dollar, considering Ethiopia’s foreign currency shortage. Will Ethiopians be able to invest in Eritrea and will Eritreans be able to invest in Ethiopia? Ethiopia has already made agreements with Djibouti and Somaliland to secure access to their ports. Will President Isayas make demands on Ethiopia to use Assab and Massawa, despite these agreements, as part of the peace accord?

There are many unanswered questions that surround the reconciliation between two countries so tightly bound together by history, culture and kinship. A durable peace can only be achieved through a process of peacebuilding that is unafraid to ask the hard questions despite what might be politically unpopular answers.

Unity in Diversity: Medemer

Prime Minister Abiy has coined the word medemer to signify a coming together of Ethiopians across ethnicity, religion, region and so on. It also implies an addition—an expansion of political space that includes groups that were previously excluded from the country’s political life. These groups include Ginbot 7, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Why were these groups previously excluded? Each organization was committed to overthrowing the government using violence. By renouncing violence, these groups are now allowed to operate freely in Ethiopia and participate in political life.

Inclusion is fundamentally a positive attribute of any government. Yet, inclusion of groups formerly engaged in violent acts against civilians brings risk. Can the Prime Minister’s government trust the intentions of these groups? And what will be their role in Ethiopia’s political life preceding the election in 2020? Will Ginbot 7 be permitted to organize party members nation-wide?

The ONLF claimed responsibility for the death of at least 65 Ethiopians working at a Chinese-run oil field in Abole. How do the families of these 65 murdered Ethiopians feel about the amnesty given to the ONLF? Why has ONLF leader Abdikarim Muse Qalbi Dhagah, recently released from prison, gone to Nairobi? We know he is being reunited with his family, but will he remain in Kenya or return to Ethiopia. What are his objectives for the organization going forward?

A photograph posted on social media by former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn showing him posing with Mengistu Hailemariam has, unsurprisingly, generated a great deal of confusion and anger by Ethiopians around the world. What was the purpose of the meeting with Mengistu? Will he be allowed to return to Ethiopia? Was he given amnesty for the crimes he committed against the Ethiopian people during his 17 years of terror? What are the conditions of his return? Have victims of the Red Terror—almost every family was affected in one way or another—been consulted and what are their views? What kind of message is this sending to people about accountability and justice?

Change is Never Easy

There are still enormous problems in Ethiopia. The economy, while a net positive, is burdened with high levels of underemployment and unemployment, especially for youth. The government is faced with finding ways to engage the healthiest and best educated youth in the country’s history with productive and fulfilling employment.

Ethnic tensions appear to be at an all-time high with unabated violence in the Somali, Amhara and Oromo regions. These tensions are exacerbated by a social media that revels in hyperbole, exaggeration and downright lies. The instigators of these social media campaigns are often Ethiopians living in the safety and comfort of the United States and western capital cities, thus escaping the immediate consequences of their actions.

The current situation in Region 5, the Somali Region, raises questions about the constitutionality of removing a sitting regional president by the federal government. What is the legal justification for this removal? The regional government has threatened to invoke Article 39 of the Constitution. Will the federal system survive this kind of tension?

Politically, the country is undergoing a transition but there are few details yet about what the end sate of this transition will be. This creates a great deal of uncertainty and confusion among people that may inhibit the move forward.

What will be the Prime Minister’s next steps to quell the violence, reduce tensions and implement reforms are anyone’s guess. What is needed immediately, however, is a consistent and clearly articulated message that can assure the people of the government’s commitment and enforcement of rule of law and the rights enshrined in Ethiopia’s constitution.

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