The accounting and accountability of Ethiopia's dictators
By Fekade Shewakena / March 19, 2009
At a time when Nobel prize-winning and top-notch economists around the world are unable to tell what the world’s economy would look like in two months, Meles Zenawi boldly declared that the Ethiopian economy will grow by a fantastic 11.2% this year. This is only slightly less than the phantom number given to us for the past year.
Even the IMF, that often recycles Ethiopian official statistics, slashed this prediction by nearly half to 6%. Given its history of shameful collaboration with the data concoctions and the use of it by the regime for political purposes, one would think that the IMF must still be trying to be generous in its current estimates too.
While there is no doubt that there has been growth in the GDP of the country over the last several years, thanks mainly to the country becoming one of the largest destinations of foreign aid, large remittances from Ethiopians abroad and God's generousness with the rains, the super-inflated growth numbers we have been given are hard to relate to realities on the ground.
In fact, Meles Zenawi’s growth statistics and the duration covered are almost the same as the one that transformed many South Asian countries in a short order.
Why are we then still nearer to Somalia than any of the countries that have witnessed similar growth rates? How does it happen that one in six Ethiopians, nearly 15% of the population, has turned out to be food aid dependent if the country has been growing at the rates Meles has been dishing out all these years?
Then, how is it that the number of the absolute poor has quadrupled after all these successive fabulous numbers are issued? Why is it that in many development indexes, particularly those associated with modernization such as the IT, we are still trailing the world at the bottom, in some cases far lower than stateless Somalia? Why is it that the failure of a single seasonal rain becomes a reason for a crushing hunger and famine if the country grows at these amazing rates? Why have we even failed to keep our subsistence agriculture at subsistence levels? As one parliamentarian, Mr. Bulcha Demeksa once asked Meles Zenawi in parliament to no answer, where are these regions in Ethiopia that are flourishing?
The search for answers to these questions leaves you no room except to think that Meles is pulling these numbers from the hat. These shameless lies have serious objectives as far as Meles and his cronies are concerned. It is political, and is one of the cruelest politics of using a terrifying and obscene poverty for political purposes. Its aim is to give the Ethiopian people a delusion of an extraordinary growth brought about by Meles and Bereket, the two who have the magic key to the grain stores in Ethiopia.
We are used to hearing them tirelessly that their Revolutionary Democracy is doing fantastic, and Meles’s back door communism named the “developmantalist state” is the savior of Ethiopia. Once you create this delusion, any suggestion of democracy as an alternative to fighting poverty, or any demand that Meles stop the widespread human rights abuse will be something that you do at the risk of stopping this fantastic growth. It also serves as an excuse and a political tool used to crush critics and opponents.
For instance, look at the press responses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues to recurrent accusations of human rights abuses by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other institutions. They invariably contain some form of self congratulatory message, and a reference to this illusive “booming economy”. The Ethiopian people, who are condemned to one of the world’s obscenest poverty by the actions of their government, are expected to put off any demand for democracy, human dignity and basic rights in exchange for the promised rain of bread from the sky. And any economic growth achieved, even that which results from the regime doing things for a living, is to be considered the outcome of the genius of Meles Zenawi and Bereket Simon.
Talk to Some EPRDF members, or a beneficiary of the system, and raise the issue of human rights violations by the government and the increasingly narrowing political space in the country. They will immediately shift gears and tell you, “But the country is growing; Addis Ababa is looking good with nice asphalt roads and high rise buildings”. These goons know the phantom growth statistics by heart and will tell you that even the World Bank and IMF agree, but if you ask them other economic numbers such as the rate and number of unemployment, the poverty rate, and the numbers of people that live on foreign food handouts and other indicators of development, they will look like the monkey fresh from the jungle.
A few months back, Meles and his government were so furious at humanitarian agencies who estimated over four million more people would need food handouts from the international community beyond the government’s estimate. The figure was beyond what the government wanted to admit.
For this reason, Meles Zenawi and his government launched an all-out war against the very people who wanted to help beg the world to feed his destitute. Now, a few months later, reality seems to have sunk in and Meles is forced to quietly accept the numbers. It is now official that we have a record 12 million people living on the edge of the abyss. The question to both the Ethiopian authorities, the IMF and the World Bank, the lords of our poverty, now is how did it happen that after six consecutive years of fantastic near-double and double-digit growth rates have we moved nearer to the precipice? They may try to baffle you with their jargons but will not answer this little everyday-man’s question directly.
Some of these so called growth statistics are an obvious play with numbers and a make-believe manipulation and some are pure smock and mirror gimmick. You can, for example, do it by sampling regions with low base year data to deflate the denominator. It is easy to do. You can sample and compare a drought-hit woreda with small production as your base year and compare it to its production to a predicted rainy season. If you add some of these to even the real numbers they are bound to give you inflated numbers.
In some cases you may have to dig a little deeper to see what you find inside the numbers. Consider, for example, the number of government universities in the country that the TPLF officials and cadres often mention as one great achievement and success story. According to official statistics the number of universities has grown to more than 1000%, a fabulous number on its face. In fact, I personally considered it worthy of praise until I talked to professional educators from Addis Ababa University several months ago. One of the professors I met summed it up for me. He told me that the growth figures issued by the government are right if they are telling you about the number of establishments. He said that the buildings, built mostly by foreign aid, are good landmarks, but if you want to know the actual number of universities in the country that fulfill basic definitions, there is only half a university in the whole country now and that too is in a free fall. He said the only half a university in Ethiopia now is the old Addis Ababa University and told me stories of destruction some of which border on the criminal and people like Endrias Eshete are doing a wonderful job of it. “Of course, some of the better faculties such as the School of Medicine are busy producing doctors for the United States”, my old friend quipped. But none of us laughed. Cruel facts like our destitute people suffering from treatable diseases paying to educate doctors for the richest country in the world is no laughing matter. So, don’t let these numbers fool you. Your 1000% growth may come down this cheap.
Oftentimes lie making is such a modus operandi that Meles and his institutions live by that, in some cases, they even lie about things that should not be lied about. Why is it hard, for example, to tell us the number of soldiers who died in the two year war in Somalia? Why is it that we don’t honor the poor soldiers in public? We still don’t know the number lost during that 18th century type Ethio-Eritran war. The Eritrean side to its credit has given the number of its dead. After all these soldiers have given the ultimate price for what they believe is their country’s cause. A few of us who have seen their bodies being dragged on the streets of Somalia on YouTube videos have cried for them. Ok, Meles and Bereket can keep the lie that “we have fulfilled our mission in Somalia” in their pockets. What is wrong with telling the people, even the rubber stamp parliament, how many of our citizens have paid the ultimate price for their country?
These kinds of lying with numbers are, of course, techniques as old as dictatorship itself. We often cut dictators a lot of slack for lying on a myriad of items. But the lie about matters of life and death, such as these economic numbers, which have become too common in Ethiopia, is like spitting in the face of the millions of starving and physically emaciated children who even lack the energy to chase the flies off their beautiful faces.
You may ask why lying by governments has become such a fair game in Ethiopia even as it costs lives. The answer is simple. People like Meles and Mengistu Hailemariam are blessed with a complete absence of accountability and a general public that traditionally defer much to authority. As long as you can command the gun, as long as you are not afraid of losing the next election or you have no religion and a God to answer to, who do you have to fear? You can mow down peaceful demonstrators and call them hooligans, as Bereket Simon once said or label some terrorists if they try to do exactly the same thing Meles did against Mengistu. They kill other people’s poor children and raise their children in luxury without any moral qualms. The absence of any accountability and morality emboldens them and blocks their head and helps them do more of the same. How do you think Bereket Simon copes to live his lying life as an Amhara and as a representative of Amharas without losing a single sleep or a slight moral dilemma when he is very well aware that the entire world around him knows that he was born to two Eritrean parents?
There is one scary thing about the lie business by dictators we all have to be wary about. These people believe their own lies as true at some point during the life of the lie. I remember once, some eight years ago, when Meles said that the closure of the port of Assab and the fact that the country is landlocked “will not do us five cents worth of harm” (wodebu bemezegatu amist santim anigodam). I watched his demeanor as he was telling this bull. He seemed to believe it and nobody has since asked him to check this statement against the backbreaking cost the poor country has to bear for the government of Djibouti.
With the world economic crisis hitting hard and the smoke screen unraveling, Meles Zenawi seems to lose his lie making rhythms these days. Sometime in October of 2008 he told us that Ethiopia’s economy will not be affected by the global financial meltdown. A few weeks ago he rang a panic alarm and told African leaders the continent is going to jump off the cliff. Some weeks letter he gave us the double digit growth numbers. He is telling the G20 in London this same thing as I write this.
Inside the country he is issuing one draconian law after another to stamp out any opposition and alternative to his dictatorship. The number of draconian decrees being issued and others sitting in the pipeline are terrorizing. Hard currency reserve has dried up so much even factories like Coca-Cola have already closed down. International beggary is becoming increasingly difficult: the competition is tough when everyone is asking for a bailout. God knows who will cover Meles’s projected budget. A country pledging to export electricity is now rationing power to its city residents. Many Ethiopians who are asked to buy bonds with hard currency from the Ethiopian Electric power Authority are telling the agents to look for some fools. People are suffering. Families are feeding their children in shifts. Mr. Bush is no more here. As the avenue to peaceful change is closing more and more Ethiopians are being convinced that they have to pick guns and fight for their freedom. The military could run out of toys.
I have no reason to suspect that Meles doesn’t want his exaggerated growth figures to be real. I can only prove my belief if he shows us that he realizes the only shot the country has at getting out of poverty is only by the use of the tools of democracy and some unclenching of his fist. Progress in Ethiopia is unthinkable without resolving the simmering conflicts in the country and unleashing the potential of all the children of the country. I just heard Meles asking the IMF in London to sell some of its gold reserves to help Africa weather the current crisis. The fact of the matter is that even the entire gold reserve of the IMF cannot do the trick. Only free people who can unleash their innovative and creative ability, their altruism and love of country can progress a nation. You can’t kill and oppress your way to development even if you own all the gold in the world. Nobody did it before.
Meles Zenawi and his cronies may be forced to account one day one way or the other for any danger they plunge the country into and the suffering they caused. Those of us who watch this looming disaster with folded hands and complacency will also be fooling ourselves if we think we can stay unaccountable and can give excuses for scapegoat. We need to do everything we can, come together, have reason dictate our goals than egomania, make some sacrifice and fight and change our country.