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Ethiopia’s progress and zeal

By Jacey Fortin in Addis Ababa
Posted on Thursday, 2 April 2015 10:26

From his hilly vantage point out- side the major city of Adama, Lema Mangesha can look in any direction and watch his country developing.

Local agricultural officials have lied about reports

Over the past 10 years, the 42-year-old farmer has seen new electrical lines strung up over his land.

He has witnessed the construction of three nearby factories: one for metal, one for cement and one for tyres.

His northern horizon is dominated by a wind farm erected about two years ago.

But while some of his neighbours have got jobs at the new factories, Lema still cultivates teff, barley and wheat.

Despite the power lines that criss-cross his fields, his home is not connected to the national grid. “Development has brought changes,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s enough.”

With official annual economic growth rates averaging about 10% during the past decade, Ethiopia is pooling every available resource to invest in roads, railways and industrial zones.

It boasts Africa’s largest airline, is working on Africa’s biggest dam and is about to complete its first urban light rail system in Addis Ababa.

Expansion as encroachment

Ethiopia is an overwhelmingly rural country, and Lema is among the 80% of Ethiopians who live outside of urban areas.

And like most rural dwellers, he comes from a family of smallholders.

The slow creep of development has hemmed him in on all sides, and the two hectares he works will not be enough to split between his three children. “When a person has a family, he has to expand his property. There’s no way for us to do that,” Lema complains.

In Africa’s second-most populous country, the government’s ambitions go far beyond gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Broad-based development is at the heart of its plans.

Officials also talk of reclaiming Ethiopia’s status as one of the world’s most advanced civilizations, a legacy that goes back to the Axumite empire and continues into modern times, when Ethiopia was the only African country to repel European colonial armies.

Today, the ruling party pursues modernisation with a relentless drive and authoritarian tools. But the results of its efforts are clear.

Growth has been relatively inclusive, and Ethiopia has achieved its Millennium Development Goals of halving poverty and reducing child mortality by two-thirds.

There are also mega-projects: capital-intensive ventures that aim to meet the infrastructure needs as fast as possible, even if it means going into debt.

“There is this conviction among outsiders that Ethiopia is poor and cannot fund such huge projects,” says state finance minister Abraham Tekeste.

“The figures we have for the last three years show that Ethiopia is still poor and the majority of people are still struggling, but still they can really save and postpone consumption for a very good cause.”

When it comes to electricity, for instance, he says just over 50% of households have access.

But Ethiopia’s generation capacity of 2,300MW will get a huge boost when the Grand Renaissance Dam – financed by citizens’ bond buying, electricity sales and local borrowing – comes online in a few years to add another 6,000MW to the grid.

In a bid to emulate the ‘Asian tigers’ that dominate global manufacturing, Ethiopia is constructing several industrial zones to attract foreign corporations.

“Manufacturing is top of the agenda as far as the government is concerned,” says state industry minister Mebrahtu Meles, pointing out that the resulting exports will bring a much-needed boost to Ethiopia’s foreign-currency reserves.

In this and other sectors, he adds, it is up to the government to lead the way until the private sector is capable of taking over: “Today, unfortunately, so-called demand and supply, or the invisible hand if you like, does not work. Ethiopia is emerging. It’s a new, infant economy, so we have to make sure that gaps will not be there.”

When it comes to agriculture, the government’s programmes include a call centre where farmers can get advice.

The ruling party also knows the value of social ties. It uses favoured farmers like Gadisa Gobena, 65, as exemplars.

On the 400ha under his control out- side the central town of Ambo, Gadisa grows certified hybrid seeds for sale.

“Only about 20% of farmers here are using certified seed,” he says. “We are very behind.” Gadisa also supports a government programme called five- to-one, where farmers form quintets to assist and monitor each other. It helps them adopt best practices, he says.

“With five men in one group, even a man who doesn’t use certified seed is forced to.”

Mobilising citizens

The five-to-one programme is in line with the government’s concept of a ‘developmental army’, whereby citizens are recruited to implement government policies.

For Adama resident Lema and many others like him, the project has been beneficial. But the groupings also serve another purpose: “The five-to-one leader forwards party information to us. We don’t debate it because it comes from a higher level,” he explains.

Ethiopia’s ability to mobilise its citizens it what sets the country apart, says Tewodros Hagos, head of politics for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

“Ethiopia doesn’t have much money. We cannot do soil and water conservation programmes without voluntary
participation of the peasant,” he says, referring to projects done in Tigray using ‘developmental army’ principles. “Ultimately, people know they will benefit.”

The TPLF is the ruling party in the northern region of Tigray.

Outside the organisation’s headquarters in Mekelle, loud music memorialises fighters who helped overthrow the Derg military administration in 1991.

Key figures like late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and influential deputy premier Debretsion Gebremichael were among the masterminds of that revolutionary struggle.

Today, Tigrayans are often accused of dominating Ethiopian politics – something Tewodros dismisses as “propaganda”.

The ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is a multi-ethnic grouping of four parties representing each of the county’s main regions.

Ethiopia’s foreign minister Tedros Adhanom describes a “change of mind- set” in government just as he was becoming the state minister of health in 2004.

Officials decided not to let limited resources thwart their ambitions, he says. Instead, they would set high goals and then work with international partners to find funding along the way.

It was “really thinking big, believing that you can do things differently,” he says. “That kind of mentality was really the paradigm shift.”

But critics say that the EPRDF’s single-mindedness leaves no room for debate.

The country’s outer edges are home to many semi-pastoralist communities.

Their lifestyles are endangered by mega-projects like sugar plantations in north-eastern Afar and irrigation schemes in the southern Omo, both of which require resettlement into villages for what the government assumes will be a more productive way of life.

Journalists imprisoned

“Eventually, the lifestyle is going to change,” says the TPLF’s Tewodros of pastoralism, adding that any relocation is voluntary.

“They have their resources. Is it not good to encourage them to use their resources instead of others coming and using it? Is that a crime?”

Long-simmering conflicts in other regions – like the Ogaden, populated mostly by ethnic Somalis, and Gambela, where Nuers and Anuaks jostle for dominance – make these outer reaches even more difficult for Addis to control.

Human rights concerns are not limited to the peripheries.

In Africa, Ethiopia is second only to Eritrea in the number of journalists imprisoned.

The 2005 elections delivered disputed gains to an opposition coalition and resulted in a fatal crackdown on demonstrators.

Today, Girma Seifu of the opposition party Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), the lone opposition member in a parliament of 547, says the government is not remotely serious about allowing a multi-party democracy or even permitting EPRDF coalition members to deviate from the script.

“This is a unitary country,” he says. “And these people are very inefficient, even though they have been around for 24 years. They are still learning by doing, and they are unable to produce human capital. You see the same faces from 24 years ago.”

A national vote is approaching in May. Girma says he will not run again because the election board has dismantled the UDJ by recognising a fringe member as its leader and police have barred the doors to the party’s main office.

With the government all but certain to retain power for at least the next five years, officials say that they recognise the importance of protecting their founding ideals.

Corruption is an oft-cited threat to the EPRDF’s efficacy, but Tewodros says all of the regional parties combat this through constant self-evaluation.

There is also a problem of credibility. In its zeal for meeting production targets, officials have been known to exaggerate reports of progress.

This leads to inconsistencies: agricultural productivity claims that raise eyebrows, resettlement schemes that fail to deliver on services promised and factories that are commissioned despite technical problems.

Economic figures are also suspect, and the International Monetary Fund has disagreed with Ethiopia’s GDP growth figures for years.

Pressure to meet targets

Hailemichael Gebreselassie, a 30-year-old TPLF member employed by the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, says these failures are the not the fault of the party but of lower-level officials who feel pressure to meet targets.

“Local agricultural officials have lied about reports,” he says while sipping coffee at a pavement cafe in Mekelle.

“Last year, they were given a budget to dig wells for irrigation. They reported to their superiors that they had already finished, but they hadn’t done it.”

He has also seen first hand how projects like the Grand Renaissance Dam have sapped credit for private enterprises at his local branch of the state-owned bank and how budgeted funds are sometimes siphoned off to pay for personal expenses.

“That doesn’t mean you give up on the party,” he adds. “We should discuss these things to make it better.”

The government’s plans and mega-projects will continue to encroach the livelihoods of people like Lema, who knows his small farm in Adama is becoming increasingly inadequate as the years go by.

But he says he is thankful for plenty of things that have appeared over the past decade: new wells for clean water, a health centre nearby and schools for his children to attend.

Those children are already taking work on larger farms and in the city.

“People who are deep party members know more about what is being done,” he says of the government’s developmental ambitions.

“From my perspective, from the outside, all I know is that this place looks better than it did before.” ●

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