If I were the president – an essay on aspiration and hope for Ethiopia

Aklog Birara (Dr.)

A few months before I retired from the World Bank, Ethiopian Review, one of my favorite Ethiopian Websites asked me and other Ethiopian scholars and prominent individuals what 10 things they would do immediately if they are elected president or prime minister of Ethiopia.

Below is what I submitted that my good friend, a Vice President at the World Bank, Mr. James Adams, cited at my retirement celebration party almost a decade ago. The themes are as relevant today as they were then.

“Ethiopia has a glorious history spanning over three thousand years. It is endowed with untapped and enormous natural resources, a wealth of diverse human capital, and varied cultural heritages that come from more than 80 ethnic groups. These potential assets convey a bright future for the country and its diverse population. The world community knows more about recurring famine than these substantial natural resource and human assets.

The country’s poverty is largely human made and can be corrected by the Ethiopian people. The question is how?

If I had the privilege of serving the Ethiopian people as a leader, I will initiate the following ten things as part of a process to harness the country’s natural and human resource capital with the objective of creating a solid institutional foundation for rapid, equitable and inclusive development in which everyone will be involved in and would benefit. My primary emphasis will be institution building and sustained participation of the Ethiopian people in building an integrated, mutually supportive and collaborative multi-national society.

  1. I will call for a series and well-coordinated national conferences under the theme: Visioning Peace, Reconciliation, Harmony, Shared Growth and Development for the Ethiopian People. I will structure these conversational conferences demographically, with top-notch Ethiopian facilitators capable of energizing and enabling participants to talk to one another and to their government officials directly.
  2. a) Wise elders (women and men) from each region vetted and nominated by their communities.
  3. b) Youth representatives from secondary schools, colleges and universities vetted and nominated by their peers.
  4. c) Girls and women from a cross-section of social and nationality groups.
  5. d) Representatives of different college and university faculties throughout the country.
  6. e) Representatives of business groups from all sectors and trades.
  7. f) Representatives of faith groups.
  8. g) Representatives of all political parties.

Each session will seek to stimulate open and frank conversations on vision for the future of the country, with special attention on the type of:

  • geopolitical configuration of a multi-ethnic modern nation,
  • a political system with accountability to citizens that they feel they deserve,
  • an economic and social system that will harness peoples’ potential to the maximum,
  • the education model they wish to see as part of the modernization process,
  • the kind of complementarities and partnerships among the state, domestic private sector and foreign direct investment economic actors they want to see,
  • their views and perceptions concerning the role of the Diaspora,
  • options with regard to regional trade and economic integration and potential benefits that they feel would serve them and the country better.

Findings will be distilled and shared with all of the Ethiopian people, and will serve as discussion points with Ethiopian political parties.

  1. Ethiopia has always been run by strong persons or parties and not by institutions. The second priority for me will be to establish and confirm that all Ethiopian government institutions are and will be totally independent and free from political parties and ethnicity, durable and serve the needs of all of the Ethiopian people regardless of change in government. These will include the judiciary, military establishment, election board, civil service, all ministries and other key institutions.

I will staff these institutions with the best and most competent and diverse individuals in the country and will ensure that each key official is accountable to the public and serves as a model for the rest of her/his team. These institutions will be totally de-politicized and de-ethnicized and will generate trust and confidence among citizens as the bedrock of Ethiopian society.

  1. Ethiopian society has, for long, suffered from the absence of the rule of law and a political mechanism that ensures government accountability and integrity to citizens. The Ethiopian people deserve an effective and competent government capable of addressing the structural, policy, technological and cultural barriers that keep the Ethiopian people among the poorest in the world and the country among the ten least developed.

To do this, the government must be ready and willing to carryout needed reforms. An effective government is fundamental in the 21st century.  A government cannot be effective unless it subjects itself to the same rules and regulations as the rest of society. Transparency and effectiveness in serving citizens occur when government officials are governed by the rule law, and when the political process is subject to public decisions that come from periodic fair, free, open, transparent and competitive elections.

I will make sure that my government is held accountable for proper and ethical use of all public budgetary resources, including foreign aid.  I will set-up an independent board consisting of representatives from segments of society identified in bullet one above to monitor and disclose to the public the extent to which the government is free from any form of corruption.  Anyone identified as corrupt will be held accountable to the full extent of the law and will be removed from official responsibilities and will be required to recompense.

  1. I will convene a ministerial retreat with the most credible technical and professional advisors to review, assess and prepare a short, medium and long-term socioeconomic plan identifying key sector, program and investment priorities with the objective of meeting the immediate and urgent economic and social services needs of the Ethiopian people ; present a road map and provide active government leadership in establishing Agric-based manufacturing and industrial capacity in sectors and sub-sectors in which the country has a comparative advantage; establish a transparent, open and stimulating regulatory framework and environment for the domestic private sector, including the Diaspora, to participate effectively; encourage foreign investors to form partnerships with Ethiopian entrepreneurs on a mutually beneficial basis; and negotiate with foreign governments to reduce trade barriers and to open up their markets to Ethiopian exporters and urge countries.
  2. I will ensure that all ministers and other key government officials are information technology friendly and savvy. The Internet is one of the most democratizing and enabling technologies in the world today. The Ethiopian people deserve to have access to and optimal use of the Internet and other technologies to improve their lives. It is a vital tool to gain knowledge, information, markets and networks. It is indispensable for our society.

One of my government’s priorities will be to make the internet available to all schools, and to implement a low-cost internet system for use by millions of Ethiopians throughout the country.  I will seek financing for this program from foreign foundations and the Diaspora.

My government will approach government and non-government organizations, foundations and academic institutions familiar with the technology and persuade them to provide technical guidance and expertise in launching the technology to Ethiopian conditions and culture. I intend to make this key to my development agenda.

  1. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) of 1999 had offered riparian states an opportunity to share the waters of the Nile equitably and fairly to advance their economies. Ethiopia has a legitimate right to utilize a substantial part of the waters that originate from its lands. My government will take the initiative to call on member states of the Nile Basin Initiative to implement the agreed protocol urgently. A major priority of my government will be to use Ethiopia’s water resources to the fullest by building irrigation systems and hydroelectric power for industrial use and for rural and urban electrification.

Implementation of the Nile Basin Initiative will be part of my government’s strategy.

  1. Ethiopia is among the most aid dependent countries in the world, with total aid this year amounting to over US$ 2 billion and remittances estimated between US$2 to US$2.5 billion per annum. It is not entirely clear from the evidence gathered that the Ethiopian people are getting the maximum value from these resources. There is every indication that the majority of citizens do not have any clue how funds are used and the economic and social priorities for which they are used. For example, the country continues to suffer from food insecurity. There are indications of inadequate or no social services in health, sanitation, safe drinking water, access to education for certain segments of society, including girls and remote communities. There is a high level of disparity and inequality in the provision of services. The almost paternalistic type of top-down government model has not responded to the needs of the population.

In light of this, I plan to invite the most experienced and competent Ethiopians with knowledge and experience in development to review aid effectiveness and come up with a set of recommendations that will optimize all aid resources with a view of strengthening productivity, self-reliance and the growth of the domestic private sector. These recommendations will be shared with the Ethiopian people and with the donor community. (Please note that the data and set of recommendations were a decade ago and remain sound today).

  1. I will invite all political parties, including those outside the country, to a national round table dialogue session to discuss and reach a consensus on the critical problems facing the country and on the potential options going forward. Political parties cannot simply go on accusing one another and not hold themselves accountable for solutions. I will use data from 1 above in these sessions as reminders to participants what representatives of the Ethiopian people hope, aspire and expect from their government and from political parties. I will use the sessions as a mechanism to persuade the 90 plus political parties to consolidate themselves to three or four, and to move from ethnic-based political processes to national-based political competition.
  2. I will organize a truly free, fair, open, transparent and competitive election with domestic and international observers throughout the country. I will devote budgetary resources to allow sufficient air time for all political parties to use the state media to debate and to share their visions for the country unencumbered. (Please note that COVID-19 has changed this recommendation substantially; but the emphasis remains intact).
  3. I will establish an expert group to study and review the land tenure system and come-up with a set of reform proposals that will enable Ethiopia to achieve food self-sufficiency within 15 years and expand its Agric-based manufacturing, industrial and export potential. The expert group will be asked to examine various options from best practices around the globe, taking Ethiopia’s history, culture and development practices and limitations into account. This same group will be asked to assess the conditions, benefits, costs and potential damages to communities and the environment of land leases approved by the previous government, with a view of renegotiating the terms and conditions so that affected communities and the Ethiopian people would gain from the agreements.”

Ethiopia’s core institutional challenges remain the same. I still urge the Government of Ethiopia and opposition parties and civil society to use the current constitutional crisis as a window of opportunity to change the paradigm of thinking; focus energy on national themes; and arrive at a national consensus concerning change of the ethnic-based constitution so that Ethiopia joins the family of prosperous nations in the not-too distant future.

Email address & designation from an economist with the World Bank to former Senior Advisor, World Bank, abt.semegn@gmail.com and no longer abirara@yahoo.com



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