One more unifying chance goes down the drain

By Fekade Shewakena / July 06, 2011

Think about this for a minute.  There is a maddening paradox in Ethiopia. There is an abundance of river waters and harvestable rain in Ethiopia that is more than sufficient to feed all Ethiopians.   Yet, the country is home to famine, widespread hunger, severe malnutrition and perennial dependence on international food handout.  Believe it or not, there is no country in the world which is rich in agricultural resources and obscenely poor and hungry at the same time as Ethiopia.  A study on a river basin development made in Ethiopia in the early 1960s with the help of Americans (the US Bureau of Land Reclamation), speaks of no less than one hundred sites naturally suited for tapping hydro eclectic power and huge irrigation potential that allow multiple harvesting of crops in a given year in the Blue Nile basin alone.    Add the eastern river basins – the Shebelle and Ghenale.   Then compare this to the tragic reality that we are currently using only a minuscule fraction of this potential - less than 4%.  More than 90% of our energy (fuel) comes from burning wood and destroying fast dwindling vegetation which worsens the agro-climatic situation.   It looks like the reason we have no petroleum in Ethiopia is the anger of our gods at our failure to use the clean sources of energy that they so generously gave us.   The famous saying in Ethiopia “ያባይን ልጅ ውሀ ጠማው” (the child of Abbay going thirsty) is not a metaphor.    This is a maddening reality.  Like it or not, if you are an Ethiopian, you have a badge of shame you are carrying on your shoulder for failing to change this reality.

If for one reason or another you have lost your sense of shame, try the part of the brain that elicits scare and see this.   Ethiopia is undergoing a huge population growth which is expected to double within the next twenty to twenty five years.  More mouths than we are able to feed are coming every day.  If it keeps growing at current rates, as it most likely will, scary times are waiting ahead.   If current realities of Ethiopia’s economic conditions and poverty do not change and change soon, the future of the country is in serious peril.   Time is of the essence here.  You must be crazy if you think we can beg our way out of this trouble.   Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, poverty is not declining in Ethiopia.  Not even a bit.  It is, in fact, on the rise.  The number of destitute poor people is increasing in both absolute number and relative terms.  The growth numbers often publicized by the government, even if you don’t believe they are exaggerated, do not relate to the reality on the ground.  

 The recent growth in construction and transport infrastructure is helpful.  There is no question about that.  But if you are confusing it with change in the wellbeing of the people and development in itself, you are making a big mistake.   Don’t  forget that public infrastructures are only as good as the arteries in your body through which your blood is supplied to your entire body.  If your body does not produce blood, these arteries on their own will not save you from dying.  Unless you create wealth by producing or manufacturing, innovating or extracting actual products for sale and consumption in meaningful size and use the infrastructure to move them from areas of production to areas of consumption, they mean little.  

If you cut though a lot of the propaganda bull coming out of Ethiopia, what you see is the old poverty perpetuating structural problems of the Ethiopian economy still persisting. A land holding system that has been proven a failure under the dergue and in many other countries is still intact.  Farming in Ethiopia is as predominantly subsistence as it has always been.  Massive population pressure on farmland continues unabated.  Land parceling and environmentally dangerous cultivation of marginal lands is increasingly pushing the country to the brink.  Over most of Ethiopia, famine and serious hunger are only one drought season away. If you believe the current land sale to foreign agribusinesses is going to help dig Ethiopia out of her poverty, you will also believe to see flying pigs in your lifetime.  These are not different from the colonial plantations that pillaged Africans to the bone.  In moral equivalence, it is the same as forcing your mother, sister or wife to carry a surrogate child for a perfect stranger for the price of less than half a meal a day.    Even some productivity increase in agriculture due to the use of chemical fertilizers is at the cost of the future.  If what happened in East Asia is any guide, a lot of the farmland that we are cultivating with chemical fertilizers is going to be depleted shortly.  Chemicalization of agricultural land is extremely dangerous if you make intensive use of it for more than a decade. The Asians, to their credit, saved themselves by moving to manufacturing quickly.  Now they sell products they manufacture and buy their food.  They are also roaming in Africa looking for farmlands to buy.   If you hope the next generation will innovate its way out of this problem, you are hoping against hope.   The kind of education in the country does not promise that.  Do not also forget that, whatever growth we see in some sectors of the economy, is largely a result of massive international aid than wealth internally created.  

The only reason that we don’t see famine in Ethiopia today on the scales that we saw in 1984 is simply because we beg the international community early enough.   The aid dependent safety net program also serves as the ICU and keeps people breathing.   Even as I write this heart-wrenching pictures of famine from Ogaden, are hitting TV and computer screens around the world.     This is a preview of what you may most likely see in vulnerable areas if aid agencies walk away from the area for a few months.  That is what seem is happening to over 3 million people in the Ogaden and Borena areas as we speak.  This only shows how, if we don’t get foreign food aid right now in 2011, people would be dying like flies as they did in 1984.  In other words, if all foreign aid suddenly stops today, we may be looking at a disaster of epic proportions.  This is where Ethiopia is sitting on - the edge of the abyss. 

I bring up these gloomy realities not because I even like to talk about it.  Frankly speaking, my normal reaction to the thought of it is to try to run away from it. I have traumatic experiences of seeing people under real famine that keeps haunting me to this day.  I talk about it here only and only to underscore the magnitude of the country’s problems and how it needs a strong, united, and massive joining of hands of all Ethiopians across all kinds of social and political divides.  It is because I want to emphasize the need for creating a social and political environment where every single one of us can patriotically, passionately and willingly participate and change our shameful reality together.  I want everyone to see how the criminalization of political opposition and dissent in our country stands opposite to the kind of tolerance and democratic setting that getting out of poverty requires.   The history of all countries that have emerged out of poverty successfully, or those who have beaten adversity, some of which are even considered as models for Ethiopia by Meles Zenawi, shows that they have first succeeded in creating a social and political environment that helped them pull all their human and natural resources and remove destabilizing social and political conflicts. 

The proposed dam building on the Abbay River, with all the substantive, political and technical questions surrounding it, carries with it a good opportunity to bring Ethiopians together.  Generations of Ethiopians have been gnashing our teeth for failing to use our rivers while others turn it into fortune.   The ambition to dam Abbay is not a new discovery.  Even our rulers of the medieval times thought about it.  The reason we are not able to use it has to do with our poverty than the colonial relic the Egyptians call a treaty that gives them exclusive use.  Truth of the matter is that we are not going to significantly affect Egypt or Sudan if we use as much as 20% of the water in the Blue Nile Basin.   But this is huge in terms of making a difference in changing our poverty situation.   But doing so required all kinds of resources, stability, and a war  and conflict free time in Ethiopia and a political leadership that gives priority to fighting poverty.

The thing a healthy community needs to do around the proposal of building such a dam would have been to open forums for discussion on how best to accomplish the task, looking for optimal ways of doing it, and entertaining all ideas including disagreements.   The right thing to do if you are a government that comes up with such a big idea is to be persuasive of all people including political opponents.   Instead, what we see is that the government and its supporters are turning it into a dry propaganda circus, in some cases falsely portraying the building of the dam as the end of poverty in Ethiopia.  The relentless, repetitive, dull, and deafening propaganda being presented about this dam is turning as obnoxious as the “we shall cover Ethiopia green” and “we will control nature” propaganda and sloganeering my generation grew up hearing under Mengistu Hailemariam.  Some of the propaganda about this dam laughably looks like the inauguration  of a finished mega dam.

Some of the propaganda work directed at manufactured opponents of the dam building is simply astonishing. If you read this piece by the Public Relations Officer in the Washington DC Embassy of Ethiopia, you will be amazed not only by the street language he uses, but also as to whether he is really interested in persuading members of the community to participate in helping the project.  In his rant, he treats all questions, doubts, suspicions, differences of opinions literally as a crime. His rage, if honest and not made to impress his superiors, make him look like he would kill all critics of the government if he has his way.

All of this gives you indications as to whether there is a serious project plan that exceeds an outline, or any cost analysis or fundraising plans for the Abbay project.  The frantic and haphazard approaches they employ only lends to strengthening the suspicion that this project is here for some political machination and distract a potential rebellion by the Ethiopian people .   If you make some informed analysis, as I tried to do, this dam as proposed will perhaps end up requiring twice as much as the suggested amount of money and time.  I am not only referring to the galloping inflation that has raised the cost by a couple of million dollars since it was announced.  While public contribution for building the dam could be done with relative ease if you are a bit more systematic, we hear sad stories that wretchedly poor people who have difficulty feeding their children and hardly make ends meet are being coerced to contribute money from their meager incomes.  I heard recently how a poor mother of two cleaning lady at a government office in Addis Ababa was tearfully begging her boss to distribute her contribution of one month salary of 400 birr ($24.00) over a two year period.   It is hard to understand why fundraising for a national good has to look more like some kind of schadenfreude.   The potential contribution of the Ethiopian Diaspora, which in my view is capable of covering the entire cost for building the proposed dam, is killed from the start by the way it is handled.  Now the few supporters of the regime, many of them whom are in it to seek help from the government themselves, seem to be the only ones left to contribute.

Ethiopia’s problems as they exist are too big and complex to solve even if all 90 million of us come together and work as one.   The current approach of cracking dissent and opposition cannot help both the political ambitions of the ruling TPLF/EPRDF or solve the entrenched poverty in the country.     While all socioeconomic realities and the mitigation of Ethiopia’s poverty call for more reconciliatory tones and gestures,  and practical need at solving all kinds of contentions and conflicts, the recent decree to label OLF, ONLF and Ginbot 7, as terrorist organizations, and the crackdown that followed are sad indications that the this country has to endure more tragic days ahead.  Development of the kind that Ethiopia needs cannot be accomplished by a military like operation where everybody shuts up, whipped up into frenzy and gets in line.  A simple measure of serious people who are out to fight Ethiopia’s deep rooted poverty is the level of tolerance and persuasiveness they show and a crdibile attempt on their part to create a conducive social and political environment that unites people.  Dictatorship is incompatible with poverty alleviation or sustainable development in this century even if you give it all kinds of good names.

Unleashing Ethiopia’s potential requires serious revision of the economic policies particularly the issue of land together and most importantly expanding the political space.  The current kind of development planning in Ethiopia looks like the work of a farmer who sets his oxen in opposite directions and forces them to pull the plough.  You know you are not going anywhere.  By criminalizing political opposition and political differences in our country and trying to lock the country under one political party and autocratic rule, we are assuring that the abject poverty in Ethiopia is assured a safe and comfortable home. Our children are also assured their inheritance of the badge of shame that we are wearing today.

The writer, Fekade Shewakena, can be reached at