24 February 2013

Ethiopia: Addis Abeba Forfeits Its Future


Our fair city is hosting yet another round of elections. It will be for the purpose of selecting the party that will be responsible for overseeing its future.

But, one should not make any further assumptions about the upcoming vote, for it falls short of presenting an opportunity to choose from a menu of alternatives. It looks as if the popular choice theory has been subject to an Ethiopian revision, which ultimately identifies elections as a gamble between a dominant ruling party and independent candidates.

That is exactly what I have found from my brief review of the list of candidates, pinned to a fence in my neighbourhood. It includes the educational background and working experiences of the candidates. Yet, it is filled with names of people that I am not familiar with, although I have lived in the area for over 20 years.

My bewilderment, however, started when my eyes glanced at the area listing the occupations of the candidates. Disproportionally enough, over 80pc of the candidates are from the small & medium enterprises (SMEs). This certainly came as a shock to me.

For a development professional who has been closely following the SME sector in Ethiopia for the last seven years, the findings show none other than the very politicisation of the institutions that would have created a significant grassroots momentum in poverty reduction. It also shows that the dividing line between the state and the ruling party is becoming more and more blurred with each passing day. It is a saddening trend.

Indeed, Ethiopia's SMEs grapple with many problems - from low capital to poor skill bases - which offer stern challenges to their competitiveness. The lack of flexible assistance from state structures, largely driven by poor political commitment, is one of the major hurdles, which contributes to their long overdue, subpar productive toddling.

Hence, their active participation in the city council election is not surprising. What might raise eyebrows, however, is their overwhelming links to the ruling party.

Two probable scenarios could be made about this relationship. A ruling party, which realises the social base of the institutions, may have used the system that helps create and develop SMES to further its political interest. Or else, SMEs that have rationally calculated the benefits of aligning with the ruling party, may equally have initiated the symbiosis.

A purely developmental programme, such as the establishment and development of SMEs, should have built up enough of a firewall to protect against partisan politics. It should have guaranteed its sustainability by creating market credibility.

That seems to be an edge that SMEs within our fair city are losing. Their eventual paternal relationship with the ruling party might, at some point in time, come back to haunt them.

Another, even more surprising finding in the list of candidates, at least in my neighbourhood, is the disproportional representation of the ruling party and the non-existence of opposition parties. All three of the names without the EPRDF flag were independent candidates.

What choice is there when the only option is a plethora of candidates preaching the same policy lines?

Fellow Addis Abebans have little to contemplate when making a decision in the upcoming election for the choice has already been narrowed down to one. It is indeed saddening that all of the political parties, who congregate at the gates of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to renew their licences each year, have no determination in governing the capital city of our fair nation.

It seems that the election is a lost one, with a winner that is already known at the outset and with losers lacking in names or faces. This is in addition to a public who have been left with an uncertain political future.

Observing this, I could not comprehend my contribution as a voter. I could not rationalise the benefit that my vote would have on the political sphere of Addis Abeba, or indeed, Ethiopia at large.

I felt so hopeless in thinking that my choice had already been made for me. Even my knowledge of the choice theory, the fundamental pillar of modern day economics, could not assist me in this. As much as I was sorry for myself, I felt more hopeless for our fair city.

What future would a city that does not entertain a vibrant marketplace of ideas, policies and political parties have?

Getachew T. Alemu Is the Op-Ed Editor for Fortune.

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