4 April 2015

Ethiopia: Success Marred By Challenges

Photo: Addis Fortune
Hailemariam Desalegn Ethiopia's Prime Minister.

As election campaign heats up, political parties are coming out with their election manifestos and alternatives in the hopes of winning over the vote of more than 37 million registered voters.

As varied as the ideologies the parties advocate, so do the alternatives offered by these political parties. However, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has discarded issuing an election manifesto as a campaign strategy, writes Mikias Sebsibe.

Although 58 political parties are contesting in the fifth general elections, only handfuls have, so far, issued a manifesto. The Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum a.k.a. Medrek and Semayawi (Blue) Party, opposition parties often criticized for not offering real alternatives, make up the small band of political parties who have made their declarations known through the manifestos they issued in the past month.

Bold promises and ambitious goals have been the characteristics of the few manifestos opposition parties have issued. Democracy and human rights, ethnic federalism, peace and security, the role of the private sector in the economy and unemployment mark-up as the prime issues political parties address in their campaigns and manifestos.

The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) falls among those parties without an election manifesto. There is no surprise there, however, as EPRDF never have issued an election manifesto in the past four elections as well. When asked about the party's manifesto, officials and members of the ruling coalition alike proudly proclaim that "EPRDF is a party of action, not promises".

The party is banking on its track record and its achievements over the past ten years. And hence voters are counted on to extend the EPRDF's mandate to achieve more of the same. In the televised election debates, EPRDF officials close their argument with the phrase "vote for EPRDF to ensure the continuity of Ethiopia's renaissance".

"Instead of promise, our campaign will focus on showing the concrete achievements," Desta Tesfaw, head of EPRDF's external relations, told The Reporter. But where does the party stand on the specific issues that matter to voters?

Democracy and human rights

As much as the ruling EPRDF is praised for the successes in the country's economic growth, the government and by extension the party, takes a lot of stick domestically and internationally on issues of human rights and democracy.

It is constantly at loggerheads with international human rights institutions and activists such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Auckland Institute, Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House and Article 19. Their allegations range from forced displacement of indigenous people to stifling of political dissents and suppression of freedom of expression and the media.

EPRDF's programs and officials in the top echelon of the party as well as the government repeatedly assert that democracy, just as development, is an existential matter for Ethiopia and that the party is equally committed to both eradicating poverty and nurturing democracy.

"Democracy is not like some fashionable necklace of the day we put on for a show, it is an existential issue for us [EPRDF]," Asmelash Woldesilassie, senior party member and chair of Legal and Justice Administration Standing Committee at the House of Peoples Representative, said in the first round of televised debate on democracy and human rights.

Officials of the party enumerate the democratic and human rights institutions set up to make a case of their commitment to issues of human right and democracy.

But the independence of these institutions, including the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia and the judiciary, are often challenged. Some within the ruling party recognize the flaws in the full implementation of human and democratic rights enshrined in the constitution.

"Ours is a young democracy with only 24 years of history and so there are challenges. But we have come a long way in just a short period," Redwan Hussein, minister of government communications affairs office, also said during the debate.

As much as the EPRDF would like all to believe that the party is committed to democracy, many disagree. In the televised debate, Yilikal Getinet (Eng.), chairman of Semayawi Party, described the nature of Ethiopia's democracy as "pseudo democracy".

In a November 2013 interview with The Reporter, Tiruneh Zena (Amb.), chief commissioner of Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), alluded that the government's priority lies in bringing about development than human rights and democracy.

Observers say, the anti-terrorism proclamation, freedom of the mass media and access to information proclamation, civil societies and charities proclamation and electoral laws - all enacted after the disputed 2005 election - have restricted the political space and weakened the opposition camp.

For some, the laws are testament to the fact that the country's democratic path went downhill following the 2005 general elections during which the ruling EPRDF lost hundreds of seats in parliament. Such restrictions, they say, could force disgruntled electorates to give their votes to the opposition camp. And many of the major opposition political parties have been promising that they would either revoke or amend these legislations which they blame for the narrowing of the political space.

Ethnic federalism and stability

For over two decades, the issue of ethnic federalism has always remained a hot and dividing topic in election debates in Ethiopia. There are parties who want to build on and refine the ethnic-based federalism and there are others who want to scrap it for a system of federation on the basis of geography and administrative ease.

For EPRDF, ethnic-based federalism has ensured the country's stability and unity but for others the system deployed now in place is divisive. Opposition parties vow to go to the extent of amending the part of the FDRE constitution which grants regional states the right to cessation.

But EPRDF believes the federal system has not only ensured the country remains stable in an otherwise restive region but also laid the foundation "for all the success" it has achieved so far.

"The federal system has prevented the country from disintegration and we are now witnessing a sustained economic growth," Kassa Teklebirhan, speaker of House of Federation, said during a second round televised debate on federalism.

But the opposition warn that the current state of stability is only fragile.

In the first round televised debate, Merera Gudina (PhD), head of external relation at Medrek, listed down armed groups in Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz regions currently fighting the government to showcase that federal system is not accommodating enough.

Clashes with ethnic fervor in SNNP, Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz regions in recent years, has put the question of stability and ethnic federalism firmly on the agenda during this election. But for EPRDF these clashes have little to do with the ethnic-based federal system. According to Abadula Gemeda, speaker of House of Peoples' Representatives, the clashes are more to do with lack of good governance than a case of ethnic conflicts.

Private sector development

As the country's economy continues to register a double-digit growth consistently over the past decade according to government figures, the share of the private sector in the process is still insignificant. EPRDF's state-led growth model has received much praise for the success, but a thriving private sector is yet to emerge. The telecom sector is under government monopoly and the banking and insurance sector is closed for foreign companies.

And the government is adamant that there will be no change to such restrictions in the near future. But beyond that, the reach of state owned companies is growing bigger and experts say that is crowding out the private sector.

One such example is the state owned Metals and Engineering Corporation (MetEC), a military industrial complex with burgeoning business activities. Although the corporation takes some private businesses under its wings to undertake government contracts, others private players are finding it difficult to compete against MetEC.

The government's move to enter the wholesale market of consumable goods by establishing ALLE, a state-owned cash-and-carry wholesaler of consumer goods, did not also go down well with the giants in the private sector. The wholesaler, whose current focus is on expansion, expects to take 30 percent of the market share by 2018. Price hikes and unfair competition were cited as reasons for the government's decision to venture in the wholesale business.

On top of these, various studies have indicated that the country's private sector is facing challenges such as shortage of foreign exchange, limited access to financial capital, long lead to import and export due to poor logistical infrastructure and bureaucratic hurdles.

Multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been constantly warning the government that the country's growth momentum will slow due to constraints to the private sector. And those in the business community would expect the ruling EPRDF to respond to their woes.

Unemployment

According to data from the Central Statistics Agency (CSA), the urban unemployment rate currently stands at 12.5 percent, one of the lowest in decades. But for a nation among the world's top 14 in workforce (45.6 million), the number of unemployed in urban areas remains large.

Whilst agriculture employs the largest share of the workforce particularly in the rural area, the booming construction sector across the country is providing jobs for urbanites. The sector employs some ten percent of the workforce largely due to the massive road constructions, railway projects, sugar factories and housing development projects.

Some of these projects also brought on board small and micro enterprise. EPRDF claims the credit for reducing the rate of unemployment and through the state-owned media outlets has professed the success of projects like cobblestone roads. Indeed, the cobblestone projects have offered job opportunities to thousands of people.

But the PR campaign that followed backfired as individuals with second degrees in fields of studies distant from unskilled works like cobblestone laying were seen toiling with stones and sand - highlighting the state of underemployment and lack of jobs.

The mere mention of the word 'cobblestone' by Junedin Sado, former minister of civil service, in a speech during a 2012 graduation ceremony at Addis Ababa University was met with huge boos by graduating students.

Hence observers say, providing jobs to an estimated 5.5 million jobless urbanites, who are in the electorate age group, should be placed among the priorities of the ruling party. Details aside, the ruling party is betting on the Growth and Transformation Plan II, currently under preparation, to offer millions of jobs through the massive state-led infrastructure projects espoused.

Ed.'s Note: Solomon Goshu of The Reporter has contributed to this story.

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