By Yilma Bekele
I am not making this up You can follow the link below and watch the four part video of the leader for life meeting with Ethiopian business leaders. It is a very interesting video. The video is edited and posted on You Tube by Ethiopian TV. I am very grateful. They should be commended for spending all the time and effort to inform the Diaspora. It is true due to censorship, lack of broadband capability, absence of electricity, and computer the Ethiopian people will not be able to access and watch this revealing video anytime they like. I have taken the time and effort and watched it twice.
I wanted to make sure that I stay true to the discussion. Based on that video it is not correct to call it a discussion. It is more like a monologue. It is presented in four parts. Each part is fourteen minutes for a total of fifty-three minutes and fifty-four seconds. In part one a questioner took five minutes and three seconds and a second one was done in one minute and thirty-six seconds. Forty-seven minutes and fifteen seconds are the musings of the great leader for life.
The meeting was a perfect example of what is wrong with our country. It is a big mirror held in front of us so we can really see ourselves. They say ‘you deserve the leaders you get’. That statement is a poster child for Ethiopia. Our tolerance of injustice has bestowed on us a very unjust situation. What happened in that video is acceptable in a Monarchy. It is the rule under Communism. It is normal in a military dictatorship. Ethiopia is none of those. It is billed as a Federal Democratic Republic. The leaders are elected to serve the people. They serve at the will of the people. The question is why is the Ethiopian leader threatening, scolding and demeaning the people he serves?
That is Ethiopia in a nutshell. We got rid of a Monarchy to replace it with a brutal military dictatorship. After considerable loss of life the military Junta was replaced by the victors organized under TPLF. We were told a new era begun. The democratic way was ushered with much fanfare. That was twenty years ago. That video makes it clear that there was a peaceful transition from Mengistu to Meles. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Ato Meles spoke a lot in that meeting. He revealed to us how his brain is wired. He wanted to make it clear to the merchants and thru that meeting to all Ethiopians that not accepting the decree of the great leader for life have consequences. He expressed it beautifully in Amharic. (Beklo maserewan qoretch bilu, lerasua asterech). He actually said that. We are the Beklo and he is the one with the leash or lasso. A very interesting mind set.
I found it very difficult to decide where to start. You see the one-hour video is mostly lies, misinformation and full of distortions. It is not difficult to refute. Thanks to Google you can search any assertion if true or false. Democratic Ethiopia is built on false premises. It is a house built on sand. This time for added measure he brought out two cadres to set the stage for his conclusion. Both made wrong misinformed statements as a foundation and he built his house of cards on that unstable footing.
The first questioner was a perfect specimen of a self-loathing; clueless and void of self esteem Ethiopian. He spoke good Amharic, was dressed perfectly with his matching suit and ties and can BS like no one. He started by insulting our past sprinkling his language with English words for added measure. Unfortunately a lie is a lie uttered in Amharic or English. After degrading our past he concluded by saying the concept of modernism (zemenawi) and free enterprise came with TPLF. He looks like he is in his thirties so he must be a product of the Derg era and came into maturity with the reign of Emperor Meles. He is excused for his ignorance regarding the history of his country and proud ancestors.
To set the record straight free enterprise means the existence of the freedom of private businesses to operate competitively for profit with minimal government regulation. During the Emperors reign I witnessed the practice of incipient free enterprise system in our country. There was a problem of fair distribution of resources but I assure you land was private, supply and demand were at work and the government generally followed hands off approach. The questioner’s Ethiopia is different. The current TPLF regime is the main engine of the economic system. The regime owns all land and leases it to the citizen, controls all major industries outright or using proxies such as EFFORT and is the biggest and baddest employer in the land.
Our questioner is also fond of misinformation knowing that the citizens have no way of verifying his distortion. He said he belongs to the camp that advocates the government’s intervention in price control for basic items such as oil, sugar, soap etc. and mentioned Thailand as an example of a country with such practice. So I Googled Thailand and price control to check his assertion. He did not disappoint me. He was following the good old Ethiopian habit of concluding without facts and using a broad brush to justify saying anything.
You see Thailand used price control on basic items like sugar, rice and oil. That much is true. That is the only thing common with our country. The control in Thailand is to set the price of sugar below international prices. Thailand is the second largest exporter of sugar in the world after Brazil. The government has a quota for internal consumption and export. The problem faced by the Thais is that some exporters cheat and export sugar allocated for the domestic market thus creating shortage. Now the problem faced with our country is a little different. There is no sugar, oil, and wheat because there is not enough internal production. Also we do not have enough foreign reserve to supply the population to meet its basic needs. Furthermore the TPLF regime is using this opportunity to break the back of the small merchants in its attempt to control the market from above. When he waded into pointing out the futility of the regimes attempt to set artificial prices he was cut off.
The second questioner is a rare breed. I have no idea what he was doing there passing himself as a businessman. He is a typical Woyane sitting as a civilian. But he was there and he asked a question. A little bizarre if you ask me. He was asking his boss to please do something because some merchants are insisting on making a maximum profit. Here is what he said:
We fully support the government’s action regarding wheat this past week. The idea that the government is going to distribute 450 thousand quintal of wheat at $490bir per quintal to us and set the price we sell it to the consumer, I am sure will stabilize the price of flour from today on. I guarantee that. What I would like to tell the government is I am sure many of the mills were hording wheat and some who bought it at $400bir are waiting to sell when it hits $900bir and some even stock it for six seven months and we appeal to the government to create a central trading like ECX (commodity exchange) for wheat …… I am sure there is over a million quintal in stock horded by the Flour mills etc…
There you have it the private entrepreneur begging the state to put him on a leash. Only in Revolutionary Democracy Ethiopia can such a theatre take place. And where he got that million quintal only God knows. It is also possible it is a veiled threat to remind them the calamity that has befallen coffee merchants. All this excitement and it is only six minutes into a one-hour presentation.
As I said before The Leader spoke forty-seven minutes and fifteen seconds, at least according to this edited presentation. I believe it will be fair to divide it into two sections and learn from it. The first part will be where The Leader speaks about the failure of the Ethiopian people to grow the economy. The second part will be where he explains the further fine-tuning of the Capitalist system being built by the Government of Ethiopia. This is definitely a first. All eyes are on Ethiopia and The Leader.
I noticed that he speaks very slow and deliberate. Either he wants to make it very clear or he has a very low opinion of his listeners. That is the way most people speak to two year olds. The tone shows that it was more like a lecture than a discussion. It was an upside down situation in that room. They pay his salary and he is threatening them. You would think that he would be nice to them since he wants to be re-elected. He wants their support and cooperation doesn’t he? That is the way it should work in a Democratic setting. You know like employer and employee. If the employee does not like the employer the only option is quitting. On the other hand if the employer does not like the employee firing is best for everybody. In Ethiopia the employee is firing the employer. Go figure that.
Here is Ato Meles in his own words:
The Government is concerned because beyond loss of income it has further meaning. If looked from tax income perspective collected into the National treasury Ethiopia is ranked with Somalia, one cannot compare us with any African country Kenya collects 25% whereas we are less than 10% (pause) under this circumstances the government can only live on alms (pause) this is a big disadvantage (long pause) on the other hand if the issue was just about collecting tax personally I wouldn’t have gotten into this hassle (neterek) I would have no problem in accepting being compared to Somalia. Beyond loss of revenue this has two major consequences. First it negatively affects capital allocation. There are ways of getting out of paying taxes. Manufacturing is one activity where avoiding paying tax is difficult. Even our blind and toothless system will find it by feel. On the other hand businesses like services and construction where taxpaying is lax capital will flow to that. Not getting revenue is a burden we can carry but capital is flowing no growth-oriented direction. Look at Addis. Due to the many buildings people are partying and dancing, they think that is growth and progress on the other hand if only one third has gone to manufacturing it is not difficult to imagine the effect on the country’s growth. Only the Indians, Chinese and Turks are involved in manufacturing. We cannot count on borrowed capital outside capital is not substitute. Unless the pillar of our economy is not ours we will end up being outsiders in our own country. If you ask why more capital is invested in services and construction it is because land is held using bribes and illegal means. If you have enough land you can be very rich if you have buildings you don’t pay rent. If you rent it to the foreigners including Embassy’s you can collect rent outside. Ethiopians hold over $2billion dollars in foreign banks. The burden we can not carry is we are losing the future economic power because our capital is flowing not into growth oriented but to areas that can help avoid paying taxes and the important economy branches are taken over by foreign capitalist. To hide your wealth you involve in high consumption activities Ethiopian Easter, vast amounts spent in big hotels, Ethiopian weddings, Ethiopian memorial services Ethiopian tidbits is comparable to highly developed countries. To save and invest it one thing but money hidden from paying taxes is like gambling money. We are not using our wealth to bring growth. The second thing we are worried about is you can operate like this in the forest. One cannot steal in broad daylight. When there is a forest you not only find Rats and Snakes all kinds of creatures in the forest including Elephants can hide. The forest is black hole to hide wealth. It is difficult to know ownership. Some officials’ steal and when confronted claim the money came from their aunt’s son in America. If we know each individuals income we can get rid of the forest. You can tell who is snake and who is human. In the old system individuals posses more than one business license. Some even register their dogs. Due to these revenue-hiding schemes our corrupt officials were hiding in this big forest thus we cannot cleanse ourselves. If this continues it is only a matter of time before we turn on each other. Where authority is the only means to be wealthy there will no be lasting peace. We can only get rid of corruption when we know each individuals income. The thief will be left naked for all to see. We do not want to involve in search and destroy. Knowing everyone’s income is a solution. Concerning taxes it is a rare exception where correct invoices are submitted. The receipts you submit are automatically suspect. You bring us proof on CD’s. Everybody knows that you can never avoid mistakes when you create CD. No matter how diligent. Our people have a saying. If the Mule cuts off its lasso, it only shortened it for it self. Your cutting the lasso made it shorter for you. We are all hurting.
Let us get something straight before anything is said. The speaker Ato Meles Zenawi has been in charge of the country since 1992. He has never allowed or tolerated any outside party other than TPLF and its creation EPDRF. It has been Ato Meles and his TPLF partners that have been making all major and minor decisions in the name of Ethiopia. Since the split in TPLF after the war with their Eritrean partners Ato Meles was able to vanquish his opponents and enter the one-man rule era. For all practical purposes Ato Meles is Ethiopia and Ethiopia is Ato Meles. The Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet is known to have said “Not a leaf moves in Chile if I don’t know about it” You can say the same thing about Ato Meles and Ethiopia.
The question I have is why is The Leader singing the blues now after he has been the main architect of this 12% growth we have been hearing about for the last few years? He was the first to take credit when the news was all about this unheard of growth and peace under his able and smart stewardship. Why talk about the impending loss of sovereignty and specter of disintegration now?
He started by moaning the problem of raising revenues and compared our country to Somalia and Kenya. I have no idea where he got his facts regarding a non-country like Somalia. But his take on Kenya is definitely wrong. Kenya has a highly developed economy than ours. Look at the chart.
Country Population GDP/Capita Budget
Ethiopia 90.8 900 4.3billion
Kenya 41.0 1600 7.01billion
Looks like the only place where we are ahead is in procreating. Is it possible Ethiopia collects less because our people live on subsistence level? The comparison is invalid and misleading.
I am surprised to hear the head of the government saying that it is ok with him if people do not pay their fare share of break the law of the land. I did not know obeying the law was an option. It is a very curious statement to say the least.
Ato Meles seems to have a different understanding of the workings of a free enterprise system. I fail to understand where the confusion is if capital moves where more money is to be made. It is every capitalist’s interest to find a legal way to reduce his/her tax burden. Like any human enterprise there are a few that will find a way to avoid paying their share. His government followed on the footsteps of the Derg and kept all land in the hands of the government. He has been selling it to the highest bidder since coming to power. His family and friends are the premier owners of choice property. His government has been working overtime in the Diaspora arranging land sale gatherings. Constructing what is commonly referred to as ground plus condominiums and office space has been the talk of all Ethiopia. There is not a town not affected by this national madness of concrete and glass in the middle of nowhere.
Wasn’t it true that the construction outfits and banks organized around EFFORT were the number one beneficiary of the Diaspora’s investment in the 12% growth we have been hearing about? Today The Leader tells us that is the wrong road. Did he apologize for this royal screw up? No sir, he is blaming the investor. His theory is that folks are attracted to housing investment to avoid paying taxes. It is a very difficult to understand his assertion. I believe a vast majority invest in building housing because they believe the will come out ahead. It is normally a good investment. Most in the Diaspora invest in Ethiopia for various reasons. Some invest to have a place for retirement, a few to make money and others because it is cheaper and easier than in most foreign lands. I have not met anyone investing large amounts to avoid Ethiopian taxes. Ato Meles mocks people’s patriotism. He even blames people for enjoying their money on lavish weddings and hotel expenses. I thought under capitalism one is free to do what he wants with his earned income.
His preference seems to be manufacturing. He wants Ethiopians to put their money into the manufacturing industry. Again it is a very curious statement coming from the head of the state. There is no need to wish it or complain about its absence. It is in his power to gear the economy towards the direction he wants. From what I understand Governments use various incentives to direct the orientation of the economy where it is most beneficial to the country. Tax incentives, land give a ways; subsidies are but a few methods. Before such methods are tried there is usually groundwork to be done. A few question a capitalist interested in setting up a manufacturing enterprise will ask will go something like is there infrastructure to support the enterprise? This will include things like roads, power and communication. Having an educated work force is plus. So before the invitation is printed is Ethiopia ready to welcome investors? The answer is no. Power is in short supply and the education level is below par. His condemnation of the hand that feeds him is rude and unacceptable.
The talk about the forest Rats, Snakes and Elephants is where he lost me. This is where his imagination kicked in and the talk regarding snakes and humans started to cloud the monologue. I have no idea why he conjured up all these animals when the point he wanted to make was he wants to have a record of every Ethiopian income. It is a very interesting situation we got here. One of the poorest countries wants to invest in building a sophisticated database on it citizens. A country that is looking at over seven million people in a state of famine wants to spend billions on book keeping. It was very interesting to see The Leader telling his tax paying citizen that they are not trust worthy and that they are guilty until proven innocent.
I believe he should be man enough to accept his mistakes. The polices he is putting down and making fun of are none other than his very own. He is the owner the current economic and political policy in place. Starting with his back door deal with Eritrea, the land as government property, the division of our country on ethnic lines, the war with Somalia, the lack of healthy political environment, the suffocating security setup is all the work of Ato Meles and his TPLF partners. Real men accept responsibility for their deeds. The Ethiopian people cannot take the blame for decision they were not consulted or agreed upon. Even as parents we make sure our children understand the value of ‘thank you’ and ‘I am sorry’ early in their developmental stage.
I fully understand The Leader is under tremendous strain. The people’s uprising in the neighborhood is freaking out his outfit. They are coming out with different approaches to bully, frighten and intimidate the population. The fate of Ato Meles is similar to that of Mubarak, Gaddafi, Saleh and Assad. There is no easy way out. So much crime has been done there is no way of whitewashing and going back to the beginning. There is no reset button on governance. Ato Meles and the Ethiopian people are dancing around each other waiting to see who is going to fall first. This sort of situation does not favor tyrants. They are edgy and prone to make irrational and sudden moves that jar the equilibrium. Everyday sees the advent of a new crisis. If it is not inflation it is Kilil revolt. If it is not scarcity of basic items it is fire in Gondar or transformer blow up in Arsi.
It is a shame to see a leader bully his people and distributes the video to show his shameful behavior. Even after editing it does not present a smart picture. Those in the room were grown up people trying to survive in such an environment unsure of what tomorrow will bring. It is a sad scene. The second part will be on the wonderful explanation of how the Ethiopian Government is reinventing itself as Wall Mart, wholesale distributor of oil, bread and sugar. It did not work for Mengistu, no reason to think it will work this time around. Pray for Ethiopia.