Ethiopia has embarked on unprecedented ‘reform’ in the last two months with Abiy Ahmed assuming leadership of the governing coalition of parties, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and hence the premiership. This comes after one of the members of the coalition, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), strengthened its political position in the coalition through successfully riding the waves of political protests and empowering itself through tacitly owning the protest movement.
Since assuming power, Prime minister Abiy Ahmed has taken various measures such as the release of political prisoners, shown intent to normalization and peace with arch foe Eritrea, and invited for dialogue the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) led by the previous leader of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), classified as a terrorist organization by Ethiopia since June 2011.
The rhetoric of the prime minister has brought fresh breeze through his open public speeches that don’t shy away from addressing traditionally guarded social, political and economic issues. He has showed openness and transparency that seems to bring new order in political communication and inspiring many Ethiopians. While this could be argued as strategies to further fortify his political position through populism, this nonetheless is considered as inspiring for many Ethiopians.
Hopes and expectations of many Ethiopians have been raised with regards to various political and economic reforms. The EPRDF’s executive committee has announced on 5 June 2018 that it decided to partially or fully privatize government owned enterprises such as Ethio-telecom, Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Shipping Lines, railways, industrial parks, hotels, and the like.
The basic argument for taking such measures is mainly to address concerns that foreign exchange shortages will harm the rapid growth of Ethiopia’s economy, large parts of which are off-limits to outside investment. While such measures are not unexpected, the timing of these measures has taken many by surprise.
Given the recent admission of the Prime Minister about rampant corruption and embezzlement of government finances to foreign destinations, a cleaning up and structuring of the house seemed crucial before embarking on major sales activities. The platform, systems and institutions that are required to fully utilize the benefits of privatization are not currently in place in Ethiopian context.
With two more years in its current mandate, the ‘reformed’ government seems to have confused its priorities and demands from the public at large. With local elections postponed by one year and parliamentarian elections due in 2020, electoral reforms that ensure free, fair and transparent elections should have been one of the key priorities with regards to political reforms.
To achieve sustainable and inclusive economic development (as also argued in the announcement for privatization measures), strengthening institutions should have been a priority. For instance, the regulatory frameworks and institutions for telecommunication services seem to be lacking in Ethiopian context.
As one can easily learn from the experience of other African countries, services provided by the mobile telecommunication industry are often very weak due to lack of regulatory mechanisms that ensures quality service delivery to consumers. Mobile telephone companies whose networks don’t reach the poor living in rural areas or reaches with very low quality, companies that charge higher prices when calling to other service providers, are common phenomena.
While recognizing the need to reform and privatize Ethio-Telecom for increased efficiency and quality of service delivery, privatization alone may not achieve this without the necessary regulatory frameworks and mechanisms in place. A similar argument could be made to the list of other companies that are now up for sale.
EPRDF seems to have ‘put the cart ahead of the horse’ with the complete reversal/dilution of its developmental state model with major privatization measures. As such, the hopes and expectation of many Ethiopians are yet again bound for further disappointments. The odds are high in whether Ethiopia ensures inclusive development for its entire people when priorities are not set right from the outset.