Did you people also strike oil recently?” I ask Mekonnen, my Ethiopian friend after we had driven across a large part but small portion of the vast, landlocked country.
“No no no, no oil,” he answers emphatically.
I ask about any other mineral wealth but nothing astounding is apparent. I tried some quick research in offices and on the Internet. But nothing could easily explain the construction boom going on in Ethiopia. Highways, railways, and of course dams, especially the Renaissance Dam.
For several days, Mekonnen takes me very close to the ground, meeting very ordinary people today, the elite the next day, eating all Ethiopian foods (the cooked variety) and drinking local wine from glasses that have a very narrow opening – to slow down the rate of intake, I am told.
Everyone I ask about the apparent new wealth that is powering the infrastructure boom says it is government tax revenues and donations. But even if the revenue authority is very efficient, there is a limit to what you can collect from these poor people. The biggest wealth seems to be the 50 million heads of poor quality cattle, which is not much for a population of 85 million. I remain puzzled.
I get the answer on my last evening in the New Flower – that is what Addis Ababa means. And guess what, the answer comes from a Ugandan. I meet this very senior Ugandan, who for obvious reasons shall remain unnamed, and I put the question that I have been asking all around.
“It is simple really,” answers the Ugandan. “While we struck oil, these people struck a vision.” “C’mon…” I protest, using the Ugandan’s official title. “There has to be a secret that is powering this construction besides a mere vision!”
“That’s the problem with us,” says the Ugandan. “In Uganda ‘vision’ is a mere blurred word from the mouth while here it is a real guiding principle. This country is poor but public funds go to the intended purpose. Grand corruption is not allowed.”
Before I can talk, the Ugandan continues, “Because big people here are not allowed to steal, everyone from donors to small taxpayers is encouraged to give the government money. In Ethiopia, money put in the government’s hands is safe. A clear vision and a clean government is the oil that the Ethiopians have struck.”
It all suddenly sinks in. I begin to understand how the Ethiopians are constructing a power dam that will generate 5,250 MW at a cost of a ‘mere’ Euro 3.3 billion from their annual budgets, which works out to about $800,000 a MW.
To imagine, using Hilary Onek’s figures, that Uganda uses about $7 million to create one MW capacity, I want to hide my face. What is wrong with us? And the Ethiopians are attaining all this infrastructure development without waiting for a lucky oil strike! Trouble with waiting for oil money to build a dam is that your Central Bank governor can forget where he kept the oil money and insist he used it to buy weapons, and life goes on.
Ethiopians are poor and the public servants’ salary is nothing to write home about. But the donors trust Ethiopia more than countries with a ‘free press’ and argumentative parliaments. And people are not stopped from going out to work in ‘freer democracies’ the way donors define them. In fact, for a country that has no colonial links, Ethiopia has a large Diaspora population. The dizzying number of Western Union outlets is testimony to this. Otherwise, there are no foreign banks here. All commercial banking must be done by Ethiopians.
Ethiopians were never colonised and have always dealt with external military threats effectively. But in addition, their military is economically useful. The army engages in real production rather than just talking about it and wasting taxpayer’s money in ghost ventures. Their army is now assembling buses to beef up the public transport.
A week’s tour has taught me a lot about the determination of the Ethiopian leadership. But I cannot get their quest for a green economy and clean energy out of my head.
I think of our energy officials fumbling before Parliament, burning millions of dollars on one-off thermal power generation of a few Megawatts. Rather than hanging around boardrooms and hotels abroad, why don’t they visit the Ethiopian Embassy in Kampala for some sensible answers to electricity production?