CRONY CAPITALISM AND THE MYTH BEHIND ETHIOPIA’S ECONOMIC MIRACLE
July 15, 2014 (OPride) – Over the last decade, Ethiopia has been hailed as the fastest growing non-oil economies in Africa, maintaining a double-digit annual economic growthrate. The Ethiopian government says the country will join the middle-income bracket by 2025.
Despite this, however, as indicated by a recent Oxford University report, some 90 percent of Ethiopians still live in poverty, second only after Niger from 104 countries measured by the Oxford Multidimensional Poverty Index. The most recent data shows an estimated 71.1 percent of Ethiopia’s population lives in severe poverty.
This is baffling: how can such conflicting claims be made about the same country? The main source of this inconsistent story is the existence of crony businesses and the government’s inflated growth figures. While several multinational corporations are now eyeing Ethiopia’s cheap labor market, two main crony conglomerates dominate the country’s economy.
Meet EFFORT, TPLF’s business empire
The seeds of Ethiopia’s economic mismanagement were sown at the very outset. We are familiar with rich people organizing themselves, entering politics and protecting their group interests. But something that defies our knowledge of interactions between politics and business happened in 1991 when the current regime took power.
Ethiopia’s ruling party, the EPRDF, came to power by ousting the communist regime in a dramatic coup. A handful of extremely poor people organized themselves exceptionally well that they quickly took control of the country’s entire political and military machinery.
In a way, this is analogous to a gang of thieves becoming brutally efficient at organizing themselves to the extent of forming a government. Once in power, the ruling Tigrean elites expropriated properties from other businesses, looted national assets and began creating wealth exclusively for themselves.
This plan first manifested itself in the form of party affiliated business conglomerate known as theEndowment Fund for Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT has its origin in the relief and rehabilitation arm of the Tigrean People Liberation Front (TPLF) and the country’s infamous 1984 famine.
As reported by BBC’s Martin Plaut and others, the TPLF financed its guerilla warfare against the Dergue in part by converting aid money into weapons and cash. That was not all. On their way to Addis Ababa from their bases in Tigray, the TPLF confiscated any liquid or easily moveable assetsthey could lay their hands on. For instance, a substantial amount of cash was amassed by breaking into safe deposits of banks all over Ethiopia. Those funds were kept in EFFORT’s bank accounts. TPLF leaders vowed to use the loot to rehabilitate and reconstruct Tigray, which they insisted was disproportionately affected by the struggle to “free Ethiopia.”
Intoxicated by its military victory, the TPLF then turned to building a business empire. EFFORT epitomizes that unholy marriage between business and politics in a way not seen before in Ethiopian history. According to a research by Sarah Vaughan and Mesfin Gebremichael, EFFORT, which is led by senior TPLF officials, currently owns 16 companies across various sectors of the economy.
This figure grossly understates the number of EPRDF affiliated companies. For example, the above list does not include the real money-spinners that EFFORT owns: Wegagen Bank, Africa Insurance, Mega Publishing, Walta Information Center and the Fana Broadcasting Corporate. The number of companies under EFFORT is estimated to be more than 66 business entities. Suffice to say, EFFORT controls the commanding heights of the Ethiopian economy.
While it is no secret that EFFORT is owned by and run exclusively to benefit ethnic Tigrean elites, it is a misnomer to still retain the phrase “rehabilitation of Tigray.” Perhaps it should instead be renamed as the Endowment Fund for Rendering Tigrean Supremacy (EFFORTS).
MIDROC Ethiopia, EPRDF’s joker card
In Ethiopia’s weak domestic private environment, EFFORT is an exception to the rule. Similarly, while Ethiopia suffers from lack of foreign direct investment, MIDROC Ethiopia enjoys unparalleled access to Ethiopia’s key economic sectors. Owned by Ethiopian-born Saudi business tycoon, Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, MIDROC has been used by the EPRDF as a joker card in a mutually advantageous ways. The Sheik was given a privilege no less than the status of a domestic private investor but the EPRDF can also count it as a foreign investor. For instance, theUnited Nations Conference on Trade and Development reported that about 60 per cent of the overall FDI approved in Ethiopia was related to MIDROC.
MIDROC stands for Mohammed International DevelopmentResearch and Organization Companies. Despite reference to development and research in its name, however, there is no real relationship between what the crony business says and what it actually does. Ironically, as with EFFORT, MIDROC Ethiopia also owns 16 companies. But this too is a gross underestimation given the vast sphere of influence and wealth MIDROC commands in that country.
Like EFFORT, Al-Amoudi’s future was also sealed long before the TPLF took power. He literally entered Addis Ababa with the EPRDF army, fixing his eyes firmly on Oromia’s natural resources. Shortly after the TPLF took the capital, Al-Amoudi allegedly donated a huge sum of money to the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization.
Why the rush?
The calculative Sheik sensed an eminent threat to his business interests from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a groups that was also a partner in the transitional government at the time. In return for its “donation,” MIDROC acquired massive lands in Oromia – gold mines, extensive state farms and other agricultural lands. In a recent article entitled, “The man who stole the Nile,” journalist Frederick Kaufman aptly described Al Amoudi’s role in the ongoing land grab in Ethiopia as follows:
In this precarious world-historic moment, food has become the most valuable asset of them all — and a billionaire from Ethiopia named Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi is getting his hands on as much of it as possible, flying it over the heads of his starving countrymen, and selling the treasure to Saudi Arabia. Last year, Al Amoudi, whom most Ethiopians call the Sheikh, exported a million tons of rice, about seventy pounds for every Saudi citizen. The scene of the great grain robbery was Gambella, a bog the size of Belgium in Ethiopia’s southwest whose rivers feed the Nile.
It is little wonder then that Al-Amoudi said, “I lost my right hand,” when Ethiopia’s strongman of two decades Meles Zenawi died in 2012. If EFFORT is a curse to the Ethiopian economy, MIRDOC is EPRDF’s poisoned drink given to the Ethiopian people.