The political crisis in Ethiopia is not showing sings of abating. Ongoing riots in Oromia and Wolayta; state fragmentation in the Amhara region, and the standoff between the federal government and the Tigray region have put the survival of the government in question.
To address this crisis, the African Union has been called upon to mediate between prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Similar in tone, a US-based Ethiopian working group has urged Washington to play a more vocal role in the deepening crisis.
Most recently, some members of the US congress wrote a petition calling on the US secretary of state to encourage the Ethiopian government to engage in an open dialogue with the opposition for a peaceful transition.
These are all encouraging signs. But there needs to be greater clarity on the nature of the crisis for an informed and meaningful intervention.
It is my view that the crisis in Ethiopia today is not a conflict between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the regional government in Tigray. It is a crisis of the federal government manifest in Tigray and other regions. The governance of the federal government has become more of an exercise in seamanship (staying in power) and less of navigation (reaching a destination) falling short of coherent and democratic approaches to address the crisis.
Therefore, defining the problem as a disagreement between the federal government and Tigray is, to say the least, simplistic. There are concurrent crises in Oromia and the Southern regions that also need urgent attention. And to call for dialogue without taking some confidence building measures, such as the unconditional release of political prisoners, is a non-starter.
The ongoing unrest in Oromia
The killing of a popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundiessa in June sparked massive communal riots. Most parts of western and southern Oromia were engulfed in fighting between armed forces Oromo Liberation Front fighters and government forces. The opposition parties in Oromia – protesting the decision of the government to continue in power beyond its mandate at the end of September 2020 – began preparing for resistance. The killing of the artist occurred in the middle of this political crisis.
The protests engulfed much of the Oromia region where many businesses and shops were torched or looted. The government response to the riots left 178 people dead and a further 9,000 detained without due process of law . Curfews were imposed and a complete closure of the internet enforced.
The public mistrust of government grew amid inconsistent statements and its knee-jerk decision to arrest opposition political leaders. Its failure to set up an independent inquiry into the artiste’s killing further fuelled suspicion.
In reaction to the resistance of the Oromo elites, Abiy has gone about purging over 1,700 local administrators and civil servants. The dismissed officials included Lemma Megersa, the Defense Minister, a politician considered pivotal in prime minister’s rise to power.
But resistance in the Oromia region continues in different forms. With over 9,000 people in prison, including key Oromo political leaders, the crisis has immense potential for escalation.
The Wolayta crisis
The Wolayta people in the country’s south have long agitated for a regional state of their own. The claims have become louder since December 2018 when the neighbouring Sidama people secured a referendum to form their own regional state – breaking away from the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Regional state.
The constitution recognises the right of any nation or nationality clustered in any of the regional states to form its own state. Following the steps required, the council of representatives of the Wolayta zone unanimously voted for a regional state, and presented its decision on December 19, 2018. But this has yet to be considered at regional or federal levels or referred to the Electoral Board.
In protest at the silence, the Wolayta organised a massive rally and the 38 representatives to the regional council declined to attend the council meeting. The federal government responded to these developments by detaining dozens of zonal officials, elected members of the Wolayta statehood council, political party leaders, and civil society actors.
The regime also acted violently against peaceful demonstrators demanding the release of those detained. The government also suspended a community radio station and shut down offices of civil society organisations.
A national crisis
Events in Oromia and Wolayta illustrate the point that the current Ethiopian problem is not limited to a dispute between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It is a national one.
The decision of the federal government to postpone the scheduled elections using the excuse of the COVID-19 pandemic was rejected by most substantive opposition political groups calling for a dialogue to avert the consequences of the constitutional crisis.
The best-organised of these groups, the TPLF, has the capacity to hold its regional elections on schedule. This has brought the crisis to a head. But the dispute with Tigray cannot be resolved with a simple compromise: there is much more at stake, and the TPLF leaders are unlikely to make a short-term bargain when they see the problem as more fundamental.
Tens of thousands of Ethiopians, including leaders of the opposition, are in prison for political reasons. All media outlets, except those fully controlled by or affiliated to the Prosperity Party, are closed.
For a meaningful dialogue to start, the federal government should take some unilateral confidence building measures. All political prisoners should be released without condition and all media outlets closed by the government opened immediately. It should also end the unlimited and unlawful state of emergency.
This can then set the stage for a national dialogue with two main objectives. First is to agree an early date for elections and determine how the country transitions to an elected government. Second is a discussion on some of the fundamental questions on the political future of Ethiopia. This is currently obscured by a focus on the crisis of the moment.
On a peninsula east of Lagos, 30,000 workers are employed on a project that holds out the promise of transforming Nigeria’s economic fortunes.
It’s here that Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, plans to spend more than his net worth of $13.5 billion building one of the world’s biggest oil refineries. If he succeeds, he could end the irony of Africa’s biggest oil producer importing $7 billion of fuel a year, and instead see it meeting its own needs and supplying neighboring nations.
The collapse in the oil price and Nigeria’s woeful track record on industrial projects are significant risk factors. Yet Dangote’s bet has the potential to revolutionize Nigeria’s economy, with its operations adding $13 billion, or 2.3% to gross domestic product, according to a 2018 estimate by Renaissance Capital. Central Bank Governor Godwin Emefiele has said that the project could employ more than 70,000 people when operational.
“Yes, the risks are high, the challenges are high,” said Devakumar Edwin, chief executive officer of the refinery complex, who’s worked with the billionaire for about three decades. “But the rewards are also high.”
The site is stacked with superlatives. Nigeria’s largest-ever industrial project, it boasts a distillation column for separating crude into various fuels at different temperatures that is the largest of its kind in the world. The 650,000 barrel-per-day refinery is just part of a $15 billion petrochemical complex that will also house a gas processor and the world’s biggest plant for ammonia and urea, which is used in making plastics and fertilizer.
Still, Nigeria’s previous attempts at motor fuel self-sufficiency have come to nothing. Its four state-owned refineries, opened in the 1970s, ran at a fraction of capacity before they were closed in January for a revamp.
An initial attempt by Dangote to enter the refining business foundered. In 2007 he bought one of the state plants only to see that privatization swiftly reversed by a new government.
Earlier efforts to use industrial development as a way of cutting the country’s dependence on oil have mostly fallen short. Nigeria has sunk at least $5 billion into the Ajaokuta steel mill project on the banks of the Niger River since 1979, and it still isn’t in production.
“As a symbol of Nigerian progress it’s quite important,” Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance in London, said of the Dangote refinery.
Nigeria needs all the help it can get. The nation is reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the record plunge in oil, which accounts for more than 90% of its foreign exchange earnings. It has been forced to devalue its currency, the naira, twice since March, and take its first-ever loan from the International Monetary Fund, which forecasts a 5.4% economic contraction this year.
Even for Dangote, who has built a business empire that includes cement factories around Africa and owns assets ranging from sugar mills to salt refining facilities, the petrochemical complex is ambitious.
“Nigeria will soon become the biggest and only urea exporter in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time,” Dangote said in March. “And we are not only exporting, we are exporting big time.” Fertilizer exports alone will generate about $2.5 billion in revenue annually, he said.
Roads and jetties had to be built to carry heavy cargoes, while a quarry with the capacity to store 10 million tons of granite was dug solely for the project.
The company has opened talks with oil producers for the supply of crude to the refinery, although it hopes that within two years of beginning operations as much as 100,000 barrels a day will come from two oilfields it bought from Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Edwin said.
It’s “a game-changing development for regional supply,” said Jeremy Parker, an analyst at Citac, a London-based consultancy on the oil refining and distribution business in Africa.
It also benefits from government backing. “We are encouraging every participant to establish refineries in this country,” Mele Kyari, group managing director of the state-owned Nigeria National Petroleum Corp, said on Tuesday. The aim is that in two-to-three years “you will see a country that will become a hub of producing petroleum products,” he said.
Still, the project has been hit by delays with the initial opening date having been projected to be 2016, then 2019. Edwin said in a webinar on Thursday that the start of operations will now be pushed back to late 2021 due to the coronavirus. Citac says the facility is unlikely to start before 2023.
It’s also entering a very competitive market at a time when refining margins are being squeezed by the collapse in oil prices. In July, profit margins for refineries were at their lowest since 2010 and Patrick Pouyanne, the chairman of Total SA, described them as “absolutely catastrophic.”
To be successful, the refinery will also need to displace the cartels that have dominated Nigeria’s fuel-import business for more than two decades, a source of wealth for the politically connected and motivation for the continuing dysfunction of domestic refineries.
Yet once up and running, it could be a strong symbol of industrial progress in a country that has had many false dawns in its quest to lessen its dependence on crude oil.
“It tips the balance in a country that is at heart very entrepreneurial,” said Antony Goldman, founder and chief executive officer of Promedia Consulting, a political risk consultancy firm. It says to Nigerians “we can make money from making things work.”