New broom that’s sweeping clean

17th May 2019 By: Martin Zhuwakinyu - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

It always comes as a breath of fresh air when an African leader receives a pat on the back for his or her accomplishments. This is because political leaders who distinguish themselves are something of a rare breed on our continent.

The esteemed ladies and gentlemen whose task it is to select recipients of the yearly Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership can vouch for this. Sponsored by Sudanese-born telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim and launched to recognise and celebrate recently retired African heads of State or government who have proved themselves to be exceptional role models, the prize has been awarded to only six individuals since its inception in 2007. The laureates include Nelson Mandela, who was an honorary recipient in 2007; Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano (2007), Botswana’s Festus Mogae (2008), Carbo Verde’s Pedro de Verona (2011), Namibia’s Hifikepunye Pohamba (2014) and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sileaf (2014).

The selection committee did not deem any recently retired leader worth of the $5-million-over-ten-years prize in 2009, the year after The Pipe Smoking One (aka Thabo Mbeki) was ignominiously ejected from the Union Buildings, as well as in 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2016. It’s still early days to state categorically that no laureate will be named for 2018 but I am not holding my breath. I mean, we are almost halfway through the year; the 2017 laureate – the last to be announced – was named in January 2018.

So, it warmed the cockles of my heart when, at the beginning of this month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has been in office for just over a year, was named the 2019 recipient of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize. This was in recognition of his role in pushing for and eventually signing a peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea.

The jury, which included Johnson Sirleaf, former French President Francoise Hollande and Bangladesh’s Professor Muhammad Yunus, also highlighted “the reforms undertaken [by Ahmed] to consolidate democracy and social cohesion”. This was a reference to the release of 60 000 political prisoners, the unbanning of opposition groups, the appointment of women to half his Cabinet, the appointment of a prominent opposition activist as head of the electoral commission and the pledge of free elections in 2020.

The Ethiopian economy has not been doing badly at all in recent times, having grown at more than 10% a year for almost 15 years, slowing to 7% last year. The onus is on Ahmed to maintain growth at these elevated levels going forward.

Ethiopia’s spectacular growth, which transformed a country long associated with famine from an $8-billion minnow at the turn of the century into an $80-billion colossus that has overtaken Kenya as East Africa’s powerhouse, is attributable to the policies of Meles Zenawi, the late former Prime Minister, who was driven by a South Korean or Chinese-style development State vision. Under Zenawi, Ethiopia poured billions into roads, dams, agriculture, education and health.

Ahmed believes Ethiopia can maintain its high growth rates, but only if Zenawi’s developmental State model, where public investment crowded out the private sector, can be tweaked. “Economically, we’re making big, big change, but the backlog is killing us,” the 42-year-old, the youngest head of State or government in Africa, told London’s Financial Times newspaper in February. He added that his new government had eased the squeeze by renegotiating commercial debt to concessional terms with China and other lenders and by tapping States in the Gulf and the Middle East for loans and investment.

In fact, Ahmed has proved to be a darling of foreign providers of capital, attracting $13-billion during his first year in office. This took the form of foreign direct investment, loans, remittances and services.

In a further positive development, the ruling politburo has announced plans to open up State-owned industries – from telecommunications to sugar and power generation – to foreign investors.

I say: You have started well, Prime Minister Ahmed – continue along the same path.