By David Himbara, Educator, political economist and author
Two decades ago, then American president Bill Clinton helped popularize the term "new breed of African leaders" whom he believed to be different from iron-fisted totalitarian rulers that had entrenched "big man politics." Unlike the later, new breed leaders were thought to espouse democratic governance and socioeconomic transformation. The core members of the new breed was a quartet comprising Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda -- men who came to power in mid-1980s and early 1990s. How might Clinton rate the new breed's political and economic delivery 20 years on?
Clinton would find Ethiopia to be the most surprising in the realm of economics -- Ethiopia stands above the rest. Two unrelated announcements about Ethiopia speak volumes about how much the country has changed. New World Wealth revealed in September 2013 that the number of dollar millionaires in Ethiopia rose from 1,300 in 2007 to 2,700 in 2013, outperforming most African countries in such growth. In February 2015, a 32-kilometre two-line rail system -- the first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) excluding South Africa -- was unveiled in Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The rail will decongest traffic by transporting 60,000 commuters per hour in all four directions according to official reports.
Gone is the old Ethiopia of insurgency, conflict, and famine which, together, led to the loss of more than 400,000 lives in the 1980s. The World Bank data helps in illustrating how Ethiopia may indeed be considered something of an "economic lion." A country of 90 million people, Ethiopia has posted an annual GDP growth rate of over 10 per cent in the past ten years, which makes it one of the best economic performers globally. This explains the expansion of GDP from USD$8.6 billion in 2003 to USD$47.5 in 2013, while per capita income rose from USD$119 to USD$505.
Ethiopia's goods and services exports have expanded, too. It exported USD2 billion worth of goods and services in 2005, versus USD$6 billion in 2012. Perhaps Ethiopia's greatest success story is its national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, which has built a regional hub that earns the country USD$2 billion annually. The airline cargo business success also accounts for the rise of the horticulture industry, in particular, the cut-flower exports that bring in USD$200 million.annually, employing more than 50,000 workforce. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has also expanded. While in 2003 FDI was USD$465 million, the figure for 2013 was USD$953 million.
In infrastructure sector, Ethiopia is a massive construction site of railway, highways and power dams. Prior to 2004, Ethiopia was literally in the dark with only 248 megawatts. Between 2004 and 2013, built and is in process of generating an astonishing 12,304 megawatts from hydroelectric power dams. In the transport sector, besides the Addis Ababa Light Rail noted above, land-locked Ethiopia is building the 656 km Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway that reduces the travel time to Djibouti port by more than 50 percent. Uganda, Eritrea and Rwanda are not this league -- compared to them, Ethiopia is an economic giant.
A candid Clinton would, however, have to rethink his "new breed" when it comes to politics. Clinton's quartet has in fact outdone the big men they replaced in clinging onto power. Museveni will have ruled for 30 years in 2016. Afewerki has ruled Eritrea for 24 years. Before he died in office in 2012, Meles had ruled Ethiopia for 21 years. Kagame has ruled Rwanda for 21 years, the initial four years through a figurehead president.
In this sense the new breed are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing -- autocrats such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe in power for 35 years; Angola's José Eduardo dos Santos, 36 years; Equatorial Guinea's Obiang Nguema, 36 years; and Cameroon's Paul Biya, 33 years.
Far from spearheading democratic governance, the new breed have built ruthless totalitarian regimes to a varying degree. Of the quartet Eritrea is the most closed and most repressive, routinely denying its people access to the outside world. Since independence from Ethiopia in 1993 Eritrea has been ruled by as a one-party state headed by Afewerki, who tolerates no opposition. Kagame is made of the same cloth -- the opposition is either locked, or in exile where some tend to die mysteriously.
In the case of Ethiopia, competitive politics was decimated in the mid-2000s when over 20,000 protesters against electoral malpractice, including more than 100 opposition leaders and journalists were rounded up and locked up. There is only member of the opposition in the current Ethiopian parliament. Uganda is the least iron-fisted, with a harassed opposition, and relatively dynamic independent media.
While the new breed did not turn out as Clinton envisaged, the irony of ironies is that he became the leading supporter of one of the most aggressive totalitarian among the quartet -- Kagame. Clinton portrays Kagame as a man who "forged a strong, unified and growing nation with the potential to become a model for the rest of Africa and the world." The current American administration sees Kagame rather differently, accusing him of "arbitrary or unlawful killings both inside and outside of the country, disappearances, torture, harsh conditions in prisons and detention centers..."