Verbatim | Jan 12,2019
The attempt by the government to draw the Ethiopian diaspora into investing in Ethiopia puzzles many, particularly those who some fifty years ago scattered into exile across Europe and America. How should the Ethiopian diaspora, the first influx of refugees that fled the approaching storm of revolution and military dictatorship of the Dergue, take this call for investment in Ethiopia?
When the nation starts to tear itself apart in the revolution, not everyone in the diaspora, only a tight circle of Ethiopians, really could comprehend what has happened. They watch, listen and observe from a safe distance as the Emperor is dethroned, private land and property ownership are abolished, industries and enterprises nationalised, the civil service disbanded, the army dismantled, the constitution withdrawn, the provincial administrations scratched and a new order established.
At that time, many of the Ethiopian émigrés, refugees from the atrocities of the Dergue, were drawn from the rich merchants, nobility, princes, generals and high officials but found themselves working as bank tellers, cab drivers, waiters and janitors. They play very little part in Ethiopian politics, unlike the intelligentsia, a huffy group of students and revolutionaries that gather in weekly meetings and conspire on how to destroy the imperial regime.
The intelligentsia and the revolutionaries quickly crumple like a house of cards with the first blow of military men that struck at the Ethiopian Empire. True enough, many would return to join the military junta and perish in the conflagration that overtakes the country. Those left behind, penniless and homeless, languish in exile and never manage to pull it together and create a cultural and political centre in the diaspora. They are unlike the Russian émigrés in Europe who established newspapers, literary scenes, theatres, schools and political lobbying groups. The Ethiopian diaspora instead settles for opening up restaurants and churches.
But they become popular employees in the parking lots, taxi cab companies and retail stores of Los Angeles and Washington D.C., sought after for their loyalty and industriousness. Hired as doormen and waiters, they engage their customers with unverifiable stories of princely lineages and noble pedigree to while away the time and to feed their egos. None wanted to accept their fate of diminishment and permanent exile - they all looked back to Ethiopia as their home.
As time passes and the homeland slowly fades into memory; as they age, enter careers, marry and have children; they attempt to depart a piece of Ethiopia to their progeny. Unfortunately, they quickly find out that they have nothing to grasp - no literature, no philosophy or practical heritage to pass on to the next generation. Although the restaurants and cafes ring with nostalgic songs; the Sunday churches echo with the ancient liturgies of St. Yared; funerals, christenings and Easter celebrations are held regularly, Ethiopia proves elusive, lingering only in fragmented and ephemeral remembrances.
This sense of loss and helplessness festers a hatred for the Dergue, exerting a pull to do something about it. But the temptation to act provides no safe harbour to land safely on. Soon, relief comes in the form of local rebel groups that overwhelm the Dergue, who organise themselves into a ruling party and attempt to dowse the rage of the diaspora by appeasement. Gradually restructuring itself, the ruling party permeates the diaspora and aligns itself with every aspect of life in exile. The diaspora, split by suspicion and fear, finds itself unable to distinguish between political cadres that toe the government line and those who are opposed. So, it recoils from it all.
By the middle 2000s, newcomers into the diaspora arrive without the contradictions and doubt about their alliance to Ethiopia and nationhood, driven mostly by self-preservation and personal advancement. The new reality in Ethiopia is no longer what the émigrés have in their nostalgic memory. It is replaced by an emphasis on regionalism and provincial idealism.
Today, Ethiopia is staggering in an economic, social and political quagmire. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the government and commercial banks are vying to attract the diaspora to invest in the national economy. What they offer in return is long on promise and short on substance. For that first wave of diaspora, to those who have observed the workings of the Dergueand the current ruling party from afar, the enticements ring hallow, because the diaspora is comparing it to what happened in Ethiopia over the last fifty years. Also, they are referencing their experience in the West, with all the attending benefits and security that it has provided them with.
Aside from the economic and social stabilities in the West, there is the standard of transparency and maturity of governance that the diaspora depends on. The processes of predictable and democratic systems are too good to ignore.
Take a quick look at the diaspora bank account and mortgage plans devised by the government, and it is easy to reveal the deep disparity that exists between the two systems.
In the government scheme devised for diaspora bank accounts, once the money is deposited in foreign currency, the account converts the cash into local Birr and a reverse transaction to recover the hard currency is blocked. In essence, there is no real incentive to create the account since directly exchanging the forex at a bank's window on 'as needed basis’ will preserve the currency in hand, rather than being denied access once deposited in the country.
As for the Ethiopian diaspora mortgage plan, the borrower has to make a 20pc down payment and pay an 8.5pc interest rate on a twenty-year term, all paid in foreign currency. Today, US 30-year average mortgage rates are below 4pc, and one must wonder why a sensible person with rudimentary knowledge will invest in a mortgage in Ethiopia when they can buy a property paying half of the mortgage rate they are asked to pay here?
There is an apt Ethiopian aphorism that suits the case here: ‘Aya Jebo, Satamehagn Belagn,’ which crudely translates to: “Mr Hayena, please eat me up without making excuses.”
PUBLISHED ON Jul 20,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1003]
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