System collapse with particular reference to the Ethiopian Electric Utility

Sometime in Nov. 2020 I went to an Ethiopian Electric Utility (EEU) branch office at Arat Kilo in front of the venerable Menilik II School to pay my monthly electricity bill. I presented my receipt for the previous month from which the online cashier entered the account into the computer in front of her. She told me, “Sorry, no bill,” and directed me to her superior, a middle-aged lady struggling to read texts and figures on the computer screen.

She looked at me in amazement and read the bill to me in a subdued tone: “15,800 birr!” She in turn directed me to her rather youngish male superior who told me: “Well, that is right, 15,800 birr! If you want to complain you have to fork out the bill first. It is what the GPS indicates”.

I was so mad I could not say anything in reply for a few minutes and started murmuring to myself thus: “I bet he does not know what the acronym GPS stands for. This is state-sponsored broad daylight robbery!” Or rather, EEU’s system collapse!” Then I blurted out in utter anger and outrage, “I am not going to pay 15,800 birr! Go ahead and disconnect my electricity line! This is indeed state–sponsored broad daylight robbery,” and I left without further ado.

A few days later, EEU”s handymen came to my house to disconnect my electricity line. I was not at home, but my good neighbors whom I had told about the outrageous bill, confronted the EEU’s laborers and said: “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! How can you charge him (i.e. me) nearly 16,000 birr? He mainly uses electricity for about two light bulbs and TV.” The EEU’s workers saw my humble three–room house and went back without so much as touching my electricity line.

They could not do what they came to do because they probably realized that they were victims of system collapse or some clandestine economic sabotage by elements loyal to what is now labeled the “rapacious junta” (Sigbgeb junta) !

Prior to the aborted line disconnection campaign on my humble three –room house (I love it so much I would not trade it for any one of the “junta’s” high–rise buildings), I had gone to Sheger Radio Station at Dilber to tell my story to one of Ethiopian’s famous investigative journalists. I was told he was busy but his secretary graciously welcomed me.

I told her my grievances which she duly recorded. In addition, I gave her my supporting evidence, including electricity receipts of previous months. I still do not know whether Sheger Radio has broadcast my complaint or not, but some lady gave me a phone call after my complaint while I was watching a Premier League football match (between Man United and Southampton).

She complained about the noise and said, “Well, let us listen to each other” and hung up on me. This will never diminish my respect for Sheger Radio because it aired my grievance against an illegal fine of 520 birr for not renewing a house rent contract to which the penalizer was a co – signing party.

The historical record of evidence which I presented to the EEU were mainly receipts of past months which indicated bills of no more than 20 birr per month before EEU’s tariff hike and a maximum of 317 birr cumulative for some four months or so after EEU’s tariff increase. So the 15,800 birr I was asked was an Everest of a bill only high electricity –consuming enterprises would pay!

The two institutions in the electricity sector (Ethiopian Electric Power and Ethiopian Electric Utility) have generally failed to live up to expectations. In their 70-year history (Ethiopian Electric Power was founded in 1956), all the electricity they managed to generate so far has been no more than 4300 MW as compared to ten times that by Egypt!

They are heavily indebted to the state banking sector, mainly to CBE, to the tune of over 200 bln Birr, which now is deemed virtually non –repayable. Electricity supply in Addis Ababa has been intermittent for a long time and diesel generators unknown in the past are now permanent fixtures around the city, adding to the shortage of foreign exchange via increasing oil imports. In the context of such an energy development failure, the rather massive government industrialization program is no more than a pipedream.

Some of the problems that have thrown a spanner in the works of the electricity sector include: Incompetent personnel, poor organizational structures, flawed financing schemes, corruption and resource wastage. It seems no significant improvements could be made unless foreign technical assistance is sought in key sub-sectors of the sector.

At present, the extent of the sector’s system collapse may be gauged by its manifest failure to properly measure and price its puny supply of electricity. It is indeed a deplorable state of affairs that should never be tolerated by any accountable government.

However, institutional failure is not limited to the electricity sector. It is sadly widespread in every other sector. Some 78 percent of the staff of the Ministry of Agriculture do not have any knowledge or experience related to agricultural science and development (EZEMA Party study).

The National Bank of Ethiopia has been reduced to a currency printing press by abandoning its traditional and universal task of formulating sound monetary and financial policies through dismantling its Monetary Policy Committee and lifting its monetary control mechanism of limits on domestic internal bank lending to the government.

At the present time, there is nobody holding the NBE accountable for the pathetic fall of the Birr from 2.07 birr/USD [almost three decades ago] to 47.50 birr/USD at present!

Similarly, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia has been overexposed to the tune of over 600 billion birr of virtually non –repayable loans to government development agencies on orders from above crippling its once robust banking operations.

The Development Bank of Ethiopia and the former Construction and Business Bank have been eviscerated both institutionally and functionally. Quite frankly, I do not know who is at present running The Ministry of Industry although I proudly consider myself to be a student of economics.

I have not come across a Ministry of Finance official who can coherently speak of the inter–relationship between monetary and fiscal policies in Ethiopia.

Similar shortcomings are found in Ethiopia Roads Authority, Ethiopian Road Transport, Ministry of Transport and Communications, Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority, Ethiopia Railways Corporation, etc. In short, the sorry mess in the Ethiopian economic landscape is a reflection of leadership failure and system (institutional) collapse.

The political sphere is no different. It is humanly inconceivable how anybody with a medium of rational thinking can expect to uphold a system of political equality of citizens of different ethnic origins with unequal populations in the full knowledge of the fact that democracy means victory in terms of numerical superiority. There can be no doubt that such a political dispensation is doomed to failure from get –go.

In recent Ethiopian history, three personality types have ruled Ethiopia over the last fifty years. King of Kings Hailesellasie was smart, loved his country and people, and had a normal-size ego. Mengistu Hailemariam was less smart, loved his country and people but loved himself more because he had an outsize ego and was defeated by rag–tag guerilla fighters despite his far superior military.

Meles Zenawi was arrogantly smart, hated his own country and people (with the possible exception of the “gold” version), had an abnormal-sized ego, arrogantly applied “divide and rule” to extend his regime of terror. Abiy Ahmed’s personality type will be determined on the basis of his stand on identity politics.

In my humble opinion, the kind of personality type needed for Ethiopia’s leader should a/ be smart b/ have a normal –sized ego and c/ love his/her people and country. The decisive factor is the degree of egoism. Normal self –love is natural and should always be expected. Hence, a normal ego is natural and appropriate.

Nearly all problems associated with leadership are results of excessive egoism. Such egoism leads to unorthodox ways of extending power and amassing wealth.

A rational person with a normal ego will assume power only if he is chosen by his people and will want to acquire wealth only to the extent of the value he can create with his knowledge, skill and talent. On the other hand, a person who is afflicted with excessive egoism would go out of his way to seize power and amass wealth by force and by illegal means. He would not stop at tactics and strategies including “divide and rule,” to extend his power.

The moral of the story, so to speak, is that Ethiopia needs both economic and political reorganization. Economic, political and other institutions should be thoroughly reviewed and be reformed and restructured as may be necessary.

The rationale for the existence of each and every institution should be convincingly presented. Its specific powers and duties and expected outcomes should be stipulated. Above all, each and every institution should be carefully and professionally staffed and adequately resourced. In the political arena, the abolition of identity – based politics should be given priority.

Institutional reform is extremely difficult and time –consuming and cannot be possibly sufficiently covered in a short article such as this. However, some indicative and tentative recommendations could be forwarded as follows:

  • Citizenship politics should be re-introduced;
  • Accordingly, the current constitution which is based on identity politics should be changed;
  • The new education policy should be re-examined and reformed if necessary;
  • The Ethiopian Armed Forces should be further re-organized and strengthened;
  • A peaceful democratic system should be effected;
  • The NBE, the CBE and the DBE should be thoroughly restructured and reformed and the former CBB should be re-instated;
  • TPLF companies should be nationalized;
  • Attempts should be made to regain some 30bln USD plundered by TPLF officials and lackeys;
  • Infrastructure and utility companies and institutions should be painstakingly reformed;
  • Land policies should be changed.

Even such an attempt at an enumeration of the reforms required cannot exhaust the breath and width of the subject of economic and political re-organization in Ethiopia. As to my own grievance regarding the Everest of a utility bill (nearly 16,000 birr) outrageously foisted on me, I have already made a determination never to pay the bill and allow the EEU to disconnect my electricity line if they dare! I will never be a victim of system collapse!

The Ethiopian herald December 23/2020

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