In 2011, the alarming rise in price of basic consumer goods forced the government of Ethiopia to impose a price cap on basic consumer goods and, too, high officials threatened to open up the domestic trade, hitherto legally reserved to Ethiopian nationals, to foreigners supposedly to thwart oligopoly and stabilise the market. Accordingly, these officials even warned that “if domestic traders fail to contend with each other in a competitive manner, opening up will be inevitable.”
Debates over retail trading are not new, however. The post Italian occupation history of Ethiopia was marred with numerous social, economic and political predicaments that required leaders of the country to show extraordinary wisdom, patience, skills and determination to tackle the problems without antagonizing particular group of the population, existing laws of the country and the country’s commitment to international laws and to its allies.
Despite the tragedy perpetrated by the occupying Italian administration, its foreign soldiers and locally recruited sympathizers, the Ethiopian government had to persuade and even force Ethiopians to impose maximum restraint not to take laws into their hands and take revenge on the occupying forces. This measure was particularly very challenging for Ethiopian patriots who witnessed countless tragedies in the hands of the occupying forces in the course of their gallant sacrifice to liberate their motherland.
The marginalizing and hostile policy pursued by the Italian administration against Ethiopians was, on the contrary, favorable to foreign immigrants and nationals of the Italian colonies. Accordingly, it issued unrestricted retail business license to foreign immigrants including Yemenis, to engage in retail trades in major cities of the country that outlasted the ousting of the administration. Partly due to this fact, the Ethiopian government and the population started to suffer price rise on basic commodities and felt the effects of inflation that posed challenges on the newly won independence.
In those days, the supply of basic commodities such as “edible oil and sugar, table salt and spices, tea and coffee, matches and candle, kerosene to light lamp, incense and the likes were provided by the so-called Arab House,” noted Zewde Retta (Amb.), on his newly published Book entitled, “The Government of Hailesellassie I.”
“A plethora of shops were set up in Addis Ababa and major cities of regions.”
The predominance of Yemeni retail traders in each city had also resulted adverse social and cultural consequences that brought sizable number of half cast children born out of wedlock and left abandoned in the streets by departing Arab fathers that not only left the children unsupported but also left their mother without means of livelihood and “rendered ineligible for employment let alone for marriage.”
“This situation,” Zewde wrote, “prompted Mekonnen Habtewold (Bitwoded), the then Minister of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, to set up a special committee to conduct thorough study and seek solution.” The Committee, which was composed of members from the Ministry and the Ethiopian patriots association, observed that foreigners were unduly allowed to engage in retail trade which is the right that should have been reserved to Ethiopian nationals, due to measures taken by the fascist administration to issue unrestricted license and proposed for a new bill to ban all foreigners from engaging and carrying out retail trade upon expiry of the validity period.
Even though the Minister was convinced that a legislative measure can give a short-term solutions, this idea did not impress him and advised the Committee to continue to search for and come up with another feasible and “lasting solution to ensure the replacement of Ethiopians, on the retail trades hitherto taken over by the Arabs.” The Committee desperately resumed its study to find alternative way out until it was provided with a well-researched, insightful, farsighted and totally indigenous solution by one of its member named Ruga Ashamie, but who was afraid to disclose and persuade members of the committee for fear of ethnic bias.
Despite his refusal to be described so, Ruga Ashamie, was the author, originator and founder of the solution that was later endorsed by the committee and obtained official acceptance for implementation. “Ruga was a young employee of the Ministry in his late twenties and selected by Bitwoded Mekonnen to serve as liaison officer and recorder of minutes of the committee” Zewde disclosed, and further noted in his book that Ruga thus boldly asserted “Only the Gurages, the people of my birth place, can overcome and prevail over the dominance of the retail trade set up in each commune and village by the Arabs.”.
For fear of ethnic profiling however, Ruga preferred to submit his memo to his boss, Bitwoded Mekonnen. The content of the memo, quoted fairly extensively in Zewde’s book mentioned Ruga to have said among others, “for the last five years (presumably between 1942 and 1946), I have been persistently thinking the issue that your honour had anxiously instructed us to find the remedy. In the opinion of your obedient employee, from among the peoples of Ethiopia, the Gurages can overcome the conquest of the Arabs in the retail trade for the time being, by providing loan to 50 young Gurages and helping them set up shops and sale similar merchandise in juxtaposition to the shops of Arabs retailers.”
The special committee then received this proposal referred to it by the Minister and thoroughly examined it. Predictably, while members of the committee had accepted the solution, members also discussed that other Ethiopians such as the Wolloye’s and the Tigraway would have to be included in the proposed scheme.
However, at last, it was agreed to stick to the original proposal for implementation, leaving the door open to other Ethiopian national group. Finally, the committee submitted its proposal to Biweded Mekonnen. Passionately impressed by the committee proposal, Bitweded pledged to take the proposal to the Emperor for the approval of the fund necessary to realize the proposal. He easily persuaded the emperor and obtained the fund required to finance implementation of the plan.
Accordingly, Ruga’s proposal was accepted and an action plan was drawn up for implementation. Therefore, “40 trustworthy young Gurages, acceptable by reputable and eminent communal elders of their birth place and that can provide guarantors, were selected” for the initial phase of implementation of the plan and provided with 700 Br to commence retail trade.
As outlined in the plan, the selection of 40 Gurages were made with the effort of Ruga and his friends, who were then provided with 700 Br, supported to set up their retail shops and “in less than one year, 33 out of the 40 Gurages, reversed foreign Arab dominance on the retail trade and forced the later to dismantle their shop and leave their businesses.” This was possible, Zewde also underlined, because “they obtained good cooperation of residents of each village with their diligence and high regard to their customers; due to the relative discount they introduced on commodity prices; and because the public also became increasingly aware of the distinction and benefits shopping between domestic and foreign traders.”
Much to the satisfaction of the government, before the end of the year, these traders were ready to pay back the loan provided to them and demanded the discharge of guarantors that surprised the unprepared Ministry of Finance.
The idea of seeking local solution to local problem revealed to the innovative young Ruga of the Gurage national, a very junior staff of the Ministry of Commerce but who was as much responsible and worried as the Minister and culminated with success, cannot be explained by nothing other than with reference to the bulwark of common foundation, destiny, vision, purpose and framework that both Ethiopians had in mind in providing their services i.e., putting the interest of the country and its people first above narrow, parochial and self-serving gains.
Besides, though Ruga was a junior staff of the Ministry, he was not a passive public servant subserviently waiting for his boss’s instruction or party guidance, good or bad, and ready for blind obedience and enforcement. On the contrary, he took personal initiative to investigate and research the solution for the unusual problem facing his motherland during the post war period. Ruga was absolutely right to seek the solution through accepted and conventional economic laws of market competition rather than government enactments or subsidies that inadequately and artificially address the problem and squander meager public resource.
Bitweded Mekonnen Habtewold delightfully accepted Ruga’s proposal and totally disparaged Ruga’s fear of ethnic profiling by members of the committee on account of the suggestion submitted and advised the committee to examine in detail, the proposed solution without notifying by name, the originator of this marvelous idea. Indeed, the Gurage peoples are very diligent, industrious, foresighted and indefatigable business people, among others.
Since Ruga was born from and lived with them, it was not by coincidence that he focused his attention to seek the solution among his people to tackle the prevailing national predicament. He was also bold enough and too sincere in his choice and suggest that the Gurages were the right people to achieve the intended objective of government policy.
The position maintained by Biweded Mekonnen, a member of the old generation clearly demonstrate a striking difference from the previous and contemporary modern generations of officials both in approach and methodology of addressing the pressing issue confronting his official responsibility. Since the end of the Imperial regime, Ethiopians were thought and made to believe that the old system of government was autocratic, largely dominated “by members of the royal family, aristocrats and the Chauvinist shoan and other regional elites” that defied “eligibility for appointment in high public office, equality and other rights of nations, nationalities and peoples.”
However, Zewde’s book proved abundantly that, there were key officials of humble origins so powerful to be movers and shakers, who were aggressively fighting for the implementation of the reform program of the Emperor and who, at times, were engaged in a fierce battle against the imperial and aristocratic family for modernity, increased government accountability and changes so much so that even the voice of junior civil servants such as the young Ruga Ashamie, was properly and attentively heard, accepted and implemented.
The solution for the root cause of the inflationary problems reported in contemporary Ethiopia begs a question about the stark contrast in approach between officials of the ancient imperial and modern government units in redressing the recurring economic problems of the nation.
Unlike the imperial period, modern Ethiopia has been governed by parties that profess the Marxist-Leninist principle of “democratic centralism.” According to this principle, the party formulate policies, provides guidance and exercise leadership. The party is the innovator of new ideas, provider of solutions to problems and officials are expected to abide with and not deviate from party instruction, whether workable or not.
The party is an all knowing god and consequently, even the most sincere, useful and problem solving proposal cannot receive audience by government officials, let alone acceptance and approval by the party. It has been disclosed, time and again, that only those persons that comply with party instruction can be appointed to ministerial positions to serve this country, irrespective of academic credential, experience or even resourcefulness (though not buttressed by a provision of the incumbent constitution).
Assuming that he is not a member of the party, it is highly doubtful if democratic centralism would allow and welcome Ruga’s proposal and see the light of its implementation. Certainly, rather than pondering over the problem, seek for a solution, prepare and submit his memo, the free and patriotic mind of Ruga would have been expected to simply and obediently enforce laws or decisions coming down from above prepared by senior party leaders that are “exclusively entitled to know all policy problems and seek solutions” through binding decisions or barrage of laws often copied or “benchmarked” from foreign jurisdictions.
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