Skip to content

Ethiopia Kleptocracy

Land and Ethiopia’s Corruptocracy

no corrThe silence of Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds”

Professor A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the renowned Indian scientist  (“Missile Man of India”)  and Eleventh President of India (2002-2007) said, “If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher.”

Recently, the World Bank released its 448-page World Bank (WB) report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia” with evidence galore showing that Ethiopia under the absolute dictatorship of the Meles Zenawi regime has become a full-fledged corruptocracy (a regime controlled and operated by a small clique of corrupt-to-the-core vampiric kleptocrats who cling to power to enrich themselves at public expense). Perhaps the report’s findings should not come as surprise to anyone since “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Over the past several weeks, I have made a number of cursory remarks on the shocking findings of the WB report. I have also discreetly appealed to a segment of  Ethiopia’s  “beautiful minds”  (its teachers, professors, economists, political and social scientists, lawyers, and other members of the learned professions)  to critically examine the report and inform their compatriots on the devastating impact of  corruption on the future of their poor country and make some recommendations on how to deal with it. I even challenged the political opposition to issue a “white paper” and make crystal clear their position on accountability and transparency and make some concrete proposals to remedy the endemic corruption that has metastasized in the Ethiopian body politic.

I have yet to see any substantive analysis or commentary on the WB’s “diagnosis of corruption” in Ethiopia in the popular media or in the scholarly journals;  nor have I seen any proposals on how to sever the vampiric tentacles of corruption sucking the lifeblood from the Ethiopian people. Could it be that Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” can’t handle ugly truths? Or do Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds”  turn faint-hearted when it comes to speaking ugly truths to power?

Few can tell the ugly truth about corruption in Ethiopia more bluntly thanGlobal Financial Integrity  (GFI), the renowned organization that reports on “illicit financial flows” (illegal capital flight, mispricing, bulk cash movements, hawala transactions, smuggling, etc.) out of developing countries. In 2011, GFI told the world, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.”

When the late dictator Meles Zenawi was asked in July 2011 about his feelings concerning the use of the word “famine” synonymously with Ethiopia by the Oxford Dictionary,  he said, “… Like any citizen, I am very sad. I am ashamed. It is degrading. A society that built the Lalibela churches… Axum obelisks… some thousand years ago is unable to cultivate the land and feed itself….  That is very sad. It is very shameful. Of all the things, to go out begging for one’s daily bread, to be a beggar nation is dehumanizing. Therefore, I feel great shame.”  I too feel great shame that Ethiopia has become not only a “beggar nation” over the past 21 years, but also that she has now become synonymous with the word “corruption”. It is unbearable that the land of “13 months of sunshine” has become the land of 13 months of the darkness of corruption.

Speaking the ugly truth to power

Given the icy silence of Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds”, it is my humble duty and unenviable job to continue to speak the ugly truth about corruption to the powers that be in Ethiopia. For years, I have written numerous commentaries on corruption in Ethiopia as a serious human rights violation. I agree with Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of Transparency International (Corruption Index) that “corruption leads to a violation of human rights in at least three respects: corruption perpetuates discrimination, corruption prevents the full realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and corruption leads to the infringement of numerous civil and political rights.” I also believe corruption undermines  good governance, cripples the rule of law and destroys citizens’ trust in political leaders, public officials and political institutions.

In 2007 when Ethiopia’s auditor general, Lema Aregaw, reported that Birr 600 million of state funds were missing from the regional government coffers, Meles fired Lema and publicly defended the regional administrations’ “right to burn money.” In my December 2008 commentary “The Bleeping Business of Corruption in Ethiopia,” I argued that “corruption in Ethiopia is an evil with a thousand faces. It is woven into the fabric of the political culture.” Corruption is the modus operandi of the regime in power in Ethiopia today. Former president Dr. Negasso Gidada clearly understood the gravity of the situation when he declared in 2001 that “corruption has riddled state enterprises to the core,” adding that the government would show “an iron fist against corruption and graft as the illicit practices had now become endemic”. In 2013, the business of corruption is the biggest business in Ethiopia.

In my November 2009 commentary, “Africorruption, Inc.”, I described the tip of the iceberg of the web of corruption in Ethiopia by synthesizing some of the eye popping anecdotal evidence. Dr. Negasso documented corruption in the misuse and abuse of political power for partisan electoral advantage. Coincidentally, in 2009, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley announced that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current prime minister’s party.” (For reasons unknown, but not difficult to guess, the U.S. State Department has never released the findings of its investigation.)

The ruling regime’s “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) in 2008 documented the fact that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the country’s principal bank. FEAC described the heist as a “huge scandal that took place in the Country’s National Bank and took many Ethiopians by surprise… The  corruptors dared to steal lots of pure gold bars that belonged to the Ethiopian people replacing them with gilded irons… Some employees of the Bank, business people, managers and other government employees were allegedly involved in this disastrous and disgracing scandal.”

FEAC also reported that “there was another big corruption case at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation that took many Ethiopians by surprise” which involved the “competitive tendering for the supply of telecommunication equipment.” FEAC  “found out that nearly 200 million USD has been lost to corruption through the entire fraudulent and corrupt process…. In another case involving a telecommunications deal with the Chinese, a high level regime official was secretly tape recorded trying to extort kickbacks for himself and other regime officials.” (Even though high level bank officials were fingered in the gold heist, there is no evidence that any one of them has ever been prosecuted.)

In my November 2011 commentary “To Catch Africa’s Biggest Thieves Hiding in America!”, I called attention to a Wikileaks cablegram which confirmed long held suspicions about massive corruption in the current ruling party in Ethiopia, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF): “Upon taking power in 1991… [the TPLF] liquidated non-military assets to found a series of companies whose profits would be used as venture capital to rehabilitate the war-torn Tigray region’s economy…[with] roughly US $100 million… Throughout the 1990s…,  no new EFFORT  [Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray owned and operated by TPLF] ventures have been established despite significant profits, lending credibility to the popular perception that the ruling party and its members are drawing on endowment resources to fund their own interests or for personal gain.” According to the World Bank, “roughly half of the Ethiopian national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT)… EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.”

When 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished (not unlike the gold bars that walked out of the National Bank) from the warehouses in 2011, Meles Zenawi called a meeting of commodities traders and threatened to “cut off their hands” if they should steal coffee in the future. In a videotaped statement, Meles told the traders he will forgive them this time because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”.

In my December 2011 commentary “The Art of Bleeding a Country Dry”, I argued, “No one knows corruption — the economics of kleptocracy — better than [Meles] Zenawi.  The facts of Zenawi’s  corruptonomics are plain for all to see: The [Ethiopian] economy is in the stranglehold of businesses owned or dominated by Zenawi family members, cronies, supporters or hangers-on.”

“Diagnosing Corruption in (in the land of) Ethiopia”

Transparency International (Corruption Index) broadly defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Corruption manifests itself in grand and petty ways. “Grand corruption consists of acts committed at a high level of government that distort policies or the central functioning of the state, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good.” Grand corruption often involves political corruption in which political decision makers manipulate “policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.” Petty corruption often occurs when the law enforcement officials or bureaucratic functionaries exact payments from “ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services in places like hospitals, schools, police departments and other agencies” .

Corruption in Ethiopia is no longer a question of disparate anecdotal evidence or an issue of intellectual debate.  Corruption has become the loathsome disease of the Ethiopian body politic. That is why the World Bank carefully titled its report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”. Diagnosis refers to the clinical process of identifying a disease. The 448-page World Bank report has diagnosed corruption as the metastasizing cancer of the Ethiopian body politic.

Corruption in land is the root of all corruption in Ethiopia! Grand corruption in land originates from the upper circles of power in the public and private sector. The powerful political and economic elites in Ethiopia exploit the anarchic, arbitrary, secretive, unaccountable and confused governance of the ruling regime to weave their tangled webs of corruption. The World Bank report states that “the land sector [in Ethiopia] is particularly susceptible to corruption and rent seeking [using social or political institutions to redistribute wealth among different groups without creating new wealth (profit seeking)].” Corruption  in  land in Ethiopia is inherent (as the old communist ideologues used to say, “part and parcel of”) in “the way policy and legislation are formulated and enforced.”

The World Bank report explains that corruption in the land sector in Ethiopia occurs in several ways. First and foremost, “elite and senior officials” snatch the most desirable lands in the country for themselves. These fat cats manipulate the “weak policy and legal framework and poor systems to implement existing policies and laws” to their advantage. They engage in “fraudulent actions to allocate land to themselves in both urban and rural areas and to housing associations and developers in urban areas.” These “influential and well-connected individuals are able to have land allocated to them often in violation of existing laws and regulations.”

In the capital Addis Ababa, it is “nearly impossible to a get a plot of land without bribing city administration officials.” These officials not only demand huge bribes but have also “conspired with land speculators” and facilitated bogus “housing cooperatives [to become] vehicles for a massive land grab. It is estimated that about 15,000 forged titles have been issued in Addis Ababa in the past five years.”

Management of rural land is similarly deeply infected with corruption. “In rural areas, officials have distorted the definition of ‘public land’ to mean ‘government land’”. Officials define “public purpose” in applying expropriation which is believed to be a leading cause of “landlessness”. Officials have also “engaged in land grabbing to grant land to functionaries” and this is “happening at the woreda (district) level and is being copied by the elected committee members at kebele (subdistrict) level.”  According to the World Bank report, “Almost all transactions involving land most often incorporate corruption because there is no clear policy or transparent regulation concerning land.”

It is stunning to learn from the report that the ruling regime does not even have the most elementary system of  land management in place. “Rural areas have no maps of registered holdings… In urban areas, there is little mapping of registered property. Encumbrances and restrictions are not recorded in the registers, and the encumbrances, if registered, are listed in a separate document. Land use restrictions are not recorded in the register. There is no inventory of public land, which affects the efficient management of public land and creates opportunities for the illegal allocation of public land to private parties.” Because existing institutions and laws are evaded, ignored and manipulated for private gain, the system of land management is a total failure making it impossible to hold officials in power legally accountable for their corrupt practices.

A variety of methods are used to perpetuate corruption in land in Ethiopia. One “key method” of land corruption involves the illegal allocation of municipal land “to housing cooperatives controlled by developers who then sell off the land informally.” Often “buyers were unaware of the legal status of the land they were buying” and end up in court before judges who are “aligned (in cahoots) with the corrupt officials”.  Another “method” is official falsification of documents. “With limited systems in place to record rights, particularly in urban areas, and limited oversight, officials have plenty of opportunities to falsify documents. It is not uncommon for parcels of land to be allocated to many different parties, sometimes to as many as  different parties, from whom officials and intermediaries collect multiple transaction and  service fees.”  Blatant conflict of interest of board members who oversee the lease award process, the absence of a compliance monitoring process for lease allocations and payments and the absence of land use regulations have served to accelerate the metastasizing corruption in land in Ethiopia.

State ownership of all land in Ethiopia is the fountainhead of land corruption. Wealthy elites and influential groups seize the land of the poor and marginalized through forced, but “legal” evictions and eminent domain actions. Nowhere is this type of land grab corruption more conspicuous than in the regime’s land giveaways to foreign “investors”.  The World Bank report states that “a substantial proportion of expropriated land is transferred to private interests”, but not to smallholders. “The expropriation and relocation of smallholders has been to the advantage of extensive commercial farming, including flower farms, biofuel, and other commodities.” It is also documented that the Ethiopian “government is forcing the Indigenous Peoples of the southwest off their ancestral lands and leasing these lands to foreign companies.” This expropriation has been achieved through a bogus program of “villagization” in which 1.5 million people have been “resettled” from the regions of Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Somali, and Afar and their ancestral lands handed over to domestic and international “investors”.

As I documented in my March 2011 commentary, “Ethiopia: Country for Sale”, the Indian agribusiness giant Karuturi Global today owns a 1,000 sq. miles, “an area the size of Dorset, England”, of virgin Ethiopian land for “£150 a week (USD$245)” for “50 years”. As Karuturi Project Manager in Ethiopia Karmjeet Sekhon euphorically explained to Guardian reporter John Vidal, “We never saw the land. They gave it to us and we took it. Seriously, we did. We did not even see the land. They offered it. That’s all.” The Karuturi guys would like us to believe they got something for nothing. The regime wheeler-dealers  would like us to believe they gave a 1,000 square miles of virgin land to one of the richest agribusinesses in the world for nothing. Suffice it to say that they may also believe we were born yesterday; but surely, we were not born last night!

Prognosis on corruption in Ethiopia

Corruption in Ethiopia is the principal business of the State. Corruption has metastasized in the Ethiopian body politic  because the political and economic elites that have total control over the country’s land resources benefit enormously. They use tailor-made legislative opportunities to secure,  sell and speculate in land rights. Because the state is the sole owner of land, those who own the state alone have the power to privatize land, expropriate, lease, zone or approve construction plans or negotiate large-scale land giveaways.  Those who control the land in Ethiopia control not only the political and economic process but also the digestive process (stomachs)  of 90 million Ethiopians!

The culture of corruption must be changed before the tangled webs of corruption spun by the political and economic elites in Ethiopia are shattered. The major problem with changing the culture of political corruption is, as Peter Eigen observed, “in many parts of the world, the local people are resigned to the fact that there is corruption. They think there is nothing they can do about it. Therefore they more or less try to accommodate themselves, pay bribes themselves.”

Most Ethiopians are unaware of the regime’s “anti-corruption” efforts and those who are aware view the whole effort with a jaded eye. The simple fact of the matter is that having the “anti-corruption” agency (FEAC) to oversee, monitor, investigate and prosecute the architects and beneficiaries of corruption in Ethiopia is like having  Tweedle Dee monitor, investigate and prosecute Tweedle Dum. To invoke an old Ethiopian saying, “It is difficult to get a conviction when the son is the robber and the father is the judge.”

Effective anti-corruption efforts require an active democratic culture based on the rule of law and a vigilant citizenry empowered to confront and fight corruption in daily life.  Genuine anti-corruption efforts must necessarily begin by empowering ordinary people to fight back, not by creating a make-believe anti-corruption bureaucracy.

There have been some successful experiments in grassroots anti-corruption efforts where ordinary people have been given the tools to fight back corruption. In India, for instance, they have successfully organized local “vigilance commissions” in many towns and brought together the vulnerable and interested groups to probe into corruption. These commissions have put a significant dent in corruption. In Bangalore, “hub for India’s information technology sector”, residents have been involved in rating the quality of all major service providers in the city. The results were used to put pressure on government officials and service providers to become more accountable to citizens. The  Central Vigilance Commission of India also runs Project VIGEYE (Vigilance Eye)  which is “a citizen-centric initiative” in which “citizens join hands with the Central Vigilance Commission in fighting corruption in India.” VIGEYE provides citizens given multiple channels of engagement in the fight against corruption. In parts of Brazil, citizens are empowered to fight corruption through “participatory budgeting.” By including citizens from various backgrounds in the process of budget allocation, Brazil has been able to decrease levels of corruption and clientelism (exchange of goods and services for political support).

Ethiopia can learn much from Botswana, regarded to be the least corrupt country in Africa. The “Botswana Model” uses the strategy of “name and shame” to educate and accentuate public awareness of corruption. Using the free press as a tool, Botswanans name and shame corrupt officials by publishing their photographs on the front pages with the headline: “Is this man corrupt?” Botswana’s top political leaders are said to maintain high levels of public integrity and teach by example. Peter Eigen credits Botswana’s success to the “Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime in Botswana [which] has processed thousands of [corruption] cases since 1994 and has made great strides against corruption.” In 2012, Botswana ranked an extraordinary 30/174 countries on the Corruption Index. These examples point to the fact that citizen involvement and monitoring are very effective in reducing corruption and increasing public integrity. Creating a bloated, toothless and  self-perpetuating anti-corruption bureaucracy  such as FEAC is mere window dressing for international donors and loaners.

The other remedy for corruption lies in vigorous and well-publicized criminal prosecutions of corrupt officials, asset forfeitures (divestment of corruptly obtained wealth) and imposition of tough prison sentences on convicted corrupt officials. FEAC’s own data show that corruption prosecutions and convictions in Ethiopia are negligible.

Absent some dramatic treatment for the cancer of corruption in Ethiopia’s land sector, there is no doubt that Ethiopia will be bankrupted in the foreseeable future. This   is  a country whose foreign reserve today could barely cover two months of its import bills, has accumulated over USD$12 billion in foreign debt;  and over the past decade Ethiopia  has lost USD$11.7 billion dollars in illicit financial flows.  Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” and the opposition elements need to do a better job of addressing the issue of corruption. Passing references to “corruption” that “plagues the infrastructure sector”, “corruption that has never been seen before in the history of” Ethiopia and pleas to “arrest corruption that is rampant in the country” are simply not adequate.

I like to ask naïve questions. When it comes to governance, I ask not why Ethiopia’s rulers have chosen the “China Model” but rather why they have not chosen the “Ghanaian Model?” When it comes to corruption control, I simply ask why Ethiopia’s rulers have chosen not to follow the “Botswana Model”?

At the end of the day, “if Ethiopia is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds,” its  “beautifully minded” scholars, professors, researchers, policy analysts, lawyers  and other members of the learned professions  must renounce their vows of silence and loudly speak truth to black-hearted dictators! Silence may be golden but when we see the gold walking out of the National Bank in broad daylight, we had better  scream, shout and holler  like hell!!!

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:


Ethiopia: The Art of Bleeding a Country Dry

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Ethio-Corruption, Inc. (Unlimited)

The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage”, wrote Economist Sarah Freitas who co-authored an upcoming report with  Lead Economist Dev Kar of Global Financial Integrity (GFI). The GFI report entitled, “Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries over the Decade Ending 2009,” previewed in the Wall Street Journal, found that

Ethiopia, which has a per-capita GDP of just US$365,  lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009. In 2009, illicit money leaving the economy totaled US$3.26 billion, which is double the amount in each of the two previous years… In 2008, Ethiopia received  US$829 million  in official development assistance, but this was swamped by the massive illicit outflows.  The scope of Ethiopia’s capital flight is so severe that our conservative US$3.26 billion estimate greatly exceeds the  US$2 billion value of Ethiopia’s total exports in 2009.”

Two weeks ago in my commentary, “Why is Ethiopia Poor?”, I highlighted the fact that the Legatum Institute (LI), an independent non-partisan public policy group based in London, had recently ranked Ethiopia a pretty dismal 108th/110 countries on its 2011 Prosperity Index (LPI). Last year, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) Multidimensional Poverty Index 2010 (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index) ranked Ethiopia as the second poorest (ahead of famine-ravaged Mali) country on the planet. According to OPHDI, the percentage of the Ethiopian population in “severe poverty” (living on less than USD$1 a day) in 2005 was 72.3%.  Six million Ethiopians needed emergency food aid in 2010 and many more millions needed food aid in 2011 in what the U.N. described as the “worst drought in over half a century to hit parts of East Africa”.

The cancer of corruption is deeply embedded in the marrow of the Ethiopian body politic. The recently released  Transparency International (TI) 2011 Corruption Perception Index report on Ethiopia confirms the findings of GFI and other anti-corruption international organizations. For the past decade, TI has ranked Ethiopia at the bottom of the barrel of countries ruled by the most corrupt governments. In fact, for the past ten years Ethiopia’s score on the TI index has remained virtually unchanged (TI ranks countries on a 0 (“highly corrupt”) to 10 (“very clean”) scale.

TI Corruption Index Score for Ethiopia by Year

2011     2.7

2010     2.7

2009     2.7

2008     2.6

2007     2.4

2006     2.4

2005     2.2

2004     2.3

2003     2.5

2002     3.5

In light of the 2011 GFI and TI reports, is there any doubt today why Ethiopia is the second poorest nation in the world? Is it rocket science to figure out why Ethiopians are the second poorest people on the planet? Ethiopians are poor because they have been robbed, ripped off, flimflammed, bamboozled, conned, fleeced, scammed, hosed, swindled, suckered, hoodwinked, victimized, shafted and taken to the cleaners by those clinging to power like bloodsucking ticks on an African milk cow. Is it not mindboggling that the US$3.26 billion stolen out of Ethiopia in 2009 was double the amount stolen in 2008 and 2007!?!

The Art of Bleeding Ethiopia Dry

I have long argued that the business of African dictatorships is corruption. In a November 2009 commentary entitled “Africorruption Inc.”, I wrote the following about corruption in Ethiopia:

The devastating impact of corruption on the continent’s poor becomes self-evident as political leaders and public officials siphon off resources from critical school, hospital, road and other public works and community projects to line their pockets. For instance, reports of widespread corruption in Ethiopia in the form of outright theft and embezzlement of public funds, misuse and misappropriation of state property, nepotism, bribery, abuse of public authority and position to exact corrupt payments and gain are commonplace. The anecdotal stories of corruption in Ethiopia are shocking to the conscience. Doctors are unable to treat patients at the public hospitals because medicine and supplies are diverted for private gain. Tariffs are imposed on medicine and medical supplies brought into the country for public charity. Businessmen complain that they are unable to get permits and licenses without paying huge bribes or taking officials as silent partners.

Publicly-owned assets are acquired by regime-supporters or officials through illegal transactions and fraud. Banks loan millions of dollars to front enterprises owned by regime officials or their supporters without sufficient or proper collateral. Businessmen must pay huge bribes or kickbacks to participate in public contracting and procurement. Those involved in the import/export business complain of shakedowns by corrupt customs officials. The judiciary is thoroughly corrupted through political interference and manipulation as evidenced in the various high profile political prosecutions. Ethiopians on holiday visits driving about town complain of shakedowns by police thugs on the streets. Two months ago, Ethiopia’s former president Dr. Negasso Gidada offered substantial evidence of systemic political corruption by documenting the misuse and abuse of political power for partisan electoral advantage. Last week, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley stated that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current prime minister’s party.” [As of December 2011, over two years after the investigation was launched, the State Department has not publicly released the results of its  investigation.]

Deceit, chicanery, paralogy and sophistry are the hallmarks of Meles Zenawi’s regime in Ethiopia. The cunning dictator has been able to shroud his corrupt empire by pursuing a propaganda policy of mass distraction and by staging one farcical political theatre after another. Zenawi has successfully distracted public attention from rampant corruption by

Making wild allegations of terrorism against his critics, persecuting and prosecuting his opponents and by jailing and exiling independent journalists (a couple of weeks ago, Zenawi shuttered Awramba Times);

Proclaiming a bogus Growth and Transformation Plan that will “double economic growth by an annual average of  14.9 percent” by 2015;

Selling Ethiopia’s most fertile land for pennies above the table and for millions under the table;

Panhandling the international community for famine and humanitarian aid and misusing that aid for political purposes;

Taking massive loans from international banks without     any significant accountability on how it is spent;

Trying to shame and intimidate Western bankers and donors by hectoring them of the evils of  “neoliberalism”;

Proclaiming the construction of an imaginary hydroelectric dam over the River Nile;

Sending troops to occupy Somalia and threatening war with other neighboring countries;

Vilifying international human rights groups, election observers and officials of multilateral organizations who disagree with him;

Dispatching swarms of officials to panhandle the Ethiopian Diaspora for nickels and dimes to buy dam bonds;

Systematically extracting foreign remittances sent by Diaspora Ethiopians;

Staging political theatre by a toothless anti-corruption agency to hoodwink complicit Western donors and loaners.

Etc., etc.

The Economics of Corruption

The Economist Magazine in its November 7, 2006 editorial described “the Ethiopian government as one of the most economically illiterate in the modern world.”  In 2009 at a high level meeting of Western donor policy makers in Berlin where, a German diplomat suggested that Ethiopia’s economic woes could be traced to “Meles’ poor understanding of economics”. They are all wrong!

No one knows corruption, the economics of kleptocracy, better than Zenawi.  The facts of Zenawi’s corruptonomics are plain for all to see: The economy is in the stranglehold of businesses owned or dominated by Zenawi family members, cronies, supporters or hangers-on. According to the World Bank, business enterprises affiliated with Zenawi’s regime control “freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.” Dataprovided by Zenawi’s regime  showed that by the end of the 2009 fiscal year, Ethiopia’s  outstanding debt stock was pegged at a crushing USD$5.2 billion. The USD$11.7 billion stolen over the past decade could easily retire that debt. Ethiopia is Africa’s largest recipient of foreign aid at nearly $USD4 billion in 2009, and the second largest foreign aid recipient in the world after Afghanistan.

Is There a Way to Stop Ethiopia from Bleeding?

The international community “naively” believes that corruption in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa could be controlled and significantly reduced by anti-corruption programs. The U.N. Convention Against Corruption (2003)requires signatories to “develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.” Ethiopia signed the U.N. Convention in 2003. The Africa Union Convention on Preventing and Combatting Corruption (2003)  established a regime to empower African countries to “prevent, detect, punish and eradicate corruption and related offences in the public and private sectors.”  The Convention prescribes that “in order to combat corruption and related offences in the public service, State Parties” shall “require public officials to declare their assets at the time of assumption of office during and after their term of office  in the public service.” Ethiopia signed the AU Convention in 2004. Neither of these Conventions has even made a dent in controlling the metastasizing corruption in Ethiopia.

Zenawi knows the power of corruption. He has effectively used corruption allegations to neutralize and eliminate his political opponents. He used his “Federal Ethics and Anticorruption Commission” to railroad his comrade-in-arms and former defense minister, Seeye Abraha, to jail for six years on unsubstantiated allegations of  corruption. When then-Judge Birtukan Midekssa, and later Ethiopia’s first female political party leader and long suffering political prisoner, released Seeye for lack of evidence, Zenawi rammed legislation through his rubberstamp parliament  to deny Seeye bail and keep him in pretrial detention. He later fired Judge Birtukan.  In 2008, Zenawi’s anticorruption commission reported that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank in broad daylight. A number of  culprits were fingered for the inside bank job, but no one was ever prosecuted. In February 2011, Zenawi publicly stated that 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished from the warehouses. He called a meeting of commodities traders and in a videotaped statement told them he will forgive them because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”. He warned them that if anyone should steal coffee in the future, he will “cut off their hands”.

For years, I have documented and railed against corruption in Ethiopia. In December 2008, three years to the month, in a weekly commentary entitled, “The Bleeping Business of Corruption in Ethiopia”, I wrote:

The fact of the matter is that the culture of corruption is the modus operandi in the Ethiopian body politics. Former president Dr. Negasso Gidada clearly understood that when he declared in 2001 that ‘corruption has riddled state enterprises to the core,’ adding that the government would show ‘an iron fist against corruption and graft as the illicit practices had now become endemic’. In 2007 when Ethiopia’s auditor general, Lema Aregaw, reported that Birr 600 million of state funds were missing from the regional coffers, Zenawi fired Lema and publicly defended the regional administrations’ ‘right to burn money.’…. Ironically, in 2003, Ethiopia signed the U.N. Convention Against Corruption; and a couple of months ago, a conference on institutions, culture, and corruption was hosted jointly in Addis Ababa by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

The fact of the matter is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Zenawi has absolute power in Ethiopia.  Pleading for transparency and issuing moral exhortations against corruption will have no effect on the behavior of Zenawi or any of the other African dictators. Indeed, to plead the virtues of accountability, transparency and good governance with Zenawi and Co., is like preaching Scripture to a gathering of heathens. It means nothing to them. They are unfazed by moral hectoring or appeals to conscience. They sneer and jeer at those who rail and vociferate against corruption. Preaching to the corrupt, to put it simply, is an exercise in total futility!

In my November 7 commentary “To Catch Africa’s Biggest Thieves Hiding in America!”, I discussed the importance of initiating and cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) in civil forfeiture actions to seize corruptly obtained cash, personal or real property of any person or entity that can be traced to “specified unlawful activity”. These civil court actions extend to foreign offenses involving extortion, money laundering, or the misappropriation, theft or embezzlement of public funds by or for the benefit of a public official of a foreign government. (18 U.S. C. sections 981 (a) (1) (c); 1956; 1957.)  The U.S. has recently filed action to seize personal and real property of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the 43-year old son of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea.

Carefully review and analysis of GFI and TI data sources reveals that public assets and funds stolen from many African countries, including Ethiopia, are often hidden in banks located in the U.S. and Europe, although the clever African dictators are now diversifying by taking advantage of  financial havens in countries experiencing rapid growth and industrialization. Much of the corruption activity centers around money laundering (that is,  illegal or dirty money is put through a complex cycle of financial transactions or washed and is transformed into legitimate or clean money).

The basic idea in money laundering is to minimize the chances of detection of stolen public assets and funds by breaking the direct link between the kleptocrats or “corruptocrats” and their collaborators by disguising the true ownership. Using financial consultants, shell companies (bogus companies that exist to simply create the appearance of legitimate transactions through fake invoices and balance sheets), fraudulent official documentation, wire transactions, and “smurfing” techniques (breaking up large amounts of money into smaller, less-suspicious amounts in the names of multiple persons) etc., those who have stolen public assets and funds try to sever or camouflage their loot from its illegal source by placing it in international financial institutions. The aim in money laundering is at least twofold: 1) gain anonymity and hide the audit trail in case of a criminal investigation, and 2)  plough the “clean money” into the legitimate economy by buying homes, investing in legitimate businesses, starting businesses and so on.

If the problem of corruption is to be addressed effectively in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, it is not going to be at the fountainhead of the corruption itself but in the ocean where the river of corruption terminally flows. As one cannot expect the fox to safeguard the henhouse, one cannot similarly expect Africa’s dictators and corruptocrats and their collaborators to safeguard public assets and funds. A big part of the answer to the question of corruption lies in the Laundromats of financial institutions where the dirty money is washed. That’s why I believe it is the civic and moral duty of every Ethiopian and African to help the U.S. Justice Department catch Africa’s biggest thieves hiding in America. It is very easy to do, and do it anonymously.  Individuals with information about possible proceeds of foreign corruption in the United States, or funds laundered through institutions in the United States, should contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations (ICE HIS) toll free at 866-347-2423 or send email to: [email protected]. If calling from outside of the U.S., the number is: 802-872-6199  


Previous commentaries by the author are available at:




Reinventing Kenya

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

A Brand Spanking New Constitution

In February 2008, following the ethnically-driven post-election violence in Kenya, I wrote an editorial commentary entitled “The Ethiopianization of Kenya”:

After a half century of national existence, democratic experimentation and stability, Kenya has degenerated into a tribal/ethnic basket case beset by violence, fear and loathing… Kenya could have easily avoided this calamity. It had all of the tools at its disposal — a functioning and well-oiled electoral process, a civically engaged population, a democratic political culture enriched by prior voting experiences, an active and independent press, and a reasonably professional and independent judiciary, among others. It could have peacefully and amicably resolved the persisting questions of land ownership and redistribution, democratic power sharing, and grievances over issues of ethnic domination… Kibaki understood the implications of the theft of the presidential election for Kenyan national politics. He was fully aware of the potential for ethnic upheavals and widespread violence. He thought he could handle it by replicating the lessons of Kenya’s neighbor to the north, and perpetuate himself in power by introducing the discredited politics of “ethnic federalism.”[1]

The post-election bloodbath in Kenya ended after 1,500 innocent people were killed and 300,000 internally displaced, and Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga agreed to share power and hold a referendum on a new Constitution, which earlier this month was approved by 67 percent of the voters.

Kenya’s new 206-page constitution[2] replaces the original one engineered by the colonial masters in 1963. It includes a comprehensive Bill of Rights (which encompasses economic, social, and cultural rights). It transfers certain powers to local governments consisting of 47 newly-minted counties, each of which will have a governor and are specially represented in a newly-established Senate. Limits on presidential powers are imposed by requiring parliamentary confirmation of appointees and ending the practice of presidential appointment of judges, among others. The powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are more clearly delineated, and citizen participation in the political process is promoted. The Constitution authorizes the establishment of a new Land Commission with the power to re-possess illegally-occupied public lands. It guarantees women the right to inherit land. Muslim family (kadhis’) courts are given jurisdiction over matters “relating to personal status, marriage, divorce or inheritance” for Kenya’s Muslim minority.

Supporters of the new Constitution argued that these and other changes will usher in a new era of rights for Kenyans (guaranteeing clean water, decent housing, sanitation, and an adequate supply and quality of food and economic rights of inheritance for women), and ensure official transparency, accountability and clean government. According to one recent poll, 91 percent of Kenyans support the new Constitution. President Mwai Kibaki euphorically declared that the new Constitution will be “our shield and defender as we strive to conquer poverty, disease and ignorance.” President Obama praised it as “a significant step forward for Kenya’s democracy”. Opponents campaigned against the new Constitution because it “allows abortion on demand,” and recognizes a non-secular (khadis’) court system. The stronghold of opposition is said to be in western Kenya. Some have suggested that opposition to the new Constitution is stoked by politicians who are likely to lose their political and economic grip in the western region under the new Constitution.

Kenya’s voluminous new constitution and its ambitious scope of coverage of rights is long on promises not unlike most African constitutions which offer a cornucopia of rights and accountability provisions. The real question is whether Kenya’s new Constitution will continue the long unbroken tradition of dictatorship of Big Men in Africa or become a real instrument for the creation of a government of laws for the Kenyan people.

Government of Laws, Not of Men

Constitutional government is fundamentally about the rule of law. Organic rules are established to protect the rights of citizens from arbitrary and abusive exercise of government power, and ensure leaders and institutions are held accountable under the “supreme law of the land”. Stated simply, in a government of laws, “no man or woman is above the law.” But much of Africa has suffered under the government of men – autocrats, civilian dictators, military juntas, hybrid civilian-military dictators – who have pillaged the continent to line their pockets and oppress the people for nearly one-half century. For instance, Ethiopia for centuries remained under the rule of monarchs who believed they were “elect of God” and operated under the principle that they “can do no wrong” or be held accountable under the law. The maxim which conceptualized the monarch as the supreme law of the land holds, “it is impossible to sue the king or plough the sky.” (Negus aykeses, semay aytares.) The “divine rule of kings” in Ethiopia gave way to an inhuman military dictatorship, followed by a brutal full-fledged kleptocracy.

The modern idea of legal accountability to check the abuse of political power dates back to the English Magna Carta (1215). The Great Charter was imposed on a reluctant king to safeguard against his arbitrary personal rule and to hold him accountable under the “laws of the land”. By the same token, modern constitutions are intended to be a bulwark against dictatorship and tyranny by requiring of leaders and institutions observance of the principle of the rule of law. But that has not happened in Africa. African dictators have sought to create the illusion of constitutional democracy while practicing constitutional dictatorship. They sneer at the very thought of being held accountable when they exceed, abuse or misuse their powers. Far from imposing limitations on power, constitutions in Africa have served to expand and maximize the powers of dictators who have used them as “trump cards” to suit their needs. Many African dictators have used their constitutions as “meal tickets”. Western donors often refuse to extortion money unless they see the dictators wrapped around a nice liberal-sounding constitution. Domestically, these dictators have used their constitutions to legitimize their dictatorships, provide a “legal” cover for their klepto-oligarchic state, and to protect and preserve their privileges. As offensive weapons, they have use them to sledgehammer the opposition. For instance, in 2005 after Zenawi was defeated in the polls, he wiped out the opposition by charging them with five counts of violations of the Constitution. After he declared victory in the May 2010 election which he “won” by 99.6 percent, he made two public offers to opposition parties and leaders that he would sit and negotiate with them (lol) provided they “respect the will of the people and accept the country’s Constitution and constitutional process.”[3]

Kibaki told a teeming crowd of thousands in Nairobi that the new Constitution will be “our shield and defender as we strive to conquer poverty, disease and ignorance.” We wish the Kenyans the best of luck; but the fact is that in very few places in Africa have constitutions ever been used as shields. They have been used as spears and swords against individuals and as barrages of arrows against dissident groups in society. Kenya’s choices are clear: She can take Ghana’s path and launch a constitutional democracy, or imitate its northern neighbor and be swallowed up in the quicksand of constitutional dictatorship. The Ghanaian path is the more difficult one to take because it requires translating constitutional rules into daily practice. It requires nurturing a democratic culture complete with all the expressive freedoms. This means going beyond babbling rapturous constitutional rhetoric about a “reborn” Kenya, “shields” and “defensive” armor against poverty and so on. To ensure constitutional success, ordinary Kenyans must take full ownership of their Constitution or it will be swiftly hijacked by the wily and corrupt politicians. Kenyans civil society institutions and intellectuals must take the lead in educating the masses about their new Constitution and help develop structures for popular participation. If Kenyans fail to maintain “eternal vigilance” over the corrupt crooks skulking in the halls of power, they will soon find that the constitution they were told was their shield will have been transformed into spears and arrows of dictatorship, garrotes to choke their civil society institutions and cudgels to trash their human rights. If they need proof of that ugly future, let them calmly gaze northward.

From the Misrule of Law to the Rule of Law

Is it not a tragic fact that for most of Africa dictatorship is the only game of politics? The real question to contemplate as Kenya begins political life under its new Constitution is whether it will ultimately become a constitutional democracy or constitutional dictatorship. Kibaki has been in the saddles of power since his days as minister of finance in 1969, and is Kenya’s third president since 1963. The stench of corruption in high government places in Kenya reeks to the high heavens. In August 2006, Senator Barack Obama said, “Here in Kenya, there is a crisis [of corruption] — a crisis that’s robbing an honest people of the opportunities they fought for.”

Having lofty-sounding and well-crafted constitutions will not guarantee the crooked politicians will conform their conduct to the supreme law of the land. If mere words in a constitution were proof of the existence and functioning of constitutional government, Ethiopia’s would be second to none. Kenya now is at the fork in the constitutional road. Whichever road it takes will be fraught with danger. I am hopeful that Kenya will take the road less travelled — Ghana’s Way — in the rest of Africa. But I have deep concerns over the challenges that lie ahead. Do the Kenyan masses understand their new Constitution? Better yet, do their leaders? I am doubtful that the vast majority of Kenyans have actually read and understand the 206-page Constitution (let alone engaged in vigorous debate over its provisions), despite that country’s 80 percent literacy rate. Even a studious and learned constitutional lawyer will have difficulty penetrating the dense recesses of the new Constitution. The corrupt politicians thrive in a whirlpool of mass ignorance; and I have a gnawing suspicion that they will find a way to hijack the Constitution and continue to do business as usual. The silver lining in the cloud is the manifest popular excitement and enthusiasm for the new Constitution by ordinary citizens. Only they can save their country from the serrated teeth of the corrupt and voracious politicians.

Long-term political stability in Africa will be impossible without citizens and leaders believing that legitimate governance rests first and foremost on observance of an agreed upon set of ground rules that limit the power of leaders and institutions and guarantee the rights of citizens. The words of most African constitutions are dead letters. They mean nothing, except what the dictators want them to mean. They neither shield citizens from the slings and arrows of ruthless dictators nor guide the people out of the wilderness of failed “statedoms” and thiefdoms (kleptocracies). These so-called constitutions are “legal” documents but they are rarely legitimate instruments of governance. They disempower the ordinary people from becoming active participatory citizens and rarely serve as tools for greater official accountability, transparency, or protection of human rights. Africa’s dilemma today is whether it will be democratized or continue to be “dictatorized”.

If the recent polls are any indication, there seems to be a significant attitudinal shift among average Kenyan citizens and the elites that the new Constitution represents a change of power from a group of ethnically-entrenched demagogues to a set of supreme rules. That is a hopeful sign. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Ultimately, the proof of Kenya’s new Constitution will be in its application and dutiful observance by its leaders and citizens. If ordinary Kenyans resolve to defend their new Constitution against the hordes of thieving politicians and kleptocrats, the words written on that paper will be worth more than all the precious jewels in the world. In the meantime, Kenya’s neighbors to the north will be scratching their heads wondering if their Constitution is worth the paper it is written on! North of the Kenyan border the motto is: “For our friends, everything; for strangers, nothing; and for our enemies, the law (constitution)!”



Ethiopia: Licensed to Steal

Alemayehu G. Mariam

If democracy is a government of the people, kleptocracy is a government of thieves.

Last week the secret world of Meles Zenawi’s kleptocracy, famine aid-sharking and money laundering in Ethiopia was exposed by two of his former comrades-in-arms in the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Gebremedhin Araya, a former treasurer and TPLF co-founder Dr. Aregawi Berhe, detailed the scam used to swindle, hustle and con millions of dollars from international famine relief organizations in the mid-1980s. The two former top leaders accused the TPLF leadership, including Zenawi, for taking tens of millions of dollars earmarked for famine relief in the Tigrai region to buy weapons and enrich themselves. Gebremedhin said he personally handed cash payments and checks in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to Zenawi and Sebhat Nega, the top two TPLF leaders who controlled the cash flow of the organization. Although Gebremedhin was the treasurer, he said he was not privileged to know what happened to the money after he delivered it to Zenawi or Nega. The incriminatory evidence, (including a candid photograph of TPLF cadres counting and recording wads of cash handed over to them by a foreign aid worker from a large satchel on the floor), is shocking as it is damning and irrefutable.

In 1984/5, at the height of the catastrophic famine, nearly a quarter of a billion dollars were raised internationally for famine relief in Ethiopia. Michael Buerek of the BBC who visited the Tigrai region at the height of the famine in 1984 described the situation as “a biblical famine in the 20th Century” and “the closest thing to hell on Earth” (See video[1]).

According to the available evidence, normal delivery of emergency humanitarian aid to the Tigrai region in 1984 was virtually impossible because of rebel activity in the outlying areas and bombardment by the military junta. The road normally used to deliver aid supplies to the Tigrai region from the capital had become unusable because of rebel military activity. The various international famine relief non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had to find alternate routes to quickly deliver relief aid to victims in rebel-controlled areas. Many of these NGOs eventually set up shop in eastern Sudan close to the Tigrai border in an attempt to deliver aid quickly. The large concentration of NGOs and the publicity surrounding the enormous fundraising efforts by various international celebrities for Ethiopian famine victims caught the attention of the TPLF leaders who saw a lucrative business opportunity for themselves delivering relief aid to victims in areas their controlled.

According to the former TPLF leaders, Zenawi and his top cadres hatched out and successfully executed a scam to use a front “humanitarian relief” organization called “Relief Society of Tigrai” (REST) for aid delivery. The TPLF leaders managed to “convince” the various NGOs operating out of the Sudan that REST is a genuine charity organization completely separate from the TPLF, the declared military wing. In fact, REST was the other face of the TPLF coin.

The evidence further indicates that to magnify the severity and extremity of the famine situation for the NGOs, the TPLF leaders ordered the exodus of large numbers of victims into the Sudan creating a mushroom of refugee settlements in the Sudanese border areas overnight. Using different techniques and methods, the TPLF leaders stage managed an elaborate marketing “drama” for the NGOs to buy and deliver aid to the large famine-stricken population inside Tigrai. This was done principally by organizing a small group of their most trusted and inner circle members to pose as “grain merchants” and solicit business from the NGOs.

The deception games, or more accurately the famine aid-sharking scheme, played on the Western NGOs were varied. At the onset of the scam, they used a three-staged process. In stage one, one group of TPLF/REST officials masquerading as legitimate grain merchants would approach the myriad NGOs and offer to sell them substantial quantities of grain for quick delivery to the famine victims. At the time, the TPLF had acquired and stashed in secret warehouses grains from various sources, including NGOs, for use by its fighters. These secretly stashed grain stockpiles were in fact being offered for sale to the NGOs. The TPLF/REST “grain dealers” would complete the sale transaction and return back to their hideouts with the payment from the NGOs. Gebremedhin said he delivered to Zenawi and Sebhat Nega the cash and check payments from the NGOs. He described the scam with mind-numbing simplicity:

I was given clothes to make me look like a Muslim merchant. The NGOs don’t know me because my name was Mohammed. It was a trick assigned (created) by the top leaders for the NGOs. I received a great amount of money from the NGOs and the money was automatically taken by (the TPLF) leaders. The money, much of it, the leaders put it in their accounts in Western Europe. Some of it was used to buy weapons. The people did not get half a kilogram of maize.

Once the purchase was made another group of TPLF/REST operatives would take over the responsibility of delivering the relief aid inside Tigrai. In the second stage, TPLF/REST officials would facilitate spot checks of grain stockpiles in their own secret warehouses. But the warehouses were tricked out. Gebremedhin said, “if you go there, half of the warehouse was stacked full of sand.” The NGO representatives would perform visual inspections of the stockpiles, give their approval and cross back into the Sudan to conduct additional grain purchases.

In the third stage, the same or different group of TPLF/REST officials would go back to the NGOs and make a pitch for additional sales of grains for delivery in a different part of Tigrai. These offers did not involve any new or fresh supplies of grain. Instead, stockpiles of grain already in secret storage facilities in various locations throughout Tigrai were trucked around to new locations, giving the appearance to the NGOs that fresh supplies of grain were being bought in and delivered. Since the aid workers have no means of independently verifying the grain that is being shuttled from one location to another from completely fresh shipments, they would perform cursory inspections and make payments. In that manner, TPLF/REST was able to sell and resell multiple times the same previously acquired stockpile of grain (and sand) to the NGOs generating millions of dollars in revenue. TPLF/REST used various ways and techniques in 1985 to maximize its business transactions with the NGOs and in selling grain shipments sent by donor countries.

Dr. Aregawi told the BBC that of the $100 million that went through TPLF hands at the time, $95 million was diverted for weapons purchases and other purposes not related to famine relief. He stated that the TPLF stage-managed “dramas” to “fool the aid workers”. A recent BBC investigation identified a 1985 official CIA document which concluded: “Some funds that insurgent organizations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes.” Robert Houdek, a senior US diplomat in Ethiopia in the late 1980s, was quoted by the BBC saying that TPLF members at the time told him that some aid money was used to buy weapons. An aid worker named Max Peberdy stated that he had personally delivered to TPLF/REST officials $500,000 in Ethiopian currency to purchase grain.

The prima facie evidence of massive relief aid diversion by the TPLF is compelling and damning[2]. Those accused of involvement in the wrongdoing have dismissed the evidence as “rubbish”; they have not called for a full fact-finding inquiry to clear their names of such serious and grave charges. Until such inquiry takes place, the evidence of aid-sharking and theft stands unchallenged and unrefuted. To be sure, very little of the famine aid money in 1984/5 channeled through the TPLF went to help the hungry, poor and dying in Tigrai. Nearly all of it (95%) was diverted for military and other purposes. Bob Geldof who organized Live Aid/Band Aid in 1984 collecting tens of millions of dollars in donations recently threatened, “If there is any money missing I will sue the Ethiopian government.”

The systematic plunder and pillage of Ethiopia over the past two decades can now be put in clear perspective.

We now know:

Why Ethiopia’s only outlet to the sea was signed, sealed and delivered, overriding contrary advice by international diplomats;

What went down in the deal to hand over Badme to the aggressor in binding international arbitration following the aggressor’s decisive military defeat at the cost of over 80,000 Ethiopian lives;

How the May 2005 elections were stolen in broad daylight;

Why the missing millions of dollars worth of gold bars from the national bank in 2007 are still missing; Of the secret sweetheart deals that turned over the country’s gold mines to cronies at bargain-basement prices;

How state enterprises were given out to family, friends and supporters for pittance in the name of privatization;

About the secret deals made to demarcate the border between the Sudan and Ethiopia;

About the fire sale of millions of hectares of farmland to foreign “investors”;

About the no-collateral bank loans in the millions of dollars to friends and supporters and the 1.7 billion birr ($141.6 million) loan to Messebo Cement Factory, one of the many companies owned by the “Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray” (EFFORT a/k/a Zenawi, Inc.,), which sent the Development Bank of Ethiopia careening into insolvency);

About the monopoly of the cement business by Zenawi, Inc./EFFORT;

About the multi-million dollar child-trafficking business in the name of inter-country adoptions;

About the secret deals to sole source the construction of the Gilgel Gibe dams to an Italian company;

About the “genocide and interhamwe” scare talk;

About the corrupt procurement and contracting practices that direct state business to cronies, supporters and friends;

About the rampant nepotism, patronage and clientelism;

Why draconian “laws” we enacted to criminalize NGOs and the independent press; and on and on and on.

We know because we now have the blueprint for the perfect kleptocracy!

One must grudgingly admire these con men for their sheer audacity, genius and creativity in ripping off so much money from the charities in the mid-1980s (and for the last two decades from the Ethiopian people). Even Ali Baba and his 40 thieves could not have pulled off such a brilliant scheme to sell and re-sell the NGOs the same sand as grain over and over again. Even Hermes, the Greek god of thieves, would not have been able to come up with such an exquisitely perfect plan to hoodwink and bamboozle gullible NGOs of millions of dollars. They truly deserve the title, “A New Breed of African Thieves”.

The facts are plain to see. We know now that these thieves did not stand for the people of Tigrai at the critical hour in 1984. They sure as hell do not stand for the people of Ethiopia today. They stand for themselves and no one else. They will try to cling to power by creating enmity and polarization between the people of Tigrai and their brothers and sister in the rest of Ethiopia. That is the ONLY way they can stay in power. As an old Ethiopian saying teaches, disorder and chaos creates ideal conditions for thieves (Gir gir le leba yimechal.) The Ethiopian opposition today is in a state of gir-gir (disarray, discord and mess). When the core of opposition political activity revolves around ethnic bashing, finger pointing and finger wagging, the ideal conditions for thievery are created and maintained. But there is a way to deal with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves:

Close ranks regardless of ethnicity or regionality; reaffirm our basic humanity in our Ethiopianity; renounce our old enmity; openly declare our steadfast unity and trumpet our Ethiopian nationality at every opportunity.

When we have done these things, we will have freed ourselves from domination and rule by a kleptocracy — a government of thieves, by thieves, for thieves!

We should all thank BBC’s Africa Editor, Martin Plaut, for his extraordinary investigative work in this affair.


[1] See 1984 BBC video at:
[2] See details of the scam in excerpts from Gebremedin Araya’s Amharic manuscript: Pt. 1,
Pt. 2,

Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,, and other sites.