BY ZEKARIAS WOLDEMARIAM
Laurence Freeman is an American Political Economic analyst for Africa. He created the website entitled www.laurencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com. He has been lobbying for economic interventions that liberate Africa from poverty and suggesting ways that African policy makers should adopt in order to sustainably address the economic problems of Africa. Among them, he stood as strong proponent of focus on energy and infrastructure development which can speed up the industrialization, job creation … etc in Africa and cut poverty significantly.
Freeman works on a range of issues related to Africa. On this edition, The Ethiopian Herald will present his insight about the implementation of African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Ethiopia’s chance of rejoining AGOA, among others. Have a nice read!
There are some progresses in Africa, like accelerating the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), it tries to interconnect African countries, including infrastructure, and there is also just one passport, one African passport, Pan African Air Transport program, all these things, how do you think it could help the integration?
Of course, they could be very useful. I’m concerned when I look at the Africa free trade Alliance, the continental free trade area. But they don’t put the emphasis on infrastructure that they need to. And they don’t really have a good understanding of how to finance it yet. And if they don’t do that, then the whole rest of the program won’t work. In other words, if we have railroads, criss-crossing Africa, for example, we could take the city of Bangui and Central African Republic. Now Central African Republic is one of the poorest nations in the world. I did a research project on that for a client, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world. But with east-west railroad connection and several going north-south like a checkerboard, and also the transaxle project, we would turn Bangui, into a model, prosperous city, and we transform Central African Republic transform the Democratic Republic of Congo. So this can all be done. But if we don’t have railroads, if we don’t have electricity, you need electricity to pump water onto land.
You’re doing and now I’ve talked to my friends in Ethiopia working on this. If we double the land, we use arable land, and we doubled, tripled irrigation. Ethiopia will feed every one of its 115 million people and then have some food export. So yes, the AfCFTA can work but the priorities have to be infrastructure, funding infrastructure. But without that it won’t work. So I’m concerned about what the priorities or an emphasis is. But overall, it’s absolutely the right thing, why there shouldn’t be any thing holding back trains; African countries trade 13 % among themselves. And the rest of it is with the rest of the world. Yeah, why go to another market? You’re going to have 2 billion plus people; you have the market, right?
How do you see Ethiopia’s endeavor to generate as much electric power as possible, and to distribute to neighboring countries?
I’ve been involved in Ethiopia, maybe for 10 or 12 years. I started coming to the country in 2014. And then I’ve been here many times, Ethiopia before the conflict in Tigray was a leading nation on the continent. That understood the principle of infrastructure development, and in many ways, as an emerging country was still having difficulty having a high standard of living for its population. Nevertheless, Ethiopia embarked on some very important projects. In 2016 inauguration of the Addis Ababa – Djibouti Railroad, which I was at that very important event, and the process of building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which really had three fillings. This is very important for Africa. And when the dam goes fully operational, you should have over 6000 megawatts.
That’s the largest injection of energy on the continent. Now from my standards it is not enough. But from what we have now it’s very significant. And Ethiopia now is already selling electricity to Kenya, and I believe South Sudan, and have plans to expand that. So Ethiopia can become the center for regional development across the Horn of Africa. It should be more supported by this. The West does not support the GERD. And Ethiopia should be praised for this initiative, which was totally funded by Ethiopians. Regulating the Nile will help all the countries and in our river system, and there’s no reason for antagonisms coming from downstream nations. This is a major development for Ethiopia and Ethiopian people for the Horn of Africa and for Africa continent as a whole. And everybody should be supporting it.
It has been a year and a half, almost since the US government delisted Ethiopia from the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) beneficiary countries. Now Ethiopia is also working towards just rejoining this list. And I think it has fulfilled many of the criteria for that now. The peace deal has been signed under is smoothly being implemented between the government and TPLF. So what do you think would happen in the months to come?
When Biden did that, if you check my website, I came out and said this is disgusting, and immoral. You don’t kick emerging country, out of AGOA, because the NGO provided jobs for 200,000 people, which provided more jobs downstream for possibly a million people. You don’t send people into poverty. And I came out very strongly against this. And frankly, Biden should have reinstated already. There is no reason to keep Ethiopia out of AGOA. And it’s a continuation of this geopolitics. And the people giving him advice in the State Department in his cabinet are giving him very bad advice. He should have rejected it like “So you guys are wrong. I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to increase poverty in Africa, that’s not going to be my legacy. I don’t want my legacy to be that I cause more people to suffer. So get rid of your advice. And we’re going to go back and put them back in AGOA tomorrow” Now, if he did that it would be good.
As you remember, there had been war between the government and TPLF for the last two years and the peace agreement has recently been signed. What actions
would you suggest for the government to handle the effects of the war?
Well, I think one of the most interesting things is the fact that Africans settle this war. But first of all, it’s very rare that Africans settle war by peace agreements. They usually settle wars by more wars. So, the fact that this was settled by peace agreement, and the fact that the peace agreement was done completely by Africans, you had the African Union. You had a guide. You had two former African Presidents: former South African Vice president leading him and they settled it. Now the question is, do we take a peace agreement on paper and turn it into a durable peace. And my view is that the only way you can turn this into a durable peace is if we begin a massive economic reconstruction program for Northern Ethiopia, to be included in a national program for economic growth throughout the entire country, put all the unemployed young people and others to work, take these soldiers that fought for the TPLF and put them to work by getting people in Ethiopia, to work together for a common shared mission of developing a nation. This would start us on the course of bringing unity back into the nation, the nation is divided and ethnicity is a major problem.
That’s going to require a lot of work. I have some ideas about that. But we have to turn the peace agreement into an Economic mobilization that serves to unite the self interest of all Ethiopians, regardless of what region of the country they came from. I believe the government wants to do this; I don’t have any details on how it’s proceeding. But a national mobilization for common mission is good, is necessary to begin to bring people back to seeing each other as brother and sister Ethiopians rather than its enemies. Because together they want to have a better future for their children. They want to have the benefits of scientific progress for the children and their children’s children. And that’s something that can only be achieved by a nation.
How do you see Ethiopia’s role in the current geopolitical dynamics in the Horn of Africa?
Well, as we’ve discussed before, today, Ethiopia was playing a major role in leading the development, the economic development of the country, and of the region, and other countries saw this. And in fact, if the war had not occurred, Ethiopia could have been a model for economic development policies. Now we have to return to that, in my view, Ethiopia has won an outlook for economic growth, and understands, in part, the importance of infrastructure. And this places them in the forefront for the whole continent, and the region and the most significant population and economic bloc for the entire Horn of Africa.
That is their economy and their number of people they have, and we see already of regional development, by the selling of electricity to neighboring countries, this is a very good first step. And it shows you that development in a region can take place by the economic initiatives of one country, and the GERD is supplying that and should increase. So I think Ethiopia has played a role and will continue to play a role. And as I say, the Ethiopians should look towards all those allies who will support their policies. I think the West is we overreacting to the fact that Ethiopia works with China. South Africa works with China, Nigeria works with China. Egypt is working with Russia to build nuclear power plant, why should they be restricted? Why should the West be able to tell people No, you work with us? So now they’re going to change the language under the current Biden-Blinken administration.
They’re going to say, No, we’re not telling you what to do. We’re saying we can offer you something they can watch at democracy, human rights, how can you have democracy? If people are starving, because they have the time to think? Do they have the time to debate policy? If you want an intelligent government, then you have to have an educated citizenry. I just wrote an article on my website on this. Democracy and elections depend on an educated citizenry. An educated citizenry depends on having a material standard of living, to afford one the leisure time aim to study history and science and politics. You can’t do that. If you don’t have adequate housing, adequate food, and steady job then no hope for the future. So you want democracy, give us economic development. You want peace, give us economic development, you want human rights give us economic development. That’s my message.
From your more than two or three decades of experience working on the political economy of Africa, what are the most impressing improvements or changes you’ve observed in Ethiopia or in Africa?
Well, I think there are more countries now that are beginning to realize that they cannot just follow the whims of the West. They have to think through what is necessary for their own policy and such as the energy policy. And I think that is positive. There are new cities being built. There are new railroads being built such as the one Ethiopia and the one in Kenya and others. There is more concern about bringing in nuclear energy, so I think all these things represent a positive direction. But saying that it still doesn’t meet my requirements, we have to do more. We need more energy, we need more infrastructure. We need government leaders who have the will and the foresight to initiate policies that will transform the country. A good statesman doesn’t just think about the present, he thinks 20 years ahead. He has a vision in the mind, not in reality, but in the mind. And he says this, what I want my country to look like to have this capability, I want this material standard living for my people. So then he takes that vision, which is in his mind. And he uses that vision of the future, to decide what policies implemented the president, where do we want Africa to be in 20 years?
And massively invest in infrastructure massively expand the economic wealth of the economy, tangible wealth and growth. Then where are these 1 billion young people going to work, if we don’t give them jobs, if we don’t give them hope in the future, if we don’t give them dignity in their lives, to raise a family, get a paycheck, have a home, go to school, have leisure time to read, to have children have electricity all night long, if they want to study, if we don’t do those simple things, which are obvious to me, then those people could be turned against Africa. If they’re unemployed, if they’re alienated, If they don’t see hope in the future, then you’ve got a ticking time bomb. And that’s also potential. So I’m hopeful that we get strong, thoughtful leaders. And the West changes its stance on geopolitics. And we could build the whole world around a common paradigm of development, a shared mission, to uplift the human race to take everybody out of poverty, and give everyone a life that’s worthy of being human, as defined by our creativity.
If there’s anything you would like to convey, please take the chance.
I would say that I have a good understanding of Africa, not perfect. I have a unique understanding of Africa. And I think Africans should improve their understanding of the West, they don’t have a good understanding of how politics determine the United States, for example, I have much better understanding. So I think leaders to navigate this course were just deciding where we’re going to go a paradigm of development or conflict and war. I think Africans have to gain greater insight into how Western policy is made. And I think that’s something that we all can work on, and I can assist in.
Okay, thank you very much. Thank you for the insight, and we hope to meet you in the future.
It’s always a pleasure to be in Ethiopia to talk with you.
THE ETHIOPIAN HERALD SATURDAY 4 MARCH 2023