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Monday, November 18, 2013

Lady Gomez has remained famous or infamous - depending who refers to her - in Ethiopia's contemporary politics since her role as chief of the EU's team of election observers in the 2005 national elections. Known to have sided with the main opposition coalition, the CUD and one of its leaders now in exile, in the end she provoked perhaps the longest "letters to the editor" rebuttal ever published in the history of newspapers, by the late Meles Zenawi, which appeared in The Ethiopian Herald, a daily newspaper.
The summit will be a three-day event, where members of parliament from the EU, and the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries will congregate to discuss politics, trade and goals set in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There will be breakout sessions, where Ethiopia's policies on housing provision and employment opportunities for youth and women will be talked about. Co-chairs of the EU joint parliamentary assembly, Louis Michel and Joyce Laboso, and their delegates are scheduled to privately engage Ethiopian authorities over the latter's program of a green economy.
A spokeswoman of foreign affairs for the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialist & Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament, Lady Gomez's inclusion in this private meeting is yet to be confirmed, gossip disclosed. Nonetheless, the possibility of her presence across the aisle in a conference room where Hailemariam and Abadula Gemeda, speaker of the House, are to address the delegates, appears to be within the bounds of possibility, claims gossip.
EU Commission leaders in Brussels placed their official request for a visa on behalf of Lady Gomez last week, gossip disclosed. After what was described as a long pause, Brehane G. Kirstos, state minister for Foreign Affairs, who is quite familiar with Lady Gomez, while serving as an ambassador in Brussels, granted permission for her travel to Addis Abeba, gossip revealed. Ethiopian authorities wanted to neutralise what they see as a plot devised by Lady Gomez, in which she may have hoped that her visa application was declined, and thus create cause for hue and cry, claims gossip.
It was yet another sad twist in the exercise of executive power that brought about the most recent directive, supposedly to correct the wrong doings of a previous directive on "Dividend Income Tax". This is after it had already inflicted grievous harm, not only to the law-abiding taxpaying business community, but also to the credibility of the country's legal framework - and of the country's highest executive authority, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, in particular. According to a report that appeared in the business and economy section of one of Addis Abeba's Amharic newspapers, I read that the Ministry of Finance & Economic Development (MoFED) had issued a new directive requiring enterprises to pay dividend income tax on undistributed profits(retained earnings) that have been kept for 12 months or more. It was stated that only "profits" reinvested and shown with all the proof and evidence laid down by the directive as paid up capital shall not be taxed.
Needless to say, this provision was already there except that hitherto, it was applicable to specific sectors of the economy. The recent widening of the scope of its application to all sectors is a welcome improvement.
The latest communication in the form of a letter from the minister of MoFED to the Ethiopian Revenues & Customs Authority (ERCA), enclosing a more detailed three-page implementation instruction, flatly refuses to accept the application of net profits after tax to nothing other than dividends or paid up capital. But, of course, to businesspersons 'capital' is not 'paid up capital' only.
This is especially so in an economy where, on the one hand, access to credits has increasingly become a critical bottleneck and, on the other hand, a 'lack of liquidity' severely limits an enterprise's ability to pay dividends. Undistributed profits are commonly employed as 'working capital'. The advantage in such a case is that such profits, as are being used to overcome temporary cash shortages, may be distributed as dividends any time cash becomes available.
Under the circumstances, the idea of putting a time limit as to how long undistributed profits may be retained without paying dividend tax may be a preferred option. An implementation amendment to such an effect could be introduced without, of course, any retroactive application.
On the other hand, would it not be rubbing salt in someone else's wound for the new directive to stipulate that taxes already paid under the earlier directive shall not be returned?
True, the tax authority is not known for returning and may not even be expected to write its cheques to return monies it may have wrongly collected. However, if it has collected monies that it should not have done in the first place, it is expected to at least issue tax credits so that the amount collected wrongly or in excess of what was legally due to it would be deducted from any future payments the tax payer may owe the Authority.
Would not doing otherwise be considered outright confiscation by a supposedly lawfully constituted authority? And would not this be tantamount to yet another contradiction in terms of the kind of governance we profess to follow?
The "million-dollar" questions at this point are: wouldn't the foregoing ruling, touted by ERCA as the last word on the subject, put the credibility of the finance minister - who at the National Business Conference chaired by the Prime Minister received a thunderous applause for upholding the existing laws of the country - on the line? For, under these laws, one does not pay dividend income tax, if profits are not shared; corporate profits do not automatically become income to shareholders unless and until declared as dividends; and ipso facto, where there is no income there will not be income tax?
Wouldn't the 'last word' on the issue put the credibility of the Prime Minister himself on the line? Did he not confirm that the word of the finance minister was the position of government when, at a press conference a day after the National Business Conference, he was asked if he would care to clarify the seeming contradiction between the statement of the finance minister and the directive from the ERCA?
One of the main arguments against the earlier directive was that it had no legal basis and, as such, it was no less than a new tax levy authored by the tax collecting agency, in violation of and in contradiction to the country's constitution. This clearly states that levying taxes and collecting duties on revenue sources are reserved to it; drawing up, approving and administering the federal budget go to the federal government.
What is the legal basis for the revised Directive? Does the finance ministry have the authority to levy a new federal tax (dividend income tax on undistributed profits) without going through the federal parliament?
At the risk of sounding alarmist, I sense a grave danger in the way the consultation between business and government has just been nipped in the bud by a bureaucracy that appears occupied much more with protecting itself, than anything else.
How else could it choose to risk the credibility of the highest officers of government (the Prime Minister and the minister of MoFED) to cover up a mistaken and unfortunately misleading interpretation of the country's tax laws in the first place?
If one has to call a spade a spade; the root cause of the saga of the notorious dividend income tax directive (when and where there was no income) was none other than the seemingly innocent, but dangerously mistaken, interpretation given to the tax laws of the country. As the participant who articulated the problem at the National Conference, I wish to recall the strong plea I made to the Prime Minister to at least set up a Committee at which experts would be given a chance of a hearing before the government's final reply.
I might boldly assert that my specific request was prompted by my observation of certain obvious knowledge gaps in accounting and finance on the part of those who were interpreting, as well as those implementing the tax laws. I was not aware that such a process occurred before the revised "last word" instructions were issued by the finance ministry.
I see that no plea to the legislature "to check" the executive branch of government can undo the harm the branch is doing to itself by its failure to deliver on its promises regarding such clearly sensitive and emotive issues.
The writer is a businessperson and former president of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce & Sectoral Associations (ECCSA).
Once again, reform is high on the agenda of the EPRDFites. The latest rhetoric seems to come from the core of the power circle, overseen by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, renowned for his progressive approach to changes. Put into historical context, however, little of the reform rhetoric is new, in every sense of the word.
It all started in the final years of the Imperial regime. Ruling the nation for over 43 years, they faced public resistance over their rigidity for change in the 1960s.
Wealth was concentrated in the hands of the connected feudal lords. The majority used to live in submission to the few.
Economic mobility was something entertained by the connected. Rights, including basic human rights, were thought to be something to be bestowed to the public by the King of Kings. Respect to these rights was, therefore, experienced under the rule of preferential treatment.
The feudalist political economy, which favours only the few, created disappointment within the public. When the apprehension started to test the pillars of the system, however, some progressive figures of the regime started to talk about reform.
Renowned for his reformist agenda was the then Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold. A technocratic figure with the charisma to infuse energy into even the tightest of negotiations, Aklilu worked hard to induce reform within the rather rigid system. Top amongst the agendas of the time was transforming the feudal state to be more open, responsive and serving.
The reform effort brought to light five major areas of intervention, including constitutional, local, administrative, judicial and land reforms. It was all designed to streamline new ways of doing state business and to eventually get the state out of its long overdue rigidity.
Since Aklilu was a close confidante of the King, his engagement was meant to reinvent the state in a way that could dissipate the public disappointment and ensure the powers of the King. There was no expectation that the suggestions from the assessment of the fundamentals of the system could be as transformative as Aklilu and Co later suggested.
Everything else is history. A lack of political commitment from the King of Kings and a complex conflict of interests between individuals within the power circle sent the reform agenda to the sidelines. Public disappointment increased, so much so that the regime was ousted by popular revolution.
Days have passed, but not the trend of reforms. The EPRDFites have also been undertaking reforms with similar names to that of the Imperial era in their 24 years of governing the nation. But they have continued to beat the drum, showing that change is yet to materialise.
During the transitional period after the change in government of 1991, all the reform efforts were aimed at clearing the bureaucracy off the Derguesque mentality, which entails seeing everything through the lens of the pseudo-socialism of the military junta. In adopting the mixed economic system, which eventually evolved to be a regulated market system, the EPRDFites felt a threat from a bureaucracy that was overly dominated by civil servants with the mentality and culture of the previous government.
Their reform efforts were not intended only to clear the bureaucracy off old attitudes, however. They were equally meant to instil the new ideals of the EPRDF-led government in the minds of the frontline public sector employees. Ever since, a series of reforms have been undertaken with the aim of making the bureaucracy responsive to the needs of the public, as well as the ruling party. Yet, success remains a distant dream.
The latest effort by the EPRFites is the good governance plan of major ministries, presented for discussion last week. In what seems to be an effort by the administration of Hailemariam Desalegn to put the ‘powers that be’ into the limelight of public evaluation, the discussion saw higher officials of the power circle admitting the gaps in service provision of the ministries they lead. They were also forced to present concrete strategies of filling these gaps and make the service provision all the more responsive to the citizens’ needs.
But their presentations were largely filled with promises. There was also a tendency to throw the ball down to the lower level civil servants. Excuses, from undeveloped institutional capacity to external factors, were given as justifications for bad governance in the major ministries.
Past experiences of public sector reforms and interventions of streamlining good governance in the sectors failed, but not because of a lack of roadmaps. If anything, developing the reform roadmaps was the most costly and time consuming task. Bulky documents were created after the thorough analysis of service provision. Even best practices were benchmarked from various countries as ways of enhancing the ambitions of service delivery.
But little has changed even after years of testing and a trail of various reform instruments. What was lacking in the whole equation was political resolve. Largely, the reform efforts were undertaken for showbiz, rather than for substantial improvement in processes. Some of them were even undertaken simply to please donors.
Often, the reforms become so heavily politicised that their implementation defies what is accepted as a viable approach. Some critics even claim that the basic aim of the reforms of the past years is simply clearing the bureaucracy off ideological opposition and dissent to the policy lines of the Developmental State.
Even if the purpose of the latest effort is to infuse responsiveness, accountability and transparency within the public sector, as explained by Hailemariam and his civil service Caesar, Muktar Kedir, it could not be realised without sufficient political commitment from the side of the core leadership. The leadership needs to reach a consensus on the essential benefits of the reform.
Cumbersome bureaucracy continues to be the major roadblock for the economic competitiveness of the nation. The time it takes to open a business in Ethiopia remains considerably higher than even the Sub-Saharan African average. No doubt, therefore, that reforming the system is essential in attracting investment and retaining it.
Economic competitiveness could not be achieved under lengthy, cumbersome and unresponsive bureaucracy. Production costs are also higher under a bureaucratic system than otherwise.
Changing this system is essential in sustaining economic growth. Since reforms are essential tools of realising change, it may be accounted that the EPRDFites are on the right track. But the destination could only be right if the reforms are underpinned with adequate political resolve from the Revolutionary Democrats.
The EPRDFites need to learn from history. Reluctantly implemented reforms achieve nothing other than prolonging public disappointment and eventually destabilising a system. Certainly, no one benefits from instability. It could all be avoided simply by complementing the latest effort with incessant political resolve.
After 5 years of documenting the Sidama tribe’s food ways, Donna Sillan, MPH has completed the first “Sidama Cookbook” ever written to capture the traditional art of this ancient and unique cuisine.  It is an anthropological document to preserve the dying art of enset, the staple of the Sidama.  She spent time planting, processing and preparing enset in Ethiopia before attempted to capture what has only been transmitted orally to date and is on the verge of extinction.
Sidama Sustenance
A blurb from Donna on her shocking process
Sidama food takes the prize for being the most complicated, intricate, ancient food processed on the planet.   What strikes me as most amazing is the fact that an ancient people discovered “enset” and found out how to make it edible and determine its utility as a staple.  How did they figure it out hundreds of years ago?
I wrote this book for two reasons. First of all, I admit, I’m obsessed with food and particularly exotic, ethnic food.   It is no wonder that I spent the last 30 years as an international public health practitioner specializing in nutrition.  It was by design.  I have cooked with developing world women in huts and under trees, balancing pots on three stones in over 35 countries, through my nutrition work with NGOs. I am particularly interested in the diets, food ways and the cultural meaning of foods.  Tell me what a people eats and I will understand them more.  We are what we eat.  Secondly, I wanted to preserve this ancient art for the tribe.  It had not be recorded in history and needed to be written down for posterity before it is forgotten.
On the first day of entering Aleta Wondo in 2007, my interest was immediately piqued by the intriguing unique staple food of the Sidama called “enset.”  I started talking with the Sidama about their diet, their foodways, their nutrition, the availability of their foods, and their cooking practices. I started eating their staple “kocho”, photographing it, and preparing it. I wanted to learn how to cook enset myself.  That was easier said than done.  It is an incredibly complicated process.   Every time I asked how it was done, I was caught in the middle of long string of events which had missing pieces from the beginning or the end in the sequence.  I was completely frustrated and confused.  Then, I became disappointed.  It wasn’t as presentable as the national staple, injera.  Kocho (the edible end product of enset) looked like a pile of sand.  Meanwhile, enset, aka “false banana” in the fields is sexy gorgeous!  It has wide, fluorescent green leaves with thick, soft fleshed trunks of different colors.  There was such a contrast from field to table in terms of presentation.  The processing of this beautiful plant turned it into an unattractive pile of brown sand.   Why, how, what for?
I decided to tackle the mystery of this particular food by writing a grant to get funding to compile a “cookbook” on enset.  Christensen Fund funded the proposal.  Upon undergoing the process of learning about enset, I underwent my own personal process.  I had drawn my own hypothesis and had drawn my own conclusion.  I was prepared to propose to the tribe to find a new staple food and start over to develop a more friendly food crop. My American point of view shaped my initial hypothesis which was:
  • Nutritionally it was lousy, with hardly any value (like all staples).
  • Cuisine-wise, it looks like sand and feels like you are eating sand.
  • Culturally, it was oppressive to women.  It takes an unusual amount of back-breaking work to produce, which creates a calorie deficit rather than provide a positive energy food source.
  • Environmentally, I was sure it depleted the soil and required too much water.
I think I am the only American who actually likes the taste of kocho.  But I have unusual tastes given my exposure to different foods through my work with traditional cultures. It has a pungent odor from the fermentation process.   In spite of the fact, that I actually didn’t mind consuming it, I was sad that I would be writing a “downer” of a book.
Confused by what women told me, I started by asking children to explain enset to me in their own innocent terms, but they were not interested in it. They understood where it came from but they were quickly losing interest in the 7 year process of growing enset and the labor it entailed to make it edible.   This frightened me.  I was thus further compelled to document the recipes of the tribe, given their cuisine was on the verge of extinction and only transmitted orally. I was afraid that this very ancient cuisine would be forgotten and lost, without any trace of its existence on our planet.  This peculiar staple would go unrecorded before its disappearance.  And it is quickly getting taken over by the national staple injera of the Amhara tribe, through cultural hegemony.
The Sidama tribe can be called part of an “enset culture” in southern Ethiopia.  Enset is exceptionally labor intensive staple food.  I warn Americans who look to the book as a cookbook …”Do Not Try This at Home.”  Basically, the ingredients are not available in this country.  Beyond that critical fact, the stamina it takes to produce enset is far too great for an average American.   You think working out in a gym 5 days a week is hard.  Try providing enset daily to your family in Ethiopia.  No gym necessary. They work tirelessly day in and day out just to provide this staple on their table.  We don’t have the amount of time it takes to prepare, as we value convenience.   And most of us don’t have the muscle to prepare enset, which takes strenuous, back-breaking work.  Americans want things that take the least energy and are fast and easy.
When I asked women; the grannies, the mothers, and the traditional cooks, about their opinion of enset, they unanimously said “This is our gold.”  I couldn’t believe it!   How could one enjoy this laborious, long process?  They told me about their “special power,” exclusive only to those who know the secret of enset.   It is strictly a women’s domain and men are not allowed to enter this inner sanctum.  Men cultivate the trees and that is the end.  Only women can scrape the trunk, and process it.  Men can’t even WATCH the women doing this, since they raise their leg and place it on the trunk, revealing a bare thigh and calf deep in the recesses of the forest.
Women then help each other in a communal fashion, basically forming an informal women’s support group.  They rotate through the neighborhood and help each other process their crop.  It is a time for gossip, reflection, song and dance.  Once the process is completed, each woman has a special knowledge or “potent” in how she prepares it so that it is uniquely hers.   A woman is judged by the taste of her kocho.  If it is not tasty, she will not be married (not always bad thing).  A woman has her own dominance in this arena and it is her “concoction,” which is expressed solely without a man breathing down her neck.  She is her own artisan and appreciated for it.
Another empowering aspect of enset , in contrast to coffee, is that it is the only product that women can sell in the market and keep the change.  When they prepare enough in excess, after feeding their family, they can sell it in the market, and do whatever they like with the proceeds. It is her own “stash” or security pouch.
There are many aspects of the enset tree, which make it environmentally a winner:
  • It provides shade to other crops, so inter-cropping is a sustainable agricultural practice aiding other crops.
  • It collects water within its own architecture of wide leaves, so it doesn’t take much water.
  • It prevents erosion and holds soil on hillsides.
  • The plant can grow continually at different stages of development, so that there is always a crop ready to eat depending on the age of the tree.   It can provide a family food year-round.
At the end of my research, I invited 5 of the best traditional cooks (my informants) to come for a full day of reviewing the entire process.  We started in the forest, moved to the fields, and then took some “ready” enset into the kitchen.  We squeezed and kneaded and cut and removed the fibers from the enset for hours.  Then we cooked it into kocho, adding fresh butter and feasted on it.  I gave them many thanks and suddenly the hut started to shake with energy.  They broke into DANCE and sang for joy.  We danced and danced for hours, so happy to have their art valued and appreciated.
So what does it take to process enset into kocho?
  1. Cut down a big false banana tree after it is 7 years old
  2. Scrape the trunk  of its fibrous, wet inner flesh
  3. Dig a hole in the ground and line it with its leave and put the scrapings in it
  4. Add a starter from the core root of the tree and cover it with leaves
  5. Let it ferment for 3 months, with lots of checking and churning
  6. Take it out and wrap it in big enset leaves into 35 pound rounds
  7. Cut it, knead it, remove the fibers in the kitchen
  8. Shift it to death until it forms a flour like texture
  9. Pan-fry it over a fire
  10. Mix it with butter or beans or salt or nothing
  11. EAT it with your hands or an enset leaf
Relieved that I was absolutely wrong in my judgment, I came 180 degrees around to conclude that enset is a miracle crop and one that should be promoted, propagated and planted throughout Ethiopia!  So what I have written is actually a surprisingly passionate endorsement of enset.   Being a positive person, I was relieved that in fact, I could write an “upper” of a book.  My initial hesitancy about the utility of this food staple was gone.  I had shifted by the end of my research to find enset to be a profoundly environmentally sound and beneficial food crop.
Experiencing this epiphany was one big lesson in humility. I learned about my own American bias and prejudices.  I held preconceptions, which I projected onto the surface of the cuisine and judged it unfairly, without reflecting deeper and understanding it in its wholeness.
The book is more of an anthropological record rather than a “cookbook.”  It will eventually be translated into the local Sidama language, although 90% of the tribe is illiterate. Oh well, I got it off my chest and have written it down.  I discuss many issues surrounding nutrition, culture, women and environmental sustainability.  And I finally understand the process.  My original distaste has turned into an utter love and appreciation for this ancient crop.
When the book was published, Tsegaye brought the first copy to Common River and shared it with my female resources. He said they hugged the book to their chest and called it “their Bible.”  They had never seen their food presented on paper, in color photos, bound in a book, much less ever heard of a cookbook.   They felt honored that someone outside of their culture had seen the gold in the mainstay of their life.
It is true that enset is not just a staple food.  Rather it is a way of life, upon which their culture revolves.  It not only feeds them physically, but mentally and spiritually as well.  We can’t say that about American food, especially now as a “fast food nation.”   Sidama cuisine is definitely a SLOW FOOD, which nourishes the lives of the Sidama, not only their bodies but in their minds and souls.  It is friendly to the earth, which is another reason to love it.  And now, to me it tastes even better when I grab a handful and eat it.
 Donna Sillan