Abiy’s ‘loot and use it’ policy wreaks havoc in Ethiopia
In a program where he unveiled the new currency notes this week, Mr. Abiy declared to local bankers and governors:
“Anyone who holds Birr 1.5 million or more is illegal and automatically void; he will be confiscated. If the defense forces confiscate him, it will be used to strengthen the defense forces. You are not going to give us. Defense forces, confiscate and use the money for yourselves. Our only wish is to get rid of illegal money. If the police confiscate or the defense forces do, it will be used to strengthen security apparatus.”
The 1.5 million-limit was only recently introduced and little announced to the around 40% active population engaged in the informal economy. This is likely to hurt the very people who need protection and help the most.
The consequences of this reckless announcement are much heavier than the damage in the informal sector, however. Now that policemen and soldiers are allowed to loot and eat, they are on a looting spree which has nothing to do with the limit set by the prime minister. Ethiopians in the Somali region are reported to be being looted of their camel sales revenues on spot even though the money they were carrying was less than a tenth of the cap.
“Regarding the banks, we have two types of assessment. There are banks that enable illegality, that collect forged bank notes, even now; being Ethiopian banks! Regarding those banks, we have a clear plan with security and intelligence institutions. We have visible and invisible security apparatus in every branch. We are following you virtually and physically. If there is a single bank that tries to cheat on one 50 Birr note for any religious, ethnic, or local reasons, it ceases to be a bank the next morning. know this. ….
When the national bank receives money from you, it will not only check the notes using machines but will manually investigate every note; not just a sample but every note. If there is a forged birr coming from any bank, we are not to talk about that money. Our issue will be far beyond that.”
Collection of forged bank notes has never been legal or tolerated in the first place. If Abiy and co have really found any evidence to that effect, the proper line of action was to take immediate measure. Instead, Mr. Abiy went public and made an extremely dangerous claim against ‘some’ banks. The danger of this insinuation is clear if seen in the context of the Ethiopian economy where many private banks have shareholders predominantly from certain ethnicities. In such a condition, the prime minister’s claim is paramount to a green light for security agents to harass and loot banks believed to be serving communities outside his constituency.
Not that this is new. Random searches and investigations on certain banks have been taking place for the last two years already. What is new now is the prime minister’s official endorsement of such illegal acts which means it will be pursued at a much larger and wider scale.
Abiy Ahmed did not want to leave any doubt about his intentions. So, he repeats his call to all security officers:
“Regarding law enforcement agencies, …. with Ethiopian air lines, starting from today, every bag should be strictly searched; in border areas, especially from Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan, law enforcement agencies should do extensive searches and if they confiscate, they take it. We do not want the money. There is no need to relax assuming the money is for the government. If there is a soldier or a policeman who sleeps over this, it amounts to treason.”
As a matter of fact, Tigreans who wanted to travel to Mekelle holding as little as Birr 4000 – 5000 were confiscated yesterday in the airport. To get a feel of how much this money is worth, it just buys a quintal of teff at current prices. For Abiy Ahmed’s henchmen, 1.5 million-cap means any amount held by anyone the color of their eyes did not like.
The looting and terror is to be unleashed not only on people who travel around but on houses and businesses suspected (obviously because of their ethnic affiliations) of holding excess cash.
“There will be random emergency searches of businesses and houses. Because the economy needs to be rectified, we will take extrajudicial measures,” he says.
One may wonder why all this violation of citizens’ constitutional rights while the notes are now changed, and any deposits of the old notes held at home will change to paper soon enough. This is missing the point. The whole point is not the economy but the terror and intimidation.
Mr. Abiy’s unsolicited advice is given not only to security agents but to apparently everyone. He claims that everyone who currently holds Birr 1.5 million or above in cash is a thief and needs to be robbed by everyone else.
“One person, having 10 million birr, cannot send five people to you [banks] and get his money deposited to his account. It should be deposited in a new account of the bearer. First, an account should be opened. Second, it should be opened in the bearer’s name. What does this mean? At least, if there is wrongly accumulated money, it should be distributed. You people, if someone asks you to change birr notes, take it and use it. It is stolen money. At least, let the distribution be corrected.”
With all its difficulties, Ethiopia has come so far because of a strongly woven social fabric of trust and reciprocity. When previous governments failed, communities cooperated in ways that would sustain them even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Mr. Abiy has endorsed what Emperor Tewodros outlawed before a century and half, i.e. allowing soldiers to loot and eat.
By doing so, he has taken a route that will completely erode the institutional values of government institutions. Not only that: he called up on individual members of the society to do the same: deny, cheat, loot and eat.
Now that this is already taking place, the threads that have been holding the country together are being cut one by one. Mr. Abiy may be remembered as the last prime minister of a country that used to be.
By Hansa T Reda
The Prime News