The scariest conference I've been to in a while | Whither Ethiopia?

Wednesday, 10 August 2016
Richard Dowden

Last week I was asked to speak at a gathering of Africa Auditors in Ghana. I haven’t been there for a while and I thought the conference a good opportunity to see how the country is doing as it heads into a December general election on the eve of its 60th birthday.

I was in for a shock. I assumed auditors were people who added up rows of figures and made sure that companies have added up all the numbers correctly and nothing has gone missing. But these days auditors ponder and judge the meaning of life. New US legislation which will become global has tightened up the rules of financial auditing and expanded auditing to non financial areas. Now they must study and evaluate not just the grand sum of human endeavour, but the risks going forward from climate change to politics to disease to war. Auditing means a long deep examination of every aspect of life in every country.

So we heard about climate change, terrorism, population growth, politics as well as disease and computer hacking. One speaker hacked the laptop of someone in the audience from the podium showing how easily it is done. It was the most scary conference I have been to in a long while.

Meanwhile Ghana’s two main parties are slogging it out in the lead up to the December election. Nana Akuffo Addo, son of a former president, is running for president for the third time challenging President John Mahama in the December election. It ought to be easy. Mahama’s government spent or misused (depending on who you talk to) all the oil revenues before a drop was sold. Now the price has crashed and so has Ghana’s economy. Life is tough now and this election will be intense.


Is Ethiopia also about to head into hard times? It has boasted double digit growth rates for the past few years but last year dipped below 10%. Many outside observers query those figures and everyone agrees that parts of the country are still exceedingly poor and not growing at all. The government has always been very secretive about the data collection for both the economy and the population. And while the government in Addis may accept the data, the regional governments may be feeding it cheerful but not necessarily accurate data. If it is doing so well why was there such hunger in some areas earlier this year?

The Tigrayans from the north came to power in 1991 with the help of the Eritrean rebels after decades of war. The army is still dominated by Tigrayans but they have become increasingly divided and out of touch with swathes of the highly devolved country and the huge young generation. Parliament does not have a single opposition member but the government was forced to drop plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa into Oromo territory recently. The legacy of Meles Zenawi”s smart Stalinism is fraying at the edges and, unless a new nationwide deal is made, Ethiopia may slide back into conflict.