Abraham Wodaje Kebede on the Ground in Ethiopia
Abraham Wodaje Kebede is an Ethiopian immigrant and software engineer living in Seattle. He travels back and forth to and from Ethiopia to see family and, recently, to help his home country by renovating and expanding the elementary school he once attended. He spent ten days there and left right after participating in large pro-government demonstration in Addis Ababa. We talked on Saturday, November 6.
Ann Garrison: Abraham, you're there in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. What do you see there?
Abraham Wodaje Kebede: I see a calm city, people running their daily lives as normal, going about their business, going to work. Ugly traffic, morning through evening.
AG: The ugly traffic is not because people are fleeing the city?
AWK: No, it's ugly both ways. So they go to work. They do their business and return home. It's really, really horrible traffic.
AG: But that was a problem before the worst started?
AWK: It has always been a problem.
US Security state media has generated an avalanche of propaganda about the imminent collapse of the Ethiopian state this week.
AG: Okay, now, why are you there? As I understand it, you've been back several times in the past year. A year ago, then seven months ago, and now. What is it that you're going back and forth to do?
AWK: The main reason I came at this time is I helped rebuild the elementary school where I attended class in the northern part of the country in the village called Bichena in Gojjama District, Amhara Region. I built eight classrooms and 32 restrooms, and furnished them for attendance. This time we inaugurated the school and let the kids in to learn.
I grew up poor in Ethiopia but my father was a teacher and I got a good education. He always said that’s one thing no one can take away from you. That’s why I have gone back to rebuild and expand the elementary school that I attended.
AG: That's wonderful. And are you also involved in trying to establish some sort of manufacturing there?
AWK: Yes, I have been studying trends. My roots are here, my family, brothers and sisters. The majority of them actually, three sisters and four brothers, live in Ethiopia. I have a big family and have been studying the economics, the business here, to help do a factory or something like that.
AG: Well, isn't manufacturing in Ethiopia now threatened by the cancellation of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in the United States, which has provided for tariff free imports from Ethiopia? I believe that exports have increased from 20 million to 300 million during the time that Ethiopian manufacturing has been able to benefit from AGOA. So would that affect the kind of businesses that you're looking into? And how much anxiety is that causing? It looks like Biden is going to cancel Ethiopia's AGOA agreements in January.
AWK: That's sad to hear, but I didn't consider any trade advantages because I want to manufacture for the local population, which is a market of over 110 million people. You don't necessarily have to manufacture for export, and I'm not thinking of everything from a business or profit outlook. I just want to contribute something to the country that I was born and raised in.
So what I am thinking of doing doesn't really factor into the decision of the current administration in the US. Since I am a US citizen, and I love both my country and my homeland, I would have been happy if that relationship between the US and Ethiopia had continued to be good. I hope that it will be good again, and that the Biden administration will revisit the threat to cancel Ethiopia's AGOA trade privileges, because that would impact a lot of people. It would change a lot of lives. There are women and girls who make their daily bread from working in factories that make money or sustain their business by exporting.
So it will have significant impact. And that will impact other things that would benefit my ideas or my businesses in the future. So it's not going to change what I'm planning to do, but I hope that the Biden administration does not cancel Ethiopia's AGOA privileges.
AG: It sounds like you are looking to help decrease Ethiopia's dependence on imports and exports, looking to build a more self-sufficient economy. Nobody can be completely self-sufficient in this global economy now, but one can be much less dependent on imports and exports. Is that one of your goals?
AWK: Yes, the majority of Ethiopians—I can't give you a percentage, but the majority—live in the countryside. And their needs are really basic. If they get food, if they get clean water, some shelter, you know, and very little clothing, that's all they ask for. If I can do something to improve their lives, help them have more of the necessities that we consider basic in the industrialized world, that would mean the world to me.
AG: Well, I believe the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has the potential to provide electricity to all of Ethiopia, as the Aswan Dam provides electricity to all Egyptians. How do you think this might transform the country?
AWK: Well, that's what we hope it does. I think it's supposed to start producing electricity soon. And any additional thing would help the country, any little thing would contribute significantly because a lot of the people survive on, you know, something less than $1 a day. So if you add a penny, that would make a difference, and if you can add ten cents that would be a 10% increase in their daily income.
AG: I believe that the Abiy government and the Prosperity Party want to make Ethiopia food secure, able to produce all of the food needed to feed its people. Is that true? And do you know how that's going?
AWK: I don't have the internal detail, but I drove over 450 kilometers in just a day last Tuesday, after the inauguration of the school, and on the way I saw endless land, fertile land covered with crops that are ready for harvest. And looking at that I asked, "Why would a country that has this much fertile land, and capable people who have produced crops year after year for 1000s of years be hungry?" It's just unacceptable to me.
So whoever has the will, especially the government—if that's their intent—it's not a goal too far. They just have to make little changes. And I'm speaking from an engineer's perspective. If you have all of this to work with, it shouldn't be difficult.
AG: I looked at the resources that Ethiopia has, and it's not without oil, not without mineral resources. But it seems like its greatest resources are arable land, much of it uncultivated, a large, competent workforce, and vast hydropower potential, even on rivers that are tributary to the Blue Nile or independent of it. So it seems like food security should be an easy goal for Ethiopia to achieve.
AWK: If you drive from Addis through Gondar, and you look on either side of your main road, you would be hard-pressed to believe that there is hunger in Ethiopia. It's just a puzzle to me. And yes, as you said, the nation has vast agricultural potential.
AG: Well, are these farms that you see peasant farms or industrial farms?
AWK: They are peasant farms. That's part of the problem but it's also a part of the solution. Because if these were industrial farms, there would be heavy manipulation. You would see capitalism and greed in play. And the majority of the people would be, I think, hostage to whatever these industrialists would think is right for them. So if a government provides a little support, or if you allow people with good intentions to work with these peasants who own the land—own in a sense because they have been farming it all their lives—it would be easier to do things as they have for centuries.
AG: Why are people hungry in Ethiopia now?
AWK: Well, there are regions that are not fertile. I think part of Wollo and the majority of Tigray have lacked enough food for a long time. I think that is because the land is not as fertile there as in other parts of the country. The parts that are fertile should be able to support those people. But instead, we've had bad administration after bad administration. And ongoing war has, I think, contributed a lot to hunger and other forms of poverty. This poor country spends a lot of money buying expensive weapons. When I say the country, I'm not pointing fingers at the government. It's the TPLF. They started this war.
AG: Well, it sounded at first like you were saying that Abiy and the Prosperity Party spend too much of the state's resources on weapons. Do they have a choice with the TPLF attacking them from within? Don't they have to have a military budget that allows them to respond?
AWK: No, no, I'm not saying the government doesn't have to. That's the reality we cannot hide. A lot of money and energy are spent on the war. And this is TPLF's war. This is not actually Abiy Ahmed's war, you know. I give him credit for doing pretty much everything to avoid the war. He sent local elders, you know, begging the TPLF to avoid war. I haven't seen any African leader do this, so I give him credit. And even before Abiy came to power, the TPLF were fighting Eritrea.
AG: So what do you think the goals of Abiy and the Prosperity Party are now?
AWK: Well, first, I think they want to defeat TPLF, which has been trying to get back to power and which is way out of Tigray Region now, in Amhara and Afar Regions.
AG: Okay, assuming Ethiopia wins the war, what are Abiy and the Prosperity Party's goals? What do they want to see for Ethiopia?
AWK: TPLF was in power for 27 years, from 1991 to 2018, when they were forced out by popular uprisings. They left angry and determined to return to power. They hunkered down in Tigray, and have since been committing arson all over the country to discredit and sabotage the government, and create friction between people. So I don't think Abiy got time to clarify his goals beyond peace and free speech.
AG: Peace is always a good start.
AWK: I agree. The vast majority of Ethiopians welcomed peace with Eritrea at last. The war that went on for so many years was TPLF's war with Eritrea, not Ethiopia's.
Abiy has done some infrastructure projects that are, you know, visible to the people. And that's where I think he got a lot of support. But in my belief, he really didn't get a break from the TPLF. From day one, they tried to sabotage him. So if this war ends, and hopefully it will end soon, then he should have time to put forward an agenda to work with the people and help the country move forward.
AG: Would you say that Abiy and the Prosperity Party would prioritize getting the essentials to the entire population—food security, education, health, and electricity from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
AWK: I hope so, after the war ends.
AG: Sometimes wars just go on and on because our security state prefers to create chaos in nations who refuse to submit to its will. I hope Ethiopians can keep that from happening.
AOB: So do I. The change that we saw during Abiy's administration, including that now people have freedom to speak their minds, made him popular. He has a lot of genuine supporters, whom I believe could turn into influencers. So if they don't like the direction he's going, I assume they will influence him to change direction. And that's what you hope, you know, to have a leader who will honor the will of the people.
People shouldn't forget that, in the last 50 plus years, the TPLF has been at the lead of every war in Ethiopia. They had the most arms and training.
AG: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
AOB: Yes, I am assuming that a lot of your readers are people of color (POC). And a lot of the things that POC have contributed to the US is ignored. I myself have to read history books to learn about the contribution of African Americans.
I have learned that when Italy invaded Ethiopia, in the 1930s, African Americans marched in the streets of Harlem and around the country, and signed up to go to war to defend Ethiopia.
Now one might expect that our colleagues, our brothers or sisters in the US, would raise their voices, because at the very foundation of this issue is the value the West gives and does not give to Black people. What they do to Africans is what they do to African Americans, although here they coat it with some shiny stuff to get their votes.
Even those of in Black African nation who are very poor never face the issues that our brothers and sisters face in the US. We feel like that's not fair. This country was built on Black slave labor, and I have been fortunate enough to come here, get a good job, and prosper, so I feel I have to give something back just like I have to give something back in Ethiopia. At the time of the George Floyd protests, I made the significant contributions to the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Southern Poverty Law Center that my company had offered to match for each of its employees.
Years ago, when they tried to protect Ethiopia, it was the only Black nation that was not colonized, and they didn't want to lose hope. They just wanted to have at least one sovereign Black nation that they could call home.
AG: Do you see much support among African Americans here now for Ethiopia?
AWK: I don't, and it could be partly because this is a civil war, and they don't know the details about the US’s neocolonial involvement. If they looked at how much the West is doing, using the TPLF as its proxy force, that might change. I don't know if they have the time, but we do seek their support. We're not asking them to just say they support us. We're asking them to read, ask questions, learn, and come to their own conclusions. That's what you do when you care about things.
AG: Abraham, thank you for speaking to Black Agenda Report.
AWK: Thank you for inviting me.