ATO SUFIAN AHMED: A Man of Few Words


You might have already run into him during this year’s annual meetings and not even know that you were in the presence of Africa’s longest-serving finance minister. This is because he is a simple, self-effacing, and soft-spoken man of intellect.  He is charming, deliberate, focused, and result-oriented. His Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn is proud of him; the Ethiopian people celebrate his achievements; the international development community respects him, and many a finance minister pray to have his record of accomplishments.

Without the usual countless staffers milling around him in the corridors of the meeting halls, without the pretentious brisk steps and game faces of finance ministers many are accustomed to seeing at the annual meetings, you might not have doffed your hat to him as you passed by him. Okay, we are not in London but in Washington where the cultural niceties of English gentlemen count for less; so forget the part about doffing of the hat. But permit us, at least, to introduce him to you.

Ato Sufian Ahmed, Minister of Finance and Economic Development, has been at the helm of Ethiopia’s smart financial policy-making and growth-generating machinery for nearly 20 years. Since 1994 he has pulled out all the stops to achieve double-digit growth rate in his country and helped two prime ministers to mobilize Ethiopian human and material resources for rapid economic development. Ethiopia is now sub-Saharan Africa’s fifth biggest economy, leap-fogging next-door Kenya, without the aid of natural resources endowment.  Unlike other African fast-growing economies, agriculture, the source of livelihood for over 84 percent of the population, industry, and services are the lead-growth sectors. Ethiopia’s economic resurgence owes everything to the creative minds of the country’s economy planners.

Last year, when most of the world’s economies were still nursing the wounds of the 2008 global financial crisis, Ethiopia recorded an overtly impressive 8.5 percent growth rate. Before now, Ethiopia was nudging up uninterrupted double-digit average growth rate of 10.6 percent in the last decade powered by the agricultural, industrial, and service sectors. Compare this to the 3.5 percent GDP growth rate in 1994, pre-Sufian era at the Finance and Economic Development Ministry. And Per capita GDP, from $131 in 1994, leaped to $1,191 in 2012 while gross domestic product, from $7.219 billion in 1994 was $103.1 billion last year.  “The sources of our growth are very broad and there is huge potential in the economy,” Sufian says.

Indeed, exports have improved, foreign investments are pouring in, and professionals in the Diaspora are coming back home to contribute much-needed expertise and experience.

The Ethiopian government has relentlessly focused on domestic resource mobilization, growth-enhancing infrastructural projects, and the development of pro-poor sectors of the economy. The Government of Hailemariam Desalegn is firing the country’s socio-economic development and transformation from many cylinders. As the average American will say, Ethiopia is on a roll.

But if you talked to Sufian, he would not say Ethiopia is on a roll. He would quickly point you to the task ahead, to the various plans to further transform the Ethiopian economy. The country, he would add, is in deliberate haste to achieve a middle-income status in 2025. So no one in the government is popping corks of wine bottles or clicking glasses of soft drinks to celebrate economic achievements. It seems everyone is under pressure to reach the lofty goal.

Hear Sufian: “The government has set an objective of reaching a  middle-income country by 2025. This necessitates maintaining the current GDP growth rate in the coming years. GDP growth entails growth in electricity demand. A 1% GDP growth correlates with more than 2% growth in electricity demand. So, it is highly imperative we rapidly expand our power system so as not to derail the economic growth. Besides, there are growing opportunities in power export to the regional market.”

Did you notice the number of times he used words that suggest urgency, convey a haste to develop Ethiopia, and reveal the commitment of a leader who knows he can neither afford to disappoint his Prime Minister nor dash the hopes of about 90 million Ethiopians? These are some of them: “necessitates,” “highly imperative,” “entails,” and “rapidly.”

These are the not words of a rookie Finance Minister, but those of an experienced and celebrated one.

A man of few words with a characteristic friendly demeanor, Sufian is indeed the doyen of African Finance Ministers.  He is a bearer of hope for his country. Sufian inspires because he knows that this current Ethiopian government is a tool of transformation and encouragement for the people. The hope he and other leaders deliver is the possibility of sustained economic growth that lifts the bulk of the citizens out of poverty and enables them to dream new dreams of unprecedented wellbeing. This requires huge political commitment and broad shoulders to bear the rising expectations of a people with a rich, centuries-old heritage. He expressed this burden when he stated: “The country’s rapid and sustained economic growth and social development is a reflection of committed political leadership.”

There is little to suggest that this level of commitment will change soon. Ethiopia is on the roll, and Ato Sufian Ahmed is a key member of the superb leadership team that is sustaining the sunshine of development in the Horn of Africa country. When next you see him during this year’s annual meetings, say a kindly “hi” to him, if a slight lift of the headgear is not feasible or acceptable.

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