Letter from Ethiopia - April 25, 2003

Tizibt Mezgebu

Dear Readers:

The city of Bahr Dar on the shores of Lake Tana is perhaps my favorite destination inside Ethiopia on work-related trips. Even before the boom that this city has seen in the past few years, Bahr Dar always had that perpetual sense of tranquility, freshness and the Gojame zest for life all wrapped in one. What Mira Nair – the great Ugandan-Indian filmmaker - says about her people of Punjab and their zest for life is the nearest thing that I could draw parallel with for what I feel like while visiting Bahr Dar. The azmari bet, the shores of Lake Tana where Emperors Theodros, Bakafa, Fasiledes, H/Selassie, the many Abuns (patriarchs) visited and walked on, boat-ride across Tana, the chewata and iskista of Gojames all make a perfect combination for unforgettable time in this piece of heaven 1500 meters above sea level. The city of Gonder – that grand establishment of the Middle Ages that defined what Ethiopia of then looked like has now fallen victim to EPRDF’s kilil policy that has put Bahr Dar as the capital of the Amhara region. While Haile G/Selassie, Ejigayehu-Gigi, and the 'nouveau investors’ nobody has heard of before build huge buildings and hotels in Bahr Dar, Gonderes and Gonder struggle playing catch-up. I met an old man once in Bahr Dar who commented that the Gojame ruler of the 30s and 40s – Ras Hailu - who loved wealth more than anything else would have sold all his property in Addis Ababa (like Ras Cinema building which he owned) and built a “tiliq foq” in Bahr Dar that will rival the one Haile is building there! A competition between Ras Hailu and Talaqu Haile! The EPRDF days of narrow regionalism, one wonders.

If I hold any grudges against Bahr Dar, I feel it only when I, as a woman, am forbidden to visit some of the churches on the islands on Lake Tana. Even a hijacked revolution of the late 70’s, a kilil/gimgema era of the 90’s and Ejigayehu-Gigi’s songs of earning for a woman’s right haven’t changed this tradition of thousands of years. But I will keep this topic for a different time.

The main theme of my letter of today – with this lengthy introduction – is not about Bahr Dar alone but the excesses of Meles’ bureaucracy particularly in this time of famine that still has the country in its grips pending the arrival of the rains. In my recent trip to Bahr Dar, there was supposed to be a routine meeting with federal and kilil government officials. Jimma, Awassa, and Bahr Dar are often selected for these kinds of meetings because of their relaxed atmosphere and also good facilities. In the first day of the meeting, I was surprised to learn that almost all the senior delegates were driving Toyota Land Cruisers around town. Mind you - we are talking about delegates who do not live in Bahr Dar but have come from Harer, Dire Dawa, Gambella, Oromia, Sidamo, etc. It was only at the third and last day that I ventured to ask how the state officials from Jimma have their Land Cruisers with them. I mean we know almost all of them flew to Bahr Dar because we arrived the same day on the same flight with the majority of the participants. An older gentleman whom I asked politely how this was possible explained to me that the kilil officials do fly to Bahr Dar directly and comfortably only to have their drivers from back in Harer and Jimma follow them on land by driving the Land Cruisers all the way to Bahr Dar. The idea is of course that even for the 2-3 days that these federal and kilil officials stay in Bahr Dar, they should not be inconvenienced by walking or taking a minibus taxi like everyone else. 

How wasteful and extravagant is this, especially in these times of trouble? Think of all the cost in petrol, per diem for the drivers, lodging and food for the drivers again, the wear and tear on these cars traveling something like 1200 kms back and forth (if they come from Jimma)? Have these people gone mad or something? The more I enquired (of course quietly and carefully - I do intend to live a long life), the more I realized that this is actually a very common and routine exercise in vanity, waste, and irresponsibility repeated many times in a year throughout the country. Since we have already started talking about Land Cruisers, I also want to ask why every Federal and kilil official drives brand new Land Cruisers? How many of these cars has the government bought in the past 10 years? How much money have we spent on these cars? I wanted to get an estimate and did some arithmetic assuming that these Land Cruisers cost something like 450,000 Birr each. My husband disagrees on the amount saying that most of these Land Cruisers do not come fully equipped with luxurious stuff and may cost around 250,000 Birr each. I disagree because in places like the Gambela Kilil, no self-respecting kilil official will drive a Land Cruiser with no air conditioner and comfortable seats. By the way, the Gambela kilil is notorious for this abuse where every official wants a Land Cruiser! If you go to Toyota Moenco or the Nissan dealers in town, you will be surprised to see that some of these vehicles could cost as much as 700,000 Birr! Think for a moment, dear readers. Even at 200,000 Birr for a very basic Cruiser, think of how much work could have been done with that kind of money? In a famine time like this, think of how many families in Afar and Awash would have survived to see another day of life if 200,000 Birr was allocated for purchase of food instead of a luxury vehicle for a "civil service college" graduate of the EPRDF state machinery. These days, we get total electricity blackout twice in a week in all corners of Addis Ababa. With Chinese diesel generators (big enough for a small office) running at 20,000 Birr only, think of how many of these generators could have been bought and get our people to work 5 days a week instead of the now shameful 3 days in a week. Drop by any private business these days and you will know what I mean by this.

I don’t think I even need to tell you how much I am estimating the government has spent on the purchase of these cars. All you have to do is realize that there are 10-11 kilils complete with their own health, finance, security, education, transport, etc., departments (some kilils have as many as 20 such departments). Even Addis Ababa has more than 21 weredas and 6 zones with departments for health, revenue, education, trading, and transport. Each department will have also then a zonal and wereda departments. Again, depending on its size, each office could have as many as 5-10 of these cars. To these add, the main political parties like TPLF, OPDO, ANDM, Gambela Liberation, Gurage Liberation, etc and their own organizational departments and sub-departments that go to zonal and wereda level. All these functionaries want their own Land Cruisers!!!

I think this is sheer madness that Mr. Meles himself should be ashamed of. Ultimately, it is him who heads the government and oversees the action and behavior of his state machinery that has gone wild. To this add the fact that these bureaucrats do nothing to start with. I confided my anger and concern to a very close colleague who reminded me that he is not sure if Prime Minister Meles knows about this madness. He suggested that the prime minister barely leaves his office and has almost never ventured to Awassa, Jimma, Bahr Dar and the many corners of Addis Ababa to see this for himself. But I protested that when he calls his kilil, cabinet or gimgema meetings, he must sure see the tens and tens of Land Cruisers parked outside. I remember the meeting organized in the Sheraton about 6 months ago where Meles spoke and answered questions. I am sure he came through the main gate of the Sheraton unless he has a tunnel dug to it from the Palace. He surely must have seen all these luxury Land Cruisers of his cadres. Did he think they belonged to the Sheikh? I have my sincere doubts. 

My simple suggestion is that the country should stop these expensive purchases and government officials should learn to use public transportation or their own vehicles like all of us. What do you think?


Melkam Fasika yadirgilin. 

Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa)

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