Letter from Ethiopia - August 15, 2003
It has been a while since I put my thoughts on a paper about life in Addis Ababa and Ethiopia – as a whole. As all of you would know, things change very slowly – in fact very slowly – in our part of the world. Sometime I wonder if one was to make a living in reporting changes in Ethiopia on a weekly basis, how long such a career would last. By our own nature and culture, it seems that we Ethiopians strive for a change but I am not sure if we will be comfortable if changes happen fast.
For example, take recent events in Addis Ababa. As I was collecting my thoughts in preparation for this article, I wrote down some of the things I thought were News worthy. The Kremt season had arrived almost in time and been somewhat consistently good the past 6-8 weeks. Electricity blackout has now been reduced to once in a week instead of twice in a week. Soon, we hope, there won’t be any more power outs. The Awash River has even managed to overflow its bank! There is flooding even in the Afar area. Tap water is now almost regular in Addis Ababa. Merkato seems as busy as ever. Berbere, teff and all the spices that we can’t leave without seem to be abundant in the city. The beggars and displaced from the countryside, those thousands caught in the breakdown of families due to poverty, disease and the like are still the most unfortunate in town braving the freezing temperature and the dampness of Kremt nights. But this story could as well be a story way back in 1985 or 1995. Time has certainly passed fast; but things in the city and the country haven’t changed much.
Isolated events seem to offer us some distraction from the monotony, however. The speech given by Ato Al-Amoudi at the university on the occasion of his award of an honorary doctorate was something that had most of the city talking. The ceremony was broadcasted through TV. While the gentleman spoke eloquently about the virtues of business, trained manpower and the role of the university, it was his talk and vision of Addis Ababa becoming the “New York of Africa” that caught everyone’s attention. For an afternoon, even when the city was dirty and polluted, the streets muddy, most people went with half full or empty stomachs, government houses continued their decay, confusion reigned at City Hall, EPRDF prepared to let Badme and Assab be officially demarcated as non-Ethiopia, the words of hope from this rich man gave us fleeting moments of inspiration we rarely enjoy. In short, it was a brief - extremely brief - and very inspiring speech that we all enjoyed. In contrast, Ato Meles delivered a speech that was depressing (all he talked about was Africa’s loss of hope, etc, as if it was News to us), uninspired, boring and one that was soon forgotten. My husband who rarely watches TV made exception this time to watch Ato Al-Amoudi's performance and I can say that he was not disappointed.
The story about the police raid on indecent nightclubs sometime ago was also a source of diversion, speculation and ridicule in the city. We were told that many senior government officials and foreigners were among those apprehended by the police. While almost everyone in the city knows that EPRDF officials have a weakness for 'Bedele bira' (much to the chagrin of Meles and his ideologues who despise anything built during the Dergue era), we were very surprised that the officials had developed taste for the kind of entertainment that was supposedly going in these clubs. As Ethiopia women, most of us felt the clubs had insulted women’s dignity. Truth be told that we will not be very unhappy if some of the clubs are closed forever. Some had suggested that there might be a ‘gimgema’ coming up soon for those government officials. We anxiously wait for the ‘Ihadeg'-invented word for these kinds of vice as the old word of ‘sukar’ may not exactly fit the alleged transgression. Ato Tamrat may be saying “I told you so”. But who is to trust him? When my mother heard about the details of the vices that we were told were perpetrated in these clubs, she felt sorry for the young women who had to endure the cold and damp nights of this Kremt. We hope we have heard the last of this episode.
In the political scene, two themes seem to occupy the minds of the country and Ato Meles himself these days. The security issue and Ethiopia’s relation with neighboring countries – the undercurrent being the demarcation process that is starting soon – is the first one which Ato Meles himself has written about in a long document that he is having his cadres study (be-qumu megat – as we call it here). The poverty issue – the undercurrent being the massive famine that even this Kremt and successive good Kremt seasons do not seem to alleviate – is issue number 2. As you know there are two distinct voices regarding the upcoming border demarcation, particularly when it comes to Badme and Irob. The average person and the rank-and-file of EPRDF seem to suggest that we may as well forget the rulings and simply resist them “by whatever means necessary”. Ato Meles and his close associates, on the other hand, keep on telling us that the only civilized and justified way of response is the ‘legal’ approach. Still, they do not tell us what the ‘legal’ approach will be, especially after they signed a document they themselves agreed was a final one with no options for a review.
Most people felt insulted when Ato Meles said, a few weeks ago, that poverty is our main enemy and it is a luxury and total ignorance (and also tsere-hizb) to fight for land when people are starving. Taken in face value, Ato Meles may sound right; but in a country that doesn’t trust Meles a bit on anything that concerns borders and lands, this was taken as adding insult to an injury. In a recent family gathering (so many of them this Kremt!), this topic came up. “If Meles says that poor people should not fight for their land even if their property is threatened, then why did TPLF fought the Dergue in the 80s? Were we rich then and we could afford war? If that is the case, then Meles must have brought poverty to Ethiopia now in the past 10 years. He should be punished for that alone.” These are some of the comments that we heard. From what one hears in public and private, Meles seems to be working hard to get the border demarcation done slowly but surely. We hear it will start from Asseb and slowly move towards Badme. By the time it reaches Badme, Meles seems to reckon that he would have neutralized his opponent’s objection. I think the man is playing with fire. Time will tell.
Meles also seems to be obsessed with his new 'discovery' that Ethiopia is a poor country and ours a poor society. In his document that I mentioned before - which I felt read like a poorly written term paper of a postgraduate student - he obsesses with poverty and seems to suggest that poor people and countries will just disappear from the face of the earth. The man seems to forget that it is the 'rich' countries of yester-years that have vanished from History like Babylon, Moguls, the Roman empire, etc. Even his EPRDF people were questionting Ato Meles' theory in a meeting he called in his office. Everyone seems to say: what is new about this - that we are poor? However, knowing Meles' record one would be tempted to think why he is obsessing about this subject these days? Why would it break the country? A few years ago, it was the ethnic relationship that the man told us will break us up. That - thank the God of Ethiopia - has not materialized. Now, he tells us poverty will do that to us. The only one that is busy breaking us up and teh country is the man himself - Ato Meles!
True, the poverty issue is getting a lot of coverage these days– as if it is News to us. Remember that even if the rains have been good this year, the famine emergency/crisis will be ongoing even until next Kremt because the number of people affected is simply staggering. As we look forward to Inqutatash in just few weeks and the promise that each New Year brings, I would hate to downplay the massive problems in the country even though I feel Meles is shading a crocodile's tear. But I feel it may do some good to remind our younger brothers and sisters scattered all over the world that the magnitude of problems that the country is facing is staggering, astronomical and often overwhelming – in proportions that challenge even the most optimistic person. My husband who despises politics – the politics we Addis Ababans practice and talk about all day and every where – once reminded me that anyone who wants to rule Ethiopia these days must be either totally ignorant or clinically insane or possibly both. The problems facing us are so many and so huge like the devastating drought, the scourge of AIDS that has decimated our teachers and orphaned millions of children, the deteriorating environment struggling to support 65 million of us and our 100 million+ cattle and sheep, a ruling class out to break the very country it is supposed to lead, the breakdown of work ethics, etc that anyone in their right mind may feel totally intimated even to entertain the very idea of leading this country.
But our history is full of such instances. After Ahmed Grag and the devastation he brought in the middle ages, who thought Ethiopia would ever rise? In the Kremt of 1977, who would have thought Ethiopia would survive and that Somalia which almost took Dire Dawa and Awash will be experiencing its own version of Zemene – War Lords? For the upcoming Ethiopian New Year, I hope the optimism of Ato Al-Amoudi that we witnessed a few weeks ago becomes contagious and spreads like fire in the country while Ato Meles’ gloom and doom vanishes into thin air.
Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa)
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