Letter from Ethiopia - February 3, 2003

Tizibt Mezgebu

Dear Readers:

With the African Union meeting set to start this week, events in Addis Ababa have been interesting. The city is tense, crowded with armed policemen, and also a little bit cleaner. 

About 2 and half years ago, a meeting of African head of states in Lome, Togo  in July 2000 showed us a very unusual, uncharacteristic and intriguing performance by our prime minister, Mr. Meles. In public, this meeting was the first and only time on record - I am almost certain about this - that the PM had defended the name and interest of Ethiopia almost passionately. Facing a threat from the Libyans who are yet to give up their effort of moving the AAU away from Addis Ababa, Mr. Meles went to the podium and gave the only speech of his 11 year tenure that I ever liked.  His talk about Emperor Haile Selassie's help to the liberation of Kenya, his handling of the Biafra war, the help and training to Mr. Mandela and ANC, Colonel Mengistu's help for Zimbabwe freedom fighters and so on and Ethiopia's unique contribution to Africa was almost flawless and almost convincing. That Kremt, bundled in her gabi, my mother who was watching the live transmission with me and my husband noticed this unusual performance and summed up our feelings by commenting that "Meles mela-ekit taytewital alebeleziyam indih tenager bilo yemekerew ale". It was a performance he, of course and much expectedly, hasn't repeated since or before then. 

So, two and half years from then, we now see our city getting attention not only from all over Africa but also from our own government. Most people here in Addis Ababa seem to think that Mr. Gadaffi deserves the credit for helping Addis Ababa shine more than our PM as cleaning Addis Ababa was the price Mr. Meles was asked by African diplomats who offered him their votes. Some say the Americans must have also instructed Mr. Meles to do what he has to do to keep AU in Addis and foil Mr. Gadaffi's attempts. If you think about it, this is indeed one more of wasted opportunity to promote our country's interests. Mr. Meles, if he really cared and was sincere about the things he said in Lome in 2000, could have simply told the Americans that the city of Addis Ababa needs, say, 50 million dollar to thwart the Libyan threat and keep AU in Addis. Would the Americans respond favorably? Anyone who follows current events will recognize how Musharraf got himself and Pakistan billions of dollars, how the Turkish generals and politicians are poised to reap $16 billion for some cooperation, how the Egyptians still get their billions from the US by playing the terrorism and Iraqi cards. With the "Libyan card', I suggest, Mr. Meles could have got Ethiopia enough money earmarked by our American friends to surface every centimeter of Addis Ababa roads with the highest quality asphalt. By now, we could have not only one ring road; but as many as we wanted and our streets cleaned by imported machinery with names like GM and Ford. I suggest, further, that if we had played this card very well and in a smart way, we could even have had the Libyans - simultaneously - pay for some of it and other cities too. Just tell the Libyans that they can keep some backend work of AU - like hosting a conference on 'threat of globalization' and 'reviving the nonaligned movement' and they won't resist paying good money for that. If they bargain, have them host a conference on something like 'Pan-Africanism for the 21st Century' also. This could be done, mind you, on a yearly basis - for the foreseeable future - to assure a continuous supply of Libyan Petrodollars. The neglect of the Assab issue, courtesy of Mr. Meles, had denied us any opportunity to play the 'war on terrorism card' to get American funds in exchange for use of the port. Now, as Djibouti reaps some of the benefit, Ethiopia's role has been limited to, we are told, providing Ambo Mineral water. May be with the 'Libyan card', we could compensate for that. 

Mind you, my readers, I don't want to sound ungrateful to our American friends who have been generous to Mr. Meles and his party ($2.5 billion and counting just in 11 years, according to some estimates) and still do send us cereals worth hundreds of millions of dollars - more than anyone else including the Europeans. [Never mind that 'musna' - aka corruption - EPRDF's senior official and a comrade-in-arms to all in Meles' state machinery from the Parliament to the Kilils has benefited most from this - but we do hope that some the money still stays in Ethiopia.] God Bless America for all the generosity! The truth is, my readers, in the modern world, small nations like Ethiopia should and need to work intelligently to quietly promote their interests even if it involves playing bigger nations and their obsessions, compulsions and if needed their nemeses too. 

Either way, however, whether we thank the Americans or Mr. Gadaffi, Addis Ababa is looking a little bit better than her old self of 11 years. Streets that haven't been repaired for 11 years were repaired the past few weeks. Trees, especially the big juniper trees in front of the Jubilee palace, were trimmed, again, for the first time in 11 years. Light and telephone polls that have been bent, crooked, plastered with layers of flyers - some dating as far as the Dergue era with messages like 'tegentayoch yiwdemu' - were repaired and in some cases replaced. Some joked that Dembel - the owner of the new big building complex near Olympia (now Nani Boutique II where ties cost up to 800 Birr!) - who was obsessively maintaining the section of the Bole road in front of his building could now rest as the city government finally remembered that it was its job to start with.

However, we the residents of Addis Ababa may not enjoy these sites for another week or so until the guests depart as each motorcade journey of Meles to and from the airport to receive the leaders will involve a complete closure of Bole road, Mesqel square and all subsequent roads leading to Arat Kilo. Repeated 40 times each way - for each of the expected head of state - as a contract Taxi driver reminded me few days ago, you can imagine the paralysis of our daily lives that involve trips to Mesqel, Arat Kilo, Finfine, Bole and Asmera [Haile-G/S] roads. 'Inde Abune Paulos ina Meles le-nefsu yemifera Habesha iskahun altefeterem" was the comment my mother made just the other day as her trip from Beqlo bet to Shola area took almost 3 hours with all these road closures.  Despite all these, however, we still get our routine 2 blackout days every week with no electricity of any kind. This, we hear, will continue till June or July - that is if the rains come the next Kremt

In the mean time, however, most of Addis Ababa is going on with its lives and wondering if there will be any interesting developments. The rumored trip of Mr. Isayyas - if it does happen - will be of significant interest. 'Will Meles come out to receive him and may be greet him warmly' and 'where will Issayas stay' are some of the interesting questions we have heard. Also, which of Meles' people can match the unparalleled diplomacy and oratorical talents of Ethiopia's past diplomats like Ato Ketema Yifru, Ato Aklilu H/Wold, Dr. Minase, etc? We hear this issue may have bothered the PM as the rumors of Dr. Kinfe Abraham's appointment to a senior level - even perhaps senior to the FM Seyoum Mesfin is fast spreading in town. This is a man whose only public record, we know of, is publishing an "Economist' imitation magazine on a cheap quality paper. It could be a rumor. But we Addis Ababans love rumors. But the big question remains - at least for the hopeful - Will Mr. Meles do what he detests most in this highly publicized and anticipated event - that is uphold Ethiopia and Ethiopians? Or will Mr. Gadaffi steal the show? We are worried. So also the Americans, we hear! It is going to be an interesting week in Addis Ababa. 

Beselam qoyu.

Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa)

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