Letter from Ethiopia - February 12, 2004
Only a week ago, I received e-mail from the MediaETHIOPIA people asking me with all kinds of nicety and politeness if I could do a commentary on what they called the "Chinese invasion" of Ethiopia. Frankly, I have always treasured the freedom of choosing my own topic; but this topic was not only intriguing for me but something that has made its way to the forefront of public discourse in this country of ours a number of times and I could not refuse it. Therefore, I accepted the request almost instantaneously. "Could you get the commentary, say, in a week and also if you could kind of write on the topic from a dispassionate perspective?" was the question that accompanied their e-mail. A week's time is not a very difficult thing to find here and I can accommodate that; but being 'dispassionate' on a topic such as this is something we Ethiopians - particularly those of us old enough to realize that the differences between terms like 'wez-ader' and 'lab-ader' is more than semantic - could find hard to accept. That said, however, I hope my readers will then forgive my insights if they tend to reflect my passions to a large scale.
A very important event - whose real dimensions and effects are yet to be felt - took place in Addis Ababa in December of 2003. The prime minister, Mr. Meles, hosted what was officially called "China-Africa Cooperation Forum" meeting in the presence of a number of African leaders and a Chinese delegation led by no other than its Premier, Wen Jia Bao who showed up with almost 100 Chinese entrepreneurs! For a city that holds numerous of such international events, one can not fault entirely the average Ethiopian for ignoring its importance. Judging from the official and non-official communications, the fact that the Premier of this giant of a state had visited only three countries (US, Canada and Mexico) in his entire trip before arriving in Addis did not seem as much appreciated as one would expect. Perhaps, just perhaps, however, if nothing else indicated the importance of the event, the monument that was erected just around that time on one of the city's most visible and prestigious locations right at the entrance of the Bole International Airport below the beautiful curves of the ring road causeway will - I hope - serve as a constant reminder of what opportunities that event has offered to us. In that location, the Chinese people who built the ring road and more importantly the monument as a gift to the people of Ethiopia have made a statement that we Ethiopians should pause and listen to. The monument - it seems to me - says that the Chinese consider Ethiopia, our own Ethiopia of 65 million people, as their preferred and pragmatic gateway to Africa in their new ambitious venture of making business in the continent of the Pyramids, the Nile and the market opportunity of almost a billion Africans! As the late Eshetu Chole would say, one more time, History seems to be offering Ethiopia a unique opportunity to reclaim our rightful place of honor, dignity and leadership. For this reason alone and perhaps for other reasons I will explain later, then, I would like to name the Chinese presence in Ethiopia as the "Chinese Opportunity" instead of the frightening and negative "Chinese invasion".
One of the interesting instances when the "Chinese Opportunity" was discussed in public happened a few years ago where Prime Minister Meles was asked why his government was allowing the dumping of Chinese textiles and shoes in the Ethiopian market. It was of course perceived as the "Chinese invasion". Several speakers got up and repeated the same question. PM Meles - true to his form of sarcasm and over-confidence - looked up to the audience of his government bureaucrats and party cadres and said something like, "I hear many people complain about Chinese shoes. But which of you in this hall hasn't gone to the market and bought Chinese shoes - at least once?" It was a typical Meles moment except the topic of national importance this time was - of all things - shoes; that too Chinese shoes with fashionable designs but leather of quality that begs improvement. The public discourse on the topic of the "Chinese invasion" suddenly died in that hall and people seemed to have moved on to other issues which we have plenty of.
But not only for the serious observer but also for the casual observer, however, it is not difficult to see how the Chinese have achieved a significant presence in Ethiopia of the 21st century. For instance, just the fact that our national carrier, the Ethiopian Airlines now has 3 weekly flights to China is a monumental witness to this presence. It is not traffic from the rest of Africa that the Airlines is flying to and from China; but Chinese contractors, engineers, and even low-level laborers. If you have been to the Bole Airport on Tuesday or Sunday evenings, then you will realize what I am talking about. Incidentally, when the Ethiopian Airlines smells business opportunity, I can assure you, there must be a business opportunity for the years to come. Perhaps, the expansion of the Chinese route may be one of the many legacies of the outgoing CEO of EAL, Ato Bisrat Nigatu. But, thanks to the "Chinese Opportunity", this may as well turn out to be as important a legacy of his as his role in modernizing and expanding the airline's fleet.
Another visible example of the Chinese presence in Ethiopia that has earned them a huge respect in the country is the efficient and timely manner the ring road construction is being finalized. In a typical Ethiopian style, we joke how the Chinese contractors and construction supervisors are slowly changing our working habits (of course, the story of how Ethiopian laborers just hang-out at construction sites leaning on Akafa - Spades until the Chinese decided to cut the size of the wooden handles to discourage the habit being the most common). The success of the construction of the ring road has been attributed to the hard work and ethics of the Chinese contractors and the 12 million dollar interest-free loan their government gave us. The frightening rate of traffic accidents involving pedestrians is, however, attributed to the Western designers who forgot that almost 80% of Addis Ababans are pedestrians. Could a Chinese design that is much in-tune with the needs of a developing country have required 2 lanes for pedestrians and another 2 for motor vehicles? Perhaps, the ring road would have been less deadly that way. An interesting story by itself there!
The other symbol of the "Chinese Opportunity" in today's Ethiopia is the massive 185 meter Tekeze dam under construction in Tigray which, in all accounts, is the largest and most invisible (and less talked about) public work in the country. Of course, in a typical TPLF tradition, we the average Ethiopians coming from everywhere else except Tigray are kept in dark about this massive exercise of construction but what is public is public and even Meles can not hide it. The story of how the Chinese won the contract of this massive $250 million project is an interesting tale that gives a glimpse to what the Chinese presence not only in Ethiopia but the rest of Africa is going to be in the years to come. The Chinese not only under-bid every competition from Asia, Europe and North America but also gave the Meles government a substantial amount of loan at zero interest rates! Folks, in today's business, these are terms that no other company in the world could beat! Unlike Western companies, the Chinese contractors bring their own laborers when needed even though that has been challenged in the courts here a few years ago. If this massive project is finished ahead of schedule and hundreds of Megawatts of electricity become available to the whole of the country (beyond Tigray, we hope and pray!) just in a few years, no one will be surprised. The Chinese are here to get the work done come rain, sunshine or even Shabia bombing. Talking about Tekeze dam and Shabia, incidentally, I can not resist the temptation to ask a rather off-topic question, "what is your vision here, Mr. Prime Minister, building a $250 million dam only kilometers away from your unpredictable friend Mr. Issayas?"
Coming back to the "Chinese Opportunity" issue, dear Ethiopians, if events of the past 12-18 months are an indication, the Chinese do not seem limited in their interest and scope to roads and dams alone. With the two large Chinese Telecoms, ZTE and Huawei not only opening offices in Addis Ababa but also winning large chunks of contracts in upgrading the mobile and fixed-line phone system, the "Chinese Opportunity" is getting larger and more visible.
At the end of the day, dear Ethiopians, the question that begs to be answered in our response to the "Chinese Opportunity" becomes, "how can we then build more dramatic and significant win-win business and growth initiatives with the Chinese that will indeed establish us as the 'gateway to Africa' - just like the Chinese think we are?" It is my considered view and also concern that we need to address the 'scope' issue if we are to rise to the occasion and capitalize on this unique opportunity. To be precise, I think we need to address the 'scope' issue of our Prime Minister. If the past 12 years or so have been an indication, our PM's progress and personal growth in extending his horizon, view of the world and in general 'scope' from a leader of a regional liberation organization to a leader of a very large, Historical and incredibly resilient country has been somewhat promising but overwhelmingly inadequate. But like my uncle says in private conversations, "Be fair and give Meles some credits. But in the long run, do not underestimate the tremendous forces of Ethiopia's political reality and the expectations of its unique position in Africa that will keep any one claiming the throne of power in Addis Ababa in check".
Assuming then that we can address the 'scope' and 'horizon' issue of ours and our PM (Oh St. Gabriel of Kulubi, help us like you have never helped us before!), I suggest then that there are two - exactly two- unique areas where the "Chinese Opportunity" could be extended to bring real change in Ethiopia. The first idea comes from my father and I will not take credit for it. "The biggest reason China fascinates me, " he said to me, when I confided to him that I was writing a piece on China's presence in Ethiopia, "is that they have been able to feed a billion people - that is 1000 million people - for the past 40 years or so with their own might and hard work." Interestingly, he reminded me that he had told me about the same fascination when I was growing up way back in 1974 as the big famine hit and we wondered if the end of the world had come.
That statement of his gave me an idea. It seems to me that in today's Ethiopia, the biggest open secret "ye-adebabay mistir" is the fact that we -starting from the lowly peasant to the Prime Minister - are completely at a loss, confused and clue-less when it comes to ideas and strategies of how on earth we are going to tackle the famine issue for once and all and have all our 65 million citizens well-fed from year to year. There is no single person or group in this country of ours who is completely sane and in complete possession of his/her mental faculty that can claim that they have the vision and the solution to the food crisis that is hitting us more frequently than ever. It is true that we have perfected the art of distributing food to the needy (DPCC can track its storage down to the 10 quintals, I was once told) - thanks to NGOs and DPCC - but only when the food is denoted by outsiders. When it comes to producing the food cereal by ourselves in our own land without begging anyone, dear Ethiopians, we are completely and beyond doubt overwhelmed and discouraged to the core.
Over the years, we have sought Western help in trying to find the answer to those most perplexing issue of our times. How many experts have come and gone since 1974 scratching their heads and almost convinced that they know the answer to our problems? In my modest office here in Addis Ababa alone, I have about 50 or so reports published over the years on how to tackle the issue; all financed and authored by Western donors. The reports which come in different attractive colors and nice bindings are now collecting layer after layer of dust of our mountain-top city. One can imagine how many of these reports collect the same Addis Ababa dust in Ato Simon Mechale's office in DPCC. For me, the moment of truth - when I gave up on Western expertise on long term solutions - after a modestly long career in the food crisis business, came only about 9 months ago after I attended one of the many NGO, government and World bank meetings Ethiopia hosts every year. The latest theory of our time, according to the experts with distinguished academic and policy credentials earned in the Western world, on why the 2002-2003 famine occurred after the bumper harvest of 2001-2002 was the fact that the Ethiopian grain market (both farmers, traders and also consumers) had failed in predicting demand, supply and price.
Apparently, according to the latest theory of the West, Ethiopia just came out of many years of non-market economy only 11 or so years ago and our grain market was not developed enough to predict that there could always be a bad year following a bumper harvest. For the whole of the cold Kremt of last season, I kept wondering to myself "Like we never ate food before market reforms were introduced!" If truth be told, even the lowliest and modest "souk-bederete' guy selling napkins and chewing gum in the Addis Ababa streets knows how to set his price (that too dynamically) based on the supply and demand of his merchandise. Mind you, our modest street vendor does not even have Excel spreadsheet and expensive accounting toys like a PC or a PDA! I still wonder, "and we lost our sleeps and went to the airport at 2:00 AM to receive these distinguished guests from the West who are as clueless as a Mesqel Bird which shows up in Hidar and Tahsas!"
The government's comprehensive plan on tackling the food issue is termed as "extension" program. Folks, that is the best our government gave us - extension program!. Not a do or die vision; but an extension program where our land will miraculously will produce multiple crops and bumper harvest by soaking it in fertilizers. Iri bey Ethiopia, the singer would say!
Enter the "Chinese Opportunity", dear readers. My simple argument is that if they know how to feed 1 billion people and they still have farmer cooperatives and associations just like us, then I am certain they will have the answer. I am sketchy on the details and I am mindful of the immense challenges; but I really think this is one area where the Chinese experience may give us some clue. When I learn Chinese and talk to some of them here, I will get back to you with the details. But for us the 65 million strong, however, PM Meles needs to do the talking to these people and provide the country with some hope if indeed the "Chinese Opportunity" could help us in this food crisis. As starters and a litmus test for our hope, we will see if the recently recalled Ambassador from China starts implementing some of the lessons he picked up in China in his new duty at EFFORT. The 'scope' issue may creep up as EFFORT does not represent Ethiopia as a whole but only one region.
The second area where I propose - with all due consideration - the 'Chinese Opportunity' be seized-upon is in the transportation sector. Ask any well-traveled Ethiopian (and foreigners as well, for that matter) where the best road in Ethiopia is located and you are guaranteed to hear that it is not in Addis Ababa; not even the ring road but the Chinese-built Woreta-Weldiya road (Gondar and Wello) that is almost 30 years old. True 30 years of Kremt have taken their toll; but with an upgrading this road is still the finest in the country. If what my friends at Capacity Building Ministry tell me is true, then wait until you see the Merawi - Gondar road being built by who else - the Chinese is completed soon. Fairness demands however that we acknowledge the fine work the Japanese have done in the Addis Ababa Goha Tsion road. The Japanese equation is, however, a topic for another discussion. Therefore, folks, I suggest that we take our relationship with the Chinese to a higher level and seek their help not only in isolated projects but in a comprehensive solution to our transportation problem. European funds for road transportation are available from what we read in official outlets. Match that with Chinese interest-free loans (are we asking too much?) and you may have Chinese contractors building the major roads that go deep into Western and Southern Ethiopia. While road transportation may be a good place to start from, my suggestion, however, is that railway transport may hold stronger promise of alleviating the transport problem in the country. I am afraid the 'scope' and 'horizon' issue may put my ideas in direct conflict with our PM's commitment but I propose that for strengthening our national unity and cementing the Ethiopian nationhood/identity (call it Federal or otherwise) nothing could be as effective as a railway running from Metema down to Jimma and from Nekemte to Dire Dawa. Imagine that we seek American and European money, match it with Chinese expertise and commitment to get the project finished on time, and connect the fertile ambas of Gojjam, valleys of Jimma and Kaffa, the hundreds of thousands of acres of the Great Rift Valley and the consumption of Addis Ababa.
This, folks, is my humble vision for seizing upon the "Chinese Opportunity". As we contemplate our answer, once again, History watches patiently for the Ethiopian spirit to be rekindled and an opportunity to be grabbed.
Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa)
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