Ethiopia – Part One

IMG-20170418-WA0002ALONG with interviews, much of the content of my research will rest upon archival records of meetings that took place between states over several years at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, for any researchers aspiring to write something on this period in African history, most of these archived documents are not available online or in soft copy. Fortunately, for someone like myself that wants to get in as much travel as possible while in Africa, my need to see those documents necessitated a trip to Addis Ababa. Travelling to Ethiopia would also allow me to interview officials at the AU, who had either been present at meetings to plan the organisation’s security architecture or are central to the utilisation of that framework today.

Believe it or not, my trip to Addis was facilitated in a way by this blog and the kindness of an old college friend named Kate Feeney. Over a decade had passed since Kate and I had been in touch but she had seen the blog posts on Facebook a few weeks back and, being a politician now herself in Dublin, I would imagine the topic piqued her interest. Having noticed mention of Addis Ababa in one of those early posts, Kate reached out to let me know that her uncle had been living in Addis for several years and might be of assistance in making contact with potential interviewees or just helping me find my bearings in the City.

It was a very thoughtful gesture and one that ultimately led to me actually biting the bullet and booking my flights to Ethiopia. Although the trip was of guaranteed value to my research, I had been uncertain of whether or not I could afford it. My financial fears had led me to dither and I even spent some time trying to convince myself that a trip to Addis Ababa wasn’t essential. Truth be told, I didn’t know how much value there would be in the trip until I got there. I had no idea how officials at the AU would react to being doorstepped and asked for an interview on topics that many of them would consider sensitive. Also, because the archive is still a work in progress, it was almost impossible to predict what documents I would be able to secure until I actually walked in the door of the building. However, after a short email exchange, Kate’s uncle Joe offered me accommodation for the week free of charge, an incredibly generous offer, which reduced my financial fears to the point where a week in Ethiopia became feasible. My home for the week would be the Sidama Lodge in Addis Ababa, it’s a fantastic establishment run by lovely people that I’d recommend to anyone that’s visiting the City in future.

Having learned the value of travelling lightly in Nigeria, I once again managed to pack everything I needed for the week into one backpack that I would bring as hand luggage to Ethiopia. As well as saving money, it also meant that I wouldn’t become a character in one of those horror stories I’d heard on several occasions about people trying to reclaim lost luggage following an internal African flight.

Addis is located at almost two and a half kilometres above sea level but from the air you can see that the City still sits in the bottom of a bowl of surrounding mountain peaks. The altitude means that the City is the only place in Ethiopia where it isn’t necessary to take malaria tablets. Although there are mosquitos in Addis, the malaria-carrying ones are put off venturing this high because of the temperature.

That said, when I exited the airport the heat was oppressive. Not quite the hell-fire temperature of Nigeria but enough to put an Irish man under squelchy pressure the minute he starts walking. On the short journey from Bole International Airport to the hotel, every second building I saw seemed to be under renovation or construction. I remarked to my driver, whose English was quite limited, that I couldn’t believe the amount of building activity going on, pointing out the window at the sites.

“Chinese.” he responded, offering no further context and clearly inviting no further questions.

It was a little before 11am when I got to the hotel and I was very tempted to go straight to bed for a few hours. My flight to Addis had involved a 14-hour cost-saving layover in Nairobi, during which I had managed to grab exactly no sleep but having only seven days in Ethiopia meant bed had to be put on the back burner until that night. Instead, I got reception to call another taxi to bring me to the African Union Commission once I had dropped my bags and conducted a quick wash up.

While waiting in reception for the vehicle to arrive, I attempted to send a Whatsapp message to let my family know I had gotten to Addis, safe and sound. For some reason, Whatsapp didn’t work though, so I switched to Facebook to try and contact my sister to pass on the message. Dead-end there too. Convinced that the Wi-Fi in the hotel was acting up, I tried logging on to a regular website but, funnily enough, that worked.

After several more futile attempts, I asked one of the receptionists if there was some reason I wasn’t able to use Whatsapp or Facebook. She informed me that all social media was restricted in Ethiopia and that this had been in place for a few months due to unrest in the country.

Although it’s received little Western media attention, Addis Ababa has been the site of many violent clashes between protesters and police since 2015, which have left several hundred people dead. Although the trigger for the protests was plans to expand the administrative and territorial limits of Addis Ababa into neighbouring land that is occupied by the Oromo people, the demonstrations have come to encapsulate discontent with decades of marginalisation of the ethnic group.

The Oromo are the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia, making up more than 35 per cent of its population of 100 million. They claim, however, (and human rights NGOs agree) that they have been the target of many decades of discriminatory policing, prosecution and unfair treatment at the hands of the state. Before long, some of the demonstrations started to attract several thousand people and what started as a protest wave based on Oromo grievances turned into an anti-authoritarian movement of people disaffected with poor government performance, inadequate service provision and little opportunity for youth.

Tragically, the government has responded with a disproportionate and violent reaction, implementing major restrictions on freedom of the press, expression and association, thereby causing what Amnesty International called “a vicious cycle of protests and totally avoidable bloodshed”.protest-2

Last October, a crowd of two million people gathered for the Oromo festival of Irreecha, a celebration of life and nature in Bishoftu, 40km south of Addis. Attendees put voice to their grievances by chanting anti-government slogans at the festival. Police responded to the unrest by firing tear gas and guns at people from the ground and a helicopter overhead, which resulted in a stampede. The government put the resultant death toll at 52, although most local reports put it in several hundreds. The event is now referred to by many as the Bishoftu or Irreecha Massacre.

A few days after the festival, the government declared a state of emergency, one element of which was a total clampdown on all social media usage. The reasoning behind this is that protestors had been using apps, such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter to organise protests. Without the facility to plan in large groups, organising would be that much more difficult. Another immediately noticeable feature of the state of emergency is the presence of rifle-carrying Ethiopian soldiers on every street, wearing light blue and navy camouflage gear.

Other than the presence of the soldiers on the street, however, it was hard to believe that such levels of violence and unrest had occurred recently in Addis or that there was a strong likelihood of it returning at any point. At any time of day or night, every street of the City that I walked down felt safe. In fact, every Ethiopian I encountered – including a few of the rifle-carrying soldiers that I spoke with – was quick and proud to say how safe it was in Addis.

Many of the homes I saw on the drive to the African Union Commission were made from basic materials, such as galvanise sheets and stripped down eucalyptus branches. As was the case in Nigeria and Kenya, the roads were consistently packed with people, and any time traffic slowed, pedestrians flooded the street to either get to the other side or to walk around others on the already packed footpaths. Unlike Nigeria, Kenya or South Africa, though, there were relatively few people begging on the streets.

To me, at all times, it actually seemed like almost everyone was engaged in some kind of industry, be it selling wares, haggling, hand-crafting something or conversing with other people who were similarly occupied. Several young boys, between the ages of 10 and 14 perhaps, rushed around trying to sell lottery tickets on the streets while others played soccer on several makeshift dusty pitches, one of which was situated in the middle of a large traffic island. Arsenal seemed to be the club of choice for youngsters, based upon the prominence of Gunners apparel on display.

Like Nigeria, in Ethiopia it is completely normal for men to walk around the streets holding hands or to sit with their heads resting on one another’s shoulders or chest. Also like Nigeria, homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia. I’m sure a sociologist could make some interesting observations between those two similarities.

While the men I passed on the street wore clothes that wouldn’t be completely abnormal in a Western city, albeit a little more worn, the women’s clothes were beautifully unique in Addis. Most ladies wore netela scarves, either over their shoulders or pulled up over their hair. The scarves were large but light, generally white with intricate designs running through them.

The level of poverty I saw, at its worst, was as bad as what I had seen in any of the other countries I’ve been to these past few months. Unlike South Africa, though, the inequality in Addis seemed nowhere near as visibly stark. Most of the traffic lights in Joburg have people offering to wash windscreens, sell phone chargers or take rubbish from your car in exchange for spare change. Sometimes, mothers just sit at the base of the traffic lights, looking despondent with very young children, sometimes infants, sitting on their chests. On several occasions, I’ve seen Ferraris and other ludicrously priced cars stopping at those same lights.

In South Africa, it seems often the only thing separating abject poverty and unimaginable wealth is a very high wall and a highly charged fence. Rightly or wrongly, the absence of that contrast in Ethiopia made the undeniable scarcity there seem far less tragic.

I remarked to my taxi driver, a lovely chap named Ashu whose services I retained for the week to bring me back and forth to the AU, that there were far fewer people begging in Addis that what I had seen elsewhere.

“Ethiopians don’t like to ask for money,” he explained. “There is shame attached to it.”

Ashu would be my main source of local knowledge for the rest of the week. He was enjoyable company and obviously eager to provide me with something of an education on his country.

On the way to the AU, we drove through street after street of shanty-type housing that was in the process of being demolished or had already been torn down. Ashu explained to me that people living in the houses had been offered very little money by the government to leave their homes as part of compulsory purchase orders. In some cases, people had been living in the houses for 30 or 40 years, raising their families. What they had been compensated with was not enough to get them a home elsewhere and many families had ended up living on the street as a result.

As with most major developments in Addis, many locals believe that Chinese money is at play somewhere along the line. The demolition of the makeshift homes by the Government, according to Ashu, was to make way for Chinese-funded building developments. I can’t vouch for the veracity of that claim specifically but the penetration of Chinese money here is undeniable.

One of the first things you see when you land in Addis is a large extension of the airport, which is advertised by a billboard with writing in Amharic and Mandarin. Much of the AU complex in Addis was also Chinese-funded, including an enormous new building which is currently under construction there.

I arrived at the AU Commission shortly after noon, jetlagged, still struggling with the heat and not really capable of taking in what are genuinely very impressive grounds. Shortly after getting inside the first building, while having my bag x-rayed by security, my phone started buzzing with a wave of incoming Whatsapp messages and Facebook notifications. It turned out that the social media ban did not extend to the AU headquarters, where the Government presumably figured there was a low chance of insurrection being planned.

After making my way through security, I was given directions to the archive, which was my first port of call. Sirake and Stephen, two archives employees that I had been in touch with for the previous few months, greeted me warmly and let me set up a workspace in between their two desks in an already cramped room.

IMG_20170417_161228Sirake explained to me that the huge building I’d seen under construction on the way in would ultimately house the archives, which are currently based in an unfit for purpose building at the back of the AU grounds. He even took me for a stroll down to view the temporary home of the archives, where other employees were sorting through old agendas and meetings notes, while wearing surgical masks so as not to inhale too much dust. A disaster had occurred a few weeks’ previously, he informed me, when a shelf had collapsed and years of files had gotten jumbled up together.

The plan to get me the documents I needed, Sirake explained, was to provide me with agendas from AU Summits over the years from which I would chose items on the agenda for which I would like additional information. Each item on the agenda would come with a significant amount of preparatory notes, to provide context for certain items of debate and the reasoning behind certain proposal upon which states were asked to vote. Within some of those notes would be tiny little nuggets of information, which – when combined together – might make up a miniscule but essential part of my PhD thesis. Once I selected the agenda items for which I would like additional information, Sirake would delve into the archives and bring me back what he could find. Essentially, Sirake was presenting me with a series of freshly cut paddocks and my first job was to select the haystacks in which I was hoping to find a few needles.

Simultaneous to the archival work, my plan for the week was to try and snag as many interviews as possible with officials working in the AU Commission who could make a valuable contribution to my work.

“You look through this first pile of agendas and make me a list,” Sirake instructed me, after we returned from a look at the archive. “Then when you have that list put together and I am looking for things for you, you should go to the Peace and Security Department in the next building and see if you can organise some interviews for the week.”

Glad of having someone to tell me how best to spend my time, I thanked Sirake and asked him where they kept their scanner so that I could start saving any relevant documents straight away.

“Oh no, no scanner here,” he responded.

“Oh right. Well is there a photocopier I could use?” I asked, while also thinking about the one tightly-packed piece of hand luggage.

“Hmmm no, because everyone else in the other offices will be using it.”

“Ok. Well since there’s no soft copy of most of the documents I’ll be looking at, how do other researchers take away the stuff that they find?”

“Have you a phone?” Sirake asked, while starting to smile.

I nodded and pulled out my phone to show Sirake. At this point, his solution was starting to dawn on me and my spirits started to drop as I thought of the several hundred pages of information that I needed to bring home in some form. Without saying anything, Sirake mimicked taking a picture of something on the table with an imaginary phone, licked his finger and turned the page on the imaginary document on the table, before taking another picture.

“Right,” I muttered. “Best make a start on it so.”

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