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Ethiopia: the Emperor's New Clothes

Ethiopia: the Emperor's New Clothes

SEF London - Late, last summer having handed in my graduate thesis; I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner Boeing 787 from Heathrow, planning to stay in Addis Ababa in transit for a few days. I was excited to visit one of the oldest nations in the world with its emperors tracing their roots back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Halfway through the flight, although sleep deprived and suffering from an incessant fear of flying, it dawned on me just how proud of its roots the Ethiopian Airlines cabin crew were. The pilots proudly & unapologetically gave every flight announcement in Amharic and the hostesses all wore the traditional, white Ethiopian dress. This brief insight was a harbinger of things to come, a window into a historic country, a culture defined by its past whilst grappling with its desire to cross the Rubicon, to modernize. This experience of the old and the new dovetailing came to life again as the Dreamliner made its dawn descent into the modern, Bole International Airport. The misty Addis morning opened up before us and shared its secrets, rows upon rows of ceramic, red hued roofs, sprawling highways and corporate skyscrapers shadowed by the ancient and indomitable Ethiopian highlands in the background.

I took a taxi from the airport, through downtown Addis which was exceedingly busy and it struck me then; this was a city defined by urgency, a distinct restlessness. An urgency borne out of Ethiopia’s raging desire to become a middle income country by 2025 & with its annual double digit GDP economic growth, an objective it can meet. Moreover, many are surprised to learn that Ethiopia has had one of the fastest rates of GDP economic growth in the past 10 years, higher than both China & India. A miracle considering this was a country at the mercy of conflict and famine just 25 years ago & at the centre of worldwide attention, characterised by patronising pop songs asking if ‘they knew it was Christmas’. Yet, on this leafy August afternoon, construction works were found every 100 yards, cranes littered the skyline and the Chinese funded, Ethiopian Metro, under its final stages of construction at the time, snaked through the city, signifying Ethiopia’s promise, its ambition. An ambition defined by its ideology of ‘state-led capitalism’ as espoused by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) 23 years ago. This ideology was crafted by its late and authoritative Prime Minister; Meles Zenawi, the architect of modern Ethiopia & the West’s former darling of Africa, as proven by his controversial role in their proxy “War on Terror” wherein his troops invaded Somalia and committed abuses in 2006-07. In Addis, it’s next to impossible to avoid his cold glare, mainly because his portrait can be found on billboards, public buildings, buses and even in quaint coffee kiosks on Addis’ side roads. This enduring legacy was fostered during his student years of exile with the Marxist-Leninist Tigrayan People's Liberation Front and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, the latter fighting their own guerrilla, secessionist war with the brutal Derg regime at the time. Following their victory in 1991, the EPRDF set in motion far reaching economic reforms aiming to transform this stagnant, famine stricken nation into a ‘developmental state’ & an African powerhouse whilst maintaining a brutal, iron grip on power.

The irony of this Machiavellian trade-off has not been lost on observers, a trade-off where Ethiopians expect a better future in exchange for their tactic submission and conformity. Speaking to people in Addis’ coffee houses, it became clear how proud many were of this bold, new Ethiopia as exemplified by Ethiopian Airlines’ fleet of Dreamliners or the monumental, ‘Grand Renaissance Dam’ project which aims to power all of Ethiopia & East Africa. Scratch the surface enough though & it becomes clear that this is a country suffering growing pains, with a population dissatisfied with such a detached, harsh government.

Some may say this boils down to the quintessential question of how much liberty a people should forfeit in exchange for prosperity. Yet even in Addis, this so called prosperity is a subjective concept in a city of chronic inequality, where you’ll see a Mercedes parked next to mule carts or a 5-star hotel with homeless, hungry children sleeping against its 20 foot walls. Inequality isn’t the only ticking time-bomb threatening Ethiopia’s brave, new world, there’s also the pressing issue of youth unemployment in a country where 70% of the 90 million inhabitants are under 25. The unemployment rate amongst the young is staggeringly high & these disenfranchised young people were easy to spot throughout Addis, hanging out aimlessly in the malls or groups of young men playing football under the highway overpasses. Sadly for them, like most African capitals, Addis is blighted by elitism, where aged men from the diaspora in suits and brand new 4x4’s prosper with only their Western educated offspring benefiting from this trickle down privilege. It goes without saying that for Ethiopia to truly benefit from its formidable economic growth, it will have to achieve considerable levels of human development for its populace and above all its future generations.

As the Ethiopian Airlines flight took off en route to my final destination, the land of my forefathers, I looked down on Addis Ababa, this city, this country of antiquity, of many contradictions and of burning potential.


Bashir Ali is a researcher at the Somali Economic Forum (SEF) and a writer interested in economic development in East Africa. He holds a BSc in Economics from SOAS University and an MSc in Public Policy from the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE). He can be reached by his email;


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Somalia Investment Summit 2014 - Dubai

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Somalia Investment Summit 2014 - The 2nd Somalia Investment Summit comes after our last year’s successful summit hosted in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013.

The 2014 Investment Summit themed ‘Opening Your World to New Possibilities’ is once again brought to you by Somali Economic Forum. Over 250 leaders from the public and private sector, international business experts and investors, will converge in Dubai to discuss opportunities, share best practice, forge strategic partnership and showcase Somalia that is ready for foreign direct investment. Together, the political and business leaders will discuss ways of ensuring that Somalia turns its economic growth into real prosperity.

SIS 2014, will offer a platform for the Somali government department and ministries to engage, with both national and international investors and showcase the abundant investment opportunities available throughout the country.

Given the increasing interest in the whole region, now is the time for domestic and international players to examine the vast potential in Somalia. Clearly the Somalia Investment Summit Dubai 2014, is the place to be for those businesses looking to venture into the Horn of Africa and particularly Somalia.

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