Fear and loathing in Addis? Not that you can see, really

Fear and loathing in Addis? Not that you can see, really


  • The changes visible in Addis disappear as soon as one leaves the capital. It’s a mistake to see changes as sad.
Street in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.  Image: Sam Effron


(The East Africa) — Addis Ababa has changed greatly over the past 10 years. A network of new highways criss-crosses the city, courtesy of Chinese loans.

The old Ghion Hotel on part of the old imperial grounds — which used to be, alongside the Hilton, the hotel of choice for those coming in for African Union and United Nations meetings — has run aground, awaiting a new investor.

But, new construction is everywhere — there are a plethora of new high-end hotels, alongside new apartment and office blocks. Including the Chinese-donated addition to the AU’s compound. Russian Ladas, left over from the days of the Derg, are still ubiquitous as taxis. But there are lots of Ethiopian-made taxis as well, looking considerably less battered.

The dress has changed too. A decade ago, white, handwoven Ethiopian dress was by far the norm outside of expatriate haunts and international organisations, for both men and women. Now, Western dress is the norm, with maybe the addition of an Ethiopian gabi or scarf for warmth.

Searching for Ethiopian-designed silver and gold on the Piazza, the jewellery storeowners shake their heads ruefully. The Ethiopian designs have to be specially ordered nowadays, they say; what’s largely on sale is Dubai gold. Why? Ethiopians use their own designs more for family occasions or festivals now, they say. Not day-to-day. They’re not considered modern.

But it’s always a mistake to extrapolate — especially in a country of that size and that population (estimated this year at over 100 million). Many say the changes visible in Addis Ababa disappear as soon as one leaves the capital. It’s also always a mistake to consider some changes sad.

Traditional dress has been upgraded; there’s no shortage of higher-end clothing, craft and jewellery stores drawing from traditional aesthetics and techniques, modernised for sale to more discerning domestic and international markets. There’s no shortage either of higher-end Ethiopian restaurants, with now mainly highlander song and dance. Lots of Ethiopians are back from the diaspora. All sorts of previously unimaginable businesses are up and running. The city is on the move.

That Ethiopia is still under the state of emergency is not immediately evident in the capital. Yes, there are policemen and women everywhere. But that’s not unusual.

People are irritated with the still-slow communications network. Everybody has an opinion on the party and the government and what’s happening in their respective regions. Everybody seems worried about exclusion. But the city has adjusted, it seems — normalised what doesn’t seem normal from the exterior. The party and the government too have adjusted.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has just tabled its report on the protests last year, the state’s response and what needs to be done before parliament.

Covering 150 woredas (districts), including 91 in Oromia and 55 in Amhara, the report was adopted in full by parliament. It speaks to all the deaths during the protests, as well as their precise causes. Where force used was disproportionate, the recommendations are for the security services to be brought to account.

My Ethiopian colleague doesn’t buy it, given the continued restrictions on Ethiopian civil society posed by the Charities and Societies Proclamation, those still being charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and those still in “rehabilitation” under the state of emergency. We shall see. Ethiopia has such a difficult history, after all.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes