Bad reporting v. No reporting at all

Living in far-away places that are overlooked or merely unknown to my fellow western countrymen and women, I often find myself confused, if not appalled, by the corresponding media coverage they are served with. It is mostly scarce and seems to be presented to them only every once in a while; say for instance when this far-away Prime Minister comes to meet our head of state to discuss, among other things, increasing bilateral economic and military cooperation. It is more importantly vague, hastily researched and often biased.

One can easily argue that far-away places are no concern to us in general, and whatever the improvements in global transports and communications means, they will never make it to our top interests. There are too many priorities keeping us busy closer to home. The occasional piece on this distant region or that remote market is likely to remain occasional and somewhat exotic.

It is when I dive into this occasional piece that invariably comes for me a moment of doubt and confusion: so many erroneous details, so many sentences and affirmations that are deprecating, self-sufficient, if not filled with a neo-colonial stench that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. But then I find myself saying that these are only details. The bulk of it translates, in some way, the atmosphere of the country I am experiencing every day. Should I care, then, so much for details? Should I not glorify the news outlet that takes some time to talk about that country that nobody, up north, cares about?

The answer is yes, I should indeed care. The why could be argued and rationalised at length, but it could also be summarized in one single point: it is the sum of details that makes the big picture and if the details are erroneous, so is the big picture.

The latest article that profoundly stunned me was published last week on Le Monde’s website under the title “Ethiopie: Le nouveau Far East”. Trying to portray Addis Ababa in a new and positive, development-oriented way, the journalist, Florence Beaugé, indulges instead in the customary benevolently paternalistic terminology used to talk about a famine and poverty-stricken Ethiopia, known to all in the West. Hence, the journalist feels the urge to start her piece by a paragraph emphasizing that the middle-class here in the capital has “a fierce will to pull through, to do well”; as if it is were a special feature of poor African people to want to succeed in life; as if it were just a wishful thinking that never materialises in Africa. She later takes the time to state that pupils in one of Addis’ elite private school are “clean, well-behaved and in good health”, far from the savages she was apparently expecting to find. The broader picture she depicts is one of good, hopeful and hard-working people living in an ideal country moving forward to escape from its famine-ridden image towards catching up with some fantasised developed nations. Progress is carried by goodwill Diaspora members who bring back know-how and financial means to the otherwise ill-equipped but well-governed land. Ending on a ‘matter’ of regional African politics, the journalist is not, unfortunately, informed enough to know that the Organisation of African Unity was replaced by the African Union eleven years ago…

So what to do, then, with such articles? It could have been worse, although it could not have been more paternalistic. It will surely serve its purpose: that is to boost Ethiopian-French diplomatic relationships and economic partnerships. It does not give, however, a good account of Addis-Ababa and its ‘futuristic buildings’.

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Addis Ababa’s Airport: Lost in Transition

The Ethiopian Airport Enterprise announced last July that a new, larger international airport was to be built in Mojo, about 70km south-east of Addis Ababa. The new structure, expected to be operational by 2017, would take over international flights and the current Bole International Airport would operate national and regional flights. The project, initiated under late PM Meles, was later validated by new PM Hailemariam and should soon be presented to the relevant authorities.

In the meantime, Bole Airport, which was supposed to reach its maximum capacity by 2017, is already overwhelmed by the amount of flights and passengers, having reached its limits in 2010.  With about 150 movements reported a day, and a growing number of scheduled flights for Ethiopia’s national company, Ethiopian Airlines, week-end evenings at Bole Airport have something of a science fiction work of art. Queues of people coming to welcome arriving passengers and queues of people coming to bid farewell to departing ones are adding up to yet more queues of people trying to reach check-in counters.  After which some more security check and queuing is required to access the plane which often seems literally out of one’s reach. As airports around the world come up with ways to diminish check-in time by rationalising procedures, it is advised to come at least 3 hours ahead to Bole Airport on a week-end or holiday evening.

The national company itself is not exempt from malfunctions. Currently one of the top companies (with Kenyan Airways) of the African continent, the state-owned firm counts 54 aircrafts (including 4 prestigious brand-new-but-now-grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliner), and 41 planes on order. Operating on 70 international and 17 domestic destinations, it is also, since 2011, a member of the Star Alliance consortium.

It is therefore surprising that such a blossoming company, which invests in smaller African companies and expends its own destinations and flights frequency, could behave so negligently towards its costumers. The list of blunders and inconveniences seems literally endless. Anecdotes from angry passengers can be found here, here and here. They include 12 hours delays due to technical issues, passengers downgraded from first to economic class for overbooking, others stranded for days while transiting due to overbooking, 30+ passengers overbooked on flights, and so on.

The reaction from the company’s staff on the ground is even more discouraging. Most probably wary of passengers’ reactions, they dare ask you if you think they are the only company to overbook tens of people per flight. Then they disappear, and leave you wondering, really, if this ordeal will ever end.

It further raises the question of whether Addis is ready to assume the position of regional hub that it is currently building itself. Indeed, does no one see how counter-productive it is, when passengers feel relieved to have managed to board their plane and comforted to have left Ethiopia’s international airport. Won’t they have those memories in mind when deciding when to schedule their next trip?

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Addis Ababa’s Red Terror Memorial Museum: A site in transition.

In 2010 was unveiled in AP1070888ddis Ababa the “Red Terror” Martyrs Memorial Museum, an unprecedented initiative in Ethiopia to honour the victims of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s repressive Derg Regime. An estimated total of 500,000[1] people indeed suffered torture and death under the 1974-1991 dictatorship which had taken over the popular revolution responsible for overthrowing Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Although the red terror purges occurred in the late 1970’s, the regime is blamed for committing repeated atrocities throughout until being deposed by the EPRDF coalition in 1991. Visitors are approximately told this story along the different rooms of the Memorial’s ground-floor exhibition, but with little focus or historical precision.

The museum, situated at the crossroads of the elegant Bole Avenue and the renowned Meskel Square (previously named Revolution Square), is not a government-led initiative but rather a private one, initiated by a group of families of victims of the Red Terrors. The architect of the memorial, Fasil Giorgis[2], explains that he was approached in 1995 by this group of families of victims and that the project took years to materialise. They first requested that a simple stele be erected at the centre of Meskel Square, yet Fasil convinced them that a memorial in the form of a museum would be more meaningful: he indeed had in mind a place where people could gather and exchange thoughts and memories about the tragic events. In effect, the memorial was then set to comprise an exhibition hall on the ground floor, an archive centre to host the official red terrors archives and an auditorium dedicated to screening documentaries and holding lectures about this period on the first floor.

The edifice itself, arguably an architectural work of art, offers a totally different impression than its core element that is the exhibition. It starts as a set of irregular large stairs covered in stones and leading to a black and asymmetric main building which seems about to be swallowed in a red-tile covered ground; conferring a general sensation of suffering, bloodshed and horror, and sharing architectural similarities with other genocide memorials around the world. The different rooms hosting the exhibition, on the other hand, were left raw to symbolize a prison cell. Hence, in the face of such an expressive envelop, the content of the exhibition appears to have been hastily designed. The scarcity of captions, historical records and English translations, the low-quality pictures, poorly photocopied official documents taped directly on showcases, and a certain lack of historical objectivity are some of the features that strike the eye of the visitor and eventually makes one wonder what the exact purpose of the building is.P1070886

In the Ethiopian context, this observation can be met by a number of justifications. The country, for instance, only counts a limited number of museums in general and has little now-how on the staging of historical facts and relics. Museums are, after all, firstly a Western feature and the name of the structure itself does convey uncertainty with its double title of Memorial and Museum. Furthermore, the lack of English translations could be the result of a museum targeting an Ethiopian rather than foreign audience. Finally, the dire lack of funding of this family-led enterprise justifies the ever-changing aspect of the settings: The auditorium for instance, which was used for a time as a cinema showing Ethiopian contemporary movies, is now turned into a conference room paid for by a Chinese engineering company. The archive centre, on the other hand, left empty for some time, is now a library.

Attempts at justifying the weaknesses of the exhibition, however, hardly find complete legitimacy. Indeed, although a private initiative, this memorial established in agreement with Addis Ababa’s mayor office and other representatives of the federal authorities, stands as the only initiative narrating the Red Terror events in Addis Ababa, the one people will consequently turn to if looking for education and exchange of ideas on the topic, as, as mentioned P1070839before, it is not merely a memorial with a list and photos of victims but also an effort to narrating historical facts. Hence, the lack of guidance, in Amharic too, is problematic for the Ethiopian public.

In the end, it is the sensitive exercise of laying out the politically exploitable memory of massive human rights violations which unfortunately undermines the initiative as visitors here are, above all, unsure whether the focus of the exhibition is on the liberating march of the EPRDF in 1991, the repressive regime of Emperor Haile Selassie or the rather succinct information available on the Derg era.

 


[1] Amnesty International’s estimates

[2] Interviewed by phone of the 12th of April 2011.

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Pan-Africanism seminar in Addis Ababa

For its first event of 2013, and just a few days ahead of the 20th African Union Summit (January 21-28), the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa organised today, jointly with four other organisations*, a seminar on Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.

This seminar was the occasion to reveal to the audience that informal corridor talks at the AU foresee either Uganda, or Ethiopia, or at least an eastern African country, as the next President of the AU. And this in the very symbolic year when the Organisation is to celebrate, in May 2013, its 50 year anniversary (The Organisation of African Unity was created in 1963 and replaced in 2002 by the African Union).

Central themes of the presentations, the concepts of Pan-Africanism, and to some extent African Renaissance, were introduced in past, present and future Africa, as tools to advocate for an integrated continent. Participants underlined that although Pan-Africanism was an old concept, born in the early 20th century from anti-colonial movements, it was still to be fostered these days so as to promote the idea of a harmonised continent where citizens could, for instance, be allowed free movement, where AU decisions would be enforced, policies harmonised across the 54 states, and support given to leaders struggling with potential violent destabilisation or full-fledged conflict.

This anniversary year could, yet again, also be the occasion to look for funding alternatives for the AU. Indeed, the organisation largely depends on international donors to operate, with the European Union as one of its major international donors, even though, as underlined by one of the presenters, he who brings the money, brings his influence along.

This seminar was also surprisingly the occasion to unanimously omit the death of Guinea Bissau leader Malan Bacai Sanhá in January 2012. I believe two presenters indeed paid tribute the African leaders who had died in office in 2012 and as one added Gaddafi (died in 2011) to the list, both omitted Sanhá.

What is left, then, of Pan-Africanism? Well, it was said during the seminar that the concept is something we know, we can discuss, but at practising it, we fail.

I indeed believe that we should not fear change, for it will most probably not come just yet.

*Open Society for East Africa (OSIEA), Oxfam International, Centre for Citizen’s Participation of the African Union (CCP-AU), and International Alert

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Predicting the worst, always.

African politics are not trusted to be perennial. Many examples of the continent’s history have showed that a change of leadership can prove unstable. However, the past decade or so has also demonstrated that the trend is shifting towards stabilisation and non-violent modes of succession. Hence, repeatedly arguing that the transitioning African state is at risk of destabilisation or civil war should not be the main component of a political analysis anymore. Often, it should not even be part of the analysis at all.

Here is a link to a pertinent opinion piece criticising, among other things, the unfortunate shortcut too often made that leads from African leaders’ death to national and sometimes regional instability. Last December 12, 2012, after former South African President Nelson Mandela was admitted in hospital for a lung infection and other health issues, Nathan Greffer argued against the idea (which had appeared in UK’s Telegraph) that all hell would break loose in South African politics when Mandela would die. That, in other words, South Africa would end with Mandela, the guardian of “good behaviour” at the ANC.

Interestingly, this argument has been made or suggested a number of times this past year, as 2012 has proved relatively deadly for African leaders (Ghana, Malawi, Ethiopia and Guinea Bissau all lost their acting political leaders). Risks of political relapse are, in some cases, to be considered.  It is not to say that the occurrence of a coup would be absurd, or the idea of unrest totally uncalled for. It is for me (and apparently also for Greffer) rather to say that we could, really, start taking into account that an African state can also outlive its political leadership. Surely though in the case of South Africa, Mandela is no any leader. A key actor of the 20th century, responsible for defeating an abomination of a regime and stabilising a country engaged in civil war, let’s not forget that he still remains a man, a great one, but a man. He might be used as a concept the ANC is surfing on to maintain its legitimacy in the face of accusations of corruption and general mediocre records, his end is likely not to be the end of South Africa as we know it, a country with a strong civil society and institutions to preserve people’s constitutional rights.

Similar considerations were articulated or only hinted in the case of Ethiopia. With Prime Minister Meles’ death in August 2012, observers feared, for instance, a halt, if not the end of the talks to resolve disputes between Sudan and South Sudan. Both actors have indeed heavily relied on Meles’ assistance to meet and seek peaceful solutions to major border issues. It appears, however, that parties are still meeting under the umbrella of new Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. As for Ethiopia itself, Hailemariam succeeded to Meles in September 2012 and is expected to remain in office until the next general elections in early 2014. Could African politics just be rational?

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Ghana’s democracy: the everlasting probation.

It’s quite safe to say that Africa’s political processes are often tainted with lack of transparency. Every election period brings its share of wonders, worries, apprehension with regard to the hope of fair and free elections and the grounding of the true liberal democratic system hoped for by all western donors and observers.

First thing first, it is obvious that one round of transparent election does not account for democracy. It’s obvious yet western leaders do seem to be in a rush to compliment the winner, the loser and then to straight away turn their back on the whole thing and pretend that undemocratic matters belong to the past.

Now as I said before it is obvious that one round of transparent election does not account for democracy, it appears that no one has taken the time to define the approximate number of rounds that would be needed to bring about long-lasting peace and satisfaction to political analysts, journalists, and other outside witnesses and shareholders. At least in the case of African elections, and time will tell, probably also in the case of newly respectable Arab regimes. This remark was brought to my mind when reading a Reuters’ piece on the coming Ghanaian general elections. The title “Ghana poll tests Africa’s “model democracy” suggests uncertainty or potential political destabilisation and the introductory paragraph gives it all “Ghana’s cliff-hanger presidential election on Friday will test[1] the country’s reputation as a bulwark for democracy and economic growth in Africa’s so-called coup-belt“. Yet, it is explicitly said here that opposition and ruling party have lawfully succeeded each other in power five times since 1981’s coup. Now, one would have to agree that 1981 was, indeed, only 31 years ago and that Ghana’s democratic system would be a fairly young one.

Yet when you take the case of Portugal, for instance, which fully embraced democracy from 1974, that is to say seven years before Ghana, you do not hear anyone questioning the outcome of its elections, nor did you seven years ago, when Portugal was, too, in its 31st consecutive year of democracy.

Then it all boils down to this: if we are not ready to embrace the possibility of a Southern democracy, why don’t we stop interfering in its politics?


[1] My emphasis.

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Condominiums: an Ethiopian Urban Metamorphosis

Condominiums, Addis Ababa, April 2010

Condominiums, Addis Ababa, April 2010

I’ve found in the November edition of the Addis Standard an article I had long been waiting for. The piece thrived to analyse a major and quite recent Ethiopian urban addition: the condominiums. Those buildings were skilfully imagined to offer more and better living conditions to the ever expanding Ethiopian population. The title of the Addis Standard article is negative and threatening, as it should be, but its content unfortunately lacks focus, and in-depth interviews. I would, for instance, have made a difference between condominiums situated inside and outside the capital city—which is where the journalist investigated. I would have also brought up the quality of the buildings themselves.

Condominiums (roughly 4 to 5-floor residential blocks set in large clusters) have started flourishing full speed in many Ethiopian cities some 5 or 6 years ago. This project was initiated by the Ethiopian authorities, who built the houses and then set a system of lottery through which people could become owners in exchange of about 50% of the total production cost of the flat spread out in loans. It is unclear to me whether this system will perpetuate the relative diversity of coexisting classes and populations, but it has the advantage of being one initiative to modernise living conditions. In the case of Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, condominiums have come to mushroom (72,000 flats transferred since 2005) firstly in various locations of the city centre where neighbourhoods (mud-made houses and stylish old houses) have been torn down for that very purpose, but also secondly, and in larger proportion, in the mostly isolated outskirts of Addis. Although they are both built with similar structures and concepts, they are not to be strictly compared when assessing their success in constituting new communities.

A well-integrated centre versus a struggling periphery

The clusters situated within the city perimeter are overall better trimmed and served in terms of shops, infrastructures and public transportation. They also logically come in higher rents, as after becoming owners, quite a handful of these lottery-winners put their property for rent. Better inserted in the urban landscape, they are usually in smaller numbers and benefit from better overall organisation. With relatively high prices for the Ethiopian market, they are not accessible to all anymore.

Balderas condominiums, Addis Ababa, November 2009

Balderas condominiums, Addis Ababa, November 2009

Their suburban counterparts, however, share a number of dysfunctions that could be attributed to a miscalculation of global urban strategic planning, or at least delays in implementation. Many of these very large clusters of buildings were erected before the streets meant to serve them, and before shops or transportation means have been dealt with. It results in insecurity and exclusion for a significant proportion of the population, which, having relocated out of the city centre, becomes tributary of an unfamiliar and inhospitable environment.

Blaming the architect

Beyond differences it appears, however, that all condominiums suffer from a common harm that does not seem to be much acknowledged at this time: they are made of poor quality materials and have a tendency to deteriorate very rapidly. It is then likely that, if not well-maintained, they will too soon (in the decades to come) become either insalubrious or downright dangerous to live in. One may wonder if all flats of the project will be delivered before such an issue materialises.

Those residential blocks come from a real need and are a fine way of assessing the issue of overcrowding in underprivileged households, but they require further research and better implementation as they embody real societal modifications to traditional Ethiopian life. These aspects are irrelevant, however, if the issue of “durability” is not soon taken into consideration.

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