By Daniel Teferra (PhD)*

I was last in Ethiopia three years ago.  Addis Ababa has been digging heavily ever since. In Addis Ababa, old houses are being demolished and high rises are being built.  Every small space available has been consumed by construction.

There is nothing left for building backroads and sewers in Addis Ababa. A multistory building sits on an area as small as 150 square meters of land.  There is no proper planning. From the air, Addis Ababa looks like a city of interspersed old houses and tall buildings.

My flight from London to Addis Ababa was comfortable thanks to the unparalleled service by the EAL crew. I arrived on a Monday morning and was led into a bus with other passengers. We headed to the customs & immigration office. We drove through an airport yard covered with weeds and trash—I had seen it before.

As we got to the customs office in the terminal building, we stood in line—it was going to be a very long wait.  The morning was already hot; talk about global warming.  The ceiling was quite high, perfect for installing fans, but there was none. I took off my jacket and tried to keep myself cool but to no avail.

While waiting in line, I saw a couple of computers in the customs office from a distance. I thought the visa process was computerized, but it wasn’t. Old habits die hard. Receipts were prepared by hand—Ethiopia’s infamous model system was still alive and well.  Some say that computers will displace jobs. They forget that computers create new and better jobs too.

I finally paid a $50.00 visa fee and collected my passport. I picked up my bag and stopped by a currency exchange office. The dollar was selling for birr21.65.

The restroom was my final stop before I headed to my hotel.  Basic things caught my eyes. Loose faucets and pipes were continuously leaking water and the floor was wet. A bucket was placed under a dysfunctional urinal.

As I was waiting for a shuttle service to the hotel, I heard a story, worse than the restroom had conveyed. The clerk at the desk told me that the entire airport roof leaks. She said, “We run for cover when the rain is heavy.” The airport is under the jurisdiction of a so-called Ethiopian Airports Enterprise.

My ride finally arrived and I exchanged greetings with the driver and took a seat. I was the only passenger in the van. The two of us struck a conversation immediately.  The driver asked me for how long I had lived abroad.  He asked about life in a foreign country.   I gave him my answer and asked him about life in Addis Ababa.

He said, “It is very difficult to survive here.” Pointing at a tall building under construction, he added, sarcastically, “In Addis Ababa, only cement and stones go upward. People go downward.” It is true that when the goal of economic activity as in Ethiopia is defined in terms of construction rather than national consumption, poverty for the individual benefits the rulers and their associates.

As one drives from the airport, the number of construction activities is overwhelming. Addis Ababa has never witnessed this before. Yet, the construction industry has not helped improve the lives of people in Addis Ababa.

I had left the U. S. two days ago. I wanted to check in at my hotel quickly and have some rest. I had stayed in the hotel a number of times in the past. This time, I found it in a worse situation than before.

The room had never been maintained since inception. The bathroom floor was wet from leaky pipes. Cockroaches were frequent visitors. The toilet and the seat did not match.  The phone was not working. My repeated request to the management to fix it went unheeded. I had to pay $89 a night including service fees (breakfast) and the infamous VAT.

The next day I decided to take a walk to a friend’s clothing store, located about a couple of miles from the hotel. First, I visited a shoe-shine stand. There were three of them manning the stand. They were also selling cigarettes and phone cards on the side.

“Do you go to school?” I asked the one who was working on my shoes.

“Yes, I do go to school in the evening.”

“Where are you from?”

“Ya Sabat bet Gurage.”

“Do you participate in Iqub (a lending cooperative)?”

“Not really. Life is hard these days. I have to eat first.”

He was busy working on my shoes as we were conversing. The Gurage are good at everything they do. I asked how much he was charging. He said, “Birr5 only.” I gave him the money with some tip and hit the road to my friend’s.

In Addis Ababa, most pavements are in a bad shape. They are so uneven that you have no control over your steps. You stumble easily unless you know how to navigate the multitude of holes and cracks.

Crossing a street on foot is another story. Drivers do not stop for pedestrians even when the latter have right of way. People drive in Addis Ababa as if a tsunami is behind them. Traffic rules used to be observed in the good old days.

With all the constructions taking place, some of the backroads have disappeared. I found it difficult to locate my friend’s store. I paused for a while and asked a young man for help. He told me that I was going in the wrong direction.

He earned a living by providing transportation service to people with his small car. As he was driving me to my friend’s store, he gave me his phone number in case I needed transportation in the future.

He told me that it was difficult for him to do business in the open because of VAT.  He said that the Woyanes hook you into their VAT machines and suck your blood. I finally got to my friend’s store. I compensated the young man for his kind service.

My friend told me that he was worried about the future of his store. He leased the place from the government. The entire neighborhood was to be demolished and leased to developers.

He said that construction and restaurant industries are the only ones where you can make money these days. All the investment is going into construction because there is a growing demand for housing. There is always demand for food because people have to eat.

My friend did not hide his worries about the real estate industry. “Look at that tall building” he said. “It had been empty since it was built two years ago. You see so many multistory buildings in town, but all the floors are not rented out. In most cases, only the first three levels are leased.”

As we were enjoying our conversation sipping a delicious Addis Ababa macchiato, my friend’s son arrived with his business partner. They are both in their thirties and provide services in the construction industry. They offered me a ride to my hotel.

As we were riding to the hotel, my friend’s son pointed at a red truck speeding ahead of us. “Do you know that truck?” He asked. “It is Sino-truck, made in China,” He said. “It is used for hauling dirt from construction sites and hauling back sand from outside the City.”

He continued, “The drivers are paid on piece-rate basis so they always drive fast. People call them keyshiber (red terror) because of the many fatalities they have inflicted. They kill one on their way out and another on their way back.”

I was able to overcome my jet lag by now, but I had another problem to worry about. Addis Ababa is difficult for people like me who suffer from allergies and asthmatic symptoms. The air is polluted from carbon emissions, open sewers and dust. Vehicles in Addis Ababa burn leaded fuel and most of the cars are old.  Children are affected the most by emissions from leaded fuels.

I had one more day to spend before I switched my attention to an academic engagement. I decided to visit my folks during that time. Most of the old ones are gone.  I contacted one of my younger cousins, Derbabe, to bring everybody together for me, and she did.

Derbabe told me as we were going to meet my other cousins that they are all scared. She said that the entire neighborhood is going to be demolished and they do not know where they are going to go.

Derbabe asked me to take pictures of the houses that once belonged to our grandparents and great grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. She said, “None of these will be here when you come next time.”

I wondered why my folks and others like them were not given the opportunity to borrow money from the banks and build their own homes. “That despicable man,” said one angry Addis Ababan, “confiscated our land and gave it to the Woyanes, who are now making a fortune leasing it.”

It was May 27, 2016. As I was depositing my key with the hotel receptionist, he said, “It is a holiday today. It would be very difficult to move around in the city.  The main streets would be closed for traffic.”

The government calls May 27 a victory day. Most Addis Ababans don’t seem to see it that way. “It is the day the Woyanes entered Addis Ababa,” said one. “It is a Woyane victory day,” said another. People did not care to listen to official statements being broadcast from the Stadium.  They were just going about their daily business.

Somehow, I had to find my way to attend a conference supposed to start on the same day at the University. I walked for about a mile from my hotel to catch a taxi. Most taxis in Addis Ababa are in a bad shape.

People cannot afford to replace their taxis, so they consume their only capital. The dashboard of the taxi I was riding was kept together with glue. The seat on the passenger side was padded with a thatched tray (sefaed).

I finally made it to the University.  As I was walking to the conference hall, I found the campus lacking basic upkeep. The buildings were not well-maintained and the lecture hall facilities were inadequate. When I was a student in 1966-1971, Haile Selassie University (now Addis Ababa University) truly looked like an institution of higher learning.

The theme of the Conference was good governance for sustainable development. There were several plenary sessions one of which was “Made in Africa: Industrial Policy in Ethiopia,” by Dr. Arkebe Equobay, Adviser to PM and Minister. The author lost me right from the start when he stated his proposition that Ethiopia could jump from low productivity agriculture to high productivity manufacturing.

Just like the Late PM, Dr. Arkebe Equobay was trying to evade the question of land which is central to agricultural transformation in Ethiopia. I don’t know how many people understood Dr. Equobay’s politics. I sat through the entire presentation taking notes and left for my hotel around 6 P. M. I took a taxi.

Traffic was congested as always. The taxi driver came down from Sidist Kilo to Arat Kilo and decided to take a shortcut through Eribakantu. The entire neighborhood was demolished. He took a left turn onto an alley connecting another street parallel to Eribakantu. He ran into a checkpoint at the end of the alley manned by homeless boys.

“What was that?” I asked.

“These are homeless boys. They want money.” He said.

He gave them birr5 and they opened the gate.

When I looked around, I saw makeshift homes made from plastics. The Taxi driver said, “That is where they live. They cook their food there too. They were originally from this neighborhood before it was demolished. They have nowhere to go to. They shake down poor people like me in order to survive.”

“Let me tell you a little bit about myself,” he continued, “Life is very hard here. I am a government employee. I drive a taxi after work.  You cannot afford to eat these days let alone have a roof over your head. Gas price has not come down despite the fall in crude oil price. The government keeps the difference instead of passing it to us. I have applied for a condo. It may take me 20 years to get one if I am lucky. In the meantime, I have to make the condo payment on top of paying rent every month.”  Every day was a learning experience to me.

I gave my paper, Land Tenancy and Poverty in Ethiopia, the following day. The main argument of my paper was as follows: In the early 1960s, Ethiopia, Taiwan and South Korea had similar per capita incomes. However, fifty years later Ethiopia got poorer while the other two countries got richer. The paper explains how a land reform program implemented by the two countries unlike in Ethiopia freed the peasantry and helped improve incomes significantly in the Southeast Asian countries.

On May 29, I celebrated with my classmates the 50th Anniversary of our graduation from Commercial School. The following day, I headed to southern Ethiopia with my cousin. We took the road to Akaki, stopped in Bishoftu for lunch and traveled the toll road until we got to Modjo. We then hopped on the old Addis Ababa-Moyale road.

We passed through a number of rural towns large and small, each boasting its own share of construction, the new sign of progress.  We did not come across farms that captured our attention.  We saw few greenhouses (flower farms) in Adami Tulu and Makki.  In Koka, the rich Awash River banks were barely worked.

We rested for few hours in Shashamane before heading to Hawassa for the night. The prosperous states of Arsi, Bale and Sidama meet at Shashamane.  During the good old days, Shasamane used to be a vibrant trading center. All that changed under the Derg. Currently, Shashamane is all constructions.

We stayed the night in Hawassa and paid birr475 per person, per room. The fancy furniture and equipment in the hotel were not made in Ethiopia; they were imported from Thailand and China, duty free. We were promised that our rooms were equipped with hot showers, but it turned out to be not true.

There was a shortage of power in Hawassa like in most other places. Some of the streets in the City were dark at night. Ethiopia is a country of 13 months of sunshine. It can easily generate electricity by installing solar panels at rooftops.

Prior to the Derg era, Hawassa used to be a beautiful resort town and successful farm community. The commercial farms in Hawassa grew corn, soybeans, sunflower, groundnuts, fruits and vegetables. Hawassa was a gateway to Shamana, another prosperous farm community. The Hawassa I saw now was a different story, busy tearing down neighborhoods and erecting skyscrapers.

Our next destination was Yirgalem. The road after Tabor (Tobacco Monopoly) was treacherous.  It was supposed to be under construction.  A contractor had dug the old road and left it unfinished. The road was so dusty that we had to turn headlights on while driving. The Sino-trucks (keyshiber) made matters worse.

We were covered with dust all over. We thought it was a good idea to wash it off at the Yirgalem hot spring (Filwoha), located on the outskirt of the town. For birr25 each, we enjoyed heavenly showers at the Filwoha.

The Filwoha brought back wonderful memories. It used to be a public bath (tabal). We went there on weekends when we were young. Ras Mengasha Seyoum, the Governor of Sidamo province in the late 1950s, built private shower rooms which are still serving the community.

Yirgalem is my hometown. The town sits between the Gidabo and Woyima Rivers facing the majestic Garamba Mountain. The city is divided into two major sections: Sidatanya and Arada. We visited my elementary school of dilapidated buildings; still called Ras Desta Damtew Elementary School, although the sign was removed.

The School is located in Arada,which used to be a very active section of the town prior to the military takeover with its large outdoor market, well-stocked shops, coffee trading firms, distilleries, transportation enterprises, hotels, tailoring establishments, butcheries, bars,bakeries and tea shops. Arada is now a desolate place.

Most of the residents now live in Sidatanya, where the high school and Fura Development Institute are located. The old businesses in Sidatanya are gone or dying. There is one gas station for the entire town; even that is not working properly.

Fura was built with Irish money, and is used for training local government employees. It has training quarters, a dormitory and a cafeteria which seem to have seen no repair work since their inception.

The buildings are decorated with pictures of Sidama personalities. Yet, the historical reference misses the names of well-known chiefs such as Kanyazmach Alemayehu Bino (Gebrehana), Balambaras Dubala Ankarso, Ato Sirbo Sida, Ato Banata Bankurso, and the likes whom this author had had the honor of meeting while growing up in Yirgalem. .

We got together with family and friends at Fura Cafeteria for dinner and spent the night in the dormitory. The next day, we hopped on that treacherous road again heading to Dilla.

We drove through the rural towns of Dale, Warra, Kolla, Alata Wondo (the school is stilled called Haile Selassie I Elementary School), Otilcho (Tafari Kella) and Kabado before we reached Dilla. The Sidama countryside is always green and beautiful.  Farmers grow coffee, corn, root crops, bananas, chat, fruits and vegetables and raise cattle. Chat is taking over coffee.  We observed two major chat markets in Habella and Chuka.

As we approached Dilla, we stopped at the Machisho Hill in full view of the city down below. We could see the magnificent Lake Abaya at a distance on our right in Gamu Goffa province.

I said ‘hello’ in Sidaminya to a man standing at a quarry nearby. He told me that he was guarding the quarry, a federal property, from people who come with Sino trucks and hall the rocks. “Dilla must be building,” I said. “Not only Dilla, it is everywhere.” He replied.

We drove down the Machisho Hill, crossed the Lagadara River and entered Dilla. At one time, Dilla was a famous coffee trading center. Most of that was lost during the Derg era when many trading houses left the city.

New roads and a few high rises have been built recently in Dilla. There are some activities in banking and restaurant industries. A bank manager told me that they make mainly commercial loans to coffee traders and extend some mortgage loans (using 40% of the structure as collateral). However, Dilla is still far from what it used to be.

We visited relatives and spent the night in a high rise hotel, which failed to keep its promise of hot showers like the one in Hawassa. We missed our heavenly shower and therefore stopped at the Filwoha on our way back to Addis Ababa the next day.  We drove again the dusty road to Shashamane via Hawassa.

We stopped at Beshu Restaurant in Hawassa for dinner and treated ourselves to a delicious combination of authentic Sidama foods: chukama, burusimie, bula, wassa and omolcho served with cooked meat and greens, which were finger-licking good. The service was excellent. The traditional Sidama hospitality was in ample supply.

We spent the night in Shashamane and drove to Addis Ababa the next day. We took the new northern route to enter Addis Ababa via AYAT. We saw stretches of condos being built by the government. They resemble the projects in south side Chicago, used for housing black households. We saw the vast Sunshine condos, fetching at least birr4 million per unit. We saw all these and many more.

However, buildings do not create wealth and people are hurting. As I was flying back to the United States the next day, I asked myself the following question: What would Ethiopia look like if people were free to live their own lives and form their own government that can help them just do that?

Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ferris State University; University of Wisconsin-Whitewater,