In Ethiopia’s bushlands, promised riches of a railway boom turn to dust
Villagers, lured by new jobs and rich rewards for selling their land, now face poverty and heartbreak as claims of corruption engulf £25bn transport project.
by Tom Gardner, May 12, 2018
(The Guardian) — They promised us we would get jobs there,” says Tadele, nodding at the grand, almost baroque edifice at the bottom of the hill. Adama’s new railway station, yellow bricks golden in the afternoon sun, is still a symbol of hope for the 43-year-old who lives in a village overlooking it. But its promise is dimmer than it was.
A stint on the payroll of the Chinese firm that built Ethiopia’s new railway ended sourly. After six months he was fired, for reasons he disputes. Now, like many in his village and in small towns all along the railway from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to Djibouti, the tiny nation and synonymous Red Sea port that borders Ethiopia, he is frustrated, impatient – and unemployed.
Ethiopia’s new £2.5bn, 750km (466-mile) line began commercial operations at the start of the year, making it Africa’s first fully electrified cross-border railway. Built and financed by Chinese investors and contractors, and shadowing the route of an earlier French-built track, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway lies at the heart of Ethiopia’s development aspirations. By linking the landlocked country to the sea and lowering transport costs for imports and exports, the government hopes to kickstart industrialisation and transform a poor, agricultural nation of nearly 100 million people into a middle-income one by as early as 2025.
And it is much more than that. “The railway project is a transport project,” explains Dr Getachew Betru, former chief executive of the state-owned Ethiopia Railways Corporation (ERC). “But it is also a hinterland development project.” The plan is for eight railways to eventually crisscross this vast, diverse land, knitting together the relatively fertile highlands with the historically neglected lowlands that are mostly inhabited by nomadic people. New stations, some of which rise incongruously from seemingly empty expanses of barren bushland, are visualised as “transport-oriented development zones”: future temples of commerce boasting malls, hotels, and golf courses.
The story of the railway is a parable of “developmentalism”, the east Asian-inspired model of top-down development championed by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has ruled the country unchallenged for 27 years. This approach, with its flinty dedication to grand infrastructure projects such as dams, industrial parks, mass housing and railways, has delivered impressive economic growth in recent years. But it has also kindled political tensions, which, since exploding on to the streets in 2014, have threatened to topple one of the continent’s most authoritarian regimes.
Since February, Ethiopia has been under a state of emergency, the second of its kind in as many years. That month the then-prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, was forced to resign, leading to the appointment in late March of Abiy Ahmed, a young reformist who has lately echoed the demands of the protesters for greater democracy and an end to autocracy.
The railway embodies these contradictions. “It’s the physical manifestation of the country’s politics,” says Biruk Terrefe, a graduate researcher at Oxford University who has studied the project. A journey along it eastwards from Addis Ababa takes in some of the most visible signs of Ethiopia’s recent development: new factories, irrigated sugar farms, shimmering rows of giant polytunnels with cut flowers bound for Europe and America. Electrical pylons hug the tracks all the way to the border with Djibouti while the road beside it is mostly smooth and well paved. In the shadow of some stations new towns are being built from scratch, as rural migrants arrive in the hope of work and urban speculators eagerly anticipate the coming boom.
But what appears as development often looks very different to those who live near the tracks. The most deeply festering grievance is land, which in Ethiopia is all state-owned and – as one of the country’s few natural resources – a key faultline in the country’s politics. Around 300 hectares were required for each new station, according to Getachew, much of which was farmland, since the compensation costs of demolishing homes and businesses in city centres would have been too high. Most was in the region of Oromia, home to Ethiopia’s largest and lately most rebellious ethnic group, the Oromo, who have long complained of “land grabs” by other ethnicities.
This put the ERC and its Chinese contractors on a collision course with farmers when construction started back in 2011. In the Oromo district of Mieso, an arid dust bowl 150km west of the major city of Dire Dawa, Yusuf Mohammed seethes as he hammers away at a small construction site. “People are really angry about the new railway. More than 300 people here lost their land, including my relatives, but they are not seeing benefits,” he says.