Monday, February 11, 2008

Last Days in Addis and the Human Rights Watch's World Report 2008

Addis Ababa was founded in 1887, and is a chaotic mix of flashy and slum. Most main roads are tarmacked, and lined with modern blocks, restaurants and bars, but most side streets are very bumpy dirty roads with slum-like housing. It’s also the home of the African Union, so like the Brussels of Africa. The AU building is a smart complex in the centre, with all the African flags standing tall in a crescent in front. As I point out to Johnny as we drive past, that’s where all your tax dollars go!

In the morning, I move rooms to an even grottier room in Taitu (trying to conserve the last few birrs), manage to speak to Johnny by phone (2 birr per minute, and they charge me for two minutes when I go just over the one), then head out, first to the Post Office, then for breakfast, which is a strange cheese omelette with a cappuccino, then up to the sights I “ought” to see – a couple of museums and a couple of churches. I’m definitely not in the mood for churches, so it’s museum day.

First I come across the National Museum, which in the basement houses a replica of Lucy, the 3 million year old humanoid they found in Ethiopia a few years ago.

Then further out in the beautiful grounds of Addis Ababa University, occupying a palace used by Emperor Haile Selassie before the Italian occupation, is the Ethnological Museum, which has some interesting information about traditional Ethiopian culture and history, and lots of pottery.

It also has the Emperor’s bedroom and, in a sense more interesting, his bathroom. The toilet was roped off, so I don’t have any good stories about using it. Outside, there’s a monument in the form of a concrete spiral staircase, with a step for ever year that Ethiopia was occupied by the Italian Fascists, with an Ethiopian Lion sitting at the top.

On the way back to the Piazza, I pop into Evian’s Café for a thick multi-layer fruit juice, a coffee and a slice of tasty orange cake, then head back to the hotel for a siesta.

Later, as I come out, I find Johnny sitting on the terrace behind the main hotel building having a beer with a cousin of his as he waits for me. The hotel apparently told him that there is no person by my name staying – now I appreciate their efforts in protecting celebrities such as myself but this is a bit ridiculous. I join them for a St. George’s before we drive over to Johnny’s “warm-up” bar, Plug In, the one where we started the night last time. It’s empty at the moment. The problem with this bar as I’m soon reminded is that you hardly notice the bartender swapping out your empty beer bottle for another one – the alcohol flows too smoothly!

Next we drive with Snoop Dogg on the CD player to Moonlight, another bar we visited last time. A couple of beers here, then on to Amsterdam for more beers and a tasty gorgonzola pizza. Proper cheese! Finally of course we resort to the “dirty corners”, where I have a pair of girls giving me more attention than I was seeking – Brazilian and Ethiopian. Both very attractive, and I am ready for bed, but of the sleep variety – after being out in the countryside so long I’m not used to all this late night party action! Johnny drops me off at the hotel. Apparently he’s working he following (Saturday) morning – how does he do it?!

In the morning, for breakfast first I head to Tomoca, on Wavel Street, just off Churchill Avenue and about a ten minute walk away. As LP says, the guys here take their coffee seriously, roasting their beans on site. The small old-fashioned Italian-style café with standing room only is full of coffee paraphernalia, old posters, beautiful old grinding machines, large Italian expresso machines etc. You can buy their coffee too – would make a good present if I had any money! I pay 3 birr and have an expresso, which is really earthy and tasty, and has quite a distinctive flavour. For food I head back to Cunningham Street, where there are lots of cafes on the higher levels of the street arcades.

I buy the Ethiopian Reporter newspaper from one of the kids that walk around selling them. This seems to be the “Guardian” of Ethiopia, as opposed to the Guardian here which is more like the British Telegraph – I read this in Tomoca hence going for the leftie option!

There are some interesting articles in the paper – Ethiopia is sending helicopters to Darfur, the Chad situation is still bad with aid workers collecting bodies in JCB scoops, Somalia is heading to famine again after drought, Kenya isn’t getting any better – incidentally the latest suggestion is that it’s all about land rights, with Kalenjins waiting for an opportunity to reclaim land settled mainly by Kikuyus in the years after independence in 1963, as proven out by the very specific areas where violence has broken out, especially in the Rift Valley. All par for the course in Africa.

The most interesting article is about the World Report 2008, just published by the Human Rights Watch ( I strongly recommend you read at least some of the report, which is available as a 5Mb pdf here ( In the report, Human Rights Watch survey the human rights situation in more than 75 countries, identifying many challenges in need of attention, including atrocities in Chad, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan’s Darfur region, as well as closed societies or severe repression in Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. Abuses in the “war on terror” feature in France, Pakistan, the UK, and the US, amongst others. One of the themes of the report is that established democracies are accepting flawed and unfair elections, for example Pakistan, Nigeria and Thailand, for political expediency. By allowing “autocrats to pose as democrats”, without demanding they uphold the civil and political rights that make democracy meaningful, the US, the EU and other influential democracies are undermining human rights worldwide.

Here’s a snippet from the introduction with relevance to Ethiopia:
The problem is compounded by inconsistency in promoting democracy—a longstanding problem. These days, for example, the US government’s vigorous criticism of democratic shortcomings tends to be reserved mainly for long-time adversaries or pariahs, such as Syria, Burma or Cuba. Washington has largely exempted such allies as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, or Ethiopia, while its short-lived pressure on others, such as Egypt or Jordan, has waned. Indeed, the US government is often a major funder of these allied governments despite their repressive practices. This obvious double standard makes the promotion of democracy seem like an act of political convenience rather than a commitment of principle, weakening the pressure for real democratic change.

Ethiopia has been an illustrative beneficiary of this double standard. The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrested thousands of demonstrators protesting against fraud in the 2005 elections and charged 18 journalists with treason. These arrests were part of a broader pattern of repression, including the use of torture, detention, and intimidation of people perceived as political opponents and, more recently, extraordinary brutality in suppressing an insurgency in the Ogaden region and fighting Islamic forces in neighboring Somalia. The US government has expressed dismay about the post-election crackdown, but Ethiopia, a key counterterrorism partner, remains Washington’s biggest aid beneficiary in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ethiopia is also among the top African recipients of European Union aid. After the 2005 election violence, the EU, along with the World Bank and the United Kingdom, suspended portions of their direct budget support to Ethiopia, but the UK has since increased its aid.

As a tourist, you aren’t exposed to much of this – the areas referred to are off-limits. However, one can see the effects of this in the limited access to the internet, mobile phone access being controlled and expensive, and the huge numbers of armed police one sees on the streets everywhere, especially in Addis.

There is a serious problem with beggars here in Addis, more so than anywhere else in the country. Some of them are clearly in a bad way, but lots of them look like they could do some work if they wanted to. The place is also pollution central – it seems like every vehicle in town belches out horrendous fumes – I think the only things preventing the place from choking to death are the gentle breezes that blow most of the time.

I pop into Ethiopian Air office to ask about any unexpected airport departure charges – there are none apparently. Incidentally the newspaper says that all Ethiopians have to declare laptops as they leave the country – there have been problems with people not paying the tax as they bring them in. Something I won’t have a problem with as I’m broke is that you’re not allowed to take more than 100 birr in currency out of the country – about five pounds!

I try using internet in a café nearby, but after ten minutes neither Gmail, nor BBC News, nor B3ta have even loaded their title bar, so I give up. I ask around and am sent to Salom Internet on Adwa St, but it’s closed. Nearby though, I finally find a café with broadband internet in Addis Ababa, and for 15 cents a minute! If you’re staying in the Piazza area, here’s how to get to it – you walk along Hailesilase Street, past Evian’s and Raizel Cafés on the left, and all the gold and jewellery shops lining the street. Just before you get to the bridge, where the road veers sharply right and becomes Adwa Street, on the right hand side is a sort of small shopping centre with a mobile store and other shops, with a sign saying Blue Top Computers. They advertise internet, which you find inside on the left hand side. It’s not fast, but it’s better than dialup and is cheap, plus they don’t mind laptops. Doing some research about the Middle East, I learn I’m going to have visa issues for Syria – they have a ridiculous policy of not issuing border visas if you have a Syrian embassy at home – just like Mozambique. I hope I don’t have to skip their country because of this – there are lots of exciting things to see there!

I’m down to my last couple of birr – about 30 (1UKP50) to be specific. Dinner is a tuna melt sandwich at Raizel Café, taken standing up. I also have a tea, which in Ethiopia comes as a mug of cinnamon water, with a tea-bag on the side in case you actually wanted tea when you ordered tea. Waiters are summoned by clapping one’s hands. Then back to the internet place, where I check in online with Emirates, getting to choose my seat, which was quite easy as all seats but the one I’ve already been assigned were unavailable!

Next morning, I have breakfast and a coffee, and am down to… 5 birr!!! 20p! I’m hoping I’ll get in touch with Johnny and he’ll give me a lift to the airport, but at the moment his mobile is off. Well, the 5 birr should get me most of the way to the airport by minibus taxi. I relax about the hotel, watching BBC World. When I still can’t get through at 2:30pm, I head out to look for a minibus taxi, instead ending up being advised to take the 48 “full sized” bus. For those on a budget, this is a great way to get to and fro the airport – for 50 cents (about 2p), it runs from Piazza right along Bole Road to the airport itself – well almost – the trick is to get off when you have the large boxy shopping mall on the left and you can see the airport up ahead, don’t wait until it turns right and starts whizzing off on the freeway as I did! Now what am I going to do with the 4.85 birr I have left? When in Ethiopia.. drink coffee!!

It’s not easy though, as with inflated airport prices, I find that a coffee is 7 and 5 birr at the two cafés. Still can’t get through to Johnny. Upstairs, I find coffee is 4 birr, plus 60 cents tax. I have 4.85, hurrah! My last Ethiopian coffee. That finished, I head inside, and wait. Addis Bole airport is a nice big bright modern airport, but it’s boring as anything, there’s hardly anything in the way of shops, restaurants etc. Boarding in three hours. Yawn. All my hopes now are on (a) getting into a lounge at Dubai, thanks to the tip from the English in Bahir Dar (I’m not sure how it works, except I note you get 5,000 bonus miles if you sign up to Emirates’ bonus scheme, could this be enough to get you in perhaps?), and (b) Starbucks in Amman airport, Green Tea Frapp, it’s been too long!!

Ethiopia has been a fascinating country to visit, and I strongly commend it to you. A land of unique culture, food, music and scenery, it is accessible, with most major airlines flying to Addis Ababa, and Ethiopian Air flying to all places of interest in the north and south. The people are friendly and hospitable, and the girls the most beautiful in Africa. The weather has also been marvellous – I can’t speak for other times of year, but if you need some sunshine, gentle breezes and pleasant temperatures during the miserable European winter, get out here! They say it’s the land of 13 months of sunshine, a reference to their Julian calendar usage, and by all accounts it’s true! It also concludes my African trip on a high note, proving once again that Africa is full of surprises and is a continent of incredible variety.

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