Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Millennial Oppportunity: Addis Ababa- the African Capital, fact or fiction?

Global Strategic Enterprises, Inc for Peace and Prosperity-

Addis as the African capital
By Fikru Gebrekidan (Ph.D.) | September 4, 2007


Addis Ababa is home to over 4 million people
In just over a century Addis Ababa has gone through several transformations. The city was founded in the late 19th century as the royal capital of Menilek II, then king of Shewa. Following Menilek's succession to the throne in 1889 as king of kings, Addis Ababa (New Flower) entered a new phase as Ethiopia's imperial capital.

By the dawn of the 20th century Addis Ababa had become home to several foreign legations, but its real commercial significance would not take off until the arrival of the railroad in 1917. During the Italian occupation (1936-1941), the city's overall status could only be described as paradoxical. On the one hand, anticipating Addis Ababa's eminent fall, the Ethiopian government moved its capital to the remote town of Gore. On the other hand, under enemy occupation Addis Ababa experienced rapid growth and modernization, its socio-cultural experience not unlike the experience of other colonial capitals.

Independence from Italy did not immediately end Addis Ababa's diplomatic limbo. For, having assisted in the dislodging of the Italians from northeast Africa, British forces did not leave Ethiopia. Rather, as implied in the 1942 Anglo-Ethiopian treaty, Ethiopia was seen as "occupied enemy territory" and placed under the control of the British East African Military Command with headquarters in Nairobi.

The 1944 Anglo-Ethiopian treaty, the result of intensive diplomatic haggling, restored Addis Ababa's political and territorial sovereignty in all the provinces outside Eritrea and Ogaden. In 1948 and 1952 finally followed the restoration of the Ogaden and Eritrea respectively, bolstering firmly Ethiopia's territorial integrity.

As government self-confidence gradually grew, Addis Ababa had to answer to new challenges in the areas of international diplomacy. Haile Selassie's government responded to such exigencies with the pursuit of assertive and diversified foreign policy. On the one hand, it revived and strengthened prewar ties with the United States and Western Europe. On the other hand, it invested resources in cultivating close friendship with third world countries.

The result of such aggressive self-projection in international politics was that, from Bandung to Accra, from Geneva to New York, Ethiopia was represented by seasoned diplomats whose views on African issues commanded particular attention.

Ethiopian pro-African policies abounded from the mid fifties on. In 1957, four years after Ethiopia's admission to FIFA, Ethiopia with three other countries helped found the Confederation of African Football in Khartoum. In 1958 Addis Ababa became the seat of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, popularly known as the ECA.

In November 1960 Ethiopia and Liberia brought to the Hague-based International Court of Justice the contentious issue of Namibia, one of the League of Nations' mandate colonies before it fell under direct South African rule. The Namibian case dragged on for several years until the court finally decided to drop it on technical grounds. Given South Africa's intransigence to diplomatic pressures, in 1962 Addis Ababa would serve as host to a group of African National Congress fighters, among them Nelson Mandela, offering them training in guerilla warfare and various subversion tactics.

The mid 20th century represented a transformation in Addis Ababa's social life as well. For a while, in fact, leisure and idealism seemed to share a common platform, with Addis Ababan bars and nightclubs jockeying for expressive pan-African names. Such popular spots in the capital included the East Africa Bar, Uhuru Bar, Kilimanjaro Bar and the Harambe Hotel.

Other clubs were either named after one of the African heroes, as in Patrice Lumumba Bar and Jomo Kenyatta Bar, or simply bore the name "Africa" as in Hotel D'Afrique and African Unity Bar.

At the institutional level, while the launching of the Ethiopian Airlines as the first trans-continental carrier expressed the pragmatic side of Ethiopia's Africa policy, the Haile Selassie I Trust scholarship program added an exciting intellectual dimension. In 1959 a group of thirty foreign students, mostly from the neighboring East African countries, arrived at the then University College of Addis Ababa sponsored by the program. In 1963 the Haile Selassie I Prize Trust began to offer annual awards to international scholars who made outstanding contributions in various areas, including Ethiopian studies and African studies.

As its preamble stated, the Prize Trust sought the "strengthening of the spiritual and cultural bonds between the Ethiopian people and the peoples of the African continent and the whole world."

Between 1963 and 1974, the Prize Trust dispensed annual monetary awards to fifty distinguished candidates, among them the black American professor of history, William Leo Hansberry; the British Africanist, Basil Davidson; and the Senegalese poet laureate, President Leopold Sedar Senghor.

Addis Ababa's lasting imprint on Africa lay in its role in the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The call for African unity picked up steam after the independence of Ghana in 1957 led by its ambitious prime minister, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.

In April the next year, Nkrumah convened in his capital Accra the first "Conference of Independent African States," followed by "All African Peoples' Conference" eight months later. Ethiopia participated in both.

By the time the Second Conference of the Independent States convened in Ethiopia in June 1960, pan-Africanism was no longer a monolithic concept. Nkrumah, a unificationist, insisted that Africans should first seek the "political kingdom" as the prerequisite to economic progress.

His opponents, the cooperationists, associated integration with the loss of sovereignty and spoke in vague terms about the need for some type of nonbinding federation. Haile Selassie, a gradualist, espoused an intermediate position.

He expected the implementation of certain fundamental requirements before the dissolution of political boundaries, among them a uniform banking system, educational and cultural exchange programs, and the building of transnational roads and air services.

Nigeria's hosting of the third all-African conference in January 1962 coincided with the splitting of the pan-African movement: the Casablanca Camp, made up of countries such as Ghana and Morocco, calling for immediate unification; and the Monrovia Camp, composed of countries such as Nigeria and Liberia, favoring loose political cooperation.

African unity seemed an impossible task following the boycott of the Lagos conference by the Casablanca group.

Fortunately, as home to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa had already situated itself as a neutral city, making it possible for the opposing camps to attend the historic summit in May 1963.

In his opening address, Haile Selassie spoke of unification as an evolutionary process. To that end, he introduced a modified version of his Lagos proposal, which called for the creation of the Organization of African Unity, and among whose responsibilities included laying the groundwork for subsequent political integration. The draft did not fully satisfy either camp; some of its points, like a joint defense pact and an African university, were dismissed as too ambitious.

The document was, nonetheless, regarded as the final synthesis of ideas and a logical compromise, hence its unanimous approval and the birth of the OAU. In recognition of Ethiopia's adept diplomacy, the OAU would situate its headquarters in Addis Ababa and nominate Haile Selassie as its first chair.

Over the last four decades Addis Ababa has hosted numerous continental and international gatherings of all sorts. The decision by the African Union, successor to the OAU, to keep its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital is great testimony to the city's overall popularity among African heads of states.

This is not to say the city has faced no challenges. In the 1970s, for instance, the sights of bullet-riddled bodies strewn in the streets, most of them victims of the infamous red terror, had no doubt raised serious moral questions on Addis Ababa's status as Africa's capital.

Poor infrastructure, inadequate medical facilities, periodic power blackouts and water shortage continue to be major reasons for those who wish to see the AU's head office out of Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa's logistical nightmares, enormous as they are, reflect the overall conditions of Third World cities. The argument put forth about Addis Ababa's lack of modern amenities therefore says more about detractors' political motives than a genuine concern for AU's welfare.

On the contrary, Addis Ababa claims several unique advantages that make it the most ideal African capital. First, compared to other African cities of similar size, Addis Ababa enjoys a lower crime rate and a more affordable cost of living. Second, the city has a long and rich experience with foreign guests, so much so it has now become fashionable for neighborhoods in the city to name themselves after nearby embassies.

Third, Ethiopia's multiple religious identities (Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and traditional), make Addis Ababa a place where visitors of all creeds can practice their faiths without public intimidation.

Finally, as critics often point out, Ethiopia suffers from a geographic disadvantage given its location at the one end of the continent. What such opponents ignore is, however, Ethiopia's place as a cultural crossroads. Ethiopia is in fact one of few countries where the major African linguistic groups (Kushitic, Nilo-Saharan, and Semitic) crisscross.

Even if one takes seriously the conventional divide of Africa in terms of black Africa versus Arabic North Africa, Ethiopia, given its historic ties with the Middle East on the one hand and continental Africa on the other, becomes the place that transcends such distinctions. In other words, multiple sociocultural and historical heritages make Ethiopia a genuine microcosm of Africa, hence Addis Ababa's legitimacy as a continental capital.

Fikru Gebrekidan is a professor of history at Thomas University in Canada. He can be reached for comments at

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