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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 EthiopiaRailways 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.
He blames corrupt officials for unfair compensation. “People were intimidated, they were forced to give up their land almost for free.”
His friend Jemal points to a vast, hulking station in the near distance. “All this area was mine,” he says. “They took three hectares but only paid me for one: 100,000 Birs (£2,700) – that’s almost worthless now!”
A local official supports his allegation. “There were committees who estimated the value of the land for the farmers, and presented the price to the railway managers. I believe there was embezzlement by those committees and the managers,” he told the Observer under condition of anonymity. “One farmer’s land was estimated to be worth 250,000 Birs (£6,700) but in the end only 100,000 Birs was deposited in his bank account.”
In March a parliamentary committee strongly criticised the ERC for compensation payments, with MPs reporting that thousands of “tearful” farmers had complained that they had not been treated fairly. The ERC responded that valuations were carried out by local administrations, not the corporation.
Ibrahim, a 17-year-old who lives in Awash National Park, where a second railway line is currently being built by a Turkish firm, is more sanguine. “The railway benefited the people – even those who lost their land got compensation,” he says. But he adds that when construction began in early 2015 a band of furious locals tried to prevent it. “People were very angry,” he recalls. “They said: ‘Don’t do this; don’t do it on our land.’ There was a confrontation one night between the people and the contractors. People resisted, and 10 people died.”
A spokesman for the ERC denied the incident took place; the local administration refused to comment.
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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