Nobel Prize Winner and Bob Marley Seen in Soviet-Era Lada Taxis: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The face of Ethiopia’s future appears in taxis that say a lot about the country’s past
When my husband tried in January 2020 to use the ZayRide app in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, we saw an unusual option listed — Lada.
The Lada was perhaps most emblematic car of the Soviet Union. But I noticed far more of them rattling around the streets of Addis Ababa in January 2020 than I did on a trip across Russia in 2017.
Painted blue and white, Ladas form the backbone of the taxi fleet of Addis Ababa. Their presence is a reminder of the Soviet Union’s ties with the Derg, a Communist military dictatorship that controlled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. In the time of the Derg, Ladas were associated with repressive security forces that kept the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in power.
Today, the Ladas are a friendly sight, often decorated with decals.
The face of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, appears often on the interior of windshields of Ladas, as seen in this photo.
Sure, Abiy has competition. (In Ethiopia, family names are given first.) Photos of Bob Marley are another popular choice in the taxi fleet of Addis. And there are many taxis decorated with the face of the man Marley worshipped, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
In January 2020, it was easy to spot photos of Abiy not just in taxis, but all over Addis. The people of the capital seemed quite thrilled by his Nobel win.
Usually the star of the National Museum of Ethiopia is Lucy, the nickname given to the fossilized remains of an early human ancestor. But on our visit, it was a display about Abiy’s Nobel Prize that drew my attention.
Abiy’s prize was honored at Addis Ababa University as well. The staff there also put on display a copy of Abiy’s thesis for graduate work at the university’s Institute for Peace and Security Studies.
Abiy’s Nobel win also was celebrated in less formal settings. This display seen in the photo below appeared at a fast-food outlet at a new tourist attraction in Addis Ababa, Unity Park.
The Nobel committee said it honored Abiy for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, “and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”
The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea dates back decades and has cost many lives. In his speech on accepting the Nobel, Abiy, 43, spoke about his own experience as a 20-something radio operator during the war with Eritrea.
Abiy recalled leaving a foxhole to try to get better antenna reception. When he returned after only a few minutes, he found an artillery attack had wiped out the fellow members of his unit.
“There are those who have never seen war but glorify and romanticize it,” Abiy said. “They have not seen the fear. They have not seen the fatigue. They have not seen the destruction or heartbreak. Nor have they felt the mournful emptiness of war after the carnage.”
The Africa correspondent for the Guardian, Jason Burke, once described Abiy as having “electrified Ethiopia with his informal style, charisma and energy, earning comparisons to Nelson Mandela, Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev.”
The biggest challenge ahead for Abiy is whether Ethiopia can manage a truly democratic national election slated for Aug. 16. National politics have been dominated since the 1990s by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Abiy’s management of the 2020 election matters not only for Ethiopia, but for the neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa, Michael Woldemariam of Boston University wrote in Foreign Affairs.
A successful process in Ethiopia would show that “inclusive and accountable governance that is possible in the Horn of Africa,” Woldemariam wrote. While a failure would be seen “as proof that political liberalization is unsuited for the tough and unforgiving realities of the region,” he wrote.
“The stakes for Ethiopia and its neighbors couldn’t be higher,” Woldemariam wrote.
RIVALS WITH SIMILAR ROOTS
Abiy’s challenges include trying to better unite a nation where ethnic tensions still fuel deadly riots. An October uprising claimed about 86 lives, the New York Times reported. Abiy in November met with his chief rival, media baron Jawar Mohammed, to talk about ways to prevent such violence.
Like Abiy, Jawar is from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo. Both men also come from families with mixed religious traditions, having Muslim fathers and Christian mothers.
Now prime minister, Abiy has spoken of growing up sleeping on the floor in a house without electricity or running water. He says he was 12 or 13 before he first saw an asphalt road. Around age 15, he joined in the final efforts to topple the Derg military regime.
A fascination with technology led to Abiy’s rise as a “securocrat,” the French news agency AFP has reported. According to AFP, Abiy was the first head of Ethiopia’s cyber-spying outfit, the Information Network Security Agency.
Abiy is noted for having a drive for self-improvement. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Microlink Information Technology College, Abiy went onto earn two master’s degrees and a PhD from Addis Ababa University.
His rival Jawar, 33, left Ethiopia in 2003 to study at a university in Singapore, NPR reported. Jawar later moved to the United States where he studied political science at Stanford and received a master’s in human rights studies at Columbia University.
Jawar’s Minneapolis-based Oromia Media Network has more than a million followers. He also uses Twitter to influence Ethiopian politics.
Where Abiy has sought to reduce tensions among Ethiopia’s different ethnic groups, critics of Jawar say he fans them to suit his political purposes. Ethiopians from other ethnic groups fear the “Oromo nationalism espoused by Jawar and his followers could lead to marginalisation,” the Economist reported in November 2019.
Jawar accuses Abiy of persisting with oppressive tactics to silent opposition. He’s not alone in his criticism of the current administration.
In January, Bilal Worku of Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) refused to return home after travelling to London to cover the UK-Africa Summit, the BBC reported. Bilal said he had been threatened by high-ranking government officials. According to the BBC report, EBC’s deputy chief executive AbdelJelil Hamid didn’t deny that government meddling was “having a negative impact on journalists.
In general, though, Abiy has won praise for fostering freedom of speech.
Ethiopia rose to the 110th spot last year among 180 countries ranked on the World Press Freedom Index, up from the 150th spot in the two previous years, according to the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders. The group has said Ethiopia “is making spectacular progress.”
“Since taking office in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has allowed the many detained journalists and bloggers to be released and, for the first time in more than ten years, no media professional was in prison at the end of 2018,” Reporters Without Borders said.
Abiy argues that “a vibrant democracy” is crucial for continued economic progress for Ethiopia. He takes great pride in the release of political prisoners and lifting of restrictions on the press.
“ We have shut down detention facilities where torture and vile human rights abuses took place,” Abiy said in his 2019 Nobel speech. “Today, Ethiopia is highly regarded for press freedom. It is no more a `jailor of journalists’.”
****UPDATE ON JULY 17, 2021: Unfortunately, Abiy’s administration has not lived up to its early promise. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued repeated reports in 2021 about the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on journalists, including attacks and arrests.
Under Abiy, a palace that served as a headquarters for past Ethiopian autocrats and dictators has become Addis Ababa’s hottest tourist attraction. Just about every taxi driver and hotel employee we spoke with in Addis Ababa urged us to see Unity Park, as the rebranded palace is known.
Abiy opened Unity Park in October. The United Emirates paid the $170 million cost for renovations, the Economist reported. In January, the park still seemed a work in progress, with construction still underway at the site. But the park’s landscaping already was very inviting, as seen below.
There was a rare black-maned lion on display, a nod to the traditions of Ethiopia’s monarchs. “In all Ethiopian history, wherever there is a palace there must be a lion,” Abebaw Ayelaw, a curator of the park, told the Economist.
Bad, Good or God?
Also on display at Unity Park is another lion of sorts — the lion of Judah who was worshipped by Bob Marley.
A mannequin of Haile Selassie is seated in a ceremonial hall at Unity Park. He looks as if he were still holding court, as he did during the days when this park was a national palace.
Selassie is one of the most interesting characters in 20th century history. Opinions vary about whether he was bad or good — or even God .
Born into Ethiopia’s royal circles in 1892, he held the title of Ras, or Duke, as a young man maneuvering his way closer to the throne. Ras Tafari Mekkonen eclipsed and then succeeded Empress Zewditu who died in 1930. He took the title of Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and Defender of the Faith.
Early in his reign, Selassie won praise for efforts to modernize Ethiopia. Selassie brought teachers from India for Ethiopia’s new schools, wrote author Abraham Verghese, the son of two educators recruited through the emperor’s efforts.
Selassie “singlehandedly brought his country into the modern era,” Verghese wrote in the Guardian.
“Just before the Second World War, in Haile Selassie’s speech to the League of Nations protesting about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, he had warned the world about what was coming: if you let Italy do this, then you give Hitler permission to do the same. `God and history will remember your judgment.’ It made him the darling of the free world; he was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1936,” Verghese wrote.
Certain Jamaicans took their praise of Ethiopia’s leader even further. They declared Selassie was God and created a new religion, using the emperor’s old name, Ras Tafari.
But Selassie’s early promise became clouded by corruption. Although worshiped in faraway Jamaica as a god, and thus omniscient, Selassie seemed unaware of the depth of suffering in his own land from starvation.
“By 1973, at 81 years of age, Haile Selassie was slowing down. But he still micromanaged, insisted on approving all appointments and promotions, kept his ministers on edge, played them against each other, “ Verghese wrote. “Perhaps this was why the famine blindsided him: no minister wished to admit the truth to him about crop failures and human suffering.”
In 1974, a military coup toppled Selassie. Looking frail, Selassie was taken away by soldiers in a Volkswagen, which seems a particular note of indignity. For decades, the emperor had been known for his elegant bearing and a penchant for foreign luxury cars, such as Rolls Royces.
Above is a photo of a photo that is on display in the Red Terror Museum in Addis Ababa. The museum is intended to honor those who lost their lives under the Derg, a Communist military dictatorship that controlled Ethiopia from 1974 until 1991.
Under Mengistu, war and famine devastated Ethiopia, Amnesty International wrote in a much-cited report.
“Over a million people are estimated to have died of starvation. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in civil wars and political violence,” Amnesty International wrote. “A further million or more have fled the country to escape hunger, bloodshed or political persecution. The scale of human suffering has been overwhelming.”
Many of us heard about how Ethiopians suffered in the 1980s from another famine. But most Americans didn’t fully understand what else was happening there. A BBC report on the famine caught the attention of a singer named Bob Geldof. In response, Geldof organized the famous Live Aid concert of 1985, which featured prominently in a recent movie, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
No one doubts the money raised by Live Aid helped feed hungry people. But there has been controversy about how much may have been siphoned off for weapons and how much Mengistu and his regime benefited from the charitable event.
Journalists and many aid agencies preferred to stick with a simple story about Ethiopia suffering due to a “Biblical famine” caused by poor weather, wrote Suzanne Franks in the Guardian in 2014. They did not examine too closely the role of Mengistu’s regime, which was fighting a war against insurgents in parts of Ethiopia.
“It was no accident that these were the areas starving because, to a large extent, the government was deliberately causing the famine,” Franks wrote. “It was bombing markets and trade convoys to disrupt food supply chains. Defence spending accounted for half of Ethiopia’s GDP and the Soviet-backed army was the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Mengistu’s government also uprooted many Ethiopians and relocated them within the country for political means, wrote Franks
“Victims of famine were lured into feeding camps only to be forced onto planes and transported far away from their homes,” Franks wrote. “Some estimate the number of deaths from this policy to be higher than those from famine.”
“..ROYALTY, RASTAFARIANS OR REPORTERS..”
By the time Live Aid drew attention to Ethiopia, Haile Selassie was long gone. It remains unclear, though, how and when he died.
The Mengistu regime in 1975 announced that the emperor had passed due to complications of a prostate operation. Many in Ethiopia doubt that story, with rumors persisting that Selassie’s successor murdered the emperor with his own hands.
I overheard a tour guide tell a group of tourists that “only Mengistu knows the date” of Selassie’s death. The guide was showing the group around the saddest park of Addis’ Unity Park, the basement where many political prisoners were held by the Derg.
Other people rejected the Derg’s report of the emperor’s death for another reason — divinity does not perish. Bob Marley responded with a song called “Jah Live.” “Selassie-i live, live, live,” Marley sang in a beautiful concert version of the song.
But Selassie did not.
Shortly after the fall of Mengistu regime, Selassie’s body was found under a slab of concrete in a former royal palace used by the Derg. There were rumors about this too, saying Mengistu kept Selassie’s remains under watch due to a superstitious fear of the emperor returning from the dead.
Selassie’s remains were not put to a dignified rest until 2000. Opinion about the emperor remains mixed. Some Ethiopians see him as an autocrat who profited while his people starved. Others see him as a noble figure who sought to bring modern advantages to his nation.
What’s certain is that Selassie could still draw a crowd. The Guardian reported on the influx visitors to Addis ahead of Selassie’s official burial in Holy Trinity Church in Addis Ababa.
“Over the last couple of weeks almost every aeroplane arriving in Addis Ababa has carried either royalty, Rastafarians or reporters,” Tigist Belay and James Astill wrote in the Guardian article.
The article doesn’t mention it, but I’d bet many of those visitors traveled around Addis Ababa in Lada taxis.