Villagers, lured by new jobs and rich rewards for selling their land, now face poverty and heartbreak as claims of corruption engulf £2.5bn transport project
by Tom Gardner
“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.
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.
Communities along the line retain a special attachment to the old railway, opened by Ethiopia’s then-emperor, Menelik II, in 1901. Residents of Awash and Dire Dawa, in particular, look back on the previous rail era, which had drawn to a close by the end of the last century, with dewy-eyed nostalgia. Scepticism towards its 21st-century replacement is commonplace. “The new train is simply passing through,” says Teshome, a 40-year-old tradesman in Awash, pointing to the decaying courtyard of the station, which has not been replaced. “The old train had so much importance for the city. Passengers used our restaurants and hotels, all services. But this time such things won’t happen.”
Biruk, the Oxford researcher, sees in this a fundamental problem for the government and the ERC. “Some locals perceive the railway as an Addis-based elite project,” he says. “A symbol of the regime.”
The Chinese Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) said it hired more than 20,000 local workers in Ethiopia and 5,000 in Djibouti. But former employees complain of low wages and, like Tadele in Adama, of poor treatment by their Chinese managers. Since construction ended there have been few new jobs, in part because the rail services will be staffed by Chinese controllers, technicians and station masters for the next five years.
“There is no development here yet,” says Mintesinot, a 36-year-old former soldier in Mojo, home to a new dry port – an inland point for goods transfer to a sea port. He brandishes a piece of paper, revealing he is registered as unemployed. “They told me I would get work at the dry port, in the customs office. That’s what they told us, but it hasn’t happened yet. It will never happen. Of course the railway is important for the country – but what is that importance if the youth here do not get jobs there?”
There are some grounds for optimism. The new prime minister has been widely welcomed by young Ethiopians, especially in Oromia. A new land law, with higher compensation for expropriated farmers, is expected soon. Miriam Driessen, another Oxford researcher who has studied Sino-Ethiopian labour relations in the road construction sector, says that over time there has been “gradual improvement” in both wages and working conditions for Ethiopian employees.
But the lesson of the railway is that development-from-above breeds special resentment when grand promises are perceived to have been broken. “I was hopeful that the railway would change my life,” says Samatra Ahmed, a 27-year-old son of a farmer in Dire Dawa. “I hoped I would be employed there – and then later start my own business. But after the government took the land, all the promises vanished.”
This article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting