Journalist | Writer | Analyst
27 May 2011
ADDIS ABABA DIARY
Manmohan invokes flour and power in pitch to Ethiopia
The deadpan delivery was vintage Manmohan but the Prime Minister’s speech to a joint sitting of Ethiopia’s parliament on Thursday appeared to come straight from the heart. He spoke of India and the Horn of Africa once being part of the same landmass – paleogeographers call it Gondwanaland. He mentioned the Siddi community on the west coast of India who are of Ethiopian descent. And he cited “often overlooked similarities” in tradition and culture, including the use of fermented flour for making dosa in south India and injera in Ethiopia, to argue that connections between the two countries were deep despite being separated by the waters of the Indian Ocean.
The Prime Minister invoked history too, quoting Nehru’s stirring call for solidarity with Abyssinia when Mussolini invaded the only African country never to be colonized. We in India can do nothing to help our brethren in distress in Ethiopia for we are also victims of imperialism, Nehru wrote in 1935, but we stand with them today in their sorrow as we hope to stand together when better days come. “I believe the better days that [he] spoke of have come,” Dr. Singh declared to applause from the assembled parliamentarians.
Ethiopia has since overcome many adversities, he said, and India too was in a position to make a difference. After reiterating India’s economic commitments to the country, the Prime Minister turned to the realities of international power politics. India and Ethiopia were plural, diverse societies and both believed democracy and “respect for the free will of the people” were the only ways to solve their problems. “Similar principles should be applied in the conduct of international governance,” he added. In a veiled attack on Nato’s bombing of Libya, he said the people of West Asia and North Africa have the right to determine their own destiny but that any international action “must be based on the rule of law and be strictly within the framework of United Nations resolutions.”
Though the Speaker of Ethiopia’s House of Federation said Ethiopia was an emerging democracy and would like to learn from India’s system, its Parliament is clearly one up on India in terms of the facilities for simultaneous translation it provides to MPs. As with all debates and meetings, Dr. Singh’s speech was simultaneously translated into five languages: Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromiffa, Afar and Somalinya. Ethiopia has more than 80 languages and any MP who wants translations in her or his own language is entitled to it at Parliament’s expense, a Parliamentary official told The Hindu. In contrast, the Indian Parliament has provision only for simultaneous translation between English and Hindi. MPs who wish to speak in any of the other Scheduled languages have to give advanced notice so that their speech can be translated for the other MPs.
A river runs through it
If India, which has several rivers running through it other than the Brahmaputra, is jittery about China’s plans to build a dam on the Yarlung Zangbo’s upper reaches, imagine the fear that Ethiopia’s decision to dam the Nile must be causing in Egypt, whose entire civilisation and economy has depended on the uninterrupted flow of Africa’s longest river. The Blue Nile originates in Lake Tana inside Ethiopia before entering Sudan and joining the White Nile at Khartoum for its final journey through northern Sudan and Egypt up to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Ethiopian government plans to build the Renaissance Dam some 40 km. from its border with Sudan. The project will store more than 60 billion cubic metres of water and generate 5250 MW of electricity, more than half of which Ethiopia intends to sell to Sudan and Egypt. In an effort to allay the fears of the lower riparians, the Ethiopians insist they will not use the water stored for irrigation. They also say the dam will help generate a more predictable flow in the Blue Nile, which is mainly responsible for variations in the main Nile. When the dam’s plans were first announced, there were howls of protest from the erstwhile government of Hosni Mubarak. But since Tahrir Square, the new transitional dispensation in Cairo has adopted a more cooperative approach. Asked about the dam in his joint press conference with Dr. Singh, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia said his government had offered to subject the dam’s design to scrutiny by Egyptian, Sudanese and international experts and that he hoped this transparency would end the controversy about the Renaissance dam once and for all.
A coffee a day
A handsome city spread out over gently rolling hills at an average elevation of 9000 feet above sea level, Addis Ababa is a bustling metropolis that has become the diplomatic capital of the continent thanks to the headquarters of the African Union being located here. The Chinese government is erecting a spectacular new building for the AU but the signs of construction visible in virtually every part of the city are testimony to the fact that Ethiopia is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies. The temperature rarely rises above the mid-20s and when it does, a shower promptly cools the city. The only drawback is the pollution. Many of the cars and buses on the streets are second hand imports that are well past their prime. Though lacking the Italianate art deco architecture of Asmara, Addis Ababa has benefited from its brief encounter with European imperialism in one tangible way: a superb espresso, pulled from ageing Italian machines, can be had on virtually every street for the equivalent of about 25 US cents.