The African Union Turns 50: Voices From Ethiopia — Past and Present

The African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo courtesy AU Commission)

Tadias Magazine
By Nuhamin Daniel and Benno Muechler

Updated: Saturday, May 25th, 2013

Addis Ababa (TADIAS) – It must have been some time around 1970. Solomon Kurabachew doesn’t remember exactly when he met his future wife, but at the time he was employed as an accountant at the OAU, where Lakatch, now his wife of 40 years, also worked as a secretary. In a recent interview at their home here in Addis Ababa, the couple shared with us their memories of how they met each other because of their work at the Organization of African Unity, which is the predecessor to the African Union (AU). On Saturday, May 25th the AU celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Each day after work, Solomon said, he drove home with two colleagues past the Emperor’s palace. And on the way once he spotted Lakatch and two of her friends waiting for a taxi. “So, one day when the three of us saw them again, we thought: ‘Oh, these girls are always standing here,’” Solomon recalled. “Why not give them a lift?” At first, Mr. Solomon said, the connection started out as “Selam and ciao.”

“Then lastly, me and one of my friends decided to talk to them so my friend and I stepped out of the car –one of the guys stayed in the car –and we said hello to the women and offered to give them a lift,” he remembered. “They said ‘No.’” But that was before Lakatch relented in giving him her phone number.

When Solomon began working at OAU in 1968, Mobutu Sese Seko was the chairman and the OAU’s nickname was the ‘Dictators’ Club.’ The heavily criticized institution is still a work in progress, but over the past five decades it has also been source of job security for many professionals like Solomon and Lakatch. And in recent years the newly inaugurated state-of-the-art conference center and office complex — a $200 million gift from the government of China — has added to the local economic boom.

For Fantahun Haile Michael, AU’s current project coordinator, the entity is not perfect, but “It’s the the only continental forum we do have.”

In an interview at his office inside the new building, Mr. Fantahun, who previously served as Ethiopia’s ambassador to North Korea and Zimbabwe, said the AU has no power to make binding decisions for all of Africa’s 54 states, but it does its best given all the constraints.

“Ultimately we’re trying to change the continent in order to better, for good, the lives of African citizens,” he said. As to his own employment at the AU: “It’s not about thinking about our own life, our well-being because we’re paid well,” he said. “That’s not something that should give us ultimate happiness. Ultimate happiness is how much we’re trying to change Africa.”

There sat another gentleman under a tree in the morning sun, dressed in a worn-out gray sweater, outside the AU compound, away from the basketball court, where from Mr. Fantahun’s office window view a few women played dribble. Teshome Kinfe Woldegiorgis, 24, is waiting for customers. Teshome washes cars and makes about 100 Birr a day, that’s before he quit his job at the AU that paid less.

“When I started at the AU, I was really excited,” said Teshome who made 400 Birr a month. “But that changed when I saw how conditions were.

Teshome grew up in the neighborhood around AU. After finishing grade 10 at school, he tried to make ends meet as a shoe shiner. One of his customers worked at the AU and got him a job as a waiter. Teshome served top officials like UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. After two years, he left his job.

“I remember that my feet were bleeding one day because I had to walk so much. And all that for only 400 Birr a month. I applied for other jobs that were better paid, but I never got a reply. You spend the whole day with top officials like the AU chairperson, Jean Ping. But you can’t even afford a new pair of pants with the money you earn every month.“

Kebede Assefa is one of those city residents who had to move to make way for the construction of the new AU building. He works as a barber some hundred meters down the street in a district of huts made of mud and iron sheet. A smelly river with yellow foam on the surface meanders under a bridge. The area will be demolished soon. Fortunately, this time, the city gave those losing their properties at least new housing. It was different when his old dwelling was demolished some years ago, he said. He is still waiting for compensation. Nevertheless, Mr. Kebede, who has only one leg since his car accident and now cuts hair while leaning on a crutch, thinks positively of the AU. “What can you say if the area here is to be developed?” he asked. “This district is really ugly. We need to grow. Why should it remain like this?”

At Solomon and Lakatch’s living room, “It was love at first sight,” Lakatch said, after Solomon noted that she had given him her phone number on his second try. Like the AU, the family of Solomon and Lakatch has grown since the early 1970s. The pictures of their four married children and five grandchildren hang on the walls of their living room. Also, just like the AU, the couple moved to a new home. While this one is much smaller and was not built by the Chinese, the old house next door accommodates a Taiwanese and a German who would probably have never come to Addis if the AU had not made the city become a regional center for aid agencies and the international media.

Mr. Solomon left the OAU in 1986 and worked at the delegation of the European Union in Addis until his retirement age. Maybe the AU will become an EU one day, he said. “Yes, working at the EU was more comfortable, but having double the number of EU member states makes life also more difficult for the AU.”

“At the African Union, on the other hand, there are so many different characters,” Mr. Solomon said while Lakatch boiled coffee in a pot placed on charcoal in the background. “It’s not a small organization. There are the French, the English-speaking, the Arabs. There are a lot of communication gaps between us. But at the EU, there are only two languages — French and English. You can communicate, you can understand each other.”

Nuhamin Daniel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa. Benno Muechler is a freelance correspondent for German Public Radio (Deutschlandfunk) from Ethiopia.

Related:
Photos: United Nations Marks OAU-AU 50th Anniversary (TADIAS)
AU Celebrates At Landmark Summit in Ethiopia (Video)
Ketema Yifru: The Architect Behind the OAU (The Ethiopian Reporter)
The OAU: Fifty years on (BBC News)
African Union Celebrates 50th Year (AP)
Watch: AU anniversary video spotlight (Economist)
Yadesa Bojia Reflects on African Union Flag on 50th Anniversary (TADIAS)

Join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.