To the wider world and much of the West in particular the image of Ethiopia seems stuck in a Band Aid Time time-warp. It is as if the clock had stopped in 1985, an era of partial drought, famine, harrowing news footage and the indignation of international pop stars. Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Derg have long since gone (with the former living in luxurious exile in Zimbabwe). The era of transformation under the late Meles Zenawi witnessed both an ideological and economic step change that has seen Ethiopia assume a role of regional and pan-African leadership not seen since the formation of Organisation of African Union (OAU) during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie.
As Africaâ€™s second most populous nation, Ethiopia recognizes the need to ensure a greater internal and external connectivity. This quest for greater connectivity has galvanised a variety of sectors. In aviation Ethiopian Airlines has worked hard to become a major continental player in recent years, but it is on the ground that the bulk of activity has begun to manifest itself, primarily in a whole raft of construction projects. State investment in roads, dams, centres of education and low cost housing is currently driving a construction boom. Agencies such as the Ethiopian Road and Transport Authority (http://www.rta.gov.et) are wrestling with the increasing traffic in Addis Ababa, as well as overseeing arterial roads and highways to connect the interior. Considerable energy and resources is being directed to opening up new road and rail links to Ethiopiaâ€™s neighbours, this being a particular preoccupation at present as currently 98% of the countryâ€™s international trade passes through Djibouti. This over reliance on Djibouti has resulted in the exploration of other options including Port Sudan, Berbera and Lamu, the later in the form of the Lamu Portand Lamu Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) being by far the most ambitious of regional infrastructure projects. Projects such as Addis Ababa â€“ Adama Expressway and the construction of 100km-long road, stretching from Asosa to Kormuk are stimulating trade and fuelling the demand for key commodities such as cement.
In common with the majority of its neighbours, Ethiopia has turned to the Chinese to carry out the lion share of its road and rail projects. The huge quantities of cement needed for such projects have been supplied by both international and local companies. Lafarge SA and Dangote Cement Plc are two of the most prominent international providers, whilst local companies such as Derba Midroc Cement (owned by the Ethiopian-born Saudi Billionaire Sheik Mohamed Hussein al-Amoudi), the state-owned Mugher Cement Enterprise and the Ethiopian Peopleâ€™s Revolutionary Democratic Frontâ€™s Messebo Building Materials Production Plc have all benefited from the boom. Other capital projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have become emblematic of Ethiopiaâ€™s vision, although not without controversy. This ambitious hydro-electric dam project awarded to the Italian construction firm Salini Costruttori (http://www.salini.it/en/) without a competitive bidding process has caused particular alarm in Egypt and Sudan where there is a fear that it will reduce water levels in the River Nile downstream. Human rights concerns have also been raised over land seizure and forced deportations of ethnic Amharas from the Benishangul-Gumuz ethnic state in western Ethiopia in the region where the dam is being built.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, seems intent on continuing the modernization process begun by his predecessor. The fact that the Ethiopian PM holds a bachelorâ€™s degree in Civil Engineering and a masterâ€™s degree in Sanitation Engineering means he is likely to be well disposed towards those individuals and companies intent on bringing about a transformation through construction projects.