The jury is still out on the impact of the recent unrest in Oromia Region. Zooming in on hospitality and tourism, SOLIANA ALEMAYEHU, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER discovers that some hotels experienced damage to property as well as profits. However, the sector seems resilient, despite officially issued information discouraging travel in the affected region.
British citizen, Richard Graham (PhD, OBE), is lounging in the lobby of a hotel along with a few of his newly made friends. He is relaxing after a long day of training at the hotel situated in a town barely half an hour’s drive from an area where his country has advised against all but essential travel.
Graham is a scientist who has been awarded the appellation, Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). He works in the UK’s Meteorological Office and specializes in, among other things, climate outlooks for Africa.
He bravely went to Adama to train a group from the National Meteorology Agency, and did so knowing of the turmoil taking place there. Despite the travel information issued by the UK Government, Graham ventured forth.
“So far, I feel no concern,” he told Fortune, adding that he is subscribed to additional websites that have given him security warnings about the area he is in.
The training was scheduled way before the protest and related violence escalated to the point of causing concern for the security of visitors.
But not everyone is as fearless as Graham. In fact, the hospitality industry in Adama is just one of the many areas that experienced a reduced number of visitors.
This phenomenon unfolded particularly after several embassies issued travel information around in mid December, during the first two weeks of the unrest that unfolded throughout the Oromia Region.
The Norwegian Embassy first issued travel information urging its citizens to exercise caution during travel to Ethiopia. Later, on February 19, 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) advised ‘against all but essential travel’ to Ziway Wereda and Adami Tulu in the East Shewa Zone. The UK travel note also named Shashemene, Arsi Negele, Seraro, Kofele, Dodola, and Kokosa Weredas in West Arsi Zone in the Oromia Region, as places that should be avoided. Similarly, the information discouraged travel between Ziway and Hawassa, and the Lake Langano area.
These areas were selected from the wider Oromia Region, that the travel information indicated had heightened risks for travelers because of recent unrest.
It highlighted the serious outbreak of violence that erupted in Shashemene and around Langano, during the weekend of February 13 and February 14. It read in part, “there have been widespread clashes with local authorities and reports of vehicles being attacked.”
A Police Chief in Arsi Negele Wereda, Commander Abduljebar Amanu, confirmed this. He said that five kebele offices were razed in Kofele, an area some 27km east of Shashamane. His wereda also experienced five days of disturbances starting on February 16.
“There were serious fears for security,” he said, “but it is slowly getting better now.”
A resident of the area, who wished not to be named, admitted to not being able to travel at night. He also told Fortune that in the nearby town of Bulbula, which is 10km away from where he works in the Langano area, vehicles that passed by were stoned and at times robbed.
The UK was not the only country alarmed by all this. On February 18, the American Embassy also released a security message that restricted all travel on the corridor between Shashamane and Modjo.
By the following day, the road to Ambo, an area 120km west of Addis, was included in the restricted area.
The travel restrictions may have done their damage, as the region is one popular with tourists seeking out natural attractions.
Almost all areas included in the various travel information touches upon the country’s Rift Valley enclave which is part of the famous East African Rift Valley. One of the planet’s grandest geographical features: the massive Great Rift Valley is a 4,000km scar that stretches from the Red Sea to Mozambique.
Ethiopia’s part encompasses a string of lakes and fascinating national Parks: Abiyata-Shala, Nechsar, Mago and Omo. In it are found the remarkable hot springs, chains of seven lakes and collection of birdlife and wildlife making the route, which covers regions in both Oromia and the Southern Nations & Nationalities.
The region is considered ideal for the development of international tourism in Ethiopia and the four major cities on this route, Bishoftu, Adama, Ziway and Langano, already have 53 of the area’s 130 hotels are star-rated .
Not unexpectedly, the hospitality industry has been voicing its concerns.
Endashaw Bogge, manager of Executive Hotel, where Graham was staying, expressed his misgivings.
“November and December are the off season, while February and March are the peak season,” he explained. Despite that, the hotel reported 6.75 million Br in earnings in December, a figure that went down by 47pc in February. Furthermore, the 140 staff members shared 774,000 Br of service charges in November, 63pc more than what they got in February.
At the individual level, this translated to receipt of 3,069 Br in addition to a staff member’s standing salary in December, and 1,803 Br in February.
Similar stories were heard from a hotel in Bishoftu, a.k.a. Debre Zeit, the first town on the route having a luxurious resort and other getaways.
“The past three months have brought in revenue that is on average 35pc lower than the same time last year,” said Shewaneh Kinfu, general manager of Pyramid Hotel & Resort.
December, January, and February have not been good for business. The first month actually exhibited a decrease in takings of more than 40pc. That decline was the direct result of five cancellations of conferences that were booked by foreign companies during the period. Room occupancy rate is down to 20pc on weekends, compared to the same period last year when room occupancy at 100pc. Non-occupancy business has decreased by 50pc.
“The town has been peaceful,” Shewaneh said, “we have not had more than a single day of unrest, even that was way back-at the beginning of the turmoil.”
Debre Zeit is home to an air force base and a defense academy. The Manager thinks that may have kept the unrest at bay. Sadly, that same factor could not comfort customers.
The Hotel’s market research could not come up with a strategy to recover from the set-back. This hotel could do no more than strengthen its internal security, to prevent destruction of its Moroccan-themed property.
The travel-deterring impact of the unrest could not be more vividly evidenced than at Ziway, in one of the luxurious resorts Kuriftu on the annual celebration of St. Gabriel’s day, on December 29.
“No one showed up at our Ziway branch,” Fresenbet Mezgebu, current assistant manager of the Adama branch told Fortune. “Traditionally, not only our resort but all hotels would have been booked and the streets full of new faces,” he added.
Things got progressively worse as one drove further from Addis. Resorts located off the main road, such as those on the shore of Lake Langano, not only suffered from a drop in the number of customers, but suffered property damage too. Staff and employees have been subject to harassment and threats.
On a Wednesday, February 17, unidentified perpetrators broke into Langano Lodge and set fire to the main building that housed the bar, restaurant, and conference areas.
Fortunately, there were no casualties when the fire broke out, but the thatched roofing and bamboo decor were immediately consumed in flames.
One of the reasons no one was harmed was that there were no customers at the time.
“We have been having trouble for a while,” said the Lodge’s Finance Officer, Mengistu Yakob.
He recounted that bandit who tried to rob passers-by at night, had dug up the road that leads to the hotel, so the Lodge has not had clients in a while. Two weeks later a similar incident happened at a neighbouring Lodge, the African Vacation Club.
Torching of investments had also occurred a few months before in Holeta, 40km west of the capital. In that case, the properties included flower farms and cement distribution trucks.
The most recent turn of events was not foreseen.
“The whole thing started,” Mengistu explained, “when a wedding party was passing by Kofele three weeks ago.”
Local young men stopped the vehicles and demanded that the bridal party reduce the volume on the music they were playing. When they refused, a fight ensued that ended up claiming eight to twelve lives, according to different sources.
That incident was immediately communicated on social media platforms and resonated with the incidents that had been taking place in the special zones of Oromia around the capital. Social media has been conveying the different instances of protest and violence taking place throughout the Region, and views ranging from moderate to extreme have fueled tensions in the areas worst affected.
Over the past 15 weeks, Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia, has been hit by a wave of sporadic, unpredictable yet persistent protests, initially sparked by disagreement over a Draft Master Plan that sought to integrate Addis Ababa, with some areas in the surrounding Oromia region. Fears that the expansion would displace farmers, who have been there for generations, first drove the tensions.
The first protests against the Master Plan were held mainly by students of Oromia Regional State in April, May and June, 2014, and they resulted in deaths, injuries and imprisonment of many people all over the state. The protests erupted again in November 2015 and have continued up until now.
On December 16, 2015, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said government, “will take merciless legitimate action against any force bent on destabilizing the area.”
The same day, Getachew Reda, head of the government’s Communication Affairs Office, said, “an organised and armed terrorist force aiming to create havoc and chaos have begun murdering model farmers, public leaders and other ethnic groups residing in the region.”
The ‘second round protests’, as activists call it, covered a wider area and lasted longer than its antecedent. The federal government, since the first outburst of unrest took acted according to recommendations by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), one component of the ruling party.
The Human Rights Watch is one of many sources that denounced military deployment, terrorism rhetoric Risk Escalating Violence claim that the incidence of police brutality reached a climax, in what some are calling the biggest crisis to hit Ethiopia since the unrest spurred by the 2005 elections.
In only the first 100 days of these protests, numerous of towns and villages witnessed deadly disturbances. Ensuing clashes between authorities and protesters have resulted in a death toll that ranges, according to various sources, from 75 to 400, with thousands more injured and arrested.
Furthermore, when senior opposition figures continued to rebuke what the government was doing, it only led to more arrests.
Just four months after his release from serving a four-year jail term, Deputy Chairman of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Bekele Gerba, was arrested again in late December, following a two-day sweep by authorities. In addition to six other members of the party, the sweep caught two members of Semayawi (Blue) Party and Getachew Shiferaw, editor-in-chief of Negere Ethiopia, the party’s mouthpiece.
Several countries then conveyed messages urging the Government of Ethiopia to permit peaceful protest and commit to a constructive dialogue to address legitimate grievances. The US did so in December 19.
When the unrest persisted, on January 13, 2016, the Central Committee of Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), after a three-day meeting in Adama – capital of the region, decided to totally abandon the Integrated Master Plan proposal.
As the protests continued, the European Parliament strongly condemned the use of excessive force by the security forces, and the increased number of cases of human rights violations in a statement released on January 25. It also asked the government to let a team into the country to investigate those reports.
At a private meeting held between an American delegation and Ethiopian officials in the morning of the African Union Summit in Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian government said it would investigate the allegations of lethal force. The representatives also said government would invest in police and military training to prevent such occurrences in the future.
The US Embassy has lifted the restrictions on March 4, but the others remain intact.
Nevertheless, as recently as March 7, students from Addis Abeba University, who had taken to protesting at the gates of the American Embassy, had received retaliation as harsh as ever. Ironically, the protest was in demand for an end to police crackdowns.
Further south, some semblance of normalcy seems to have been restored.
“Things are getting back to normal,” Arsi Negele’s Police Chief insisted, “people are slowly starting to go about their business like they used to, and tourists are coming back.”
However, officials are wary of disclosing the exact number arrested, wounded or dead. The non-disclosure has helped to dampen what was quite a volatile situation.
While the unrest has affected hotels in these areas, the symptoms are not the same across the board. While Executive Hotel claimed to suffer losses, a little further down the same strip, Dire International Hotel was hosting three conferences, one of which was organised by USAID.
Conference and event organisers Fortune spoke with, said that business was going as usual. They had even organised events in Bishoftu and Adama during the period being covered.
“We heed security warnings unless in life saving situations where, for example, supplies need to be delivered,” said Sacha Westerbeek, UNICEF’s Chief of External Media.
She added that some of their monitoring trips were cancelled, and some were postponed for a few days until the situation calmed down, or roadblocks were removed. But none of their meetings was cancelled due to security concerns.
Other parts in Ethioipia seem to be flourishing. A tour operator who concentrates on routes North of Addis, Abebe Haregewoin of African Adventures, claimed that he, thanks to his American and Japanese clientele, has had the best February to date.
“The past two weeks have shown a slight increase,” the General Manager of Pyramid Hotel said, “if it goes on at this rate, we have hope of returning to normal in the peak season that comes from March to June.”
He said that while they cannot control what happens in the region, they are doing what they can to fortify their internal security. He added that have added to their marketing approach.
As a result of government’s investigation of the protests, within the last fortnight, the government took the unanticipated action, perceived by some as bold, when three central committee members of the OPDO were removed from office. Those relieved of their duties are former OPDO Head, Daba Debele, Head of the Region’s Administration & Security Bureau, Solomon Kuchu, and the region’s Head of Agriculture, Zelalem Jemaneh. They were said to be incompetent and lacking transparency.
The unfolding kaleidoscope of the unrest in the Oromia Region, at times passing its borders and spilling over into the Southern Nations, has not yet been thoroughly and objectively reported by the respective authorities, leaving much in the realm of speculation. The very near future remains elusive, with interest groups predicting their wishes and whims as an unfolding reality.
Businesses that suffered the impact earlier, around Mugher Wereda in this process are striving to get their business flow back to normal.
One company that has been having trouble distributing its products throughout the country, said it had arranged a network of informants, and had been monitoring any incidents that came up, relaying information to its distributors, along with advice on how to handle the situation.
“The show must go on,” he said.
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