No Way Forward

It is often very easy to assign blame, even easier to find solutions for incidents long since passed. But then again it is also very important to analyze what really happened, make sure who was responsible and hold all those responsible accountable. This is not done for the fun of it, but to make sure misfortunes do not occur.

I learned the name of a particular neighborhood not many weeks earlier. It is called “Qoshe“, a nickname given to the area that surrounds the landfill located in the Kolfe Qeranyo District in the capital, Addis Abeba. Surprisingly, and unfortunately, I learned this on British Broadcasting Company (BBC). As high-profile as the BBC may sound, getting their attention is rarely a good thing. The newscaster reported of the fatal landslide that took the lives of more than a hundred people.

The incident has since been copiously reported and talked about. Private local broadcasters – who under normal circumstances steer clear of political topics – have shared their condolences, displaying the now-traditional candle light image. Newspapers have run it as the headlines, sometimes even on the front page. The state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), had the most to say about the incident, especially from the perspective of city officials. Qoshe, in the worst possible way, had become an overnight household name.

What more could be said of this sad incident that has not already been said?

Well, it is what has happened after the incident that has baffled me. After the landslide took place, the number of victims and the property lost were announced, the conversation quickly turned to support the survivors of the incident required. People that are vulnerable to more landslides were moved to safer premises; officials vowed to find them permanent housing. Even more touching was the generosity showed by Ethiopians. Up to this point, millions of Birr have been raised to help the survivors recover.

All of this is good and well, but I fear it is shifting the dialogue to what everyone should learn from the incident: the shocking incompetence and bureaucracy of state institutions.

The facts are scandalous and show that Ethiopia is still a very poorly managed country that has a long road to go before becoming a middle-class nation. Among all that garbage and refuse, people made a living – built their houses and reared their children, despite the smell, despite the unsettling setting. Illegally built houses are nothing new; the type that is built in such an unseemly places are. This shows how desperate some of the people are, and that for all their problems and misfortunes, lives have to be lost for the country to pay attention to them.

And the people of Qoshe are not an isolated specimen. For all the improvements and endlessly publicized double-digit Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, the country is crawling with other traumatic episodes. Destitution is to blame, surely, but if we labored to perceive from the highest possible vantage point, we all are.

The roots to explain what happened probably lie in the overall lack of productivity the country is dodged by. Like most other developing countries in the world, Ethiopians have not reached their potential, for reasons relating mainly to carelessness and corruption. From the research that is routinely conducted around the world, for instance, it has been found that the United States loses some 550 billion dollars annually to lack of engagement to one’s work, and 125 billion dollars in a year as a result of bureaucratic wastes in the military alone.

A third of Kenya’s state budget is lost to corruption. And 16 billion pounds were wiped from the United Kingdom’s coffers as a result of tax evasion in 2015.

I put up these findings because I could not find any for this country, probably because they do not exist because no one has bothered to work them out or because no has been allowed to. It is very hard to study these things especially when it comes to state-run institutions, which are the largest employers and the most far-reaching. Transparency has never been any Ethiopian government’s strong suit.

But it is very hard to ignore the call to open up these institutions and help make the public an active player. Such lapses in output, sometimes intentional, sometimes inevitable, but most times wholly avoidable, may cost the government, and thus the Ethiopian people, millions, or even billions, in lost productivity. But the grim side of the reality is that lives are lost too. People die because someone somewhere is incompetent, negligent or dodged with too many bureaucratic complications to make the right decisions.

I am entirely unsatisfied with city officials’ response so far, which seems to be more concerned with reparation for the victims – which is an important issue but should not be used to distract from the main topic. The Qoshe landslide was manmade. There needs to be an investigation, publicized and open, to figure out why this happened and because of whom, in order to make sure we do not repeat the disaster.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a regular contributor to Fortune. He could be reached at

Published on Apr 01,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 882]



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