Nomenclature of Public’s Assets

Axum, an ancient jewel in the Ethiopian history, is also a sign and a seal on our national identity. Every time I travel there, I end up staying a few more days than intended. Sometimes I do not feel like leaving. Once, on my way back to Addis Abeba, I got to the airport a few hours in advance. With plenty of time to idle away, I walked towards a statue of Emperor Yohannes IV, one of the great unifiers of the late nineteenth century in Ethiopia. The airport in Axum is named after him.

Another excursion led me to Bahir Dar Airport,  which also has an alternate name, Ginbot Haya Airport. It is an apparent homage to the ruling party coalition that has governed the country for the past 26 years, after ousting the socialist military junta, Dergue.

I was struck with a thought, what particular connection does the airport have to the date the EPRDFites came to power? Why not stick to a name that would entirely be relevant to the people and something to do with the history of the region? Who gets to decide on what name an airport has to bear, anyway?

This airport has come a long way by the standard of the Ethiopian civil aviation history. Its foundation was laid long before the Ginbot Haya date became relevant.

Before significant expansions and renovations that subsequently upgraded its infrastructures to the level of one of the country’s four international airports, the Bahir Dar Airport has been operational since the reign of Emperor Hailesselassie I. Back then, it also served as an Air Force base.

An airport with a long history of service that transcended two governments and still serves the third one, the rationale behind renaming it does not make sense. At the very best, it should reflect its region’s history, people and tradition, as should other state-owned enterprises. Collective history is important, and there is no better way of celebrating it than by assigning it to tangible things. In any case, institutions owned by the public should not be given names that have such political undertones.

The name Ginbot Haya, despite being the airport’s official name for quite a while now, hardly sticks to the mind of many. Even the airline’s tickets issued by the airport do not bear it. And it is hard to find anyone who refers to the airport by that name.

Depending on a particular history to which the people associate their values, the change of names or renaming of public utilities, parks, avenues and other public properties is widely acceptable. But imposing titles to satisfy the whim of the political elites for political reasons, as opposed to a historical one, would be a source of discontent on the part of the public at large. Every era fares with its own legacy, and is subjected to the judgment of its contemporary. If people identify themselves with the relevance of a particular legacy inherited from the past or the present, they uphold whatever change comes forth. When it deviates out of context, the effect goes to the opposite. The case of the Bahir Dar Airport is just a single example worth paying attention to.

Bahir Dar Airport is one of those in the country whose infrastructures have been upgraded. Four of which, including Bahir Dar’s are categorically rated by the Ethiopian Airport Enterprise (now having merged with the Ethiopian Airlines) as international airports. The remaining will be confined to domestic flights until they are scaled up. Fortunately, most of the other terminals are given a name that is representative of their history and the region’s people. Ethiopia is not starved of historical figures – not by a long shot – if historians are to be believed.

This is not to undermine what May 28, 1991, means for the country in general, and the region in particular. Under the iron fist of the Dergue regime, many innocent people were massacred. I, like many people, am happy that era has ended, and a new one has dawned. There is more democracy, and people can leave their houses and stay out late without the fear of a curfew. There are also better opportunities to enjoy one’s life and get a job.

Less than three decades ago, the airport in Bahir Dar was one of a handful of airports that existed in the entire country and, in most cases, their infrastructure remained in poor conditions. Today, including the two major city administrations, Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa, the number of airports has grown to a full dozen. We have been able to build one airport every couple of years or so, something we were unable to do in the fifty years before May 1991. Indeed, this is a milestone on the part of the government.

But the Ginbot Haya symbol, unfortunately, has too many political connotations that are routinely used by the EPRDFites as a rallying cry for their party. It is perhaps time to acknowledge the dividing line between party and state, and allow the public’s possession to reflect its area and history.


By Esayas B. Gebre-Meskel
Esayas B. Gebre-Meskel is a behaviour change communication adviser who has spent more than seven years at an NGO working in the same capacity. He can be reached at

Published on Nov 11,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 915]



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