The amount of security that leaders require has come a long way since the days of Emperor Haileselassie. While the Emperor would be seen amongst the populace, there is a seemingly impenetrable wall between those that govern and the governed today, writes Ambessaw Assegued (email@example.com).
There is nothing unusual about Emperor Haileselassie’s motorcade halting along the side of the old Debre Zeit Road. On this occasion, however, the traffic in front and behind the imperial entourage is also halted. In the middle of the road, some of the palace households and officers of the Imperial Guard are scampering around, while others are standing on the sides whispering in groups of two and three.
Whenever the Emperor is in residence at the Jubilee Palace in the capital, he travels along Debre Zeit Road on his way to and from his favourite weekend retreat of Beshoftu Palace. It is customary for the imperial vehicle to make frequent stops along this route and for the King of Kings to lower his car window, accept the greetings of excited group of men, women and children that eagerly wait for him, and to hand out freshly minted one Birr notes to everyone in line.
This done, the entourage will move on to the next enthusiastic group where more Birr notes are passed, and the ritual is repeated several times until he reaches his palace at one end. Such intimate and close encounters between leaders and citizens is remote and unthinkable in today’s world of ultra-security consciousness and sensitivity though.
During the Imperial times, the traffic is permitted to go past the motorcade allowing the Emperor an unhurried communion with the citizens. But that Monday morning the royal automobile has broken down between the towns of Aqaqi and Qaliti and there are no children and women milling around it. The Emperor is sitting alone in his vehicle somberly watching the commotion outside from behind closed windows.
After a while, he orders his guards to let the jam-packed traffic to proceed in both directions. The occupants of every vehicle that drives past the Emperor bow to him and he returns the greetings with a smile and a bow.
The King of Kings, cautious and prudent, has refused to be transferred to another automobile in the motorcade, choosing to patiently survey the awkward situation from the perch of his vehicle. While the palace men and guards are busy arranging and making plans, Haileselassie watches every car that goes past him until he recognises the face of one of his most trusted officials, Bekele Beshah, the first Director-General of St. George Brewery.
On that fateful Monday morning, Bekele, who like most of the other high officials has a weekend retreat in Beshoftu, is returning to the capital with his family. The Emperor immediately dispatches a motorcycle police serjeant after Bekele’s car and have him escorted back. Bekele’s family is duly transferred to another vehicle, the Emperor takes his place comfortably in the back seat of a reliable ally and is safely delivered to his Jubilee Palace in Addis Abeba.
It is almost unimaginable to see present-day leaders in such situations. They rarely attend high school graduations and pass out certificates, or appear at funerals and weddings of notable citizens. They are not seen leading national celebrations replete with elaborate ceremonies on the public squares, visiting the sick in hospitals, or taking casual walks along the streets like the last Emperor of Ethiopia used to.
On his visits to his summer palace in Dire Dewa, the King of Kings is regularly seen walking and mingling with the common people along the tree-lined boulevard of the old European quarter of the city. In contrast, during the recent gathering of African leaders to attend the 30th African Union meeting, the route from Bole Airport to the city centre is lined with armed and booted soldiers who keep the roads secured. It is all prim and proper with machinegun toting soldiers in green and grey fatigues who corral the citizens into nearby fences and gates each time an official motorcade approaches from the airport.
A bubble of hashed and cracking voices in the radio signals to the soldiers that official vehicles are approaching. Ordinary citizen going about their business on the street are quickly hurried and held against nearby fences or behind parking lots until the dignitaries pass through.
There are no cheering crowds waving little flags lining the roads, or any honour guards standing at the palace gates, nor any marching bands in dress uniforms strutting rhythmically across the public squares. The present is a sterile, secured and virtualized world where leaders exist only on the screens of televisions, computers and smartphones.
There are no warm handshakes, exchange of greetings, eye contact, or any other form of human interaction between leaders and citizens. Security, the paramount concern of governments both big and small, requires unreachable barriers between them.
From across the United States to the lowliest Kingdom of Papua New Guinea, security is uppermost in the minds of officials. Often, the planning and implementation of security measures take a comical, if not a nonsensical feature.
In the middle of Piazza, the Arada branch Commercial Bank of Ethiopian (CBE)has installed a line of concrete barriers along the front and sides of the building. The concrete barriers are doubled up with chain links that are intertwined with the blocks. As if that is not enough, another metal fence is installed along the edges of the concrete curb, living little room for pedestrians to manoeuvre, or to use the adjacent sidewalks.
Aside from ruining the grace of the beautiful neo-classic architecture of the bank, the efficacy of the security structures is doubtful. The security structures have not been repaired or maintained for such a long time that they are falling apart from sheer inertia where they stand. The same can be said about the security barrier fence found at the Ethiopian Electric Power (EEP) building just up the street from the bank.
It is not uncommon to see two or three guards standing in front of banks or other public buildings, at least one of them totting a machinegun.
One can fathom protecting a bank with all the cash in hand, but three guards and a machine gun to protect a postal office?
Citizens need unfettered access to their leaders, if not to a bank or an insurance office, to lodge protests, to ask for redress when wronged, or to petition for simple charity. Access requires occasionally breaching the barriers that separate the two, but surely that is not on the priority lists of today’s security-obsessed officials.
The King of Kings can have his vehicle stopped at any corner to greet and be greeted by his people, and the citizens expect him to make a short stop not just to receive symbolic largesse from him, but also to reaffirm that an unconstrained contact exists between those that govern and the governed.
At their school that Monday morning, Bekele’s children were the hottest topic of discussions as the news of the road adventure spread across the campus like wildfire. By the time the lunch bells rung, the story has morphed to have the Emperor sitting in the front passenger seat, with the children sitting in the back.
Until the end of the day, various versions of sitting arrangements with the King of Kings emerge and fade, but no one in the school seemed to have considered the event an extraordinary occurrence. It was just an exciting coincidence that filled the imagination for a day.
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