Travelling to different parts of Ethiopia, one can be certain to see a lot of economic activities, especially in the construction sector. Perhaps not as much as in Addis Abeba, and of course, a lot more in some areas than others. Nonetheless, there is noticeable infrastructure development going on.
I have been to Mekelle twice in the past six months and at least three times in the past year. My personal observation is thatit is hard to say the City is progressively developing, at par with the likes of Bahir Dar and Hawassa.
I am aware that data and figures might not be in consensus with my observations, but certainly that is how it feels in reality. For those who do nott get the opportunity to travel and see the changes that are taking place in other cities, they might be content with the small change they see in Mekelle. But for me, there is not enough to be upbeat about it. Seeing the relative changes in other places helps one put things in perspective what is possible.
Some may disagree and point out how the city has grown in size. True, the city has one thing to show for; physical expansion of residential neighborhoods. Unfortunately, even those beautifully designed homes are all but empty homeshopelessly waiting for their utility installations that are long overdue to be livable. Many locals call some of these nicer residential neighborhoods; “Musna Sefer” or “Diaspora Sefer” loosely translates to “Corruption Neighborhood” and “Diaspora Neighborhood”,respectively. Supposedly, as I learned, they are overwhelmingly owned by non-residents.
It is not that I am specifically concerned about Mekelle, but it is that because the City is a reflection of the rest of Tigray Regional State and the many smaller towns in the region. Looking at some of the historic towns, such as Adwa and Axum, they are stagnant at best. Wukro, a small town home to about 30,000 people and about 45Km North of Mekelle is the only place you hear a great things about. People say Wukro’s local municipals are doing quite an impressive job there.
Vibrant cities are centers of a lot of unique offerings, keeping the spirits of those who live within its boundaries and attracting outsiders. Cities that are accessible with public transportation have diverse eatery options, congregation for art and cultural activities, impel people to interact and build relationships. Music and other social outings help bring people together and exchange ideas.
This is what Mekelle is missing. On one of my visits, I arrived late Friday afternoon. A friend of mine, who lives there, and I started walking around the city that early evening.
Going through our options, the City was not vibrant enough for my taste. Just too quiet, I thought, and I asked my friend why that was so. He did not think it was quiet. But perhaps, he said, because it was Friday evening and people do not go out as much on Fridays. Well, it felt the same the entire weekend and the weekdays.
Mekelle, one of the top three largest cities in Ethiopia, is home to about 300,000 people. So, whose responsibility is it to keep the city vibrant anyway?
Small businesses are the engines of an economy. Small business activities are what keeps cities vibrant and drive economic growth.
The forces behind those small businesses are creative and visionary entrepreneurs. Designing and implementing forward thinking policy initiatives encourages entrepreneurship minded individuals.
Lacking conducive business environment, on the other hand, forces entrepreneurs to seek for alternative business environment; where they could pursue their ideals. The latter is what many young idealists from Mekelle are following, out-migrating to Addis Abeba and other regions of the country.
The movement of people to different parts of the country in pursuit of business or work opportunities is not a source of concern by itself. It is actually a great catalyst for transfer of knowledge and an exchange of ideas. But it highlights the presence of a challenge from where they are choosing to leave.
Back in August, during International Tigray Festival 2014, regional government leaders were briefing a packed audience about the region’s status. To the delight of many, an audience member asked, why many businessman and merchants were leaving Tigray to establish similar businesses in other region?
Leaders responded, businessmen operate and make their decisions based on where they believe they can gain greater return for their investment. Leaders also admitted that the no peace no war stand still situation with Eritrea has its own negative effect on investment in the region.
It was candid yet disappointing response at the same time.
The structure of a federal system gives regions and their leaders an autonomous power so that they can lead in the best interest of their regions and their constituents. The power bestowed on them in many ways allows them to be responsive to their respective local needs. Political leaders are expected to design and highlight policy incentive to encourage local opportunities and drive economic growth.
Whether it is the availability of cheap labor, natural resources or knowledge, every region has its own competitive advantage over another. Understanding ones competitive advantage and capturing it requires public servants be invested in serving and making the lives of those they lead their main priority.
Amongst those looking for employment opportunities online through online job boards and employment intermediaries in Ethiopia, data shows the numbers are disproportionately high for those from the Tigray region. This supports the economic inactivity in the region.
Ultimately, though, policymakers ought to bear the responsibility for the lack of economic activities in the region as they also should have the liberty to take credit of any worthy accomplishments.
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