Ethiopia & Eritrea at it again

It looks like those estranged siblings, Ethiopia and Eritrea might be going to war again. God only knows why.

It’s comical in a morbid sort of way, as these two nations were long
held up as examples for the rest of Africa because of their regimes’
eager embrace of American neoliberal orthodoxy and supposed commitment
to democracy.  Now, they’re increasingly tyrranical, poor, and fighting
over dirt because their leaders–who once were close associates–are in a spat.  Thousands of people have died in fighting over the fuzzy border between the two impoverished countries.

This might come as a surprise, but in a former life (i.e., during the
year or so between my graduation from Goucher College in 1997 and my
reluctant entry into the I.T. field in late 1998), but I actually
briefly interviewed Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi and then President
Negasso Gidada while in Ethiopia working on a "special report" (read:
supplement that gives the publication a pretext to go the country and
sell advertising) on the country for The Washington Times

It was my first and, so far, last brush with the journalist’s life.   I was a
recent college grad who was sick of temping.  I saw a classified ad for
aspiring journalists who liked to travel (read: tyros with so little
professional experience that they’ll be willing to work 100% on
commission) and replied.  I was a bit disappointed that it was
Washington Times–I’m no friend of their politics–but it turned out that they didn’t
care about my politics for this gig and my job would just be to write
tourism propaganda, anyway, so I figured why not.  I was broke and
needed the experience.

Ended up spending 6 weeks in Ethiopia interviewing various bigwigs
(government ministers, heads of key companies) in order to give my
partner, a marketing rep, a pretext to pitch advertising to them.
(It’s understood that ministries and companies that advertise can
expect more coverage of their sector, and their work will obviously be
the case study for any expanded coverage.)

The report, which ended up being a bit on the short side due to the few sales we were able to make–people from the UK’s The Independent and the Institutional Investor
magazine had recently passed through and drained everybody’s
advertising budgets, and we found ourselves competing with a team from Paris Match for the few scraps remaining–ran in May 1998. 

My brief taste of the life of the roving foreign correspondent.

I still miss the music and dancing.  There is something really funky
about Ethiopian music, and the traditional dances are a lot of fun to
watch.  (The things they do with their shoulders!)

An odd detail:  While there in 1998, I attended the lavish launch of Africa’s only 5-star hotel, the Sheraton Addis.
The place was gorgeous–it reminded me a bit of Versailles–and
incredibly decadent given that Ethiopia is arguably Africa’s poorest
country. 

The bash included a concert with Kool and the Gang (who’d reunited for this event), Ethiopian pop star Aster Aweke, and some American jazz singer whose name eludes me at the moment.

I got a great "seat", nestled between a speaker and the stage and
got to see a middle aged and considerably less spry Kool Keith get
down.  I suspect that most people–including a drunk Frenchman who
kept rubbing up against me and with whom I almost got into a
fisticuffs in the middle of a soulful rendition of "Cherish"–were there for the amazing food and the freely flowing
booze, but the best part for me was the surrealness of it all, rocking
to Kool and the Gang in Addis Ababa.

Another surreal twist:  While interviewing VIPs, I kept hearing the
name of some "Sheikh Mohmmad Alamoudi" reverently intoned, even by the
Prime Minister.  A Saudi financier who was born in Ethiopia, he’s a mayor
player behind the scenes in Ethiopian politics (e.g., I think he
brought in the investment that built the Sheraton Addis).   Turned out
he was related to someone I’d met occaisonally at Islamic events in
Washington DC, Abdurrahman Alamoudi (who’s now in prison for
involvement in a shocking and bizarre assasination plot by Libya against then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah).

At the time, we tried really hard to line up an interview with this
mysterious Sheikh Alamoudi, but we couldn’t get past his secretary.  Given
all this crazy stuff that happened later with his cousin (?  I’m not sure what the relation is) in the States,
I’m grateful.  Sometimes it’s good to be just a little guy–it can be a lot safer.

It’s such a small world.


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