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Commendable, Proceed with Caution

October 12 , 2019
By Tibebu Bekele ( Tibebu Bekele (, who is interested in constructive dialogue and civil engagement. )

On Thursday, October 10, 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) along with several neighbouring heads of state inaugurated Unity Park. As it is a project that is very near and dear to him, something he has been intimately involved with, he has every right to feel satisfied with the accomplishment, and it is right that he should be commended for it.

This is a considerable project. Sitting in the palace that rests on 40 acres of land, the park includes a botanical garden, a zoo, playgrounds, spacious green areas and walkways as well as restored historical buildings and banquet halls. That such a complex project is done with high quality and within such a short time is indeed impressive.

The vision behind it is also grand. To use this space that has played a central role in the country’s history, both good and bad, as a symbol of the country’s shared history is a good thing. The symbolism here should not be underestimated. Turning the narrative of the place from a dark and secretive enclave that citizens are afraid even to take a peek at to one where they can take their children to play is significant. To send the message that those who live there are given delegated power for a limited time and are only temporary custodians on behalf of the real owners -  the people - is refreshing. Rather than transmitting dark power, opening up to transparency and inclusiveness is empowering. The potential of the project to raise significant revenue as a tourist destination is practical wisdom.

All this is good. The excitement kindled by the success of this project seems to be catching fire, and we are hearing of massive projects coming in the pipeline.

There is phase one of the Sheger riverside project, which has recently started. That is only the start of a very big project. There is talk of museums and public libraries and more. These are all good intentioned plans. But this is where caution should be exercised.

Public projects need to have public input to be successful. When public libraries are planned, librarians ought to be consulted. In fact, when planning designs for a grand library, one of the questions that should be asked is whether we have the librarians with the know-how to run a grand library. Past experience shows that there have been cultural centres built with considerable funds only to find out it is hard to find the cultured personnel to run them.

Even though starting projects quickly may seem like a sign of efficiency, oftentimes in Ethiopia, it has rather been a cause of delay and waste. Good planning may take time but it saves a project. Many mistakes have been the results of poor planning.

It is also essential to get buy-in from the public that these projects are being built for. Public consultation on planned projects at the planning stage will mitigate against conflicts of interest that may arise from the projects’ users and the residents and businesses in the area. These consultations should also include professionals that are not on the government’s payroll. This will give the planners a different perspective and will enrich the project.

The biggest worry in Ethiopia’s context given our recent history is corruption. Rushed projects are a bonanza for corrupt officials and their partners in the supply chain. These open the door for both financial mismanagement and shoddy workmanship. Especially concerning is the compromises in public safety. For all these reasons and more it is prudent to exercise caution in going forward with the big projects in the pipeline.

In the excitement of the success of the Unity Park project, let’s not forget the advantages it enjoyed that the other projects will not. Coming at a cost of over 170 million dollars, it was not an inexpensive project. But it was paid for by another country. Not all projects have sponsors. It was also a project literally at the front doors of the Prime Minster. Not all projects will be supervised by the PM. That is why systems and processes need to be put in place.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 12,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1015]

Tibebu Bekele (, who is interested in constructive dialogue and civil engagement.

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