Exclusive Interviews | Jan 05,2020
Almost three generations after Addis Abeba was founded, the elegant landmark of the capital, the City Hall, took 15 years to finish and a budget of eight million Birr when it was inaugurated in 1964, during the Imperial Era. In over a century, Addis Abeba has seen more than 30 mayors, all but a woman.
Last week, this changed when Adanech Abiebie Desa was elected to serve as the first-ever female Mayor of Addis Abeba, a city whose foundation it owes to another woman, Empress Taitu.
Adanech had a debut with the city as a deputy mayor for over a year. However, her induction on September 30, 2021, was nothing but glowing, embodying the season clad with the yellow flowers of Adey Abeba, which marks the end of the rainy season and the dawn of the spring. Written in bold yellow letters, the banner spread across the wall screamed, "Addis M'eraf". It heralded the leadership's enthusiasm for a new beginning. Her lieutenants, all wearing navy blue attire embroidered with the characteristic yellow, represent this sense of optimism.
The orchestra band was also dressed to impress, synchronised with the event.
On a carpet decorated with yellow flowers and green, Adanech walked alongside her lieutenants, tall and gratified. As she entered the newly refurbished municipality hall, which sits on 75,000sqm of land, she did so knowing she had won a unanimous vote from the city council. Mayor Adanech pledged to bring inclusive growth and work for dialogue and reconciliation. She called for Addis Abeba's residents to help her make the capital an African beacon of prosperity. A standing ovation followed from councillors.
The limelight in Addis Abeba is a pinnacle of office for Adanech, who once served as a mayor of Adama, a town 100Km east of Addis Abeba. But she has held office in several regional and federal institutions during her tenure as a politician.
Born in the Arsi Zone of Oromia Regional State, Adanech, 48, is the only daughter of six children. She has a humble beginning as an elementary school teacher. Adanech kickstarted her political career in 1993 in Arsi Arbagogo, as she battled to defend residents facing material and human loss at the time. Joining the OPDO, one of the four coalition members of the ruling EPRDF, she climbed from there to a junior attorney after completing her undergraduate studies in law from the Civil Service University in 2001. She married Teshome Abebe, an accountant, around the same time she secured work as an attorney in the Oromia Justice Bureau.
She was head of Abadulla Gemeda's cabinet in the Oromia Regional State before he appointed her to lead the Oromia Development Association (ODA), a non-governmental organisation that improves livelihoods through community-based programmes. She had served the Association as a director for five years, beginning in 2010. That same year, she completed a graduate programme in leadership from the Greenwich University in the UK. She was elected to parliament during this decade, where she served two terms.
After a year of serving as Deputy Mayor, Adanech Abiebie was sworn in as the first ever female mayor of the capital during a ceremony on September 30, 2021.
Adanech's time as a mayor of Adama, the first woman to hold the office, was a turbulent period of youth uprisings in the regional state. The Qerro movement, as it came to be known, was a prelude to the change that brought Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to political power. Adanech was one of the staunch allies the Prime Minister had within the rank and file of the OPDO under Muktar Kedir, subsequently Lemma Megerssa, and before Abiy took the helm in 2018.
Her fast ascendance on the political ladder of the federal structure began with her appointment as a Minister of Revenues, the office formerly known as the Revenues & Customs Authority, in October 2018. Less than two years later, the mother of two would make another watershed moment as the country's first female Attorney General, replacing Birhanu Tsegaye, appointed ambassador to Djibouti. She stayed there for less than six months before becoming Deputy Mayor of Addis Abeba, replacing Takele Uma.
From her time in Adama to leading the Ministry of Revenues, Adanech is notable for her firmness against maladministration and determination to fight misconduct. A devout person of faith, those who worked with her praise Adanech for her probity.
Umi Abajemal, a communications director at the Revenues Ministry, has a long history of working with Mayor Adanech. They were comrades working in the OPDO Office, for over three years.
“She's very strict and expects her standards from everyone she works with,” said Umi.
Others who have worked with Adanech share similar stories.
Dejene Enticha, head of the Oromia Development Association, is one of them. He lauds Adanech as being the reason for the Association's success in recent years. The Association had an annual income of around one million Birr when she took office, during which time Dejene worked as one of her aides. By the time she stepped down, the budget grew to over 100 million Br. During her stay, Adanech oversaw the construction of two boarding schools in Adama and Bishoftu and witnessed membership increased 10-fold to five million.
"She reanimated the association," said Dejene. "I've learned more from working with her than I did at school."
Adanech serves the Association as deputy board chairperson. Her two years as Mayor of Adama have also left a lasting impression.
Adanech developed a reputation for her fierce stance on corruption during this time, garnering applause from the public and some of her colleagues while receiving not-so-positive reactions from others. Her critics point out her personality, focusing on the faults of her subordinates. Her doggedness often causes tension within the party's leadership and the administration she serves, perceived as a holier-than-thou type.
The Mayor appears to be conscious of these criticisms. Appearing on a TV talk show a few months ago, Adanech famously said that people would often speak about her "woy atibela, woy atasbela" (she neither eats nor allows others to eat) when gossiping about her approach to fighting institutional corruption. Her former colleagues in the Adama City Administration testify to this.
Ascertaining good governance was one of her priorities is Fekadu Adugna, who worked with Adanech as head of finance in the city's cabinet for a year. Her most notable achievement as a Mayor of Adama was the implementation of districts in the city, which had previously been divided only into kebeles. Adama now consists of six districts.
During her time as Deputy Mayor of Addis Abeba, she oversaw something similar. A new district, Lemi Kura, was forged under her tenure through the rezoning of the Bole and Yeka districts. Some of her moves as Deputy Mayor were also controversial, though perhaps not as much as her predecessor, who often made headlines for disruptive measures, including reclaiming undeveloped plots leased to prospective developers such as MIDROC Ethiopia.
Following a report by the opposition, the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA), on the mismanagement of land released the same month Adanech was appointed Deputy Mayor, her office suspended the provision of land-related services in the capital. Her office also published a shocking report disclosing over 21,000 condominium units and 1,338ht of land were acquired unlawfully in 88 weredas since 2005. To top it all, her administration reported discovering 322 buildings without registered title deeds.
Despite the accomplished career and slew of achievements, Adanech still has her fair share of critics.
Getaneh Balcha, head of political affairs at Balderas for True Democracy Party, was unsparing in admonishing the newly-elected Mayor. Recalling her role (Attorney General) in the imprisonment of Eskinder Nega, head of Balderas, over allegations of inciting violence, Getaneh says he expects little from the City Administration under Adanech's leadership.
"I don't think she deserves to be mayor," said Getaneh.
However, after taking the helm last week, one of her first acts was to appoint two political opposition figures in her cabinet. Girma Seifu, from EZEMA, head of the Addis Abeba Investment Commission, welcomes the appointment, emphasising the importance of collaboration with opposition parties.
The inclusion of opposition figures in the City Administration was a prelude to what regional states have followed and the federal government is expected to do. Come Tuesday, and the Prime Minister is anticipated to offer no less than three cabinet portfolios to individuals from opposition parties. It is a political move the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) says it wants to change the adversarial political culture and promote the ideals of national consensus, according to an internal party document from August 2021.
Adanech has the work cut out for her, armed with a budget of 70 billion Br. The city she is entrusted with is in the throes of macroeconomic troubles, including relentless inflation, and bearing witness to high unemployment, a housing shortage, transportation issues, and, lately, what officials term "economic sabotage."
Getachew Asfaw, a retired economist who had previously held appointments at the Planning & Development Commission and the Ministry of Finance, urges the new Administration to focus on macroeconomic issues. The authorities need to use independent consultants in their economic decisions, referring to advisors with political self-interest and criticising them for dishonest feedback.
“I've yet to see sufficient commitment from the Administration working to improve the city’s economy,” he told Fortune.
Mayor Adanech appears to be well aware of the challenge ahead. Speaking before legislators during the inaugural session last week, she pointed out the need to depart from the tradition of beginning all over again.
"We'll take this opportunity . . . to leave behind the mentality of tearing down to rebuild," the Mayor said. "[We'll] take the middle road, ensuring a political journey with the participation of all Ethiopians."
PUBLISHED ON Oct 02,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1118]
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