/ 18 June 2024

Abiy Ahmed’s palatial ambitions: Vanity project or the foundation for a grand satellite city?

Gettyimages 2068042190 594x594
A man smokes a cigarette on a newly build terrace overlooking a building site in the historical Piazza neighbourhood of Addis Ababa. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP)

Yeka Hills, a once-tranquil mountainous area overlooking Addis Ababa, has been transformed into an enormous construction site.

Excavators and bulldozers work through the night flattening forests and farmland for one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in Ethiopian history — an enormous palace complex that will serve as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s official residence. 

The prime minister himself is the most enthusiastic proponent of the development, known as the Chaka Project, visiting regularly to monitor progress.

“The noise runs at all hours,” said one ambassador, who lives close to the new development. “It is becoming a nuisance and has disturbed our living arrangements. There is little appetite to hear our complaints.”

As well as the palace, the sprawling, 503 hectare complex includes a luxury hotel, guesthouses for visiting heads of state, ministerial residences, high-end housing blocks and three artificial lakes lined with artificial palm trees. 

Some 29km of new roads are being constructed, as well as an underground tunnel to allow for easy escape in the event of an emergency or attempted coup.

Government officials insist this is not a vanity project, but serves to further Ethiopia’s development priorities. 

“The question of a ‘palace for the PM’ is a very simplistic narrative unfortunately, and one crafted to incite intentional uproar,” said Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokesperson. “The Chaka Project is a grand national satellite city project that aims to transform the face and environs of Addis Ababa.”

It is not only nearby ambassadors who are aggrieved. Critics have questioned the price tag, especially as 20 million Ethiopians are at risk of famine, and parts of the country desperately need reconstruction funding to recover from conflict.

Seyoum rejects this critique, saying the project has created thousands of jobs. “Those kind of complaints usually emerge from those who hold the perspective that development is ‘charity’.”

Blowing the budget

In total, according to comments made by Abiy to parliamentarians, the bill for the project could run to $10 billion. That is more than half of Ethiopia’s 2024-25 annual budget of $17 billion that was announced last  week.

Abiy has said that funding for the project will not come from state coffers, but will be raised privately. It has been widely reported that the government of the United Arab Emirates is a major investor, while some local business people claim to have been intimidated into making financial contributions. 

One businessman told the Globe & Mail that he had “received endless phone calls, threats and warnings that he could be banned from receiving official contracts if he failed to donate”.

To make way for the new buildings, farmers and residents are being evicted en masse. 

Eviction notices are posted on the walls of one local church and if your name is on the list, then you have just days to clear your belongings. 

Some residents who refuse to comply are being forcibly evicted, detained in makeshift temporary prisons or assaulted by security forces. Evictees have been told to find new homes in Debre Berhan in Amhara, or Welega in Oromia, depending on their ethnicity.

Seyoum said all evictions were being done in accordance with the law. 

“Land in Ethiopia is owned by the state and the constitution enables the government to fully develop land in accordance with the laws,” she said.

“More importantly, a majority of the land being developed by the Chaka Project is uninhabited … local residents are cognisant of the development implications of public infrastructure expansion.”

Entry into the area is closely monitored, with security checkpoints on the roads leading in and out. 

People who previously used the area such as churchgoers at the Washa Mikael Rock-Hewn Church and aspiring athletes who train on the hills have been restricted from entering. 

Plain-clothes policemen are on patrol to prevent anyone from taking photographs of the construction. 

Imperial ambitions

The Yeka Hills development is the latest and most expensive of a series of controversial projects initiated by Abiy to modernise and beautify Addis Ababa. 

These include the renovation of Emperor Menelik II’s Grand Palace as part of the new Unity Park development, which boasts a museum and a zoo; and the demolition of much of the capital’s historic Piassa district, to make way for apartment blocks and walkways.

Abiy’s example has inspired other Ethiopian officials to invest in similarly extravagant projects. Shimales Abdisa, the president of Oromia — the state that surrounds Addis — has begun his own palace project, expected to be completed next year. 

The new palace covers more than six hectares in one of the capital’s more affluent areas, and is reported to cost more than $1 billion. It will house the offices and residences of Oromia leaders. To make space, homes were demolished and residents displaced.

Abiy is not the only world leader to build himself a grandiose new home. In Egypt, military dictator Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is investing $59 billion into the construction of a new capital city — the imaginatively named New Administrative Capital — of which a presidential palace will be the centrepiece. 

In Türkiye, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan completed the 1,100-room, $615 million “White Palace” outside Ankara in 2014, proclaiming it a symbol of his powerful and prosperous “new Turkey”.

Erdogan still lives in his creation, but not all leaders are so lucky. 

Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir moved into the brand-new Republican Palace in Khartoum in 2015, only to be toppled in a revolution in 2019. The palace was a focal point of the demonstrations against his authoritarian rule.

And perhaps the most infamous presidential palace of all belonged to Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who built the “Versailles of the Jungle” in his ancestral home of Gbadolite, complete with a nuclear bunker and an airport capable of accommodating a Concorde.

It now lies in ruins, along with his self-proclaimed empire — a cautionary tale, perhaps, for Abiy’s ambitions.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at thecontinent.org