A few weeks ago, walking back from my gym in Addis Ababa in the early evening, I was robbed. My rucksack contained most of my valuables: laptop, wallet, smartphone, interview notes. The gate to the compound where I live was open, and the guard was distracted by a punch-up across the street. Seizing the opening, two men followed me down the driveway towards the house, jumped on my back in the dark, suffocated me, grabbed my bag and emptied my pockets as I lay passed out on the road. The incident was a useful if painful lesson in how different Ethiopia is from the rest of Africa, and how it’s changing.
In many poor-country capitals, street violence is common. But the crime rate is lower in Addis Ababa than almost anywhere in Africa. Everyone I confided in after the incident expressed surprise. “That doesn’t happen here,” was the common response, from both locals and expats. The police will catch them, others assured me.
My experience at the local police station later that night, where a power cut meant the police report was written under candlelight, left me rather less convinced. But there are good reasons for their optimism. The state in Ethiopia is stronger than in most other African countries. Armed police are an everyday sight in the city, especially since a state-of-emergency was declared last October to crack down on protests against the government. Following the incident police have been patrolling my area after dark – which my landlady assures me is a direct response to the attack.
But Addis Ababa’s safety is also down to a Stasi-like system called the “1-to-5”. This ensures that the government has eyes and ears in each and every household. Originally conceived as a response to the contested 2005 election (the opposition claimed victory), the system was designed as a way of adding to the membership of the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Each new member was charged with recruiting five more, who would be introduced to the government’s ideology of “developmentalism”, a brand of Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism that promotes conformity over pluralism. It has become instead an efficient method of social control, as low-ranking state officials – even heads of families – report on the “developmental activities” of their fellow citizens.
The system is most pervasive, and effective, in rural areas, but in the past it operated smoothly in Addis Ababa too. I remember being told when I first came here on holiday that the local authorities would certainly have been informed that a newcomer had arrived in the area.
But Addis Ababa is changing, fast. Until relatively recently it was the insular capital of a desperately poor country that had only just emerged from a decade-long civil war. For a while the EPRDF wanted to keep it that way: until the early 2000s urbanisation was perceived as a source of social instability, and purposefully restrained. Not for Addis Ababa the chaotic, crime-ridden slums of Lagos, Kinshasa or Nairobi, where decades of bad (or non-existent) urban planning, economic mismanagement and unprecedented population growth have created sprawling urban jungles.
Now the city is being convulsed by a physical transformation that is socially disruptive and, for those who have lived here for decades, profoundly disorienting. Neighbourhoods are being torn up to make way for roads and skyscrapers. Thousands of rural migrants flood into the city every month. Wealth inequality – still comparatively muted in Ethiopia – is widening as the country opens itself up to foreign capital. It is no surprise that violent crime is becoming more common.
My neighbourhood epitomises this new Addis Ababa. The nearby Bole Road, opened in 2013, rips through the city from the airport to the centre. High-rise offices and international hotels have sprung up beside it; pickpockets and petty thieves busy themselves along its pavements. Locals complain of khat-chewing Somali immigrants disturbing the peace. The shopkeeper at the end of my road assures me that my muggers were Somali – newcomers to an otherwise close-knit community. There have been several reports of expat men like myself being throttled and robbed around the Bole Road in recent weeks. The number of ordinary residents affected by rising crime levels is undoubtedly higher, though they don’t feature in British Embassy travel advice – and probably don’t prompt the special police patrols.
Nostalgists would prefer the city to stay still. A few weeks ago I had coffee with a fellow journalist. We were sitting in Piassa, a rickety but charming part of what was once the Italian quarter. As we watched an ageing flaneur stride along the pavement my companion spoke of “real Addis”. But change should be welcomed. Urbanisation, if properly managed, tends to make countries richer; more crime is a sad, perhaps inevitable, by-product of the process. Addis Ababa’s modernisation comes with real costs. But even rising crime is not yet a reason to look longingly backwards.