Haile Gebreselassie’s land troubles in Ethiopia
By Eskinder Nega | November 19, 2010

Professor Anastas
Haile being cheered on by manager Hermens at an unspecified race (Credit: Photorun.net)
Ask Haile Gebreselassie about his manager, Josephus (Jos) Hermens and his emotion is easily stirred. “He is not only my manager,” Haile likes to say of Hermens. “We are more like a father and son team. We love and trust each other.”

Hermens, an Olympic 10,000m finalist in the '70s, is broadly famous for his close relationship with the athletes he manages, who now number an astounding one hundred and twenty world class performers spread throughout the world. But however much his professional instinct militates against it, Haile stands out as his particular favorite. Hermens has devotedly and assiduously mentored Haile, and Haile has unquestionably followed where his manager has led. “I go where he tells me to. I have never questioned him,” has said Haile of their bushiness relationship.

No wonder then that the world was all ears when Hermens spoke of Haile’s dilemma to the NYT . No person but his wife, after all, could reasonably claim to be a closer confidant. Hermens could also be counted on not to say or do anything that would endanger his most prized holding’s interests. He is, quoted or unquoted, the journalist's “dream-source” about Haile, and the glee (for an obvious scoop) with which the NYT run its exclusive story is barely surprising.

Hermens told the NYT that Haile Gebrselassie’s emotional decision to retire “might have stemmed in part from political pressure he was feeling in Ethiopia. His phone has been tapped by government officials and he has faced some sort of blackmail attempt.”

Despite the subsequent (and expected) protestations by Hermens and Haile on government-owned ETV, who denied the accuracy of the entire story, scarcely a soul here in Addis Ababa, doubts that Hermens spoke with the knowledge and approval of Haile. In fact, ETV’s report (in Amharic), in which the phone tapping charge was cleverly censored, has only reinforced the impression that both the leak and denial were deliberate acts to mobilize international attention to Haile’s predicament.

Hermens maintains in the NYT story that Haile faces multitude of problems with the government. There are no plausible grounds to second-guess him. It would be absurd to assume that he would fabricate this out of thin air. But whether these problems are political or bureaucratic remain ambiguous. Has his Presidential ambitions threatened a parallel aspiration by an entrenched faction in the EPRDF, provoking harassment? The list of questions could go on. And they will. But we don't have the definitive answers to most of them at this stage. More time is obviously needed for the whole truth to emerge. As an evidently worried Hermens acknowledged to the NYT, even he doesn’t know all the details.

For now though, we know of Haile's serious land problem with the government.

As the city’s administration, headed by Corporal Kuma Demeksa, recounts it, the real-estate sector of the construction industry in Addis Ababa, is one the greatest ruses of EPRDF’s two-decade reign. The sector’s enhanced stature in the city’s profile originates in the transformative mayoralty of Arkebe Ekubay, somewhere in 2004. Inspired by South Africa’s drive to provide decent low-cost housing to its massive population of have-nots, Arkebe’s administration rather hastily adopts an ambitious plan to build fifty thousand units of low-cost housing per year. A grandiose plan by Ethiopian standards, it envisioned to solve the city’s unremitting housing shortage in eight to ten years. But only a year into the plan, the EPRDF was to suffer a humiliating loss at the polls and Arkebe had to leave office. Five years later, only 78,000 of the intended 250,000 units for the period have been built, and more than 400,000 registered families (over a million people) are still desperately waiting for their slice of low-cost housing.

Mercifully, the fate of the city’s expanding but minuscule middle and upper classes were left to the far more efficient private sector. Buttressed by generous incentives, more than 6 million square meters of land were leased to 125 mostly newly constituted real-estate companies. Planned were international standard luxury condominiums and fashionably designed family homes. In chronically under-built Addis, the possibilities to reap millions in profit seemed almost too good to be true.

Haile, not unlike many other astute businessmen, could hardly resist the temptation. Granted 40,000 square meters of land in Addis’ most prized sub-city, Bole, in 2005, his expansive plan was to build 224 high-class condominiums and 38 multi-million birr villas for the city’s elite. But it was to take two more years, until 2007, just to secure a building permit. And an additional two more years, until 2009, were to elapse before any construction was to begin. “Our boundary was ill-defined, which triggered a dispute with our neighbor," insists Haile in a letter to the mayor, Kuma Demeksa. “There was no way we could have started construction until this issue was resolved.” But even with their resolution, construction could only proceed at a snail’s pace; because, Haile contends with exasperation, “the city was unable to provide access to electricity, water and telephone services.”

For different reasons, the statuses of most of the other companies were no different than Haile’s. By the reckoning of the city administration, which claims to have conducted a thorough investigation, only 18 % of the leased lands have so far been built upon wholly; 20 % had begun some construction but not proceeded far; and a whooping 62 % still stands idle. An intolerable situation, concluded the city administration.

Citing the contractual agreements of the leases as the legal basis for its actions, the city has now repossessed some of these lands, including Haile's. A conservative estimate of the land Haile lost at current prices falls within the range of 120 million and 150 million Birr. Five years ago, it was less than a fourth of this amount. The city has proposed (unofficially) to reinstate the land to Haile, but only if he agrees to procure it at current prices. Haile has responded by vowing to pursue a legal recourse. The judiciary being what it is though, the possibility of a reversal is at best dismal.

Aside from Haile, 37 other companies, of the more than 100 identified as offending parties, have been slated for this first round of repossessions. Amongst them, Country Club Development has lost 50,000 square meters of prime land in Bole; Tekle-Birhan Ambaye, 50,000 square meters, also in Bole; and Get Enterprise, 68,000 square meters, again in Bole. In addition, the nation’s two largest real-estate companies, Sunshine and Ayat, have lost thousands of square meters of land, allegedly all illegally fenced public land.( Sunshine denies the charges.) Their core holdings, however, have so far escaped repossessions.

How was Haile included in the first round of repossessions? Was it mere coincidence? Was blind justice at work, oblivious to his international fame? Or is it part of the blackmail that Hermens spoke about?

With police state Ethiopia in the background, it requires a leap of faith to believe that coincidence or blind justice were at play in this still unfolding chronicle.

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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: serk27@gmail.com

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