By Seble Teweldebirhan
July 29, 2019 (Ezega.com) -- The current insecurity and conflicts in Sidama zone of the Southern Ethiopian region has significantly affected investment, business, and tourism in the regional capital city of Hawassa. At the heart of the conflict is the quest for statehood by the Sidama ethnic groups, who have demanded a referendum to become an autonomous region. The conflict intensified over the last few weeks after some groups tried to declare Sidama as a region, claiming that the government failed to hold a referendum on a timeline stipulated in the constitution.
As expected, the deadly clashes invited heavy military presence to the area. This week, in a meeting with the national trade steering committee, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed highlighted that foreign investors are leaving Hawassa as a result of the insecurity, which according to him is a significant economic setback for the region and for the nation. Many reports show that local investors are frustrated by the situation and tourism remains at its lowest because of the on-and-off again conflict that gripped the area for more than two years.
I lived and worked in Hawassa city in 2009 for seven memorable months. Over the years after that, the city has been my destination for different reasons, but mainly for work. Just until a couple of years ago, Hawassa was a city so safe and vibrant that, I and my girlfriends spent nights out at clubs and returned home at odd hours, sometimes walking alone. Hawassa is a melting pot of different groups, cultures, religions, and lifestyles. The place was not only a tourist and conference destination, but also one of the preferred destinations for honeymooners and young lovers from around the country, because the city had youthful and romantic vibration to it.
I loved Hawassa so much that, when I left after seven months, I told myself I will return someday for good. I have been lucky enough to travel and spend time in most parts of Ethiopia. I was born and raised in Addis Ababa, but I have seen many cities and towns in Ethiopia. So, I consider myself an authority in rating the best places to live and work in Ethiopia. To me, Hawassa tops the list among the best places to live in Ethiopia.
Hawassa has everything you may be looking for. A great weather, the lake, the mountains, the best restaurants, cafes and hotels, the clubs, the music, the nightlife, and, most importantly, the people. Most people I met in Hawassa, especially those born and raised in the city are unlike anyone I met elsewhere in Ethiopia. The spirit of openness to fun, going out, and love for outdoor activities and adventure are among what makes these people the best people to hang out with. Hawassa originals, in my observations, are the best dancers, great athletes (their swimming and cycling skills are over the top), easy-going and enjoyable people with unfailing sense of humour. I found it was easy to make new friends in Hawassa city, and these friendships are usually taken seriously and last long.
It is also the size of the city that always amazes me. Hawassa is big and modern enough to give you the illusion that you live in a big city, but small and intimate enough for you to walk around to most attractions. Though life could be considered expensive compare to other regional cities in Ethiopia (the tourism effect), it is also one of the most generous and honest places I know. You almost always get your money’s worth. And the fact that it is just three to four hours drive from Addis Ababa (depending on your driving skills) – or just 30-minutes flight - makes the city the perfect getaway from the madness of Addis Ababa city.
Claims of ethnic issues on the city were not unheard of at the time I lived in Hawassa and my several visits thereafter. It was, in fact, troubling to hear, especially for people who worked in government offices, and were discriminated against because they did not belong to this or that ethnic group. For anyone who cared to pay attention, it was evident that these grievances, as in many other parts of the country, were growing slowly. However, Hawassa was visibly diverse and very welcoming to anyone that, as a visitor, it was easy to ignore or forget about such side issues.
The last few years has changed many things for Hawassa. Nowadays, when I travel to the city, I usually receive security alerts that includes not to leave after dark, not to go to some neighbourhoods even in daylight, to stay at the hotel, never to use random taxi or the Bajaj, etc. And the city is losing its hospitality. The friendly spirit is being overtaken by suspicion and insecurity, which are growing thick in the air. In my recent visit, many owners of businesses and hotels were frustrated. “I don’t know how long we can hold on to this,” said a manager in one of the hotels I stayed. “A couple of years ago, we used to be full almost every weekend. Now, we had to downsize staff because there is nothing for them to do. The owners invested a lot here, but, now, they are looking for options to sell,” he said. Residents are also insecure, and some are leaving the city for good. A broker I met told me local properties have lost values greatly that, recently, a house could not sell at 20 percent of its peak price. Small businesses that depend on tourists and visitors are suffering. Foreign investors in Hawassa industrial park are also closing operations and leaving employees out of work.
A city, or any place for that matter, is nothing without the people that make it. The essence and the lure of Hawassa city was never about its buildings or even the natural resources. What attracted many people to the city was a culture of making anyone and everyone feel safe and welcome, at home with a spirit of fun, laughter and music. It is the relaxed attitude of the residents that made Hawassa the premier vacation spot in Ethiopia. As many people decide to avoid Hawassa city from their destination list, or residents and investors leave in droves, Hawassa city ceases to be the Hawassa city we know and love. Because no one wishes to travel to see anger, frustration and distress.
This is not in any way to suggest that the Sidama ethnic group don’t have the right to demand referendum for self-determination to become an autonomous region. After all, whether we like it or not, that is a constitutional right in Ethiopia. However, it is self-defeating, and reckless to disrupt life, scare away tourists and investors, and tarnish the great name and image of the welcoming people of Hawassa city.
In Hawassa, tourism and investment incomes are unmatched with anything the region can offer. And goodwill is hard to build, but easy to destroy. It might take years to revive the spirit of Hawassa and gain the trust of people – even at this stage of the conflict. Leaders of the referendum campaign should be far-sighted enough to realize that encouraging conflict and insecurity would destroy the very city they would like to take over, administer and build. The federal government should also be wise enough to manage the situation carefully, to return the region to peace and security to all, including locals, investors and, yes, the fun-seeking visitors who love Hawassa.
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. She can be reached through this form.