Peace, Politics and Police - a Long Weekend
The SIM “Urban Team” doctors’ get-together had been a lovely relaxing way to finish a long weekend. Having dropped a couple off at the HQ guest house on our way back to Bingham, I was looking forward to arriving home, having been driving for much of the day. At this time of night the road through the bus station is usually quiet and easy. Not so tonight.
At a point where escape down an alternative route was impossible, we bumped into the back of four lanes of dense traffic (on a three-lane road) which was essentially stationery, creeping along only occasionally. Clearly something was wrong, and a good 20 minutes of stop-start progress later we found out why. A crowd of police were stopping everyone. They signalled to me to pull over. Aware that I had left my driver’s licence at Bingham, I nervously obeyed. Several police officers gathered around my door and made it very apparent that I was to get out. I did. If they want my licence, this is going to get awkward…
The “Battle of Adwa” public holiday (briefly mentioned here, more detail here) fell on a Friday this year, giving us a three-day weekend to go away with the same couple on the same weekend as we did last year. A 3½ hour drive to “Sabana Beach Resort” by lake Langano was the plan, but the Government’s recently imposed “State of Emergency” was making our trip rather uncertain. Unrest in Oromia (into which we needed to travel) that erupted back in 2015 was continuing, and despite the release of thousands of political prisoners protests persisted resulting in the surprise resignation of the Prime Minister on 15th February. The uncertainty and discontent that followed meant travel restrictions for us, as a replacement Prime Minister was awaited but not forthcoming. The next day the “State of Emergency” (“SoE”) was reinstated (it was cancelled last July) effectively handing control of the country to the military. When the Ethiopian parliament (strictly the “House of Peoples’ Representatives”) resumed on 2nd March it had to approve the SoE, which it probably did amidst an amusing debacle of erroneous counting. The notable feature of the event wasn’t the inability of the speaker to add up the “yes” votes, but the fact that 88 representatives voted against – a record, in a parliament in which 100% of the 547 seats belong to the ruling party.
We received no reports of protests or riots on our route, so packing our pick-up with everything we needed, including an astronomical telescope, we set off on Friday morning for our long weekend. An uneventful journey brought us safely to Sabana, where we had a delightful rest involving, amongst other things, a huge number of birds, good food, quite a lot of ice cream, a short walk to visit a missionary family nearby, and cloudy skies and thunderstorms at night rendering the telescope less than useful.
The Ethiopian staff in Sabana were all a bit nervous about possible unrest, and Andy had received advice by phone that protests on our homeward route were possible, so we set off early on Sunday morning in order to get back to Addis before crowds had time to organise themselves.
The first sign of impending trouble was a group of soldiers on the outskirts of Ziway disembarking from the back of a pick-up with machine guns mounted on the cab roof. The second was as we were driving out of Meki, when a couple of kids emerged from the bushes to practise throwing rocks at cars, hitting my vehicle twice. Two thumps were felt but only one mark is visible, so I think one rock bounced off a rear tyre.
Once you pay your 35 Birr (92p) and pass through the “toll plaza” to leave the “Expressway” south of Addis, you arrive on a huge new and virtually deserted dual carriageway wider and in better condition than any motorway in the UK. It’s wonderful, except for the police with guns. Radar guns. Someone, presumably late one evening and after a heavy drinking session, has decided that sections of the massive well-lit 6-lane road with virtually no junctions and a huge wide pavement either side should have a speed limit of 40kph. Yes – precisely 24.86mph. Miles of it. Given my previous experience and knowing full well that at some point this limit will be enforced, I crawl along at 24.85mph. So does the Toyota Land Cruiser in front of us, with the pink spade strapped to the back of the roof rack. We both successfully creep past the police officer with the gun, who, somewhat mysteriously, appears to be pointing it at right angles to the road. Pink Spade and I both pass the small collection of vehicles that have been stopped for speeding and heave a sigh of relief that after the next roundabout the speed limit is raised to the positively heady level of 50kph (31.07mph). A reasonable assumption would be that having policed the 40kph zone, there wouldn’t be any more speed traps. Not so. Half a mile or so ahead there they are again, this time actually pointing the gun at oncoming traffic. Our hearts go out to Pink Spade as we creep past at 31.06mph while he’s forlornly handing over his licence, and probably kicking himself for assuming they would only be monitoring one section of road within a couple of kilometres.
With no electricity in their home Bev managed to magic up a delicious lunch for us before we headed to Bingham to collect the food we needed to take to the doctors’ evening meal, which brings me back to later that evening when I am standing on the road in the dark surrounded by police officers, taking an interest in both me and my vehicle. But, oddly, not Chris. She stayed undisturbed in her seat while I was thoroughly frisked. They looked in the door pockets, the back seat, examined my jacket, felt the cool bags in the rear foot wells containing dirty soup bowls and large dishes, checked the rear of the pick-up which only contains a jerry can of 20 litres of diesel, a funnel and a siphoning tube, and waved us on. Had I had a collection of hand guns and grenades under the front seats, they would have escaped their notice.
Heaving a sigh of relief that my licence wasn’t asked for, we drove on past the bus station. Five minutes later we are at the back of another traffic jam, and for the second time a collection of young police officers (who all seem to have missed out on the genes that code for smiling) pull us over and ask me to get out. This time, knowing the Amharic for “second time!” I repeat this to them several times whilst gesticulating backwards towards the bus station, and without a word (or a smile) and with a wave of a uniformed arm I am allowed to proceed.
Ten uneventful minutes later we are home unpacking. A small glass of single malt and an episode of “NCIS” later we are relaxed and have put aside the stresses of the day and reflect on a great weekend with great company. We have food and water stocks to last a couple of weeks, and we’re ready to leave should the unrest and political chaos make it risky for us to stay. Unless and until something happens, life will continue as normal. Speed guns and police check-points allowing, that is.