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Residents, Visitors to Addis Ababa Agree the City is Cleaner, Safer - 2004-06-07

Residents and visitors to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, seem to agree the city is cleaner, safer, and getting bigger than it used to be. Raymond Thibodeaux reports on how the city's mayor is transforming the city into a regional hub for East Africa and a bridge to the Middle East

The first thing visitors notice is the city's new, huge, and gleaming Bole International Airport: the polished white floor tiles, the air-conditioned cafes and spacious retail stores and the smiling efficiency of the clerks at the visa and passport windows.

The three-year-old airport is a symbol of the city's effort to transform itself into a regional hub for eastern Africa and a gateway to the Middle East.

The skyline of Addis Ababa bristles with hi-rise buildings and cranes, signs of progress.

Leading the transformation of Addis Ababa is its mayor, Arkebe Oqubay, who, while not elected by its residents, has earned their respect and support.

Mayor Oqubay speaks from his office in Addis Ababa's City Hall. He says, ?In terms of international staff, if I'm not mistaken, it's next to New York, Washington and London in terms of concentration of international staff. And so we have the responsibility, I think, we have to make it habitable. We have to make conducive for working and living. That is the most important thing if we want to make our city the diplomatic capital city or the political capital city of the continent.?

The headquarters for the African Union and the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa is not a city without problems.

Its population, which stands at five million, is growing out of control as rural families, often displaced by drought, migrate to Addis Ababa in search of jobs. There's traffic congestion. The influx of people strains municipal services like water and sewage. There are housing shortages, and slums sprout right next to luxury hotels and restaurants.

But the mayor's biggest headache is high unemployment.

?Here one of the big problems we have is unemployment. And in fact employment generation is my top priority as a mayor,? he said. ?Even more than environmental protection, more than cleaning the city. Because if you don't create jobs in big numbers in a very short time, we cannot think of having stability within the city.?

Another problem the city is facing is the rising rate of HIV infections. To combat that, the mayor says the city needs to build more clinics.

Working with an annual budget of just over $320 million, he's trying to cut down on administrative red tape on services ranging from recording land transfers to issuing marriage licenses.

He's put more police patrols on the streets, and violent crime dropped.

At a new coffee bar on Bole Avenue, one of Addis' busiest streets, B.T. Constantinos talks about the mayor's success in laying the groundwork for progress in Ethiopia. Constantinos, a former consultant to the United Nations, is president of the Center for Human Environment and Development, an Ethiopian think tank.

?We have 70 million people in this country and this is a big market in its own right,? Mr. Constantinos said. ?You can generate such an economy here if, as the mayor said, the public policies are in place, if the instruments of production, such as capital, land and labor, are in place, and skills and technology are in place. So this is what we are advocating for.?

Still, some people point out, the future of the city, situated in a country beset by droughts, food shortages and a deepening AIDS crisis, is all but assured.