Last Friday when Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize and became nearly $1 million richer, I was visiting the country’s embassy in Nairobi.
I had gone to talk about Ethiopia’s strategic posture in the region and the state of Abiy’s reforms, with its youthful ambassador Meles Alem.
An alumnus of Nairobi University, Meles was in good cheer, and fittingly bow-tied.
I got more than I had bargained for. Over the years I had been to the Ethiopian consular office severally to get a visa.
Only once did I go into the main compound, about eight years ago. Nick Wachira, now managing partner at Oxygène Marketing Communications, was managing editor of the East African. Ethiopia was embroiled in Somalia.
Somali pirates had rattled the shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. AMISOM (thanks to the Ugandan and Burundi militaries at that point) had finally broken Al-Shabaab’s hold on Mogadishu, and had begun to put them on the run.
Shabaab had increased its incursions into northern Kenya, and the tough guys in the Kenya Defence Forces were baying for blood.
We were writing a special report for The East African, and that’s how we ended at the Ethiopian mission for a memorable interview with then ambassador Ato Shemsedin Ahmed.
We encountered an Ato who was an unapologetic militarist, old school securocrat, but refreshingly plain spoken.
He was breathing fire, and all but said Ethiopia would stop at nothing, including flattening Somalia, to snuff out the terrorist threat militants there paused.
However, the expansive Ethiopian compound, easily the largest in Nairobi, was then an eye sore. It was unkempt.
The buildings were peeling. It sports area had fallen into disuse, with the pool out of service for nearly 20 years. The crises of previous decades back home, had taken their toll.
The Meles Zenawi government in Addis Ababa had bigger fish to fry, and a manicured embassy lawn in Nairobi was at the bottom of its priorities.
Eight years later, the difference was starker than day and night. Ambassador Meles was appointed in January this year.
Since then, he has had the lawn replanted, regrown the flowers, refurbished the buildings, brought the swimming pool back to life after 30 years, rebuilt the changing rooms, and redone the tennis court and other play grounds.
Since the upgrades, there have been five wedding receptions by Ethiopians held there, he says. The embassy has been redecorated, and bedecked with new art. There is now a fine coffee Ethiopian made, deliberately I gather, to be the first thing a visitor smells upon arriving at the reception.
Gone is the old cramped lounge outside the ambassador’s office. Now pimped up, it has a photo from the 1960s of Jomo Kenyatta standing beside Emperor Haile Selassie, clapping as a woman wrapped a cloth gift around the Ethiopian monarch.
He had just been wrapped in similar manner in Ethiopian fabric, with Abiy standing by.
Ambassador Meles is keen to underline the historical echoes, to make the point that Ethiopia’s and Kenya’s strategic alliance remains the most important relationship today as it was 40 years.
Mzee Kenyatta was very close to Emperor Haile Selassie. The story goes that Kenyatta got the land next to State House and told the emperor something like “my brother, come and build your embassy here and be next door to me”.
Meles, with a straight face, repeats what I thought was a piece of urban legend, telling me that when the embassy was being built, Kenyatta used to drive across the road once every week to check on the progress of the work.
But one of the works in progress he talks of, that caught me by surprise, was a soon-to-be-opened One Stop Border Point (OSBP) at Kenya-Ethiopia’s Moyale border. It’s uncommon to have OSBPs at border points between countries that are not part of an economic community.
Perhaps the only one in Africa is the Rubavu border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Rubavu OSBP was one of the harbingers to the DRC’s application to join the East African Community. Moyale might well be the same for Ethiopia.
Meles’ analysis is that Abiy’s reforms are “irreversible”. Ethiopia’s regional geopolitical stance will be more active but dovish. It was time to leave, and a photograph against the backdrop in the ambassador’s office.
I don’t remember seeing as many 20 something-year-olds working at an embassy. One of them stepped did the honours with her smartphone.
As I left, I remembered that a visit to an embassy of a powerful nation in Nairobi, where photos were taken too. Except, the embassy had a resident “official photographer.” Small things can sometimes tell a big story.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. @cobbo3