Ethiopia: Mekelle-Woldya railway project at a Standstill

The Mekelle-Woldya railway project has been mostly suspended and laid off its workers, according to eyewitnesses and documents obtained by HornAffairs. Government officials denied the matter.

Multiple sources in the Mekelle-Woldya railway project and the Ethiopian Railway Corporation informed HornAffairs that the project has been laying off workers in the past two months.

The 268 km Mekelle-Woldya railway is part of the Ethiopian Railway Network plan announced in 2010. The original national railway network plan, first published on HornAffairs, consisted eight main routes stretching 4,780 kilometers in all directions of the country to be constructed in two phases in ten years period. The official plan remained mostly unchanged, albeit some unceremonious modifications.

By 2017, however, the construction of 752 km railway connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti have been completed, while the 389 km railway connecting Awash to Woldya/Hara Gebeya and the 268 km railway connecting Mekelle to Woldya/Hara Gebeya are underway. On the other hand, preparations for the construction of the railway connecting Woldya to Asyata and Addis Ababa to Jimma is reported.

A Turkish company, Yapi Merkezi, is responsible for the construction of the Awash-Woldya/Hara Gebeya railway project at the cost of 1.7 billion dollars. Ethiopian Railway Corporation claims track laying will be completed in three months and trial will be conducted.

The Mekelle – Woldya/Hara Gebeya railway project, on the other hand, is on uncertain status.

The project awarded to the China Communications Construction Co (CCCC) at a cost of 1.5 billion US dollars was commenced in 2015. Recent statements from government officials claim the project is 45% complete. They dismissed reports on social media that the project has been halted and workers are laidoff.

In an interview with Dmtsi-Weyane radio, a media based in Mekelle, the project manager Gebrenedhin Gebrealif claimed the project is active and at a key stage of the construction process.

The project manager claimed “top layer” works have been “almost completed” in one half of the route, stretching from Woldya/Hara Gebeya to Mekoni. The rest of the route, from Mekoni to Mekelle,  is fully underway and currently working on bridges and tunnels, he elaborated. He denied that the project laid off employees, adding that active works may not be visible in the first half of the route, but project workers are fully engaged in the second half of the route.

Eyewitnesses from the project site dismissed the project manager’s statement as untrue.

“There is no active work in the route, except on a site called ‘bridge 8′”, a laid off employee of the project told HornAffairs.

The account was corroborated by two more laid off workers and another employee who still works at the project office, speaking to HornAffairs on condition of anonymity.

Photo - Abandoned sites on Mekelle-Woldya/Hara Gebeya railway project
Photo – Abandoned sites on Mekelle-Woldya/Hara Gebeya railway project

HornAffairs have obtained letters issued by the project contractor to layoff workers in site “DK198”, which is located about 40 kilometers from Mekelle. This is in direct contradiction to the project manager’s claim that the project is active in that section of the route.

Photos from that specific site, obtained by HornAffairs, show abandoned tunnels and colons. Project workers prepared temporary cover for those structures, which indicates their expectations that work might not resume for a while.

The sources also claimed Chinese workers of the project have left the area in the past two months.

While the Ethiopian Railway Corporation refuses to disclose the matter, a careful look at its public statements regarding the project indicate little or no progress has been made in the last six months.

The reasons for the virtual standstill of the project is not clear yet.

The status of Mekelle-Woldya/Hara Gebeya railway project gained heightened attention due to the recent statement by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn regarding railway projects in the northern region Tigray, of which Mekelle is the capital city.

In a town hall meeting in Adwa town, Tigray, last month, the Prime Minister indicated the cancellation of the railway plan that would link Mekelle to Shire town. In the audio recording released by HornAffairs, the Prime Minister says the Mekelle-Shire route, which would pass through Adwa, is an improbable dream. The Premier repeated the statement in a subsequent town hall meeting in Axum city.

Hailemariam held the town hall meetings, after laying of foundation for the Pan-African University to be built in Adwa, the site of Ethiopian victory over Italian army 121 years ago.

State media decided not to air the town hall meetings, as it created uproar on social media.

The government tried to walk back Hailemariam’s remark through several half-backed and contradictory statements since then.

The latest of such statements came during a cadre meeting by the vice President of the region, who appeared disapproving of the way the Prime Minister made the statement, yet couldn’t be clear on whether the official plan has been changed or not.

None of the big weights in the ruling party commented on the matter to date.


Note: We will post the letters and photos on HornAffairs Facebook page.

Daniel Berhane

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