​Land Grabbing Cases in Mekelle & Wukro

(Haile Tessema)

Residents of Mekelle and visitors to the regional capital would be familiar with two businesses in the service industry: Milano Hotel and Geza Gerlasse Restaurant, which are at close proximity from each other.

The former is a full-fledged hotel, while the latter is a famous traditional restaurant. And what these two have in common is their respective owners’– Mulugeta G/Medhin and G/Selassie Gebru – desire to expand their particular businesses by acquiring land whenever and wherever they can.

Nonetheless, the problem with both businessmen is their big appetite for wealth that is compelling them to bite more than they can chew, i.e. land grabbing greed that is beyond their investment capacity.

Milano Hotel was granted a massive land in one of the most coveted modern areas of the city – at ዓዲ ሓውሲ (Addi Hawsi), Mekelle University “Business” neighborhood – which the owner has not utilized for any useful purpose; hence it’s sitting idly for quite a number of years.

Yet, despite his dismal record in land development, እንዳ ራእሲ (Enda Ra’esi) – a 40,000 sq. m. historic site – was added to his property ownership for the purpose of building a “Lodge & Resort” right in the middle of the city. Subsequently, what he has done in the name of development is – in a city that is increasingly growing and being adversely affected by car plus truck emission and factory pollution – thoughtlessly cut age-old indigenous trees, which indeed would have been helpful in absorbing carbon (dioxide and monoxide) and releasing oxygen in a semi-industrial area, busy public transport and heavy truck route.

And when one looks at what has been put up at “ሚላኖ እንዳ ራእሲ” (Milano Enda Ra’esi) in place of the indigenous trees, it’s sadly a pile of stones and hallow blocks with iron sheets on top and a low quality and poorly placed cobblestone for a pathway.

Realizing the inadequacy that puts the “Lodge & Resort” self-proclaimed status into question, and thereby subject it to ridicule, the Milano owner has been on PR offensive lately – giving interviews and buying advertising in the print media seemingly to save face. Besides, as apparently a former journalist, he appears to recognize the importance of timing in media exposure.

Indeed, on the negative news the country is currently preoccupied with the socio-political crisis in the East. When it comes to the positive, Tigrai Region’s double award for greening its dry-lands as well as implementing an anti-smoking law have dominated the news media. There is also the erection of the cross at ጮምዓ (Chom’aa) Hill in Mekelle and the preparation for Meskel celebration that has caught the media and people’s attention.

Add to that the local media (including Tigrigna magazines, such as ውራይና and ሰርጌን) turning into silence of the lambs on the issue; the timing couldn’t be better for the businessman to slaughter truth unchallenged.

On that note, in his interview with አዲስ ጊዜ magazine titled “ከሚላኖ እንዳሬእሲ (sic) ሎጅና ሪዞርት ባለቤት አቶ ሙሉጌታ ገ/መድህን ጋር ቆይታ” ጳጉሜ 2009 (Sept. 2017) edition – which is more like paid infomercial – Ato Mulugeta reportedly stated: “የአፄ ዮሐንስ 4ኛ ልጅ የሆኑት የራስ ዓርአያ ሥላሴ እና የልጃቸው ራስ ጉግሳ መኖርያ ቤት የነበረውንና በመቀሌ ከተማ አስተዳደደር ውርስ የነበረ በቅርስነት የተመዘገበው …”

A genuine journalist with public interest at heart and in mind would take the interview a step further to whom it may concern, and ask why did it become absolutely necessary to put such a historic place for sale in the first place? Another question worth asking: If the place is registered as a historic site, how is a prefix of an Italian city name, Milano, fitting? After all, እንዳ ራእሲ is underneath ጮምዓ (Chom’aa), which is adjacent to እንዳ የሱስ (Enda Yesus) Hill where a fierce battle took place against the Italian invasion of World War II.

The immodest Milano owner also shamelessly claimed to have pumped a whopping 245 million Birr into the project so far as if the “lodge” is paved with gold, silver or bronze as supposed to stone, sand and cement.

Regrettably, the media in Ethiopia rarely conducts a background check or investigative journalism beforehand perhaps due to advert and circulation drought, which prevents them from striking back with journalistic might lest they lose revenue as a result of being labeled as tough media outlet.

In the case at hand, it’d have been very easy for any journalist to open his/her eyes; look around the compound, and say, “Wait a minute; let’s do the math here; a 245 million for what?!” Interestingly, Milano’s paid ad is right at the back of the same as well as next issue of the አዲስ ጊዜ magazine, and one can’t help but wonder if the “scratch my back …” rule is at play. Ironically – as it has become a custom with “investors” – in his interview, the Milano owner makes it look like he is doing the city and country a great altruistic favor: “እንደ ዜጋ መስራት ያለብኝን ሰርቻለሁ … እኔ ህብረተሰቤ ጋር የሚያገናኘኝን ስራ ከሰራሁ ገንዘቡ ከተመለሰ እሰየሁ እላለሁ ካልተመለሰም … አገራችን በመሆኑ ምንም ችግር የለበትም”. How kind and splendid!

What’s missing in Ato Mulugeta’s PR frenzy, however, is the audiovisual media to back up his claim.  And it’s safe to assume that this is because – as seeing is believing – there is the legitimate fear that viewers would believe their eyes as supposed to what’s verbally said by someone with vested interest on the subject matter, and echoed by irresponsible print media acting like a sidekick.

Then again, one can’t squarely put the blame on the Milano owner as business is first and foremost about the bottom-line. So, it’s not surprising that Ato Mulugeta would say just about anything to support his land acquisition mission with a plan to get an astronomical amount of money down the road. And no doubt his highly inflated 245,000-million-birr claim would come handy during bank loan applications (already taken or to use it as a collateral for future loans).

What’s more, if or when the time comes to sell the property, it’ll be opportunely declared that huge amount of money – almost quarter a billion birr and counting – has been invested on it, although it’s doubtful that private buyers would be tricked as easily as public officeholders – obliviously or willfully – tend to.

When it comes to Geza Gerlasse owner, he secured land in Adigrat wherein he built a hotel, and is serving its intended purpose. He is also building a large hotel in Mekelle alongside Aksum Hotel although it’s taking forever to bring to completion.

The bigger problem with Geza Gerlasse, however, is the Wukro Project, which enabled the owner to secure a vast land in the heart of the town. During my recent visit to the fast-growing town, I counted seven buildings – including big hotels such as Capital, Serdo (formerly German), Addis and Hiwot) – across from and on par with Geza Gerlasse compound. This means the land Geza Gerlasse has occupied could have efficiently accommodated at least seven more businesses.

Further, there are two small roads on the east side of the main street but have been halted from going west on the same direction to prevent cutting through Geza Gerlasse property, thus forcing pedestrians and bajajs (three-wheel vehicles) to go around a long way.

All these government catering accomplishes what? Fact is, all Geza Gerlasse has done is, erect a three-story, outdated and low quality building, which its ground level is rented to two banks, while the upstairs part is unfinished hence empty. A restaurant and event/conference rooms are now in operation, but there are several ground level motel like rooms which have yet to be functional. There is a large swimming pool into which rain water pours during rainy season, and collects dust for the rest of the year.

On the north end, there is “ላዕለዋይ ድኳን” (supermarket which, in fact, is a minimarket). On the south, there are large open rooms which – for philanthropic or PR purposes – provide temporary small business venue for traditional coffee brewers, commonly known as coffee houses.

The question here is, in a town where hotels and meeting places are in abundance, what is Geza Gerlasse’s added value to Wukro that entitles it to grab and retain such an enormous land?

It’s worth noting here that – while Geza Gerlasse occupies the land most of it unusably – Wukro Woreda/Town Administration is expanding construction to a fertile farmland area (south west side of the city, near the new Awlalo Secondary School) in order to meet the growing need for business bldg. as well as residential housing.

In a sensible world with responsible government and forward-looking administration, city and town properties that are not utilized properly would be repossessed and put into use first before expanding to new areas so as to prevent the unnecessary acquisition of land that belongs to families living on subsistence farming.

Indeed, what went wrong in the two cases, which are not exceptions, but rather symptoms of what’s gone wrong in Mekelle City and Tigrai Region at large is:

a) Neither Milano nor Geza Gerlasse is a big investor. Hotel and restaurant owners may very well be perceived as rich in our socioeconomically deprived society, but their limited capacity is starkly evident in their poor construction and lengthy time record to complete a given project.

b) Both were granted more land despite the fact that they already had unfinished projects.

c) The underlying problem for this to happen is local and regional governments’ failure to thoroughly and responsibly conduct a study in city planning and implementation of land development policy.

To use እንዳ ራእሲ as an example, it’s a missed opportunity to turn the historic place into a socially beneficial, environmentally responsible and affordable public park, which none exists in such a large city.

The Dergue – a fanatical anti-feudalism regime – didn’t transform እንዳ ራእሲ (House of the Aristocrat) into something deemed important at the time, say a military camp, for instance. Instead, it was made to serve as public recreation area with affordable restaurant. As youth with limited spending money courtesy of family and friends, I have a treasured memory of ordering a soft drink and playing a kind of outdoor bowling and dart at እንዳ ራእሲ.

Now all እንዳ ራእሲ is good for is serving as a living symbol of the new world order where the invisible hand and greed have taken over everything. Adding insult to injury, such a vast and historic place is deprived of the opportunity to attract an investment worth its market value.

The Milano Hotel owner brags how he won the bid for the historic place fair and square. But the fact remains that – had proper rules been put in place and adhered to – he wouldn’t have qualified to participate in another bid for land leasing when his failure to complete a previous project is a public record. The same applies to Geza Gerlasse and many other “investors”.

Let’s face it, a bank would not grant a new loan to a business with a record of default payment. That’s why there is a credit record checking between financial institutions. Why can’t governments at sub-city, city, regional and federal levels do the same to prevent unqualified applicants from acquiring land they cannot properly develop and utilize?

In addition to the unnecessary land acquisition that typically belongs to farmers, the practice erodes people’s faith in government by feeding into the perception that business owners can get away with anything due to corruption in the system. Thus, fighting it is part and parcel of the campaign to end “rent seeking” and embark on good governance, which otherwise will remain just rhetoric when not practiced.

To conclude, it’s high time that governments at all levels put into effect the proper utilization of land for intended purpose. When that fails to go as planned, confiscation should be enforced actively and effectively. At the same time, land appropriation and acquisition have to be carried out cautiously to ensure that only those with capacity to develop and bring change to communities, city, region and country are entitled to secure public land.

After all, the purpose of public/government land ownership is said to be preventing the misuse and abuse of scarce land resources, and thereby utilizing them properly and responsibly.


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