ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The sleek, white train glides through the hilly Ethiopian countryside, the first to travel this route in nearly a decade.
The contrast is stark as the new, Chinese-made electric train passes horse-drawn carriages, oxen hauling plows and crowds of curious village children. But soon it crosses over a gleaming six-lane expressway and snakes past a row of newly erected wind turbines — all Chinese-built and, like the train, part of Ethiopia’s ongoing effort to remake itself.
The standard-gauge rail line, which will be officially inaugurated this week, stretches 470 miles from the capital, Addis Ababa, to the port of Djibouti, which handles 90 percent of the landlocked country’s trade and is its main window to the outside world. Seventy percent of the $3.4 billion project is financed by China’s Export-Import Bank, and it is one of the biggest of the mega-projects that Ethiopia says will transform its largely agricultural economy — once known for little more than famine and coffee — into East Africa’s manufacturing hub.
“Our economy is one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa and the world, so at the end of the day, when the train is connected to the port and transporting that much freight, … it will add value,” said Mekonnen Getachew, the railway’s project manager, speaking after a recent trial run for journalists.
Between 2005 and 2015, Ethiopia’s economy grew at an average rate of 10 percent a year, and the country took pride in its reputation as Africa’s latest success story. But that is starting to unravel, with the worst drought in 50 years halving the growth rate and widespread social unrest erupting in two of the country’s most populous regions.
A finish-line protest at this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro by an Ethiopian marathon runner alerted the world to the country’s internal problems.
The drought’s effect has been so dire that the new railroad was pressed into service in November, before construction was even completed, to get emergency imports of wheat closer to famine-stricken areas.
Without the train, Ethiopia’s imports and exports must travel between Djibouti and Addis Ababa on a winding, pitted road plied by more than 1,500 trucks daily, a trip that takes two days. When the railroad is fully operational, travel time for freight will be cut to just 12 hours — and 10 hours for the faster passenger trains.
The new line actually replaces a narrow-gauge railroad built by France starting in 1894, when it controlled Djibouti. The French left behind elegant, arcaded train stations, inscribed “Chemin de Fer Djibouto-Ethiopien,” in the heart of Addis Ababa and in the eastern city of Dire Dawa, but the line was largely defunct by the mid-2000s, a victim of war and neglect.
The century-old tracks can still be seen in places from the new train, but the Chinese elected to build all new stations. The palatial multistory buildings stand well outside cities and towns, suggesting that the new line will be used more for freight than for passengers.
The rail link to Djibouti will be just the beginning, the government says. Plans have been made for 1,500 more miles of track to criss-cross the country, including to its borders with Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan — all part of an African Union goal of once more uniting the continent by rail.
Ethiopia is a lot closer to achieving its part of this goal than most African countries, largely because of the massive support and financing from China.
According to the China Global Investment tracker, Beijing has poured more than $20.6 billion into Ethiopia since 2005, much of it in low-interest loans to build infrastructure, such as roads, rail lines and telecommunication.
On the train, with its clean, blond-wood interiors, loudspeakers announce the stations in three languages: Amharic, English and Chinese. All the attendants are Chinese.
For its first five years, the new railway will be managed by a Chinese company to allow time to train enough Ethiopians to take over running it.
The train line is a key part of the government’s strategy to industrialize the country by luring foreign investment — and the 70-mile trip last weekend between Addis Ababa and Adama attests to the plan’s success so far. From the window, the view includes not just traditional farms but also greenhouses marking the country’s burgeoning commercial flower industry and distant plumes of smoke from new factories.
Chinese cement and shoe companies, Indian painting and textile firms, and numerous Turkish enterprises have set up shop here in recent years, attracted by Ethiopia’s cheap labor and electricity — and eventually, the government hopes, by its superior infrastructure.
Foreign direct investment has grown from just $108 million in 2009 to an estimated $2 billion in 2016.
A report by the World Bank last year, though, warned that Ethiopia still had far to go in its quest to move labor from agriculture to industrial jobs. About 80 percent of the jobs in the country are still in farming. Meanwhile, unemployment is at 17 percent nationally and at 24 percent in the capital.
The economy remains closed and state-controlled, and the small and medium enterprises that would probably produce the most jobs are having trouble getting financing. Even foreign firms, which are given preferential treatment, complain about bureaucracy, red tape and the difficulty of repatriating profits and acquiring hard currency.
The new factories are also being built on confiscated farm land, which helped spark the protests in the Oromo region that began in November and later spread north to the Amhara region. International rights groups estimate that some 500 people have been killed in the repression that ensued.
Just on Sunday, police fired tear gas at a political protest taking place at an Oromo cultural festival in Bishoftu, the next station on the train line after Addis Ababa, and provoked a stampede that killed 52 according to the government — with the opposition saying twice as many died.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for african affairs, last week described the government response as an “intense and somewhat harsh crackdown.”
“We think it could get worse if it’s not addressed — sooner rather than later,” she told Voice of America.
The unrest poses a threat to Ethiopia’s vision of foreign-driven industrialization.
On Aug. 29, in the Amhara region, mobs attacked at least seven flower farms belonging to Israeli, Italian, Indian and Belgian companies. In a statement on its website, the Dutch-owned Esmeralda Farms said its entire $11.2 million investment, including machinery and greenhouses, was destroyed.
In the first-person statement, the unnamed author laments how Ethiopia was once a safe country.
“Last year I traveled 24 times to Ethiopia to start up the farm,” the statement said. “It was one of the most peaceful countries in Africa.”
By Paul Schemm