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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK
Africa diary: Ethiopia's challenge
The UK government set up the Commission for Africa in February to "take a fresh look at Africa's past, present and future". It has been holding its second meeting in Ethiopia to discuss regional conflicts, refugees, trade and corruption.

BBC world affairs correspondent Peter Biles, travelled through Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Ethiopia to examine the scale of the task the commission has set itself. The final leg of his journey took him to Ethiopia's capital.

After 10 days on the road in Uganda, Burundi and Kenya, the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is the end point of my African journey.

I have been coming to Addis regularly for the past 15 years, and witnessed the fall of the Mengistu regime in 1991 when rebel tanks rolled into the city at dawn on a May morning.

In Addis Ababa this week, it's a delight to reminisce about those dramatic moments with Richard Dowden of the Royal African Society.

Together we had watched rebels of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, led by Meles Zenawi, launch their attack on the Menelik Palace, as Mengistu's demoralised forces fled.

Meles Zenawi - now Ethiopia's prime minister, and one of the members of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa - is enthusiastic about the role the Commission can play.

"It's not a talking shop," he tells me.

"We need to make a real dent in poverty in Africa."

Huge challenge

Addis Ababa is busier and more congested than ever. A stone's throw from the prime minister's office is a local primary school.

According to the head teacher, there are 1,800 children here, with sometimes 70 or 80 pupils in a class.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zanawi
Meles believes the commission can make a difference

Addis has a population of nearly four million and growing. In part, this is due to the huge number of people descending on the capital from the countryside.

From the City Council offices at the top of Churchill Avenue, there's a splendid view of Addis.

The Mayor, Arkebe Oqubay, outlines his priorities: tackling unemployment and poverty, as well as providing shelter and housing.

With half the city's population living below the poverty line, and with 42% unemployed, it's a huge challenge for the city authorities.

Ato Arkebe says the plan is to build 200,000 new houses in Addis over the next five years.


The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, which treats women with childbirth injuries, is another place that is feeling the pressure on basic services in a poor country trying to support a population of 70 million.

Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister
Gordon Brown, UK Chancellor
Hilary Benn, UK Development Secretary
Michel Camdessus, former IMF head
Bob Geldof, musician
Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister, Ethiopia
Trevor Manuel, Finance Minister, South Africa
Ralph Goodale, Canadian Finance Minister
Nancy Kassenbaum Baker, former US Senator
K Y Amoako, UN Economic Commission for Africa
Benjamin Mkapa, President of Tanzania
L K Mohohlo, Governor Bank of Botswana
Dr Anna Tibaijuka, Director, UN Habitat, Tanzania
T J Thiam, group director, Aviva, Ivory Coast
William Kalema, chairman, Uganda Manufacturers Assn
Fola Adeola, chairman, Fate Foundation, Nigeria
Ji Peiding, vice-chairman, Chinese parliament's foreign affairs committee
The hospital's Liaison Co-ordinator, Ruth Kennedy, is an inspiring woman.

She came to Ethiopia as a midwife 11 years ago, learnt to speak Amharic, and is totally committed to the vital work that is carried out at this hospital on the western outskirts of the city.

"There are just a thousand midwives in the entire country," she explains.

Ethiopia's slogan - "13 months of sunshine" - is being seriously challenged this week.

When the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, arrives for the meeting of his Commission for Africa, the rain is pouring down.

As the skies slowly clear, Mr Blair visits a community project at Debre Zeit, south-east of Addis Ababa, before the conference.

Musical welcome

The Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organisation cares for orphaned children.

This is a chance for Mr Blair to experience a slice of life outside the capital.

He is invited to sit on the grass in a field, encircled by the children who entertain him with a traditional Ethiopian musical welcome.

Mr Blair then spends more than an hour meeting the children and volunteer workers, and discussing the impact of HIV/AIDS.

Malnourished children
20 years after Band Aid, Ethiopia still faces familiar problems

Later, in a speech in Addis Ababa's famous Africa Hall, built in 1961, Tony Blair makes an impassioned plea for the international community to tackle poverty in Africa.

Inevitably, the campaigner, Bob Geldof, who helped to draw the world's attention to the suffering caused by famine in Ethiopia 20 years ago, is the media's favourite at this conference.

In his pin-striped suit and black trainers, he moves effortlessly from one interview to the next.

At a news conference, he uses typically undiplomatic language to describe the nature of the "full and frank" discussions inside the Commission.

"They were down and dirty," says Geldof.

"But out of it came a genuine sense of having gone forward massively."

On the final morning, while waiting for a taxi, producer Tamzen Audas and I chat to another Commissioner, Nancy Baker from the United States.

She invites us to drive in her chauffeured limousine from the hotel to the conference centre.

We suddenly find ourselves in the back of a vintage Mercedes that had once been part of Emperor Haile Selassie's imperial fleet of vehicles.

Africa - a continent facing the biggest challenges on earth, but always one full of surprises.

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