[DEHAI] Asmara, Eritrea - Secret Art Deco Capital of Africa & Meeting the Chinese Bankers (Twcnomad)

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From: Biniam Haile \(SWE\) (eritrea.lave@comhem.se)
Date: Sun Apr 19 2009 - 15:06:22 EDT

Sunday, April 19, 2009
Asmara, Eritrea - Secret Art Deco Capital of Africa & Meeting the
Chinese Bankers
Posted by Tan Wee Cheng (Singaporean)
Monday 31 March 2008

Now in Asmara, capital of Eritrea, staying at Concord Pension, a very
nice place right at the heart of this clean, cool city in the highlands.
Asmara has some of the cleanest streets of all Africa and everything is
very orderly here. The art deco architecture built by the Italians
during the colonial days are quite impressive. Mussolini built Asmara
with fervor for it represents the first building block of the Italian
East African empire that he wanted to found. The city was adorned with
the latest architectural fashion of the day - art deco modernism and
fascism functionalism.

Asmara, with its Italianate Roman Catholic Cathedral complete with
Venetian towers a la St Mark's and numerous el fresco cafes along the
key downtown Harnet Ave, looks more like an Italian town than an African
capital. The streets are clean and key buildings well-maintained.

Eritreans fought the Ethiopians for 30 years before defeating the
Communist Ethiopian army and achieving independence in 1993. Up till
recently (and perhaps still do), there is a tremendous sense of national
pride and sense of purpose. For the first time on my African journey, I
did not have little kids running after me shouting (and often adults
too) "China China" as though they were calling for their pet dogs.
Eritreans would nod their heads silently to acknowledge me, sometimes
saying "Good morning". At the airport last night, several immigration
and customs officials already said to me, "Welcome to Eritrea". Eritrean
officials are known to be the least corrupt in Africa but as Chinese
businessmen told me, they are also among the most stubborn and most
inflexible. Eritrean officials are known to stick strictly to the books
for fear of being accused of being bribed.

Eritrea's tensions with Ethiopia has been rising since end of last year
when Ethiopia refused to withdraw from the disputed Badwe region even
after the International Court of Justice had ruled the dispute in
Eritrea's favour. Both countries had also mobilized their forces, as
some say, in preparation for a second war over this useless piece of
desert and savannah. The first was in 2002 resulting in hundreds of
thousands dead in these two countries, amongst the world's poorest. UN
peace monitors had left the buffer zone between both armies and Eritrea
showed its displeasure with perceived UN incompetence in forcing
Ethiopia out by deny water and food to UN forces.

As a result, travel permits are now needed by foreign tourists who want
to get out of the capital. I dropped by the tourist office at 8am today
and applied for travel permits to major towns in the country. Got it by
5:30pm. I went to the Sudan Embassy to enquire about Sudanese visa
again. The friendly consul told me that he was only authoried to issue
visas to Eritrean citizens. He said I should try the Sudanese embassy in
Singapore, but I told him there aren't any in Singapore. He simply
At 5pm everyday, the entire city is engaged in that timeless Italian
ritual, passeggiata, i.e., strolling up and down the main street to
catch up with friends, do window-shopping and generally see how things
are in town. I found the streets crowded, especially with retired
gentlemen in their suits and ties. All the cafes were full - half the
city was having coffee at that time.

With the 2002 war with Ethiopia, current rising tension and the unstable
geopolitical situation, there has been little foreign investment in
Eritrea. With rising oil prices, the country is now going through tough
times. The currency, nakfa, is now under pressure. Official exchange
rate is 15 nalfa to the USD, but black market rate is, as I have heard,
19 nafka. The government has enacted laws that imposes huge penalties on
unauthorized trade in foreign currencies. When entering the country, one
has to register on a special blue form the amount of cash one possesses.
Whenever one exchanges money at an authorized shop, that transaction
would be noted down on the blue form. When one leaves the country, the
remaining foreign currency cash one possesses would be counted against
records on the blue form. So one has to be conscious of what was noted
earlier and what was changed or spent.

On the plane last night from Djibouti, I had long conversations with a
few bankers from China. They are young and educated in the West. They
belong to the Ethiopia/Horn of Africa team and are stationed here for up
to 2 years (with quarterly home visits to China) just to do deals
relating to these few countries (Ethiopia, Eritrea & Djibouti). Think
they are on their way to Eritrea to evaluate some projects and they are
very knowledgeable about social-economic-political aspects of many
African countries - even Somaliland. Certainly very sophisticated

China is so involved in Africa that their bank has such teams in over 20
African countries, financing all sorts of projects. These teams are not
branches, hence no need to get formal approval from local regulatory
authorities. Now - I can't even figure out if any of the western
investment banks have any African country team.
Anytime they need to do a deal, they fly expensive teams from London,
New York and increasingly, Dubai, if they have recently established a
presence there; and most of these teams won't stay a long time in these
"hardship locations". Banks from the new boy on the block, China, has
dedicated country teams in over 20 African countries. That is very

I may do a day trip to the port city of Massawa tomorrow. Will be in
Asmara until Wednesday when I fly back to Djibouti.

Posted by Tan Wee Cheng at 2:08 AM
Tan Wee Cheng - Singaporean. The finance professional, former investment
banker & CFO, now dabbling with academia as an adjunct associate
professor at NUS. Always a fanatical nomad, occasional hedonist,
sometime pseudo-philosopher & aspiring Renaissance man. More of my
adventures at http://weecheng.com. Freedom and secular humanism are
governing principles of my life.
Labels: Conflict and Post-Conflict Places, Eritrea, Horn of Africa,


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