Places of Power: Ethiopia’s historic Hilton & luxurious Sheraton

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Secret Places of Power

By Samuel Getachew
Posted on Wednesday, 31 August 2022 15:02

Hilton in Addis Ababa

At the headquarters of the African Union, there's a host of secret deals and meetings that take place behind the famed walls of the Hilton and the Sheraton: the two iconic hotels in the capital.

This is part 3 of a 7-part series

Hilton: Dawn of a new era

When Ethiopia’s Hilton opened its doors more than 50 years ago near the end of the era of Emperor Haile- Selassie, it quickly became Addis Ababa’s landmark hotel. Then the shantytown diplomatic capital of the continent and host to the headquarters of the African Union, it would be its first international hotel where the elite and the middle-class held much of their milestone.

Opened in 1969 by the emperor, it was the set for the 1970’s Hollywood movie, Shaft in Africa, where the NYPD detective character John Shaft is driven inside an old Russian Lada taxi into the hotel, later pausing next to a lion in front of the long signature corridor that leads one to the grand entrance of the hotel.

Hilton Addis held Jazz nights in its spacious nightclubs hosting the likes of the Godfather of Ethiopian Jazz, Mulatu Astatke, a young man who had returned to Ethiopia from Berkeley with the intent of complementing the Ethiopian music scene in the late 1970s.

Its then grand hall would later host heads of state, weddings, graduations from the local private schools and others who appreciated the luxury of such an international brand.

In the backdrop of curfews, war and famine under the era of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam in the 1980s, and backed by Ethiopia’s Armenian citizens who contributed to the modernisation of Ethiopian music, some of the emerging artists (such as Ephrem Tameru, Kuku Sebssibe) and veterans (such as Mahamud Ahmed and Tilahun Gessesse) would perform inside a smoke-filled night club that has now has been transformed into an Ethiopian Airlines office.

The sweet fragrant smell of incense and Ethiopian coffee brewing greets every stranger who walks into its locally decorated lobby. From here, many IGAD delegates have taken their lead to calmly enter negotiations and put out fires within the region. The elevator, located right at the heart of the plush couches in the main seating area, is where the newly-elected footballer-cum-president of Liberia, George Weah, first emerged, while just down the hall, foreign ministers mingle from ECOWAS.

‘Infamous reconciliation conferences’

Its poolside, one of the few pools in Ethiopia, became renowned as a meeting hub for expats.

“It is where I met my husband in 1993 as he was organising one of the infamous reconciliation conferences for Somalia and I was just about to go off to do my PhD fieldwork,” Laura Hammond, a professor of development studies at SOAS and a then PhD student and aid worker, tells The Africa Report.

The hotel became one of the few that could boast of European dishes complemented by sea food in a country without sea.

“On weekends, the NGO community would converge by the pool and find out what was happening [in Ethiopia] humanitarian-wise. It is really the jewel of Addis Ababa,” she says.

Much of the diplomatic core held their national days in the hotel, from Oktoberfest, which transformed its parking space into a German cultural dance and beer extravaganza, to the launch of books in its garden bar by the poolside with cocktails, making it a favourite among the city’s movers and shakers.

Embassies and international organisations with one foot on the ground, perhaps fearing the security situation of the nation, opened their missionaries inside the hotel, including the Embassy of New Zealand and the local office of the BBC.

The hotel became one of the few that could boast of European dishes complemented by seafood in a country without the sea.

Sheraton: When luxury hits the scene

In the early 1990s, a luxury collection hotel by the Sheraton – that would eventually bring Hilton Addis a direct competitor and eventually see it be downgraded to a 3-star status under Ethiopia’s generous grading system – emerged.

Neglected with no major renovation or transformation, the Hilton has not changed much but remains as busy as ever.

The Sheraton, built uphill upon what was once a collection of mud huts, is owned by Sheikh Mohammed Ali al-Amoudi, an Ethiopian native, Saudi Arabia-based (controversial) billionaire, at the tune of $500m – a hefty sum then.

It aimed to have the biggest hall, and spacious nightclubs to attract the growing middle class and affluent diaspora that was returning to an Ethiopia that was beginning to embrace foreign investment in lieu of foreign aid that had defined it for generations.

Ethiopia’s superstar Teddy Afro made his start in the Sheraton Gaslight nightclub. Within its proximity, there is an exclusive club where the owner hosts invited guests with complimentary alcohol and food.

Next to the grand hall, which still hosts much of the elite gatherings in the capital, there is also yet another club – Office Bar – where old and emerging artistes sing to a sold-out crowd and politicians can mix with the rich over a glass of overcharged whisky, with the smell of Cuban cigars gently wafting. Ethiopia’s iconic artist Tilahun Gessesse would take residence in the hotel staying in the expanded gated flats built in later years. Its restaurants would cater to a diversity of audiences hosting Indian, and Italian restaurants with specialised cuisine with imported ingredients and Ethiopia’s first sushi bar.

Proof on the walls

World leaders, including Canada’s Jean Chretien – who visited Ethiopia in 2003 pushing for legislation to offer African nations affordable HIV medication – stayed here, offering his gratitude with a complimentary letter that still graces the walls of the hotel, along with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and others.

During the main AU summit held every year in the capital, the hallways of the Sheraton are strewn with cocktails and appetisers, as feuding leaders, such as South Sudan’s Riek Machar and Salva Kiir, meet again to hash out a solution to their conflict.

Discussions on Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam with Egypt have been held in secret locations within the labyrinth of the Sheraton’s meeting rooms, while just up the winding staircase one can chance upon Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo locked into a deep discussion with a head of state.

End of an era?

Over the years, the Sheraton has also faced stiff direct competition from other hotels that have started operating in the country. Even unlicensed brands have emerged, such as Addis Ababa’s Intercontinental Hotel which was forced to change its name to Inter-luxury as a result of a court order.

In due time, Hyatt Regency, Marriott, Radisson Blu and others have made their entrance helping expose the local hospitality sector to international standards deserving of one of the world’s most important diplomatic capitals.

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