KAMPALA, — The crown jewel in Ethiopia’s transformation to a continental power in recent years has been its state-owned airline that calls itself “the new spirit of Africa.”
Sunday’s crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet that killed 157 people has set back those grand designs that were undertaken by a reformist new leader who has vowed to hold free and fair elections next year.
Now, Africa is mourning not only the victims of the aviation disaster but also a symbol of the continent’s rise.
“This couldn’t have come at a worse time for Ethiopian Airlines,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement, mindful that his own country, Africa’s largest economy, has no national carrier.
“Like every other African leader, I am proud of the fact that Ethiopian Airlines represents one of Africa’s success stories.”
Africa’s only profitable carrier, the airline is the symbol of a country shaking off a decades-old image of devastating poverty and famine.
Thanks in part to financing from China, Ethiopia has ambitious projects in infrastructure and industry that have facilitated some of Africa’s fastest rapid economic growth.
These include one of the continent’s few metro rail services, a massive hydropower dam on the Nile and numerous projects linking the landlocked nation with the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
“Many Ethiopians see yesterday. I see tomorrow,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Africa’s youngest head of government, told The Financial Times last month in his first major interview.
Abiy, who took power in the country of some 110 million people nearly a year ago, has freed opposition figures from jail, welcomed home exiles and made peace with neighboring Eritrea.
These are startling changes that he hopes to continue in business, opening the airline and other state-owned sectors to the world.
As more countries and investors reach out to Africa, their gateway increasingly is Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa, where the crash occurred. The dead came from 35 countries.
“Ethiopian Airways is a key player in linking Africa to Gulf relations and a signature project of Ethiopia’s internal capacity,” said Angelo Izama, a regional analyst based in the United Arab Emirates.
“So the wider community basically took the crash as a shock to Ethiopia and its status as a potential hegemon in the Horn (of Africa) and in East Africa.”
In January, Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport inaugurated a passenger terminal equipped to handle 22 million visitors a year, tripling its capacity in a city that is a diplomatic hub with the headquarters of the African Union continental body.
The opening was a dramatic pushback against the long-held image of African air travel as chaotic and dangerous on a bustling continent of more than 1 billion people. Before Sunday, no major aviation accident had occurred in more than two years.
Ethiopian Airlines appears determined to spread its success, reaching out to other African airlines for partnerships and investment. Many African carriers have collapsed in the last few decades, often because of mismanagement.
In its push for dominance, Ethiopian Airlines continues to open new international routes, flying to nearly 120 destinations. In January, it opened a route to Moscow and announced plans for nonstop flights to Houston.
The company has been among the first buyers of commercial jets hitting the market. In 2012, it became the first in Africa, and one of the first around the globe, to take delivery of Boeing’s flagship Dreamliner jet.
The purchase was celebrated with fanfare at home as a source of immense pride.
Ethiopian Airlines’ latest headline purchase was the Boeing 737 Max 8, the newest version of the best-selling airliner in history. The airline ordered 30 of them last year, and one of the planes was delivered in mid-November.
On Sunday, six minutes after takeoff, it crashed. No one yet knows why.
Within hours, both the prime minister and the airline’s CEO went to the crash site to pay their respects.