Chronicle of Addis Ababa’s extreme makeover

By Getachew Belaineh

Every city in the world has its own unique personality. Each represents a unique blend of history, natural settings, cultural patterns, and lifestyles. Some are old-fashioned yet attractive, others modern but boring. Likewise, Addis Ababa has its own unique personality. It is inherently a socially mixed city housing traditional and modern urban people.

Preserving this unique characteristic while moving the city into the 21st century is not only important for maintaining the city’s historical significance but also exemplifies the administration’s awareness toward the citizens. Relocating traditional and poor people to the city periphery away from socio-economic opportunities predictably has caused irreversible damage to the unique social makeup of the city. This is the main subject of this commentary. Other perturbing trends in the city such as the soaring food prices, liquidation of public parks, and the people’s unsanitary living conditions are also themes of this article. For a heads-up, public recreational and park areas in the city are on the verge of extinction. The high food prices compounded with joblessness and relocations is severely affecting the poor, as they are net consumers. People who are already poor are falling deeper into poverty. Especially the children, who represent the next generation, are suffering grave and irremediable damage to their health and education due to malnutrition and dropping out of school to look for work.

I was inspired to write this commentary by a personal experience I had during my recent visit to Addis. I felt compelled to write this commentary not to be critical of the city administration or the government, but rather to instigate awareness and dialogues leading to viable solutions. By no means is my intention to reveal anyone’s misdeeds.

I am starting with the endangered unique social blend of the city. Addis Ababa is experiencing growth and modernity in terms of buildings and roads, yet it is on the verge of losing its century-old unique social blend. Modern and traditional as well as rich and poor people have lived side by side throughout the history of the city. However, the present trend is to demolish traditional housing and housing for poor people within the city and relocate the inhabitants to a remote location, as they are deemed a hindrance to modernity. It is true that traditional people live by a stable age-old tradition and most poor families live in slums around the city that are characterized by the most deplorable living conditions. There has to be a better way of handling the situation than demolishing the houses haphazardly and relocating the dwellers to the city’s periphery away from socio-economic opportunities and mostly without fair compensation. In some cases, the relocation and the demolition take place with unrealistically short notice to the inhabitants.

Many traditional houses in primarily residential areas are being demolished because the city can make more revenue by leasing the land to investors, and the inhabitants are traditional people who do not belong there anymore. The demolition of traditional housing and relocation of the inhabitants away from the city is a matter of meaningful concern. Traditional people have been an integral part of the community since the inception of the city around 1880. If these buildings were in dilapidated condition, it would be better if the owners were assisted in renovating them rather than the city removing them from the face of the city. These buildings are not only historical but are also physical symbols of Ethiopian cultural heritage. There is nothing wrong with upholding these houses with their century-old traditions.

The slums are known for their awful environmental sanitation, non-existent waste disposal arrangements, overcrowded and dilapidated habitation, insufficient water supply, and vulnerability to serious health risks. These slums have to go. The city administration is rightly demolishing slums in phases. Currently, the demolition of the slums is underway in the Arat Killo area, while around the Lideta area, construction of massive multistoried residential and commercial buildings is in full swing once the slums are demolished. The slum dwellers obviously cannot afford any of the condominiums that are being built in the city and are relocated in areas that are economically isolated, have a higher costs of living, and provide fewer choices of where people can spend their limited resources. The relocated families are often “captive consumers,” paying higher prices for inferior basic goods and services compared to when they lived in their former neighborhoods. Getting to work (if they have any) or anywhere is disproportionately costly and time consuming. All of the above drives them deeper into the hole of poverty.

I like to mention what was brought up in an international conference that took place in Durban (South Africa). During the Durban Conference, in which the unfair treatment of one group compared to another was discussed, Jacob Zuma of South Africa said the existence of shack inhabitants and slum settlements on the continent remained a constant reminder that we have not fully achieved the goal of restoring the right of human dignity to all our peoples. He went on to say, “We cannot ignore the indignity suffered by families living in shacks with no ablution facilities and no sanitation, no water, electricity or any other basic services we take for granted ourselves.” I am quoting Mr. Zuma here to signify the role governments should play in restoring and protecting their citizens from substandard life.

One of the preferred alternatives to improving the shanty living conditions is to restore their human dignity by giving them the opportunity to improve their living conditions through the Assisted Self-Building Approach (ASA). Assisted Self-Building Approach is not only a compassionate and responsible intervention, but it also minimizes disturbance to the people and the economic life of the community. At times, it is also cheaper than relocating the dwellers. In ASA, the administration or government improves the environmental conditions by removing unsanitary human waste and polluted water and upgrading the infrastructure to a satisfactory standard to provide adequate clean water, sanitation, and storm drainage. The city administration need not worry about the shanty living conditions. The dwellers can do this mostly by themselves if they are assisted in improving their incomes and offered optional home improvement loans. ASA works if the area is earmarked on the land use map as residential. If the area is earmarked for commercial or something else, then relocation of dwellers is a must.

As one final remark on the land use plan, the modernization of Addis Ababa has been questioned leading to a growing emphasis on the human rights aspect and calling for a better-balanced approach with a concern for social issues and equity for the traditional and poor. The problem began when the community was ignored in the process of the development of the city land use plan. City planning is a professional practice aiming at optimally utilizing resources. Involving local community members is an important aspect of development. Consultation allows people interested in, or affected by the new plan, to offer their point of view before a decision is made. The critical steps for city administrators are to (1) recognize the right of traditional and poor people to live in the city and share in the benefits of urban life and (2) allow meaningful public involvement in the development of the land use plan. This can help the city administration achieve better and balanced outcomes.

The soaring price of basic food items is the second issue that attracted my attention during my stay in Addis. It was a good thing that the government recently attempted to impose price caps on some food items. Interestingly, some of the price caps have already been revised shortly after the price control announcement. Actually, in the views of many people, this jeopardizes the credibility of the price caps. For instance, the retail price of palm oil was bir 40 before the price capping. The initial price cap reduced the price of oil to bir 16 which few days later changed to bir 24.50. Not knowing the basis on which the price caps were determined, this writer’s fear is that it may result in a shortage of commodities. Basic economics says that the law of supply and demand determines prices. What is happening in Addis Ababa is that the supply is down, while demand is growing with the population growth. Agricultural food products are in short supply in the domestic market because they are being exported to foreign markets.

This may come as a surprise to some, as it was to this writer. Living in Addis Ababa is not as costly for foreigners as it is for its own citizens. According to the latest cost of living survey from Mercer, Addis Ababa is the cheapest African city for foreigners to live in. Luanda of Angola is the world’s most expensive city for expatriates. It is not a bad idea to make living in Addis cheap for foreigners in order to attract international workers, but it should not cost its citizens more.

For a long-term solution, the government must move its focus from export to domestic consumption. Again, considering oil seeds as an example, Ethiopia produces a large quantity of oilseeds and pulses that are known for their flavor and nutritional value, as they are mostly grown organically. However, nearly all oilseeds produced in the country are sent abroad to foreign markets. Actually, oilseeds are the second-largest export item in the country next to coffee. Because of the oil seed shortage in the domestic market, food oil producers stopped producing which created shortage of food oil. This is the real cause of the price jump for food oil. Palm oil imported from Middle Eastern countries was made available in an attempt to ease the shortage. Actually, biomedical research indicates that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, is a major cause of heart disease. This writer is not sure if the consumers are aware of the health issue associated with palm oil. Think about it. Ethiopia exports good quality oil seeds to the Middle East and imports unhealthy palm oil. The right of the people to utilize their agricultural and food products at the domestic level must be respected prior to exporting all the good quality products to foreign countries. The government must protect the country’s food sovereignty.

The last, but certainly not the least issue, in my diary is the structural transformation of the city. Certainly, the new buildings and roads continue to fascinate most visitors. Indeed, they are fascinating. However, the predicament with the structural transformation of the city is that no adequate attention is paid to the basic infrastructures and public facilities. The city continues to face one of the worst sanitation problems in the entire world. Garbage is everywhere and sewage flows freely in open ditches. With the exception of some privileged areas such as the Bole area, the garbage collection services are nearly non-existent. Even in the privileged areas, it accumulates for weeks if not months. In sum, the sanitation problem is overwhelming.

Public facilities such as parks and sport fields are on the verge of extinction. Even existing facilities are either already taken or reserved for future construction. I remember there was a sizable field in my neighborhood where we used to play soccer or engage in other athletic activities. However, two 4-story buildings now take that space. The small soccer field adjacent to Addis Ababa Stadium and the one near the municipality in Piazza are gone. Itege Mesk, once popular neighborhood soccer field near Filwiha, is gone too. None of the newly built schools have sport fields—not even small playgrounds. No wonder the city does not have good soccer players anymore. During my three-week stay, I haven’t seen any open space for kids to play. My prediction is that in the near future kids will have to travel to Debere Birhan or farther to find open space to play and have fun.

In addition, it appears the city administration is contemplating converting Peacock Park into Zoological Park. Peacock Park, popular as a wedding park, is located on the Bole road behind Peacock Café. This is good news. It would be even better if Peacock Park was left alone and the Zoological Park was established somewhere else. On the other hand, the lion park near Sidist Killo is chronically underfunded which puts it on life support. Africa Park is no longer functional. Africa Park, which is stretched along the road from Menelik Palace to the Economic Commission for Africa Building, was established in 1963 to mark the formation of the Organization of African Unity and was functional and accessible to the public since then. Reportedly, the business tycoon Sheik Al Amoudi renovated the park only for it to be closed after its completion.

Parks are not civic frills but urban necessities. Access to parks increases people’s physical activities. It brings the community together for outdoor activities. Addis Ababa is a park poor city. The city administration ought to consider the development of new parks and green spaces and maintain the existing ones as an integral part of the modernization effort.

In conclusion, I like to use a phrase somebody used for Washington D.C a while back. Addis Ababa is a living, breathing city that changes all the time. On that regard, the effort to modernize the city is praiseworthy. However, that effort would be more meaningful if accomplished with the awareness that the citizens’ right to continue living in the city should be protected and space should be preserved for environmental and public use. If modernizing the city is not intended to make a better place for its citizens…then it misses the major target.

(The author can be reached at [email protected])