Addis Ababa: In progress or crisis?
By Ashenafi Gossaye (Ph.D.) | July 24, 2008
Addis Ababa In the midst of the current issues that attracted public attention and intense debate such as the Ethio-Sudan border, the war in Ogaden and Somalia, the drought and the political and economic crises prevailing throughout the nation, in the Ethio-cyber media we often read news, features, commentary and reports about the capital city, Addis Ababa. Being a resident of the city and an urban development professional who has been closely following and studying the recent development trends of the city, I am particularly interested in the reports of those contributors who recently visited the city and shared with us their observations and experiences. After reading those reports that give the impression that currently the city is in a very dynamic and rapid urban transformation and development process, I started to ask myself whether the city that I know most is really in progress or crisis.

In fact the answer to this question differs from one observer to the next, depending on the time and place from which the city is observed (the vantage point), the knowledge, premises, assumptions, biases, beliefs, interpretations and the language employed to describe it. Each observer makes sense of a city and creates his own image, though the type of image one creates about a place varies depending on the depth and quality of information one has.

In today’s Addis Ababa one could easily observe a paradox of two competing dynamics that exist simultaneously. One is a creative dynamic where you have new buildings, new roads and new businesses coming in. The other is a dynamic of crisis where an acute housing shortage, wide spread of informal settlements, dilapidation of inner-city areas, lack of basic urban services and chronic traffic and parking problems challenge the proper functioning of the city. The fundamental question is, therefore, whether this decline can be halted, or whether the creative dynamic is going to outpace the destructive dynamic.

As I will try to demonstrate in this rather brief and sketchy overview, Addis Ababa’s recent development is very minimal compared to the magnitude of the problems the city has faced and the huge potential it has to grow and prosper. The city today, as perceived by residents, community leaders and trained experts, is rather in crisis and has faced serious challenges that put its sustainability (socially, politically, economically and environmentally) into question. Hence, I contend that the emergence of few high-rise buildings here and there and the opening of some roads do not reflect the claimed rapid development and the real image of the city. As I said earlier, many contributors have tried to portray their perception of the city’s recent development and its strength and weaknesses from the point of view of visitors while my attempt is to observe it from a different vantage point and based on facts and figures to reflect real-life problems faced by residents.

1. Visitors and residents’ views

It is a common practice that visitors of a city spend much of their time in places where there are relatively high standard hotels, restaurants, malls, well lit and paved streets. In most cases they neither have the time nor interest to visit slum areas and squatter settlements where about 80 percent of the city’s residents struggle for survival. Hence, the image that visitors create about the city is often partial, in most cases distorted and different from that of residents who see their city in its totality. This reminds me of an NGO’s report that illustrates how observers’ mental image of the city varies depending on the time spent and spatial area covered during the visit.

“A good number of those travellers who make brief stopovers in Addis Ababa might leave the city with the impression that it is a very busy metropolis like most other major cities of the world packed with high rise buildings, tarred roads, world class hotels and beautiful shops and restaurants. For many of the visitors that spend days and weeks moving around the various residential areas of the city, on the other hand, Addis Ababa is nothing but a gigantic slum interspersed with modern high-rise buildings and a few affluent neighborhoods”.

2. Falling in the trap of politicians in power

As noted above, what we observe in Addis Ababa varies from place to place, as there are “cities within the city”. If we are talking about spaces created for and by the few affluent groups, political elites and their allies with the intention of displaying political achievements and success, the impressions created by many of the visitors seems to be valid. However, knowingly or unknowingly, they could not escape from the trap of politicians who spend much of their time to let us believe that the city as well as the nation as a whole has been prospering under the EPRDF government.

All governments wish cities to be physical denominations of national achievements and I think there is nothing wrong with that. The problem In Ethiopia is the disparity between what is reported and the reality on the ground. Sometimes reports include not only whatever is accomplished but also what officials dream. Let me give an example. During the Ethiopian millennium celebration the public media were very busy reporting development projects implemented in the last 17 years. I remember in one of such reports unrealized 3D images of construction projects posted on the huge billboard of Sunshine Real-estate Co. at Meskel Square were included and repeatedly broadcasted on national television as part of the achievements. This clearly shows to what extent the politicians in power are desperate for something to show. As a result of this in the present day Addis Ababa political decisions are strongly influenced by short time horizons and consequently short term and visible projects take precedence over the longer term and less visible tasks. What we see as developmental activity in Addis Ababa today is, therefore, part of this political game and showcase building process.

The showcase, particularly targeted to impress the Ethiopian diaspora, leaders of funding agencies and visitors, starts at Bole International Airport, the standard of which was raised in 2001. As many of the visitors observed, this redevelopment extends along the Africa Avenue, commonly known as Bole Road. In the last two decades, the land use of this area has been drastically changed from a predominantly residential to commercial while the cityscape has been transformed from low-rise low-density residential villas to medium and high-rise office blocks, malls, hotels and apartments. This is quickly extending along the newly redeveloped Urael - Bole Road and Kazanchis area. This development is particularly extensive and limited to about a block or two along these major corridors and follows the route of visitors, i.e. from Bole International Airport to the palace, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNECA, Sheraton, Hilton etc. This is, unfortunately, a very small segment of the city and does not show Addis Ababa in its totality.

As noted by a foreign observer, “one significant fact that is masked by such development is the predominantly low standard of most of its residential neighborhoods and housing units”. Which means the real image of the city comes when one moves further to the inner-city neighborhoods such as Cherkos, Teklehaymanot, Addisketema, Eribekentu, Lideta, where the majority of the city population lives and works. These are neighborhoods characterized by deteriorating environments, high level of overcrowding, nonexistence of open spaces and playing fields, dilapidating housing structures, unpaved access roads, inadequate circulation systems, scarcity of water supply, lack of drainage system, toilet facilities, and widespread of large proportion of uncollected refuse as well as high incidence of communicable diseases.

3. Addis Ababa compared to its past

No one disputes the fact that since its establishment in 1886, the city has been experiencing spectacular change and transformations. Its demographic size, urban forms, and the activities it concentrates illustrate how far the city has come from a modest traditional Ethiopian town to one of Africa's metropolises. Available information on Addis Ababa’s growth indicates that the city’s population doubled in the last twenty years and it now has a population of more than 4 million. With an estimated average annual growth rate of 3.8 percent its projected population growth points to 5.1 million in 2015.

The rapid growth of the city is reflected not only in demographic terms but also by its extensive physical expansion over the years. In the early years of its establishment, the area of the city was estimated to be only 33 km², which grew to 224 km² in 1984 and now it is about 540 km². These are figures that show the city’s limits delineated by political/administrative boundaries. In reality, however, the unprecedented expansion of the city has gone beyond these artificial limits. Encroaching on farmlands and other open spaces, it has been growing outwards in almost all directions except to the north where Entoto Mountain is a physical barrier. Small towns that are outside the administrative limits of the city have become its extensions. Unfortunately, this extension is taking place in advance of local development plans and provision of public facilities.

This uncontrolled growth has also contributed to the formation of physically and socially fragmented and strongly delineated urban spaces. Addis Ababa is known for its social and economic homogeneity and different social groups live in close proximity to each other. In recent years, however, fragmentation has indeed become an obvious trend in the city and pockets of the rich already started to isolate themselves from the poorest city dwellers. The large-scale production of gated communities (like the ones in Hayat, Sunshine, Shola, Habitat New Flower, Ropack …. real estates) reveal the emergence of increasing segregation across the city. These developments are located in the fringe areas and are often closed off from surrounding neighborhoods by physical barriers and other conspicuous security features.

4. Addis Ababa compared to other cities in Ethiopia

Indeed, compared with its peers among Ethiopian cities, the capital city is growing fast and dominates the nations political, economic, and intellectual life. Accommodating about a third of the Ethiopia's urban population, Addis Ababa represents a primate city. Its population is fourteen times larger than Diredawa, the second largest city in Ethiopia and the sum of the population of the next 10 big towns in the country is no more than half of the capital. In view of its dominance in politics, economics, and education, it is only natural to expect Addis Ababa to be a magnet attracting local investment and migrants from all parts of the country. The key question is not how big Addis Ababa is or how it is compared with other cities in the country, but whether the city is globally/regionally competitive and able to find a niche in which it can build and market a comparative advantage, thus attracting foreign investment, creating employment opportunities, improving quality of living conditions and maintaining its status of being the diplomatic capital of Africa.

5. Addis Ababa compared to other global/regional cities

In this globalizing world cities are increasingly competing with one another for investment. Hence, the roles of cities are being defined in terms of other similar cities within the “borderless” global economy, rather than the local ones. Compared to other cities and evaluated based on parameters that measure quality of living that include political, social, economic, infrastructure and other public services and environmental factors, our Addis Ababa lags not only well behind world major cities, but also could not keep pace with most African cities. According to the 2007 Worldwide Quality of Living Survey, Addis Ababa with a score of 43.1-ranked 197th out of 215 cities covered in the survey. Whereas our immediate neighbor’s capital, Nairobi, scored much higher points (60.2), compared to Addis Ababa, and stood 156th.

6. Addis Ababa’s development compared to its potential

The city has all the potential to grow, prosper and improve the quality of living conditions of its residents and attract international investment. As we all know, Addis Ababa is the center of a huge market in Africa. With a population of 81.2 million Ethiopia today is the second most populous nation in Africa. Located at the geographic center of the nation that has attractive historical and archeological sites, scenic landscape and cultural heritage as well as wild life, Addis Ababa is an important regional and international transportation hub. All major highways that connect the different parts of the country radiate from the capital. The Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, the only rail link in Ethiopia, also connects the capital to the Djibouti seaport. Relatively the capital enjoys air transport facilities that made it one of the most globally connected cities in Africa. Addis Ababa is not only the capital city of Ethiopia but also the diplomatic center of Africa. It is headquarter of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the African Unity (AU). Moreover, its excellent weather condition, low incidence of crime and the hospitable culture and attitude of its inhabitants are all assets that could give the city a comparative advantage in spurring development and attracting investment. Unfortunately, because of lack of visionary leaders, creative organizations and a political will, so far it has not been possible to exploit the full potential of the city.

7. Severe infrastructure and service deficiencies

The most visible manifestation of the urban crisis in Addis Ababa is the lack of the essential basic amenities such as piped water, sanitary facilities, electricity, telecom and road network. Where they are provided, these facilities are insufficient or do not function due to neglect by relevant authorities and therefore do not meet the requirements of the users leave alone the capacity to attract foreign investment.

According to official statistics, in Addis Ababa the amount of water demanded is much higher than the supply and in 2007 the amount supplied was only half of the amount demanded. In addition to the urban water supply problem, provision of adequate sanitation is perhaps the most critical problem of the city. Over half of the households in Addis Ababa, have neither private nor shared toilet facilities, resulting in an indiscriminate use of drains, open spaces and waterways. The conventional sewer system serves less than 2 percent of the population. Solid waste disposal is also a major problem in the city. It is estimated that 290 tons of solid waste is generated every day and of this more than a third is not collected and disposed off. Drainage facilities are absent in most areas and this makes most part of the city liable to flooding during heavy rainfall.

A city’s economic activity and its competitiveness depend heavily on the reliability of its power supply. Deficiencies in power supply in Addis Ababa are so high that power rationing has become a norm and recent reports show that the nations capital and the diplomatic center of Africa has no power up to three days a week. As a result virtually all manufacturing firms, big enterprises and institutions are forced to have their own electric power generator to cope with unreliable public power supply.

As we all know, in recent years information and communication technology (ICT) has been playing an important role in tackling a wide range of health, social and economic problems. Like all other services, ICT development in Addis Ababa is highly constrained by inappropriate government policies and actions. The services provided by the publicly owned Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (ETC), which has a monopoly over all telecom services, has not been able to meet the growing demand of the population. For instance, the number of Internet subscribers in the city does not exceed 6,000. If we assign five individuals per Internet account the number of users could not surpass 30,000 persons. ETC, instead of facilitating free flow of information and ideas, has been used by the regime to control citizens’ access to information. For example, it had banned its text messaging services during the political unrest that followed the contested 2005 polls and blocked access to popular Ethiopian websites and most-read blogs.

Traffic accident, congestion and pollution are among the serious problems of the city. Ethiopia is first in world traffic accidents, more than 60% of which occurs in Addis. Official statistics show that every year traffic accidents claim the lives of more than 300 people and nearly 2000 people sustain heavy and light injuries. The publicly owned Anbessa Bus Transport is the only mass transit service in the city. The quality of the service is very poor and the ratio of buses to the city population is 1: 8000 (i.e. about 500 buses for 4 million people). The average waiting time for the service ranges between half to an hour and half. As a result, the great majority, about 70 percent, commutes to and from work by walking.

8. The housing crisis

The housing problem in the city is overwhelming and the sector typically suffers from the following major weaknesses:

a) Housing shortage: The first is that total housing production has been inadequate in relation to need. According to official estimates:

“The accumulated housing backlog is estimated to be 250,000 units; in addition, an estimated 30,000 units are needed to accommodate the population increase of 6-7% per annum”

b) Deterioration of existing housing stock: The housing problem in Addis Ababa manifests itself not only in terms of quantity but also in quality. The majority of the population lives in areas where the housing condition has deteriorated significantly with the associated degree of lack of necessary facilities. The official report continues

“2 million out of the total population of 3 million are living in overcrowded houses or dilapidated structures, under unhygienic conditions, lacking basic urban services like safe drinking water and sewage, and in the sprawling informal settlements with a growing number of shacks. The poor condition of the housing stock is the result of existing tenure arrangements, housing management and low quality construction systems.

c) Proliferation of Informal settlements: According to official sources, presently more than two thirds of the city’s housing stock has been classified as informal. This sector is already leading in reducing the housing pressure resulting from rapid demographic growth, and informal housing units are growing at a rate of roughly 30,000 each year. The mushrooming of informal settlements is in part the direct result of failed government approaches to housing and continuous escalation of land prices.

d) Difficulties in access to land: The scarcity of urban land for poor families has also contributed for the acute shortage of housing, increase in the sub division of the existing stock as well as development of spontaneous settlements. As we all know, to date the state bureaucracy is responsible for overall management of land. It determines who gets or enjoys what, where and how. However, recent years have witnessed a decreasing capability of the state to manage urban land. The level of corruption, emergence of informal land markets and the extent of informal housing evidently display this. A very recent study by UN states that

“…. with regard to land and housing, the new government’s policy was very similar to that of the junta during its final days. There may be no better evidence than the EPRDF’s decision to keep urban land as public property, together with persistent ambivalence or indecision over privatization of public housing”.

e) High cost of building materials: Among the prominent factors, which inhibit the development of affordable housing for the low-income groups, is the scarcity and high cost of building materials. According to a study conducted by the Addis Ababa University, the price of building materials has been rising constantly. If we just take the case of cement, the most important construction material, as an example, before EPRDF government came into power the price of a quintal of cement was Birr 17, while in 1995 it reached Birr 40 and a very recent market price shows that it already passed Birr 400. This situation clearly exhibit that the price of building materials has increased more than twenty times in the last 17 years

f) Problem of affordability: Housing affordability, which describes the extent to which households are able to pay for housing, is one of the serious problems of the city. A recent UN study confirms that:

“Addis Ababa is a city where probably up to two thirds of households live at or below subsistence levels, with the rest living below the poverty line. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of households are simply incapable of building or buying the smallest, officially acceptable dwelling unit.”

9. Other socio-economic problems

There are additional grim statistics to depict the severity of Addis Ababa’s social and economic problems. For example, unemployment in the city is running at an average of 30-35 percent. A third of Addis Ababa’s population does not earn sufficient income to cover its food requirements and lives in absolute poverty. Addis Ababa has a street population of 40,000 children or nearly 40 per cent of the nation’s total homeless children. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is claiming the lives of the most productive segment of the population. According to official sources, the adult prevalence rate in the city increased from 7.2% in 2004 to 7.5% in 2007. According to some estimates, it is projected to reach 9.2% in the year 2010. The annual HIV/AIDS death in 2007 was 41,433.

10. Failed policies and governance crisis

As the world’s economic system is increasingly becoming an urban one, cities have been widely recognized as key engines that produce diversified and dynamic economies, raise productivity, create jobs and wealth, provide essential services, and absorb population growth. Despite this global understanding, the EPRDF’s economic development policy of Agricultural Development-Led Industrialization (ADLI) has given very little or no attention to urban development. Besides, the macroeconomic policy failed to promote the productivity of the city’s economy. According to a study conducted by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) the critical policies and public interventions that hindered foreign investment and private sector development include: public ownership and inefficient provision of key inputs such as land, energy, telecom and other services; investment policy that failed to give security for investment and protect property rights; financial-sector policies that inhabit foreign investment in the sector; and unequal and more favorable treatment of party-owned/affiliated enterprises. The same study notes that institutional inefficiency is among the critical deficiencies. In what follows I would focus on these institutional deficiencies and outline some of the inherent governance problems in the city.

a) Highly politicized management system: The current governance and management structure of the city is highly politicized and most of the people in positions of authority within the administration of the city got their positions not by their merit or through professional competence but because of their political allegiance. Resource allocation is totally politicized and the civil service has replaced the market as the principal instrument for the allocation of resources. This serves as an instrument for the enrichment of members of the politically dominant group as a significant contributor to corruption As such, there is little room for professional urban management and leadership. Local governments (Sub-cities and Kebeles) are used to consolidate the power of the central government. They mainly play a support role in urban development and have no decision-making autonomy. Moreover, the extent of the services they deliver is related to the regime’s needs for support from the city’s dwellers.

b) Lack of legitimacy and rule of law: Electoral legitimacy is derived from periodic open, competitive and free elections that provide an elected political executive with a mandate to govern. As we all know, Addis Ababa has never been administered by a body with electoral legitimacy as defined here. Perhaps the first and relatively competitive election was conducted in 2005, during which the majority of the citizens expressed their dissatisfaction with the performance of the EPRDF government through their votes and elected the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), the main opposition political organization, to govern the city. Unfortunately, against the will of the people, most of the elected officials and CUD leaders were thrown into Jail and the so called Caretaker Administration composed of individuals loyal to the ruling party was institutionalized. This was recently replaced by a new administration that was formed as a result of the recently held uncontested and fake local election.

c) Lack of capacity and leadership quality: It has been recognized that in order to be competitive and successful cities need to have visionary leaders, creative organizations with clarity of purpose. Further, open mindedness and a willingness to take risks, a clear focus on long-term aims with an understanding of strategy and willingness to listen and learn are key qualities to be possessed by actors involved in any city administration. In Addis Ababa there appears to be lack of perspective and, more significantly, it seems that decision-makers are carried away more by the forces of development - national and international- rather than influencing the direction of change by a conscious and well-conceived policy frame. In addition to that, many officials simply lack the requisite management skills and awareness of the core functions and responsibilities that a modern city government should undertake. To make matters worse, changes of leadership are so frequent that none of the appointed leaders have enough time at their disposal to become aware of the fundamental needs of the city that they administer, let alone to plan and implement development projects.

d) Lack of accountability and transparency: Accountability on the part of the public authorities to the people, which implies responsiveness to the demands of the governed, enforced by respect for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, together with widespread access to information, is a process yet to be established in Ethiopia. A study conducted by the Addis Ababa University concluded that, “the leadership of the city owes a greater degree of upward accountability to the politics of the day than to the people. Due to the strongly hierarchical public sector, the unclear distribution of tasks and competencies as well as unresponsive decision-making the urban management process is lacking transparency and accountability”.

Because of lack of accountability and transparency corruption has become a serious development challenge. Bribery, which was once considered unacceptable and immoral in most Ethiopian culture, is now woven deep into the fabric of every day life. It has become a common practice that bureaucrats exploit their public positions to generate benefits for themselves, their families, and their ethnic or social cleavage. Private individuals and business firms pay to get routine services and to get to the head of the bureaucratic queue. They pay to limit their taxes, avoid costly regulations, obtain contracts at inflated prices, and get concessions and privatized firms at low prices. This affected the investment behavior of firms. It is observed that entrepreneurs either tend to keep the size of their business small, or secure their expansion by reinforcing their relations with public officials.

e) Lack of community participation: The potential of community’s initiatives and participation in making development strategies successful, which is widely accepted almost everywhere, has no place in Addis Ababa. There is no consultation and citizen input in deriving development plans, projects and goals. This resulted, on the one hand, in insufficient knowledge about the plans by the people, on the other, the plans, projects and regulations are often perceived as “the government’s” ideas. Additionally, in recent years, while social movements, regime-critical civic organizations and NGOs are stigmatized and limited by legislative means or repression, government-sponsored NGOs have often been encouraged. As part of this initiative, regime-sponsored youth organizations have been created to increase control, disseminate the ideology of the political organization in power and suppress political dissent. Exclusion of citizens and their organizations (NGOs and CBOs) from the urban development process and general decision-making on their daily lives has impeded the development of feelings of belonging to the city.

f) Who is to blame?: Since 2002, when the Prime Minister dissolved the Council of the Addis Ababa City Government led by Ali Abdo who was made to publicly admit that he lacked the competence and capacity to mange the city, Addis Ababa has seen three mayors appointed by the political party in power. As the following news excerpts show, all of them admit that the city suffers from the lack of good governance and management capacity. The question is where lies the problem and who is to blame?

“The city of Addis Ababa and its citizens were experiencing poor urban governance as manifested in a highly centralized government system, un-participatory governance, poor service delivery, and lack of transparency. The political system was heavily bureaucratic…..” Mayor Arkebe Oqubay

“Rapid population growth, unemployment and poverty, and environmental degradation in the face of limited management capacity and resources are the main challenges facing Addis Ababa” Mayor Berhane Deressa Addis Fortune Published On May 11, 2008

“The most serious problems the city is facing are the death of good governance, unemployment, a shortage of housing facilities and the recently escalating cost of living”. Mayor Kuma, Demekssa Addis Fortune Published On June 1, 2008

Some final reflections

The above outlined mounting political, social, economic and environmental problems that the city’s residents face on a day-to-day basis are manifestations of lack of good governance. It also demonstrates that the current management system in Addis is neither able to counter the challenges the city is facing nor competent to utilize the full economic potential of the city. The current unsatisfactory situation and the complex environment show that there is a strong need for a governance system that includes a competent, efficient administration and a legitimate and democratically elected government. I have no doubt that Addis Ababa’s multidimensional problems will continue to worsen unless we are able to join our forces and create conditions for the establishment of a governance system based on the principles of the rule of law, electoral legitimacy, freedom of expression and association, as well as accountability and transparency.

The author can be reached at - An African-American news and views website.
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