10/08/2022

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Addis Ababa yet to meet the needs of residents: what has to change

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With an estimated population of more than 3.7 million people, Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is home to about a quarter of Ethiopia’s urban population. The city generates well above 29% of Ethiopia’s urban GDP and 20% of national urban employment.

Over the last two decades, Addis Ababa has witnessed rapid socio-economic changes and a drastic physical transformation. This was propelled by a development-oriented government and the private sector.

However, the city faces challenges around housing, transport, infrastructure, services, youth unemployment and displacement.

I’m part of the African Cities Research Consortium, a new six-year initiative committed to addressing critical challenges in 13 cities in sub-Saharan Africa, including Addis.

I argue that the solution lies in the way the city is governed. Currently, political elites influence the city’s governance and its physical transformation. The planning is top-down and excludes the majority of the city’s residents.

The result is that development has focused on features like skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury housing complexes. These might fit the government’s aspirational template for a modern African city but they do not meet the needs or reflect the realities – about 80% of city residents live in dilapidated housing conditions.


Read more: Megaprojects in Addis Ababa raise questions about spatial justice


A rethink is needed on how the city residents –- particularly the low-income urban citizens –- can actively shape their city and overcome the challenges they face every day.

Urban challenges

Addis Ababa was established in the late 1880s, under King Menelik (1889-1913). It was an area that was previously inhabited by ethnic Oromo agro-pastoralists.

Constitutionally, Addis Ababa is governed by a city council, which are directly elected by city residents every five years. And the council elect a mayor among its members, who will lead the executive branch of the city government. However, the federal government has the legislative power to dissolve the city council, extend its term limits beyond five years and appoint a deputy mayor with full executive power.

Even though residents elect the city council, they don’t have much say. Urban planning processes tend to be expert-led –- for instance, the 10-year structural plan (2017-2027) which was effected to guide the development of the city. However, due to constant city leadership changes, imposition of modernist urban models, and corruption, it’s common to find developments that violate the urban plans. These include government projects.

Federal and city governments have invested in infrastructure over the past 20 years. This has helped to reduce poverty, inequality and unemployment. However, since the city started from a low development base the reduction is marginal. Addis Ababa still faces complex and interrelated urban challenges.

Around 70-80% of Addis Ababa’s housing stock is congested, dilapidated and lacks basic services and sanitation facilities. Although the city government has constructed more than 270,000 housing units since 2005, they are unaffordable for most of the city’s low-income residents.

Only 44% of the population have access to clean water, and less than 30% have access to sewerage services.

Flooding, landslides and fire hazards affect many due to informal housing construction in risk-prone areas, congested settlement patterns, and poor housing quality.

The city is challenged by youth unemployment. About a quarter of Addis Ababa’s young population (aged 15-29) are unemployed. This is mainly due to the mismatch between the new jobs the economy creates and the increasing number of youth joining the labour market.

Addis Ababa is also under pressure from the influx of migrants. Within the last five years, the proportion of net recent migrants (people who migrated in the last five years) was 16.2 per 1000 total population. Most of these recent migrants endure economic hardship and poor quality of life, especially during their initial years in the city.

Additionaly, city officials’ drive to make the city a well governed modern-city created a hostile environment to the many independent informal sector operators. Although official statistics tend to underestimate informal employment, some scholars estimate it to be as high as 69% of all employment in Addis Ababa. Nevertheless, small informal businesses are forced to register their businesses and abide by tax regulations which is a challenge for them. And street vendors face harassment and intimidation.

Overall, the city is unable to unlock its full development potential.

Fix the politics first

Many strategies have been proposed to tackle Addis Ababa’s urban challenges. But few seriously consider the city’s complex politics and how this determines resource allocation.

I suggest four areas of improvement.

Fix the relationship between Addis and Oromia

Addis is the capital of both Ethiopia and the Regional State of Oromia.

However, due to the absence of an institutional framework between the city government and the surrounding Oromia National Regional State – to demarcate the boundary and collaborate in joint governance concerns – cooperation is limited and politically contentious. This needs to be resolved.

Without a clear agreement about how to work together or what each is responsible for, the city and the state can’t easily coordinate development, like water supply or landfill sites.

The establishment, and further expansion, of Addis has displaced thousands of ethnic Oromo farmers. The 1995 constitution guarantees the Oromia National Regional State a “special interest” in Addis Ababa to address the historical ownership claims of ethnic Oromos. But the details of the “special interest” have not yet been specified in law.

A protest sparked by a draft metropolitan plan shook the country between 2014 and 2018. Many ethnic Oromos perceived it as a plan to expand the administrative boundary of Addis Ababa into Oromia. In response, the city government decided to rehabilitate previously displaced ethnic Oromo farmers and allocate them subsidised condominium flats. The city government also sought to support them in urban agriculture.

The federal government should build on this and facilitate institutionalised coordination between the Addis Ababa city government and Oromia national regional state.

More representation

City residents must be better represented in how the city is governed and elected officials must be accountable to them.

The federal government meddling in the governance of the city means city officials are loyal to the ruling party, rather than the city residents. And, because they are not accountable to residents, corruption and mismanagement can go unchecked.

It’s paramount that city residents are properly represented at each tier of the city’s administration; city, sub-city and district. This will enhance their role in shaping the city’s future. City and local council elections must be held regularly and in accordance with the city charter.

Imposed city models

City and national governments have imposed their vision of a “modern city”. This has resulted in city models that do not meet the needs of the majority of citizens. Instead, they favour urban elites and international tourists. This must change.

Two examples of this include the current government’s flagship Beautifying Sheger project – aimed at cleaning Addis’ rivers and building green spaces along the 56km riverbanks – and Dubai-inspired, upscale commercial and residential public-private partnership developments. With the introduction of these developments the policy focus and resource allocation of the city government shifted away from the pro-poor schemes, such as subsidised housing and light rail.


Read more: Megaprojects in Addis Ababa raise questions about spatial justice


Moreover, these developments threaten to displace thousands of slum dwellers.

Supporting the informal

Repressive politics have made it difficult for civil society organisations to defend the rights and interests of their constituency. For instance, government can displace inner-city slum dwellers and demolish peripheral informal settlements without providing alternative housing.

The city needs organised communities that can reorient top-down, exclusionary urban development towards inclusive development.

Ultimately, what is needed is a shift to inclusivity. This requires that the relations between Oromia National Regional State and Addis Ababa City Government by addressed. In addition, the city residents must govern and pro-poor urban developments be promoted.