Urban development or modernist hubris? Impressions from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Looking out of the first-floor window of a hotel in the Cazanchise-area of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, just around the corner from Africa Hall that is home to the Economic Commission for Africa, one sees a lively neighbourhood. It is made up of a combination of corrugated-iron and brick buildings that house bars, a local supermarket and after all are people’s homes. On the streets various vendors ply their trade, children play, taxis look for customers and a local police station keeps order if required – a city block where neighbours help each other out in the manningfold encounters of everyday life. But this neighbourhood like the few of its kind still left in Addis Ababa lives on borrowed time.

Just around the corner, looking out from another hotel – a hotel that once was a landmark building due to its height in the area but is now hard to spot among the many high-rises, one would not so long ago have seen a similar neighbourhood. Only now, most houses are in a state of half-demolition, and former (or still) inhabitants flog off everything of value, including the bricks that once made up the walls of their homes. This area, like so many others, has already been earmarked for ‘regeneration’ Addis Ababa style. The wider regeneration-agenda is driven by an ambitious plan to re-develop most of the city by 2020 – and some commentators have indeed dubbed Addis a ‘city under construction’. Redevelopment Ethiopian-government style has very clear ideas what counts as development: major role-models are the high-rise cities of China and Malaysia, thus most low-rise buildings will eventually have to vanish.

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Redevelopment-site, Cazanchise

‘Regeneration’ usually arrives in the form of an announcement on a white piece of paper stuck onto the walls of a whole block. Bulldozers then carry out some preliminary demolition and residents start the often prolonged period of selling what they can from their once precious homes. After this process has been completed and former residents have been re-settled, usually into new low-cost high-rise buildings somewhere on the periphery, buildings that are not conducive to the street-based lifestyle of their former neighbourhoods, areas are cleared and auctioned off to commercial developers. In fact, little affordable housing is being built in or near the city centre, but the majority of new developments are hotels – one does wonder how many more hotels this city really needs, even if it houses the African Union and other important pan-African institutions -, commercial buildings, or luxury condominiums. As in many such re-generation schemes around the world, those who have for generations lived and worked in the centre are being displaced to the outskirts. From there, they face long commutes as most of their livelihoods still depend on activities in the city, while former communal support networks often fall away.

One solution for overcoming distance in the case of Addis Ababa is the new light rail system that was opened in September 2015. Constructed by the China Railway Engineering Corp and largely funded by loans from the Export-Import Bank of China, it offers cheap transport and is also seen by government officials as an important ‘sign of modernity’. A voice in Amharic as well as English informs travellers that the train was constructed by the same company that built the high-speed urban transport for the Beijing Olympics. It for the moment relies on Chinese conductors who train local staff, Chinese maintenance of the independent power supply to the network that de-links it from the power cuts common in Addis more generally, and it operates at reduced speed – ‘to avoid accidents’ I am told by a local user. Also as not enough carriages are yet operational, the train is perennially overcrowded – but it does stand as a proud achievement and riding it from beginning to end offers a comprehensive view of the big construction site that Addis Ababa indeed is at the moment, as areas like the one in Cazanchise pictured above are being re-developed everywhere and in parallel.

People who are being displaced in the process on the whole offer surprising little resistance. Some observers say people are afraid to raise their concerns, and also that deep down they know about the futility of any such resistance. Resistance has sprung up, however, when the government master plan announced an expansion of the boundaries of Addis Ababa into the state of Oromia that is surrounding it. This caused a stir of protest, violent clashes between protesters and the government and allegedly a death toll in the 100s. For the time being, the unrest forced a quite unprecedented government U-turn. In other instances, brand-new high-rise low-cost housing units on the periphery built on land within the boundaries of the city have collapsed and people who had already been re-housed had to be moved yet again – due to shoddy building practices and the fact that the highly fertile soft soil is not best suited for such social housing type units. And while not officially acknowledged, it is a common secret that corruption has also played its part.

The overall impetus behind the government’s drive to make Addis Ababa a truly modern city is in many ways understandable and can be seen as one potent symbol of its developmentalist agenda – thus the question centres on what defines ‘modernity’ here. A stroll just about ten minutes from the redevelopment-site in Cazanchise reminds one of what might be lost, and developments not least in Beijing might serve as a warning here. Sitting in the beer garden opposite the old, boarded-up railway station that once proudly announced the new train-connection between Addis Ababa and Djibouti – a connection currently being re-invigorated by Chinese contractors who have laid a parallel track to the old line built by French companies for Emperor Menelik – one can still get a glimpse of an Addis Ababa that was not so un-modern for its time: Then, yellow-painted low-rise houses and street cafés were what one aspired too – today we might call this ‘colonial heritage’ but its replacement with a version of Chinese-style modernity should at least make one pause. In fact, even when looking at China itself important questions might be asked about the re-making of Addis: In Beijing, for a few decades now, traditional neighbourhoods made up of historical courtyard alleys called hutongs have been demolished to make room for new high rise buildings, its former residents displaced in not dissimilar fashion as those of Cazanchise and other places in Addis Ababa. During a visit to Beijing in 1999, at the beginnings of that process, I got a vivid impression not only of what this may mean to its residents, but also in the long run for the type of city Beijing was to become. Not dissimilar to Addis, most hutong residents offered little resistance, even if a few hutong preservationists have succeeded in putting some high-profile developments on hold. Now one might argue that a hutong is more worthwhile to defend than simple corrugated iron shacks, but such a view ignores that the built environment of any city has historically developed in line with the communities that make it their space of home, work and leisure.

And among all the modernist hubris that underlies the Addis Ababa master plan and the quest to make the city into the true capital of ‘Africa’, one is easily reminded of some other realities of Ethiopia. Around the corner from Africa Hall and Meskel Square for example, work has begun for a new city park stretching along one of the city’s mostly empty rivers. And while one can see the shape this large green inner-city space might one day take, for the time being it is being used by many people as an open public toilet, a powerful reminder (not only because of its smell) that infrastructural services and water and sanitation facilities in particular fail to live up to those of a truly modern city.

Another reminder comes when leaving Addis Ababa from an airport just a few kilometres away from Cazanchise, where on the runway a plane with the logo of the World Food Programme is ready for take-off. It is not only a reminder of the current drought and the potential threat of famine, but also a symbol of the failure of many in the Western world to acknowledge African leaders as true equals – and this in turn makes, paradoxically, the quest for Chinese-style development more understandable. As I have argued elsewhere, Ethiopian leaders bent on development have struggled to shake of the image of the prototypical country of famine and secure development partnerships on their own terms. The current (and past) droughts offer another telling example of this: While Western countries offer food aid (often in fact a way to get rid of their own grain surpluses), Ethiopia a while ago realised that to make humanitarian assistance more effective it needed to address the time it took to deliver goods from the port of Djibouti (the major port it has access to) to where they are needed. It sought finance from the World Bank and the European Union to fund the re-construction of the Djibouti-Addis railway line mentioned above. None was forthcoming so Chinese contractors not only built the parallel track but provided most of the funding as well. A journey measured in weeks by truck can be measured in hours in the future. The first part of the new freight line opened ahead of schedule last November and delivered the first tones of grain (imported by the Ethiopian government) to people affected by the current drought. One may more generally question Chinese motives behind this and other investments in railways on the African continent in particular and other ‘modern’ construction in general, but from an Ethiopian perspective it makes perfect sense to give this model a chance.

Concerning the re-making of Addis Ababa, the best hope is perhaps that the recent protests in Oromia eventually find a counter-movement among some of those who still live in neighbourhoods thus far left largely intact, and that some movement akin to the hutong preservationists arises. This would offer some hope for inner-city Addis Ababa to remain the bustling and diverse city it still is, and prevent it from becoming a sanitised parody of its former self.

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