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In the Name of the Poor and Heritage: Unraveling Accusations in Addis Ababa’s Urban Development

Since its founding in 1887, Addis Ababa has grown tremendously, serving as the seat of Ethiopia’s government, a diplomatic hub, and much more, with its population reaching about 5.7 million this year. However, the city’s rapid urban expansion hasn’t always been accompanied by well-planned infrastructure, the gap between rich and poor ever expanding leading to its description by some journalists as ‘the city of contrast.’ In the last two and a half years, significant and well-researched urban projects have been initiated, but they have faced strong criticisms from some corners. As a resident closely following these developments, I’ve observed the progress and controversies, and given the recent critique by global and domestic media and influencers, I feel compelled to share my perspective. I’ve opted to do it anonymously.

Contextual Background

Addis Ababa, particularly in some areas, is known for its old and unplanned structures, a legacy of its early settlement patterns. Initially, regional leaders and warlords established themselves in the city whenever they visited national leaders, resulting in unplanned settlements. This lack of urban planning has historically led to difficulties in rehabilitating these areas or providing infrastructure. Over time, some neighborhoods have become unsafe, known for harboring criminal activity, and witnessing issues like child rights violations and domestic violence. The challenges in areas like Eri-Bekentu and Wube Bereha (around Piassa) are evident to any observant visitor. Similar challenges and characteristics can be observed in other areas of Addis Ababa, reflecting the city’s historical urban development pattern.

Brief overview of the urban redevelopment project in Addis Ababa

Cities undergo various transformations: some are redeveloped, others are renewed and preserved, and some are completely rebuilt. This aligns with urban development theories and practices globally. In this context, the current government of Addis Ababa has committed to enhancing the city for its residents. Initiatives like the renovation and public access to Unity Park mark the beginning of this transformation. Despite palpable criticisms and concerns surrounding the renewal projects, the government’s approach has been methodical and inclusive. The whole process was explained by the Mayor.

A comprehensive study involving scholars, city designers, urban development experts, social anthropologists, and historical site specialists laid the groundwork for these changes. Meticulous verification processes were conducted for residents in targeted areas, including detailed recording of children’s ages for educational purposes. Even those without formal documentation or IDs weren’t neglected, ensuring no one was left homeless. These efforts reflect the ethos that urban redevelopment in Addis Ababa is not just about building modern neighborhoods but about developing the city with the people’s needs at the forefront. Why then, are there so many accusations? There could be many reasons, but the major one is the nature of contested cities.

Nature of Politics in Contested Cities

In contested cities, the nature of politics becomes even more complex. In the current Addis Ababa redevelopment plans, diverse claims, such as attempts to engineer demographic changes, accusations of deepening socioeconomic divides, and allowing foreign investors to overshadow local businesses, have emerged. These debates frequently occur under the banner of defending the rights of the poor and preserving cultural heritage. Each group or individual interprets the government’s actions through their own lens, heavily influenced by their political position rather than what is happening on the ground. Thus, the controversy often lies not just in the actions themselves but in who is undertaking them. The contentious nature of politics in these environments means that government actions are scrutinized not solely on their merits, but also against the backdrop of the entity implementing them.

In order to run their version of the story, ‘alternative truth’, these detractors often emphasize a “poor and heritage” narrative while ignoring the actual experiences of those who have been relocated, and the true definition of cultural heritage. These relocated residents have expressed positive sentiments about their new and improved living conditions, contradicting the critics’ portrayal. Coverage such as that by The Guardian, presenting the redevelopment as “the soul of the city razed,” not only missed the point, it tried to redefined ‘the soul of the city.’  Anyone viewing the following image would likely conclude that it does not represent the essence or ‘soul’ of the city.

It’s widely acknowledged that foreign journalists often visit Ethiopia with preconceived notions, typically avoiding certain areas deemed unsafe or unfit for coverage. Notably, areas like Eri-Bekentu and Wube Bereha are often excluded from their itineraries. Instead, journalists tend to focus on more presentable locations like Unity Park, Friendship Park, Adwa, and Entoto Park, sidestepping the dilapidated neighborhoods they label as ‘the soul of the city.’ This skewed perspective raises an important question among Ethiopians: Why should there be any hesitation to redevelop these areas? After all, revitalizing and improving living conditions in these neighborhoods should be seen as a positive step, not a point of contention.

Piassa area

For the Guardian, it is important to revisit what it published when the Adwa Victory Memorial was built-  Demolition derby.

The Addis Standard’s editorial calling for the city’s redevelopment process to ” Make the process reflect human decency” not only wrong about the improvements brought about by the development plan, but it also shows the Editorial Board’s absolute failure, dereliction of duty, to at least visit and see what was happening on the ground. In reality, those relocated from the old areas were provided with apartments with essential amenities like running water, schools, electricity, drainage, and sewerage systems, enhancing their living standards significantly. This shift represents a step towards ensuring the right to a clean and dignified living environment for these residents not ‘lack of human decency.’  “It is better to see once than to hear 100 times,” said Mikhail Gorbachev to Ronald Reagan. Furthermore, the omission of perspectives from Ethiopian experts and relevant definitions of heritage, like UNESCO’s comprehensive view is just another attempt to skew the narrative to the city’s development plan.

Government big Projects and Counter Narratives

I’ve been closely observing government projects for the past three years, and it’s clear that each initiative often faces significant criticism. This criticism is sometimes echoed by international communities who rely on informal networks for information, instead of seeking clarification or official perspectives. These networks, often comprising various staff members of international entities, tend to become the information sources for these communities.

Chaka Project

The government seems aware of this issue, yet often adopts a “let our work prove them wrong” stance. However, I believe that narratives, which are crucial in nation-building, shouldn’t be overlooked. Social media and outlets like Addis Standard can significantly impact public perception, as narratives are more than just stories – they shape interpretations and viewpoints. Narratives create structured interpretations from individual stories. These interpretations and meanings can have a profound impact on the understanding of society.

Adwa Victory Memorial

During the TPLF regime, the control of narratives was evident, with regime supporters in key positions influencing the flow of information. Unlike then, we now see dissenting views more prevalent in media, while the government continues its work. Yet, the power of narrative remains too significant to ignore; a diamond presented as a ‘dirty stone’ will be perceived as such, regardless of its true value.

Oh, Political Motives?

Among the narratives I’ve encountered is the skepticism towards government projects like the corridor development, with some claiming they are politically motivated. This view seems short-sighted, especially since these initiatives align with the government’s commitment to transforming Addis Ababa into a city befitting its name, aiming to bridge the gap between rich and poor. The irony lies in the fact that those who criticize these projects for being political often benefit from them, taking their children to places like Unity Park and Friendship Park. If fulfilling such commitments is seen as political, then it underscores a positive move towards addressing public demands.

The political leaders in Addis Ababa, including the Prime Minister and the Mayor, demonstrate an exceptional level of commitment to their work, often dedicating up to 18 hours a day to reviewing and advancing development projects. Observing their relentless effort, one can’t help but wonder at their extraordinary dedication. If their tireless work ethic is a manifestation of their commitment to fulfill political promises, then it warrants commendation rather than criticism. Such dedication is rare, and it’s understandable that not everyone would be willing or able to work with such intensity.

Conclusion

Urban redevelopment in Addis Ababa presents a critical opportunity for improving the living conditions of its poorer residents. This urban transformation aims to replace old, dilapidated housing with modern infrastructure, a shift in planning that has been eagerly anticipated by many. Previous regimes failed to adequately address the social issues in these neglected neighborhoods, often hubs of various problems. However, the present approach represents a marked change in commitment and planning. While some critics and elites provide an incomplete narrative by not engaging in thorough analysis or ignoring the perspectives of government officials and beneficiaries, the tangible benefits experienced by residents are undeniable.

Entoto Park

In a nutshell, despite varied narratives and some detractors overlooking the broader benefits, the urban redevelopment in Addis Ababa aligns with the government’s vision of transforming the city into a true reflection of its name and stature. This redevelopment is not merely about physical construction but involves uplifting residents’ quality of life. These projects are pivotal in fostering a more equitable and prosperous future for the city, benefitting its people and honoring its heritage. The criticism often misses these significant positive impacts of the urban redevelopment process.

What do you think?

Aggregated by Ethiopian News Digest

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