In the Name of Whose Development?

I commend Zerihun Tesfaye for his stimulating take, some weeks ago, on the changes that are taking place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s most consequential city. The article is instructive as much as it is awakening. It is apparent that there is a remaking of the capital and that is evident in the ‘modernization’ of the fabrics of the city. This has engendered some ‘discussion’ among Ethiopians, especially those in the diaspora.

The discussion is more about sharing impressions, more often admiration, for what the government is doing for the city. What is missing, crucially at that, is a discourse on the city and urban development in general, one which provides a critical interpretation of the fundamentals of these changes: their essence, the human cost, and their long-term implications for state and society in contemporary Ethiopia.

The Context

EPRDF’s seizure of political power by military muscle did not produce the legitimation of its political authority. It needed a new social contract. The democratization of political space was a significant step in this direction. Nevertheless, it has proved to be a mutilated experiment. For some, the whole process – of elections, for instance – was one of political expediency rather than a commitment to genuine democratization. Part of the explanation was the very nature of the political class and of the state that it controlled: sectarian and exclusionary in a massively heterogeneous country. To date, almost two decades of torturous experiment with democracy has failed to create a system that is inclusive and representative of the spectrum of groupings, beliefs and persuasions in the country.

As of late, crucially after the 2005 election, the emphasis has been on bringing development and redistributing the benefits of development to as many people as possible. The discourse has correspondingly evolved; it is now about creating a state which is both democratic and developmental. The problem however has been that the process and its end product disproportionately favor a minority. To a significant extent they are ‘elitist’ and pro-capital, if not out rightly anti-poor. In an ideal world, this signals a collision with the ideology and politics of ‘revolutionary democracy’ or ‘the developmental state’: to democratize the creation and distribution of wealth. In Ethiopia, however, there is no such contradiction and there is therefore no need for a rethinking.

The Process

In the last decade or so, more intensely and egregiously since 2005, the government has begun aggressive urban development programs. The justificatory discourse for this state-led intervention is the need to re/develop the city. This indeed is imperative given the condition of the city and the plight of its residents. Currently, Addis Ababa is experiencing massive development activities, probably unseen since the building boom of the 1960s. And this is very positive.

However, the problem with this‘re/development’ is that it is plagued with serious problems. The discourse about urban renewal has become synonymous not just with cleansing the city of slums and the ‘evils’ slums denote. It is in fact being translated, with almost violent efficiency, into the uprooting of people, overwhelmingly the urban poor, from their lives and their places, which were often prime locations, in return for disproportionately low compensations, in cash and/or in kind. Needless to mention the adverse social and livelihood implications this ‘aggressive urban modernism has for the millions in the capital (and for other cities of the country).’

Several testimonies and studies (especially primary research by graduate students) abundantly demonstrate the imbalances and injustices of the urban‘re/development’ undertaking. There is no more telling indication of this than the exclusionary and/or authoritarian nature of the process. It is imposed, heavily politicized, and often discriminatory. The urban majorities are not consulted or, when consulted, they are not empowered to shape decisions. It benefits people with capital and political connections, the business community and members of the Ethiopian dispora in particular.

The ‘condominium project’, the emblem of the urban‘re/development’ paradigm, is organized or at least subverted in the process in the interest of the urban-based military and bureaucratic classes.  In the final analysis, this state-led, top-heavy project, which was primarily intended, at least in theory, to benefit the urban poor, has ended up enriching and entrenching the ruling establishment: the state and its ‘captor – partners’.

The Bigger Picture

There is nothing innocent about development, especially development in a politically tortured country like Ethiopia. What is happening in the capital and in the rest of the country is part of a larger and more fundamental process: the reconfiguration of state and society. This goes in line with EPRDF’s, and all revolutionary regimes’, idea of rupture with the past and their belief in a fundamental reorganization of the present-future. The danger is the process, and the end-product, have been less democratic, less developmental, and less empowering. It seems that there is little changing; power is still alluring in its violent magnificence; and the past, in its autocratic essences, is still invading and shaping the present.

On the one hand, the remaking tends to enrich and entrench authoritarian forces, principally the state. The process also enables the few to accumulate considerable wealth, often by questionable means, which they display ostentatiously. The irony is that this growingly colossal flaunting of wealth happens in one of the most divided cities, even unequal societies – despite the Prime Minister’s claim to the contrary – where many remain impoverished and disenfranchised. What is telling is the near-total absence of a socially responsible entrepreneurship and a corresponding culture of philanthropy, by the rich, in the country.

An element of comic absurdity seems to reign in the way wealth is exhibited and the poor and their plight are shrugged off. One is reminded of the British Ambassador’s description, in 2004, of the excess in Kenya: “their gluttony causes them to vomit all over their shoes.” Even better, there is Ambani, the Indian billionaire, who built a 27 – floor mansion for himself, the first ten of which are parking spaces for his luxury cars.

On the other, the process to reconfigure the city results in the dismantling, or at least shrinking, of citizenship rights, urban citizenship in particular. The evictions, the ‘gentrification of urban space,’ and the state-led discourse about urban renewal should therefore be seen within the prism of this emerging political-economy. Its principal feature is the nexus between state and private capital (local and foreign) and its result is the creation of a structure of perpetual domination. Some call it ‘oligarchy’ or even ‘oligarchic authoritarianism.’ Addis Ababa is a fulcrum for and an embodiment of this authoritarian development; it signifies the process of which it forms a crucial part, as a product and a reason for.

This is nothing peculiar to Ethiopia. It had happened and it is happening in Africa and in the rest of the developing world. The politics of urbanization and urban modernization constitutes and is constitutive of the political-economy of state making. In the Ethiopian case, what is taking place in Addis Ababa mirrors the larger processes at work nationally: the democratization of disempowerment, the disenfranchising of development.

What is needed?

A deeper analysis of the intricacies of this ‘development’ produces a ‘deeper understanding’ of the forces involved and excluded in the process. However this is crucially absent. It appears that our commentary on developments in the city are shaped or formed by a cursory perception of a change, a reflection which is more about its spatial rather than social implications. It seems that there is a mistaking of development that is inclusive and liberating for changes that discriminate and are disempowering, as the changes affect only a small part of the city and a small fragment of its residents.

Such an understanding is reductionist, concealing, and politically constraining or paralyzing. True, there are impressive and encouraging changes in the city. Yet, they are fundamentally discriminatory. One can mention the targeting of particular parts of the city and particular categories of people and livelihoods which the state names, and in so doing criminalizes, as slums, hooligans, and illegal/informal. However, these are social realities which signify or expose a system that produces them: a system which is corrupt and is a hostage to sectarian forces and interests.

What all this calls for is knowledge and political practice that empower and liberate. First, there is a need to construct a deeper and strategic knowledge of the process, the forces, and the enduring implications for state-society relations. Such an understanding should replace superficial and largely impoverished opinions and ‘interpretations’ that currently dominate the ‘discussions’. This includes the lack of clarity with which we use politically loaded and consequential terms; urban renewal, development, slums, illegality, and informality, to name a few.

To know and not to act is not to know, though. This is an important element in the struggle for citizenship and social justice. We should recognize that the urban poor have agency – the capacity to manipulate, confront, and subvert authoritarian urban modernities, like the one being practiced in the capital and other cities of the country. In fact, the capital or other urban centers in the country resemble the practices of the urban majorities rather than the designs and objectives of architects and political leaders. The point is that their engagement needs organizing, articulating, and politicizing. Part of the struggle is the recovery and enhancement of one’s subjectivity – the capacity to shape one’s future and reframe or disable authoritarian ideas and practices. The people themselves, not others (like the many NGOs in the cities), should take the mantle of action and articulation.

Given that this is a matter of great significance, those with a commitment to social justice and equality should join the struggle. They should speak truth to power. The struggle is about affirming one’s subjectivity, building social justice, democratizing state and society, and in the process, ensuring the liberating and empowering promises of democracy and development.

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11 Responses to “In the Name of Whose Development?”

  1. the majority of the people who are rich enough to build two three stories houses can only come from one part of Ethiopia, hence the reason i called it ethnic cleansing whether it is by design or not. if you want to see the trend, just check last two consecutive senses for Addis ababa.

  2. Great piece!
    Pretty much of what the author said goes without saying. Yet the author presents his arguments with tantalizing observations and deeper intellectual understanding of the problems at stake. Thank you again for your illuminating piece.
    The political process being aggressively concocted by the government under the guise of ‘urban development’ or ‘developmental statism’ has little, if any, genuine developmental intent at heart. It rather represents a nascent political project intended to marginalize part of the society that are thought to be the vanguard of the old political system.
    This disfranchising political project is spearheaded by an ethnic minority which commands a near total control of the political and economic establishments of the country. This grouping has an audacious plan to maintain its grip on power for the decades to come. What this group is doing to the disadvantaged communities in Addis and other cities should, therefore, be seen in light of its long term strategic intentions.
    Put blatantly, the strategic intent of the TPLF is to rearrange the social, economical and increasingly the cultural contexts of the country so that the next generation of elites can smoothly take over the country. The emerging elite is deeply entrenched in the political and state machinery of TPLF because that is the most effective way of educating them TPLF’s interpretation of what the political realities of the country should look like. If this transition came to fruition, brace yourself for the perpetuation of the discriminatory socio-economic construction with brutal efficiency. If allowed to happen, this will put the country at an even more dangerous course. This perilous trend has to be reversed at the next possible opportunity!

  3. Meles Zenawi was interviewed in 1992 by a reporter from a major news organization in the west. I tried to dig that interview. I couldn’t find it, but it was a telling story of what in the mind of him. Many of us have been caught off guard pre-occupied with other non-consequential issues. It must have been after a so called “election” in 1992. The reporter asked him if he had any qualms about the prevailing perception by many Ethiopians that he came from a minority ethnic group and that he does not represent the country. As dismissive as he is, his quick response was that “number alone does not matter in a matter of governing a country”. I was waiting for him to polish his response, but he did not. What I understood from that interview was that these guys truly believed in the concept of owning the turn they lost in a while

  4. Boona, they are not even Ethiopians for your information.

  5. what you see in Addis is a deceiving development…. if u had a chance to see the majority of ADDIS’s dwellers you would cry. People are tortured than ever they became frightful wondering the sicko/paranoid government people could anytime came and take there Land. Imagine how an old lady in Addis where her livelihood depends on ranting house would feel when an uneducated/ manner less Keble kids come and told her that land will be taken.
    And have the gut to take a walk from Megenagna till 22′mazoria and ask anyone passing by “can you tell me the owners of these great towers?”…. believe me y the name of the owners are from one place .. hope get my point… these is what it looks like in Addis the polarized city in the planet…

  6. and amazingly articulated piece. Love to hear more of this type of work. Thank you.

    I strongly disagree with the assertions by Wondwesen and boona that there is a specific ethnic group who is benefiting from this unjust approach to urban ‘development’. I believe they are referring to people of Tigrayan origin. You are falling into the trap prepared for you by the TPLF – unless of course you are doing so intentionally. They want you to think that way. They intentionally appoint Tigrayans into the visible places such as the kebelle leadership, so they are resented by the general population. These positions have very little, if any, financial benefits even through corruption. Such design will ensure that the Tigrayans are hated by all other ethnic groups. Which will mean that regardless of how much Tigryans resent the TPLF leadership, they will have no choice but to remain as loyal soldiers of the party. While the ethnic groups watch each other’s backs, EPRDF leadership will remain safe and put. The good old divide and concur!

    In relation to accumulation of wealth, business people from that ethnic group rank relatively low by big margin compared to the other major ethnic groups. Look at it objectively and really try to get actual data on this, you will be surprised. I am talking about ‘legitimate’ business here. No doubt the few individuals in political positions will probably have some stolen money stashed in overseas accounts which will never see the light of day in the legitimate Ethiopian business environment. Which means their influence and representation in the open business environment will remain non-existent. The quicker we get off the backs of ordinary Tigrayans the quicker we will get to a firm ground where we can challenge EPRDF from and see a democratic and equitable Ethiopia that we will all be proud of. Target the leadership of TPLF, not the good people of Tigray and mean it. They are two very very different people. I may even go as far as saying there is nothing Tigrayan about TPLF except the ‘T’ in the name. Just look at what is happening in the regional states both from development and leadership.

  7. Gebremedhin,

    I have just been to Ethiopia and I have visited several places. I have talked to many informed people across all ethnic groups including Tigreans. To your surprise, even Tigreans believe that Tigrean business people are benefiting from the TPLF government disproportionately. There is more to it than what many think.

  8. Thanks for this very suggestive analysis! Your line” the danger [with this type of development] is the process, and the end-product, have been less democratic, less developmental, and less empowering” captures a core element of what has come to sicken Ethiopia.

    This reminds me of Fassil Demissie’s “situated neoliberalism and urban crisis in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,” in which he claims that the incorporation of Ethiopia into a neoliberal global project in 1992 transformed Ethiopia’s political economy such that it has produced an array of social and political problems manifested in the urban crisis of Addis Ababa.

    That the EPRDF can present itself as ‘socialist’ and be critiqued by the main stream opposition as not being ‘pro-market’ is also a crux of the problem. Political discourse has leaned so far to the right that liberalism is passing itself off as progressive while neoliberalism is passing itself off as socialist. The irony of PM Meles lecturing on anti-neoliberalism at Columbia seemed to have not registered. A majority of criticism about the lecture failed to point out the hypocrisy of a rabid neoliberal regime denouncing neoliberalism as it has and is currently expanding a neoliberal agenda for over 20 years.

    Your analysis opens a fruitful space for dialogue that is not subservient to party politics and tired authoritarian ideologies. I hope to read more from you.

  9. @ Gebremedhin

    Tigrayan’s are priviliged is becoming almost common sense knowledge. It echoe’s like the old ‘Amhara are ruling and are priviliged’ claim used to attack H.I.M. and the Derge. The old answer to that old claim was, if Amhara’s are priviliged and doing so well then why are the people of Gojjam, Menze, Wollo and Gonder so poor? Now ask yourself, are the people of Tigray any different? Fanning the flames of ethnic anger will burn us all. I agree, stop hating on the chewa people of Tigray!

    Maybe we should work to make Ethiopia into a democratic state then we can all rest easy? Start with dismantling EPRDF holding companies, breaking their choke hod on power and then we go after that shady Saudi in a “Wello” skin.

  10. Some apologists of the current regime laud the high rising buidings in Addis,, the government touts the increase in GDP to show that it is in the right path. My question is,, Was this why TPLF rebeled against the previous governments (because there are no enough buildings and the GDP was low)?

  11. Another perspective…

    This January’s referendum in Sudan will make or beak Ethiopia’s proposed GTP. As 100% of Ethiopia’s gasoline comes from this neighboring country whose fate is on the balance!

    All eggs in one basket??

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