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.
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.
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.