August 3, 2020

Addis Abeba: Identities, Expansion, and the Plight of the Poor[1]


Under the title: "An Introduction to a Multi-faceted Metropolis", this version was first published…

Avatar: Hewan Semon
By Hewan Semon

Addis Abeba: Identities, Expansion, and the Plight of the Poor[1]

Under the title: "An Introduction to a Multi-faceted Metropolis", this version was first published in German Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte in a collection titled Ethiopia. It is republished here with their permission, with slight modifications to fit an audience much more aware of Ethiopian realties. It's original version can be found here

Ethiopia’s long history is marked with a significant presence of cities that were important seats of its political rulers. Notable examples are Axum and Gonder, while other cities such as Debre Birhan also served similar purposes without sharing the glory of the former two. These cities were also sites of different social, religious and economic realities, giving them their significance over other contemporary towns and regions of the country.It is common knowledge that what is understood as Ethiopia’s geographic boundaries today have expanded and shrunk throughout the years. Ethiopia’s rulers were not always accustomed to sticking to one major city for their rule. Roaming cities were a major part of Ethiopia’s administration outside the Axumite and Gonderine periods. Rulers moved from place to place, setting up camp at times for months and moving again depending on insurgencies that may have risen, weather and climate, and the economic feasibility of staying in one place. Regardless, in what is understood as the ‘modern’ period of Ethiopia’s history, 1855 until now, no other city has rivalled the political, social and economic significance of Addis Abeba. And it “formed a permanent capital, close to the center of the empire, displacing the system under which the administration had moved with the ruler.”[2]Addis Abeba: A Brief HistoryAddis Abeba, or New Flower, primarily served as Emperor Menelik II’s temporary military headquarters following the building of a palace on the Entoto Mountains. Some attach historical significance to Menelik’s choice of Addis Abeba as his capital, claiming that he “wanted to find his capital on the site occupied by his forebears before the invasion of Grañ”[3].In addition to this historical pretext, the region’s mountainous nature made it easy to defend, and less prone to diseases such as malaria. As such, Addis Abeba became the last capital of Shewa in 1886, and of Ethiopia in 1889.[4] This followed the construction of a permanent residence for Menelik around the hot springs of Fil Wuha, encouraging his military subjects to build their residences around him. Each subject’s followers, soldiers, families and other loyalties settled around them in turn, in a fashion that made Addis Abeba initially resemble a collection of spacious villages. These settlements were called sefers – garrison towns – and Addis Abeba still uses this word to refer to its neighborhoods. We have Arat Kilo Sefer, Goro Sefer, Hayahulet Sefer and so on today.However, it was only after the victory of Adwa in 1896 and the international recognition of Ethiopia as a sovereign nation that Addis Abeba became the permanent seat of the government and the capital, as understood today. Several European countries setup embassies and consulates in Addis Abeba, solidifying the political importance of the city. This in turn allowed the city to become more than just a military camp. In addition to this, civilians started flocking to the city from across the country after Adwa.The Ethiopian journalist and historian Paulos Gnogno has written:«ማንኛውም መኳንንት በየአገሩ ላይ ከሚያገኛቸው የእጅ ሥራ አዋቂዎች መሀል የምኒልክን ድርሻ ወደ አዲስ አበባ እንዲልክ አዘዋል።»[5] (Menelik had commanded the various rulers across Ethiopia to send his share of artisans and skilled workers to the capital city.)While cities naturally attract people providing the venue for all to present their products for commercial purposes, it was, in the case of Addis Abeba, under the direct orders of Menelik that Ethiopians of various skills, backgrounds, and abilities settled in his capital. The city owes its vast diversity, in part, to Menelik.Among Menelik’s famous correspondences is the letter he wrote to king Aba Jiffar of Jimma, where he reprimands the king for holding a group of people as slaves and for restricting their movements. He ends his letter with«ድሀው እወደደው እተመቸው ቦታ ይደር»[6] (May the poor live where he wants and pleases.)Though the random settlement of people in Ethiopia’s historical cities is similar to Addis Abeba’s, Menelik’s encouragement of the freedom of all to live where they wish has aided and encouraged the pragmatic but unruly structure of the city. And though the letter was sent to a regional ruler of a remote town, Menelik’s attitude to the in-migration of people from across the country towards the capital received a similar response. All were allowed to live anywhere they pleased, and with the growing importance of Addis Abeba in the country, the city was attractive.In addition, since Addis Abeba was a collection of various encampments, following a powerful or rich military figure, the nature of settlement was never segregated based on class, power, economy, or cultural and linguistic background. Addis Abeba today still boasts a large urban population with sefers of people from various economic and cultural backgrounds, though there are some segregated affluent neighbourhoods that appear in stark opposition to its initial feature.Through the years after Menelik there have been multiple attempts to influence or to create some semblance of order for the randomness of the city. The Italians who invaded and occupied Addis Abeba in 1935 tried to move the market from Arada, or what is now Piassa further away from the centre of town, because, from among many reasons, they wanted to segregate the city along racial lines and wanted Piassa as the neighbourhood selected for Europeans. Their stay in Ethiopia was short but some of their influences on the city are still present today. Though in the end, they were not successful in creating a segregated capital city – along any line. Among their lasting imprints is however the name given to certain neighborhoods such as Piassa for Arada, and the creation of the Merkato where it lies today. The Merkato is Africa’s largest open-air market to-date.On markets, Addis Abeba is also curious in that a very few individuals depended on the market for food (grains, meat and dairy products) when the city was established. Non-Ethiopians who visit Addis Abeba today for the first time may be surprised by the visibly large number of cows, donkeys, mules, sheep and goats that roam the city’s widest paved roads. This is partly because Addis Abeba was from the beginning a city welcoming to farmers and people who owned livestock, and that over a century later many still continue to subsist similarly. Historically though, and interestingly, data shows that until 1935 the “market was not in fact the only, or for much of Addis Abeba’s population even the main, source of food supply”.[7] People had different means of getting meat, teff (Ethiopia’s staple grain) and barley or in general food and drinks owing to the different way of life then.Primarily, Addis Abeba’s residences were for the most part settled around big political and military figures. These individuals and families owned land outside the city and would get their food directly from their fields. They also had store houses. Since many of them had large dependents, these would receive payment in kind and not in cash, including food grains, meat and drinks.Second, the Imperial Palace fed and supplied food for regular consumers in what is a tradition known as holding gebir[8], and gave grains as “payment in kind to support and provide for the services of soldiers, kitchen servants, craftsmen, scribes, minor court officials and priests and their families”[9]. This ensured that a large section of the population that was dependent on the palace was fed and rarely needed to buy food from the market.Finally, the great number of banquets and Orthodox religious feasts held not only by the wealthy but by the regular (lay) person ensured that the city’s poor received food and drinks frequently. The Orthodox Church labels each day of the month after a saint, or a holy figure. Followers of the faith, even today, will have a particular saint or day they would hold feasts for in remembrance of the feats of that saint. During these feasts, it is not only common but expected, to feed the poor and those unable to provide for themselves. This tradition is dying today, as not many people can afford the living costs of throwing feasts. But it does occur and when it does, the poor are provided for.Addis Abeba Today: features and bugsIn Addis Abeba today, the city has eradicated these various systems of providing food for people and members of the city depend on the market for food items. The poor are vulnerable to the increasingly heavy prices for food, while remaining unable to farm or produce food for themselves. Those who can afford the high prices get their grains in various ways. One of the most common is through the neighborhood mill. Every neighborhood has a mill that brings grains from the neighborhood Ehil-Berenda (literally the veranda of grains) in Merkato which in turn buys grains from merchants, the government or farmers from across the country. The city is incredibly dependent on the farming population of the country for its survival, a point to which I will return briefly. Another feature of Addis Abeba’s contemporary reality is the religiosity of the majority of the population. Christianity and Islam are the foundational religions of the country and of the city. While two churches, Yeka Mika’el and Qerano Medhanealem[10] were constructed before the founding of the city, the city boasts an architecturally diverse and large numbers of churches and mosques. And one example of the co-existence of the two religions, often repeated in the city’s urban popular culture, is the construction of St Raguel’s church in Merkato across from Anwar Mosque. This may not seem interesting at first, but in light of the overlapping religious fasts of Lent and Ramadan, the presence of Christians facing their church within and around the compounds of Anwar Mosque and Muslims leaning on the walls of St Raguel church while facing their mosque in prayer is testament to the humility, patience and deep religious respect among Ethiopians. This is not unique to Addis Abeba, but it is a characteristic that people are not shy to be proud of.But this does not mean that Addis Abeba is without its problems. Like any other major city in the world, petty and heavy crime, overcrowding, environment and air pollution, are all parts of living in the city. These withstanding, Addis Abeba is still a melting pot of different cultures, the seat of the AU and the ECA; the space where youth from across the country flock to despite predictions from Ethiopian scholars about the growth in size of the city and population number.Towards the end of the Derg’s rule (1980s), a master plan was drafted hoping to contain the demographic and economic growth of Addis Abeba. The masterplan was a bit ambitious, however, it claimed Addis Abeba will see a “slower growth and a […] rebalancing of the industrial structure of the area”[11]. This plan also hoped that Addis Abeba will show a slower influx of migrants.This has not happened yet. Addis Abeba, in a country where other regions do not have competing economic, political or social status, continues to see an influx of Ethiopians from everywhere.The beauty; its complexity. One is bound to hear multiple accents and shades of Amharic, celebrate holidays from across the country and gets to experience living with people of various backgrounds in close proximity. For example, in the neighborhood of Hayahulet (22) Mazoria, named after the 22 number bus, the neighbors with households are men and women born and raised in different regions of the country but came to Addis Abeba looking for a better life in the 1960s and 70s. Except for two families whose family heads were born in Addis Abeba, the rest 13 families are from Wello, Shewa, Ambo, Wellega, Arsi, Harrar, Gojjam, Asmara, Adwa, Wolayita, and Gurage regions of Ethiopia. Each of these household heads have raised families in Addis Abeba. And this is only one neighborhood. Consider that all the other neighborhoods have a similar composition with people of such diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. This makes Addis Abeba unique, a melting-pot par excellence. In fact, a small Ethiopia.Consider now the religious layer of these same members of the society. From the thirteen families, there are two Muslim families, two Protestant Christian families, one Jehova’s Witness and one Adventist families, with the rest being members of the Orthodox Christian faith. The religious element is significantly more important than the linguistic, and this is seen during celebrations in the neighborhood. Take weddings. Women of the neighborhood prepare food for both Muslim and Christian families, making sure that these are prepared with the necessary religious precaution they each require. Even more endearing is the fact that similar kinds of food are prepared for both religious groups but with meat blessed by respective religious heads.The problem; cities are a drain of resources of other regions, especially in economically poor countries. The city boasts a large young population that identifies mostly as an Arada or an urbanite. Drawing the name from the previous cultural center of the city, the urban Arada of today or the urban youth shapes and reshapes the popular culture of the country. A salient feature of this young Addis Abeba dweller is that its cultural and linguistic identity is shaped by the various and multiple cultures and languages of the larger country. There is fluidity and cultural dynamism, as influences from both within and from abroad are welcome in certain degrees, carefully and conservatively adopted, replicated or abandoned. Living in Addis Abeba means one is bound to have an identity influenced by almost all of the cultures of Ethiopia while carrying its own distinct characteristics and burdens. An Arada according to young members of Hayahulet Mazoria is one whose sole purpose is finding a better life while at the same time not ‘exaggerating’ things in life. In other words, an Arada can enjoy himself, cares about his family, neighbors and the like, is understanding, all while also seriously trying to make ends meet. Furthermore, the city’s dweller faces dire economic hardship but knows he or she is unable to influence the political or economic realities that come as a result of this.This speaks to the past few decades of development and growth plans that governments have tried to implement in the country. Addis Abeba’s youth face extreme economic burdens and even though they reside in the city which seats the government, most are sidelined from their politics and unable to improve their lives. The urban Arada is one who understands and lives in this struggle. An Ethiopian living in Addis Abeba then has the blessings of living through various cultures with a deep consciousness of the diversity of Ethiopia, but faces the curse of living in a city that can’t provide a hopeful future. This is tied, again, to the poverty of the larger nation, and not just the city.Returning to this point, the capital city’s relationship with the neighboring regions of Ethiopia is one of the many problems politicians and key policy makers have failed to properly address. And one issue lies within the constitution of 1995 which contains an article mentioning in ambiguity the relationship of Addis Abeba with its immediate neighbor, the region of Oromia. According to the constitution, though Addis Abeba is the capital city of the Federal State, Oromia reserves its right to claim some special interest over Addis Abeba. Article 49:5 states,"The special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa, regarding the provision of social services or the utilization of natural resources and other similar matters, as well as joint administrative matters arising from the location of Addis Ababa within the State of Oromia, shall be respected. Particulars shall be determined by law.[12]"The other issue is with the problem of urban expansion and its impact on rural communities that border urban areas. It is about displacement, cultural and economic opportunities and inadequate compensation plans that leave the rural communities impoverished.2014 saw protests over a proposed master-plan to expand Addis Abeba. Four years and a political change later, Addis Abeba witnessed the first of a series of violence that broke out in the region of Burayu and came into the city in September 2018. Youth from Addis Abeba and some youth from Oromia fought in Merkato and Piassa neighborhoods over a reduced issue of who the capital city belongs to.After the political changes that happened in the summer of 2018, many formerly outlawed and exiled groups, fronts, movements and individuals were allowed to return to Ethiopia. (Some of these exiled groups were those at the front of Addis Abeba’s protest sentiments in 2001, 2003, and finally in 2005.) This political occurrence happened with several issues still waiting to be addressed, making room for different public interests to surface almost immediately. Among the various interests was Addis Abeba and its economic and political relationship with the region of Oromia. In fact, the political change that occurred lay primarily on the questions Oromo youth brought against the government regarding the further expansion of the capital city and the unfair expulsion of farmers from their lands. While a fundamentally economic question, it grew to be tied to questions of identity and claims of ownership of the capital.Following the return of the political groups and individuals, youth started siding with their former heroes and politicizing their questions. Flags became tools of showing the different allegiances. For example, during the Burayu incident, Addis Abeba’s youth carried the plain green, yellow and red flag from Ethiopia’s history to show their attachment to pan-Ethiopianism, highlighting their belief in the equality of Ethiopians in Addis Abeba and elsewhere. This flag is, for Addis Abeba, the symbol of freedom and a symbol of what Ethiopia can achieve when united, referring to the victory of Adwa. Whereas some of the youth from Oromia carried the flag colors of the Oromo Liberation Front. A front whose questions of the liberation of Oromia from Ethiopia also includes a claim that Addis Abeba belongs to Oromia.Recall now the presentation of the history of Addis Abeba, and the request by Emperor Menelik II for people of diverse backgrounds (linguistic and cultural), and skills to settle in the new-found Addis Abeba. Despite the reality that Ethiopians of all walks of life call the capital city home, and despite its economic prowess and its large scale development that makes it the powerhouse of the country, the driving force of the problems of ownership and identity seem to stem from precisely the unfair development of the capital at the expense of the rest of the country. While Addis Abeba’s relationship with the poor was one of sympathy and acceptance upon its foundation, this has changed significantly into marginalization over time, for both those in the city and in neighboring regions.Addis Abeba is privileged: primarily, there is the infrastructure and institutional concentration of government bodies in Addis Abeba, then there is the fact that almost all economic and political elite of the country have resided in the city for decades. Add to this that no other city or town rivals the civil service facilities, the education, hospital, and guaranteed provision of basic necessities. And equally important is that non-Addis Abeba Ethiopians are daily subject to the popular culture of the city through mass media. These all add to a definitive sense of exclusion for youth looking for a better life from outside. If not exclusion, then a desire to be a part of this exciting metropolis.However, Addis Abeba’s privilege is a double-edged sword for its residents and especially for its youth. The city’s youth face desperate hopelessness in light of questions of unemployment, similar to other youth of the larger nation. The economic factors however are difficult to address and thus desperate youth find themselves further pushed into divisive political questions such as the identity of the capital city. Aggrieved and angry, we have seen youth take to the streets, one group in defense of their city, and the other in demonstration of their desires.In any case, from the cows and sheep that roam the streets of Addis Abeba, to the churches and mosques, the Merkato, the mills that provide grains from farmers to the urban dweller and the urban youth struggling to find their role and place in life, the layers of history embedded make Addis Abeba a goldmine for the historian.Hewan Semon is a student of Ethiopian history.  [1] This article first appeared on Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte in German. It has been republished here with their permission in English, and with modifications to fit an audience familiar with Ethiopia.[2] Siegbert Uhlig/David Appleyard/Alessandro Bausi/Wolfgang Hahn/Steven Kaplan, Ethiopia: History, Culture and Challenge. Münster 2015. S. 128.[3] Richard Pankhurst, The Foundation and Growth of Addis Ababa to 1935. Ethiopia Observer 6, 1962-1963. S, 33.[4] Peter P. Garretson, A History of Addis Abäba from its Foundation in 1886 to 1910. Wiesbaden 2000, S. 4.[5] Paulos Gnogno, ዳግማዊ አጤ ምኒልክ Dagmawi Atse Menelik, Addis Abeba 1992. S. 238.[6] Gnogno, S. 34.[7] D. Chapple, Some Remarks on the Addis Ababa Food Market up to 1935 in: Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Centenary of Addis Ababa November 24-25, 1986. Addis Abeba 1987, S.145.[8] Gebir is not unique to Menelik II. It was tradition.[9] Chapple, S. 148.[10] Qeraniyo Medhanealem was built in 1826 E.C.[11] Techeste Ahderom. Basic Planning Principles and Objectives Taken in the Preparation of the Addis Ababa Master Plan, Past & Present in: Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Centenary of Addis Ababa November 24-25, 1986. Addis Abeba 1987, S. 261.[12] ቃለዓብ ታደሰ ሥጋቱ፣ ሕገ መንግሥት በኢትዮጵያ፡ ከፍትሐ ነገሥት እስከ ኢ.ፌ.ዲ.ሪ፣ ሜጋ አሳታሚና ማከፋፈያ፣ 2011 ዓ.ም. ገጽ 500