Ethiopians Yet to Own Rights to Cities

Human rights issues have gained centre stage in the development discourse and practice. Hence, human rights declarations and other covenants are being integrated with development and promoted globally.

These concepts and treaties, however, do not question the dominant modes of legality and state action. It is this disenfranchisement that led to the evolution of the concept of the right to the city. Yet, in general terms, the very emergence of the concept of the right to the city is often attributed to three backdrops – human rights covenants, academic debates and social action.

The human rights covenants have contributed their share in the development of the new demand for the right to the city. On the one hand, these conventions are developed in response to the changing global and environmental context of human settlement. On the other, the very institutions that advocate for the respect of human rights are highly influenced by liberal philosophy and, hence, they never challenge the unequal free-market system of resource allocation in cities.

If one commercial developer displaces many poor residents from the city centre to the periphery, for instance, it is often not considered as a violation of human rights, so long as the poor have access to descent housing and services in the new site. The international human rights institutions, therefore, do not say much about the rights of urban citizens in shaping their cities.

It is unquestionable, however, that urban citizens are entitled to major categories of rights. These rights include the participation in the production of spaces and the right to access, occupy, use and create spaces that meets their needs.

After all, the right to the city is a collective right to change our cities in line with our desire. The right to the city entails a right to access; not just to what already exists, but also to remake the city in a different image, defining new urban commons. It is the right to a future city.

The institutionalisation and mainstreaming of the right to the city also took its root from different social actions. These social actions include the World Social Forum – a social movement concerned with the repercussion of neo-liberalism and globalisation.

Is the right to the city adoptable in the Ethiopian context?

The ruling government in Addis Abeba emphasises the limitations of individual rights and the need to respect group rights, due to its ethno-national and leftist political background. Hence, one can say that the emphasis on collective rights is one thing the EPRDF and proponents of the rights to the city share.

However, the ruling EPRDF defines groups based on their shared ethno-linguistic identity, while proponents of the right to the city define groups based on shared urban space. For the latter, the right to the city belongs to urban citizenship. By virtue of being dwellers of a certain urban centre, residents acquire substantive citizenship through participation and participatory democracy. Therefore, although, at an ideological level, accepting the concept is relatively easy for the EPRDFites, it requires a broader conceptualisation of the urban group.

The Ethiopian constitution and other legal documents emphasise “consulting” the community on development interventions that affect their lives. Asides from consultations being the lowest level of participation, there is enough academic evidence that these consultations often fail to empower citizens to ensure that their views are heeded by the powerful. Therefore, in the overarching legal framework of the country, there is little room for effective urban citizen participation in changing their cities in line with their desires, since their role is limited legally to consulting, rather than deciding.

Another prerequisite to the existence of the rights to the city is democratic governance. For the right to exist, nevertheless, there must be a democratic system whereby citizens can influence policies, plans and programs, in order to enable urban residents to influence urban change.

The important elements for democratic governance, such as a vibrant media, strong opposition, organised groups and rights advocates, however, are in paucity inEthiopia.  In the absence of these key actors, the government will be the lone maker and breaker of decisions on urban space. A recent study on the Lideta Redevelopment Project, for example, revealed a lack of involvement of rights groups in defending the shelter rights of citizens, resulting in the transfer of some kebele tenants to inferior housing conditions.

No doubt that the right to better cities calls for a conscious public that challenges the government’s ill thought-out plans and interventions in urban areas, which negatively affect the social fabric, heritage and environmental conditions of the city or its parts. In most of the urban re(development) interventions in Addis Ababa, other than those directly affected, it is rare to see concerned citizens speaking out about the repercussions of the developments, or suggesting better alternatives.

Not least, the right to better cities cannot happen without a proper planning system, which enables every stakeholder to have a negotiating power in deciding over the urban space. In the urban planning world, recently, there is a consensus that urban planners are facilitators of participatory planning exercises, rather than developers of blueprints to the urban area. Therefore, there needs to be a planning system that involves concerned actors starting from the initiation, planning, financing, implementing and evaluation of a plan.

However, evidences show that urban redevelopment planning and implementation in Addis Abeba is largely state-driven and relegated to information sharing. This seems to have provided citizens with less power to influence the whole planning system and eventually the future of their urban areas.

Evidently, if Ethiopia is to better realise its cities, its leaders ought to broaden the planning framework, so as to involve urban citizens, undertake legal reform that guarantees active involvement and overhaul the governance system to enable democratic participation. Other stakeholders, from academic institutions to different organised groups, on the other hand, need to play an active role in sensitising the wider public and government officials on the negative impacts of urban re (development).






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