It is common to see people arguing that the ruling Revolutionary Democrats are yet to get used to the flashy lights of urban centres. Strictly speaking, this comment is all about the relationship between the ruling elite and the capital city, Addis Abeba. It so happens that, over the past 25 years, the city has had no Mayor born and raised within its boundaries.
City Hall, as the Addis Abeba City Administration is informally dubbed, has always been headed by somebody born and raised in rural Ethiopia. For critics who relate governance with knowing the mindset of citizens, then, this is an indication that EPRDF is not a progressive party.
In reading between the lines, one can see the popular perception about urbanization and modernization in the nation of 90 million. Even after 25 years since the downfall of the military-socialist junta, the Dergue, and 13 years since Ethiopia’s economy jumped on the bandwagon of growth, urbanization is all about Addis Abeba, much as modernity is about being born and raised in the city.
There can be no better evidence to show the bias within Ethiopia’s urbanization than this. The concept eventually lost its universal meaning and the rise and fall of urbanization in the nation has come to mean the boom and bust of Addis.
As the only metropolitan city in the nation, with an official population size of 2.7 million, Addis serves as the economic and political nerve centre of Ethiopia. For a nation that hosts an urban population of 19.5pc and is witnessing a 4.89pc of urbanization, according to the CIA Factbook, the city is the lone urban centre that can be defined as such by international standards. A population growth of three per cent per annum, largely driven by rural-urban migration, means that the city shoulders much of the urban pressure of the nation.
These figures can be compared with those of neighbouring nations. Kenya and Sudan, for instance, have an urbanization rate of 4.3pc and 2.5pc, respectively, while their urban population amounts to 25.6pc and 33.8pc, in that order. The case with Tanzania and South Sudan is 5.3pc and 5.1pc for urbanization, and 31.6pc and 18.8pc for urban population.
Ever since Addis came to the urban scene, it has remained the focal point of political and economic policymaking. Not only has it garnered considerable public investment into its development, but it dominates national policymaking. Urban development policies implemented since the monarchical times have all been centred on the city.
The situation has remained similar under the ruling EPRDFites. Their urban development policy, brought to the policy matrix following the deadly post-election crisis of 2005, presumes that the long overdue domination of Addis in the urbanisation scene will continue. Action proposed within the policy are therefore targeted at maintaining the status quo.
Of course, due to the decentralisation policy of the EPRDF, political superstructure has gone down the hierarchy. Regional cities, such as Hawassa, Meqelle and Bahir Dar, have been awakened from their long sleep. Thanks to the regionalized arrangement of the ruling coalition, administrative independence has been mainstreamed to these cities.
Even then, whatever is to be implemented in the regional cities, considered second tier cities within the country, is an extension of whatever happens in the capital city. Examples to this trend are public housing projects, small and medium enterprise (SMEs) development, public service reforms and municipality services.
Although Ethiopia is set to see faster urbanization over the coming years, the urban development policy of the Revolutionary Democrats falls short of bringing competing urban centres around the country. The tune still revolves around Addis. Other cities across the country are set to dance to the capital’s tune. Essentially, then, the trend is that, “whenever Addis sneezes, the other cities catch a coal.”
For a nation with a population rapidly getting closer to the 100 million mark, the policy guidance on urbanization should have been designed in a way that is inclusive, socially acceptable and sustainable. It takes no genius to see that distortionary urban development policy guidance, centred on a single city, will bring huge risk to the economy and the politics of the nation.
With an urban development policy biased towards the lone metropolis, growth is too concentrated. This is followed by a narrow job creation base, huge slack in business vitality, biased wealth creation and an ever increasing income inequality. Access to basic services will also be considerably uneven. Certainly, the political implication of such a biased policy guidance will be inclined towards instability.
Partly, the recent protest around Oromia, the largest state in the republic, relates to this. As the urban centres in the region lack the essential vibrancy to bring growth to themselves and their surrounding localities, unemployment and hopelessness spread. Complemented with bad governance and maladministration, this fuelled the disappointment of the public and drove the youth to the streets.
The ruling elite has not, however, been silent about it. They have been taking crucial measures to vitalize urban centres. Investment in infrastructure, decentralization of administrative structures and creating functioning municipal bureaucracies are some of the major actions taken over the years. But it all ends there. Still, even years after initiating such endeavours, Addis Abeba sets the agenda.
The anomaly lies in the fact that the ruling elite seeks to achieve inclusive and sustainable economic development. It should have become clear to them earlier, that a country as large as Ethiopia could not put all its eggs into one growth pole. Instead, alternative and competing growth poles should have been created.
However, it is not too late. The ruling elite still have a chance to correct their policy guidance toward promoting inclusive and sustainable urban development. This means that they have to create urban centres able to self-finance their development, and also that those centres need to serve as essential drivers of backward and forward economic linkages.
A development policy guidance cannot come out of the blue, however. It needs a mindset that sees things differently. This is exactly what the ruling EPRDFites need.
They can no more afford to extend policy guidance presuming a lone urban growth pole. Competing growth poles ought to emerge and they ought to have the essential independence to drive their own growth and create a pulling effect on surrounding areas.
Creating a competitive budgetary subsidy system can serve as a starting point. Practically, this means relating the block federal grant provided to cities, through regions, to key development performance indicators. The practical details can be managed by regional authorities, but the principle can be set at federal level.
Further, having competing urban growth poles also entails reducing the burden of political imposition coming through party and state lines.
Administrative autonomy, enshrined in the Constitution, should be exercised to the fullest. Neither partisan nor state intrusions should be allowed to erode it.
In a way, this means that the pattern of urbanization in the various regions of the nation would be aligned with regional realities. By and large, this would bring competition between the urban centres of regions and hence more even growth.
Of course, this may arise as a challenge to the centralized democracy principle of the ruling party. But it is worth the challenge for the ruling elite to take as its returns are considerable.
The glaringly visible fact is that Ethiopia as a nation cannot continue to dance to the tune of Addis Abeba. Instead, it has to create multiple tunes to which the whole nation can evenly dance along. It is only then, that the oft proclaimed sustainable development, wherein equality of opportunity rests as a central premise, can be realised.
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