While urban development is important, Addis Abeba is suffering from haphazard attempts at repairs, installations and cleanup activities. The authorities should not deal with urban decay through demolitions, but by making coordinated efforts to conserve and improve, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED(firstname.lastname@example.org).
The arrival of Sheraton Addis, the glistening and ostentatious hotel mammoth that dominates Finfine – the natural hot springs just below Emperor Menelik’s II palace – displaced thousands of homes that once belonged to the retainers, households and officials of the Emperor. Built by a Saudi billionaire, the hotel occupies a palatial space of sumptuous courtyards, exquisitely detailed and decorated interiors, granite-clad exteriors and manicured landscapes.
Even if a little dated, the furniture nicked and worn, and the lights going out frequently, Sheraton Addis is a lavish place. But our venerable city exists in dualities and contradictions – it is a tale of two cities. Sheraton Addis has a namesake that thrives up the hill in Wube Bereha, the old red-light district of the city. This other ram-shack cavern of a place is known as Arada Sheraton, which has somehow managed to escape the wrecking-balls of the municipal authorities that have wiped out many architecturally, historically and culturally significant buildings in our city.
Arada Sheraton is a 24-hour establishment that survives in one of the mud-walled buildings built by Dejazmach Wube Atnafseged, the second husband of Empress Zewditu. His palace still exists, after enduring a recent hatch-patch and confused restoration efforts, towards the back.
The eatery is a busy place at any hour of the day where the working class of the neighbourhood, mostly single men, taxi drivers, day labourers, low-paid civil servants, a sprinkling of widowers and just about every ordinary citizen comes to feast on simple local fares for very reasonable prices.
There are no menus at Arada Sheraton. The servings are generous, prices are cheap and customers pay at a small window before they take their seats inside the crowded restaurant. An ancient and diminutive woman greets the patrons at the approach of a disheveled courtyard.
She is the sober proprietor who surveys her empire with the attention of a warship captain. She moves gingerly amidst the chaos of stomping waitresses, hurried clientele, and purring and rubbing cats. The old woman tidies up here, picks up used plates there, wipes off tables and counters and receives her regulars with studied familiarity.
Towards the back, where the kitchen proper and the dining areas are partitioned off, smoke and steam billow out from wood-burning stoves filling the windowless low-hung spaces with exotic smells.
In the other tale of the capital, a well-heeled crowd of men and women in designer outfits and fashionable haircuts stay inside the walled compounds of Sheraton Addis, where the squalor of the city retreats, as does the stench of the plugged drains and the uncollected trash.
But surely the moneyed crowd sipping expensive cups of hot tea and coffee at Summerfields, one of the themed restaurants at Sheraton Addis, must have driven past the rotting garbage, the ploughed and muddy streets, the flooded roads, the plugged open drains and the rolls and rolls of cables left abandoned on the boulevards from some unfinished project.
How can anyone of us miss the gaping holes in the middle of the sidewalks or the tangled utility cables that hang from disorderly poles or are just merely left protruding from their cracked and broken sleeves? And then there are the piles of wet topsoil dumped on pedestrian walkways; the construction material that spills into the middle of roads; the piles and piles of decomposing trash that overwhelm many of our neighbourhoods; the dug up roads and alleyways that are abandoned before completion; or the improperly, incompetently and incompletely laid paver-stones on pavements throughout the city.
If these are not glaring evidences of a dysfunctional municipality, what is?
The city services, that which passes for service anyway, and the haphazard attempts at repairs, installations and cleanup activities, resemble a game played by children who have grown tired of the amusement and abandoned it midway, only to move over and start another game anew.
While Sheraton Addis provides its patrons with a respite from the chaos of a mismanaged city, Arada Sheraton makes no such pretences and offers no luxury. It is, though, part of a rich lineage and pedigree of Addis Abeba’s surviving old neighbourhoods like Arada, Wube Bereha, Weyzero Teseme Sefer, Afencho Ber, and Chelot that have been converted into rental tenements, following the expropriation of private property by the government some 50 years ago. Because they have been neglected for so long and have decayed and deteriorated, they are threatened by the city’s ill-advised effort at gentrification.
“It is as if the land has no owners,” said an old widower, when a group of young surveyors arrived in the neighbourhood on a recent morning.
The arrivals of surveyors and accessors from Mazagaja Bet, city hall, augurs destruction, and they are mostly unwelcomed by the citizens, because they proceed in the annihilation of whole neighbourhoods.
“Demolitions gather pace in heart of Ethiopia’s capital,” reads the headline of a July 25, 2017, Reuters article. “The new plan is restricted to the city boundaries and focuses on the city centre where some 360 hectares and over 3,000 homes are slated to be demolished over the next three years,” Reuters quotes Million Girma, head of the city’s urban renewal agency, the Land Development & Urban Renewal Agency.
“Renewal,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “something used for renewing, specifically: an expenditure that betters existing fixed assets.”
Not demolishing what is already there.
The fixed assets, the land and properties appropriated away from private citizens and turned into tenements by the government have rarely received repairs or upgrades for half a century. This is a violation of the rights of the renters, because the government, as the landlord, is required to make repairs and conduct maintenance to keep the rental properties in habitable conditions. But the municipal authorities deal with the urban decay of their creation by ordering demolitions.
To solve the intractable problem of dispossession in the capital, and indeed the country, land and property ownership must be re-appropriated back to the citizens. Humanity is not designed with gills to live in water like the fish or possess the evolutionary adaptations that enable it to survive and thrive in thin air like birds. By necessity, humans must stay on land, and it is from the land that we extract our sustenance and generate our prosperity.
What business does the government have owning the land, when the social construct requires it to only administer justice and look after the interest and welfare of the governed by building the infrastructure needed to support and maintain their health, safety and livelihoods?
The government should finance itself through taxes, not from acting as a landowner, shareholder, agent of business enterprises or otherwise engaging itself in profit-making endeavours. This issue needs serious attention, and it is hoped that it will be part of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) agenda in this new age of renewal.
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