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Corridor project and heritage demolition in Addis Ababa

Corridor project _  heritage _ demolition in Addis Ababa



Reaction to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s March 28 2024 video

By Minga Negash  

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been releasing several choreographed and heavily edited videos. The videos purport to serve “consultation” and sign of normalcy when in fact the ethnoreligious conflicts are continuing with their immense stress in the country. I watched the video which purports to serve as a public relations exercise to the growing criticism of the so called corridor project which resulted in the mass demolition of Addis Ababa’s city center and eviction of the poor, apparently to give way to new projects (videos, Ethiopian Insider Video, Sheger FM 102).   I have also read the favorable comments to the video apparently from the eco chamber.

I am not an archaeologist or a city or habitat expert or a cultural activist. My contribution to the debate comes from the little research that I did with my colleagues on the accounting for cultural heritage. In this short note my aim is to document conceptual and management errors. In my initial reaction I described the project as a “mindless development.”  The discussion in the video is more revealing. The Prime Minister appeared to be taking notes from the presenters but his facial expression and what he said at the end revealed the game. The presenters were trying to tell us that all is fine, and the project will be completed on time. Human displacement, wealth transfer, and heritage conservation were passing remarks. There was no mention about project transparency or the estimated cost of the project. His comment about corruption is lip service as institutionally his regime has elected to operate in a state capture and patrimonial environment. The statement about mud houses (ጭቃ አቡኪ) and dirt is unfortunate. There are by far more people living in mud houses than in stone houses. Over 2 billion people in the world live in “slum and slum-like” conditions. He must organize a State visit to Mali to find UNESCO recognized world heritage sites such as the one in Timbuktu. It was constructed with mud and other earth material. The Prime Minister needs to see how mud is used to serve as cement in central and northern Ethiopia.  

What constitutes heritage is already defined in Proclamation number 209/2000 and in the Antiquities law of 1966. Part II of Proclamation Number 209/2000 provides for the “Management of Cultural Heritage.” Article 18(1) promulgates that “any person who possesses a cultural heritage shall have the duty, among other factors, to preserve and protect the cultural heritage at his own expense.” Hence, accountability for preservation rests on possession (the state of having, owning, controlling). Both the law and the international convention (see UNESCO cultural heritage manual) show no ambiguity. Whether ARCCH has registered a heritage item or not is irrelevant. Even trade in heritage items is restricted, let alone demolition of a historic city center. If Ethiopia had a functioning legal system, any heritage advocacy group or coalition of those evicted people or an individual would have easily got an urgent court order against the project. Academia is under siege and its members are in jail because of dissent and the sweeping state of emergency. The mayor is claiming to have made “consultation” used “consultants” for capturing the views of those who are being removed.

The Prime Minister’s appearance of being pro poor is  misleading as (i) prosperity gospel is known to be pro poor, (ii) his regime stands on the platform of ethnicity, and (iii) appears to dump responsibility for the wrongs of the project on his subordinates. Recent literature is also separating ‘inheritance” from “being”, the latter referring to cultural existentialism.

In his opening remark the Prime Minister indicated that this is a follow up meeting he had with his appointees in the city government. It sounded like this was a second and expanded meeting to gauge progress. The corridor project is mostly road expansion (more lanes) to existing roads, gentrification, and aims to connect (road connections) to his smaller projects (airport, library, science museum, Adowa victory memorial) with his new palace. Its externalities are far reaching. The mayor and the rest of the speakers appeared to be implementing a project that is assigned to them. It shows that they have not initiated and own the project.

Unlike project execution discussions, the mayor, a key ally of the Prime Minister, had a printout of powerpoint slides but she had no visuals to demonstrate or support her statements. The data is self-generated and unverified. Her understanding of “development” is problematic. She claimed that no person has objected “the development” or the mass eviction.  It is not clear whether she has complied with the city ordinances as she has never referred to it. She mentioned ARCCH in a passing remark. She did not say a word about how the tenders were given or what the cost of the project is, how the project is financed or who will be the beneficiaries of the project. Her deputies and managers of parts of the project had no better or technical explanation. The deputy mayor was referring to his diary notes. Those who appeared to have typed notes were no more than about 3 pages long, and they were using their hands to show directions and indicate city landmarks. The Prime Minister also said he is happy to see his appointees at work at night, revealing that he is indeed the real project manager. One of the speakers was a party representative. No speaker was referring to sustainability or how much assets (tangible and intangibles) were demolished and how those who are negatively affected are going to be compensated.  The video is more revealing about political fiat, social cleansing, unaccountable government, and mass heritage destruction in the name of development.  

Below please find my earlier posting at people to people.

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In 2005, when the Government of Zimbabwe’s infamous operation “Murambatsvina” (clean up) of central Harare was enforced, the then Secretary General of the United Nations sent Special Envoy Anna  Tibaijuka. The link to her report is here. Whether this Secretary General will send an envoy to Ethiopia remains to be seen.

Yesterday, I watched a video that shows the demolition of Addis Ababa’s center in the name of “development.” From Arat Kilo to Piazza, the left and right side of the roads have been turned into rubble. To a person who is familiar with the place, it looks like the aftermath of an earthquake. For some this is “not so bleak news.” To a student of cultural heritage there is a wealth of data for rescue archaeology and cultural violence. The event is inexplicable. For Galtung (Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 291-305, 1990.) cultural violence is “any aspect of culture that uses culture to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence.” To an architect who is well versed in development thought, this is no go area. The scale of eviction is nowhere near to the claims of the government and ruling party media. To the economist, there is massive wealth transfer in favor of those who already have it. It dispossesses the poor and the small entrepreneurs which according to UNDP is estimated to create about “83% of employment in Africa” in the so-called “informal sector”. To a social scientist the event evicts population groups who have lived there for generations and breaks social cohesion. No modern-day development planner, political scientist or government or financial institution that finances infrastructure (World Bank, IMF or those that claim to adhere to responsible investing and sustainability) would condone this act. It is brute and excepting for its race relations, it is reminiscent of 18th century predatory colonial city planning and apartheid era development.  

Furthermore, empirical evidence shows that publicly financed mega projects are often built with political fiat rather than for their economic multiplier effects. Big projects often show cost overruns, delays, and are connected with corruption. In the case of Ethiopia, we have seen this phenomenon in several government projects. Social cost benefit analysis of mega city projects document that the negative side by far outweighs the positive sides, and result in economic and cultural exclusions. Some countries have built new cities. Development and urbanization thinking has evolved over time (see Di Nunzio 2022, Evictions for development: Creative destruction, redistribution, and the politics of unequal entitlements in inner-city Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), 2010–2018, Political Geography, Volume 98, and Roders & van Oers 2011, World Heritage Cities Management, Facilities, Volume 29 No 7/8, Hirsh, et.al. 2020,  A New Conceptual Framework for Understanding Displacement: Bridging the Gaps in Displacement Literature between the Global South and the Global North, Journal of Planning Literature Vol. 35(4) 391-407, United Nations SGDs). In the more recent Ethiopian case, the projects are prioritized when the country is undergoing through complex ethnoreligious civil wars, hyperinflation, exclusion from AGOA, sovereign debt default, currency crisis, outmigration, high rural-urban migration and congestion, youth unemployment and when the country is seeking bailouts. In addition, the city is fighting for its multicultural identity. In other words, the country needs both peace and bailouts before engaging in value destroying activities that the economy cannot afford.

Between 2018 and 2023 over one million Ethiopians have perished in the Tigray war (Obasanjo, November 19, 2022). Ethiopians are bracing themselves for yet a few more million deaths as the wars against the Amhara Fano resistance and OLA have continued. The Pretoria Peace Agreement has proved to be fragile as sticky points of territorial federalism are not yet resolved. Worse, the commissioner who has been tasked with the DDR (which requires an estimated 700 million dollars) has just been sacked/resigned. Historic churches, mosques, revered shrines, and the clergy are being attacked and desecrated. Orthodox Christian persecution has reached alarming levels (Pope Francis Nov 3, 2019, Providence Feb 25, 2020; Russian Orthodox Church October 2020). In Feb 2024 there was distressing news of gruesome killing of monks at 12th century monastery located on top of Mount Zequala, less than 60 kms to the east of Addis Ababa.  In early March 2024 another conflict was reported from Lake Tana monasteries. There is a standoff between church and State on one hand and between ethnically organized political groups on the other. 

The news is dominated by gruesome atrocity and war crimes, drone strikes, mass imprisonment (International Committee of Red Crosses, July 18, 2021; United Nations September 18, 2023; Human Rights Watch August 9, 2023; March 4, 2024). Despite some “genocide denialists”, institutions like  the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, September 23, 2023; December 10, 2023) have continued to issue alerts. Distress is coming from all sides of the war zones and social media is providing news that suits each echo chamber. There are several “analysts”, some with a basic academic nappy. Academics and professionals at  home are under siege and elite fractionalization has reached a level of polarization (Bleaney & Dimico, Ethnic diversity and conflict, Journal of Institutional Economics, Vol. 13 Issue 2, pp. 357 – 378, 2017). Government and church leaders are defecting, and some are in jail. The country has been under a sweeping state of emergencies that target specific population groups, turn by turn. The national dialogue appears aborted and replaced by a series of choreographed “consultations” with the strongman, which some believe is to appease the international community. There is growing fear that the evictions add to the problem. The IMF delegation, which is now visiting Ethiopia, is walking between rocks, and observing the rubbles of Addis Ababa, Africa’s premier diplomatic city, in the name of “development.”  How it untangles itself is everyone’s guess, but its own rules do not support mindless development.

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com

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