Is Ethiopia well prepared for the future rapid urbanization?

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By Kassu Hailu

With its three thousand plus years of historical records, Ethiopia passed through magnificent civilizations and the reversal of those civilizations by persistent wars and other reasons. Its ancient and partly medieval period has shown impressive achievements in architectures and formation of cities and towns. The very reason for the formation of urban centers might not be to satisfy the increased number of population unlike the demand of the modern times. The basic reason is to glorify the richness of their kingdom and to satisfy the needs of the higher class of the society. Cities like Axum, Debrebirhan, Harar and etc. are among the earliest ones which were founded in the ancient and medieval periods. Other cities like Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Desse, Nazreth and etc. are the ones that are recently founded though some have earlier historical memory.
The objective of this article is not to deal with the historical background of Ethiopian cities. It is rather to show the necessity of planned and well organized urban centers to accommodate the rapid movement of people from the rural to urban areas.
The World Bank 2018 data shows that 79.2 percent of the Ethiopian population is living in rural area where it is 17.7 percent for the USA and 40.9 percent for China. Only about six countries have bigger proportions of rural population than ours namely Nepal, Niger, Malawi, Burundi, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. All other countries have lower rural proportion out of their total population. Therefore, it is logical to predict faster changes in the urbanization processes of Ethiopia in the very near future. As we know, majority of urban activities are highly concentrated in the capital Addis Ababa. Other cities and towns are not much attractive like Addis Ababa if we consider the business returns. But also Addis Ababa is not well planned and properly managed. Rather, it becomes the source of ethnic tensions on the basis of ownership. On the other hand, the demand for residing in urban centers is increasing with each passing day for practical reasons.
Small holder farmers cannot share enough farm-land to their young sons and daughters as the household holding will further decline. So practically there will be people without farm land as land is a fixed input. Moreover, youths these days are not willing to work in the agricultural sector even if their families share them some plot of land. There is very low tendency to work in the rural farms. Therefore, it is inevitable that adults who finish their high school and university will prefer to stay at urban areas even with worse living conditions. This calls for the proper interventions in our urbanization trends. So, what measures should be taken to be well prepared for the future rapid urbanization?
The first and the basic measure should be changing the spirit of ownership of cities. Every citizen who just has the identity card in specific city administrations should be entitled to the ownership of such city with respect to decision making, and other rights and responsibilities. Entitling the ownership of regions (and cities) by specific ethnic groups has created very bad attitudes towards long lasting investment in the cities. How can people be interested to invest in places that exclude them from citizenry rights? Nonsense! Therefore, the first thing is doing structural/constitutional amendments in the way that there will not be any ethnic homeland in Ethiopia. It will create specialization, increases demand and supply, and hence proper urban development.
Secondly, the land tenure system needs to be improved. The Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) with the ideology of “developmental state” defined land to be owned by nations, nationalities and people. And practically, land is owned by the government where farmers (or other land owners) do not have the right to sell or present as collateral.
While private ownership of land is now the principle of the world, we failed to exercise it because of calculation of creating ethnic economic elite. Of course, nobody says that the private ownership of land is without problem – it has challenges but they will be solved as we exercise. Especially, if the built ethnic homeland system is abandoned, then the challenges will for sure be minimal.
The immediate cause for the past violent protests was the opposition against the Addis Ababa Master Plan. It was said to cause eviction of farmers from their farm lands while the recompenses are very small. Forceful evictions of farmers is everywhere in the country whether the purpose is to expand urban centers or other “investments”. It is clear that the current lower government compensations neither support the evicted families nor is the process efficient.
If land was free for transaction, there would not be any complain from the farmers, because they would sell their land by the market prices. For that matter, they would welcome the expansion of urbanization and investments as it helps them by raising the price of their land. The farmers would be part of the development of the city. In this context, the market value of land cannot be the same everywhere. This is the best way for inclusive urban development.
The other necessary step is identifying the future proposed urban areas, classifying them and preparing master plans for each city based on the national urbanization demand. Cities need not to be built in arbitrary ways but by plans that can create equitability among different parts of the country. In the master plans, residential buildings, business areas, transportation routes, sources of growth, and energy and other utilities should be defined clearly and in detail. Business companies that build real estates on long time repayment plans should be encouraged. Of course it would be better if it is done by partnership of the government and the private sector.
The last step is related to the implementation of the master plans and other regulations which are necessary for the integrated urban development. It needs political commitment to assign experienced technocrats in the leadership of the cities. The cities need international integration so that they become investment hubs. The city politics should be different from that of the rural – it needs more smartness. Creation of employment opportunities would be the top agenda of the city administrations.
To sum up, it seems that Ethiopia is not well prepared for the inevitable demand for well-planned and properly managed urbanization which needs due attention.

Kassu Hailu is Lecturer at Injibara University. You can reach him kassuhailu133@gmail.com