Urban layers of political rupture: the ‘new’ politics of Addis Ababa’s megaprojects

Urban layers of political rupture: the ‘new’ politics of Addis Ababa’s megaprojects

Biruk Terrefe, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 04 Jun 2020

Addis Ababa


From the Derg’s restoration of Meskel Square for its military parades and Meles Zenawi’s Light-Rail Transit (LRT) and condominium social housing projects to Abiy Ahmed’s high-end luxury real estate and urban tourism schemes, megaprojects have collapsed Ethiopia’s political history into an urban bricolage of shifting ideologies and new priorities. At this critical juncture, where questions of political rupture and continuity become salient, this paper examines what we can learn about Ethiopia’s political dynamics through its latest urban megaprojects. Drawing on ‘LaGare’ and ‘Beautifying Sheger’ as case studies, this article argues that there is a new urban aesthetic emerging in Addis Ababa targeting domestic elites, the Ethiopian diaspora and tourists. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Gulf-emulated luxury real estate projects and major riverside renewal schemes are intended to generate revenue through increased land values and urban tourism. At the same time, issues around inclusive consultation with local stakeholders, the lack of coordination with the relevant bureaucracies and the highly centralized decision-making process are reminiscent of the modus operandi of previous Ethiopian regimes. These urban megaprojects are useful analytical lenses to disentangle political rupture from operational continuity.

KEYWORDS: EthiopiaAbiy Ahmedprosperity partyEPRDFcitiesinfrastructureurbanization

The epicentre of Ethiopia’s political earthquake in 2018 was located in Addis Ababa. While seismic waves also struck Adama, Bahir Dar, Jijiga and Hawassa, it was the planned expansion of the capital’s boundaries in the Addis Ababa Masterplan in 2014 that prompted the first wave of popular protests. The Masterplan was the final straw of long-standing structural challenges faced by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling coalition that had been in power since deposing the Derg in 1991. For the first time since the 2005 elections, the regime responded reactively, rather than pre-emptively, to the mass protests and subsequent international pressure. Following two states of emergency, thousands of arrests and killings, deep fissures within the ruling coalition and several months of gimgema (internal evaluation), Abiy Ahmed emerged from the disorder to the apex of Ethiopia’s political hierarchy as Prime Minister. The reforms that followed – ranging from the release of political prisoners, peace with Eritrea, an emphasis on regional integration, revision of civil society and media laws, the formation of the new ruling Prosperity Party, as well as the invitation to exiled opposition parties to participate in democratic elections (that had been slated for August 2020 until the COVID-19 pandemic was declared) have been unprecedented.

These political changes in Ethiopia have naturally resulted in a plethora of analysis, scholarship and grey literature on the geopolitics of the Horn and the Gulf,1 the structural challenges of managing transitions in a federal Ethiopia,2 and the stark pressures of correcting economic imbalances while facing a job-hungry youth bulge.3 This paper attempts to root its analysis of this period of political rupture by returning to the Addis Ababa Masterplan (officially known as the Structure Plan), and through it, the changing nature and politics of urban planning and city-making in Ethiopia.

A unique characteristic of Addis Ababa’s urban development is that successive Ethiopian regimes have used new urban projects as material embodiments of political rupture, shifting ideologies and new priorities. Emperor Menelik built the national palace, the first gravel road, the marketplace and the national railway – all symbols of modernization. Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime, marred by the fascist Italian occupation and domestic secessionist movements, reproduced its assimilative politics in Addis Ababa through its increased number of monuments commemorating the Battle of Adwa and Yekatit 12, as well as the construction of the Lion of Judah statue and the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church.4 The Derg, as a communist military junta, restored Meskel Square for its military parades and through its ‘Land to the Tiller’ proclamation took hold of many private and imperial properties. Most recently, the EPRDF’s developmental state built Sub-Saharan Africa’s first Light-Rail Transit (LRT) system and introduced an expansive condominium social housing scheme. While these two latter projects were products of EPRDF’s pro-poor policies, they have exacerbated existing class inequalities by dislocating thousands to the periphery away from essential social services.5 Despite these unintended consequences, these material layers of the city have collapsed the country’s history into an urban bricolage of political rupture, shifting ideologies and new priorities.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration is no exception. Since coming to power, his administration has announced the construction of the 36-hectare luxury real estate complex LaGare backed by Abu-Dhabi-based Eagle Hills, as well the 56 km river-bank restoration project Beautifying Sheger. Abiy Ahmed’s two megaprojects have a particularly elitist urban aesthetic with new sources of emulation, representing a clear ideological rupture from EPRDF and its political priorities, while at the same continuing the long Ethiopian lineage of overly ambitious plans, as well as highly centralized and top-down mechanisms of delivery.

The two projects serve as case studies in this paper to examine what we can learn about the new administration through its urban endeavours. While these projects are physically still in their inception phase, they are ‘historical products of economic governance and particular political situations’.6 The aim here is to provide an early commentary on the new administration’s aesthetic of development and through this analytical lens better understand the political rationale and ideological motivations at play. How can we understand Ethiopia’s political and ideological trajectory through its new urban forms? To what extent are these projects reminiscent of the image-building schemes of Abiy’s predecessors in their quest for political capital? How do these projects ‘enchant’ and capture the imaginaries of Ethiopia’s urban elite?7

To answer these questions, this paper draws on numerous strands of literature ranging from urban studies and the politics of infrastructure to the study of the Ethiopian state. As I argue in this paper, these new projects illustrate a significant ideological and material shift away from the EPRDF’s pro-poor schemes towards a new emulated urban form that focuses on luxury real estate projects and a vibrant urban tourism sector targeting domestic elites, the Ethiopian diaspora and international tourists. At the same time, the lack of inclusive consultations with local stakeholders and the highly centralized decision-making process trails the modus operandi and vanguard character of previous administrations.8 There is continuity of EPRDF’s ‘illiberal state-building’ with the imposition of these new urban megaprojects.9 Behind a rhetoric of change and inclusivity, there still remains a classic impulse towards top-down implementation in which these material projects ‘ignore essential features of any real, functioning social order’.10

An additional source of tension is the fact that both projects are intended to ‘facelift’ the city centre. Most state-driven urban megaprojects in Addis Ababa, except for the Light-Rail Transit (LRT), have been greenfield projects – their planning and construction has not been constrained as much by existing systems and infrastructures. EPRDF’s condominium housing schemes were largely constructed in the periphery of the city, although smaller complexes were also built in the city itself (most notably in Lideta). LaGare and Beautifying Sheger are being built in the city centre, where there are a multitude of existing systems, plans and stakeholders. The complexity and density of the city centre thus creates heightened challenges for both planning and implementation. As such, the projects set a dangerous precedent for the roll-out of future projects that essentially still ignore existing plans, disregard principles of inclusivity and blindside city administration officials.

This research is based on several fieldwork stints in Addis Ababa between October 2018 and March 2020. Interviews were conducted with key stakeholders within the city administration and the federal government. The interviews were useful in gaining insights into the modus operandi of the planning and negotiation processes. Public speeches, posters and other visual and discursive material were valuable in understanding the political rationale and currency of these projects. This paper also draws on public documents, marketing material and sales pitches that illustrate how these projects are presented to the public, which in turn provides insights into how the regime perceives itself.11

The next section argues that top-down planning mechanisms of the state have been a resilient element of infrastructural and urban development in Ethiopia, despite political, aesthetic and ideological ruptures from one ancien régime to the next. The subsequent section illustrates how cities are useful spaces for political analysis of rupture and continuity by situating Addis Ababa’s contemporary urban dynamics within the wider literature on African urban imaginaries and ‘new cities’. The fourth section uses the LaGare megaproject as an analytical lens to explore the new administration’s shifting socio-political priorities away from pro-poor urban development towards new forms of revenue generation focused on urban elites and the diaspora. The fifth section draws on the Beautifying Sheger riverside project to understand the increased focus on urban tourism. Both of these empirical sections take a nuanced approach in analysing the continuities of top-down implementation and the resulting tensions between city planners and the political leadership. The last section concludes.

Megaprojects and development: an ‘authoritarian’ modus operandi

Despite unique ideological and political discontinuities, be it the Empire’s feudalism, Derg’s communism, EPRDF’s vanguard capitalism12 or the Prosperity Party’s perceived and rhetorical liberalism, there is a de facto resilience of the Ethiopian state’s authoritarian planning character. Throughout Ethiopia’s history, centralized planning has been an operational norm that transcends ideological substance and defines the practice of reconfiguring state-society relations, often through megaprojects in the periphery and in urban centres.

Top-down, state-led planning in Ethiopia dates back to the mid nineteenth century and has been recorded extensively within the Ethiopian Studies literature.13 Regassa and Korf argue that the EPRDF’s high-modernist tendencies in recent years are an emulation of Ethiopia’s imperial endeavours in the lowland peripheries.14 High-modernism ‘underpins the belief that bureaucratic enclaves of excellence and huge infrastructure projects can qualitatively reconfigure domestic-political-economic systems’.15 Haile Selassie’s Imperial regime implemented ‘high-modernist agrarian schemes’ by appropriating land from smallholders in the name of ‘transforming the country’s agriculture into modern mechanized […] large scale commercial farms’.16

In the 1980s, the Derg displayed an even more extreme version of rendering complex social realities legible through its infrastructural endeavours, most notably its villagization strategy of clustering households across the country.17 Despite its revolutionary mantra, the military junta’s investment into the Godey Agricultural Irrigation Project was also ‘engineered within the broader notions of transforming pastoralist frontiers into productive spaces’.18 Numerous scholars have highlighted the presence of high-modernist thinking in the Ethiopian state – a presence that is often practiced rather than consciously adopted and articulated.19 This modus operandi and vision of modernity, which has in recent decades shaped Ethiopia’s urban form, is thus simultaneously about ‘hard, material power but also about identity and regime legitimacy’.20 The aim here is not to collapse the unique dynamics and contextual realities of the different Ethiopian regimes into one explanatory framework, but rather highlight the continuity underpinning the mechanisms of infrastructure and urban development, despite shifts in ideology and political priority.

The EPRDF’s adoption of a centralized, high-modernist state in the early 2000s is therefore a present-day manifestation of the ‘Ethiopian bureaucratic empire’.21 The Ethiopian developmental state project emerged both out of economic and political necessity. In the aftermath of the heavily contested 2005 elections, former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi emphasized that his government’s priority was the ‘conquest of poverty’ without which the country was ‘vulnerable to internal collapse and external threat’.22 It was here where the government officially articulated the ‘developmental state model’ based on a bricolage of influences ranging from the East Asian Tigers and the more recent success story of China to a Marxist-Leninist tradition within the EPRDF that adopted democratic centralism and revolutionary democracy as core tenants in its organizational structure.23

The developmental state was ‘an all-encompassing project, under which the leadership sought to unite state, party and population to form a so-called development army’, as a way of mobilizing support for the state’s big vision, but also as a way to instil its developmental discourse at the grassroots level.24 The EPRDF became an ‘illiberal state-builder’ that erected its coercive apparatus around a ‘narrow social base’, despite claiming to have the support of the ‘rural majority’.25 As such, EPRDF’s megaprojects ranging from the dams, railways and roads were negotiated, planned and rolled out by the party’s executive committee. This also became increasingly evident in urban spaces, particularly with the condominium social housing scheme and the Light-Rail Transit (LRT) system, in which the centralized federal government often times overruled the city administration.26

The vanguard party’s ideological backbone was the antithesis to inclusive decision-making involving multiple stakeholders. In many ways, the party’s eclectic ideological influences converged on an authoritarian, centralized state that saw infrastructure and urban development projects as tools of mediating the ‘relationship between citizen and the state’.27 The party’s urban schemes were based on an ideological commitment towards affordable housing and transport for city dwellers. However, these pro-poor strategies inevitably resulted in ‘ex-situ’ relocation to peri-urban areas and the dismantling of ‘social and economic neighbourhoods’.28

Since 2012, the EPRDF’s organizational Leninism and anti-politics of total consensus have faced significant challenges by less receptive, more publicly accountable and increasingly critical local elites.29 In a country characterized by ethno-linguistic and territorial fragmentation of its regional states, a centralized developmental state was inevitably going to face political challenges.30 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ideological shift away from the traditional EPRDF vocabulary is evident. While his administration has adopted the language of inclusivity, democracy and servitude, as well as a more market-oriented economic outlook that explicitly disavows EPRDF’s developmental state model, there remains a deeply inherited, centralized drive and vanguard tendency to his new urban endeavours.

Urban megaprojects like EPRDF’s social housing scheme and Light-Rail Transit system are useful to understand not only the ideological motivations and political rationale of the party in charge, but also its decision making and planning processes. It is this dual analytical lens that is applied below to understand the new administration’s largely similar modus operandi of decision-making and planning, and starkly new political project focused on the city’s elites, diaspora and tourists that provide early insights into the Prosperity Party’s larger ideological project, political trajectory and social base. This simultaneous existence of ideological rupture and operational continuity is characteristic of Ethiopian regime changes.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s urban megaprojects provide a unique lens to disentangle political process from political substance. Both LaGare and Beautifying Sheger raise complex questions about the top-down nature of urban planning, as well as cities as analytical spaces of political rupture and shifting ideologies.

The politics of ‘urban fantasies’ in Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa was Emperor Menelik’s sixth and final political capital, ushering in an end to the nomadic lifestyle of Ethiopia’s ruling class in the late nineteenth century.31 It is here in Addis Ababa’s material structures that Ethiopia’s history of political rupture manifests itself. As Mbembe eloquently put it: ‘the unconscious of a city is made of different layers of historical time superimposed on one another, different architectural strata or residues from earlier times’.32 It is at these critical junctures then that these temporal layers become ‘elusive and precarious’ and that new megaprojects and urban designs become acts of ‘repression, separation and fantasy’.33

The political change witnessed in Ethiopia in 2018 has brought with it similar acts of urban fantasy. Beyond LaGare and Beautifying Sheger, the new administration has announced the development of a $3 billion multi-complex residential village in Gotera, hiking trails, viewpoints and recreational spaces on Entoto mountain worth $1.5 billion, the redevelopment of Meskel Square with an underground parking complex for $73 million, as well as the already opened Unity Park inclusive of a zoo, a museum and outdoor recreational space.34 A dedicated ‘Megaprojects Office’ has been created in the mayor’s office to lead on contracting, partnerships, design and evaluation from the government’s side.

These urban forms are allegedly about bringing state of the art infrastructure to Ethiopia. Yet, the aesthetics of progress and the allure of hyper-modernity obfuscate common sense. In a city that faces major sanitation, housing and transportation shortages, these urban megaprojects are more likely than not to reinforce existing spatial injustices, hierarchies of power and sentiments of exclusion.35 Ethiopia remains one of the least urbanized countries in the world with an urban population of 22%.36 According to the African Development Bank in 2016, ‘two-thirds of the investments in urban infrastructure needed between now and 2050 are yet to be made’ across the continent.37 As youth filter into capital cities in search of upward social mobility, Addis Ababa’s urbanization rate has risen to 4%, twice the rate of Jakarta or Beijing (put differently, an estimated 23 people move into Addis Ababa every hour).38 There is a severe infrastructure gap in transport, sanitation and electricity, which means that the city is unable to effectively harness the benefits of density and connectivity, while the pressure to provide these essential services is rapidly increasing.39

Given the centrality of this challenge, there is a need for increased critical analysis of urban infrastructural investments, particularly Addis Ababa’s new megaprojects.

While those with a degree of power and resources may well be able to benefit in various ways, given the overwhelming dominance in African cities of those with very little, a widening and deepening of inequality is inevitable.40

These urban megaprojects can ‘enchant’ political subjects with the promise of prosperity and development.41 This promise is not unique to Addis Ababa, as it has materialized itself in grand visions of modern satellite cities or urban renewal schemes ranging from Eko Atlantic City in Lagos to Konza Techno City in Nairobi. What seems to be true across these urban ‘nightmares’42 or ‘utopian dystopias’,43 characterized by generic renderings of skyscrapers modelled after Dubai or Hong Kong, is that they have little to do with the reality of African urbanisms. In fact, these projects often ‘depart even further from African reality than the post-colonial zoning plans’.44While these urban fantasies in different African cities might at first sight appear to emulate the same catalogue of real-estate options, the performative politics of their presentation, the substantive ideologies of their rationale and operational mechanisms of their implementation are historically and spatially contingent and revealing of very unique dynamics. Van Noorloos and Kloosterboer, in their typology, illustrate the heterogeneity of Africa’s ‘new cities’ as they differ in terms of their ‘main purpose’, the dynamics of their ‘spatial insertion’ and the ‘main driving actors and connections to different parts of the world’.45 These differences also exist within the same city across time. While the EPRDF’s existing Structure Plan for Addis Ababa was accompanied by a similar discourse of inner-city renewal and mass-investments into the city, the new administration’s megaprojects serve a completely different political, economic and ideological project altogether.

Despite this, apolitical and ‘modernist conceptions of technology’ in Ethiopia have continued to attribute the study of urban megaprojects to architects, engineers and planners often de-emphasizing the ‘political and the lived experience’.46 Decisions about these investments are ‘never only technical – they extend into and shape social and political domains’47 and there is a growing literature that recognizes this in the Ethiopian context.48

Planel and Bridonneau analyzed the EPRDF’s ‘reinvention of social and political control structures’ through the analytical lens of the condominium housing schemes.49 Kloosterboer has similarly highlighted the gentrifying nature of these schemes, which are resulting in socio-economic marginalization in the urban periphery.50 Goodfellow’s recent work on property tax and urban land value has provided important insights into the structural dynamics that incentivize elites in Addis Ababa to invest in and profit from real estate development.51 Yeraswork’s analysis of Addis Ababa’s gated communities argued that these material boundaries expressed social differentiation and exasperated political questions of access to public spaces.52 Di Nunzio’s work has captured more relational dynamics of marginality, informality and inclusion in Addis Ababa’s inner city.53 These contemporary studies illustrate how urban investments mediate the relationship between citizens and the state, providing particular visions of imagined futures and reinforcing existing hierarchies of control.54

These megaprojects are also ‘sites of struggle and conflict between different tiers of government’,55 where international investors and developers, federal governments and city administrations are entangled in a complex set of ‘political mobilizations’.56 While the intention of these megaprojects is to ‘reposition the city on the competitive landscape’ with global investors in mind, they often ignore their immediate surroundings.57 The tension of these ‘new cities’ is that they are presented as being central to solving many of the urban challenges and yet end up being ‘higher class consumption enclaves’.58

Addis Ababa is therefore a useful case to examine how the new administration’s imported megaprojects land within the existing urban fabric, what these projects can tell us about the government’s political priorities and ideological commitments, as well as how decisions are made and implemented.

New sources of emulation, same mechanisms of delivery: face-lifting LaGare

African urban imaginaries have in recent years been characterized by flashy images of skyscrapers surrounding water fountains and palm trees, which are lavishly tucked in between grand malls and five-star hotels. An important ‘vehicle for the promotional narrative’ is that these projects have to be extremely modern and ‘display an iconic identity’.59 This description captures the essence of Addis Ababa’s LaGare megaproject, as seen in Figure 1. Announced by the Prime Minister’s Office in October 2018, LaGare is a 36-hectare mixed-use development complex built by Abu Dhabi-based Eagle Hills in the centre of Addis Ababa’s Kirkos district compromising ‘residential, commercial, hospitality, retail and leisure facilities in a single, secure and exclusive setting surrounding a park’.60

Figure 1. LaGare: Urban fantasy (first and second design versions, respectively). Source: Eagle Hills, “LaGare” Sales Brochure (https://www.lagare.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/la-gare-brochure.pdf).

Addis Ababa

The project was initiated by the Prime Minister’s Office and needs to be seen in the context of Abiy Ahmed’s larger overture to the Gulf region. Beyond its urban dynamics, LaGare bears higher strategic and geopolitical fruits as Addis Ababa looks to diversify its diplomatic and economic portfolio, while Abu Dhabi sees this as an opportunity to further expand its presence and soft power in the Horn of Africa.61 LaGare’s urban form also has an emulative character,62 as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration explores new forms of development that rely on urban elites, the diaspora and tourists. This section illustrates that the project’s modalities illustrate a dramatic rupture from EPRDF’s urban endeavours, while the mechanisms of its delivery have strong residues of the past.

LaGare is structured as a joint venture between the Addis Ababa City Administration and Eagle Hills. The project is valued at 50 billion birr (approximately $1.9 billion) with the former owning 27% of the shares.63 These shares represent the value of the land, which means that the government ‘does not have to put in any money actively’, while Eagle Hills finances the entire process from design, procurement, construction to marketing and subsequently owns the malls, residential buildings, retailers and hotels.64 The entire project is planned to be completed in 7–10 years with the first residential building ready for handover to buyers by June 2023.

The cost of one 2-bedroom, 112 square metre apartment within the first residential building is set at $312,888.65 In other words, the square metre price of one such apartment ($2794) is more than three times higher than Ethiopia’s GDP per capita (less than $800). While such high real estate prices are not new to Ethiopia, they are new to government sponsored projects. LaGare explicitly targets the richest Ethiopians, foreign investors and most importantly the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States and Europe. Urban spaces like LaGare are rationalized by the administration to create a multiplier effect in attracting investment and becoming a reliable source of foreign currency. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s view is that Ethiopia’s natural endowments and culture of hospitality has not been exploited:

Minnesota recently experienced its coldest winter in 20 years, a serious cold. If 1 or 2 percent of people from there came here to enjoy our weather and comfortable service, it would be useful for us. We have this, but we have not used it. Those who do not have this, use air conditioners to profit from this. People go to Dubai mall, you know why. If we can build a similar mall without AC, we can gain a lot.66

The desire to provide Addis Ababa with a ‘facelift’ is not new, but this latest iteration has found a new source of emulation in the Gulf.67 This imported urban form is reminiscent of Dubai’s period of ‘Bigness’, characterized by the ‘pursuit of superlative architecture’ and an ‘array of megaprojects to house foreign capital’, which relied on ‘real-estate appetites and a neoliberal agenda’.68 This is not to dismiss the proliferation of gated communities or the development of elite enclaves in Addis Ababa during EPRDF’s 27 years in power. It is rather to illustrate that the typology and the modality of LaGare represents a clear ideological break from EPRDF’s emphasis on state-led and phased pro-poor development to a hyper-elite urban aesthetic that is dependent on foreign private capital.This urban emulation is part of a wider development logic. Emirates and Etihad Airlines have become gateways to Dubai and Abu Dhabi – urban centres of global economic activity and tourism. As such, Addis Ababa is destined to emulate this revenue generating model by providing ‘world-class hospitality assets’69 and residential enclaves like LaGare, given that Ethiopian Airlines has turned Bole International Airport into a global transit hub. This narrative, however, ignores the fact that such ‘elite-led urban forms’ create splintering urbanisms70 – a situation in which megaprojects like LaGare are connected ‘both symbolically and physically to global centres of accumulation, but delinked from [their] immediate surroundings’.71

In anticipation of such critique, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and by extension Deputy Mayor Takele Uma were quick to repeatedly emphasize that current residents of Kirkos will not be displaced and that a social housing component is intended to integrate the current residents of this land into the plans. This bears political fruits as it distances this administration from EPRDF’s history of dispossession, eviction and displacement.72 As Buire argues in the case of Luanda, the state’s rebranding through a discourse of integration, ‘plants the seeds for acceptance and even thankfulness’ among the residents.73

They are going to build a world-class mall here and they also will not remove anyone. We’re going to get such modern and new buildings, and it will create jobs for me and for my children. It is going to be a wonderful project.74

As the comments of this 70 year old resident of Kirkos who has lived through four Ethiopian regimes illustrate, the flashy images and large posters of the ‘planned project’ hanging outside the old train station create real tangible ‘economies of anticipation’, before the first brick is laid.75 As the Deputy Mayor announced: ‘The best is yet to come. We build the best city that can live up to its name – Addis Ababa’.76 The administration’s rhetoric has been positive and ‘enchanting’, marketing the project in such a way as to gain political buy-in from the local community.77 Despite the fact that the discourse of renewal78 has resurfaced multiple times in Addis Ababa’s relatively short history, this narrative in conjunction with the aesthetics of hyper-modernity has yielded a short-term political dividend, as the perceptions of a 37-year old shop vendor and Kirkos resident illustrate:

It is such a modern project; we have never seen something like this. And Abiy has said that we will be included in this with new malls and hotels. It will change our city. I am so happy that I get to see this in my lifetime. We have even registered our house with the Kebele (neighbourhood association) already.79

In reality, as Edgar Pieterse warned in 2018 during the Urban Age Conference in Addis Ababa: ‘The pro-urban policy approaches that foreground the resolution of land markets are simply creating smooth landing pads for the wrong kind of capital […] it’s not just about markets and trade, it’s about spatial justice’.80 The mere fact that Kirkos’ residents are not displaced does not translate to a material improvement in living standards. In fact, these urban dystopias are unlikely to ‘generate substantial economic benefits in the form of job creation linkage, multiplier and accelerator effects’, given their splintering nature.81Despite these new sources of urban emulation, Prime Minister Abiy’s administration has drawn on the modus operandi of previous governments. The decision-making process around LaGare is characterized by an exclusivity that side-lined key stakeholders. Several city administration officials working at the Addis Ababa Planning Commission, the Construction Bureau and even the Transport Programs Management Office were unaware that these plans were in the works, until they were officially announced. As one senior city administration official remarked:

We were not consulted on this project. I found out about this project like everyone else when they announced it on the media. The city administration did not know anything about this project until it was already too late. This came from the very top.82

LaGare is a project that was singlehandedly decided in the corridors of Arat Kilo (government district) thereby nullifying at a stroke the long-term multi-stakeholder consultation that resulted in the existing plans for Addis Ababa’s Main City Centre (MCC) as outlined in the Structure Plan of the City (2017–2027). The Structure Plan not only includes specific plans for the allocated area of concern, but lays out standards and principles regulating density, building height and land use that the LaGare project directly challenges. This is reminiscent of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi imposing the Light-Rail Transit (LRT) system on the city, despite disagreements and concerns voiced by transport planners who had developed concrete plans for the Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT) system.83 The rationale among decision-makers is often guided by the implicit assumption that ‘cities should want to be cutting-edge’ and that such an ambition is ‘incontestable and hence consultation unnecessary’.84LaGare’s design ignores the fact that the Addis Ababa Structure Plan has allocated specific plots of land in the Main City Centre to the development of a multi-modal transport hub, a central park and mixed-use development. While the Structure Plan is based on the principle of ‘plot-based’ development, LaGare is an ‘integrated development project’, as Figure 2 illustrates. The Structure Plan was conceived in view of complex and interrelated dynamics ranging from traffic flow to economic activity, from densification to mobility. LaGare, on the other hand, was designed in isolation without even a single reference to the existing Structure Plan. Most notably, 60 hectares of land east of the old train station had been allocated for a multi-modal transport hub, which has now been temporarily put on hold.

We plan to start our BRT in the next two years and the transport hub in Leghar is a major interchange for our routes. I am not sure now what the plan is because of this new Dubai project, but we have been working for years on planning the BRTs. I hope the city administration fights back to keep our plans in place, otherwise we have a big problem.85

These urban fantasies pit local authorities against private developers and politicians, not least because ‘planning systems are often ignored, and public accountability reduced’.86 Technocrats within the city administration have remarked that they had entered into negotiations with Eagle Hills about the specific details in order to make LaGare adhere to the Structure Plan.

Figure 2. Incompatibility of LaGare with urban guidelines for Addis Ababa’s Main City Center. Source: Eagle Hills, “LaGare” Sales Brochure (https://www.lagare.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/la-gare-brochure.pdf); and EiABC, “Addis Ababa Main City Center Urban Design Guidelines,” 39.

As illustrated in Figure 2, the design process has been iterative with numerous versions of the plan being sporadically released after city officials engaged Eagle Hills. While Eagle Hills has asked local design firms such as ZIAS and Abba Architecture to ensure a local feel to these apartments, LaGare remains an integrated urban development plan that is incompatible with the city’s building code, which takes the principles of equity, accessibility and compatibility seriously. A city administration official noted that ‘it would have been good to negotiate before making the announcement. Now, we are retrofitting instead of thinking inclusively’.87

In sum, LaGare is a product of emulating the Gulf’s aesthetic that bears short-term political dividends, while also representing an ideological shift towards an urban-led elite form that lies in stark contrast to EPRDF’s social housing scheme, mass transport system and electrification strategy. At the same time, the modus operandi in which this megaproject was rolled out follows a particular history of the federal government side-lining city officials, urban planners and technocrats in the decision-making process.

Rivers of gold: Beautifying Sheger for a prosperous future

Unlike LaGare, the Addis Ababa Beautifying Sheger 88 project is not a completely imported urban fantasy. The Structure Plan of the city sets out a buffer area of up to 50 metres along all rivers for recreational park development, vegetable and fruit production and conservation forestry. The plan rationalizes that the informal settlements adjacent to riverbeds have resulted in unhygienic solid and liquid waste, which pose a serious health hazard. The existing river buffer development plans thus not only provided much needed public greenery but were part of a wider effort to purify the city’s water systems.

However, Abiy Ahmed’s administration has turned this blueprint into an urban megaproject that rivals LaGare, in terms of its scale and disruptiveness to existing systems in the city. In this section, I illustrate that the political rationale and urban form of Beautifying Sheger again represents a particularly elite-focused, outward-looking aesthetic with a focus on capturing urban land values, increasing tourism and engaging domestic private capital. At the same time, the project’s overly ambitious scale, centralized delivery mechanism and the contracting of a Chinese construction company is a familiar modus operandi. While this megaproject exemplifies another urban layer of substantive political rupture, its modalities draw heavily on existing silhouettes of operation.

Beautifying Sheger is a three-year riverside development project that will stretch along the city’s two biggest rivers – a total of 56 km – from Entoto all the way to Akaki at an estimated cost of 29 billion birr89 (approximately $800 million). The aim of Beautifying Sheger is to ensure that Addis Ababa becomes ‘a site of urban tourism’ to ‘enable the country’s aspiration of nurturing a green economy’ and ‘enhancing the well-being of city dwellers’.90

In a promotional video released by the Prime Minister’s Office,91 computer-generated renderings, as seen in Figure 3, are deployed to ‘enchant’ the public.92 Visuals of Addis Ababa’s current landscape of informal houses next to the slim and polluted rivers are directly contrasted with ‘modern’ concrete riverbanks comprising lavish cafés, recreational parks and active citizens biking along full-flowing and turquoise rivers. The narrator claims this megaproject will ‘raise the green coverage of the city from 0.3 sqm/per capita to 7 sqm/per capita’.93 This aesthetic of Addis Ababa as a beckoning hub of greenery is part of Abiy’s wider environmental legacy. Megaprojects of this scale do not just reconnect the city’s residents with its historic rivers, but they also ‘connect the present with the future, as residents imagine a changing city with new economic opportunities’.94 Beautifying Sheger, thus, creates a sense of novelty and economic prosperity – what Harvey and Knox refer to as the ‘promise of emancipatory modernity’.95

Figure 3. Computer-generated renderings of Addis Ababa’s Grand Riverside Project. Source: Prime Minister’s Office, “Beautifying Sheger” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugeZJQhxavU); and Fana News (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QPi7oj6OtI).

Most importantly, this project is Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s attempt to reconfigure Addis Ababa as a hub for urban tourism through grand and ‘awe-inspiring’ river architecture.96 Addis Ababa currently does not have much to offer an international audience and Beautifying Sheger is part of his plan to market the city to the world:

For all of us, it might be exciting to go to the Sheraton, so we might think that it would be enough for them (tourists) too. We don’t think that they need to get out of Sheraton and have somewhere to go. But because they have hotels much better than Sheraton, they wouldn’t come to us for hotels. They should only stay in a hotel and see historic things, see cultural things and tranquil landscapes. We have these things, but we are not marketing this. If we could market this, we would gain a lot of profit.97

One of the repeated arguments is that this project will increase the property value of current and future real estate development and that the government can benefit from this. This is motivated by what Goodfellow refers to as the ‘absence of a clear route towards industrialization’, which means that many economic elites and the government are particularly ‘inclined to maximize profits from land itself, including in the form of urban real estate’.98 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shares this calculus:

For example, assuming Sheraton (currently) makes 1 billion birr. When we finish this park and the river project, Sheraton will be able to make multi-folds on this. The value rises significantly. Value is not just the hotel, but also the location and its surroundings. If Sheraton invests 5 million birr, it also increases its own value.99

Interestingly, Addis Ababa collects more revenue from ‘engineering and asset estimation services or fees for medical examinations than it does from property taxation’.100 This means that the government can only raise resources through urban land leasing, which will likely result in the continuing rise of living costs in the city centre exacerbating existing levels of inequality. Anticipating criticism from the public about the elite-led nature of this project, Prime Minister Abiy remarked that ‘this is not development, it is an investment’.101 An investment that yields returns indirectly through rising urban land values that can be exploited.In many ways, Beautifying Sheger is a material embodiment of Prime Minister Abiy’s administration, the same way that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was a symbol of Meles Zenawi’s developmentalism. This becomes most evident in contrasting the financing modalities and the social base of public support for both projects. While Meles Zenawi offered the wider public the opportunity to buy government bonds to contribute to the dam’s development – a project that was idealized to electrify the rural masses and kickstart industrialization – Abiy Ahmed has called on Ethiopia’s narrow economic elite to fund this urban megaproject through his ‘Dine for Sheger’ campaign. This campaign offered an exclusive dinner and private photo-op with the Prime Minister as well as personalized plaques along the riverside for those individuals and private companies that contribute 5 million birr (approximately $150,000) or more to the project.

Such a fundraiser signifies a growing coalition between urban economic elites and the political leadership in Addis Ababa – a relationship that has been strained in recent decades with the former being ‘subject to an uncertain regulatory environment and readily targeted as rent-seekers’.102 While the EPRDF defined itself ideologically as the vanguard of the rural masses, Abiy’s Prosperity Party has embraced private domestic capital as an independent partner, and not a chaebol. 103

There is no denying that there is an urgent need for recreational parks, green spaces and public outlets in Addis Ababa for local residents and for international tourists. The critique here is not about the need to clean the rivers and develop these parks, as was set out in the city’s original Structure Plan. In urban spaces, where projects of this scale interact with existing buildings, functional roads and moving people, they are likely to face complex material and institutional impediments. The problem is that the original, piece-meal urban scheme has been turned into an infrastructural vanity project, which one senior government diplomat defended through quite a familiar discourse:

When we launched the GERD project, some thought it was a pipe dream. We trust in that Ethiopian spirit of ‘we can do’; and with all the pitfalls and difficulties we will surely realise it. I believe we will make this (Beautifying Sheger) happen and after all, we owe it to our children.104

The project’s decision-making process, overly ambitious scale and modes of delivery have recycled old frames of reference. For instance, the construction of the 1 km pilot sight (next to Sheraton Hotel between Basha Wolde Chilot and Orma Garage) estimated to cost 2.5 billion birr had initially been awarded to Addis-based construction company Varnerno in February of 2019, only for China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) to receive the final contract by October.105 As part of Prime Minister Abiy’s effective debt rescheduling negotiations at the Belt and Road Forum in April 2019, the Chinese government had offered to fund and construct the main plaza and 12 km of the riverside project through a grant. As a result, the government withdrew its offer to Varnerno and awarded the construction permit to CCCC. The various design iterations in Figure 3 illustrates these changes. According to Dr. Sileshi Degefa, former CEO of the River Basins & Green Areas Agency,106 the rationale for the initial delay was that the government did not want the project ‘to be stalled as was the case with many other megaprojects in the country. Thus, we are taking more time to prepare the [contract] document thoroughly’.107Given its scale, the project is ‘unlikely to materialize as planned, yet the efforts to achieve them will have profound effects on lives and livelihoods of the most marginalized’.108 At the time of writing, there had not been a feasibility study or a return-on-investment analysis on this project, despite the fact that construction had started. According to Dr. Sileshi, an estimated 10,000 residents could be relocated as part of this grand project,109 almost half of the number of people that have been estimated to have been relocated for GERD.110 According to Ms. Meskerem Tamiru, the President of the Association of Ethiopian Architects, this number could be as high as 30,000.111

In sum, Beautifying Sheger reiterates the government’s new elite-led urban aesthetic. The emphasis on urban tourism, the capturing of urban land values and the close partnership with private capital represent novel forms of revenue generation for Ethiopia’s government. However, similar to past regimes, issues of displacement and a lack of transparency regarding contracting have created a tension between local city officials, local developers and the international construction companies, who are backed by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Mayor.


Addis Ababa is soon to be a city in which Emperor Menelik’s palace overlooks Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s riverside banks, a city in which Emperor Haile Selassie’s Churchill Avenue will be a gateway to a 36-hectare Abu Dhabi-sponsored real estate complex. In times of regime change where continuity and rupture are often difficult to disentangle, urban megaprojects provide tangible and useful analytical layers.

LaGare and Beautifying Sheger illustrate a clear shift away from the EPRDF’s pro-poor housing and transport schemes towards an elite-led urban form focused on luxury real estate and urban tourism. New sources of emulation, most notably the Gulf, emphasize the need to increase urban land values to attract further investments. These political priorities and ideological aims lie in stark contrast to Addis Ababa’s previous iterations of ‘urban renewal’. At the same time, the centralized decision-making, planning and implementation mechanisms illustrate the resilience of top-down planning in Ethiopia. Both case studies also illustrate the growing tensions between international developers and local stakeholders, as the government intends to expand this aesthetic through its ‘Megaprojects Office’.

In his critique of megaprojects, Albert Hirschman hoped for ‘a little less straitjacketing of the future, a little more allowance for the unexpected – and a little less wishful thinking’.112 It was a call to move away from hypermodern aesthetics and unyielding determinism to implement these grand plans towards inclusive and incremental planning that grapples with the complex institutional and material realities. Addis Ababa is at a critical juncture as the city expands rapidly and housing and transport shortages become ever more apparent. This administration has to be more keenly aware of the unintended social, political and economic consequences of its urban megaprojects and where possible ‘take a small step, stand back, observe and then plan the next small move’.113


The author would like to thank Dereje Feyissa Dori and Halellujah Lulie for the invitation to participate in an author’s workshop on Ethiopia’s political reforms in April 2019, which offered valuable initial feedback for an earlier version of this paper. The author is also grateful to Ezana Weldeghebrael, Tom Gardner, Jason Mosley and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive and critical feedback. Most importantly, the author would like to thank the interviewees, as well as the city’s urbanists and architects that were open to engage critically on these matters.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).


1 Mosley, “Ethiopia’s Transition”; Woldemariam, “The Eritrea-Ethiopia Thaw”; and Melvin, “New External Security Politics.”

2 De Waal, “The Future of Ethiopia”; Fischer and Gebrewahd, “Game Over? Abiy Ahmed.”

3 Schneidman, “Ethiopia: Africa’s Next Powerhouse?”

4 Giorghis and Gérard, The City & Architectural Heritage.

5 Kloosterboer, “The ‘New’ Addis Ababa.”

6 Venkatesan et al., “Attention to Infrastructure.”

7 Harvey and Knox, “Enchantments of Infrastructure.”

8 Rode et al., “Cities and the Governance.”

9 Jones et al., “Africa’s Illiberal State-builders.”

10 Scott, Seeing Like a State, 6.

11 The paper also benefitted from critical public discussions about these two projects by key stakeholders at the Urban Age conference in November 2018 and among leading architects at the monthly meeting of the Association of Ethiopian Architects in January 2019.

12 Weis, “Vanguard Capitalism.”

13 Donham, Marxist Modern; Zewde, History of Modern Ethiopia; McVety, “Point Four in Ethiopia”; Markakis, The Last Two Frontiers.

14 Regassa and Korf, “Post-imperial Statecraft.”

15 Ibid., 6.

16 Ibid., 4.

17 Scott, Seeing Like a State; Donham, Marxist Modern; Regassa and Korf, “Post-imperial Statecraft.”

18 Regassa and Korf, “Post-imperial Statecraft,” 4.

19 Puddu, “State-building, Rural Development”; Fantini and Puddu, “Ethiopia and International Aid.”

20 Jones et al., “Africa’s Illiberal State-builders,” 11.

21 Keller, Revolutionary Ethiopia.

22 De Waal, The Real Politics, 162.

23 Vaughan, “Federalism, Revolutionary Democracy”; Clapham, “Ethiopian Developmental State.”

24 Vaughan, “Federalism, Revolutionary Democracy,” 308.

25 Jones et al., “Africa’s Illiberal State-builders,” 9.

26 Rode et al., “Cities and the Governance.”

27 Mains and Kinfu, “Making the City,” 640.

28 Kloosterboer, “The ‘New’ Addis Ababa.”

29 Clapham, “Ethiopian Developmental State.”

30 Aalen, “Ethiopia after Meles”; Terrefe, “The Renaissance Railway.”

31 Wolde-Michael, “Urban Development in Ethiopia.”

32 Mbembe, “Aesthetics of Superfluity,” 404.

33 Ibid., 405.

34 Presentation entitled “Leading Change” by Deputy Mayor Takele Uma Banti. Accessed 21 September 2019. See also open source public tracker for all urban megaprojects in Addis Ababa: https://rb.gy/hnhvud.

35 Peck et al., “Neoliberal Urbanism.”

36 Gebereegzhiabeher, “Ethiopia’s Urban Transformation.”

37 African Development Bank, “Sustainable Cities and Structural Transformation,” 218.

38 LSE Cities, “Urban Age Data Matrix.”

39 For a recent critique of the ‘infrastructure gap’ discourse, see Goodfellow, “Finance, Infrastructure and Urban Capital.”

40 Watson, “African Urban Fantasies,” 229.

41 Harvey and Knox, “Enchantments of Infrastructure.”

42 Watson, “African Urban Fantasies.”

43 Carmody and Owusu, “Neoliberalism, Urbanisation and Change.”

44 Watson, “African Urban Fantasies,” 215.

45 van Noorloos and Kloosterboer, “Africa’s New Cities,” 1236.

46 Di Nunzio, “Anthropology of Infrastructure,” 1; Graham and Marvin, Splintering Urbanism.

47 Cirolia and Rode, “Urban Infrastructure and Development,” 7.

48 Pedrazzini et al., “Violence of Urbanization”; Duroyaume, “Addis Ababa and Urban Renewal”; Goodfellow, “Urban Fortunes and Skeleton Cityscapes”; Kinfu et al., “Genesis of Peri-urban Ethiopia.”

49 Planel and Bridonneau, “(Re)making Politics.”

50 Kloosterboer, “The ‘New’ Addis Ababa.”

51 Goodfellow, “Taxing Property in Neo-developmental.”

52 Admassie, “Gated Communities of Inner-city.”

53 Di Nunzio, “Marginality as Politics”; Di Nunzio, The Act of Living.

54 Lefebvre, “The Urban Revolution”; Mbembe, “Aesthetics of Superfluity”; Harvey and Knox, Roads; Buire, “Intimate Encounters.”

55 Adama, “Urban Imaginaries,” 260.

56 Allen and Cochrane, “Beyond the Territorial Fix,” 1167.

57 Swyngedouw et al., “Neoliberal Urbanization in Europe,” 545.

58 van Noorloss and Kloosterboer, “Africa’s New Cities,” 1225.

59 Watson, “African Urban Fantasies,” 225.

60 Sales Brochure produced by Eagle Hills, “La Gare,” 10. Retrieved from: https://lagare.com.

61 Mosley, “Ethiopia’s Transition.”

62 Behuria, “Learning from Role Models.”

63 Personal interview with City Administration official A on 27 November 2019.

64 Ibid.

65 Sales Proposal produced by Eagle Hills, “One La Gare: Sales Proposal.” Created on 2 April 2020.

66 Speech by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at Addis Wog “One Year Review of Reforms” in Addis Ababa on 23 March 2019.

67 Clapham, “The Politics of Emulation.”

68 Alawadi et al., “Land, Urban Form and Politics,” 117.

69 Sales Brochure produced by Eagle Hills, “La Gare,” 10. Retrieved from: https://lagare.com.

70 Graham and Marvin, Splintering Urbanisms.

71 Brill and Robredo, “Failed Fantasies,” 4.

72 Gebresenbet, “Land Acquisitions.”

73 Buire, “Intimate Encounters,” 2213.

74 Personal interview with elderly Kirkos resident on 23 March 2019.

75 Cross, Dream Zones.

76 Tweet by Deputy Mayor Takele Uma on 19 November 2018. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/TakeleUma/status/1064569005615316992. Also note that Addis Ababa translates to “New Flower” in English.

77 Harvey and Knox, “Enchantments of Infrastructure.”

78 Kloosterboer, “The ‘New’ Addis Ababa,” 217.

79 Personal interview with shop vendor in Kirkos on 23 March 2019.

80 Pieterse, “Defining African Urbanism.”

81 Carmody and Owusu, “Neoliberalism, Urbanisation and Change,” 69.

82 Personal interview with senior City Administration official on 17 November 2018.

83 Personal interview with Transport planner on 9 March 2019.

84 Watson, “African Urban Fantasies,” 226.

85 Personal interview with Transport planner on 9 March 2019.

86 Brill and Reboredo, “Failed Fantasies,” 5; Herbert and Murray, “Building from Scratch.”

87 Personal interview with City Administration official B on 15 April 2019.

88 ‘Sheger’ is a moniker for ‘Addis Ababa’, often used colloquially by urban youth.

89 This budget was based on a pilot project developed by the Riverside Project Office and was a direct amortization of a bid. Hence, the actual cost is likely to be much higher.

90 Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), “The Addis Ababa River Project.”

91 Video released by Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), “Beautifying Sheger.” Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugeZJQhxavU.

92 Harvey and Knox, “Enchantments of Infrastructure.”

93 Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), “Beautifying Sheger.”

94 Mains and Kinfu, “Making the City,” 666.

95 Harvey and Knox, “Enchantments of Infrastructure,” 523.

96 Scott, Seeing Like a State, 4.

97 Speech by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at Addis Wog “One Year Review of Reforms” in Addis Ababa on 23 March 2019.

98 Goodfellow, “Taxing Property in Neo-Developmental,” 557.

99 Speech by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at Addis Wog “One Year Review of Reforms” in Addis Ababa on 23 March 2019.

100 Goodfellow, “Taxing Property in Neo-Developmental,” 567.

101 Speech by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at Addis Wog “One Year Review of Reforms” in Addis Ababa on 23 March 2019.

102 Clapham, “Ethiopian Developmental State,” 1160.

103 South-Korean chaebols are large family-owned industrial conglomerates that have parastatal characteristics. Ethiopian companies like EFFORT, MIDROC and even METEC could be loosely considered as having characteristics that resemble the structures of chaebols. See Vaughan and Gebremichael, “Rethinking Business and Politics” for an analysis of business-state relations under the EPRDF.

104 Tweet by Ambassador Taye Atske-Selassie on 14 May 2019. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/TayeAtske/status/1128104063646797824.

105 Tadesse, “Varnero Awaits Contract for Grand.”

106 He was removed from his post, shortly after the project was announced.

107 Tadesse, “Varnero Awaits Contract for Grand.”

108 Watson, “African Urban Fantasies,” 229.

109 Ibid.

110 Abdelhady, “The Nile and the Grand.”

111 Remarks made by Meskerem Tamiru on 6 June 2019 at Roundtable Discussion at Prime Minister’s Office on Greening & Cleaning Ethiopia.

112 Hirschman, “The Search for Paradigms.”

113 Scott, Seeing Like a State, 345.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.