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Last updated: 12 June, 2007 - Published 07:53 GMT
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Ethiopia: Home Wreckers

House partially demolished
Poor residents say development is taking place at their expense
Twenty-four-year-old Osman Redwan woke up one morning to find his shack in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, sliced in two.

City planners had drawn a line through his neighbourhood to make way for a huge road expansion programme.

And stunned onlookers watched as diggers came in to demolish everything along that line - one person's front porch, another's back garden, the front third of a traditional wooden house, half a shop.

The work was quick and clinical. Demolition teams stripped away plaster and partitions, leaving a series of bizarre cross sections behind them.

Walls were torn down, exposing bedrooms and pink-tiled bathrooms to the outside world, while families retreated into what was left of their houses.

"No-one is against development," Redwan told the Addis Ababa business newspaper Fortune.

"But you get horrified when you realise that you end up losing your business and ruining your life. This is not war. Development should not be at the sacrifice of individuals."

Relentless transformation

Similar developments are under way across Addis Ababa, and it is not just roads.

Brand new hotels, bars and restaurants are popping up all over the city. Much of it is powered by diaspora Ethiopians, returning from their havens in the United States and Western Europe with piles of hard-earned hard currency to invest.

Another driving factor is preparations for Ethiopia's coming millennium celebrations.

Ethiopians are still living in 1999 thanks to their unique and ancient dating system - a variation on the archaic Julian calendar that started disappearing from the Western world in the 16th century.

Board counting down days to Ethiopian millennium
Ethiopia's millennium has inspired the massive push for growth

Ethiopia will not enter the 21st century until later this year - 12 September 2007, if you use the more mainstream Gregorian calendar.

There is no doubting the ambition to develop Addis Ababa. But what it less clear is exactly who is in the driving seat, directing the diggers in their relentless transformation of the city.

Politically, Addis Ababa has been floundering since controversial national elections in May 2005.

Much of the construction seems to be based on plans laid out before the election by the city's last mayor, Arkebe Oqubay, who was aligned to the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.

Oqubay was voted out of office by a huge majority, but the man chosen to replace him had little chance to make his mark on the development blueprints.

About six months after the poll, Mayor-elect Berhanu Nega was one of scores of politicians from the opposition Coalition of Unity and Democracy (CUD) to be arrested and charged with a string of offences, including attempting to overthrow the government.


Following the arrests, the government appointed an interim administration, with a caretaker mayor, Berhane Deressa.

But the uncertainty since the election has had a knock-on effect across the city. Local government officials have been going to incredible lengths to avoid making decisions, say aid workers working on development projects.

Woman walks past demolished house
 We have economic development that does not benefit most people. That could be very explosive
Mehane Tadesse, Center for Policy Research and Dialogue

"Suddenly all the kebele [local council] officials we had worked hard to build relations with disappeared," says a development worker, who asked not to be named. "We were back to square one trying to build new relations."

Others have raised fears about the impact of all the development on the city's poorest residents.

Again, few critics are prepared to be named, but off the record they point to the high rents being charged in the new residential tower blocks springing up around the capital.

Deposits of 350 birr (about US$40) and monthly rents of 150 Birr (US$17) are common - a pittance by Western standards, but way above the going rate for an old-fashioned city-centre shack.

"We have economic development that does not benefit most people. That could be very explosive," says Mehane Tadesse from the Center for Policy Research and Dialogue, a Horn of Africa think tank.

"And the growth is not sustainable. The whole agenda suffers from short-termism. Political transition is the key and that is just not happening."

Moving out

For now, at least, there is little sign of the diggers and demolition crews running out of steam.

A huge plot of shanty towns and shacks opposite the United Nations' main compound in Addis Ababa has been cleared to make way for the foundations of a cluster of tower blocks, alongside a new five-star hotel and a new headquarters for the UN's children's agency, Unicef.

And in Osman Redwan's neighbourhood, Kazanchis, the road crews are still busily carving out their line.

After the diggers moved in, he moved all his possessions back into what is left of his now one-room shack - shared with his nine siblings and bedridden father.

He, like so many others, refuses to give ground.

*This is a free online version of the article that appears in the July - September 2007 edition of BBC Focus on Africa Magazine.

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