Slums of Ethiopia: trenches of revolutionaries


By T, Staffer of De Birhan Media

A friend just came back from a holiday in Addis Abeba. He spoke of the “new Addis” highly. He said the sky rocketing building for hotels, malls and multipurpose complexes is unbelievable. Unlike old times you can find Western standard resorts, hotels and pubs. He told me how extravagantly posh Addis Abeba has become. Well and good. To tell you the truth am sick and tired of such people who are in psychological denial of the real face of Addis; the slums. 80 percent of the country’s urban population live in slums, according to UNHABITAT’s 2006 study. Why cannot our eyes see the poor, slums?
Slum in Addis Abeba 

This study explores slums theoretically and broaches the slums of Addis Abeba via a literature review. It also looks at the linkage of slums with popular revolutions.  The word slum has a history of over two centuries. According to Khurana (2004), the word slum, originated from the word slumber, which meant “a sleepy back alley”  or ‘wet mire’ where working class housing was built during British Industrial revolution in order to be near the factories. Similarly, Collins English Dictionary (2007) defines a slum as a poor rundown overpopulated section of a city while the UN HABITAT (2003) report operationally defines a slum as “a heavily populated urban area characterized by substandard housing and squalor.”  UNECA (1968) defines urban localities based on spatial measurements thus areas with more than 20,000 people and cities with more than 100,000 people.
Slums happen and can also be perpetuated by a number of things, including rapid rural-to-urban migration, increasing urban poverty and inequality, insecure tenure, conflict and wrong policies and globalization (UNHABITAT, 2003). Davis (2004) takes “bad governance”, neoliberalism policies, especially the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) as the major causes and perpetrators of slums in the world. He says, the directions of both national and international interventions during the last twenty years have actually increased urban poverty and slums, increased exclusion and inequality, and weakened urban elites in their efforts to use cities as engines of growth. UNHABITAT (2008) report argues, conflict and insecurity are two of the major causes of slum formation. According to the report, as conflicts arise and propagate the insecurity of the urban areas doubles. Slums and urban areas have become the safe havens of criminals, fundamentalists, and insurgents. This exponential growth of slums makes slums the dwelling place of many in hiding. 
Most urban theories spin around space, history, and politico-economic make up of slums.  Marshal (1966) states that theoretically slums are considered as results of huge industrial expansion and modernisation that prop up other less to do residents to infiltrate cities and urban areas hence creating slums.
Slums have functions: For some employers slums have been useful as places where employees could live at lower rentals and therefore, on lower incomes (Marshal, 1966). He lists some of the functions of slums such as providing housing for the lowest income groups in society, serving as places where group living and associations based on villages, regions, tribes, or ethnic or racial groups may develop. An important function of the slum is that of offering a place of residence to those who prefer to live anonymously. Despite the negativity attached to them, slums continue to affect the socioeconomic livelihood and interaction of those within the slums and outside of them positively (Marshal, 1966). In general, slums assist migrants and people coming from rural areas in offering them a residence, jobs, and livelihoods.
Livelihoods: Walter Cordoba, 36 years old, from  Santiago de Chile, quoted on UNHABITAT (2003) report describes livelihood in slums saying, “People identify themselves with the area and commit themselves to the place but, they have no aspirations, there is no way to show their children that there could be another way of living.” Azalea (2010) describes livelihood in slums as ‘intolerable’. The livelihood is filled with stories of diseases, personal and property insecurity, dilapidated infrastructure, ‘victimisation’ (UNHABITAT, 2003).  Khurana (2004) writing from an Indian slum point of view says that slums generally lack ventilation, formation, building space, sanitation and minimum environmental health standards.
Slum Typology
Most writers give location-based definitions to slums in studying their typologies. Agnihotri (1994) asserts that slum was a distinctive phenomenon in urban geography requiring location-based definition. He categorises two types of slums: inner-city slums (slums found within cities centres), and peripheral slums (slums located outside the capital or city centres). Alternatively, UNHABITAT (2003) report sections slums as central, scattered slum islands and peripheral. In terms of size UNHABITAT (2003) divides, slums size wise into three: 1) Large slum settlements 2) Medium-sized slum estates 3) Small slums (which are scattered throughout the world).  Aware of the immense differences of slums in developed and developing counties, Davis (2006) on his part offers two major slum typologies: Metro Core and Periphery.
 Slums in Ethiopia

The Times of India today (16-2-2012) reported that a delegation from Ethiopia, comprising representatives of government and non-government organizations, visited the state capital on Wednesday to understand the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation’s slum improvement policies. The eight-member African delegation are also scheduled to visit slums like Salia Sahi and Gyana Nagar, to have a first-hand experience of the facilities provided by the local civic body to slum dwellers. ” BMC slum improvement officer Srimant Mishra said Ethiopia would soon start a project called “health for urban poor”.
“Unlike the colonial cities of Africa, Addis Abeba was built by Ethiopians: Italians had very little contribution to its creation and growth. Though TPLF scholars refer to it as a garrison town of Menelik, the poor and the rich lived together.” Said Miriam Cheru in a 2010 piece that appeared on Abugidainfo.
An Addis Ababa government official notes that around one-quarter of all units are owned by local authorities and rented out at rates that have been frozen since July 1975, vastly reducing the potential for income that can be pumped back into housing improvements. “The government also believes in privatization of public houses,” said the official. Through such projects, we can alleviate slums and informal settlements,” he added.
But let’s parse this.  Three-quarters of the units are not owned by local authorities and are not rented out at subsidized rates. Yet those units, too, have apparently not improved.” another blogger recounts in a 2007 blog entry.  
One of the latest and extensive resources on slums in Ethiopia is UNHABITAT’s 2006 research called “Situation Analysis of Slums settlements in Addis Ababa”. So, I will take some chunks from the paper to corraborate our look of Ethiopian slums from a historical and analytical take.
The Report says the earliest known display of government interest in influencing the spatial organization of urban life in 20th century Ethiopia dates back to a 1907 proclamation whereby private ownership of urban land became legal in Addis Ababa. Another important historical landmark that deserves mentioning while discussing government responses to urban housing needs in Ethiopia is the difficulties that cities like Addis Ababa have been facing in connection with the short-lived Italian occupation of 1936 to 1941. A few days before the city fell into the hands of the Italian army, patriotic forces destroyed many buildings on purpose, mainly by setting them on fire. On top of that, the production of new dwellings temporarily stopped because the Italians, shortly upon arriving in the city, issued proclamations that forbade “the repair of existing buildings or the erection of new constructions…until further notice”. Because of these developments, Addis Ababa faced what seemed to be its first major housing shortage (Bahiru, 1987; Pankhurst, 1987). Furthermore, although they developed the first meaningful – if colonial – master plan for the city, the Italians had no labor policy or housing strategy that could have kept rural to urban migration in check. As a result, the population of the city doubled during the five years of Italian occupation. Although they had plans to erect new residential buildings, ostensibly to accommodate incoming Italian settlers, the occupants failed to achieve even 20 per cent of what they anticipated. The net result of all this is that by the time Italian occupation ended, Addis Ababa was faced with a huge unmet housing demand.
Accoring to UNHABIAT(2006), the famous British planner, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, devised the earliest post-liberation master plan of Addis Ababa in 1956. In 1959, Bolton Hennessy and Partners put out a second post-liberation master plan for Addis Ababa. Addis Ababa was yet to see three further master plans. It fell to the French architect L. de Marien to propose the last pre-1974 scheme, in 1965. However, like all of its predecessors, this plan focused on physical embellishment and disregarded the pressing social and economic problems of the city. Indeed this shortcoming was characteristic of all of the master plans prepared by one Italian firm for several other Ethiopian towns in the 1960s.
Let’s take a break watching Pussycat Dolls’ “Jai Ho” music that was a soundtrack of the movie Slumdog Millionnaire. 
Post 1991 Urban/slum Addis Abeba
The Report also states that EPRDF gave only limited attention to urban issues, and especially so during the early and mid-1990s, owing partly to its preoccupation with the rural development agenda. The preoccupation with Agricultural Development-Led Industrialization (ADLI) seems to have been a factor behind initial government reluctance to address some of the glaring problems of urban Ethiopia, such as rising unemployment, deepening poverty, acute housing shortages, the fast deteriorating conditions of kebele rental units and problems surrounding urban governance. The multi-sector Ethiopian Social Rehabilitation and Development Fund (ESRDF), which was established in1996, is a good case in point. Its aim is to improve the well-being of the poor through support of community based projects most of the projects so far have benefited people in rural rather than urban areas. By comparison, the incidence of poverty has risen by 3.7 percentage points in urban Ethiopia during the same period. Ethiopia has never had a comprehensive national urban development policy until March 2005. As mentioned above, the landmark in Derg urban development policies was Proclamation No. 47, which in 1975 nationalized urban land and rental housing. Nonetheless, with regard to land and housing, the new government’s policy was very similar to that of the junta during its final days. There may be no better evidence than the EPRDF’s decision to keep urban land as public property, together with persistent ambivalence or indecision over privatization of public housing. Perhaps the second most important policy decision made by the EPRDF with regard to urban development was the urban land lease legislation embodied in Proclamation No.3. in 1994. The main objective was not only to adopt a market-oriented land and housing development system although land remained government property. The government’s declared intention was also to create a steady source of revenue for city authorities, so that they could use leasehold-generated revenue to improve municipal services. Today, city authorities are the sole suppliers of land and the government retains a high degree of control over land use and design.
UNHABIAT(2006) states the first meaningful policy measure that the Ethiopian government took in the 1960s to address the problems posed by slum neighborhoods was razing slum houses in the Tekle Haimanot area of inner Addis Ababa.  Overall, lack of adequate public participation both at the planning and implementation stages was the major shortcoming of the Tekle Haimanot Upgrading Project. It is important to bear in mind here that while the Derg was in power, at least two types of cooperative housing programs were launched to improve the housing conditions of urban low- and moderate-income households. They were then known as the ‘Self-Help’ and ‘Pure Self-Help’ cooperatives.
In post 1991 Ethiopia, the Addis Ababa city authority and prior to recent administrative restructuring, neighborhood upgrading efforts had been significantly affected by such factors as excessive centralism and the absence of a well-organized, dedicated department that could effectively improve slums and manage squatter upgrading programs. In 2004/2005 the Addis Ababa municipal authority launched a massive urban renewal program in order to upgrade the inner parts of the city. The scheme is known as the ‘condominium housing project; and the municipal unit in charge is the Housing Development Project Office (HDO). Although the regime promised to build 200,000 houses within five years, so far only 81 thousand houses have been built.  Condominum houses have been critiqued for being used as a political tools of serving only those that are members of the ruling party. The number of NGOs currently involved in slum upgrading or environmental sanitation is not so high. Several issues have considerably constrained the success of slum upgrading programs in Addis Ababa in general; they have to do with gaps in policy development, with institutional or organizational weaknesses that lead to serious managerial, programming and operational shortcomings, and with problems in project design, implementation and supervision. Lack of effective coordination and experience sharing among the participating stakeholders has also plagued slum improvement programs in Addis Ababa.
Addis Abeba that has over 80% of its residnets living in the slum s doesn’t have a slum department within the City Administartion or local districts. It would not be too expensive for the municipality of Addis Ababa to create a particular department that has slum improvement as its principal mission.
Improving Slums
Marshal (1966) explains that several traditional approaches are developed to deal with the slum problem, including charity measures, public and private services to slum dwellers, and slum clearance. Various methods and policy approaches towards slum improvement have been recommended: negligence, eviction, upgrading, resettlement, and participatory slum improvement and are some of them.
Participatory slum improvement
In this form of slum improvement, the slum residents take the first hand in the improvement of their areas with the government taking the secondary role or participation (UNHABITAT, 2003). Marshal (1966) says recognising the essential nature of most slum problems; this approach involves developing greater community consciousness, participation in a wider community, and self-help on the part of the slum dweller. Because the approach takes the residents as first hand participants and implementers of the programs with a sense of ownership, the improvement of slums becomes faster and sustainable. Participatory slum development, whereby the slumdwellers take a first hand in their local development, has been the most effective so far. In any matter, slum improvement approaches that take the residents, as first hand participants and owners are likely to succeed.
Trenches of revolutionaries
The Ethiopian government and city admin should recognize slums as integral parts of the urban fabric, especially as regards their role as main suppliers of shelter for the urban poor and moderate-income households, recommended UNHABITAT’s report. Based on this understanding to the government must advocate slum improvement more than slum clearance. The latter should be allowed only in exceptional situations and guided by clear and consistent regulations. 
Ethiopia or Addis Abeba is not the glittering Bole and its shining complexes; it is the slums of Gedam Sefer, Talayan Sefer, Merkato, Kera and so on. These are the secret holes that hide and treat around four million of the Capital’s populace. With the aim of “redeveloping” Addis Abeba, the Meles Administration took slum upgrading measures. From the slum improvement methodologies that this writer stated above four of the major ones have been applied so far by the regime so far  negligence, eviction, clearance and resettlement. One method that has not been applied so far was participatory slum development. This methodology would have solved most of the City’s  slum problems without annoying many families and social capitals built through decades of mixture and coexistence. The “new government” should consider this slum improvement mechanism. One thing that the upcoming government of multicultural Ethiopian youth could promise our compatriots in these slums of Adugenet should be that their slums would only be improved via the Participatory Slum Improvement method.
As has been the experience in many other countries particularly in Egypt, slums dwellers of Al-Me’adessa, home to 150 families, part of a 12 million-strong community of Egyptians living in the sprawling, unplanned slum areas – known as ashwa’iyat, have been the galvanizing forces and embracers of the popular revolution that was spearheaded by few intelligentsias such as Wael Gohanim. The role of Paris slum dwellers in the French Revolution with the inventory roles of the brilliant minds, of the “Ancien Regime” has been undeniably recognised. Ethiopia’s Gohanims (young activists) are now designing the popular revolution for Ethiopia that would come soon. However, without the participation and mobilization of Addis Abeba’s slum dwellers (entrenched soldiers), the revolution could be futile. Addis Abeba’s slums harbor the most poorest, neglected and marginalized part of Ethiopia’s population who are the true pictures of today’s Ethiopia. My fellas from the slums of Arat Kilo to the slums of Cherkos are highly frustrated with the infuriatingly high cost of living and absence of freedom and democracy; they are in need of some push and initiation that would mobilize them for a popular revolution.
Let’s embrace and reach Addis Abeba’s slum dwellers now! This is not via internet, telephone or mouth to mouth but via the third and best alternative. Once the goal is achieved and the “new democratic government” takes power,  Addis Abeba’s slum dwellers ought to be its prime agenda of intervention. Addis Abeba’s slum dwellers make and break the revolution not us. 

Collins English Dictionary (2007) Harper Collins Publishers, Great Britain
Dagron, G. (2001) Making Waves. New York: Rockefeller Foundation
Davis M. (2006) Planet of Slums. Verso. London
Davis M. (2004) Planet of Slums Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat, new left review 26
Drakakis-Smith, D. (1981) Urbanisation, Housing and the Development Process, room Helm, London
Marshall C. (1966) Slums and community development, The Free Press, Macmillan Company, New York
Nijman, J. (2010) ‘A Study of Space in Mumbai’s Slums’, Journal of Economic and Social Geography) 
UNHABITAT (2003) ‘the Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlement’, London: Earthscan Publishing.
UNHABITAT (2006) The State of the World’s Cities Report 2006/2007. Earthscan.
UNHABITAT (2006) Situation Analysis of Slums settlements in Addis Ababa. Earthscan.
© De Birhan Media 2012


  1. This needs a bit of shaping..although it could be used in a journal with some editing..The editing could be on the mixing of urban policy with democracy and politics. Plus if issues of personalisiation and shift from academic touch are removed would be used as an academic paper.

  2. Dear commentators,
    My intention is one to study slums, second look at the linkage of slums with revolts. and third show the readership that Ethiopia/Addis Abeba is not Bole, Piassa or the few buildings and hotels. It is the slum. Ethiopia/ Addis Abeba is the slum. When we talk about the progress or destitution of Ethiopia/Addis, we need to talk about these slum dwellers that are neglected, ignored and marginalised. We have to be brave enough to see and talk about our slums and the dwellers. Change in Arat Kilo could only come from the slums- it might be instigated and guided by the elites of Bole and CMC but would be effected and handled from those who come from the slums cause as i said 80% of Addis Abebans reside in slums as do the 79% in rural areas.

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