Who is Addis Ababa for?

The planned demolition of one of Ethiopia’s most vibrant cultural centers forms part of an urban planning trend where African cities are re-designed to serve elites.

Bole, Addis Ababa. Image credit Jasmine Halki via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

On June 1, 2023, government agents in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, announced that the Kazanchis neighborhood’s Fendika Cultural Center would be demolished six months from said date. This case is another instance reproducing the chronicle of demolitions of pre-established areas in the capital.

Painted on the board of a small street stand of Addis Ababa, a glowing sign reads: Fendika. Viewed from the outside, it appears it is nothing special, but the board still stands out as one of the few brightly lit ones of the central Kazanchis district. The cultural center is filled with tourists bustling about, who visit the district, especially on Mondays, Wednesdays, and also on Friday nights. Beginning in 2016, Fendika has hosted thematic evenings for Ethio-Jazz traditions, in addition to Ethiopian dance performances hailing from the country’s most internally diverse ethnic groups.

One only needs to spend a good half hour inside the location to realize that Fendika, as the fully spelled out name Fendika Cultural Center implies, is more than meets the eye: its walls are wallpapered with records, mounted with temporary galleries of artists, and traditional T-shirts and scarfs are advertised on the stalls. The Center greets you with a vast stage. A stage that, to paint a picture of the atmosphere, succeeds in inviting an ecstatic connection to take place between the clumsiest tourist and the intellectually savvy Ethiopian to shake their shoulders with the dancers.

The Center’s owner, Melaku Belay, is frequently found lingering around the venue. He greets newcomers and regular visitors with a smile, then mingles with the dancers. Following his life trajectory, it is easy to see why Fendika remains loyal to Ethiopian traditions: having first begun as an entertainment choreographer himself, Belay now spends part of his life traveling all over Ethiopia and across seas to learn the dances of various ethnic groups. He has also traveled to Europe and America, giving TED talks and delivering performances with his dance troupe.

Belay encountered with extreme displeasure, the sheet that the local government affixed to his board which declared that, six months from June 2023, they would demolish Fendika to clear the path to build other structures in the area in the name of development. On social media websites like Twitter, a debate rages. Local Ethiopians and foreigners are angered by the decision but others are unsurprised, pointing out that Fendika’s destruction represents nothing new from what has been happening over the years in Ethiopia. Many people believe that the only difference is that Fendika is financially viable enough to allow Belay to eventually replicate it. Unlike the fate of other local cultural centers, Fendika can relocate to another district in an entertainment area of the city, such as Bole.

From whichever angle you view it, the news of Fendika’s destruction is a hot topic. As international visitors post online about the topic, the issue itself calls our attention back to what has always been standing at the heart of international crossfires. It serves as a reminder that the local population of Addis Ababa has been enduring a difficult phenomenon for some time now: the demolition and eviction of people’s habitats to give life to new entertainment venues.

Listed along with Fendika on the government’s sheet are in fact, a series of kebele houses. These are public housing that were built during the military rule of the Derg, a junta imposed by the Marxist-Leninist Provisional Military Administrative Council in 1974. Kebele houses are mainly inhabited by the lower-middle class population.

The urban landscape pattern of Ethiopia’s capital is sui generis. This is because so-called slums are spread throughout the whole geography, permeating even the most prosperous neighborhoods. This contrasts perhaps with the topography of other capitals in the Greater Horn of Africa, such as Nairobi or Kampala, where the distinction between city and slum is more obvious. The central Kazanchis district is itself part of the sub-city of Kirkos. Informal housing has featured in its landscape for several years, despite the fact that as a diplomatic and political hub, the city hosts headquarters such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Programs to develop the sub-city, such as the Integrated Housing Development Program, were funded by the state in 2006. The Ethiopian government launched this initiative to mitigate the expansion of informal housing and to supply formal housing to the growing population. These programs have differentiated urban informality by flattening slums and offering condominium units to the former residents instead (provided that they are able to pay the security deposit upfront).

Since these measures have been taken by the state, the face of Addis Ababa has changed from being a grid map of single-story ground-floor houses littered throughout the landscape, to a panorama of high-rise buildings. Even beyond the apartment buildings found mostly in the suburbs, newly built colossal skyscrapers and parks such as Unity Park and Friendship Park, as well as museums such as the recently inaugurated Museum of Art and Science in October 2022, colonize the cleared areas. They are spicing up the sub-city’s new vertical urban form.

However, these new housing facilities do not satisfy the local population. Private amenities such as possessing a bathroom or kitchen in a condominium apartment cannot replace what has been lost: not only has a dense social fabric been torn asunder, which encompassed familial relations between relatives and neighbors, but so has the entire world of Ethiopian social practices. From holding coffee ceremonies to preparing food on the ground floor, these activities are now impossible to replicate within the enclosed spaces of elevated buildings. As it appears, the mushrooming of recreational or entertainment venues in urban sprawl does not prove to be so compelling for a fringe population that will at best visit them only a couple of times a year.

While the revampment of Addis’ urban blueprint is a welcome shift, it exacerbates the marginalization and exclusion of its city-dwellers. Despite the foreign and non-foreign liquidity that is being directly invested in the remodeling of Addis Ababa as a true competitor to urban projects in the Gulf, it creates the dilemma of determining the identity of a place and the purpose for which the government ultimately creates these places. Considering the latest urban developments, one possible answer to this dilemma would be that these spaces cater mainly to the average tourist, the city’s elite class, and the Ethiopian diaspora. Little space remains for the locals.

However, the impending demolition of Fendika moves the debate even further. Fendika brings in more than 200,000 tourists a year, which Belay alerts us to in his Facebook post. Fendika’s possible destruction heralds a new era in Addis Ababa: one that, on the surface, is little preoccupied with recreational venues (that is, only if they already exist as establishments). Thus, local people are not interested in the new amenities, and non-locals are displeased with the destruction of existing ones. For whom, then, is the city being built? While one mulls over this, another looming skyscraper menaces the city.

Further Reading