Power and planning in Ethiopia: Make me a city
Ethiopia’s capital is a showcase for its leader’s voting ambition.
To walk among the happy throngs in Sheger Park, Addis Ababa’s newest and glitziest public space, is to encounter an idealised vision of Ethiopia’s future.
Gentle piano music wafts through the air.
Beaming newly-weds pose for photographs beside a glittering artificial lake.
Young professionals clink wine glasses as families donning traditional white shawls wander through a botanical garden.
When the sun sets a spectacular display of water fountains erupts to rapturous applause.
All Ethiopia’s modern history is on display, too.
Looming above you is the palace of Emperor Menelik II, who founded the Ethiopian capital in the late 19th century.
To the north, beneath eucalyptus-covered hills, are districts built by Italian colonists in the 1930s that were once racially segregated.
To the east stands a grand circular building, in the style of an Ethiopian monastery, made for the national bank in the 1960s during the modernising phase of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign.
A soaring bronze monument nearby commemorates the socialist revolution of 1974.
Squint a little, and in the distance you spy rows of hulking tower blocks, built during the era of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a leftist rebel movement which seized power in 1991.
Addis Ababa is a fabled capital.
Successive rulers have treated it as a “modernist monument for the rest of Ethiopia”, writes Elleni Centime Zeleke, author of “Ethiopia in Theory”.
Its buildings, streets and public spaces are etched with the legacies of empire, war and revolution.
From the racist master-plans of the Italian occupation, to the Haussmannian demolition schemes of the EPRDF years, each government has sought to recast the city in its own image.
Now Abiy Ahmed, prime minister since 2018, is setting out to do so again—even as an atrocity-filled war with Tigrayan rebels has disgraced his regime and called the country’s future into question.
The new park is one of a dizzying array of grands projets in the pipeline.
Menelik II’s nearby palace has already been converted into the first of several new exhibition centres.
Earlier this year a massive public library opened.
Next door a science museum and an amphitheatre are going up.
Several more parks and green spaces are germinating.
The swishest of these, set on nearby Mount Entoto, boasts hiking trails, adventure sports, boutique restaurants and a luxury resort.
“These days you see new changes every week,” gushes Gebre Sifer, a retired pastor visiting the library.
The city’s existing infrastructure is also getting a facelift.
Government offices have been spruced up.
Public thoroughfares have been splashed with colour and adorned with flowers and murals.
Last year Meskel Square, the historic central plaza, was lavishly refurbished at a cost of more than $73m—a striking sum in a country in the midst of a civil war.
For Abiy, who has cracked down on dissent and imprisoned opponents, refashioning the capital is a political project as well as an aesthetic one.
“If you can change Addis, definitely you can change Ethiopia,” he remarked in an early interview.
Glossy promotional videos depict the renovation scheme as a symbol of national unity.
In the run-up to elections last year, in which the ruling party won over 90% of the seats contested, state media broadcast drone footage of the revamped city at the top of the evening news.
“Abiy believes that public spaces and monuments create the image of the Ethiopian state which he wants to project to his citizens and to the world,” says a former adviser.