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Diluting the concentration of economic and political power may temper the demographic, environmental, and inter-communal pressures on Addis Ababa.
The Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, serves as a vibrant hub for national and continental politics.
But Africa’s diplomatic center is facing serious, multifaceted challenges that endanger its stability. These include rapid population growth, ethno-political struggles, increasing economic pressures, and pressing environmental concerns.
Though not without its pitfalls, the establishment of a second Ethiopian capital city may stabilize Addis Ababa and Ethiopia at large.
Addis Ababa sits near Ethiopia’s geographic center. The relocation of the imperial capital from Ankober—a town in today’s North Shewa Zone of Amhara region—to Entoto then finally to Addis Ababa was a strategic decision by Emperor Menelik II in the late 1880s following his southerly territorial expansion.
In theory, this continues to enhance its outreach and accessibility. Its favorable climatic conditions and location at the intersection of Ethiopia’s agro-ecological divide mean the surrounding areas are productive.
But ongoing political contests have turned Addis Ababa’s advantageous location into a liability. Entirely surrounded by Oromia region, the roads connecting the city to the rest of the country have become increasingly vulnerable to disruptions by militias.
Moreover, rising tensions concerning the expansion of Addis Ababa into Oromia have hampered the city’s ability to grow outwards to accommodate the substantial population influx and its development demands. Notably, the so-called “Master Plan” that sought to expand the capital sparked protests in Oromia in 2014 that led to a brutal government crackdown and ultimately brought down the former government.1Amidst the Oromo protest movement, there was a period between 2014 and 2016 when the roads leading to Addis Ababa experienced blockades. These actions intensified, particularly following the apprehension of key protest leaders. Furthermore, the unfortunate demise of artist Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020 triggered widespread civil turmoil across Oromia that led to the obstruction of roads connecting to Addis.
Recently, this has led to the formation of a contentious administrative entity in Oromia encircling Addis Ababa named Sheger City, which confronts the city with new physical and organizational limitations.
In recent years, Addis Ababa has become one of the fastest-growing cities in Africa. Initially spurring an economic upswing, in the long run this population growth presents challenges.2Ethiopia’s population has been rapidly increasing since the 1990s, now reaching an estimated 127 million people.
With an estimated population of 5.3 million, Addis Ababa is more than ten times larger than Ethiopia’s second biggest city, Dire Dawa. In this sense, it stands out as an extreme example of high demographic concentration and economic dynamism in low-income country capitals.
The persistence of low-productivity agricultural practices, land degradation through cultivation on fragile lands, depletion of land cover and soil fertility, increasing soil acidity, the absence of professional opportunities outside of the capital, and recurring cycles of drought have all contributed to the recent surge in migration towards Addis Ababa. This is amplified by the country’s demographics, as 71 percent of Ethiopians are below 30 years of age.
A sense of political disenfranchisement in rural areas and the recent uptick of political violence across the country have accelerated this trend. The high costs and risks associated with illegal migration to other destinations, such as the Middle East, South Africa, and Europe, have further compounded the influx.
As the rapid population growth is accentuating Addis Ababa’s comparative weight vis-a-vis other Ethiopian urban spaces, the political importance of controlling the capital is increasing.
Addis Ababa’s continued population growth has also compounded major environmental challenges. With its population having more than doubled since 2000, the impact of traffic congestion, air pollution, and waste disposal have all been exacerbated.
The lack of functioning sewage systems is not limited to old infrastructure but is still common in construction projects. In turn, untreated human and industrial waste pollutes Addis Ababa’s rivers and affects downstream communities’ water sources and farm land.
As an estimated 60 percent of the vegetables feeding the city are drawn from polluted rivers, citizens of the capital bear the health cost of rapid urbanization.
Driven partly by the disproportionate concentration of major foreign and domestic companies, Addis Ababa finds itself at the center of the ethnopolitical contestation currently defining Ethiopian politics.3For instance, Addis Ababa received over 60 percent of total foreign direct investment from China in 2019.
Competing groups seek to establish their claims over Addis Ababa by invoking law, history, and demography.
Some Oromo activists assert an exclusive ownership claim over what they call Finfinnee in Afaan Oromoo. In response, diaspora Amhara activists have called for an “immediate Amhara administration of Addis Ababa” to prevent what they allege is a plan to ethnically cleanse the city’s Amhara inhabitants.
This ownership dispute is partly rooted in differing interpretations of Article 49 in the Ethiopian constitution. This identifies Addis Ababa as the capital of the Federal State of Ethiopia and outlines the right to self-governance by the residents of Addis Ababa, as well as the “special interest” of Oromia region in Addis Ababa.
Oromo activists claim this as the legal basis for Oromo control, while Amhara groups, among others, vehemently reject Oromo jurisdiction. This politicization endangers Addis Ababa’s multicultural character.
Due to the multiethnic structure of the ruling Prosperity Party (PP), this dispute has infiltrated its various factions.
The Oromia-PP and activists aim to preserve the Oromo identity and culture from what they perceive as Semiticization and Abyssinization. Opposition factions strive to protect the city from being swallowed by Oromummaa—which describes the political project of promoting perceived historically oppressed Oromo interests and culture, and recentering Oromo nationalism in Ethiopian politics.
These contests are anchored in the clashing historiographical accounts of different social groups regarding the development of the Ethiopian state. Some have termed this Ethiopia’s historical obsession.
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Oromia-PP and other Oromo proponents use narratives of internal colonialism to claim the capital was established by dispossessing, exploiting, and oppressing “indigenous” Oromos. They argue that Finfinnee is ancestral Oromo land that was forcibly taken over by the neighboring Amhara community under the rule of Emperor Menelik II during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, eventually transforming it into the city now known as Addis Ababa.
Conversely, Amhara politicians and activists argue Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taytu revitalized the ruins of a former Amhara-dominated city. According to this perspective, Addis Ababa is a rediscovery of the city called Barara, initially established by the Amhara King Dawit I in the 14th century but later destroyed by Ahmed Gragn in the 16th century war between Ethiopia and the Adal Sultanate.4Ahmed Gragn is an Amharic name for Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, a military leader of the Adal Sultanate who embarked on a conquest that brought three-quarters of Ethiopia under the power of the Muslim Kingdom of Adal during the Ethiopian-Adal War from 1529-43.
The incompatibility of these narratives and the conviction with which these positions are held fuel deepening inter-communal animosity.
Recent demolitions of “illegal” houses on the city’s outskirts are seen by some as an attempt to change Addis Ababa’s demographic composition by targeting non-Oromos. The intricate interplay between ethnicity, politics, and urban development is leading to the destruction of innocent individuals’ livelihoods.
Oromia-PP is implicated in further actions to enhance the Oromo character of Addis Ababa. These include the celebration of Irreechaa, the hoisting of Oromia regional flags, the increasing use of Afaan Oromoo, and the celebration of regional anthems in some schools in Addis Ababa.
These measures have sparked violence in schools and elicited harsh criticism, including from the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, commonly called EZEMA, a party often fairly closely aligned with the Prosperity Party.
Such incidents represent a threat to Addis Ababa’s stability. With tensions between the government’s Oromo and Amhara factions growing, further conflagrations between them could lead to violence both within and outside of the Ethiopian capital.
Announced in October 2022, the creation of Sheger City involves the clustering together of six Oromia towns surrounding Addis Ababa into one administration located on Addis Ababa’s outskirts.
The peculiar, doughnut-shaped layout of Sheger City (shown in Map 1) poses challenges to its potential for development as the large distances between Sheger’s constituent parts may impede growth and integration.5Research from 450 towns in India emphasizes that non-compact cities tend to be less efficient. See: Harari, M. (2020). Cities in bad shape: Urban geometry in India. American Economic Review, 110(8), 2377-2421.
Depending on the administrative organization and integration of Sheger City and Addis Ababa, the plans could inhibit the capital’s growth, thereby increasing the negative effects of population density within its boundaries.
Map 1. Map of Sheger City encasing Addis Ababa, showing all drinking water reservoirs within the Sheger City jurisdiction. Source: A reproduction from a non-georeferenced image obtained from Ethiopia Insight.
While Sheger has been justified as a vehicle to promote more equitable regional development, its proponents have failed to specify how its creation will benefit Addis Ababa. The lack of public and academic deliberation surrounding the project’s design contributed to strong opposition from scholars and political groups on all sides.
Leaders of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) argue that it violates the constitution and the rights of the Oromo people. Conversely, Amhara elites contrast Addis Ababa’s multicultural demographic composition with Sheger City, which they depict as a project to engineer an Oromo-majority metropolis.
In short, the project has aggravated the boiling ethnopolitical tensions relating to the capital.
A Second Capital
A sister capital city in Ethiopia may, however, provide a solution to the intricate challenges that Addis Ababa, and Ethiopia by extension, face.
Learning from the examples of South Africa, Bolivia, and the Netherlands, among others, the establishment of a second Ethiopian capital could help address tensions concerning power centralization and historical grievances.
Weakening Addis Ababa’s political and economic hegemony could diversify Ethiopia’s economic and political profile. Ideally, a new capital would foster strong economic growth in a different part of Ethiopia.
If the new capital managed to attract Ethiopians from across the country, it could, as a second multicultural hub, strengthen the Ethiopian national identity and ease ethnopolitical tensions.
Finally, a new major urban center of economic and political relevance could cushion the pressures that Addis Ababa is currently experiencing due to rapid urbanization.
Admittedly, establishing a new capital city is a complex undertaking involving significant challenges, including high costs, disagreements over its location, and the potential risk of conflict and violence if certain ethnic groups feel marginalized.
These obstacles may seem insurmountable, particularly within the context of prevailing authoritarian governance and ethnopolitical divisions. However, within a forum that provides for genuine social and academic debate and centers the public in transparent decision-making, a new capital may be a way forward to defuse the plethora of particularist historiographies that undergird increasingly tense identity politics.
Firstly, the new capital should be situated 100-250 kilometers from Addis Ababa, thus benefiting from the strategic advantages associated with a centrally located capital and striking a balance between proximity and distance from central Ethiopia.
Relocating it farther from the center would risk isolating significant portions of the country, leading to issues of accessibility and equitable distribution.
Secondly, it is essential that the new capital be in a region other than Oromia, considering that Addis Ababa already falls within Oromia’s boundaries.
A substantial portion of the challenges faced by the capital originate from the overlap between Oromia’s jurisdiction and the city itself. Therefore, suggesting that Oromia be included as a potential host for the second capital would likely encounter significant opposition. This approach would fundamentally contradict the very purpose of seeking an alternative location.
While any region would face contestation similar to Oromia, particularly given the nature of Ethiopia’s ethnoterritorial federation, the southern regions may actually welcome such a move. These linguistically and culturally diverse areas have been historically marginalized, with common grievances relating to the lack of development and inaccessibility of services.
However, the ‘where’ of the second capital would ultimately be a technocratic and political decision.
The centralization of people, power, and resources in Addis Ababa has engendered polarization, environmental concerns, and public health risks. If left unaddressed, these explosive dynamics risk unraveling Ethiopia at large.
Establishing a second capital city may provide a viable solution to mitigate these challenges, by redistributing political and economic power, fostering a new center for cultural diversity in Ethiopia, and enhancing disaster resilience in Addis Ababa.
As the African Union would most likely remain seated in Addis Ababa, it would certainly continue in its function as Ethiopia’s diplomatic capital. However, domestically concerned federal government ministries could be relocated to the second capital city.
Nevertheless, the pitfalls of establishing a new Ethiopian capital need to be taken seriously. The shortcomings and tensions around Egypt’s new capital city serve as a cautionary tale, highlighting the importance of inclusive decision-making and careful planning when considering the establishment of a second capital city in Ethiopia.6In 2015, the Egyptian government announced its plan to construct a new capital city at an estimated cost of approximately $59 billion. The primary objective of this project was to alleviate the issues of overcrowding, inefficiency, and pollution in Cairo. However, the initiative faced considerable criticism due to public skepticism about the Egyptian government’s real intentions, exorbitant costs, and the choice of location. Many experts worry that the proximity of the new city to Cairo, constructed only 50 kilometers west of Cairo’s city center, may lead to its eventual integration with the existing capital, thereby exacerbating the current problems. Some critics argue that the development of the new capital city appears to prioritize the interests of the elite while neglecting the genuine needs of most Egyptians. They view the new capital as a strategic measure to insulate the government from protests and uprisings, especially following the successful uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011.
To ensure the successful implementation of this project, the responsibility of preparing a draft proposal and facilitating public debate should be entrusted to an impartial and professional commission.
In the absence of a transparent political process, any relocation of the capital is likely to be perceived as an opportunistic move, benefitting a particular group. This, in turn, would likely aggravate ethnopolitical tensions.
If, instead, the process of choosing a second capital becomes an exercise of inclusive and democratic national deliberation, a new capital may become a much-needed starting point for a prosperous and peaceful national Ethiopian identity.
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Main Image: Megenagna, Addis-Abeba; 2013; Gideon Abate
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
- 1Amidst the Oromo protest movement, there was a period between 2014 and 2016 when the roads leading to Addis Ababa experienced blockades. These actions intensified, particularly following the apprehension of key protest leaders. Furthermore, the unfortunate demise of artist Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020 triggered widespread civil turmoil across Oromia that led to the obstruction of roads connecting to Addis.
- 2Ethiopia’s population has been rapidly increasing since the 1990s, now reaching an estimated 127 million people.
- 3For instance, Addis Ababa received over 60 percent of total foreign direct investment from China in 2019.
- 4Ahmed Gragn is an Amharic name for Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, a military leader of the Adal Sultanate who embarked on a conquest that brought three-quarters of Ethiopia under the power of the Muslim Kingdom of Adal during the Ethiopian-Adal War from 1529-43.
- 5Research from 450 towns in India emphasizes that non-compact cities tend to be less efficient. See: Harari, M. (2020). Cities in bad shape: Urban geometry in India. American Economic Review, 110(8), 2377-2421.
- 6In 2015, the Egyptian government announced its plan to construct a new capital city at an estimated cost of approximately $59 billion. The primary objective of this project was to alleviate the issues of overcrowding, inefficiency, and pollution in Cairo. However, the initiative faced considerable criticism due to public skepticism about the Egyptian government’s real intentions, exorbitant costs, and the choice of location. Many experts worry that the proximity of the new city to Cairo, constructed only 50 kilometers west of Cairo’s city center, may lead to its eventual integration with the existing capital, thereby exacerbating the current problems. Some critics argue that the development of the new capital city appears to prioritize the interests of the elite while neglecting the genuine needs of most Egyptians. They view the new capital as a strategic measure to insulate the government from protests and uprisings, especially following the successful uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011.