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Addis Ababa: Africa’s capital or one colossal urinal?

The underlying factor behind the maladministration of the city is that residents of the city have little say in the manner that it is being governed. Members of the Addis Ababa City Council are more of appointees than elected public officials since local elections in Ethiopia, including the elections to the Addis Ababa City Council, are mere periodic rituals with little democratic significance, writes Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele.

Anyone who lives in and, as most of us do, loves Addis Ababa would feel anger, irritation, and frustration in the way it is being run. Those who are in charge of the government of the city have been telling us about their plan to make the city clean and green. Yet, Addis Ababa is neither clean nor green. Nothing is flowery about the city save for its name. It is increasingly becoming unappealing in its appearance. Granted, it has now an improved road network and new buildings are mushrooming everywhere in the city. Yet, by no means Addis Ababa is cleaner or greener now than before. It has no a single decent public space, especially green public space. The existing green public spaces are found at the periphery of the city, far from the city center, and beyond the reach of the public. Even those are now being eaten into from every direction – with the construction of (legal and illegal) residential houses and apartments – and shrinking by the day.

In any case my focus here is not the problem of the fast disappearing public green spaces in Addis Ababa as I have already dealt with that issue in a previous op-ed that was published in this newspaper under a title ‘Public open spaces and our rights to our cities’.  What I purpose to raise here is the ‘cleanliness’ issue. Refuse removal, though an important issue of urban sanitation, is not also my focus here. I specifically want to raise the problem of urinating on Addis Ababa’s streets; an embarrassing topic to even to write about, an important issue nevertheless.

It is almost impossible for one who walks, drives or is driven in any direction of the city to avoid the sight of someone urinating next to a fence or a building or a tree. I am not claiming here that urinating in public spaces is strange phenomenon in the country or the city. Indeed, many men and boys (the female residents of the city share a little blame in this regard) often urinated in and around public areas. I do not think however it was as common as it is now. Moreover, there was some level of discomfiture one would feel for urinating in public spaces. Hence, one would find a place that was hidden from the eyes of onlookers. What is different now is that many people, from small boys to very old men, do it publicly, everywhere, every time, and, apparently, without any sense of discomfort. Urinating on the streets is appearing to be increasingly normal. The ugliest of scenes for me in this regard was seeing a man helping a small boy of about four years old (I presume his son) urinate on a street and then himself urinate, side by side with the child.

The sight of someone urinating on the street is on its own problematic since it causes a disturbing feeling to any observer. The problem is not however limited to that. Now the stench of urine that spews everywhere in the city, especially around taxi ranks where people queue while waiting for taxis and buses, has become intolerable. It has also become a grave health risk to the city’s residents, particularly to children. One cannot escape the smell of disgusting odor of urine everywhere in the city even though it is far worse in some places, such as, Megenagna and Cazanchis.  I was hoping the Megenagna area will be cleaner when the city government rebuilt the taxi rank there. Quite the contrary. One who passes through that taxi rank in the morning is likely to see unmistakable marks of urination. In short, our city, which was supposed to be the capital of our country and continent seems to have turned into one massive urinal.  

Who is to blame for this situation?

There is plenty of blame to go around:

I would say the city government takes the largest share of the blame. Under the Addis Ababa City Charter, the city government was supposed to make Addis Ababa ‘a suitable urban space for work and residence measurable by modem standards in view of the fact that it is the capital of the [the federal government] and the seat of the African Union and of a variety of International Organizations as well as it is a reflection’ the ethno-cultural diversity of the Ethiopian people. To this effect the city government was made responsible for providing residents of the city with ‘municipal services’ which include water and sewerage services, sanitation, beautification and other similar services. The city government has fantastically failed in terms of delivering on these mandates.

The city government has also failed in terms of taking legislative or other measures that are directed at preventing the dirtying of public spaces in the city. In other jurisdictions, littering and urinating in public spaces would result in serious fines and even detainments. I am not aware if the city has a legislative framework for dealing with littering, urinating and spitting and performing other similar offensive acts in public spaces. If there is such a piece of legislation, clearly it is not well publicized, nor is it strictly enforced: Not enforced despite the fact that the city has its own police force and what is called rule enforcer.

The Addis Ababa City Beautification, Park and Cemetery Development Agency is responsible for greening and beautifying the city. This office appears to be completely dysfunctional. The Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority is in charge of water provision and construction of public toilets and urinals. It was reported that the Agency had a plan to build over a thousand public toilets and urinals throughout the city. It has reportedly built less than ten percent of the planned public toilets. Lacking easily accessible and clean public toilets, members of the public deemed that they have no choice but to relieve themselves on the city’s streets.

We, residents of the city, also share the blame. Apparently, many of us consider the absence of public toilets and urinals in the city as a sufficient excuse for polluting our public spaces. Many of us also clearly lack the mind set of an urban dweller, whose quintessential marker is caring about the cleanliness of his/her residence and surroundings; a trait that many of us seem to lack.      

What is the way out?

I can think of short term and long-term solutions for the problem. In the short term the authorities of the city should adopt the necessary policy and legislative framework for preventing urinating, spitting in, and littering public spaces. The legislative measure should involve serious penalties for such conducts including fines, compulsory community services or a short period imprisonment. There should be also a campaign of awareness creation about the gravity of the problem. The media (specially the FM radios) can play a critical role in this respect. The city government should also build the planned urinals as quickly as possible.

The long-term solution for dealing with the above and other problems that the city is facing is democratizing its governance and professionalizing its municipal administration. I am the view that the underlying factor behind the maladministration of the city is that residents of the city have little say in the manner that it is being governed. Members of the Addis Ababa City Council are more of appointees than elected public officials since local elections in Ethiopia, including the elections to the Addis Ababa City Council, are mere periodic rituals with little democratic significance. (This is not to mention the fact that the city was ran by centrally appointed care taker governments for several years). Those running the executive branch of the city government allegedly gain their positions as a result of ethnic politics and intra-party power play rather than for their competence. The city has become a pawn in in the political games of members of the ruling party. It also seems to me that those who are in charge of the administration of city neither know it nor care for it. It is often alleged that there are many in the administrative structure of the city who came to Addis Ababa, often for the first time, simply take up an administrative position.

The Constitution explicitly recognizes the right to self-government of residents of the city. It also envisions that the city would be run by a democratically constituted government and that residents of the city would have the right to voice their preferences and concerns regarding its administration and development. I would hence maintain that directly or indirectly involving citizens of the city in its governance and professionalizing the city’s municipal structure is critical for solving the myriad of problems it is facing.

Ed.’s Note: Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele (LLD), is an Associate Professor at the Center for Federalism and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University. He is also an Extra-Ordinary Associate Professor at Dullah Omar Institute for Constitutional Law, Governance and Human Rights, University of the Western Cape (UWC, South Africa). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Addis Ababa: Africa’s capital or one colossal urinal?
Contributed by Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele.