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The Need for State Intervention in the Regional Urban System of Tigray

The Need for State Intervention in the Regional Urban System of Tigray


Yohannes Aberra Ayele(PhD, Associate Professor)

March 27, 2019

Grave concern has been aired since recently about the rapid, but spontaneous, urban growth in Tigray; particularly the excessive primacy of Mekelle City. Social and economic ills have also been reported which require not only short-term crisis management but also structural changes enabling sustainable management of the urban system of the Region. Urbanization in Tigray has its own unique features. No urban system in the world is exactly the same. The natural, economic, social-cultural, and political drivers of urban growth vary in time and space. Although the basic features may be similar,the drivers and consequences of Urbanization during the Axumite age are not exactly the same as what we are experiencing in our time. The drivers and consequences of urbanization in Asia are not the same as in Ethiopia; neither are the drivers and consequences the same in all regions of Ethiopia. This clearly implies that every region has to share the common features of all urban systems nationally and globally, but should also take its own uniqueness seriously and plan for a sustainable urban system of its own.

The Regional state of Tigray has to avoid the two extremes of the urban development intervention spectrum. One end is leaving urbanization to take its own course, unregulated, as the liberalist political economy dictates. The other end is to assume that all urbanization is the same and use text book or “universal” urban-system planning blue prints or acquire “best practice” fromselected countries or regions or hiring urban planning expert from overseas. Given the uniqueness of regions “best practice” is ‘own practice’ based on knowledge generated by specialized urban systems research.

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Urbanization is the future of our planet. Already more than half of the world population is living in urban areas. By the middle of this Century, three-quarters of the world population is projected to reside in cities. Not the absolute magnitude but the rate of growth is projected to be much higher in Africa and Asia. Although the degree of urbanization in Ethiopia is low by world standards, even by African standards, the rate of urbanization is among the highest. In Tigray the level of urbanization had been below the National average before 1991. After 1991 the degree of urbanization in Tigray has exceeded the National average, and the gap is widening. This implies that the rate of urbanization in Tigray has been accelerating in the last three decades. This is the most troublesome part of the urbanization story. Rate of urbanization more than the degree of urbanization puts a more difficult challenge to the proper management of the urban system. If the proportion of people living in urban areas is increasing more rapidly than the growth of the capacity to provide services and jobs it can result in social, economic and even political crisis which increases in magnitude by every passing day. If yesterday’s problem is not solved it will be two added with today’s. If the two today’s problems are not solved they will be three tomorrow. If fact, as a cumulative effect is more than the sum of the daily problems yesterday will be several times better than tomorrow.

The drivers of urbanization in Tigray have been varying throughout the history of Tigray. The Axumite period of urbanization was the earliest urbanization not only for Tigray but also for the whole of Ethiopia and sub-Sahara Africa. Axumite urban system stretched from north central Tigray to the Red Sea coast. It is possible to extend the history of urbanization back to the D’mt (Yeha), but significant relics of urbanization have not been found in the locality. At least two drivers can be identified that have resulted in the evolution of the Axumite urban phenomenon.The first is, mediating or coordinating trade between the hinterland of Axum, the African (Ethiopian) interior and the Middle East and beyond through the port of Adulis. The second isthe cities as centers of power for organizing conquests and empire building. Axumite urbanization was spontaneous; but it flourished for over a thousand years. For however long Axumite urbanization spanned the decline was precipitous. There were external and international reasons for the decline. The external factor was beyond the power of the Axumite “urban mangers” to prevent. It was the expansion of Islam and the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the Red Sea shutting off the Axumites from their empire building and external trade outlets. The internal factor was the depletion of resources in the hinterlands of the Axumite urban system which were used imprudently. To start with an urban system uses its local resources for its basic survival. The external resources are acquired only after the urban system gathers strength in due course of time from the increased resource availability from its surrounding areas. Historically, urbanization is the outcome of surplus production in rural areas which creates centers of non-agricultural activities: cities. Blinded by the glories of trade and empire building Axumites did not notice that they were ‘cutting the branch they sat on’. For urban areas to flourish income from outside is vital; but for them to survive availability and sustainability of local resources are crucial.

During the years after the Axumite age, which can be referred to as the Middle Ages urban phenomena in Tigray had a similar feature to that of Europe of the same period. In Europe urban areas served as the residences of kings and warlords, in which their respective armies are encamped before the frequent internecine wars for dominance are waged. The rest of the population of the urban areas were traders, artisans, servants slaves for the palace and officials at various levels. The longevity of the urban areas depends on how strongly they are defended from attack by opponents. In Tigray there were warlords with fiefdoms like Shire, Agame, Enderta, Adwa, Tembien, etc. With sometimes expanding at other times shrinking sizes. The victory of a warlord over another is followed by the growth and the decline of their capitals respectively. The urban centers, most of them not much larger than villages, were populated largely by part-time troops of the warlords (drawn from the surrounding peasantry), artisans, traders, slaves, and servants at all levels of the hierarchy of the nobility. With the rise of Yohannes IV the rise and fall of tiny capitals of the sub-regional warlords was replaced by the Dominance of Mekelle. The trend remained unchanged until this very day and is likely to continue into the near future.


Urban phenomena in Tigray, during the Derg, were even more complex than it has ever been. There were at least three interlaced features that characterized the urban centers 1. Urban centers, whose population growth was contributed to by climate refugees,due to the two major droughts in the Region; 2. Towns that served as command centers for the anti-weyane war in the Region; and 3. Liberated areas under TPLF administration, which served as command and logistic centers for the insurgency. There was a tendency for the first category to overlap with the rest of the two categories. The second and the third categories exchanged their functions following the alternating victory of the Derg and the TPLF forces.

A new era of urbanization dawned in Tigray with the defeat of the Derg in the hands of the TPLF forces. There is no question about the role peace plays in accelerating the process of urbanization, driven largely by economic factors. This was a phenomenon never seen in Tigray. The peace that prevailed in Tigray since 1991 has never been experienced since the downfall of the Axumite kingdom. Economic drivers of urbanization that characterized the Axumite are shared by the last three decades of urbanization in Tigray. At least seven attributes can be identified 1. Urban economies that are tied to Addis Ababa and other urban areas for export and import trade; 2.Urban economies reliant on income from remittance from sources within Ethiopia and overseas; 3. Urban economies based on income from tourism; 4. Urban economies engaged in inter-urban exchange within the Region; 5. Urban economies generating income from industrial and service investment; 6. Urban economies dependent on budgetary allocation for the bureaucracy (salaries and organizational expenses); and 7.Urban economies subsisting on intra-urban service provision.


In the course of free competition between the urban centers of Tigray and in a situation of absence of regulation of the rank-size relationships and regular hierarchical growth, Mekelle has emerged as a victor and dwarfed others in the Regional urban system. Of course, this is what normally happens in a free competition. The city, which possesses initial advantages for a jump start will have the chance to accelerate its growth at the expense of others. Mekelle has become a primate city nearly three times the population of the next city: Adigrat. Mekelle has about one-fivth of the entire urban population of Tigray. Actually, the initial trigger of Mekelle's urban primacy was not winning in the free competition. The TPLF-led government of Tigray concentrated its attention on the Capital of the Region in terms of investment and service provision. I don't want to speculate that the peripheral vision of TPLF leadership on urban centers of Tigray other than Mekelle was motivated by personal interest of the decision makers. Somebody can bring me in a bottle if it is a myth or in chains if it is true as the Pharaoh of Egypt told his son Ramses. I prefer to think that the imbalance between the growth of Mekelle and the rest of themedium and small urban centers is created as a result of the hope for a "trickle-down effect" to be realized. In urban-regional planning one of the approaches is to concentrate investment in one growth center (growth pole), usually an administrative capital for the ease of regulatory follow up, expecting development to spread out into the other urban centers after a certain stage of economic maturity is attained. Once the largest city gets this intimal advantage it can attain a much greater momentum to accelerate on its own beyond the reach of the urban centers next in the rank order.

Once a citystarts to grow it enjoys the advantage of “agglomeration economies”. The flow of investment attracts other investments to benefit from forward and backward linkages. The economy of scale for the provision of services further accelerates the concentration. Skilled labour is drawn to the primate city from the medium and small towns denying them of any chance to compete with the largest city. This kind of growth is known as "snow-ball effect". Compact a handful of soft snow into a small ball and roll it over the snow on the ground. By the time the snow-ball stops rolling, it has become much larger. As it rolls it collects snow; as it collects snow it becomes larger; as it becomes larger its surface area becomes wider and collects much more snow than it did before. The centripetal forces attracting everything around to the center are expected to be replaced by centrifugal forces, that spread out investment into the medium and smaller towns, does not occur early enough. The centripetal forces of concentration continue out of control until they grind to a halt because of a negative process that starts to reveal itself, after a climax of the agglomeration economies is reached. As concentration turns to congestion,  in which populations and services fail to match, thecost incurred by overcrowding, mal-distribution of income creates homelessness, food insecurity, maladministration, corruption, and widespread crime resulting in a 'diseconomies of scale'. The initial government trigger, the agglomeration economies that followed, and the diseconomies of scale that is revealing itself have all been manifested in Mekelle City.

There is widespread self-deception among leaders of the Region and ordinary people alike. This is also true to the general public in the rest of Ethiopia. There are some popular criteria that are in use to conceptualize and evaluate urban growth. The criteria do not even include the conventional and common urban growth indicator population size. Aesthetic criterion has become so often used to evaluate urban growth so much that people become deaf to the prime movers of urban growth: economic factors. Many people prefer to take the number of street-lining high-rise buildings, length of asphalted or cobble-stoned roads, and the extent of sprawl into the rural fringe, as indicators of urban growth. When these superficials become key criteriafew can notice the huge difference between Mekelle, Adigrat, and Axum. All have "beautiful high-rise buildings, asphalted roads everywhere and their surface areas have grown". The real cause of growth or decline of urban centers lies not in the beauty of buildings and streets but in the urban economic geography. It is what sustains the cities that matters most than how they look. A town with "hidmos" and dusty streets could fare much better than a beautiful "ghost-town" lacking economic vibrancy. Any visitor who has spent a day or two in Mekelle would come back to Addis Ababa and tell his friends about “the unbelievable growth/ development of Mekelle”. His evaluation is merely based on the number of high-rise buildings he may have counted.

In the study of urban economic geography there are two "economic souls" of any urban center city-forming or basic activities and city- serving or non-basic activities. The two, not mutually exclusive categories, are analogous to two systems of the human body.The basic like the digestive system which gets food for the body from outside and the circulatory system which distributes the food to all parts of the body. Urban centers grow if there are production and service activities which bring income from outside the city. A non-basic activity serves the urban centers by circulating the income brought in by the basic activity. If there is a factory that produces textiles and sells to customers outside the city it gets new income for the city. A shop-keeper sells household necessities to the employees of the factory distributing the income the factory got from outside. If an urban center cannot earn income from outside it cannot survive on city-serving activities alone. Axum declined because it became deficient of income from external sources: trade and conquest. Some urban centers could survive kept alive by government budgetary support like a patient surviving by life support machine. The support could even include food aid to keep town residents alive. Such urban centers could be breeding grounds for youth activism or crime and drug abuse as a result of widespread unemployment.

In the analysis of urban economy people fail to notice the greater importance of a shoe-shiner, in one of the street corners of Axum, than a beautiful 5- story building stacked by offices, cafes, restaurants, and garment shops. What all these inside the building do is circulating the income brought by other basic activities. I say the shoe-shiner is better because he shines shoes for tourists and people that have come from outside of town. Of course, if the shops and restaurants in the building could have customers coming from outside the city they could also be basic activities at the same time

In order to end the dangerous spontaneity of the growth and decline of urban centers in Tigray it is crucial to look into the nature of the urban economies of each urban center and also analyze the hierarchy of the structure of the urban system in the Region. The nature of urbanization does not allow all urban centers in a region to be equal demographically and economically. There will be a tendency for a hierarchy where few urban centers are at the top and more next…. The regional demographic and economic hierarchy of urban centers normally takes the shape of a pyramid. This is important for efficient resource use and the attainment of the economy of scale. It is not necessary to work for bringing Adigrat or Shire to the level of Mekelle. It is neither advisable to keep Mekelle high in the skies above the other towns. A balanced hierarchy has to be attained in the Regional urban system based on economy of scale considerations, capacity for service provision, and natural, financial and human resources locally available.

I propose that the urban centers of Tigray be vertically categorized as Regional metropolis (Mekelle) at the top of the hierarchy, with the highest level economic functions; 2. Major urban centers (Adigrat, Shire, Axum, etc.); 3.Medium urban centers (Maychew, Abiyiadi, etc.); 4.Small towns (Hiwane, Bizet) and 5. Very small or "rural" towns closely associated with rural livelihoods. The classification can start with demography (population size hierarchy) but should not end there. The economic base of each urban center must be documented by way of detailed economic census. With demographic and economic base data at hand the levels will be determined. Of course, the level for a particular town may not remain forever. There could be upward and downward mobility in the urban hierarchy based on performance in a particular level. The hierarchical categories are more cooperative than competitive.

Intervention into the hierarchy ensures that: 1. Each urban center possesses adequate number of basic activities that could bring in income to sustain a healthy social and economic life at that particular level in the hierarchy. There could be special cases where some urban centers, low in the hierarchy, could have a five-star tourist hotel (high income basic or city-forming activity). This could be due to the special function of that urban center as a resort-town or tourist destination. Such special cases should be addressed in the planning, implementation, and regulation of intervention in the urban system. Maintaining a balanced hierarchy in the urban system of Tigray has a great deal of implication to the system of investment permit. The system has be organized or designed in such a way that investments having different levels are distributed to the various levels depending on the economy of scale needed for the particular production or service investment. For instance car manufacturing investment cannot happen at all levels; not even in the category of major towns. At the current level the economy of scale may support car manufacturing at the level of the Regional metropolis. If a meat canning factory is in Mekelle instead of in Alamata or Sheraro, if all simple agricultural tools producing shops are located in Mekelle or in Adigrat, when they should be in the lower urban levels close enough to the rural consumer the balance is destroyed followed by a harmful demographic shift involving overpopulation of Mekelle and the depopulation of the other urban centers. The imbalance is often followed by political instability, which is less affordable to the Regional government than mainstreaming the maintenance of a balanced urban hierarchy in the Regional planning system.

I know, this is more easily said than done. There are at least two challenges: 1. in a free market economy regimentation of private investment to fit the desired balance in the urban hierarchy is not possible. The whims and wills, besides the cost effectiveness, guide the location preferences for investment. It could be through strong system of incentives and putting adequate infrastructure in place that investors may be encouraged to locate where government wants them to do so; 2. the Regional government may at times be guided by National level planning which may create imbalance when implemented at regional levels. The selection of locations for industrial parks results more skew than balance. For instance, the selection of regional capitals (Mekelle for instance) prioritizing them for industrial park location aggravates urban primacy or concentration wrecking the desirable balance of the Regional urban hierarchy. To resolve this, National planning requirement and the need for a balanced Regional investment location have to be skillfully integrated. Where is such a skill located? It is located in a research institute that collects a myriad of urban economic and social data regularly, devise ways and means of structuring and restructuring the Regional urban system by tracking the shifts in the demography and economy of the various levels of the urban hierarchy.

The major sticking point for the Regional urban planning is how urban planning is perceived. There are two perspectives to urban analysis: 1. 'Urban as an area', and 2. 'Urban as a point'. 'Urban as an area' means the internal physical, economic, and social structure of a particular urban center; whereas, 'urban as a point' means the distribution of urban centers throughout a particular region. To illustrate the concepts better take two sets of maps: one a Regional map of Tigray, and the other, the map of Mekelle. On the map of Tigray you can see the towns are represented by dots of different sizes according to their relative importance or population sizes. This map is intended to show how the urban centers are located (arranged) relative to each other by size or importance categories. The other map shows the street patterns and the arrangement of buildings inside a particular town. Urban planning focuses much more on the 'urban as an area' rather than on the 'urban as a point'. We often hear of master plans for each urban center in the Region rather than a master plan for all urban centers constituting a single and interacting hierarchical urban system. If a separate master plan for a particular urban center is not collated with a regional master plan for the urban system it is considered as 'half-baked'. If for instance Mekelle launches a master plan, the design of which depended only on projected demographic, social, and economic data from within the City, and is soon overwhelmed by job seeking migrants from Adigrat, Tembien, Shire, Korem, My Tsemri, etc? This was not in the master plan! Since provision of services, housing, and others was planned only for projected changes based on existing situation in Mekelle at the time of planning, the surprise cannot be accommodated. This inevitably leads to crisis. Had a Regional master plan been done before the Mekelle master plan, how much population could shift from Addigrat or May Tsemri to Mekelle may have been predicted. Based on such information Mekelle could have designed its master plan with a contingency to cater for the in-migration. Every urban center has to design its master plan vis-a-vis other urban centers in the Region. Otherwise, it will have to live with lifelong surprises rendering costly master plans useless. How many times has Mekelle planned its potable water supply for "so many people, for so many years"! After one or two years, earlier than the projected service adequacy, alarm bells start to ring: "There is no water enough for the residents"!!

There are disparate government offices for the 'urban as a point' and for the 'urban as an area'. The bureau of urban development is tasked with the 'urban as a point' while the municipalities, which jealously guard their autonomy, are tasked with the '"urban as an area", preparing master plans for their respective cities. The bureau collects somepopulation data for the urban areas and assigns ranks or categories of urban areas for the Region; and is also involved or assists in urban design for 'urban as an area’.

Tigray could only be an urban civilization. Agriculture as a dominant way of life is too much to ask for the Region. Tigray is located close to the Sahel zone: in the frontline of expansion of the Sahara Desert. Its current climate ranges from semi-arid to dry-sub humid. These are moisture regimes that make up the “dry lands”. The experience of Israel has shown that desert areas can be converted into irrigated fields with the use of high-tech methods. Although the extensive re-greening in Tigray could be a good reason for hope that enough groundwater resources can be recharged for water efficient irrigation this can be devoted for insuring food security. Hence, urban-based economies are expected to attract more and more people into the urban areas. Proactive planning for the inevitable trend is wisdom of the highest level. Reactive response to urban problems has always been destructive.  



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