Ethiopia: Symbol of Capitalist Vibrancy the Emerging Financial District of Addis Ababa


The skyline of Addis Ababa is fast changing. The best way to see how Addis Ababa is fast changing is to look it from the top of the hill near the old Menelik Palace. From that perspective you get the impression that you are watching a new city emerging on the ruins of old slums that spread in all directions.

If emperor Menelik could get up from his grave and see the change, he might have refuse to recognize the area as the place he established as his permanent seat of government. The entire area around the palace is completely changed nowadays and when you look at the tall buildings in the distance, you realize a cluster of new structures in the direction of Black Lion hospital or the National Theatre.

What is amazing in Addis Ababa as far as the changing skyline is concerned is the fact that new buildings are emerging almost every month or week so much so that the places you are familiar with suddenly turn into unknown places and you get confused by the speed of change or renovation taking place there.

A few years ago, the place around the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) was unchanging, drab and ordinary. Now all that is changing so quickly that you are shocked not only by the speed of the change taking place but also by what is changing or what is new in the area.

This is most evident in the traditional business area or the downtown district around the National Theatre. Tall and fancy buildings with apparently postmodern architectures are fast replacing the drab and derelict seven to eight story structures. Change is also engulfing the old business area near the National Theatre at the centre of which was the CBE, a pioneer in the banking industry. Back in the early 1960's, the CBE building was considered one of the most advanced architectural wonders of its time under the imperial regime. The building has not yet lost its charms although it is taken over by the postmodernist architecture that is evident in the new banks and insurance buildings around it.

In the old days under the Derg socialist system, tall buildings were not only unknown but it was considered a sign of capitalist decadence to build high rises that look like Western ones. People consider four to eight story buildings very tall and deserve the name skyscraper.

Bedelu Building, adjacent to the new Awash International Bank was taken for a very high structure and people were impressed by its shape and look. Nowadays the building has become very old and lives in the shadows of AIB. It must be a candidate for demolition by private or state developers. The piece of land it occupies could well be used for building at least a twenty-story building which is commercially viable as land and building price in the area has become very expensive.

The main catalyst of the sharp rise in land price in the area must be the construction of high rises and the fast pace with which the area is turning into the biggest financial district of Addis Ababa. Like the City in London or Wall Street in New York.

Many private banks have built their own skyscrapers around the area and one tall building seems to be overtaking the other in the silent competition for bigness which is also the symbol of emerging capitalism that is always looking up for more profits.

In fact private banks in Ethiopia have grown by leaps and bounds in less than twenty years and their profits range from hundreds of millions to billions of birr. No wonder that they are now spending billions in building those impressive headquarters.

The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) is also part of this building competition so to say. As the biggest bank in the country with hundreds of branches all over the country, the CBE also boasts of the biggest annual profits and reserves. It is now busy building its biggest headquarters in the heart of the capital Addis Ababa. Upon completion, the new CBE headquarter building will no doubt become the biggest landmark in the capital.

Seen from a good distance, the Chinese-built building is a fancy product of architectural imagination and technological wonder. Its diamond-shaped glass surface is sparkling in the light of day while reflecting the light around it during the night. For some time, the building will no doubt stand the tallest and the proudest structure in Addis until a new competitor will come to take its place but that will be in the distant future.

A few years ago, we were surprised by the new headquarters of the Awash International Bank right behind National Theatre. The building's height as well as its architecture was a novel invention at that time. We had to stretch our neck a little bitin order to see the last story of the building. Now it is being overtaken by other fancier and taller structures right across the street.

The building housing Nib Bank and Insurance headquarters is breathtaking indeed. It is imitating the structure of a beehive and as such it is inspired by Ethiopian rural architecture that was invented by farmers and beekeepers in the old times. The bank's symbol is the hard-working bee and the building is a reminder of how hard work pays as it has paid the new private bank worthy of its name.

Private banks in Ethiopia have a brighter future indeed. If they have grown with such tempo in the last decades of state-controlled economic policy, they will certainly grow by leaps and bounds under the liberal economic policy of the government that will enjoy bigger profits when the financial sector will be opened for free competition and the big league of foreign banks will enter the market with huge investments in hard currency and the stock market will open its doors. Yet, that will be no small feat as the global financial environment is hard hit by the pandemic.

Let me go back to the emerging financial district and the area around it where illegal money changers are still proliferating. These people will approach you and ask you whether you want to change the local currency with dollars.

There were a couple of police raids in the area in the past and many of the money changers where reportedly apprehended only to be released soon and resume their operations. Maybe there is no full-proof solution for illegal money changing as they are always roaming the area hunting for money changers that are no too many these days as travels and tourism have hit a very low level.

Traditionally, the area was a meeting place for expatriates and tourists as well as Ethiopians from the diaspora. Lion Bar which is nearby is located in an old Italian-built building that still bears all the hallmarks of Italian architecture. The building used to house the offices of fascist officials during the Italian occupation.

Let's go back to the emerging financial district and the main street leading to Mexico Square that has become one of the most crowded places in the capital. The motely crowd is amazing and amazing still is the skyscraper that has lately emerged on one side of the road intersection at the old place that was called SengaTera or "the market for oxen".

Nowadays, they don't sell oxen there. New buildings with glass structures have replaced the derelict business and living quarters where hotels and brothels coexisted in harmony and crime was the most profitable occupation because of the high unemployment rate in the area and the youthful population inhabiting the place.

A little farther from that place on the way to Mercato, you can see blocks of condominium housing projects that have been built on the ruins of the old slums and give the area around it a real facelift and a sense of modernism. The slum areas have now almost disappeared, together with the crowds of people that were swarming in the area as if it was an anthill, in order to make their livings and the sound motorcars and the shouts of pedestrians. You would sometimes wonder where the crowd has gone now.

Not certainly to the emerging business district but somewhere to the outskirts of the growing capital where shacks and mud houses shelter those who were driven out of the city center by the advancing modernization and reconstruction in the great Ethiopian capital.

More From: Ethiopian Herald

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