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Rotating the Governance of the Capital City of the Zones in the Regional State of Tigray:  Restoring the Promise of Democratic Autonomy 

Desta, Asayehgn, Sarlo Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Economic Development

          Proactive planning for the inevitable trend is wisdom of the highest level

             (Yohannes Aberra Ayele, (March 27, 2019)

After more than two decades of remarkable economic achievement, it is discouraging to notice that currently Ethiopia is undergoing major social upheavals and economic crises.  As MacDiarmid (September 12, 2018) aptly states, around mid- 2018, more than 2.6 million Ethiopians were displaced. Sadly, these Ethiopians now occupy downtrodden shelters, churches, and depleted homes. Unless this humanitarian disaster is soon addressed, MacDiarmid argues, life for these Ethiopians in transit could soon resemble the deplorable conditions in the world’s worst settings, such as Syria, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.   

Far from being contained, the crisis is spreading and creating a ripple effect in so-called “peaceful” regions of Ethiopia. Except for some intermittent ethnic skirmishes in the Welkate and Raya districts, the Regional State of Tigray has been entertaining peace and stability over the past several years. Recently, however, a handful of residents of the Mekelle Special Zone have challenged the Government of Tigray (TOG), arguing it cannot continue to police the Mekelle Special Zone with die-hard zealots recruited mainly from the Central Zone of Tigray. In what would sound like an ultimatum, the agitators have demanded restructuring of the Regional State of Tigray to accommodate the disenfranchised. Otherwise, they strongly insist, “Once such civil disorder unfolds due to the removal and replacement of people illegally, it is impossible to contain or control such upheavals by any form of force” (Hishe 2019).  

Meanwhile, scholars have also shown concern about the over-expansion of the City of Mekelle.  While appreciating the Tigray Liberation Front’s (TLF) efforts to rekindle and achieve high-level political and economic functions in Mekelle City, Ayele ((March 2019) argues that since the TPLF-led government of Tigray concentrated its attention on the Capital of the region in terms of investment and service provisions, the Mekelle City has neglected and, as a result, detached several outlying regional urban centers from the main body of the Tigray Regional State.

From a radical perspective, Tessema (Feb,24, 2019) argues that the Government of Tigray (GOT) has created a travesty of justice for the residents of Mekelle and Enderta. Thus, Tessema feels the TOG’s rampant land grabbing has not only infringed on property rights and endangered food security but has also caused the residents of the Mekelle and Enderta to suffer from industrial pollution and environmental degradation.      


Instead of sweeping these concerns under the rug or treating them as some type of conspiracy generated to create cracks in the rocky foundation laid down by the Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the GOT should view these diverse issues as golden opportunities to initiate viable strategies for redesigning and transforming the Regional State of Tigray.

The 2009 Census of the Tigray Regional State indicates that about 215,549 people live in Mekelle city (Central Statistical Authority, 2008). The third largest metropolitan city in Ethiopia, Mekelle City undergoes continuous urbanization on an unprecedented scale, with dense population and over expansion. It suffers from greenhouse gas emissions, solid waste mismanagement, and local ecological distress. Worse yet, water scarcity, water pollution, and adverse health effects consistently overwhelm the city’s resilience. Against this background, Mekelle city dwellers also lack basic social and health services. Though regarded as basic human rights, the GOT has also failed to provide land to city dwellers to build houses, while members of the ruling class are allowed to build big houses and reside in mansions. Meanwhile, rental units remain sub-standard for those who can afford to rent.

Astonishingly, the GOT has been willfully evicting residents of Mekelle and Endarta by paying them as little as three birr per square meter—then re-selling the same land to the highest bidder for over ten times what they paid for it. Now, a large portion of the displaced are paid a meager 15 monthly kilograms of wheat in food-aid for their mandatory hard labor, or they flee to Mekelle city to wander as beggars, thieves, and vagabonds (Hishe, 2019).   

The dramatic expansion of the Mekelle city could be attributed to push and pull factors. Over the years, Mekelle City has been pulling residents from other regions because it has established itself as Ethiopia’s administrative, commercial, industrial, and social services center. In search of higher wages, the unemployed from other parts of the region have been flocking to the City of Mekelle to earn their livelihood. Meanwhile, the dearth of poverty and lack of employment opportunities in other regions has pushed residents of the other regions toward Mekelle City. Thus, Mekelle has earned the title “Killer City,” because it achieved economic acceleration at the expense of its surrounding areas. Mekelle’s disproportionate concentration economic activities have not only perpetuated a sense of maladministration among the Regional State of Tigray, but it also has hindered its economic intercourse with the other regions. As a result, Ayele (2019) strongly argues that the social and economic ills confronting Mekelle City require not only short-term crisis management, but also fundamental structural changes in order embark on sustainable urban development.

Given this, Mekelle City requires the most viable proactive strategies to relieve its excessive growth congestion, lack of basic water services, inadequate infrastructure, and solid waste mismanagement—while concurrently lifting its outlying regions toward vibrancy and manageability. This paper proposes that Mekelle City, as the capital of the Regional State Tigray, must be rotated with the major cities in the other six administrative zones. Rotating governors could deepen the engagement of government partnership and offer leadership opportunities to a wider group of civil society actors. Admittedly, rotating capital cities constitutes a major task.  Mekelle city has to be re-structured and a substantial investment is required to construct the necessary infrastructures in the other six administrative zones.  

Restructuring the Capital Cities of Tigray Region: As shown in Table 1, the Tigray National Regional State is divided into seven zones: (1) South Zone, (2) South East Zone, (3) Central Zone, (4) Mekelle Special zone, (5) West Zone, (6) East Zone, and (7) North West Zone). Based on a two-year rotation scheme, it is proposed that the governors of the selected zone, while remaining in their zones, could oversee the entire administration of the Regional State of Tigray. In other words, the major cities of the six existing zones could join to form a decentralized government or initiate an associated confederation of zones to accommodate the Mekelle Special zone and function as administrative capital cities of the Regional State of Tigray.  

Table 1: List of Zones in the Tigray Region

List of Zones

List of Districts by zones

South Zone

·         Alajie

·         Alamata

·         Endamrhoni

·         Raya Azebo

South East Zone

·         Enderta

·         Hinalo Wajirat

·         Samre

·         Degua  Tembien

Central Zone

·         Abergale

·         Adwa

·         Enticho

·         Kola Tembien

·         La’ilay Maychew

·         Mereb Lehe

·         Naeder Adef

·         Tahtay Maychew

·         Werie Lehe

Mekele Special Zone

·         Mekele

West Zone

·         Kafta Humera

·         Tsegede

·         Welkait

East Zone

·         Atsbi Weberta

·         Ganta Afeshum

·         Gulomakda

·         Hawzen

·         Irob

·         Saesi Tsaeddaemba

·         Kilte Awulaelo

North West Zone

·         Asgede Tsimbela

·         La’ilay Adiyabo

·         Medebay Zana

·         Tahtay Adiyabo

·         Tahtay Koraro

·         Tselemti

Source: Central Statistical Agency (2005). http://www.csa.gov.et/text_files/2005_national_statistics..htm.

As Mekelle acts as a centripetal force, accumulating administrative, industrial and commercial services, other residents of Tigray have moved to Mekelle to earn a livelihood. Also, poor infrastructure in other zones of Tigray has forced the displaced to depend on Mekelle for all vital social services. Hence, the proposal herein suggests that if the capital city of Tigray is subject to a rotation, the major cities of the seven participating zones are likely to ensure equal socio-economic development, curtail security threats, create new employment opportunities, and minimize hidden feelings of parochialism (awrajawinet) by stimulating unity, sparking the multiple-zone capital to better governance, which in turn promotes business-friendly institutions.

Nonetheless, establishing regional capital cities on rotational basis is no small undertaking. Relocating regional state government structure bears costs and benefits. A first set of expenses includes operational costs for setting up general infrastructure required for transportation, housing to accommodate new employees, and building space for administrative as well as other facilities. The benefits gained by establishing the new capital city may include improvements in infrastructure, increased hotel capacity, and enhanced commercial activities.

To summarize, faced with over-population, over-expansion and water scarcity, Mekelle City has gradually become less habitable. Also, as the administrative center of the Regional State of Tigray, Mekelle has inadvertently caused substantial neglect among its outlying regions. As a response, this paper proposes an analytical framework for the decentralization of the Regional State of Tigray. By steadily creating a new, rotatable, two-year administrative or executive (but neither judiciary nor legislative) branch of government, located in each of the six sparsely populated zones, the Regional State of Tigray can foster a renaissance in democratic governance.

If carefully implemented, this each two-year rotation of capital in Tigray Region would, in short run, create infrastructural investment, more balanced zones, and encourage inclusive governance. In the long run, however, creating rotatable capital cities would neutralize local disharmony and help turn the seven zones into well-functioning engines for the development of Tigray Regional State.

It is high time to relieve Mekelle City from some of the socio-economic problems it faces. Every two years, the central cities of the existing federation of the seven zones in the Regional State of Tigray must rotate; then, the democratically chosen governor of the zone must assume presidency of the Regional state. By default, Mekelle City has become unmanageable and stifled with unclean water, pollution, and solid waste mismanagement. With each two-year rotation, the major cities of the seven zones would likely stimulate the economy, foster social equity, galvanize a greener environment, and encourage mutual empathy among residents. To further honor democracy, every subunit or woredea located in every zone must be sovereign; “This would make local units more manageable. They will each have a say in selecting their own administrators, holding them to account for their decisions. Each unit could have a number of municipalities run by community elected mayors and council members” (Desta, April 17, 2017).



Africa Development Fund. (March 2009). Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: Country Governance Profile. Governance, Economic, & Financial Reforms Department (OSGE), Country Regional Department East (OREB).


Ayele, Y. A. (March 27, 2019).  “ The Need for the State Intervention in the Regional Urban System of Tigray.”  Available at https://www.aigaforum.com/article2019/the -Need-for-state-Intervention-in-Urban-System-Tigray-htm, accessed 4/23/2019.


Ethiopian Government Central Statistics Office (2008).

Desta, A. (2017). Re-thinking Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism. Sararbruken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing.


Desta, A. (April 17, 2017). “Ethiopia needs a multi-party democracy to end the rushing impact of corruption.” THE CONVERSTION. https://theconverstion.com/ethiopia-needs-a-multi-party-democracy-to-end-the-crushing-impact-of-corruption-75144.

Hishe, T. (2019). “What are our concerns as Tigreans?  Ethiopian Observer. Available at www.ethioobserver.net/What _are_our_conerns_as_tigreans.htm, accessed  5/1/2019. 


MacDiarmid, C. (Sep.12, 2018). “Ethiopia has the highest number of internally displaced people in 2018.” The National. Available at https://www.thenational.ae/world/africa/ethiopia-has-highest-number of internally-displaced-people-in-2018-1.769626, accessed 4/20/2019.


Tessema , H. (Feb. 24, 2019). “ Mekelle’s Unjust and unsustainable Urban Expansion has to be Tacked before it’s too late”. Available at www.aogaforum,com/article2019/Makelle-land-Issue.htm, accessed 4/23/2019.