Ethiopia was under-urbanized, even by African standards. In the late 1980s, only about 11 percent of the population lived in urban areas of at least 2,000 residents. There were hundreds of communities with 2,000 to 5,000 people, but these were primarily extensions of rural villages without urban or administrative functions. Thus, the level of urbanization would be even lower if one used strict urban structural criteria. Ethiopia's relative lack of urbanization is the result of the country's history of agricultural self-sufficiency, which has reinforced rural peasant life. The slow pace of urban development continued until the 1935 Italian invasion. Urban growth was fairly rapid during and after the Italian occupation of 1936-41. Urbanization accelerated during the 1960s, when the average annual growth rate was about 6.3 percent. Urban growth was especially evident in the northern half of Ethiopia, where most of the major towns are located.
Addis Ababa was home to about 35 percent of the country's urban population in 1987. Another 7 percent resided in Asmera, the second largest city. Major industrial, commercial, governmental, educational, health, and cultural institutions were located in these two cities, which together were home to about 2 million people, or one out of twenty-five Ethiopians. Nevertheless, many small towns had emerged as well. In 1970 there were 171 towns with populations of 2,000 to 20,000; this total had grown to 229 by 1980.
The period 1967-75 saw rapid growth of relatively new urban centers. The population of six towns--Akaki, Arba Minch, Awasa, Bahir Dar, Jijiga, and Shashemene--more than tripled, and that of eight others more than doubled. Awasa, Arba Minch, Metu, and Goba were newly designated capitals of administrative regions and important agricultural centers. Awasa, capital of Sidamo, had a lakeshore site and convenient location on the Addis Ababa-Nairobi highway. Bahir Dar was a newly planned city on Lake Tana and the site of several industries and a polytechnic institute. Akaki and Aseb were growing into important industrial towns, while Jijiga and Shashemene had become communications and service centers.
Urban centers that experienced moderate growth tended to be more established towns, such as Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, and Debre Zeyit. A few old provincial capitals, such as Gonder, also experienced moderate growth, but others, such as Harer, Dese, Debre Markos, and Jima, had slow growth rates because of competition from larger cities. By the 1990s, Harer was being overshadowed by Dire Dawa, Dese by Kembolcha, and Debre Markos by Bahir Dar.
Overall, the rate of urban growth declined from 1975 to 1987. With the exception of Aseb, Arba Minch, and Awasa, urban centers grew an average of about 40 percent over that twelve-year period. This slow growth is explained by several factors. Rural-to-urban migration had been largely responsible for the rapid expansion during the 1967-75 period, whereas natural population growth may have been mostly responsible for urban expansion during the 1975-84 period. The 1975 land reform program provided incentives and opportunities for peasants and other potential migrants to stay in rural areas. Restrictions on travel, lack of employment, housing shortages, and social unrest in some towns during the 1975-80 period also contributed to a decline in rural-to-urban migration.
Although the male and female populations were about equal, men outnumbered women in rural areas. More women migrated to the urban centers for a variety of reasons, including increased job opportunities.
As a result of intensified warfare in the period 1988-91, all urban centers received a large influx of population, resulting in severe overcrowding, shortages of housing and water, overtaxed social services, and unemployment. In addition to beggars and maimed persons, the new arrivals comprised large numbers of young people. These included not only primary and secondary school students but also an alarming number of orphans and street children, estimated at well over 100,000. Although all large towns shared in this influx, Addis Ababa, as the national capital, was most affected. This situation underscored the huge social problems that the Mengistu regime had neglected for far too long.
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