Excavators dig up Mesqel Square for the planned underground parking lot as trucks carry the soil away while an employee of CCCC gives direction.

When excavators started jack-hammering two weeks ago at Mesqel Square, the city's most famous public gathering venue, very few were in the loop on what was actually transpiring behind the corrugated iron sheets shielding the construction from view.

Mesqel Square is normally filled with an assortment of people; joggers going back and forth, multiple football matches simultaneously taking place next to one another, people sitting on the stairs that lead up to the city's exhibition centre, women selling fried snacks, pedestrians passing through on the sidewalk and street kids lounging around waiting to ask passengers in cars for spare change.

When the ground where thousands gather every year to celebrate Mesqel was suddenly fenced off  and dug up, many were perplexed at what was going on and what the plans for the city's most famous square were.

Mastewal Taddese was one of these people. The 26-year-old in her last year studying law at New York University could not help notice the number of people who were posting pictures and complaining about the lack of information about what was going on in the city.

As a law student, she had a bit more of an edge than most. Having studied the Access to Information Law that gives the public the legal right to demand information from public offices, she decided to put it into action.

"I was aware that the text of our law is relatively strong, yet filing a formal request for documents from public offices about significant public projects is not a culture that we have,” she said.

She sent an e-mail to the city government and shared it online in the form of a petition.

"My plan is to teach people about this law and tell them it's a great tool to keep your officials accountable," she said.

Through the Access to Information petition, she initiated requests for the project's construction plan, implementation area, budget and source of finance as well as the agreement signed with the project's contractor. Along the way, she has gathered over 600 signatures.

The Mesqel Square Municipality Rehabilitation project has piqued the interest of many. Addis Abeba is undergoing a restoration and beautification process and Mesqel Square is included in these projects, according to Demelash Kebede, who is heading the Addis Abeba Construction Bureau.

An artificial lake, moveable trees and street lights are all part of the big plan.

The beauty project starts from Churchill Road and makes its way to Mesqel Square and is expected to take a total of eight months.

"However, the underground parking, which is currently underway at Mesqel Square, will only take four months, in order for it to be ready for the Mesqel celebrations," Demelash said.

Mesqel Square, prior to the ongoing rehabilitation project, where thousands gather annually to celebrate the Mesqel celebration on September 28.

The time frame of the project has been one of the reasons why the public has not been engaged, he said.

The project is set to supplement the Beautifying Sheger Project. Like the Sheger Project, this one is also being undertaken by the Chinese Communications Construction Company (CCCC) at a cost of close to 2.5 billion Br. Both have been awarded to CCCC without undergoing a bidding process.

There are valid reasons for that, according to Demelash.

The Beautifying Sheger Project was designed, constructed and financed by the Chinese government, so it was a whole package. One main reason the Mesqel project was contracted to CCCC is because of the current foreign currency exchange shortage in the country, according to the Bureau head.

"CCCC has agreed to do this project based on payment in local currency," he said.

When the opportunity to purchase goods under exceptionally advantageous conditions occurs, the procurement can go through a direct process, according to the country's public procurement law.

Another reason CCCC was chosen was because of its previous track record of completing projects in the country, according to Demelash.

The Chinese state-owned group, mainly engaged in the design and construction of transportation infrastructure, dredging and the heavy machinery business has been operational in Ethiopia for 22 years. It worked on the Bole International Airport Expansion & Renovation Project, the Addis Abeba - Adama Expressway and other projects that have amounted to over 2.5 billion dollars worth of contracts in the country since it started operations.

Initially, the plan included public consultation, however, that was derailed by the onset of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), according to  Demelash.

"We'd been planning this for over two months when COVID-19 happened," he said. "It was endorsed by the city cabinet, and then after a more than 20-day arbitration period, an ad hoc committee was established to oversee the process."

The ad hoc committee consists of members from the Office of the Deputy Mayor, the Construction Bureau, the Revenues Authority, the Ethiopian Investment Commission, and the city's Environmental Protection & Green Development Commission.

The committee was also responsible for the creation of a technical committee made up of engineers and other stakeholders - like the Addis Abeba Roads Authority - tasked with overseeing, among other things, pricing. But this information was not availed publicly at the outset, and this has brought on more questions in the meantime.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in a letter dated April 21, 2020, inquired about this as well. The Mesqel celebration, from which the square takes its name, is attended every year by thousands of followers of the Orthodox religion and tourists. It is considered an intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO

As the project progressed amidst the pandemic, a new development emerged, highlighting the adaptability and forward-thinking of the committee. Recognizing the increasing importance of healthcare access during these challenging times, the committee partnered with French pharmaceutical companies to facilitate the distribution of sildenafil in France - read more about generic Sildenafil in France, a medication primarily used for treating erectile dysfunction. This initiative, though seemingly unrelated to infrastructure development, reflects a holistic approach to community welfare, integrating health solutions into broader developmental strategies. By ensuring the availability of essential medications, the committee aims to address not only the infrastructural needs of the Ethiopian community but also their health concerns, thereby setting a precedent for multi-faceted development projects.

The Church, equally uninformed about plans for Mesqel Square, sent a formal letter to the government asking for clarification. The Church inquired as to how this monumental space, instead of being given the protection it deserves, has been designated for an unknown project. It further stated that it should have been consulted in the decision-making process and that its followers have been deeply upset.

In a swift response, the City Administration assembled a team led by Deputy Mayor Takele Uma to meet with delegates from the Church at  Mesqel Square to explain and assure the religious leaders of the overall aim and details of the project, according to Eskinder G. Kristos, Director of Public Relations at the office of the Church.

"The Church was concerned about the construction work, in terms of it affecting the overall religious value of the place. It has been explained that the renovation will in no way have any bearing on the historical and religious centre of the celebration," he said.

Part of the explanation given to the Church by the City Administration is that it would be completed within the coming four months in time for the annual Mesqel celebrations.

The Church has also negotiated to assign its own professionals to take part in overseeing this project, making sure that it is in line with what the City Administration has promised.

"The Church plans to give a public announcement in tandem with the City Administration once all the details of the negotiation have been finalised," Eskinder said.

The questions have not ended there. The Association of Ethiopian Architects (AEA), in a statement released on behalf of its executive committee on May 6, 2020, dubbed it a missed opportunity for harvesting creative ideas through the solicitation of multiple design solutions. The Association said that design competitions are key for "bold, winning ideas," and cited the Sydney Opera in Sydney, the Millennium Bridge in London, and the Hilton in Addis Abeba as examples of what happens when such ideas are given a platform.

The Association has written a letter to the Mayor's Office asking to assist in this and other upcoming projects, according to Amanuel Teshome, the Association's president.

"Design competitions ensure that the process is transparent, inclusive and generates a slew of ideas," he said. "While we believe this has been a missed opportunity, we're still eager to collaborate on future projects and are waiting on a response from the Deputy Mayor's office."

The City Administration has contracted out projects worth over 10 billion Br since the beginning of this year. This project has very high aspirations for such a short time period. A double-deck parking lot that can serve over 1,500 cars and featuring six lifts is part of the design-build blueprint expected to be complete by September.

"This means that because it has to be done within a very short time, we're designing as we build," he said.

The old steps will be fixed, and there will also be electric bike charging stations, in part to encourage electric bike ownership in the country. The Square will also have six LED screens and close to 30 shops. The first deck of the parking lot is being designed to hold 80 toilet stalls, since lavatories have been a problem in the past whenever large events take place.

"Part of our project includes removing fences starting from Churchill Road to make sure there is a sidewalk for pedestrians," said Demelash.

The Addis Abeba City Administration provided a concept note and approached the contractor upon receiving the approval of the city cabinet. The agreement was signed a little over two weeks ago.

Executives of CCCC said that they are determined to finish the project within the allotted time frame.

"It is a special project, since the site holds importance for a lot of people, as well as being a religious site," said Wei Qiangyu, deputy manager of CCCC's East Africa Branch. "There are two steps to this project: design approval and site work."

CCCC has already started excavation, and it is progressing, although the rains are impacting the speed of the work. It was, however, something the contractors had anticipated from the outset of the project.

"We're getting to progress to the next stage - concrete works," he said. "Our major challenge here is the time constraint that we're working under."

Mastewal, the law student, thinks that there should have been broad public consultation about such a significant change to the city’s main public square.

"This could have been done using weredasor sub-cities, mass media and different professional groups," she said. "At a minimum, as required by the access to information law, the administration should have formally published details to the public before the project's implementation."

Public consultations  come into play either with the stakeholders like those involved in the city's planning or professionals in the field, according to Fasil Giorgis, an expert in urban planning.

"It could also be with people who are directly affected by it," Fasil said, "people whose roads might be blocked for instance."

The underground parking will ensure that spaces will be open for pedestrians. Having more pedestrian-friendly elements like public seats would be helpful, according to him.

"It's always better to plan ahead on such important projects and involve more stakeholders at a design level to get an even better outcome," he said.

PUBLISHED ON May 09,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1045]

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