(OPride) – The tinderbox that ignited two years of protests across Ethiopia’s vast Oromia state was the displacement caused by the rapid expansion of the capital, Addis Ababa, at the expense of adjacent Oromo towns and farmland. In an attempt to respond to that demand, last week Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers issued a draft law on Oromia’s special interest in Addis Ababa. The draft proclamation was met with a hornet’s nest of resistance from across the spectrum of political opinion. That is no wonder because it sidesteps and undermines Oromia’s constitutional rights in the city and makes a mockery of the right for which thousands have sacrificed their lives. Moreover, the lackluster proclamation attempts to pass off rights guaranteed to all citizens by the country’s constitution as Oromia’s special interests. For greater understanding, it is important to revisit the genesis of Article 49 (5) that set in motion the Oromia special interest.
Genesis of the special interest
Following the overthrow of Mengistu Hailemariam’s communist regime, a national conference in July 1991 established a caretaker government. It also adopted a Transitional Charter, which served as the law of the land until December 1994 when a newly-elected parliament ratified the current Ethiopian constitution.
The Charter recognized the unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession for every nation, nationality, and people in Ethiopia, and reconfigured the country as a multi-ethnic federation. Accordingly, proclamation no. 7/1992 established ‘National Self-Governments’ in January 1992 by dividing the country’s state institutions into the Federal Government, 12 ethnic motherland Member States and two self-governing cities – Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa.
The ethnic federalism model was forged as a compromise between those seeking total independence or secession, and those who wanted to maintain Ethiopia’s territorial integrity. But it was also an effort to redress structural imbalances and historical injustices in the country.
It is remarkable, to say the least, for framers of the Charter to deviate from the ethnic-based formula to single out and confer the same autonomy level as states on two cities in Oromia. Nevertheless, Article 3(4) of the transitional law reserved “the special interest and political right of the Oromo over Region 13 [Harari] and Region 14 [Addis Ababa]” since both are located within the State of Oromia. The particulars were to be “prescribed in detail by a special law.”
The 1995 Constitution dropped the provision on political rights but kept the special interest clause in place with vague clauses, not without intention. That is where the problem started. The Constitution’s self-governance clause created a quagmire by simultaneously conferring four confusing and conflicting statuses on Addis Ababa:
- 49(2) The residents of Addis Ababa shall have a full measure of self-government.
- 49(3) The Administration of Addis Ababa shall be responsible for the Federal Government.
- 49 (4) Residents of Addis Ababa shall in accordance with the provisions of this constitution, be represented in the House of Peoples’ Representatives.
- 49(5) The special Interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa, regarding the provision of social services or the utilization of natural resources and other similar matters, as well as joint administrative matters arising from the location of Addis Ababa within the State of Oromia, shall be respected.
First, whereas Addis Ababa residents, in theory, have “a full measure of self-government,” the city’s mayor and city council are accountable to the federal government. In fact, Addis Ababa’s own charter stipulates that “the City Government is a component part of the Federal Government” and that “it shall be accountable to the Federal Government concerning security, diplomatic relations as well as policies, laws and standards thereof.”
As such, the federal government – not the voters – has the power to dissolve the elected city council and constitute an interim government in its stead. What’s more, residents can petition the city government but they cannot initiate laws. In effect, the federal government’s overbearing interest ignored the city’s constitutionally guaranteed self-governing status.
Second, the constitution states that residents of Addis Ababa shall be represented in the House of Peoples’ Representatives. The city currently has 23 representatives in the House of Peoples’ Representatives but none in the House of Federation and Caffee, the Oromia state legislature.
Third, under Addis Ababa’s charter, while the role and interests of the federal government are clearly spelled out, the constitutional provision on Oromia’s special interest – under Article (49)(5) – was repeated verbatim in passing. For more than two decades and a half, Oromia’s special interest claim remained only on paper. During this time, as Addis Ababa grew by leaps and bounds – gobbling up more Oromo land and displacing millions of Oromo farmers – Oromia’s only discernable benefits were having its seat in the city and tax immunity for its employees.
Addis Ababa’s exponential growth
Addis Ababa’s labyrinthine status as a self-governing but federally administered city was further complicated by its geographic location. It is both the capital city of Ethiopia and Oromia state. Not only is Addis Ababa a historied Oromo land, by virtue of its location at the heart of Oromia, the city is an integral part of the state – one among other cities in the region.
Hence, Oromia has legal, administrative and territorial jurisdiction over Finfinne just like any other city in the state. This is why the “special interest of the State of Oromia” is an absurd conception from the very beginning. It begs the question: Why prescribe a special interest when the city is part and parcel of the state?
This was further exacerbated by Addis Ababa’s uncontrolled and unprecedented spatial expansion over the past two decades and a half. It is worth reproducing Mohammed Ademo’s 2014 analysis at length here:
The Oromo, original inhabitants of the land, have social, economic and historical ties to Addis Ababa. The city, which they call Finfinne, was conquered through invasion in 19th century. Addis Ababa’s expansion since its founding in 1886 came at the expense of local farmers whose livelihoods and culture was uprooted in the process. In its early days, the city grew “haphazardly” around the imperial palace, residences of other government officials and churches. Later, population and economic growth invited the uncontrolled development of high-income, residential areas — still almost without any formal planning.
While the encroaching forces of urbanization pushed out many Oromo farmers to surrounding towns and villages, those who remained behind were forced to learn a new language and embrace a city that did not value their existence. The city’s rulers then sought to erase the historical and cultural values of its indigenous people, including through the changing of original Oromo names.
Ultimately, this one-time bountiful farm and pasture land from which it draws the name Addis Ababa – meaning ‘new flower’ – where Oromos made laws under the shades of giant sycamore trees, grew foreign to them by the day. It is this traumatic sense of displacement that elicits deep passions, resentment and resistance from the Oromo community.
The city’s charter stipulates that Addis Ababa’s boundary shall be determined by an agreement to be made between the City Government and Oromia state or pursuant to the decision of the Federal Government. Promises were made in the past to limit the city’s expansion to the pre-1991 boundary through vertical growth.
But, like Oromia’s special interest, this too remained only on paper. For example, in the city’s 1997-2001 master plan, the city planners determined vertical growth posed key urbanization challenges. In addition, most of Addis Ababa’s poor cannot afford to construct high-rise dwellings as per the new building standards. Officials also noted that the city’s relatively developed infrastructure and access to market attract the private investment necessary to bolster its coffers; the opening up to privatization contributed to an upswing in investment.
According to Feyera Abdissa, from 1997 to 2001, “54 percent of the total private investment applications submitted in the country requested to invest in and around Addis Ababa.” In order to meet the demand, city administration converted large tracts of forest and farmland in surrounding villages and towns into swelling urban dwellings, displacing local Oromo residents. The city currently contributes close to 50 percent toward the national GDP, according to the World Bank.
Nobody seems to know where Addis Ababa’s territorial jurisdiction ends and where Oromia’s administrative boundary begins. In fact, from 2005 to 2015 alone, the city grew by 51 percent. This was made possible by annexing Oromia’s territory under the guise of development. “Massive urban renewal and redevelopment projects are underway across the city to improve its competitiveness as a business location,” according to a new UN report released this week.
The failure to delimit Addis Ababa’s boundary and clearly articulate Oromia’s special interest formed the basis for the popular Oromo protests and public opposition to the infamous Addis Ababa Master Plan. Security forces killed hundreds of people between March 2014 and October 2016, when Ethiopia declared a state of emergency to contain the uprising.
Master plan 2.0?
The new draft law, unveiled last week, is supposedly a response to the protesters’ grievances over and opposition to the Addis Ababa master plan. It comes 18 months after widespread opposition forced authorities to shelve the plan. Yet, the draft proclamation has been resoundingly rejected as a “joke” and the reincarnation of the controversial master plan.
To be sure, that the federal government in Ethiopia was finally forced to codify Oromia’s special interest – 26 years later – is a symbolic victory, however small, won through the sacrifices of Oromo protesters.
Yet, while it’s a small progress, the top-down law is a botched attempt by the policy makers. The first problem is linguistic. The draft simply does not read like a legal document. Second, for the most part, the language is vague, misleading and susceptible to multiple interpretations.
Third, the draft further alienates and excludes the Oromo people from the city by misconstruing basic constitutional and human rights as Oromia’s special interest. For example, a key provision on health care states that Oromos living in towns and rural areas around Addis Ababa can “access health care services at government hospitals and medical facilities like any resident of the city.” This is laughable. It implies that there is a law in place that currently prevents Oromos from seeking medical treatment at public hospitals and clinics in Addis Ababa. Or that Addis Ababa residents currently enjoy preferential access and treatment at public health institutions in the city.
That’s not all. Instead of making Afaan Oromo the city’s official working language – on equal footing with Amharic – the draft law pays only lip service to the issue. It proposes the establishment of Afaan Oromo schools. Making Afaan Oromo the city’s working language entails that ALL PUBLIC schools and other government services would be provided to ALL RESIDENTS in the language. In fact, the provision reads as though Afaan Oromo is the official language only for the purpose of allowing Oromo residents in the city to benefit from the ‘special interest’ provisions in the proclamation.
Similarly, the question of restoring original Oromo names of public squares, roads and neighborhoods sounds tentative and conditional – as deemed necessary. By whom? And the name Finfinne will have equal legal recognition as Addis Ababa only in relation to the Oromia state.
The provisions on transport services and job opportunities are so vaguely worded that they are almost unintelligible. The statues on environmental protection are equally ambiguous. Why would Oromia’s right to seek compensation for harms caused by the city’s sewage and solid waste disposal be a special interest? Oromia currently doesn’t have the right to be protected from pollution and to sue the Addis Ababa city government for damages related to environmental degradation?
Again, the establishment of the Joint Council pays only lip service to the question of “joint administrative matters arising from the location of Addis Ababa within the State of Oromia.” The primary objective of the Council is “to monitor, assess and support the implementation of Oromia’s special interest,” not to address general administrative matters of interest to both Oromia and the city government.
The provision on the displacement and compensation of farmers is perhaps the most sinister. That the law envisions a certain need for rehabilitation of farmers displaced by (future?) development activities reeks of the master plan. It is clear to anyone who knows Addis Ababa that there are no farmers within the legal city limit. The Oromo inhabitants who once toiled the land have been pushed out and rendered destitute and have become security guards for the new landlords. The only farmers left to be displaced are those in the Oromia Special Zone, an area surrounding Addis Ababa that authorities sought to grab under the master plan. Unless amended, this provision leaves the door open for the city’s continued horizontal sprawl and further dispossession of Oromo farmers. And it will continue to breed more suspicion and mistrust about the federal government’s real intent.
Moreover, the joint council, which has jurisdiction on Addis Ababa and the Oromia Special Zone, effectively but systematically rescinds Oromia’s sovereignty on the zone. The federal government literally takes over the zone in the guise of addressing Oromo grievances–doubling down on its determination to resurrect the Master Plan and reinforcing the criticism by opponents that this is nothing but Master Plan 2.0.
The new law also doubles down on the original omission of Oromia’s political rights and revenue raising capacity in Addis Ababa, including the state’s role in tax collection. Under this law, Oromia will generate zero revenue from the property, sales and income taxes generated in the city. In effect, the proclamation turns the capital city into the Dracula that would suck any semblance of autonomy from the state and eventually any desire on the part of Oromo for genuine self-government.
Bottom line: Far from clarifying the issue, the grossly insensitive legislation complicates Oromia’s special interest provision even further. It is clear that, under this law, Afaan Oromo won’t be the official working language. Finfinne won’t be the city’s official name. Oromia will receive no tax revenue from the city. The joint council will only deal with matters related to the special interest – not everyday administrative issues arising from Addis Ababa’s identity as a city in Oromia. In sum, Oromia and the Oromo people will receive no additional benefits from Addis Ababa than what it got for the past 26 years–displacement, environmental degradation and contamination and the loss of lives and Oromo way of life.
But all is not lost – yet. Addis Arega, a spokesperson for Oromia state, has said the draft law will be discussed by the Oromo people and amended before it goes back to the House of People’s Representatives for ratification. This appears to be a last-minute reversal, or at least it contradicts earlier reports in the state media that the draft has been referred to parliament. Regardless, this is a welcome intervention on the part of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO).
OPDO’s new leadership, under Lamma Magarsa, has made bold overtures to Oromo nationalism in recent months. But they must understand that if the unaddressed Oromo question is the Achilles heels of Ethiopian politics, the question of Finfinne is the mother of all Oromo grievances against the central state. This is why OPDO should treat Oromia’s special interest over Addis Ababa with the utmost seriousness it deserves. Thanks to the sacrifices of Oromo youth, and given the development of Oromo nationalism over the past two decades and a half, OPDO can now negotiate to preserve Oromia’s special interest from a position of strength. The only question is: Is OPDO capable and willing to secure Oromia’s constitutionally guaranteed special interest rights?
In principle, it is not too late for the OPDO and Ethiopia’s rulers to finally and clearly articulate Oromia’s real special interest in Addis Ababa. The speaker of the House has already raised concerns about the timing of this legislation, which was forwarded to the parliament mere few weeks before recess. And how the time is simply not enough for broader public consultation. In practice, the ruling party may simply shelve the issue, as it did for the last 26 years. That is a scenario the OPDO and leaders of the Oromia Special Zone should not allow to stand. The time to address Oromia’s special interest in Addis Ababa is now. Regional officials face long odds to rescue and improve the current bill. But an earlier draft that Oromia grudgingly disowned in May after federal authorities leaked to the media, despite many gaping holes, could be a good starting point for a serious legislative debate.