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Addis Ababa: Achilles’ heel of Ethiopian Federation

Addis Ababa: Achilles’ heel of Ethiopian Federation

The Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, in its present form, is a rather young city carryinga 130 years of history, wrinkled not by age but the overbearing historical baggage it carries since its formation. Founded around the end of the 19th century (the year can vary from 1886 to 1888 depending on records), TaytuBetul, wife of Emperor Menelik II, is widely accredited for doing the initial sight selection and naming (renaming) of the place destined to be the seat of the Ethiopian government since then.

Historical writings put the original site selected by the Empress ata locality near the present-day Filwoha, literally translated to mean spring water. Nevertheless, in the past one hundred years, this once small settlement, expanded to encompass what is now a 54,000 hectare city.  With that, the overall population composition and demographic picture in Addis Ababa shifted significantly, either naturally or by design (since the narrative differs according to the various interests projected onto the city).

Today, Addis Ababa is one of the biggest cities in Africa, with population estimated to surpass 5 million (unofficial estimates). To the most part, this sprawling city is the jewel of Ethiopian recent economic growth and modernization, however modest it might be. It is also the perceived capital of Africa, being the seat of the African Union, a global diplomatic cityhousing the United Nations and other international organization.

While all this is true, beneath the surface, Addis Ababa is still one of the fiercely contested territories in the whole of Ethiopia and a delicate matter in the three-decade old Ethiopian federation. Naturally, since the current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) took power and kicked off the so called democratic reform period in Ethiopia; the problem of Addis Ababa looks to be rearing its ugly head, once more;perhaps much fiercer than it was imagined.

In a way, Addis Ababa is the very issue that has instigated widespread public protest in Oromia Regional State, the biggest state in the Ethiopian federation, which eventually turned into a mass public discontent, encompassing mainly the Amhara Regional State, the second biggest state that propelled Abiy and Co. to the upper echelon of political power.

Who knew this issue would also be the biggest test to the young administration of PM Abiy and the reformed Oromo Democratic Party (ODP). Who knew, with TakeleUmma, de facto mayor of the city, and once a rising politician in ODP with strong opinions on the expansion of Addis Ababa and eviction of Oromo farmers heading the city administration; still Addis Ababa’s issues would come back to haunt the nation.

And who knew, the decision taken by Takele’s administration, some weeks back, under the supervision of the Federal government led by PM Abiy, to transfer some 51,000 condominium housing units in and around Addis Ababa would trigger a public uproar around Oromia, evidenced by a chain of demonstrations in various regional towns. Nevertheless, the revival of the debates surrounding Addis Ababa seems to have climbed to a new height in the past few months with elites form the Oromo, Amhara and Urban areasvying for the proverbial “title deed”ownership of the city.

While there is a lot to unpack when it comes to “ownership” of Addis Ababa or any other city for that matter, and what itwould entail in practice; it is informative to first quickly revisit the road Addis Ababa has traveled to get here. Just like other cities and states, the formation of Addis Ababa, historically, is far from being pure and straightforward. In fact, there are a number of commentators, including Oromo elites, who claim that the road to the formation of Addis Ababa was rather violent.

For instance, prominent Oromo scholar, Tsegaye R Ararssa, on his 2016 commentary piecethat he penned for Addis Standard online magazine, argues that Addis Ababa, back in late 1880s, started off as a garrison town for the troops of Emperor Menelik II in his expedition to the South and South-Eastern part of Ethiopia. “It was set as a launching pad for the campaigns of imperial conquest on the peoples of the Southern, South-Eastern, and South-Western peripheries,” he claimed, even going as far as asserting that the formation of the city is undertaken by “State [that] operated as an occupying force … bent on pushing out and displacing the indigenous Oromo.”

 In that process, the culture, language and customs of Oromo faded away from the city, according to Tsegaye, and that perhaps is the biggest injustice and misgiving to the Oromo people in connection to the history of the city. Well, he goes a bit further in claiming great and untold mascaras and raids against the Oromo in connection to Addis Ababa, to which he makes reference of the works of William Harris, Alexander Bulatovich, and others on the history of Ethiopia.

Now, on the flipside, there are narratives which completely defy the assertion made by Tsegaye. For one, in an interview with The Reporterawhile back, ZewdeTeklu (Eng.), former mayor of Addis Ababa, sees the ‘origin story’ of Addis Ababa to be of two strands: one from 14th century and one from even further 4th century, where in both cases respective emperors of the time had used Addis Ababa as either a seat or one of the seats to preside over their territorial jurisdiction.

As is the case with most of Ethiopia’s unrecorded history and oral tradition, the historical facts, and what went down back then are far from clear, with most narratives having some measure of facts and distortions. Apparently, what is evident today is Addis Ababa’s most recent Oromo heritage exhibited in the Oromiffa naming of different parts of city such as Bulbula, Bole, Gulele, Akaki and many others together with the City’s own name,Finfine. Whether agreeable or not, Addis Ababa’s history was left to be history for good parts of the past 100 years, as political movements in the country were focused more on the struggle for basic freedom and democratic rights.

It all changed in 1991, when the incumbent Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF) took power and stirred the nation to a new direction: ethnic federation. Along with redrawing the new administrative map of the country based on the principles of ethnic federalism, the issue of Addis Ababa, which at that time has come a long way to be multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity, which is the political, economic and social capital of Ethiopia and the soon to be born federation. Geographically, Addis Ababa is found completely enclosed in the vast Oromia Regional State asserting the inevitability of some kind of special relationship with the latter.

One thing that is for sure is that, the history, the demography and the status of Addis Ababa as a capital of the country and the continent, has taken a heavy toll on the framers of the FDRE Constitution back in early 1990s. A sneak peek of the mindset of the framers exhibited in the minutes of discussion shows that multi-layered nature of the cityhad beleaguered the framers hugely.

The end result was somehow an unfinished and open-ended constitutional provision, which is Article 49; in fact, that much is agreeable to most constitutional scholars, of varying interests and inclination, including Tsegaye, going by his views expressed in the aforementioned commentary.

In a nut shell, article 49 has five provisions:Addis Ababa shall be the capital city of the Federal State; the residents of Addis Ababa shall have a full measure of self-government; the Administration of Addis Ababa shall be responsible to the Federal Government; residents of Addis Ababa shall be represented in the House of Peoples’ Representatives; andthe special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa shall be respected. The constitution also goes on to explain how “special interest’ could be perceived in this sense; “…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.”

Most of what has been said about the Addis Ababa issue, in recent times, has to do with the ‘special interest’ that Oromia shareswith the city and how this has to be codified into a workable law, going forward. Nevertheless, evenwith the ‘special interest’ provision, Tsegaye is of the view that the constitution did not go far enough in recognizing the historical interest of the Oromo people in the controversial territory that is Addis Ababa.

“In a sense, [the Constitution sees] Addis Ababa asbeing in Oromia, but not of Oromiya. Oromia was a State governed from Addis Ababa without, however, governing Addis Ababa itself,” he argues, and that is fundamentally wrong given the historical heritages, according to Tsegaye. In fact, he believes this could only be rectified by shifting accountability of the city to Oromia regional state, an assertion vehemently opposed by many.

MerhatsidkMekonnen, asenior expert in law as well as in peace and security studies and a regular commentator on The Reporter, says that Addis Ababa is recognized as an entity independent of Oromia (sharing interest) with its own territorial and administrative limits. He saidthat in a commentary he wrote in 2017; “No matter how imprecise it might be, the term ‘full measure of self-government’ includes the whole array of legislative, executive and judicial authority, the exercise of which presupposes the existence of a territorial space.”

To that effect, he continues to argue, “…it [Addis Ababa] is an independent entity with a sovereign jurisdiction over its own internal, if not also external, affairs not to be trespassed or adversely affected by its proximity with the Oromia Regional State.”

Furthermore, Merhatsidk is of the view that debate about the ownership of the city or anyother territory for that matter is moot since article 40 (3) of the Ethiopian Constitution effectively takes away ownership of land and natural resources from any one person or community and bestow it on the nations and nationalities represented by the state. 

“The Constitution unequivocally and emphatically proclaims that the right to the ownership of rural and urban land as well as of all natural resources is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia,” he argues, rendering the ownership claims rather pointless.

In grand scheme of things, the constitutional interpretation of Merhatsidk looks to have far reaching consequences. For one, no ethnic or other communities including the residents of Addis Ababa, which seems to have sprung into action in recent times under the leadership of activist and publisher EskindirNega to claim the “exclusive ownership” of Addis Ababa; cannot make such legal claims without amending the constitution. Stretched even further, this interpretation also asserts that no other region can laythe so called “exclusive ownership claim”on any of the land and natural resources.

As far as Prime Minister Abiy is concerned,Addis Ababa belongs to all Ethiopians. And given this fact, it is shameful even to discuss to whom Addis Ababa belongs to. In a press conference he gave to local journalists for the second time since coming to power, the PM asserted that the intentions of the people debating to whom Addis Ababa belongs to has to be questioned.

“What is the intention behind debating who Addis belongs to? For instance, if I am implying that Addis Ababa is not yours while I say it is mine, it is a mistake. Saying Addis Ababa is mine is not a mistake by itself. But, it is wrong if it is to mean that it does not belong to the others; it is really wrong,” he asserted.

Going further, Abiy argued, “Whenever discussing Addis Ababa, it is important to look into the historical background especially during the formation of the federation, at which time, debates about incorporating the city under the regional government of Oromia was entertained. But, it is for a good reason that the constitution provided for such arrangements; Addis Ababa is surrounded by Oromia regional towns and the city has a wide range of relations with these towns, thus the region shall share a special interest with city.”

Some 20 years ago, Abiy said,the population of Addis Ababa was not even half of the current number. Surely, that much number of people was not born in Addis in the past 20 years; rather the city hosts anyone that came to its belly equally and with open-arms.Indicating that, in addition to Ethiopians, Somalis and Eritreans are living in Addis Ababa too, Abiy said that as it is a host for all.

Nevertheless, with regard to “special interest”, Abiy elaborated that “Addis Ababa is not only a capital city but also an industrial city,” adding that Addis Ababa’s development exploited resources in Oromia region. “Factories in Addis Ababa affected the lives of residents in the Oromia region,” Abiy said further, and that “While Addis Ababa gets water from towns surrounding the city, these towns do not have drinking water,” Abiy lamented.

“The issue of Oromia’s interest in Addis Ababa is more of a human rights subject as developments in Addis Ababa have significantly affected the lives of people in the surrounding towns of Oromia including the displacement of about 170, 000 households,” he underscored. Hence, the PM asserted that the City Administration of Addis Ababa and the regional government of Oromia have to deal with implementing “the special interest”.

Abiy also rebuked people who misunderstand the concept of Oromia’s special interest in Addis Ababa as to mean Oromo’s special right in the City, and asserted that an Oromo in Addis Ababa will not exercise a higher or a lesser right than any other Ethiopian.

The likes of KibourGhenna, CEO of Initiative Africa and commentator, agrees with the PM that all the current political upheavals regarding the “ownership” of Addis Ababa is just a distraction since the real issue lies in betterment of life for the people living in Addis Ababa and the surrounding towns.

“Rather the focus should be on changing Addis Ababa.Development is the priority,” Abiy concluded.  

Contributed by Asrat Seyoum and Brook Abdu