Oromia, the largest state in Ethiopia, had parts of it in turmoil especially in the last two weeks. The protests started on November 19 in Ginchi town (Western Shewa zone) following local officials transferring part of a land that belonged to a school for another use. The protests spread to several towns with other regional and national demands featuring in them.

The controversial draft plan for the integrated development of Addis Ababa (a.k.a. Finfine) and surrounding Oromia towns was the main thrust of the protests while various other demands featured in various localities. The draft plan was also the reason for the 2014 protests that seemed to halt its progress.

Massive displacement of Oromo farmers, making Affan Oromo a federal working language, unfair fees levied on farmers for local militia uniforms, restrictive licensing laws, corruption and other maladministration issues were raised by the protesters.

Maladministration as an underlying cause

Prime Minister Hailemariam chaired a upper-level government panel last month to discuss a study on good governance practices and failures. The Panel centered on the findings of the study, how far good governance is practiced, challenges faced and the way forward. The study squared on rent-seeking as a major challenge, especially with regard to the land administration sector.

The failures on good governance, which were also affirmed by the congress of the ruling coalition, constituted a major share of the protest demands and the grievances that led to it. There is a silver lining to the saddening loss of life and the ensuing chaos. What happened provides the government a powerful push for a real drive towards improving good governance and implementing the maxims of its congress.

Photo - Oromo protests 2015

The Master-plan and the cost of neglect

The relationship between Addis Ababa and Oromia is not of closeness but that the capital is totally encircled by Oromia. Hence, Addis Ababa is part of Oromia. Currently Addis Ababa is serving as the capital city of the Federal government of Ethiopia as well as Oromia state. However, Apart from maladministration, the main demands showed the protesters feeling that the capital is not a bit Oromo, culturally or administratively.

The Constitution ties Addis Ababa and Oromia together by recognizing the “special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa” regarding social, economic and administrative affairs. The reason to bind them together emanates from geography and history.

Article 49 (5) of the Constitution rendered: “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. Particulars shall be determined by law”.

The particulars, however, are not yet determined. The neglect was partly due to weaker push from the state government and partly due to a federal government that is not fond of ceding power to states.

It was in this background that the “Master-plan”, intended to bring integrated development of Addis Ababa and its surrounding Oromia towns came to the public spotlight. The plan claimed to streamline development in the Oromia towns came to be seen suspiciously by the new generation youth who got frustrated by the neglect of the constitutional promises and became less trusting of the federal government intentions.

We all missed signs of this frustration when aired at the time of Oromia state government’s later reversed move of its capital to Addis Ababa a decade ago. The 2006-07 Burayu-Kolfe border dispute and other similar encounters in the last decade also fell short of highlighting the root issues starkly. Now the issue is clearer than ever.

The current situation where Oromia shoulders the negative effects of urban expansion (such as environmental pollution, employment and population displacement) without getting its constitutional interests on the City respected is unsustainable. The capital’s provision of social services such as schools in Afaan Oromo, permanent allocation of a percentage of seats of Addis Ababa city council to Oromia, addition of Affan-Oromo as the working language of the city, tax and revenue sharing arrangements… are some possible actions that can remedy the frustrations.

The way forward

The determination of the role of the Federal government and Oromia state on Addis Ababa shall be clearly determined in a multilateral and long lasting manner in a way that follows the spirit of the constitution.

Another proffer for relieving the tension surrounding Addis Ababa may be decentralizing the seat of the federal government. This could serve in reducing the historically deep-seated belief, perceived and real, that the center ergo the federal government and not the states hold greater power in the federal arrangement. The curtailing of this belief will foster strong and proactive states and bring public accountability to state governments. This is the heart and soul of our constitution. In addition to diffusing the strain, it will help in development of other contending cities in a way catering to a goal of equal development.

It is obvious that outward-bound growth of Addis Ababa is inevitable. Oromia must turn this growth to its own advantage by strongly pushing for its constitutional interests in Finfine (Addis Ababa) as well as integrating its capital with its surrounding.

What we should take from the events of the past weeks is that the opposition to the master plan wasn’t against development but perceived encroachment of state interest by the historically strong center (the federal government and its capital). In essence, the protests against the plan, at least the demands, are inherently in the defense of the constitution. This is a sign of how the principles of the constitution got entrenched among the new generation and we should embrace it as the materialization of the goals of the constitution.

The ugly turn of events and the foiled attempt of anti-constitutional elements to hijack it shouldn’t lead us to view the protests negatively. The conflict of state-federal interests is the feature of federalism, not a malfunction. The protests are a timely nudge to the nation to address its constitutional and good governance deficits. How it’s dealt with will determine the future of the constitution as the supreme social contract all Ethiopians believe in. Going forward, well thought actions and wise handling are the order of the day.

*Originally published on Ethiopian Herald on the 24th of December 2015

Fetsum Berhane is an Ethiopian resident, economist researcher and a blogger on HornAffairs.

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