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A new master plan:Complicated-turned-deadly

A recent plan to build a fantastic Addis Abeba is complicated and has turned deadly. It is not terribly late for a u-turn, but the first step may be the hardest: bringing justice to the dead    

Kalkidan Yibeltal

For a number of universities located in Ethiopia’s Oromia regional state, the largest state in the country, the month May was no ordinary month. It was a month marked by extraordinary exhibition of solidarity by the country’s ethnic Oromo students who protested the coming into effect of a master plan by the Addis Abeba City Administration (AACA). As is always the case with Ethiopia, the protests resulted in the regrettable (and unnecessary) loss of lives, destruction of properties and disruption of the academic schedule. If one is to stick by it, the government’s own account put the number of deaths at 11, of which seven were in Ambo, a town 120 km west of the capital Addis Abeba. Other deaths occurred in Meda Walabu University in Bale, 320 km southwest of the country; and in one of the oldest state universities, Haromaya, in east of the country, a bomb explosion at the campus’s stadium during a European soccer match screening injured 70 students, killing one. The spiral of dissent didn’t leave the grand Addis Abeba University in the capital untouched either. A looming protest by the campus’s Oromo students sparked a massive deployment of the Federal Police in and around the campus. Soon other towns in the regional state, among others, Dembi Dolo, Adama, and Gimbi followed suit, not without the usual unfortunate causalities. Although the riots have since subsided, sources say the work of picking up and jailing by the security officers of those students whom the government blames are behind the arrest is in full swing. These sources also put the number of death way higher than the government’s.

The making of a giant city

Oromo students in these campuses have reacted angrily when learning about a new plan by the Addis Abeba City Administration that wanted to integrate the capital with its surrounding localities. Indeed, the ill-fated master plan was no ordinary plan; it sought to incorporate the eight of the neighboring towns inhabited mainly by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, and currently administered under a special zone by the Oromia Regional State. Many of them feared the plan wanted to bring these towns into one giant administration under the AACA.

Their demands for further explanation on the master plan was quite a legitimate one, as even some senior government officials within the ruling EPRDF, such as Abba Dulla Gemeda, Speaker of the House of Peoples’ Representatives and former president of the Oromia Regional State, would later concur, although he didn’t approve of the way the protests have gone and were handled.


In its 126 year long history of serving as a capital of the nation, Addis Abeba has certainly passed through tremendous changes. The last two decades, however, have seen a significant increase in population as well as spatial expansion on all directions. According to data from the now infamous ‘Addis Abeba and the Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Integrated Development Plan’, in the last two decades alone the city, currently home to between three to four million inhabitants, has witnessed an 80 per cent population growth while the total built up area of the city has increased by at least 25 per cent in the past ten years.

Indisputably, the areal extension and the significant increase in the number of inhabitants compel city administration authorities to prepare a formidable plan B on how to run the city and provide its people with the much needed services such as housing, water and transport. In an attempt to address this dilemma, the 9th City Master Plan, adopted in 2002 and implemented as of the following year, restructured the Addis Abeba city into 10 sub city administrations. It went as smooth as restructuring a city deprived of essential provisions in the past can go. The problem started surfacing when its successor, the 10th Addis Abeba and Oromia Special Zone Integrated Development Master plan, which was in the making for the last two years, finally came off as ‘Addis Abeba and the Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Integrated Development Plan’ (please see commentary on How not to make a master plan).

It was the first sign of a city master plan that went a lot further than its predecessor by aspiring to incorporate the neighboring areas. “Developing an internationally competitive urban region through an efficient and sustainable spatial organization that enhances and takes advantage of complementarities is the major theme for the preparation of the new plan,” says Mathewos Asfaw, general manager of the project office.

Ethiopia wants to join middle income countries in a decade from now but this will not happen if one is to go by its current level of urbanization. The overall economic tale of the country, particularly its relative success in attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), is strongly tied to the investment performance of Addis Abeba city and its surrounding areas under the Oromia regional state. It is a reality that may have ignited a soaring ambition by the authorities who commissioned the disputed master plan, which wanted to cover a size of 1.1 million hectares, and has incorporated a number of overambitious, Cinderella-like proposals from water to transport to housing provisions that, given how plans go down to earth in this country, one has to consume with a grain of salt.

Constitutional gaffe

When the integrated master plan came into public scrutiny a couple of months ago, it was met with fierce criticism from the middle and lower level politicians of the Oromia Regional State. The master plan’s questionable legal provisions were put under scrutiny but were recklessly dismissed by the authorities who commissioned it. Mathewos Asfaw, as were the other higher level politicians of the Oromia Regional State, was quick to play down fears by some of the Oromia regional state officials about the constitutionality of the plan in nature. He told a local newspaper that it was not his or his office’s authority to deal with that. “They are not compatible with the project office,” he said.

Article 49(5) of the Ethiopian Constitution clearly states that “the special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Abeba …shall be respected….in terms of provision of social services, utilization of natural resources and joint administration matter”. Mathewos may be justified as this is clearly beyond the mandate of the project office. However, “spatial plans do not operate in a vacuum,” says Ezana Haddis, a lecturer at the Ethiopian Civil Service University Institute of Urban Development Studies. This was further exacerbated by absence of any proclamation that could define and assure the state’s privileged right over the capital, Concordia to Ezana.

Urbaa Cover

Of language and identity: back to square one  

Art. 46 (2) of the country’s constitution guarantees “States shall be delimited on the basis of settlement pattern, language, identity and consent….” For the Oromo whose right over the land under discussion is constitutionally guaranteed by the federal system the country says it governs itself with, any spatial expansion is more of a question of identity, of right over the land and of justice than a mere economic gain, which is what the Addis Abeba City Administration officials wanted them to believe.

The Oromo call Addis Abeba in Afaan Oromo Finfinnee, one of the many factors that make the draft metropolitan master plan a delicate matter than a political choreography and as they want to see themselves represented in the cultural, economic, linguistic and social make-up of the city where they are the “absent present,” as often described by activists.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the federal government has imposed its unorthodox political might in the control over the capital. In 2003, the federal government’s decision to relocate the seat of the Oromia Regional State from Addis Abeba to Adama town, 100km east of the capital, resulted in another protest that ended up with the killings of more than a dozen students and the imprisonment of hundreds by the federal security apparatus. “The dramatic return of the seat of the Oromia Regional State back to Addis Abeba two years later had much to do with the total victory by the opposition of the Addis Abeba city administration than any bureaucratic jargon the federal government wanted the Oromo people to believe”, says an Ethiopian professor of anthropology at the Addis Abeba University.   “This too, didn’t pass unnoticed.”

In 2008 eight towns surrounding Addis Abeba –  Dukem, Sebeta, Burayu, Gelan, Sululta, Holeta, Sendafa and Legetafo- and are administered by the Oromia Regional State were assembled to form “Oromia Regional State Special Zone Surrounding Finfinne.” Awol Abdi, head of Oromia Special Zone Land Administration and Environmental Protection Office, told a local newspaper then that the rationale behind such a move had to do with halting the overflowing demand of land by the Addis Abeba City Administration.  But for the watchful eyes of those who closely follow the federal government’s move not just since 2003 but since the beginning of 2000 following the establishment of the Ministry of Federal Affairs (MoFA), this was not a good explanation. “Since the establishment of the MoFA, constitutional interpretation of the rights of nations and nationalities has taken a more centralized form with more power coming back to the federal government to decide on issues that have more economic impacts such as land and other natural resources,” said the professor at the Addis Abeba University who wants to remain anonymous.  “The federal government is in almost absolute control of the political and military power. What is missing is the economic power and this master plan is nothing but an attempt to establish the missing economic primacy over that of the constitutionally guaranteed right of the ethnic Oromos over their land. We are back to square one.”

When one scratches the surface of the new master plan it becomes clear that it “proposes the surrounding localities to keep on providing landfill site, waste treatment, housing as well as water resources to the capital with no mention of what the Oromia regional administration could get in return”, Ezana says. He also sees another trigger in the corridor: the boundary between Addis Abeba and Oromia regional state has never been officially demarcated.

The project office, which was originally set up to come up with the master plan only for the capital Addis Abeba but was subsequently tasked to create a metropolitan master plan is unquestionably staffed with experts whose knowledge and experience makes them super qualified for the job, and yet there was no attempt to incorporate the special interest of the regional administration and that of its people, Ezana added, “that was the fault line.”

Sport and recreation

Beneath the layer of wrath

In an article titled “A Tragic Consequence of the ‘Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan: Warning for the Future’,” Dr. Negaso Gidada, a prominent Oromo political elite and a former president of the federal government-turned an opposition leader, says, as the official seat of the Oromia Regional State, the Federal Government and the African Union, Addis Abeba should expand enough to become a decent metropolitan city.

Regional Scale

But this is not a tale of development without cost. In a 2009 research titled “Urban Expansion in Addis Abeba : Effects of the Decline of Urban Agriculture on Livelihood and Food Security,” Mara Gittleman of Tufts University, says in an effort to build a globally competitive city “[e]ntire agricultural communities are moved and left with very little compensation for their land, with no other skills to rely upon. [.. .]  This process of rapid urban development is working both to increase the populations of unemployed and homeless peoples and to decrease the supply of fresh produce available.”

According to Dr. Negaso, “the Oromo are not opposed to the extension of infrastructure to the surrounding towns but want a guarantee that Oromia has jurisdiction over them. They want that the identity of the Oromo be preserved, that the Oromo farmers should not be evicted or if their land is needed that they get proper compensation; that Addis Ababa pays for the services it gets from the surrounding areas…and do something about the depositions of waste substances (domestic and industrial).”

EPRDF sympathizers and naysayers alike argue that this riddle would have been avoided if simple and transparent procedure, such as consulting with the legitimate constituency, were followed in the making of the master plan. “There is no half way to federalism; a country follows either a federal system or a central one,” says the professor at the AAU.

But a senior expert at the AAU’s Center for Federal Studies says the ethnic, religious and language diversity inside the country leaves the country with no other option than to adopt federalism. “The ethnic based federalism we follow certainly has its own discontents,” he says, “but most of it can be tackled by ensuring good governance and implementing the words of the constitution.”

As a long lasting remedial measure, Dr. Negaso recommends a fresh, honest and transparent public discussion on various crucial subjects including federalism and ethnicity. That may be a fundamental change that needs to come around, but for those who have lost their loved ones, the immediate remedial measure is nothing but “holding those who commissioned and executed” the recent killings of the students who protested against the master plan accountable, says the professor at the AAU, “that should be the first step followed by the release of the students who are being hand-picked by the police as we speak.”  He also believes that the federal government needs to stop labeling the protesting students as extremists supported by “anti-Ethiopia peace elements” when the master plan is “infested by countless legal and constitutional holes” and everyone “knows about it.”

Mahelt Fasil contributed to this story  

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