After four months and an endless public protest across the Oromiya regional State, the situation remains bleak. Protesters are being killed (albeit sporadically and often in mysterious circumstances) and are being arbitrarily arrested. EPRDF, the ruling party, continued hiding its head in the sand, avoiding and covering up any discussion on the root cause of the problem. In the mean time, a constitutional squabble mainly related to the constitutionally guaranteed ‘Special Interest’ of the Oromiya Regional State on the city of Addis Abeba has dominated the headlines over the last few weeks.
The argument of the ‘special interest’ roots in one of the main questions raised by the protesters. The present Ethiopian constitution, under Article 49/5, guarantees an unspecified ‘special interest’ of the Oromiya state on the city of Addis Abeba. It does so for the fact that Addis Abeba is geographically situated in the heart of the Oromiya regional state.
But two decades after the constitution was adopted, details of the ‘special interest’ remain only special in paper. Many express their concerns and say this is due largely on failure to execute the constitution itself; but some express their doubts over the entire arrangement that led to the provision of the ‘special interest’ in the first place.
The Madisonian neutrality
Those who are suspicious about the ‘special interest’ often mention the federal formula vis-à-vis the Madisonian concept of neutrality. James Madison, one of ‘the fathers of the US constitution’, (a pioneer of Federalism in the world) and later the fourth US President, in his defense and elaboration of the draft of the US constitution argues that:
“The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government carries its own evidence with it. It is a power exer¬cised by every legislature of the Union, I might say of the world, by virtue of its general supremacy. Without it, not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity; but a dependence of the members of the general govern¬ment on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy.”
According to Madison, the federal capital should be neutral from the influence of a single state in the federation and should stand on its own. This had two edged benefits: on the one hand it gives the federal government independence, and on the other hand it will avoid the unfairness that would result to other states if the federal government ends up under the influence of a single state. The creation of a Federal District in the US roots back to this argument.
When we see the Ethiopian federal experience the constitution establishes a federal capital in the middle of the largest state of the federation, Oromiya State. Not only had it established it, but also extended a ‘special interest’ of the Oromiya state on the capital. In other words, constitutionally speaking, the state of Oromiya is constitutionally bestowed with more influences on the city than that of the federal government. But this raises the question of the notion of neutrality of a federal capital. Even during the preparation of the current constitution, which unambiguously rewarded the state of Oromiya with a ‘special interest’, there were some members of the constitutional assembly who flatly opposed the idea based on their common sense of understanding of the principle of neutrality.
This unresolved, and yet potentially destabilizing issue, calls for two contradictory solutions. The first is to abide by the neutrality rule – the establishment of a federal capital (may be a roving capital), which costs every state proportionally. But it is far from being realistic for many reasons.
The second is avoiding the neutrality rule and settling Addis Abeba’s debt to the state of Oromiya. For appearing realistic (and not to fall into the constitutional amendment conundrum) this idea gets an easy nod of affirmation from many, including myself.
‘Special force’ for ‘special interest’
After four months of protest across the Oromiya state many people are blaming the party which is currently ruling the region, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). While the top leadership of the other three affiliates of the ruling party point their fingers to what they say is rampant ‘corruption’ and ‘bad governance’ inside the OPDO, outsiders criticize it as a weak and powerless Trojan Horse in the region filled with a bunch of ‘yes-men’ who bow down for the central government and its masters in Addis Abeba.
In the midst of these criticisms the top leadership of the OPDO announced to scrap the Addis Abeba Master Plan, which is the immediate cause of the current protest. Earlier the party announced its decision to establish a ‘special task force’ which it says will be tasked to settle a two decades old constitutional debt by the city of Addis Abeba to Oromiya.
However, for me, taking this promise seriously is naivety. Here is why:
First, during Ethiopia’s much contested general election in 2005, the ruling party suffered a massive election defeat and lost the entire 23 seats of the city council in the parliament to the opposition coalition, CUD. Following that defeat, the ruling party began to take drastic measures to enable it to control the city both directly and indirectly. One of such measures was bringing the seat of the Oromiya regional state from Adama to Addis Abeba. Unfortunately the ruling party made a fatal decision in 2003 to relocate the capital of the Oromiya state from Addis Abeba to Adama. (Dozens of students who protested the decision were killed in the hands of the security apparatus). There is no doubt that, just under two years, the decision to relocate the seat of the Oromiya state back to Addis Abeba was politically calculated. But, such a change and the decision related with it, had something to tell us.
On Friday June 10, 2005 the executive committee of OPDO passed a decision that announced the change of the seat from Adama to Addis Abeba. The official reason given to the public by the then President of the region, Junedin Sado, who spoke at a press conference and was quoted by the state owned daily Addis Zemen was: “To change the seat we [the executive committee] were considering the special interest of Oromiya which was guaranteed in the 1995 constitution. And we have reached to the conclusion that the special interest implies making Finfinne [become] the seat of Oromiya Regional State”.
Furthermore, Junedin Sado, now in exile, argued that the decision to relocate the seat as per the implication of the ‘special interest’ was based on a four years painstaking study by a legally sanctioned task force.
The establishment of the new task force, more than being a mere ploy, raises several questions than answers – at least for three reasons. First, it is now ten years since the OPDO said it sanctioned a special task force that studied the ‘special interest’ for four years. But between now and 2005 nothing major happened other than the mere relocation of the seat from Adama to Addis Abeba. And now the public is told another task force is established to determine an already determined matter. It is easier to take the new task force as just a diversionary task force than to take it for what the ruling party says.
Second is the nature of the ruling party’s ever growing tactic of trying to settle things down first by force and burying the questions with the people who raised it. More often than not, when Ethiopians raise questions and the ruling party feels the heat, it first tries to calm things by force; it then tries to snatch the cause from the people, and finally, it goes down to singling out individual vocals and eliminate them. The last 25 years is tainted with such stories that there is nothing that makes the present experience any different, if not worse.
Finally I would argue that even if the new promise of establishing a special task force comes to fruition it is not likely to address the deep rooted discourse on the matter; in fact, it barely scratches the surface. After the killing of more than 150 protesters (This number has increased as of this writing), the maiming of hundreds and jailing of thousands throughout the regional state, Ethiopians are not likely to get stuck with a false promise of a special task force that stands no chance to deliver, at least not when the first thing is relegated to become the last – justice. As Fredrick Douglas says “where justice is denied […] neither persons nor property will be safe.”