Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqii:- Why are Oromos opposed to the Addis Ababa Master Plan?

By Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqii*


As I am writing this, the Oromo population led by students is revolting throughout Oromia ostensibly against the so called Addis Ababa and Surrounding Oromia Integrated Development Plan (Master Plan). To date, as widely reported, more than 85 students have been killed and thousands have been jailed. Part of Oromia have fallen under what look like a Martial law, and the Oromo population is being terrorized by the special federal force called Agazi. As if this is not enough, the government has characterized the uprising as terrorist, implying that the infamous anti-terrorism legislation will apply to the demonstrators. Therefore, if things remain the same, in the coming days it’s expected that the death toll may even rise dramatically.

This article is not intended to chronicle the recent events in Oromia; it will simply attempt to explain to the unversed why the Oromo students are revolting against the implementation of the Addis Ababa Master Plan. To the Oromo nation that has borne the brunt of the successive violence, oppression and alienation, the answer to the question why the students started the upheaval is obvious, as well as, easy. In fact, for the simple reason that it is so obvious, one Oromo does not ask another Oromo why students are rebelling.

So, why is the Oromo population vehemently opposing the Master Plan? Unless one puts the issue in a context and looks at it, it is easy to miss the foundational question. Therefore, I will try to venture, even if briefly, into history, economics and politics in search of an answer.

Early History
Long before Menelik’s wife, Taitu, loved and selected Finfinne (Oromo name for Addis Ababa) to be her abode, the Oromo clans, Abbichu, Eekka, Galan and Gulale, lived for generations in freedom in this location. Contrary to popular myth, this was not a vacant and unoccupied land where wild animals reigned and roamed freely when she moved into the neighborhood. As time passed and with the growth of the city, the Oromos who lived on this land for generations had to be evicted and banished to distant places. The space was needed for others who were required to be in the capital around the king’s palace and court. Within few generations, this city that was built on Oromo land and flourished on Oromo natural resource and wealth, morphed into an alien land to the Oromos.

Even though demographically, to the extent, Addis Ababa is made up of multi ethnic composition, it is culturally through and through an Abyssinian city, mostly an Amhara city through assimilation. Contrary to the claim of some, this is not a melting pot city. All the other ethnic groups melted and lost their identity while the Amhara maintained and developed theirs and flourished in Addis Ababa. In comparison, for example, there was not, until very recently, a single institution in the city that reflected the Oromo culture and identity.

Addis Ababa that was only few hectares at the beginning of 20th century had grown according to some estimates more than 50 folds by the end of the century. The population that was around 50 thousand in 1900 reached 3 million in 2000. All this growth came at the expense of the Oromo population who lived in the vicinity. For Addis Ababa to grow Oromo farmers had to be displaced. It is this predatory relationship that existed between Addis Ababa and the Oromos who lived in the surrounding area from the time Finfinne was converted to Addis Ababa.

Even though in every direction Addis Ababa’s city center is less than 10 miles away from Oromia, it is as if it is 10,000 miles away removed from it in every aspect. It was a strange alien spot in the midst of Oromia. Oromos who came to the city were treated as strangers in their own ancestral land; Oromos who for one reason or another had to move into the city had to abandon their Oromoness and be Amharanized to be Addis Ababan. Children of Oromos parents who grew up in Addis Ababa, as a result of cultural imposition, were forced in one way or another to abandon their language and culture. Addis Ababa was the grave yard for Oromummaa from its inception to present day.

The total alienation of Oromos from Addis Ababa is a phenomenon that has no parallel elsewhere. Even in settled European colonialism of Rhodesia and South Africa, in cities like Salisbury and Cape Town, we see in shanty towns and ghettos the concentration of black Africans who live as a community exercising more or less their culture. In Addis Ababa, there is no area that one can call an Oromo area where Oromo language is spoken as a community.

I am mentioning all this not to open old wounds or to divert attention from what the current regime is doing against the Oromos. I am bringing this up to simply put in a historical context the relationship that existed between Addis Ababa and surrounding Oromos, so that it could help us to really understand why the Oromo is rejecting the Master Plan. Given such inequitable and pernicious relationship between the two, it would, in fact, be strangely irrational to expect that the surrounding Oromos would readily welcome with open arms any type of integration with Addis Ababa imposed on them.

Add to this the arrogant and top to down EPRDF (read TPLF whenever you see EPRDF) style of governance that tried to shove the Master Plan down the throat of the stakeholders. Even if this Master Plan has the intention and effect of improving the lives of the surrounding Oromo farmers, which it is not, and even if the EPRDF had a stellar record with Addis Ababa-Oromia relations, which it does not, the farmers and their children have still all the reason to be suspicious of the Master Plan and oppose it, and by opposing to end it.

Recent History
With EPRDF’s coming to power, the nature and complexity of the relationship between the two became even more complicated. Addis Ababa became a spot on which the interest of the three major powers in the country, the Oromo, Amhara and Tigray converged upon and clashed. The city became economically and politically Tigray elite dominated, and remained demographically and culturally Amhara, and historically and territorially Oromo. The uneasy relationship between the EPRDF and the Oromo interest as regards the status of Addis Ababa became evident as early as during the drafting of the Ethiopian Constitution. It was to resolve the differences that a compromise was reached in the constitution itself. The difference was “resolved” by making Addis Ababa the federal capital with the recognition of Oromia’s special interest due to Addis Ababa’s location in Oromia. It should be noted that the constitution does not say anything about Addis Ababa being also the capital of Oromia. This was incorporated into Oromia’s constitution. Thus, with this arrangement, Addis Ababa became a dual capital of both the federal government and Oromia.

After the TPLF became more settled and confident, it tried to change this arrangement that it never liked in the first place. Thus, in 2000, the EPRDF government passed a resolution to move the Oromia capital from Addis Ababa to Adama. And with this begun the first direct confrontation between EPRDF and the Oromo population on the question of the relationship between Addis Ababa and Oromia. The Oromo population totally opposed EPRDF’s mischievous and back stabbing move, and as now, then also the Oromo students spearheaded the opposition and staged demonstrations in many parts of Oromia.

The Mecha and Tulema Self-Help Organization, which was the most senior and revered Oromo civic organization, characterized the move illegal and conducted a peaceful demonstration in Addis Ababa to register its opposition. However, the peaceful demonstration was met with the usual EPRDF brutality. Many students who demonstrated in different parts of Oromia were killed, and many were expelled from universities and colleges. The Mecha and Tulema leaders were imprisoned and the organization that advocated for Oromo rights starting from the Emperor’s time was banned, and still remain banned. Finally, the OPDO with its tails under its legs moved Oromia’s capital to Adama. Coincidentally or not, it was also around this time that the uprooting of Oromo farmer from the vicinity of Addis Ababa that started a little earlier continued in earnest.

In 2005, after CUD and other opposition parties won the election in Addis Ababa and following the debacle that ensued, to counter the influence of Amharas in Addis, Meles ordered OPDO leaders to relocate back to Addis Ababa. Thus, after a hiatus of five years, Addis Ababa regained back its dual capital city status. But the damage was already done. Such a move was not wasted on Oromos. Oromos clearly realized that the EPRDF government did not like this dual status of Addis Ababa. They knew EPRDF would do everything in its power to minimize the influence of Oromia on the city when it can. They believed that it was just a matter of time before such a move would come. And so, when this idea of Master Plan started to crop up, it was a déjà vu moment for many Oromos. But little did anybody suspect that the EPRDF would come with such a vigor and resoluteness to implement the Master Plan in the face of universal opposition.

Given EPRDF’s record vis-à-vis Oromia’s interest in Addis Ababa, it is not surprising at all for Oromos to be apprehensive of the Master Plan and come with every force they can master to oppose it. Given the history, it is only natural for most Oromos to leap to the conclusion that the EPRDF was simply trying to annex the surrounding Oromo areas under the guise of the Master Plan. This in a way also implies that in essence the issue is not mainly a Master Plan issue, but a legitimacy question, but that is a topic for another time.

The question that should be asked here is why in the face of such a widespread opposition against it EPRDF came so strongly for the implementation of this Plan. Obviously EPRDF’s authoritarian nature and its inflexibility and determination to be on top at any cost all the time has something to do with it, but it is not the whole explanation. In addition to this, what is the root cause and what is driving the current Master Plan? In order to answer this we have to go deeper, even deeper than history and look at other factor that is playing a major role.

Land Economics
Behind most occupations and colonization there are always economic reasons. Nations usually do not go and occupy other nations for the adventure or for the sake of occupying. Menelik’s imperial colonialism of Oromia is no exception. He conquered and occupied Oromia basically for one reason, for Oromia’s land. First he wanted to settle his population on the fertile land of Oromia, and second he wanted to expand his tax basis so that he could fund his ever growing power base, and finally to control the major trade routes of the time so that he would tax and control commercial items coming from the southern part of Ethiopia.

One of Menelik’s legacies, that defined the relationship between Northerners and Southerners (Oromia) and whose effect reverberates to this day, is the land tenure system he imposed on the newly conquered territories. Starting from this period and throughout the reign of Haile Selassie, a gabar land system, as distinct from the tenure system of northern Ethiopia (rist and rist gult), was instituted on southern Ethiopia. Per this new land tenure system, the Oromos and other southern people because of their status of conquered people lost two-third of their land by law. The land taken away from them was given to the crown (maderia), church (samon) and individual Neftenyas as a compensation for the service they rendered during the conquest. With this the Oromos lost their land and became in most part serfs of the new settlers. Land and power were merged and with the loss of their land Oromos became powerless.

The life of the serfs, especially of those who tilled the land of the absentee landlords, became unbearable. And peasant in many parts started to rebel against their landlords. However, the Ethiopian students were the vanguard in the struggle to end this institutionalized serfdom in southern Ethiopia. Students, and specially university students, irrespective of their ethnicity stood for justice and equality and championed the peasants’ right to own the land they tilled. “Land to the tiller” became the rallying slogan for all progressive forces of the time, and eventually became the catalyst that led to the downfall of the emperor.

The Dergue regime that overthrew the imperial order, in 1975 passed a new land proclamation nationalizing all rural land. This, once and for all, abolished the exploitative landlord-tenant relationship. However, even though this proclamation severed the landlord tenant relationship and liberated the peasants from individual Neftegnas, it did not totally liberate the peasants. Because this proclamation made land public property (owned by the government), the state replaced the individual landlords and became the new landlord. Thus, the legacy of state intervention in land tenure relations was even further strengthened, and the state became even stronger in the power equation vis-à-vis the people.

In 1991, after defeating the Dergue, the EPRDF regime came to power. After coming to power it restructured the state administrative arrangement drastically. It further brought about other major changes in many areas, including relatively liberalizing the economy and encouraging private ownership. However, in the November 1991 declaration of Economic Policy, it left the Dergue’s land proclamation more or less intact. The EPRDF constitution of 1995 also gave its blessing and affirmed this. Land continued to be state property. Landholders have only usufruct rights and not ownership right. This means the landholder can use the land, but could not sell or mortgage it. So, the big question is, “is this coincidental, or why did the EPRDF government, of all the things, adopted the Dergue’s land policy?”

The first obvious reason is related to control and power. EPRDF and the Dergue, in spite of all their differences, have many similarities; the basic one being their obsession with power, and their authoritarian nature. As I have said above, land and power are intimately related in Ethiopia. Anyone who controls land controls the power base. Because land is owned by the state, the peasants are always at the mercy of the state that could at any time evict them for any reason. By allowing privatization of land, TPLF did not want to lose such a potent power or minimize its control mechanism that buys it the allegiance of the peasantry. Thus, by retaining intact the Dergue land policy it strengthened its position in the power equation.

If we look deeper this means that the major change that occurred with the coming to power of EPRDF is not only the transfer of political power to the elites of Tigrai ethnic group, but much more. By controlling land through state ownership, TPLF not only acquired political and security muscle to control Oromia, but it also positioned itself better to directly control the major sources of livelihood of Oromos and others. Thus, for TPLF, this is not only a power control per se; it is not even limited to economic control. It is, in addition, a move that made it able to enrich its select members of its ethnic group to attain economic empowerment. I am saying this not in a sense that “who controls the economy controls political power”, but in a wider sense. What I mean is that this arrangement gave TPLF a tool that enabled it to directly benefit members of its group at the expense of Oromo farmers. Long before the term “land grab” came in vogue, Meles and his group were preparing themselves for local land grab, and what more tool would help them to achieve this than retaining the land nationalization policy of the Dergue.

This added factor of land grab made TPLF’s domination much more potent and effective compared to the domination the Dergue enjoyed through nationalization of land. Under the Dergue, because private ownership is not encouraged, there is no opportunity, at least as regards land, for individual bureaucrats to individually or as a group benefit by evicting farmers. If there were expropriation of land, it was to give the land for villagization or to expand state farms. Even had there been some individuals or group economic benefits reaped as a result of public ownership of land under the Dergue, the basis for preferential treatment would have been based on ideology or belonging to a party or based on personal relationship, and not based on ethnic belongingness and affinity.

So, how badly did the TPLF wanted to have control over the land? What is the reason, and how much important is this to them? I can go ahead and analyze the quality of farm land in Tigrai, the frequent drought and starvation, and the population explosion in that area, and how these factors are driving the need to acquire more land. However, there is no need to do that because Meles Zenawi in his 1991 interview with Paul Henze has unwittingly let us see how they think about this issue. When Paul Henze asked him how many Tigrayans lived outside Tigray, here is how Meles’ answered:

Probably a third of all Tigrayans live in other parts of Ethiopia. Tigrayans have always emigrated – some to stay and others as temporary laborers. That was one of the things that alienated Tigrayans from the Derg very early. Land reform did not anger people in Tigray as much as the restrictions on seasonal labor migration. Tigrayans used to go to many other parts of the country to work, sometimes for more than half the year. They brought their earnings home to support their families or invest in their farms. There was no part of Ethiopia where money earned in this way was more important to the people. The Derg was stupid to forbid this, for it forced our people into poverty and hopelessness and it gave our movement important support from the very beginning.

Meles staunchly opposed the Dergue’s land reform on the ground that it restricted Tigrayans from moving to other parts of Ethiopia; however when EPRDF came power, he adopted the same land policy. His adoption of his archenemy’s policy is not fortuitous. It was a calculated, well-thought-out, shrewd move. He knew with the control of state power, he will now the one who will be choosing who would be winners and losers in the wealth distribution scheme. Under this new condition, he knew the Tigrayans would not only be able to move unrestrictedly to every part of the country, but could also get a preferential treatment because now their kinfolks controlled the bureaucracy. On a moral ground they also tried to justify the “Tigrayans’ preferential treatment” on the ground that they should be compensated for the sacrifice they paid fighting against the Dergue for 17 years. It was based on this that the military, especially the top military brass, became one of the first beneficiaries to acquire land around Addis Ababa by evicting Oromo peasants. Unfortunately, land has limited supply, and for every land given to the Tigrayan elites, Oromo farmers had to be evicted with nominal compensation.

Meles’s interview further clearly shows that without working in other parts of the country, at least part of the year, the Tigrayan people would be condemned to poverty. Thus, we can see how crucial this issue is for them. Based on this, one does not need to be a genius to deduce that this urgent need for land is one of the major factors that drive them to control land at any cost. I am not against the Tigrayans going to other parts of the country and earning a living. What I am against is for the country’s most important policy to be devised around the need to benefit solely one ethnic group at the expense of the others. TPLF’s land policy is mainly engineered towards enabling the Tigrayans to be able to acquire land (land grabbing) in other parts of southern Ethiopia, particularly in Oromia. Thus, TPLF constitutionalized land to be public property first for control purpose and second to make land grabbing easy to benefit the Tigrayans elite at the expense of others.

However, this unfettered state power used to disposes farmers of their land did not stop at enriching only the Tigray elite. Selectively choosing winners and losers through bureaucratic means, once it starts has the character of expanding and having unintended consequences. Just like power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, selectively choosing winners and losers acquires a life of its own and would expands in an unexpected directions. In effect this means that naked power that started to selectively benefit the Tigrayans elites did not stop there. It became the source of the mother of all corruptions. Now it became possible for anyone with a lot of money to corrupt bureaucrats and evict Oromos around the city and acquire their land to build gated communities and other mansions. Thus, even though compared to their population, the Tigray are by far the group that benefited, you see others from all ethnic groups participating in this land grab and dispossessing Oromo farmers of their land. Added to corruption the other asset used to get access to land is political connection.

It was under this circumstances that the Oromos surrounding Addis Ababa became the first casualty in the rush for land grab orchestrated by the Tigrayan led bureaucracy. Population pressure and prohibitively high land price in the city are obviously factors that are driving the rush for land grab. However, those are not the only factors. Other factors that made this possible are the ambiguity of the city boundary and the weakness of Oromia government. Using such ambiguity and weakness of OPDO to fight against the encroachment into Oromia territory, thousands of farmers were illegally evicted through corruption. Surprisingly, the process used to expropriate farmers’ land in some part around the city is even illegal under the EPRDF laws. The Master Plan came in the wake of this, to protect those who have illegally already constructed their buildings encroaching into surrounding Oromia territory. As we will see more closely in the second part, the Master Plan was mainly a ploy to get access to cheaper land and justify land grab.

In the second part we will be looking at what other factors contributed to land grab pushing forward the Master Plan. We will also try to look at what the Master Plan really is, and see if the government’s argument holds water.

* The writer, Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqii, can be reached at olaanaabbaaxiiqi@yahoo.com