The Special Interest: the affirmation of denial

#OromoProtests Special coverage


“Just what is this special interest?”


By Tsegaye R Ararssa

As a response to the comprehensive Oromiya-wide resistance to the Master Plan, the officials of the Federal and the State governments have, rather inconsistently and half-heartedly, indicated that the implementation of the Master Plan is now stopped. The Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Federal Parliament, the Government Spokesperson, the Oromiya State President, and the Spokesperson of the Oromiya Government have all remarked that the Master Plan is not going to be implemented without the consent of the people.


In what seems to be the production of consent, the government has now engaged in a “discussion” with the public to condemn the protests, hunt down the active protestors, and force a vow of commitment to the government’s “development plans” (which implicitly includes the Master Plan as well). In the meantime, massive arrest of protestors, even shootings and killings are still continuing. The resistance is also continuing rather sporadically.


The Command Post chaired by the Prime Minister and the Joint Counter-Terror Task Force are taking what the Prime Minister and all the officials called a “definitive measure” on the protestors. In doing so, the federal governmenthas completely rendered the State Government superfluous. The federal government didn’t, in the first place, try to seek a formal Federal Intervention Order or Emergency Declaration as per the requirements of the Constitutions,nor considered the option to use the law as a mode of disavowal of responsibility and depersonalization of power, which makes it easy targets for those considering to takeits officials to account before various international tribunals.

While all this is going on, the otherwise invisible Government of Oromiya has issued a statement that they have established a task force to define the Constitutional Special Interest of Oromiya over Addis Abeba. This has redirected attention from the Master Plan to exactly what the task force is going to do in its attempt to enunciate the content of the Special interest. This is not surprising given the fact that one of the reasons for the resistance to the Master Plan was that it overwhelms and eliminates the Special Interest, thereby violating the clause in Article 49 of the FDRE constitution. But the question in the minds of the public and all interested observers remains: just what is this special interest?

In this piece, I consider this question from a legal point of view. In so doing, I will first try to offer the context within which this ‘Special Interest’ clause of the constitution came about.


I will then examine the provisions in art 49(5) of the constitution with a view to indicating, suggestively, what exactly the content could be. I will also try to trace the Special Interest in the Context of the Master Plan that rendered it invisible and/or irrelevant. Finally, I will reflect on the fear and the tragedy of the violence in relation to Addis Abeba by linking it to its genealogical antecedents rooted in its foundational moments, the moments of inaugural violence. Here, I will make few assertions about the burden of imperial history, the curse of illegitimacy that was never overcome, the irredeemable failure of state- and nation-building that keeps bleeding a people whose wounds never healed, whose hopes have always been deferred, and whose voice is being denied expression and a hearing. Throughout this piece, I argue that the move to articulate the special interest by the Task Force, while long overdue and therefore an appropriate political gesture in the right direction, might be just another move to align the contents of the ‘special interest’ clause with the objectives of the Master Plan and legally water it down or erase it altogether.

The context

The notion of Oromiya’s ‘Special Interest’ entered the Ethiopian legal universe in 1992 through the instrumentality of the Proclamation that established National/Regional Self Governments (Proclamation No. 7/ 1992). This is the proclamation that set the blue print for what came later to be the constituent units of the Ethiopian Federation. Adopted to give effect to the decentralization that was envisaged in the Transitional Charter—and to valorize the right of ethno-national groups to self-determination—it established 14 self-governing national regions. Accordingly, Oromia became one of the 14 self-governing States. Addis Abeba, like the City of Harar, was also a region in its own right. Oromiya’s‘special interest’ over both cities was first recognized in this piece of legislation (1).In Article 3 (4), it is provided that:



The special interests and political right of the Oromo over Region Thirteen [Harari] and Region Fourteen [Addis Abeba] are reserved. These Regions shall be accountable to the Central Transitional Government and the relations of these Self-Governments with the Central Transitional Government shall be prescribed in detail by a special law.

Very much like the provision in Art 49 (5) of the Constitution that came later, it envisaged a ‘special law’ (meant to clarify the relation of accountability to the Central Government), but such a law was never promulgated. It is interesting to observe that, unlike in the constitution, in this transitional period law, the Oromo has not just a “special interest” but also a political right over the two self-government regions. It is also important to observe that there is no attempt to delimit the boundary of the city. As a result, it was not clear as to where exactly the jurisdiction of the government of Addis Ababa ends and that of Oromia commences.

While it looked like a city state in a federation, Addis Abeba was also seen as a city within a larger state, i.e., Oromia. In other words, administratively, it was an enclave falling outside of Oromia while also housing the Government of Oromia as its capital. In a sense, Addis Ababa is in Oromiya, but not of Oromiya. Oromiya was a State governing from Addis Abeba without, however, governing Addis Abeba itself. While the meaning of ‘special interest’ was understood to mean much more than having a seat for the Oromiya government in the city, for the entire period of the transitional times, this remained to be the only ‘interest’ Oromiyacould obtain.

The concept of Oromiya’s special interest was thus injected into the language of public law in the country accompanying the shift away from a formerly unitary state to what was subsequently to become a ‘multinational federation’. Acutely sensitive to the rights of sub-national groups (called ‘Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’) in Ethiopia, this ‘ethno-federalization’ was a reaction, and a push back, to the goings-on in history. We can thus see its immense historical import in its potency to speak both to the past and to the future. The ‘special’ in the ‘special interest’ phrase hails not only from the mere fact of geographic location of Addis Abeba in Oromiya but also from the implicit recognition of the essentially Oromo identity of the city. Historians have routinely described the fact that, until it was violently raided and occupied by the forces of the Shoan Kingdom in the 19th century, the city was inhabited by the Oromo.

When it was ‘founded’ as the capital of the modern Ethiopian Empire in 1888, 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. With a violent beginning marked by conquest and occupation of the land; raid, massacre, and displacement of the population; and transformation of the cultural and environmental terrain by the soldiers, it started as a garrison town(2). A cursory glance atwritings by William Harris(3), Alexander Bulatovich(4), and even Evelyn Waugh(5), indicates that the State operated in Addis Abeba as an occupying force of settler colonialists bent on pushing out and displacing the indigenous Oromo peoples.Because the settlers generally spoke Amharic and confessed the Ethiopian Orthodox faith and because of the disproportionate concentration of modern urban facilities in Addis Abeba, it became increasingly different culturally fromits surroundings. Consequently, it projected a cultural life that is different from that of the Oromo. The culture, identity, and language of the Oromo became the constitutive outside of the cultural life in the city. In time, the Oromo were effectively marginalized and otherized. For most of the 20th century, the Oromo, although historically the host, was forced to live like the alien and the guest in what was their own homeland. Informed by this memory and propelled by years of national liberation struggles, the politicians that negotiated the Transitional Charter (Proc. 1/1991) and made the law (Proc. 7/1992) sought to emphasize the need to acknowledge the Oromo presence in the city’s affair through the ‘special interest’. The ‘special interest’package was thus a way of making up for the artificial (created or intentionally produced) absence of the Oromo. In other words, it was a method of presenting the absent, a way of bringing back the Oromo to its own.

The law

When the constitution of FDRE was finally adopted in 1995, the ‘special interest’ clause was more or less carried over into art 49(5). To understand the full textual context of the special interest package in art 49 (5), it is important for us to reproduce the entirety of article 49 in full. Accordingly, the provision in art 49 reads as follows:

49(1) Addis Abeba shall be the capital city of the Federal State.
49(2) The residents of Addis Abeba shall have a full measure of self-government. Particulars shall be determined by law.
49(3) The Administration of Addis Abeba shall be responsible for the Federal Government.
49 (4) Residents of Addis Abeba shall in accordance with the provisions of this constitution, be represented in the House of Peoples’ Representatives.
49(5) The special Interest of the State of Oromiya in Addis Abeba, 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 Abeba within the State of Oromia, shall be respected. Particulars shall be determined by law.

Space won’t allow a full length analysis of the first four sub-articles. Consequently, I will concentrate only on art 49(5) in this piece. Owing to the unclarity of the clause in art 49 (5), coupled with the lack, to date, of the law constitutionally envisaged to enunciate the content, it became imperative for people to ask “just what is the ‘special interest’?” In this section, we make a close reading of the provision to explore what could be in the package.

Let me make a couple of preliminary points before I go into the content of the ‘special interests.’ First off, it is important to underscore that Addis Abeba is a Federal capital city within a State.In this it is more like Berne (of Switzerland) or Ottawa (of Canada)[7]. Once that is admitted, i.e., that Addis Abeba is a city in Oromiya, one should have an explicit discussion and mutual understanding about what it means to be a federal capital because that automatically indicates that the Federal Government doesn’t have a ‘natural’ right to be in the city. That discussion didn’t happen. That is a historical blunder about a city mired in several historical misdeeds and mistakes. That it was made accountable solely to the Federal Government was the second big blunder at the time of adopting the constitution. Given the fact that the city is in Oromiya and that it is also a ‘natural’ capital of the government of Oromiya, it should have been made accountable to Oromiya. Or at the very least, it should have dual accountability to both the Federal and Oromiya Government. That didn’t happen. Commanding exclusive say on the administration of the city (in the name of ultimate accountability), the federal government ‘banished’ the Oromiya government at will in 2003 and allowed it back in the city in 2005. In this, the federal government expanded and re-enacted the original violence of dispossession and displacement of Oromos from the city thereby perpetrating a new wound before the historical wounds could heal. Had it not been for this constitutive mistake, this ‘original sin’ of constitutional drafting in 1995, there wouldn’t have been anything special about the special interest of Oromia. If there would be ‘special interest’, it would have been that of the Federal Government or the non-Oromo residents of the city. These twin mistakes of recent history led to events of dire consequence that claim lives and limbs to date.

Having made a guest out of the host through the legal fiction of excision, i.e., by excising the city out of the political and administrative jurisdiction of Oromiya,it became necessary for Ethiopia, almost as an afterthought, to ‘concede’ a lame ‘special interest’ to Oromiya in Art 49(5). Over the years, the government of Oromiya and Oromos in general hung on this provision more as a symbolic rallying point to interrogate Ethiopia for what is actually beyond the interest in the city. To the Oromo public, the city became the metaphor for what Ethiopia has made of the Oromo in general: an invisible, non-speaking, non-acting other who inhabits the interior of the territory but the exterior of the polity. It became the concentrated expression of the ‘life’ and the agony of the Oromo in the Ethiopian polity: the present-absence and the absent presence at a time. Today, the Federal State presided over the coalition of four parties that make up the EPRDF became the new empire in a federal form, and the leaders became the new emperors in a democratic-republican garb. This forced the quip ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ (‘the more it changes, the more it remains the same’) from many an Oromo politician.

Hence, the wide Oromo discontent over the whole arrangement with regards to Addis Abeba. Taking advantage of the historic asymmetry in power, the city administration, mostly prompted by the federal government, has consistently acted in complete neglect or wilful defiance of the interests of Oromiya and Oromos. Taking advantage of the undefined territorial boundary of the city, the administration continued to expand its competence over the suburbs surrounding Addis Abeba. Routinely, the Federal and the City Governments exploited the legal silence on the matter of special interest. Thus, the Addis Abeba Land Administration office often acted as the authority in charge of land administration in areas such as Labbuu, the LagaTafo-Marii continuum, Bole-Bulbula, Buraayyuu, Sabbata, Sululta, and districts beyond the Akaki-Qalittii corridor. The Federal Government continued to implement its industrialization policy by reserving Industrial Zones, Recreation Parks, and designated investment sites (much like Special Economic Zones). In doing all these things, the Federal Government cum the city never took the trouble to consult with Oromiya, much less the Oromo people. Evictions of farmers with little or no compensation became a routine practice.

Pollutions from industrial emissions were sustained with no sense of accountability from the part of the city. Waste was dumped recklessly causing massive health risks. Deforestation and soil degradation was intensified in the neighbouring districts, especially after the rise of investment in flower farms, dairy farms, and poultry farms. Homelessness of the evicted farmers and residents started to be felt among the people. The response from the Government of Oromiya was late, but it did come in the form of a 2009 Caffee Oromiya proclamation that established a Special Zone of 17 districts and 36 towns in the area. Its attempt at legislative articulation of the ‘Constitutional Special Interest of Oromiya over Addis Abeba’ remained a draft to date.

Also, Oromo residents of the inner city resented the absence of Schools and cultural centres that operate in Afaan Oromo. The fact that the city has become anything but Oromo over the years made Oromo residents lament the complete cultural insensitivity to the needs of the Oromo in the city. Increasingly, the demand for schools in Afaan Oromo and cultural centres began to be vocally expressed in the last decade or two (resulting in efforts to construct an Oromo Cultural Centre and to open public schools that operate in Afaan Oromo) [7].

While such demands were gaining momentum steadily over the years, the Integrated Regional Development Plan (alias the Master Plan) was announced to the public in 2014. Immediately, it provoked a resistance in all corners of the Oromiya region. The day-to-day encroachment of Oromiya’s jurisdiction with the informal expansion of the city; the general spill over effects of the city; its becoming the dumping ground for Addis Abeba waste for no gain; the pollution of the rivers, the soil, and the general environment of the surrounding districts and towns; the evictions with ‘compensations’ whose lower limits are legally left unregulated; the insensitivity to the cultural and linguistic needs of Oromo residents; the temperamental behaviour the Federal Government showed vis-à-vis Oromiya’s claim to Addis Abeba as its capital city; these and other resentments fed the anger that emerged in the wake of the revelation of the Master Plan. Apart from its violation of the principles of federalism and a healthy intergovernmental relations that should exist in a working federation, one of the reasons given for resisting the Master Plan was that it liquidates the ‘special interest’ of Oromiya. As was noted above, the particulars envisaged to ‘be determined by law’ were never determined. The recent move on the part of the Oromiya government to establish a Task Force on the Special interest seems to be a response to that concern (8).

According to art 49 (5), the articulation of the content of the ‘special interest’ is hoped to revolve around the meaning of four broad phrases:

a. ‘Provision of social services’
b. ‘Utilization of natural resources’
c. ‘Joint administrative matters’
d. ‘Other matters’ similar to provision of social services or utilization of natural resources.

The hard task ahead of the “Task Force’

The Task Force is expected to interpret these phrases in a judicious manner that can also satisfy the popular discontent that was ignited into full manifestation in the protest to the Master Plan. In particular, it must identify the kind of social services that Addis Abeba should provide to Oromiya. Normally, ‘social services’ connote services such as access to housing, education, health, water, transport, and other matters needed for achieving adequate living standards. From experience, we know that one of the unmet needs of Oromiya in Addis Abeba is access to public buildings and properties for their offices and residential places for their officials and civil servants. And the need for designated plots of land on which to build houses for the employees of the state.

Organizing public schools that operate in Afaan Oromo is another kind of social service seen as a pressing need. Related but not often articulated is the need for building or making spaces for public libraries run in Afaan Oromo, exhibition centres, concert halls, theatres, museums, galleries, cinema halls, printing presses dedicated to the nurture and development of Oromo cultural lives, shows, performances, plays, memories, arts/paintings, movies, books, etc. This need to give attention to culture also requires the need for memorializing personalities and historical moments of the Oromo through naming streets, places, squares; and erecting statues. In addition, subsidizing Oromo arts and printing and publications as part of making the Oromo presence felt to anyone who comes to and inhabits the city is an important aspect of social service. In other words, the provision of social services also extends to the cultural representation of the Oromo in the life of the wider city.

Similarly, health facilities and other utilities such as public transport services that operate in Afaan Oromo should be considered part of the social services to be provided to Oromos. One way of addressing this could be making Afaan Oromo the co-equal working language of the City Government. The move to make Afaan Oromo and other languages to become working languages of the Federal Government will also help curb part of the problem of access to social services and facilities such as public transport, celebration and registration of vital events (birth, marriage, death, certification, authentication, licensing, etc).

Secondly, it must clarify the type of ‘natural resources’ Addis Abeba has that Oromiya uses and the modes in which it continues to use them. Giving content to this phrase becomes amusing when we note the fact that there is hardly any natural resource that the city offers to Oromiya. Anything ‘natural’ in the city is ipso facto that of Oromiyabecause the city itself is of Oromiya anyway. The city actually is dependent on the natural resources of Oromiya. Water, forest products, hydroelectric supply, minerals, sand, cement products, precious stones, food products, and everything else that Ethiopia (beyond and above Addis Abeba) needs come from outside of the city, Oromiya and the other regions. In the course of articulating this interest, one needs to consider the benefits Oromiya should get from the delivery of these resources. One way of doing this is to agree on the percentage of income that should go back to Oromiya’s revenue based on what is often called the principle of derivation in federal countries. If the federalism was properly functioning, this would have been handled through a negotiated channel of financial intergovernmental relations.

Thirdly, the law to be prepared by the Task Force must determine the scope and method of exercise of the envisaged ‘joint administration’. For this, we will first need to identify what tasks are matters for joint administration. Secondly, we need to decide who is responsible for what aspect of the administration. In the area of inter-jurisdictional roads (say maintenance); border management; managing trans-boundary forests, rivers, etc.; inter-jurisdictional legal cooperation (whose police takes responsibility for cross-border criminal activities); these and some such activities need to be spelt out. One obvious area of joint administration is management of land. Because legislative power over land issues is a matter for the federal government and administration is for the States, issues such as town planning, mapping, cadastre, land redistribution among residents, designing construction regulations, etc should have been a matter for states, districts, and local/municipality governments. And in these areas, local governments could find some collaboration. Accordingly, the government of the state of Oromiya and the government of the Addis Abeba City could coordinate their activities as they have overlapping jurisdictions (i.e., Oromiya has a territorial jurisdiction while the city has a self-administrative jurisdiction).

Ideally, ‘joint administration’ could have happened if the city was made accountable to the Government of Oromiya rather than to the Federal Government. In the very least, joint administration could have been achieved through making the City government accountable to both the Federal and the Oromiya governments. Settling on one of these options would mitigate the injustice of the original constitutional arrangement that: a) made Addis Abeba the capital city of the Federal government without the consent of the Oromos; and b) made the city’s self-government accountable exclusively to the Federal Government. If there was an inclusive participatory constitutional moment that acknowledges the presence of the Oromo in the polis-to-be between 1992 and 1994, one or more of the following scenarios might have been negotiated: a) find a (new) site that is commonly agreed upon by all the constituent members of the Federation to be the Federal District Territory; b) designate another city in another State or in Oromiya as the seat of the federal government accountable to that state; c) designate different cities for different branches of the Federal Government; d) agree to have a roving capital city for the federal government every decade or so; e) designate Addis Abeba as the capital city with a self-governing council ultimately accountable to Oromia—a city of Oromia where the federal government may have some form of ‘special interest’; f) designate Addis Abeba as a federal capital city whose self-governing council will be accountable to both the federal and the Oromiya governments. The constitution-making process was less ideal than one would hope for. It was marked by lack of legitimacy on procedural and substantive accounts (9). The work that the Task Force does now will, while attending to the immediate needs of giving content to the ‘joint administrative issues’, identify potential areas of constitutional amendments that would overcome the problems caused by original flaws in the constitution. This will force the Task Force to engage in—and engage the public with–what Icalled, elsewhere, a ‘redemptive constitutional discourse,’ a discourse that overcomes the deficits in original legitimacy, a discourse that ‘corrects’ the imperfect beginnings of the constitution by also attending to the trauma caused by inaugural violence with which the city was incorporated into, and made the capital of, the modern imperial Ethiopian state.

While that is being done, the Task Force needs to be daring in searching for a long lasting solution to the violent Ethio-Oromiya relations, especially regarding Addis Abeba. In particular, it needs to consider the possibility of relocating the Federal Government elsewhere. Removing the Federal government will help undo the trauma of the violent occupation at the moment of ‘founding’ and subsequent displacement of the Oromo through the ‘settlement’ of others. Until that is done through constitutional revision or amendment, it may be necessary to consider the shift of accountability of the city government from the Federal to the Oromiya government. It may be imperative for the Federal Government tostart paying rent to the Oromia government as a token of acknowledgement to their being hosted by Oromiya.

Connected to this work of the Task Force to find a lasting solution is to identify unconstitutional laws and policies that violate Oromiya’s rights and special interests. Laws such as the one that promulgated the Addis Abeba Charter of 2003 (Proc. 361/2003, especially its article 5), the Investment Amendment Proclamation of 2014 (Proc. 849/2014, especially its provisions regarding ‘Industrial Development Zones), and projects like the World Bank sponsored Industrial Zone Projects (such as the Resettlement Action Plan [of] the Kilinto Industrial Zone (April 2015) should all be rescinded. New laws may need to be issued. An example is a proclamation that governs the lowest threshold for rates and modes of compensation awarded to a farmer in the event of eviction from her/his land. To be sure, there was a 2005 Proclamation (Proc. 455/2005) that provides for expropriation of land holdings and compensation. However, this proclamation, apart from enhancing the dispossessive, regulatory and police powers of the Ministry of Federal Affairs, federal and local governments, and of several other agencies, it says little about the substance of the compensation, especially for collective landholdings (about which it says nothing) [10]. Needless, to say, as the actual practice of expropriation has routinely demonstrated, even the normative gesture in the law of providing a replacement remains to be more a legal rhetoric than an actual reality, more a juridical promise than a political practice.

By removing these and other similar roadblocks to joint administration proper, the Task Force may help both Ethiopia and Oromiya imagine a more just relation through the instrumentality of the ‘special interest’.

The meaning of the ‘other issues’ over which Oromiya has a special interest is to be decided contextually on the basis of issues that rear their head in the course of day-to-day life experience. One cannot be definitive about the list of things to be included in this category.

However, twenty years of experience should have brought forth several such issues that may need to be specified while leaving others to the discretion of administrators subject to judicial review.

Having unpacked the meaning of these phrases, the other issue left for us to determine is who comes up with the law that “determines” the “particulars”: the Federal Government, the City Government, or the Government of Oromiya? So far, the federal government had hesitated to legislate on the matter even in the face of a repeated demand by the government of the state of Oromiya. That is of course because the federal government wants to exploit the ambiguity that remains because of the legal vacuum. Legal silence is strategically deployed to avoid their part of the obligation and to continue to enjoy what doesn’t rightfully belong to them in the absence of a law that proscribes it. Oromiya’s attempt in the past (2006) to legislate on the matter could produce only a draft piece of legislation that couldn’t be presented to and passed by the Caffee Oromiya.

The Burden of History: the fear, the curse, and the tragic consequence

Like everything else in Ethiopia, the city languishes under the heavy burden of history. As indicated above, it had a bloody beginning. When it was ‘founded’ as the capital of the modern Ethiopian state, it was not planted in a terra nullius, an empty space that was masterless. The site which Empress Taitu chose as the place of settlement and named Addis Abeba had a name (Finfinne), a people (of the Galan, Gulele, and Abichu clans of the Oromo), and a life (natural and social). It has a story of a people who valiantly defended themselves against the barbaric raids directed at them from the north, including those by Haile Melekot and Sahleselassie of Shoa. The settlement of the imperial forces in the late 19th century was preceded by depopulation of the indigenous inhabitants of the place and deforestation of the area. It was then followed by the renaming of the place, erasure of its history, and degradation of cultures. Viewed as the pagan others (aremenie), the Oromo were effectively made the constitutive outside of the empire inhabiting, along with the other ‘others’ (in the wider South), the periphery of what was the Abyssinian core. So constituted by the Menelikan imperial dispensation, Addis Abeba was an unnatural town in which the Oromo was an unwanted presence. When it is seen for what it is (which is rare), it comes as a relic of a regretted past that should be overcome through civilization (or modernization) which is to be deployed to integrate the Oromo and all the other ‘others’ into what Levine felicitously called ‘Greater Ethiopia’(11). The modernization wedded into nation-building through ‘civilization’ (alias known as hager maqnat) run on the imperative that the Oromo and the other peoples of Ethiopia make way for the progress towards the supposed ‘manifest destiny’ the empire hoped to achieve. In short, the moment of encounter with the Oromo in Addis Abeba was marked by the violence of conquest (raid), occupation, enslavement, depopulation, and displacement. The moment was also remembered by the Oromo as a moment of material and cultural loss, politico-military humiliation, dispossession of land, disorientation of one’s way of life, expropriation of the means of livelihood, and wanton destruction of the natural environment. Settled by soldiers of various nobles of the court, it was culturally ‘other’ to the indigenous peoples of the area.

This violent ‘beginning’ is not just a legacy of the past. It is with us now mirrored in the most recent barbarity foisted upon the Oromo in the name of expanding the jurisdictional scope of the city to the surrounding towns and rural districts. The rationale back then was nation-building and unification. The name used today to describe the same process is ‘development’ and the march to our ‘millennial renaissance.’ The process back then involved outright dispossession of the land and enslavement/enserfment of the population. The process today is expropriation or eviction and rendering the population placeless and homeless. The settlers in the garrison town it was then were culturally alien to the people but viewed themselves as the ‘civilized’ (Christian) other. Today’s city dwellers are culturally alien to Oromiya and view themselves as more civilized (because they are exposed to modern education and infrastructure and monetized economy) than their counterparts in Oromiya. Their encounter looks like a confrontation of the cosmopolitan, urbanite, post-ethnic Addis Abeban with his/her other, i.e., the parochial, ruralite, ethno-nationalist Oromo.

The legacy of the past and its contemporary parallels betray a common fear: fear of extermination (physical and cultural). In the past, this was a fear of immediate and overt genocide and ethnocide. Today, it is a fear of gradual and covert genocide that started a century ago. Just as the Menelikan modernization evoked a fear of dismemberment as a people, the Master Plan evoked the fear of disintegration as Oromos. The key common feature of the Ethio-Oromiya relation then and now is the lack of trust. Reeling from the memory of inaugural violence that continued through the instrumentality of bureaucratic violence during Haileselassie, they didn’t trust that the empire of the late 19th and the early 20th century has the best in its heart for the Oromo. Informed by the memory of a century of being absent-while-present in the city and steadily increasing marginalization in a city that is excised from its ‘mother State’, today’s Oromiya hardly trusts the Ethiopian state as having the best in its heart for Oromiya.

Where is this deficit of trust coming from? Whence this curse of mutual mistrust? Two sources readily come to the mind. First, the incapacity of the Ethiopian state to rectify its fractured relationship with Oromiya. This is easily notable in the failure to acknowledge: a) the presence of the Oromo in the city; b) the presence of the city in Oromiya; c) that this is the natural home of the Oromo person and that they deserve to be in the city (and in the polis) rightfully; d) the originary violence with which it was wrested from Oromos; and e) the existence of wounds that have yet to heal. Secondly, the failure of the Ethiopian state to generate legitimacy, especially among the Oromo and the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia to date. The fact that traditional sources of legitimacy (force, genealogy, and religion) have collapsed even in the Abyssinian core after the 1974 revolution and the fact that rational-formal legitimacy has not been generated through consensual constitution-making processes has forced the state to remain extrinsic to the society. In the South and among the Oromo and the other ‘others’, the state is merely predatory appearing almost as the incarnation of the proverbial evil that has come“to steal, kill, and destroy.” Seen in this light, the Master Plan is a re-enactment and expansion of the inaugural violence, the violence of dispossession and displacement by an intrinsically imperial state in a federal-republican garb. The protest to the Master Plan is derived from the trauma of a deep wound that has yet to heal. It assumes a moral high ground because of the fundamental deficit in legitimacy (both at the moment of incorporation into the Ethiopian state and at the moment of re-constitution of the state as a “federal democratic republic” through a formal-rational constitution in 1995). The barbaric repression of the protest by the state (that resembles an explicit act of state terror administered by a Command Post and a Joint Counter-Terror Task Force) deepens the wound from originary violence and entrenches the fracture in original legitimacy of the state thereby making redemption nigh impossible. Herein lies the bigger tragedy of the contemporary relation of the Ethiopian state to its peoples.It is this monumental tragedy that forecloses the hope of getting traction through the articulation of the ‘special interest’.

The articulation of the ‘Special Interest’ package through a task force may be a right moral gesture as well as an expedient political manoeuvre. However, having seen the restriction of press freedom through legislation purported to protect freedom of press and information (2009); having witnessed the elimination of civil society organizations in the name of strengthening the legal framework for charities and societies (2009); having seen a raft of legislative amendments to the electoral laws rationalized as broadening electoral rights but curtailing the scope of free and fair elections; having seen several other laws (such as the law on federal intervention [2003]; the laws to ‘consolidate the powers of the House of Federation [2001] and the Council of Constitutional Inquiry [2001])—all of which whittled down the rights and free sphere of action of independent institutions; one has little to hope for as an outcome of this new attempt to legally enunciate the content of the ‘special interest’. Seen in the light of the experience of the Ethiopian state’s effective deployment of the language of law to encourage lawless use of power, the affirmation of the importance of legal articulation of the special interest may actually lead to denial of the right to the said ‘special interest’. Alas, affirmation it may well be, but perhaps merely an affirmation of denial.Whatever the outcome, it may now be too little, too late.



Ed’s Note: Tsegaye R Ararssa is a Melbourne-based legal scholar and can be reached at; or



(1) The interest over the ‘Harari People’s State’ seems to have fallen into desuetude since, although the Oromo interest in the city seems to be attended to through the more or less consociational co-governing envisaged in the Harari State Constitution.
(2) Massive acts of deforestation had led Menelik to contemplate relocating his capital in Ejere (which was then re-named ‘Addis Alem’). Re-forestation by planting Eucalyptus trees imported from Australia carried the day and Addis Ababa/Finfinne remained the capital.
(3) William C Harris,The Highlands of Ethiopia (1844)
(4) Alexander Bulatovich, Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes: A Country in Transition, 1896-1898 (Richard Seltzer, Tr) (2000).
(5) Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936).
(6) It should be underscored that Addis Ababa is not designated to be a Federal District or a ‘Federal Capital Territory’ (as is the case of Washington D.C., or the Australian Capital Territory centred in Canberra, or Abuja of Nigeria). Nor is it a City State that also houses the Federal Government (as is the case of Berlin in Germany or Addis Abeba [called Region 14] during the Transitional Period, 1991-1994). 
(7) The Oromo Cultural Centre was built and inaugurated only in 2015
(8) It is curious that it is the Oromiya State Government, alone, that unilaterally established a Task Force to study the ‘Special Interest’. It is intriguing as to why the Task Force isn’t a Joint Task Force or, if that is impossible, a body neutral to both governments isn’t given the task. Given the fact that the duty-bearer of the ‘Special Interest’ clause is the government of the City of Addis Abeba, it stands to reason that the city is an important stakeholder that should either set up its own task force or be part of the Oromia Task Force.
(9) On the issue of legitimacy deficit and the cracked foundations of the constitution, please See Tsegaye Regassa, ‘The Making and Legitimacy of the Ethiopian Constitution,’ 23 (1) AFRIKA FOCUS (2010), pp.85-118. See also Ugo Mattei, ‘The New Ethiopian Constitution’Cardozo Review (1995), also available at:
(10) It has to be underscored that the Oromo protest to the Master Plan is not just a demand for a commensurate compensation or an equivalent replacement for a land expropriated. Nor is it just a demand for the respect of an individual farmer’s or resident’s right of access to land. It is a collective Oromo objection, qua Oromo, to an act of dispossession of their land and displacement of the people. It is a demand for a ‘permanent’ sovereignty over one’s own natural resources. It is a demand for landed sovereignty. As such, it is a demand for the integrity of the Oromo land as a site of exercising sovereignty. The protest is also a rejection of the traumatic experience of the Oromo at the moment of conquest, the moment of originary violence. As the slogans, the songs (in the demonstration sites as well as the numerous music video clips released around the resistance), and the chants persistently reminded us, the protest is informed by the memory of dispossession, displacement, and dislocation of the people in and around what has now become Addis Abeba. The memories evoked by the Plan, the anger provoked by the arrogance of the TPLF officials (discounting and devaluing the Oromo demand as non-existent)—which is further inflamed by memories of similar past abuses– have all come to show that the protest has a direct genealogical link to the original resistance to the inaugural violence of conquest and occupation in the 19th century. 
(11) Donald Levine, Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society. 2nd (The University of Chicago Press, 1999).
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