Oromo university students are once again protesting against the expansion of the city of Addis Ababa, claiming that it would result in displacing Oromo farmers living around the capital. Whether the students are opposing the Integrated Regional Development Master Plan (Master Plan) per se or merely seizing the opportunity to vent deep-seated grievances or, if possible, spark a full-scale revolt against the regime in power may be a subject of debate. What is certain though is that the protest is a projection of a narrow ethnic question. In other words, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is reaping the fruits of its primordial ethnic policy. To be sure, as far as ethnic politics is concerned, TPLF and these protestors are on the same page. The protestors are not against TPLF’s ethnic policy; quite to the contrary, they are challenging TPLF to remain true to its ethnic politics.
That is what makes the flurry of support the protestors are mustering, including from those who would otherwise decry TPLF for its ethnic policies puzzling. It is tragic that people have reportedly been killed and that brute force is the customary response of the government to protests like this. Yet, condemning government brutality is one thing, declaring solidarity with protestors is another thing altogether. Illegal killings ought to be condemned regardless of who does the killing and who gets killed. The students’ right to peacefully protest must be defended as well. At the same time, however, one must have the courage to call the protest for what it is-a pure tribal issue. In an ironic twist of history, the TPLF tribal government is being challenged for not being tribal enough.
Most of those who declare solidarity with the protestors are understandably cautious not to align their support with the protestors’ questions, for that in effect would mean to endorse TPLF’s ethnic policy. Instead, many simply condemn the government, without any reference to the legitimacy of the protestors’ questions. It is, however, easy to imagine that such support is based mainly on a utilitarian calculus- a misplaced hope that the protest may metamorphose into an all-out revolt that may end TPLF’s dictatorial rule. On the other hand, however, there are some (all of them ethnically-minded, one must add) who espouse the protestors’ demands. Some even claim that the Master Plan is unconstitutional. But is it? That is what I wish to discuss here. Before that, however, a word or two on the normative existence of the FDRE constitution is in order.
Is the FDRE Constitution Still Alive?
Ethiopia has never had a constitution that survived its makers. Not just because they were all imposed, but also because none of them could fetter the arbitrary powers of their makers. A constitution that does not serve as a common normative standard of behavior both for the governors and the governed is dead in spirit. The constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (the constitution) is hardly in a different category. That casts doubt on the point of any discussion about it. That does not bar us, however, from dispelling the ‘legal arguments’ against the Master Plan.
- The Master Plan is Designed in Secrecy
Detractors oppose the Master Plan based on the lack of transparency in its design. That is a legitimate question, but a procedural one-it doesn’t represent an objection to the Master Plan per se, but on how the Master Plan was designed and ought to be implemented. It is all about how the government ought to do business. It is separate from the substantive question of whether or not the Master Plan is constitutional. Crucially, the transparency question, while legitimate, is completely irrelevant to the demands of protestors. The protestors are not asking for transparency or good governance; they are calling for the Master Plan to be scraped altogether. The protestors are not prepared to accept the expansion of Addis Ababa’s municipal boundary nonmatter how transparent the process is. They just do not want to see the expansion of a cosmopolitan city (and you can see their point). They cannot accept a cosmopolitan Addis being integrated with neighboring towns! That is the message of the outrageous misrepresentation of a planned infrastructural development as a ‘cultural genocide’ of the Oromo people. (If you didn’t know, the town of Sabeta is cultural epic center of the Oromo, and once you build a road connecting Addis with Sebeta, Oromo culture is gone once and for all…)
- Addis Grabbing Oromia’s Land?
Article 40 (3) of the FRDE constitution declares: ‘Land is a common property of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.’ It is strange that these abstract entities, rather than citizens own all of the country’s land. But one thing is unambiguous: no part of the land in Ethiopia belongs to this or that ethnic group. All the land is the common property of them all. That is, no ethnic group is entitled to a particular piece of land, as opposed to some other piece of land. Hence, those who claim about an Oromo land or an Amhara land are completely disregarding the law. Importantly, if all of the land in the country is the common property of all Ethiopian nations, nationalities and peoples (whatever they are), it is legally impossible for Addis Ababa to grab Oromo land, as there is no such thing as an Oromo land in the first place.
Interestingly, those who accuse Addis Ababa of robbing Oromo land at the same time make an unabashed claim that Addis is itself an Oromo city! The claim is of course ludicrous in the extreme. The two claims contradict each other squarely. You cannot accuse an Oromo city of stealing an Oromo land. One cannot accuse the town of Sebeta of stealing Oromo land. Unarguably, Addis has never been an Oromo city, an Amhara city or a Tigre city, and it will never be one. There is no historical, legal, sociological or whatsoever basis to enclose the proudly cosmopolitan city within the confines of a narrow ethnic envelope. Never mind that Addis is fast growing into a modern international metropolis, for those who care about peoples’ voices, Addis Ababans of all ethnic backgrounds have unmistakably rejected primordial ethnic politics back in the 2005 elections. In fact, that is probably the most important and heartwarming message one can take from that election.
- The Master Plan Alters State Boundaries?
Some even believe that the expansion of Addis requires constitutional amendment, as it results in altering state boundaries. They invoke articles 46 and 47 of constitution to present the expansion of Addis as an alteration of states boundaries. These provisions are, of course, completely irrelevant simply because they are about member states of the FDRE, and Addis Ababa in not one. Even if Addis Ababa were a state and its expansion represented an alteration of Oromia state’s boundaries, it would still be a nonissue as long as both ‘states agree’ (Article 48 (1)). Needless to state, that any such agreement does not require constitutional amendment. Hence, the claim that the Master Plan violates constitutional amendment procedures doesn’t stand elementary scrutiny.
- Human Rights Claims
The objection of the Master Plan on human rights human rights grounds is likewise devoid of merit whatsoever. To be sure, the protestors are not even for human rights. Human rights are universal values. Embracing human rights requires going beyond narrow ethnic religious, or political enclaves and embracing humanity. You cannot be so tribal and cosmopolitan at the same time. Clearly, these protestors wouldn’t have problems if the rights of non-Oromo speakers living in Oromia were at stake. Importantly, the expansion of the capital per se is undoubtedly constitutional, and one cannot violate the human right of anyone without violating the constitution.
It is true that the constitution guarantees every Ethiopian who wants to earn a living through farming access to farm land free of charge (Article 40 (4)). That doesn’t mean, however, that the government cannot take away land from farmers. Never mind about land, which farmers (citizens) do not own, Article 40 (8) of the constitution explicitly declares that the government may even expropriate private property subject to commensurate compensation. If the government, for instance, demolishes your house in connection with road expansion, you will be entitled to receive compensation for the house, not for the land, for individuals don’t have ownership right over land. I am in favor of private ownership of land, and consider the government’s land policy arbitrary and tyrannical. Yet, as things stand now citizens have no ownership right over land.
Some argue that evicting farmers from their farms violates their right to adequate standard of living or of their chosen work. Of course, that is a ridiculous claim. If those affected choose to continue to be farmers, they are entitled to land free of charge. Otherwise, no one is entitled under the constitution to a particular piece of land. There is no doubt whatsoever that the government has the authority to lawfully evict farmers from their land. Indeed, not just the Ethiopian government, virtually all governments in the world have what in property law is known as eminent domain– the power to take (expropriate) private property for public use without the owner’s consent. This power is normally delegated to lower administrative units of government, in some countries even to corporations. In the case of Ethiopia, land isn’t even a private property. The government may thus legally evict farmers from their farms even without compensation. That is perfectly constitutional. It is the law. If you believe that is morally unacceptable, as I do, the solution is to fight for the private ownership of land.
In sum, to state the obvious, cities and towns do grow, naturally. Addis Ababa is no exception. The capital has been expanding constantly all along. Change is simply inevitable. You cannot stop growth; you just grow along.