By Mikael Wossen (PhD)
Keep going, don’t ever stop. Keep going, don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
– Harriet Tubman
The quotation above is worth keeping in mind, when trying to make sense of the following interdisciplinary examination of the so called Addis Ababa Master Plan and its main effects i.e. the protracted and simmering mass protests that it ignited across Oromia, Ethiopia. Our inquiry primarily asks, what are the defining social and economic forces and relations that ignited the confrontations that led to this protracted conflict? Moreover, in our pedagogical practice we strive for a national self-consciousness. The focus is on how we can all struggle in unity, as individuals and compatriots, against supremacist domination, injustice and neo-colonial exploitation in all their varieties. An attack on any Ethiopian, regardless of ethnicity, is thus considered as an attack on all of us and the fundamental rights and dignity that define us as Ethiopians.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital is growing at a furious pace and urban architectural/infrastructural developments are running apace as steel, glass and concrete buildings seem to enmesh and emerge from the ground up. Traffic is clogging up the narrow streets. A new skyline is forming as material and social forces are bubbling up from below. Addis Ababa is growing upwards and outwards. Everybody marvels at the pace of change. Have you seen the underpass and the new Chinese made ‘light rail’ public transport train that crosses the city? Have you seen this or that intersection or building. These are popular subjects of conversation. The distance between Addis Ababa and the surrounding regions, seems to be closing, helped by more rapid and efficient transportation grids. You might say the city is undergoing an urban sprawl of sorts, and experiencing a rising population density as well. New buildings are emerging everywhere. The old city of our childhood is changing fast. Addis Ababa now is a city with an estimated population of around 4 million. While the city grows, most poor Addis Ababans have still no access to a hygienic modern toilet system that befits a city, and lack access to clean water. Both are in short supply in this naturally rich land. Still some form of rapid urbanization and demographic growth is visible to the naked eye. Electricity is also scant in Addis. Ferequa is a power sharing method introduced by the TPLF. Recently, the lights failed in a hotel inhabited by visiting foreign dignitaries. As usual, some rural folks (over 80% of the Ethiopian population) tend to migrate into the city, in search of wage employment. With few exceptions, providing employment is still the privilege of the state in Ethiopia. And as the old saying goes, in a country where the sole employer tends to be the state, political opposition implies death by starvation. Anyway, in this migratory trend, a few succeed in gaining some kind of employment, others become beggars or somehow homeless, and still some others move on to Middle Eastern destinations of domestic servitude; a great many become ensnared in a life of local penury and other gross social ills spreading across the breadth and depth of the wider urban landscape, also known as Finfine.
Ethiopia is a tough place to be born in, particularly if you are from the poorer and less powerful sector of society. Ethiopians have always been deprived of civic/political rights and landownership. Food insecurity is endemic in a society where all land is owned by the state or rather the party. Society is run by tired nineteenth and 20th Century ideologies and myopic policies. Peripheral capitalism grinds on in its extractive form. In the name of developmentalism and fighting poverty, the TPLF-led regime is promoting floriculture within 200 km radius of Addis Ababa and giving away 3 million hectares of virgin lowland areas and water to foreign capitalists, while the Ethiopian small holder’s plot is shrinking from about half a hectare (during Mengistu’s era) to only a quarter of a hectare now. In essence, Ethiopia is producing flowers and food for others, while its citizens go hungry or starve. One of the authorities thinks we are ‘taking off.’ Food availability for millions literally depends on the kindness of foreigners. Meanwhile, sanitation coverage in the country remains low even by Africa’s depressed standard; only 11% of the population was found to have access to adequate sanitation. Along with rapid urbanization, diseases associated with poor nutrition and scarcityof clean water are expanding. People in the capital can go for days without seeing water or electricity. Yet, the place is endowed with tremendous water resources and hopes to export hydroelectric power to neighbors. When GERD is finally constructed it will be the largest hydroelectric power facility in Africa.
As archaic and regressive as it is, ethnicity has become a fundamental organizing principle of social and political life. Every Ethiopian holds an ethnic ID. Moreover, Ethiopia is divided into nine major killils, or ethnic enclaves (Bantustans). In the TPLF’s architecture of domination known as ethnic federalism, an ethnic hierarchy prevails and the dominant Tigrean party-state is intrusive in every sphere of social life and sector of production. The political agenda of the ruling ethnic party, as the supreme law of the land, has subordinated the historic national interests of the Ethiopian state. Thinking freely and opposing the regime is criminalized. The ethnic party commands and polices everything, from its subject’s schooling, to their feeding and employment opportunities. All land is state-owned as is distributorship of seed and fertilizers. The TPLF occupies all the seats in parliament, except for one. Subjects are routinely infantilized. Let us recall Dowden’s description of the minority regime’s arrogant and tyrannical modus operandi ‘If you do what the party/government says,’ you get credit and assistance- land, water, seed and fertilizer services, ‘if you don’t you get nothing.’ Still, a certain process of urbanization and demographic multiculturalism is continuing; in the city, people of different ethnic groups tend to be working and living more tightly together, rather than apart. Everyone, regardless of ethnicity, will be required to somehow communicate with their neighbors. Generally speaking, the city tends to unify what the ethnic killils divide and segregate. By 2050, it is estimated that 70% of the world’s population will live in urban centers.
Ethnic segregation/isolation is more palpable in the less-urbanized and rural regions of Ethiopia. The TPLF-led EPRDF regime claims its support among the 80%, barely literate, rural folk it controls tightly through ownership of land and a formidable 5-1espionage apparatus. The regime is formally structured along ethnic federalist lines, or what was more appropriately and honestly termed as apartheid (aparthood) in South Africa. The federal designation is strictly formal, as separate ethnic based ‘homelands,’ sectarian privileges and inequalities are enforced at gunpoint in TPLF’s Democratic Republic of ethnic groups. The ideological attachment to democracy and the ‘people,’ is equally phony, as land robbery, demonization and persecution of other non-Tigrean ’peoples’ and ‘nationalities’ actually prevails, with Tigrai killil and its people (about 6%of the entire population) being the most advantaged. This minority group appropriates the lion’s share of the nation’s export-oriented political economy (land, offices, gold, airline and military. According to a recent World Bank report on public expenditure review, the TPLF or the federal authorities have never transferred more than 6% of the cash revenue to the regional states. In other words, 94% of federal budget is used wholly at the discretion of the ‘vanguardist’ TPLF. This is revolutionary democracy indeed. This all-powerful and sectarian ruling group drives the expansion of the city in its own particularistic interests.
At the root of the extended revolt throughout Oromia is the so called Master Plan. According to this contested plan, the expanding multiethnic city of Addis Ababa is set to absorb the surrounding villages and districts, including some 36 potential towns in what is known now as the Oromo Regional State. The city’s “Master Plan” is a huge municipal expansion scheme, officially predicated on the need to include and provide services to the impoverished rural areas surrounding the ever-expanding/urbanizing Addis Ababa metropolis. One wonders why not first provide basic services and sustenance to the urban poor already living within Addis Ababa proper? This would require a people-centered development agenda, rather than the rentier state-led one advocated by Meles’ cadres. Anyway, the city has some 29 rural Kebeles that provide gateways of expansion that bleed into the boundaries of Oromia.
That being as such, the growth of the city is as relentless as the ruling caste’s tyrannical craving for absolute domination and quick profits. During the Italian fascist invasion of 1936-41, the idea of Ethiopia represented a tabula rasa or a blank slate took root in the mind of the colonialists. This false but yet seductive assumption became pronounced in the writings of fascist ideologues, architects and urban planners. It did not matter that the capital has existed at least since 1889. Between1936-1941, the Italians declared that Addis Ababa should emerge anew from this ‘virgin fantasy.’ This fixed idea of a brand new colonial and fascist urbanism had a modernist appeal and was experimented on Addis Ababa. The idea was to rebuild the existing city ‘from the ground up’, so as to make it acceptable to the fascist’s modern tastes and aesthetic sensibilities. In the colonial scheme of things, Italian overpopulation in Italy was to find a safety pin in the colonies of the empire. Thus, the round houses (tukuls) of Ethiopians were declared unhygienic and irrational. Their primitive architecture was considered hazardous to health and offensive to Italians. They needed to be removed. This makeover of the imperial city into a modernist capital was to be achieved by adhering to Mussolini’s wishes of numerous sventramenti or demolitions within the city’s fabric. The rebuilding process was going to involve ruthless planning along rigid lines, with severe segregation between the races. The realization and extension of this city-wide modernization process, with few modifications, is currently known as the Master Plan.
Towards the end of April of 2014, Oromo higher education students began demonstrations against this type of TPLF-led demolition, confiscation of land and expansion of Addis Ababa into a mega metropolitan region, as outlined in the current “Integrated Master Plan for Addis Ababa.” In other words, the population wanted to have a say in what matters to their land and to them. At the time, the Tigrean chief (Abay Tsehaye) said boastfully that he would put the protesters/ demonstrators in their place, as ‘we will show them’. Ultimately, however, it was the protestors who showed their power to the authorities. The protests, at the time, began around the universities in the Oromo region of Ethiopia. Students alleged that the “Master Plan” was merely an excuse for land grab, or for robbing the Oromo people blind, and enriching the usual suspects of the ruling caste and their foreign partners. In other words, it is more of the same policy of scramble for prime property/resources that has already enriched a few well connected functionaries/operatives and TPLF’s top military brass now living in Addis Ababa. These set of preferential policies include granting privileged rights to land use and other properties by the regime to its supporters, foreign investors, assorted sycophants and relaxed credits to members of their own tightly knit Tigrean families. The battle cry of those in the streets was something along the lines that the Hagoses cannot enrich themselves with Dibaba’s ancestral lands.
Once the outrage exploded across Oromia, the TPLF-EPRDF regime responded by mass slaughter of the students. Soldiers simply shot at them. Some students died and others were injured. The ethnic surrogates were confused and their representativeness begun to be questioned; as with ANDM, so with OPDO now. Who do these parties really represent? Aba Dula called this state-sponsored mass murder a “Sihtet,” or a mistake. This savage policy of executing legitimate protesters was clearly a well-practiced criminal attitude, clearly not a mere and sudden mistake. Shooting at citizens peacefully demanding justice was normalized. It is now totally unacceptable to all decent Ethiopians and the progressive international community. In our view, the legitimate demands of the Oromo students and all Ethiopians for justice and equality, and the government’s blood thirsty response, should be examined more sanely and carefully. After all, Ethiopia is a member of the UN’s Human Rights Council. Was it not Mill who called democracy ‘a government by discussion’, rather than force/repression. It is time to bring forth important policy decisions concerning land ownership and use/abuse to public discussions. Here is a respected Ethiopian scholar’s opinion (Aklog Birrara, p. 129) on the elemental nature of this conflict. “The massive transfer of fertile farmlands from Ethiopian families, communities and the entire society to foreign investors is the last ominous indicator of a regime that is determined to rob the country and its people of their most critical natural resource assets, their honor, dignity and sovereignty – all done in the name of development and transformation”. In other words, the TPLF’ fights poverty’ by expropriating or usurping (grabbing) the land of Ethiopian families and disenfranchising its ancestral owners.
Our humble proposal is that the cluster of political and jurisdictional issues in question should be reasoned out in the seminar halls of the rebellious universities. What exactly is being transformed and what is the meaning of development in Ethiopia? Is this about people or is it simply a question of encouraging maximum resource extraction and export? Where do citizens belong in this transformative process? How do these illicit land grab/exchange policies benefit the masses who, in the process, are forced to give up their most crucial resource i.e, land, and livelihood. In any case, murder of peaceful demonstrators is not what is expected from a government allegedly run by reason and claiming a democratic sensibility. What happened to the much vaunted Ethiopian renaissance movement? Should not thought/discussion oust brute force in the practice of the TPLF’s statecraft now? The TPLF has been in power for a quarter century.
This time around, unlike 2014, the parents and communities of the students have also joined the new protests that were re-ignited at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. These protests against land robbery and related injustices range from Korem to Gambella. The subjugation and land theft ritual of the TPLF supremacists against the orginal populations of the land is severe and pervasive. The people are impoverished and angered. The current violent reaction of the people of Lafto, a sub-division of Addis, is instructive. The frustrations/outcries against the regime could not be contained in the institutions of higher education any longer. Conservatively, since November alone, over 400 citizens have been killed by special US trained and Tigrean-led paramilitary forces. In some areas, the protests have reached insurrectionary proportions. Roads leading into Addis Ababa have been blocked by debris . The demonstrators of Ginde Beret have burnt and destroyed paraphernalia of what was to be a park and foundation site dedicated to Meles Zenawi, the TPLF’s anointed ‘man of vision’ or visionary. The demonstrators have torched his picture/poster as well. To be sure, this was a nationally popular gesture. Meles is regarded as a neo-colonial puppet by the majority of Ethiopians. In effect, these are resistances against the ideology of Melesism, and his notion of the intrusive developmental state of land expropriation/grab schemes, and against the export-oriented macro-economic priorities of the regime. A European owned company had leased and fenced off some 100 hectares of prime communal grazing land, where families’ live Similar injustices prevail in Gambella, Omo region and North-Western Amara district, where ownership of land and water is at stake. People from resource-depleted and overpopulated parts of Ethiopia are invading, leasing out and despoiling and violating the resource rich sections of Ethiopia.
Clearly, there is a gross deficit in both federalism and democracy in Ethiopia. The notion of the centralized dictatorship of the developmental state contradicts the claims to federalism. Equality and freedom of expression are supposed to be at the heart of democracy. These are non-existent in TPLF’s Ethiopia. Those demonstrating and protesting are of the new generation, products of the separatist and neo-colonial politics of “ethnic apartheid” that is struggling to take root in Ethiopia. This is a generation raised under the Meles doctrine of Killilism, economic developmentalism and Tigrai first ideology. They do not oppose the ethnic dispensation of power per se, they merely want their rightful share in this new ethnic calculus of wealth and power. They are angered at not being adequately represented in the ethnic equation, and thus unable to fully share in the spoils of power and privilege. They are particularly worried and concerned about the Addis Ababa administration’s expansion into what are, by FDRE’s Constitution, Oromo farms and villages surrounding the capital and belonging exclusively to the Oromo people. This implies illegal commoditization and transfer of Oromo land by high members of the ruling Tigrean party and the federal administration. What is going to happen to these rural folk evicted from their land for next to nothing? When Addis Ababa expands twenty-fold as projected in the Master Plan, will former land owners be merely expropriated and kicked off their land? Will they be, in the end, living as landless paupers in Oromia or Addis Ababa? The vexing problem had been officially described as being one of “jurisdictional overlap” between the administrations in Addis Ababa and the authorities of the Oromia state (headquartered in Addis Abeba). In the face of stubborn protests, it was announced that the whole idea of a ‘Master Plan’ has been shelved.
It was Marx who prophesized that each sociopolitical structure carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Obviously the state-led urbanization, expropriation and commercialization of land envisioned for the emerging “special zone” has run up against the ethnic demarcation of territories (Killils) institutionalized by the TPLF-EPRDF. When you start reading specific populations into territories, you are not far from fascism; anyway this regime of ethnic segregation is indeed a product of the Italian fascist occupation period of 1936-41. Today, over 10 million Amaras are said to live without guaranteed rights in Oromia. They live under the threat of ethnic cleansing in other parts of the country as well. Since similar problems of urbanization and transmigration of people, land alienation and transfer of ownership are said to exist around the growing urban regions, realistic negotiations need to begin with an eye to maintaining the long-term national cohesion and integrity of Ethiopia. This is a question over who will exercise ownership over land in the future, and determine land usage and exchange in the newly urbanized special spaces. As such, this is a political problem and should be resolved by a political engagement with the people directly concerned.
The process of regime atonement must begin, not by offering what amounts to blood money to victims, but by holding the people responsible for the shootings of the demonstrators to the high standards of the country’s laws. The responsible authorities must at least face the law before paying any form of reparations to the victims. Discussants must be cognizant that what is at stake is what it means to be an Ethiopian citizen in the 21st Century. The crucial economic question now concerns how much reward does the government intend to grant the population that agrees to be resettled. Resettlement must be voluntary. A half-hearted request for forgiveness by the puppet PM for the mayhem, massacre, torture and rape committed by his cadres and soldiers will not suffice. A regime that does not account for its atrocious and violent crimes against its own people(s) is one that has lost its ethical compass and right to rule.
By Mikael Wossen (PhD)