Why do the Oromo Resist the Master Plan?

 By Asebe Regassa Debelo, PhD Candidate*

1.     Introduction

In this brief commentary, I will address some general conceptual issues related to resistance against development intervention and then I will proceed to the specific case about the ongoing contested master plan of Finfinne city called “integrated urban development”. This assessment is aimed to achieve multiple purposes; namely to contribute academic inputs to policy making, to clarify to the readers on the nexus between development interventions and resistance, and to indicate that the ongoing resistance from the Oromo is within the context of rights enshrined in the constitution of the country.

Like elsewhere in the modern world, successive Ethiopian governments have been engaged in translating various versions of development discourses into practice – albeit posited within different ideological orientations. The imperial and military regimes had put in place hegemonic systems in channeling down policies and programs that they also tried to sell to the populace under the buzz concepts such as ‘development’ and ‘modernization’. In this regard, historical accounts remind us the social, economic, cultural and political consequences of such modernist development discourses and practices of different groups in the country among which the Oromo were significantly affected. To mention one, the collectivization (villagization) program of the military regime disrupted social ties, economic practices and cultural connectedness of the people to their land. This hints at the repercussions of development projects that are conceived, implemented and managed within hegemonic systems of governance because absence of democratic systems opens the path to external interventions without proper consultation of citizens.  Nevertheless, the post-1991 political order in Ethiopia has put in place for the first time in the history of the country a system whereby nations and nationalities are given rights of self-determination to decide on matters that affect their communities including the right to administer resources and development projects, and to promote the language, culture and history of their people to mention a few – no matter how the practical implementation is still the subject of contestation.

2.     Development Interventions and Popular Resistance: An Overview

High modernist development practices all over the world entailed the exercise of top-down and expert-based scientific knowledge that considered participation of ordinary citizens and local knowledge at odds with the development visions of the state and/or non-state actors. High modernist development discourses give limited room for participatory approaches of development and government-public partnership. This approach was practiced by colonial powers and continued in the post-colonial periods as well. The general assumption behind high modernist development discourses was that few elites would plan development programs and mobilize the mass for its implementation under strict control of ‘experts’. However, as a famous scholar on peasant resistance, James Scott, has noted, the power of domination often produces the power of resistance from the group that is seemingly powerless as seen in literal conceptions of power. Since the mid-1980s, scholars began not to underestimate the agency of the “weak” who under conditions of domination can use different strategies of resistance against development interventions that they define from their own values, identity, worldviews and history.

However, it is misleading to construe local communities’ resistance against development intervention as if the people are against development – despite controversies revolving around the concept itself. Although the term can be given different meanings and manifestations according to the interest, ideology and worldviews of various actors, what local communities often resist is not the conventional understanding of the concept per se – referring to improvement in the overall wellbeing of human society and their environment. Rather, the approach, strategy and consequence of development programs, projects and practices constitute contestable meanings.

3.     The “Integrated Urban Development Plan and the Question of the Oromo

3.1.                       Background

According to the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia (Article 49) Finfinne (Addis Ababa) became the capital city of the Federal government while at the same time it has been the seat of Oromia regional state. Finfinne is adjoined by Oromia region in all directions. Article 49.5 of the constitution gives special right for Oromia to get special benefit from Finfinne as it is the heartland of Oromia besides being its administrative capital. According to the constitution (Article 49.5), “The special interest of the State of Oromia in AddisAbaba, 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 Ababa within the State of Oromia, shall be respected. Particulars shall be determined by law”. Nevertheless, there are critiques that Oromia has not yet benefited from Finfinne. On this topic, because of lack of empirical evidence whether the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) tried to utilize the constitutional rights given to Oromia in getting benefit from Finfinne or not, I would not push this assertion forward.

The plan, according to the government, is intended to create integrated urban development between Addis Ababa city administration and Oromia towns surrounding the capital city such as Burayu, Sabata, Sululta, Bishoftu, Laga-Xafo Laga-dadhi, Galan and other semi-urban centers adjoining these towns. From this perspective, the government tries to disseminate its development programs by presenting to the public the advantages of the plan in terms of infrastructural and social provisions. On the other hand, the     Oromo from different walks of life, including some members of the OPDO officials are skeptical whether the Master Plan has been planned for mutual benefit of Finfinne and Oromia regional state or is just a systematic strategy of incorporating Oromia towns into Finfinne.  Thus, it is crucially important to analyze some underlying reasons behind Oromo’s resistance and discontent to the Master Plan. In the following section, I will try to discuss it situating within historical experiences, political scenarios and procedural drawbacks in the planning process. However, one should boldly know that no one is against development project that changes the lives of its people if carefully planned and implemented.

3.2.                       Why do the Oromo Resist the Master Plan?

  1. Memories and experiences of past evictions and dispossessions

Like other nations and nationalities in the country particularly those who faced the brutal conquest under emperor Menelik II during the late 19th century, the Oromo people have lived memories and experiences of ‘development’ induced displacement, dispossession and oppressions under the successive regimes. Moreover, the assimilationist and hegemonic systems in the past have left enduring repercussions on Oromo culture, language and identity with the case in Finfinne more appalling still today. Historical accounts of the establishment of Finfinne city in 1886 illuminate that the territory was inhabited by different Oromo clans until they were eventually displaced by the imperial regimes. The city was built on the ancestral land of the Oromo through policies of land alienation, dispossession and displacement of indigenous peoples in similar approaches to many other urban centers in the conquered regions of the South. It is, thus fair to argue that Finfinne city was established as a garrison town predominantly occupied by war generals and soldiers. There is no need to turn history books or archives to understand the displacement of indigenous Oromo communities from Finfinne and to comprehend the impacts of the assimilationist projects under the imperial and military regimes. It is rather enough to see the current ethnic composition of the Addis Ababa city where one can clearly see that people who identify themselves as Oromo are immensely few in contrast to Finfinne’s being the heartland of Oromia. Therefore, resistance against the Master Plan should be understood within the historical antecedents the Oromo experienced with regards to dispossession of their land, displacement from their ancestral land and the socio-economic, cultural and political repercussions of development interventions.

  1. In response to the constitutional rights

The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE Constitution 1995: Article 43.2) clearly stipulates the right of each nation, nationality and people of Ethiopia to be fully consulted and involved in development projects that affect their community. In addition, Article 39 of the same constitution gives unconditional rights of self-determination to the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia that include the right and autonomy to determine which development program to envisage and the right of self-government on territories they historically inhabited. These are a few of the fundamental principles of ethnic federalism that are enshrined in the constitution. In this specific context, Oromia regional state and the Oromo people have constitutional rights to decide on the urban development programs through democratic, transparent, bottom-up and inclusive approaches of participation. They have the right to decide whether they opt to go for the integrated urban development or not. The resistance from Oromo intellectuals, politicians, students, peasants and business people should be understood as a response to interventions that to a large extent violated their constitutional right, particularly Article 43.2 of the FDRE’s constitution – the right to be consulted and involved in development projects.

  1. Mistrust generated from lack of genuine participation

Resistance to state development projects to a large extent reflects the nature of state-society relations, questions of legitimacy and trust. Governments have the leverage of building legitimacy and trust or become victims of legitimacy crisis based on their policies, programs and overall political systems vis-à-vis citizenship rights of the society. It has been evident from discussions during public sensitization programs on the Master Plan that the planning process was top-down and did not involve citizens who will be affected by the project. A higher official from EPRDF presumably acknowledged the importance of involving grassroots communities through bottom-up approaches though he maintained the view that there was no problem with the top-down approach in development intervention. Here comes the fundamental disparity between constitutional promises and practices.

Under such circumstances where citizens are not consulted and involved in the planning process, one should not be surprised if they resist the project because any conscious society does not accept something without knowing its benefits, impacts and implications. Therefore, resistance is a function of procedural incongruity with the constitutional promises.

  1. Anticipated Repercussions on the identity, culture and livelihood of the Oromo

Development projects such as urban expansion, dam projects, large scale agricultural projects, and protected areas conservation have significant repercussions on the livelihood, culture and identity of indigenous peoples all over the world unless critically handled. Because of historical experiences the Oromo faced under successive regimes in Ethiopia – experiences of displacement, suppression, exploitation and dispossession – the current project is also seen by the majority of the Oromo as a continuation of the past trends. Rhetoric and discourses can’t simply convince people who have lived-in scars and experiences in their minds, around their homesteads and in their neighbors that are reflected in their culture, identity, language, economy and politics. The government can rather convince the people on the benefits they would enjoy from the project not by injecting them with high modernist discourses of development but through practical and genuine involvement of the people in the projects.

Still another challenge that awaits the government is whether it has really delivered in other areas of development, whether other development projects didn’t have socio-economic and cultural impacts on local inhabitants elsewhere in the country and whether there is independent judiciary system that citizens can use as a guardian of their human rights in cases any development program threatens their right. I leave this question open to the readers. In practice, according to those who think it would incorporate Oromia towns surrounding Finfinne city, the current Master Plan will adversely affect the Oromo by reducing peasants into landlessness and in exacerbating land expropriation under the guise of investment. Like situations in the capital city, Oromo language, culture and other related rights would be suppressed if these towns are incorporated into the city without clear negotiation on who administers these “integrated” cities.

A way forward?

  1. The development project should not be imposed, rather it should involve stakeholders particularly local communities who will be affected by the project from inception to implementation.
  2. The integrated urban development can serve the interest of all stakeholders if and only if it is participatory and if it doesn’t violate constitutional rights of Oromia regional state and its geographical boundaries.
  3. Finfinne City has the potential to develop by its own given that the city administration makes inward looking to develop a system of modernizing the city not necessarily through horizontal expansion. The unanswered question is: why Finfinne city administration started this integrated plan while there are immense critiques that it is unable to solve its own municipal problems. Therefore, before launching ambitious and ambiguous projects like this, the city administration should have utilized all available opportunities within its administrative boundaries to develop and modernize the city.
  4. The regional government of Oromia has to claim its constitutional right to get special benefit from Finfinne (if not yet).
  5. What guarantee does the regional government of Oromia have as to whether Finfinne administration eventually incorporates the surrounding Oromia towns to its administration or not? This is critical question the federal government, Finfinne city administration and particularly the regional government of Oromia should address. More importantly, the failure to put this agenda on the front line in negotiating with the other actors will be a critical test to the legitimacy of OPDO in representing the Oromo people.

In conclusion, two fundamental issues should be made clear regarding resistance against the “Integrated Urban Development Master Plan” of Addis Ababa City:

1) It has been evident that people are not against development per se. However, where development projects are perceived to be threatening fundamental rights and needs of the citizens, it becomes a policy to be resisted rather than a program to be embraced. On the other hand, under contexts where the people are recognized as rightful citizens whose voices, views and knowledge contribute to the overall development vision through genuine participatory approaches, it would be expected, to a large extent, that development mobilizes the society towards similar goals of the state.

2) Regardless of the power of domination the intervening actor might have, development intervention faces the utmost resistance from the people whose livelihood, culture, language, identity and history will be affected. Therefore, the government should not overlook the potency of local resistance in impacting on its legitimacy and trust.

 *The writer of this article can be reached at asebe2011@googlemail.com

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  1. Well- done! Thumbs up!

  2. Wow, I found it very genuinely evidenced commentary. In history had Ethiopian leaders had the gut to entertain such intellectual views, this wouldn’t have been our fate.
    The problem is there is always a political ( Cadre’s)response to such inclusive national solutions.

  3. Good insight but some dubious arguments as well. I always wonder when I hear about the discourse on the so called the “Oromo nation”. Do we really have one nation called the Oromo? For me it is probllematique to argue about a single identity by that name where you have completely competing religious and political identities with divers goals and grievances. The Guji and Borena oromos cannot be taken as similar with that of the oroms in the Bale highlands. Likewise the oromos around Addis Ababa cannot be put in one group with the oromos in Wollega. The same is true for the oromos in wollo. What makes these groups seem one, apart form common language, is the perceived and actual past injustices, most of which are constructed and reconstructed by the radical oromo elites. You raised for example about Addis Ababa’s garrison status simply by claiming that most of the current residents today do not identify themselves as Oroma. How come this claim could be used to conclude that AA has been a garrison town? second related but most important point is whenver you talk about past injustices in Ethiopia you should get the courage to see it beyond Menilike’s era. That meas you should also talk about the atrocities and injustices committed by the Oromos in place what is now Addis Ababa. Many indigenous people have been vanished by the oromos when they expand into different parts of the country including Addis Ababa.

  4. The argument that indigenous communities will be affected by the master plan does not hold water because it is debatable weather the Oromos can be considered indigenous to the area in question. I note historical revisionism is in vogue at the moment in Ethiopia but like anything else, it will fade away in time. Internal boundaries of countries are fluid, they are subject to change at the whim of the government of the day.

    Surely the Oromos have realize by now that TPLF did not have their interest at heart when they inserted the infamous secession clause in the constitution and concocted an artificial kilil structure for Ethiopia. These treacherous acts were solely for the purpose of facilitating the secession of the other Agames north of the Mereb. The Tigrai Agames looked up to the Merebmilash Agames to the point of worshiping them which eventually morphed itself in to a inferiority complex. The Tigrai Agames forced the Mereb Milash Agames to pack up and leave because they thought they would not be able to monopolize power if the Merebmilash Agames remained part of Ethiopia. They convinced the Merebmilash Agames that they would be better off to go on and carve out a country out of a God forsaken barren and desolate land; look where that got the fools. Today the merebmilash Agame fools are feasting on each others blood and flesh. They tell me they lack the most basic of necessities like running water so much so that Picolo Roma is now a cesspool and a stench. Oromos and other Ethiopians should realize that If Woyane were serious about self determination up to secession, they would have embraced OLF, ONLF, and other secessionist groups. More importantly, they would have seceded themselves.

  5. Very well said. And regardless of disputes on land policy, The killing of peaceful demonstrators and the jailing, torture and a use of journalists, opposition figures and
    Academics is completely unjustified. These are government war crimes in clear violation of the Constitution.

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