Controversy over proposed Ethiopian law aiming to change capital’s status

Map of Ethiopia highlighting the Oromo Region (HRW)

A new law drafted by the Ethiopian Council of Ministers regarding the status of the capital Addis Ababa in late June is sparking debates. The law aims to recognize the largest regional state Oromiya’s special interest over the city as per the country’s constitution.

Addis Ababa is entirely surrounded by Oromiya state, which is home to the Oromo ethnic group making up close to 35 per cent of the entire population. According to the draft, the city will alternatively be called Finfine, a name the Oromo use to refer to it. Additionally, the law will make Afan Oromo a second working language of the municipality, alongside Amharic.

The relationship between Addis Ababa and Oromiya has been one of the most prominent drivers of political debates in Ethiopian in recent times. It crucially triggered the yearlong anti-government protests in 2015 when youths from the later came out to the streets opposing a master plan for the city which they saw as expansionist. The master plan which was later revoked by the government intended to integrate surrounding Oromo vicinities with the capital.  But the protesters alleged the plan would evict farmers from their lands.

More than 600 people died during the protests that morphed into demands of greater autonomy, justice and equality. Ethiopia is nine months into a state of emergency declared after the dozens died in a stampede during an Oromo religious festival at the pinnacle of the protests.

The relationship between the region and the capital was further pushed to the fore when a landslide in Addis Ababa’s main dumpsite killed 115 people in March. The dumpsite which served the capital’s population, currently estimated to be about 4 million, for half a century had been dangerously overloaded. Exacerbating the problem were contentions over a new site selected to replace the old one as it is located in an adjacent Oromo vicinity. As farmers surrounding the new site protested the project the city administration continued dumping waste at the old site in the months leading up to the tragedy.

In addition to incorporating Oromo identity, the draft law demands Addis Ababa to pay for services it gets from the surrounding Oromo vicinities including water supply. It also requires authorities to offer to the Oromo people “access [to] health care services at government hospitals and medical facilities like any resident of the city,” a clause criticized for mixing a basic right extended to all Ethiopians with a special interest.

“I hope the government is not under the impression that the people can be appeased easily.”

Some members of the Oromo ethnic group disparage the draft law for failing to assert an issue what they say is the crux of the topic: land ownership. “According to this draft Finfine’s land will still be owned by the Federal government.  That’s too important a question to ignore,” says Hassen Ali, a resident of the city. “I hope the government is not under the impression that the people can be appeased easily.”

The proposed law explicitly avows that Addis Ababa is federal land. But the state of Oromia can acquire and develop land for administrative activities and public services free of occupancy payment.

Meanwhile, others reject the draft on the ground that the non-Oromo residents of Addis Ababa, which make up more than 80 per cent of the city’s population, are not taken into consideration. Samuel T., who was born and raised in the city, argues that the draft has a potential to breed suspicion among residents of the city who belong to different ethnic groups. “I feel like a stranger in my own city,” he says. He speculates the government’s move is directed at tapping into ethno-nationalist feelings growing among the Oromo youth in order to contain the high degree of anger that is “still prevalent.”

The government argues the proposed law addresses historical injustices against the Oromo.  Addis Ababa was founded more than 125 years ago by Emperor Menelik, a king whose military campaigns into the Oromo and other southern areas shaped the current Ethiopia.


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