Opposition to Oromia megacities echoes Ethiopia’s master plan turmoil

Addis Ababa Regional Framework and Sheger City

Oromia implements restructuring with similarities to the controversial Addis Ababa master plan, raising claims of illegality.

The Oromia government announced on 27 February that it has restructured the administration of major cities in the region, merging six with neighboring towns.

After the popular uprising from 2014 that was triggered by protests against the now defunct Addis Ababa master plan, Oromia’s government now appears to be implementing similar policies.

This move has sparked protests in Oromia and claims of illegality partly as the law allowing for the restructuring, merging, and renaming of cities was scrapped in 2016, a year after its enactment, due to vehement Oromo opposition.

In an already tumultuous Ethiopia, the Oromia government’s restructuring may further exacerbate the crisis in Oromia, where government forces have been trying for years to crush the Oromo Liberation Army insurgency.

Cities Restructured

As part of the administrative restructuring, Adama, Shashemene, and Bishoftu have been expanded to integrate surrounding towns and converted into regiopolis cities.[mfn]A regiopolis is a type of city, used primarily in Germany, residing outside the core of a metropolitan area that serves developmental purposes within a broader region.[/mfn]

Bishoftu, most notably, has been merged with its neighboring towns, including Dukem, and restructured into three sub-cities and ten city districts.

Furthermore, Robe and Maya have been promoted to major cities, while nine smaller towns have been upgraded and placed under the direct administration of the regional government.

These changes are in line with Ethiopia’s 2021-2030 Development Plan and the National Urban Development Spatial Plan.[mfn]After scrapping the 2014 master plan, federal and city authorities remained silent until 2017, when Addis Ababa announced a 10-year Structural Plan that was essentially a modified version of the 2014 blueprint. The Prosperity Party’s 2021-2030 Development Plan, which aims to develop big cities and their surrounding areas through polycentric development, is equally viewed with skepticism by some Oromos, particularly elites.[/mfn] The latter aims to develop big cities and enhance secondary urban centers and industry.[mfn]The NUDSP clusters urban centers hierarchically and fosters links with small towns. The Structural Plan for Addis Ababa emphasizes the integrated development of the city and its surrounding areas based on the idea that coordinated efforts with nearby towns will distribute development benefits more equitably.[/mfn]

However, the restructuring bears a resemblance to the contentious 2014 master plan, which lacked transparency and was devised without consulting the public, leaving the fate of farming communities uncertain.[mfn]The 2014 Addis Ababa master plan aimed to annex over 11,000 square kilometers of land from the Oromo Special Zone into the capital. The Oromia administration scrapped the plan in January 2016 after anti-government protests erupted that were brutally suppressed.[/mfn]

Controversy Revived 

Despite facing staunch resistance from many Oromos, Oromia’s government appears to be tacitly reviving elements of the 10-year-old master plan.[mfn]Addis Ababa’s administration has resumed development plans that were halted due to Oromia’s unwillingness to cooperate with the scrapped master plan. For instance, the federal government recently obtained a loan from China’s EXIM Bank to recommence construction of the Gerbi Water Reservoir project, planned to span 1,800 hectares of land in Oromia’s Sheger City, to provide drinking water for Addis Ababa. The project comes at a high cost for Oromo farmers who must be evicted to make way for it. Addis Ababa’s Water and Sewerage Bureau claims to have compensated over 1,850 farmers, who they are losing their homes and livelihoods for the benefit of Addis Ababa residents.[/mfn]

Addis Ababa regional framework, 2013
Addis Ababa regional framework, 2013, Social media

Addis Ababa regional framework, 2013

This is most evident with the October 2022 establishment of Sheger City, a new urban center situated on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the federal capital that Oromo nationalists claim should be administered as part of Oromia.[mfn]The Oromia government’s creation of new regiopolis cities is in line with the national urban development plan. Before the announcement, the Addis Ababa and Oromia Special Zone Surrounding Finfinne (OSZSF) administration had marked a boundary between the two regions, a move that met resistance from Oromo activists and opposition parties. The establishment directive annexed two kebeles to the OSZSF during the boundary demarcation but excluded several areas under its administration. On 22 October 2022, the Oromia government created Sheger city, encompassing five Oromia towns surrounding the capital, despite this opposition. This entailed dissolving the OSZSF and included the surrounding towns and areas within a 30-kilometer radius of the capital, forming an area of over 1,600 square kilometers.[/mfn]

Critics argue that Sheger was formed by a closed-door process that did not involve residents, and amounts to implementing the masterplan by the backdoor. Its creation was also met by protests.
Covering an area of over 1,600 square kilometers, Sheger City encompasses six Oromia towns.[mfn]The establishment of Sheger City and restructuring of Bishoftu extends the urban network subsystem to Modjo, connecting with Adama regiopolis city, and forming the Central Region Urban Subsystem outlined in the 2014 master plan and current NUDSP. Shashamane, a new regiopolis city, was established, and smaller towns were restructured to follow Ethiopia’s national urbanization framework. According to Oromia’s government, the restructuring is to promote sustainable urban development, improve access to public services and infrastructure, and address the challenges of urbanization, such as unemployment, housing shortages, and environmental degradation.[/mfn] Its establishment has fueled opposition as protesters accuse the government of disrespecting the interests of local Oromos.[mfn]Many Oromos are uncomfortable with the idea of establishing a Sheger City that is part of Oromia. This is because it’s believed to exclude Addis Ababa from Oromia, an idea that is antithetical to Oromo nationalism. They see it as a de facto expansion of the capital that will displace Oromo farmers and have other malign effects on local communities.[/mfn]

Sheger City map

Map of the newly established Sheger City, which surrounds Addis Ababa

The 2014 master plan faced significant opposition from Oromo farmers who feared forced eviction for meager competition and the loss of their land, and it is unclear how the latest move addresses such concerns.

Non-Oromo activists, especially Amharas, have also opposed Sheger City. They fear that the Oromia administration may use it to further an alleged agenda of annexing the capital into Oromia.

House demolitions have been reportedly taking place in Sheger City and other areas, with the new city’s government claiming that they are targeting illegally built properties.

Unclear Demarcation

Sheger City establishment comes after the 16 August 2022 demarcation of the boundary between Addis Ababa and the Oromia Special Zone Surrounding Finfinne. However, the precise demarcation remains vague, causing tensions and conflicts.

In 2017, a boundary dispute surfaced between a group led by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (now merged into Prosperity Party) and Addis Ababa’s mayor, who disagreed over whether the boundary should be demarcated at all.

Initially, Oromia’s leadership resisted the demarcation of Addis Ababa’s boundaries in line with a 1994 proclamation and saw this as a move to separate the capital from Oromia. However, they now hail it as one of their most significant achievements.

Major opposition parties, namely the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, are against the new boundary demarcation, arguing that it violates the constitution and the rights of the Oromo people.

Competing ownership claims over Addis Ababa continue to fuel disputes. The city is not governed by Oromia and many do not believe that Oromos receive any tangible benefits from the constitutional recognition that Oromia has a “special interest” in Addis Ababa that has not been defined by law.[mfn]Article 49 of the constitution doesn’t categorize Addis Ababa as a regional state but declares its autonomy and makes its administration directly accountable to the federal government. The constitution says Oromia has a “special interest” in the city; a phrase that has been the subject of political debate.[/mfn]

Negelle Contested

The restructuring in Oromia has already resulted in protests and civil unrest in some parts of the region, including the restive Guji Zone.

The decision to incorporate Negelle town into the newly-formed East Borana Zone has heightened tensions, including between Guji Oromos and Borana Oromos.

Oromia’s government claims this move is to maximize the development opportunities of cities and enhance their capacities as key development corridors.

Guji residents see the move as a violation of their territorial integrity. They have taken to the streets, calling on the government to reverse its decision.

At least three deaths have been reported in connection with the protests, which have disrupted transportation, businesses, and schooling in the area.

Legality Questioned

In 2015, Oromia’s government made revisions to the Oromia Cities Establishment Proclamation, which was purportedly connected to the contentious Addis Ababa master plan.

This decision faced opposition from the Oromo population, forcing the Oromia government to eliminate three specific articles from the amended proclamation in April 2016. These included provisions granting the executive the right to introduce a regiopolis city hierarchy, to alter city names, and to consolidate cities and towns.[mfn]Oromia’s government revised the Oromia Cities Establishment Proclamation in 2015 and enacted it as Proclamation 195/2015. The enactment of the proclamation faced resistance from the Oromo public, because it was perceived as facilitating implementation of the master plan. The government responded to the protests by amending the proclamation and passed it as Proclamation 196/2016. The revised proclamation removed three articles concerning the restructuring of cities as regiopolis cities, as well as the merging and renaming of towns.[/mfn]

Fikadu Tesema, Oromia government spokesperson at the time, stated that the removal of these articles was because establishing cities based on hierarchical classifications was perceived as a component of the master plan.

He added that the renaming and merger of administrative subdivisions has cultural and historical implications that need the consent of the residents.

Additionally, as per Oromia’s constitution, the regional council is empowered to create new administrative structures.  There could therefore be a constitutional challenge to the latest move, especially as local self-government is protected by both the regional and federal constitution, and the merger abolished some elected wereda administrations and town councils.

All things considered, Oromia government’s decision to press forward with restructuring and mergers without sufficient support or consultation risks triggering more turmoil.

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Main Image: Addis Ababa Regional Framework and Sheger City maps; 2013;

This article was first published on Ethiopia Insight.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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