Opposition to Oromia megacities echoes Ethiopia’s master plan turmoil

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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.

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. The latter aims to develop big cities and enhance secondary urban centers and industry.

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.

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.

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.

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. Its establishment has fueled opposition as protesters accuse the government of disrespecting the interests of local Oromos.

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.

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.

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: National Urban Cluster; January 2013; Addis Ababa and Oromia Integrated Development Plan.

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