Shortly after taking office last April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took local and international media by storm due to the bold and previously unthinkable measures he took, leaving the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians in a state of euphoria. Abiy's achievement in just a matter of few months led some to draw a comparison with none other than Nelson Mandela, for achieving the near-impossible that led the country to peace and optimism. Some of his accomplishments include: releasing thousands of political prisoners, ending an almost 2-decade conflict with Eritrea, and opening up the political space by inviting the once proclaimed 'terrorist' political groups to come back to Ethiopia and peacefully participate in the country’s politics.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine when it came to post-reform Ethiopia. Staggering rates of internal displacement mainly of Gedeo, unrest and lawlessness in different parts of the country characterised by mob killings, mass state-led evictions, and warning signs of neo-liberal policy attempts by the government are now clouding the success stories of the administration.
These developments have created confusion among the Ethiopian majority, and have also hindered the potential of having robust and constructive discussions. Both the public, and the media for that matter, are seen jumping from one unusual story to the other, without due emphasis and deliberation of the possible long-term consequences for the country. Matters that should have been given attention are seen being ignored, and priorities are often reversed - both by Abiy’s administration and consequently, by the public. This has further complicated the already fragile state the country is in.
This article tries to pin down what is becoming a very controversial issue amidst the unending developments in the country: the political and legal status of Addis Ababa. It also discusses Eskinder Nega's movement (Balderas), the bumpy road the council is facing along the way, and what that signifies for Abiy's administration’s praise in regards to opening up and liberalising the political space.
Addis Ababa is the capital city of the Federal State Ethiopia, and as stated in article 49 of the Ethiopian constitution, reports to the federal government. The constitution also grants the residents of the city a complete measure of self-government with the right of representation in the parliament. Nevertheless, now more than ever, some Oromo nationalists are arguing that the city should be included under Oromia regional state. They claim that Addis Ababa is an ancestral Oromo land and a center of Oromo culture and identity. Others refute the claim by tracing the city to the 14thC Christian kingdom of Ethiopia. The point here is not to discuss and debate history, but to highlight the context of this recent dispute on Addis Ababa.
Eskinder Nega, the Balderas Movement, and its Challenges
Eskinder Nega is a prominent figure whose name carries a particular weight. He is one of those rare individuals who stand out among millions, and intimidate their detractors by their mere presence. He is one of the most influential journalists in Ethiopia and a recipient of numerous international awards, including the Pen Award, IPI press freedom hero, Oxfam Novib/PEN International Awards for Freedom of Expression, to mention a few. His unwavering commitment to democracy cost him almost a decade of his life, and the prison cell became his home. Eskinder was imprisoned at least 7 times, the last of which took six years off of his life before being released last year following the Prime Minister’s decision to release all political prisoners.
Eskinder wasted no time in returning to politics after his release from prison. He passionately talked about the need to bring democracy to Ethiopia, and blamed not only the government, which he believed held the lion’s share, but also Ethiopia’s elites for failing to bring democracy to the country. He also launched a weekly newspaper in Amharic and opened a YouTube channel. In many of his speeches, Eskinder continues to use the phrase, victory to democracy - now a popular lexicon linked to his name.
Nevertheless, his critics accuse him of being a reactionary who is interfering with the Prime Minister’s reform agenda. Some even go as far labeling him as 'Oromophobic' in response to his series of dismissive tweets about the Qeerroo, whom he labelled as 'rebels without a cause', especially following the Burayu killings. He dismissed the accusation noting that he was similarly labelled as anti-Tigrayan when TPLF had the helm of power not long ago. He argued that if he had any phobia, it would only be a phobia of authoritarianism. Those who accuse him of bias note his failure to criticize Fanos in the Amhara region for mob killings and other lawlessness happening in the region.
The movement, popularly known as balderas, was officially established on the 9th of March at a public gathering that Eskinder and other members of the council held in Addis Ababa. On that day, Eskinder touched on numerous issues, his main focus being the lack of political representation of Addis Abebés (residents of the city). He stressed that the committee that was set up by the Prime Minister's office to resolve the Addis Ababa Oromia boundary rift was unacceptable, citing the absence of an elected representative on behalf of the capital city. He also argued, among other things, that Ethiopians should have the right to reside anywhere in the country, a remark he made in response to Oromo Democratic Party’s (ODP) decision to cancel the planned condominium housing allocation to Addis Abebés in the outskirts of the city. He affirmed that the movement is 100% legal and peaceful.
Eskinder and the Balderas movement have faced backlash and criticism because they claimed to be the only entity to have obtained recognition from the residents. While Eskinder agrees that the number of people that endorsed the movement is only in the ten-thousands, he argues that no other collective has that support, comparing his endorsement with the city administration’s - which was not officially elected by the residents. Eskinder maybe wrong to claim legitimacy on the basis of thousands of supporters’ endorsement, but his remark in regards to the lack of the residents' voice in the choice of the city administration remains true.
The movement plans to establish an organised grass-root movement stretching to lower kebele districts that stand for the democratic rights of Addis Ababa residents. The main objective of the movement is to ensure political representation of the residents and voicing their concerns. However, the movement’s leader, Eskinder, has made it clear that they have no business of running for office. It has so far managed to form and organise its members in some of the sub-cities in the city and is planning to diversify its members to all sub-cities in Addis. However, Balderas is facing a series of pushbacks from the government. So far, four planned public meetings were cancelled in a period of three months.
On March 24, 2019 the Balderas committee cancelled its planned meeting, because according to the committee, police could not be present to maintain the security of the participants, despite being informed in advance. Eskinder and his committee did not want to give room for any possible conflict which they felt was likely to happen after witnessing a group of youth heckling the organisers and creating a disturbance.
One week later, police stopped another planned public meeting. The Prime Minister’s press secretary later told VOA that police cancelled the meeting out of fear of safety for Eskinder Nega himself and said that Eskinder could hold the meeting in the prime minister’s office. Eskinder declined the offer noting he would only go to the prime minister’s office to discuss citizens’ demands and not to give a presser. It is quite bizarre that the government would make such an odd offer to begin with. The government did not seem to grasp that its responsibility was not to offer the prime minister’s office for the gathering, rather to ensure the safety of participants in any public area.
The drama continued for a short while. A planned presser by Eskinder and a team of individuals from Get Consulting, a group planning to launch a TV station, was cancelled twice last week. In a manner typical to EPRDF (Ethiopia’s ruling coalition) the government and police denied involvement in the cancellation.
What Could Inclusion of Addis Ababa Under Oromia Regional State Mean?
If there is anything the past few months brought to light, it is the fact that Ethiopia’s ‘reformed’ government is not tolerating any form of organisation in Addis Ababa. Oromia Regional State’s statement on March 2019 regarding the controversy around Addis was shocking as it stated that it would continue its work to bring Addis Ababa under the regional state. It was the first time that the ruling party expressed an unconstitutional and dangerously consequential position towards Addis Ababa. Similarly, five Oromo opposition parties gave a statement which stressed that “the Oromo people are owners of Addis Ababa”. The government has also appointed the deputy mayor of Addis Ababa contrary to the city’s legislation. This, among increasing social media campaigns that make ‘ownership’ claims to put the city under Oromia regional state, signal the troubling road ahead for Addis Abebés.
The danger does not arise because of perceived or real (if any) prejudice towards Oromia or the Oromo as some would like to insinuate. Perhaps one unintended consequence of Ethiopia’s deeply flawed federal system is that it makes criticism extremely daunting. Discussions, including valid but strong criticisms against a regional state and their parties so named after an ethnic group, can easily and sometimes deliberately get misinterpreted and dismissed as bias against a particular ethnic group.
The point here is not merely about whether Addis Ababa falls under the jurisdiction of Oromia or for e.g. Amhara or Somali regional states; instead, it is that the system would automatically strip Addis Abebés from their fundamental rights. For instance, Oromia regional state’s constitution (Article 8) grants sovereign power to the people of Oromo which it stipulates is expressed through their direct democratic participation. This means non-Oromo Addis Abebés (which are the majority according to the last census) would become secondary citizens if the city is to be incorporated into Oromia. Similarly, Article 34 of the regional constitution also puts the Oromo language requirement as a precondition to be appointed and assigned in public office in the region. Therefore, anyone who does not speak the language would have no constitutional guarantee for a job, which again directly affects the majority of Addis Abebés. In short, residents who lived their entire lives in Addis would have no say in the fundamental constitutional issues, including a
It is also important to note here, the current state of the country in relation to the rate of internal displacement and ethnic violence. It is no secret that individuals are being displaced in huge numbers across different regions simply because they do not belong to that region’s ethnic group. Although the figure has exponentially soared in the past 3 years, it has been in the making for almost 2 decades. Human Rights Council (Formerly Ethiopian Human Rights Commission) has published 41 separate cases of
Furthermore, the noisiest voices in Ethiopia today are coming from people identifying in ethnic groups. To simply identify as an Ethiopian citizen has almost become a subject of mockery and even a liability, even by those who should know better. Choosing not to identify with a given ethnicity is unacknowledged in the constitution and is endowed with risk. Some Oromo nationalists infamously refer to such Ethiopians as “homeless”. To misappropriate Hana Arendt’s terms, the nakedness of being simply Ethiopian can be the greatest danger amidst heightened identitarian politics in which Ethiopia has immersed itself in for decades. This very well applies to Addis Abebés who are usually more comfortable in identifying themselves as Ethiopians.
Seeing Eskinder’s movement within this broader context is important because whether we believe some of the controversies around him or not, he is the only individual who dared to start a movement that stood to challenge the measures being taken by the government towards Addis Ababa. It may be easy for us to point fingers and taint his image, but his movement was the only active voice against, for example, the planned state-led evictions in the city. He fittingly referred to the plan which the government had previously used to evict thousands, as a state-sponsored illegal land invasion and turned the offensive term of invasion against the government itself.
This is not to say or imply in any way that Eskinder should be exempt from criticism. He should not be, and he has not been. But it also helps to consider that not all criticisms are made out of good intent; some are simply aiming to push their own political agendas. It must also be noted that the issue of Addis Ababa is in fact, bigger than Eskinder, for which he is courageously speaking, and at the risk of his own life.
Eskinder has faced death threats from different individuals, one recently recorded a Facebook video threatening to kill him. While no sane person wishes that to happen on anyone, it is difficult to rule out the possibility of that happening amid the rising lawlessness in the country. In a moving interview he gave to ESAT, he stated that when he thinks about his wife and his young son - the family he left in the US because he chose a bigger fight, he wishes to live. For the sake of his family, one can only hope and believe, that the Lord will keep him safe and alive.