The Addis Ababa Master Plan: Federalist Growing Pains

by the Strathink Editorial Team

Washington, D.C., is home to the largest number of Ethiopians in the world outside Addis Ababa itself. It is also the capitol city of the United States.

Article One, Section Eight, of the U.S. Constitution permits the establishment of a “District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States”. Washington, D.C. is not a state and therefore has no voting representation in the American legislature.

This has been a point of contention for the residents of the District of Columbia for years. Moreover, the vast majority of Americans (up to 78%) believe that District residents should have voting representation in Congress. Efforts to grant D.C. voting rights have been unsuccessful despite decades of political action to support such a move. Opponents claim that only states have the right of voting representation and to grant statehood to the District would challenge the notion of a separate national capitol.

Federalism, democracy and individual political rights are competing principles that muddy the water of the struggle for District residents to have voting representation in the U.S. Congress. In countries around the world, governments and civil society butt heads over which principle can claim primacy in maintaining a democratic system and protecting individual rights.

The Ethiopian Government’s “Addis Ababa Master Plan,” or Addis Ababa Integrated Regional Development Plan, proposes to annex land around the city that belongs to the National Regional State of Oromia. It is a classic struggle between the central government and its member states in an endless political cycle of the national interest versus states’ rights.

In Ethiopia, however, such a common problem of federalism takes on the momentous symbolism of centuries of history between the center and the periphery. Ethiopia’s contentious political culture was quick to take advantage of suspicion and distrust of the state to demonize the government’s intentions to simply expand the boundaries of the nation’s capitol. The fact that the expansion crosses into Oromia—home to members of Ethiopia’s historically marginalized yet largest ethnic plurality—has put a weapon in the hands of government opponents.

Oromo students, with no memory of the plight of Oromos under the previous governments of the Derg or monarchy, are being used by discredited opponents of the government, such as Merara Gudina, to fight battles that should have ended in 1991.

We are not saying that the Oromo people do not have legitimate historical grievances against the Ethiopian state. We also are not saying that the Oromo people do not have legitimate contemporary grievances against the current federal government and their own regional government in Oromia. We are saying that there is a natural tension within a federal system that sometimes pits the national interests against the interests of a locality. There is even a legal principle that defines the government’s right to take private property and convert it into public use with the caveat of just compensation—eminent domain.

Ethiopia’s political opposition cannot seem to accept the principle of democratic pluralism where interests compete in a democratic process with an ebb and flow of influence. The zero-sum game approach that led the opposition to boycott the parliament after winning a significant number of seats in 2005 resulted in the unfortunate loss of political credibility among their supporters that has yet to be recovered. The formation of Ginbot 7 to overthrown the government using violence was a new low that now overshadows the utter stupidity of forfeiting their parliamentary seats in 2005. And now, by using the non-issue of the master plan to encourage senseless violence—at the expense of Oromo students—the further loss of political credibility is simply staggering.

A democracy needs a credible and vibrant opposition to advance. Ethiopia’s opposition, led by a diaspora enjoying cappuccino at Starbucks in Washington, D.C. and capitol cities throughout Europe, are the country’s biggest obstacle to furthering democracy. Let them vacant their seats in coffee shops around the world—including Asmara—and return home to do the real work in nation-building. We hear you can get a good cup of coffee in Ethiopia.

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