Elevated at 2000 meters above sea level overlooking most of the country, Addis Ababa remains at center of Ethiopia's political and economic life for the past 126 years. Historically, handpicked by Emperor Menelik II to administer his expanding kingdom, mainly for its strategic defense advantages, Addis's preeminence grew, even in the continent, over time.
With this comes constant change and development which seems to have caught the eyes of international city indexes like the A.T. Kearney's Global Cities Index (GCI)-2014. The Emerging City Outlook Report published early last week placed Addis Ababa in third place next to Jakarta and Manila in prospect to become the next big international city.
The index measured the progress made by cities between 2008 and 2013 to indicate their prospect of catching up with the major cities in the world within the next decade or so. As important as the prospect it is showing, Addis is also a city of stark contrast when one digs deeper.
Until very recently it was a city where modern vehicles and transportation machineries working side-by-side with pack animals. It was a city where coordination among major infrastructure facilities and utilities was very hard to come by; where installation of one usually disrupted another well-functioning utility.
It was also a city where the standards of services and level of urbanization greatly varies as one move to the peripheries and the outskirts of the city. Yet, it is also a city where the presence of international organizations and continental structures is highly visible.
Nonetheless, the level of service delivery and growth of infrastructure is still nowhere near what is required of a city with Addis's stature. As a reflection of this urbanization pressure, the city suffered from high turn over of mayors and high ranking officials over the years.
For instance, since its inception as the political epicenter of the nation, tenure of mayorship in Addis was not more than eight years; while the average years of service for a mayor was just two years. But development has always been at the center of the city administration over the years; and working on its tenth city master-plan, which is expected to serve for the next 25 years, it has been one area of focus since the past two years.
Unlike the nine, which came before it, the new city master-plan have taken solid two years to prepare before the administration decided to take it for a spin; inviting stakeholders and experts to deliberate on the plan and some of the new ideas it took on board.
Currently, seat of both the city and regional government of the Oromia Regional State, Addis Ababa's latests plan is concoct of the two entities. The executive board which over saw the master-plan revision work over the course of the past two years was a joint panel of both governments. Just when stakeholders' consultation on the master-plan began, however, things started to take another dimension, perhaps far more unanticipated one.
While making this master-plan public, the city administration may well have triggered an age-long controversy surrounding the special relationship between the city and its enclosing Oromia Regional State (ORS). Blast from the past To grasp the controversy one has to understand the unique connection that exists between Addis Ababa and the ORS.
Geographically, the capital city is located fully within the territorial boundary of the ORS which is one of the nine parties to the Ethiopian federation. Addis Ababa although not a fully autonomous federal entity, it is given constitutional guarantee to self administer having its own city charter in 1997 and revised in 2003, and a city council elected by the residents of the city.
But, it is not recognized as one of the federal entities since it is a territorial unit where wide variety of ethnically diverse Ethiopians live together. As a political and business capital of the country, this semi-autonomous, self-administering unit is a federal city which is directly accountable to the federal government.
All this was enshrined in the 1995 Ethiopian constitution, where by the ORS was also given a 'special interest' status on Addis Ababa on account of its location and, according to some scholars, its unique historical ties with the Oromia region. The historical point by itself is far more controversial.
While a considerable number of scholars actually championed a view that says original inhabitants of the then Addis Ababa (Finfine in Oromiffa), who are majority ethnic Oromos, had to be displaced to make way for the new settlement.
Getahun Benti, a researcher, in his article entitled "Nation without a city; Blind man without a cane" advocates this same argument at times going as far as accusing successive governments that came after Menelik II of orchestrating eviction of Oromos from their original homeland and contributing to the ethnically mixed settlement that exists at the moment.
Although not as extreme, there also others who support this narration. In that, they argue that the ORS in spite of having a 'special interest' guaranteed by the constitution what is in fact happing is the the other way around.
Citing some costly externalities on the surrounding towns of the ORS, regarding waste disposal and territorial expansion of the city, they argue that it is the special zone which is taking advantages instead. Abera Degefa, assistant professor at Addis Ababa University School of law, on his part says that notion of special interest is far more than providing a seat for the regional government.
In addition to being an official seat of the Oromia Regional Government, having special interest entails an environment in which Oromo culture, language and identity can be nurtured.
According to the vast body of literature on the subject, the full ramification and meaning of the provision 'special interest' on the Ethiopian constitution is not yet implemented or even well-studied, two decades later.
But, over the course of the twenty years, a lot has been said and much has been written about the subject matter, with a special focus on the challenges if/when it enters into force. As one can imagine, the basic question here is nothing but the meaning of the 'special interest'.
What the provision 'special interest' itself means and what the framers of the Ethiopian constitution had in mined while writing this unique article of the constitution is far more controversial. Surprisingly, even members of the constitutional commission had to debate fiercely over the subject matter before it was ratified by the constituent assembly; article 49(5) in particular.
Transcript of the minute of the debate of the constituent assembly shows just how debatable the matter was even some twenty years back.
Past the constitutional provision, the technical difficulty in understanding what 'special interest' actually entail on the ground is another matter which led many people not to see each other eye to eye. Obviously, what framers of the constitution has in mind is quite important to know what it actually means when applied on the ground. Here only few scholars dare to give interpretations of the notion of 'special interest'.
The majority prefer to emphasize on the need to have further elaborating laws to make it more clearer. Abera is not one them. He in fact elucidates what 'special interest' can mean in practices saying, "whenever the city plans to do something significant, it should first consult and if possible gain the consent of the Oromia Regional State in order to say the constitutional article 49(5) is fully exercised."
According to his view, the city should view the ORS as a partner who necessarily have to be consulted on issues pertinent to the city and one whose consent really matters for the city. In a much different tune, Assefa Fessiha, prominent scholar on Ethiopian federalism, says that it is quite wrong to stretch ORS's 'special interest' to mean exclusive right over Addis Ababa.
It is not necessarily the case that Addis Ababa should be a reflection of the ORS, it should indeed be a reflection of Oromia, Addis Ababa and the whole country all together since it is federal city of Ethiopia, he argues. "Rather, as far as the status of a federal city is concerned, Addis Ababa is expected to abide by the principle of neutrality,"Assefa asserts.
The constitution had something say about 'special interest' though. It states that 'respecting special interest' of the ORS could mean regarding resource use, service delivery, administrative matters and other issues.
Nevertheless, the catalog of possible areas of respect of special interest is not exhaustive; not by a long shot if the majority of the legal and constitutional scholars are to be believed. They say that the promised, follow up proclamation to elucidate article 49 (5) is not forthcoming twenty years after the promise is made.
Albeit the direction given by the constitution, this explaining more explanatory proclamation has been neglected according to the same scholars, and say, "no wonder the confusion and controversy is creeping back after two decades".
Wondwossen Wakene, from Gonder University School of Law, on his part does not accept the notion that source of the controversy is the absence of constitutionally promised laws which are non-existence at the moment. He says, one could not argue that such laws are totally non-existent. He argues, since both Addis Ababa city charter and the regulation issued by ORS to administer the special zones make mention of the issue of 'special interest'.