Pushing boundaries in Ethiopia’s contested capital

By Yared Tsegaye, 21 June, 2021

Balcha Birru, a farmer evicted from the Qerssa village in 2013 as construction began for the Koye Feche condominiums, Yared Tsegaye, April 2021.

Source: Ethiopia Insight

While some evicted farmers have been rehoused, Addis’ growth into Oromia remains a source of major controversy.

With eyes steeped in reminiscence, 47-year-old Balcha Birru, a father of five, gazes over a neighborhood on the southeastern outskirts of Akaki in Addis Abeba, the capital city of both Ethiopia and Oromia regional state.

From Balcha’s viewpoint, two realities exist at once.

“We called this neighborhood home and had a strong social network. We humbly lived here as farmers of the Qerssa village. The land was blessed enough to feed us all,” he says about the area now located within Wereda 9 of Akaki-Kality Sub-City in Addis Abeba, a city known as Finfinne among many Oromos.

The village Balcha remembers vividly was part of a peri-urban district once home to lively farmsteads and a community of Oromo farmers along the Akaki River, a river which now runs through Akaki-Kality Sub-City.

Here, Balcha’s 17-member family subsisted by working on their ten hectares of land, bountiful enough to grow food for generations upon. Its annual harvest averaged up to 8,000 kilograms (around 18,000 pounds) of cereals and pulses of different kinds.

This fertile village is fading away fast, a new socio-spatial reality laying itself over an existence now planted firmly in the past.

This second reality represents a vastly different way of life from the one Balcha once knew. It is marked by dislocation, forced assimilation, and struggle—for work, for power, for a sense of place, for understanding.

Lost livelihoods

Though changes unfold continuously in the eyes of longtime residents, for many, its initiation was marked in a moment. Eddo Woredofa, a 75-year-old farmer, intact in body, recalled “that appalling day” eight years ago in an interview with Ethiopia Insight this May outside his home in Akaki.

Rays of morning sun lit up his face, as Eddo’s mind flashed back to 2013. A committee of local wereda officials came and called the villagers, without prior notice. The government representatives said the agricultural fields and surrounding houses would be expropriated for “development purposes”.

Eddo described people protesting: “Why our land?” The lead speaker’s response, Eddo said, “still echoes in me. He loudly asserted: ‘Every land, including yours, belongs to the state.’”

Since then, the villagers of Qerssa have become part of Ethiopia’s ever-expanding alliance of ‘displaced peoples’, left to languish in memories of fruitfulness at a time of dislocation and joblessness. In an unfairly compensated mass eviction—residents were reportedly given 18.5 birr per square meter of land—people were left without rehabilitation plans to get their lives back on the rail.

Shortly after losing their 5.25 hectares, Eddo’s family of over ten members started to struggle to get by. Without land or replacement work, a payment of 971,250 birr only helped to put food on the family’s table for less than four years. Above all, Eddo recalls, the psychological burden of seeing his children ask for jobs at construction sites on their previous landholdings was hard to bear.

Today, Qerssa is just one part of the body making up what has become Addis Abeba’s most disputed public housing site: the Koye Feche Condominium Project. It is one of the largest centers hosting high-density settlements of communal houses, built under the state-subsidized national Integrated Housing Development Programme (IHDP), which has been implemented since 2005.

Constructing condos

Neighboring the Tulu Dimtu Condominium Project, Koye Feche condominiums are situated between 22 and 25 kilometers southeast of the city center. The Addis Abeba City Administration began construction with phases I and II in 2014.

According to Addis Abeba Land Development Agency data, cited in a graduate study by Nuredin Nasser, about 1,925 farmers were displaced between 2013 and 2014 from the current Woreda 9 area. The agency claimed 854 hectares, including Tulu Dimtu, which was then administered by a rural kebele association. Out of these, 658 households were dissolved for the sake of condominium project sites at Koye Feche.

The ‘Koye’ side of the project stretches across weredas 9, 10, 11, and 12. It encompasses all of the former Qerssa village. Today, neighborhood names remain as sparse testaments to Qerssa’s waning reality across weredas 9 to 11.

The ‘Feche’ side neighbors the Tulu Dimtu Condominiums, in Wereda 13.

In 2016, the first batch of residents from Addis Abeba moved into Koye Feche.

Incoming residents obtained studio units in over 400 four-story housing blocks. Members of this pioneering cohort were lottery winners in IHDP’s lower-income 10/90 scheme, which targeted households with civil servants earning less than 1,000 birr per month. They were required to make a 10 percent down payment on the condo and offered a 90 percent loan to be paid back over 25 years at an interest rate of 9.5 percent.

Now, it is important to note that Koye Feche also lies between Akaki Sub-City weredas that separate the jurisdiction of Addis Abeba’s Akaki-Kality sub-city and the southern periphery of Oromia Regional State’s Oromia Special Zone Surrounding Finfinne. Among the approximately 25 kebeles under Addis Abeba administered by rural kebele associations, 15 years ago some were Oromo villages like Qerssa, Koye, Qilinto, and Tulumute.

Residents at under-construction condos at Koye Feche, Ethiopia Insight, March 2021.

In its second round of construction at Koye-Feche, the city administration misread its project plans. Developers of the Koye Feche estate crossed over demarcation lines in wereda 9, and into the boundaries of Oromia.

Controversy flared when some of these houses at Koye Feche in Oromia were included among the 32,653 units raffled by IHDP in March 2019. As part of a low-middle-income 20/80 scheme, the 13th round lottery winners were identified in Addis.

The event triggered protests across Oromia and—led by now jailed activist and politician Jawar Mohammed—at the project site. Jawar is part of a loose Oromo nationalist movement that believes Addis Abeba was built on Oromo land in the late 19th century. As a bare minimum, they want to see the 1995 constitutional promise of Oromia’s “special interest” in the capital to be fully articulated in law.

Regarding the Koye Feche spate, the Oromia government argued that transferring houses built within its boundary would be “unacceptable” until demarcation was completed. This increased the urgency of defining the boundaries between the regional government and the Addis Abeba City Administration.

Just over a year later, upon Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recommendation, a committee of eight was formed to investigate the Koye Fiche claims. It confirmed that 9,000 housing units were indeed built within Oromia.

Many activists argued that the units should be transferred to the displaced Oromo farmers whose land they were built on. This position was also stressed by the regional government and its ruling party.

After firm pressure and attention directed at the local farmers’ plight, in January 2020, the city cabinet made the decision to transfer 1,000 of the contested 9,000 houses to evicted farmers and their descendants. These displaced farmers have house ownership documents and are waiting to receive keys once construction is completed.

In September and October last year, after more than 18 months in limbo, the city transferred houses to the 32,653 lottery winners of March 2019—all residents of Addis, mostly poor, struggling to survive in a city with ever-increasing rent. It later transferred 22,915 condominiums in six sub-cities of Addis to evicted farmers from surrounding parts of Oromia.

Uncertain outlook

Now, longtime locals and newcomers alike are adjusting to life at Koye Feche.

“I am happy. I have at least something to leave for my family. I believe my children, who are doing different jobs in the city to support me, will have a good fortune,” Eddo said about being compensated with a new house.

Balcha Birru, the farmer from Qerrsa village, who obtained a small portion of land around the condos, started working on an urban agriculture project last year. “I have started working as a farmer again. It is the only thing I know. Though my harvest has only yielded a little income, I am now able to secure meals for our family,” he said.

Although Balcha no longer feels so vulnerable, the deep loss of a home and the effort to understand his place in a new urban setting continue to test his sense of security. “Will we ever get along with the people from the inner city? Do they speak the same language as us, and will we have new business linkages?” he wondered.

The outlook for the former farmer house owners is also uncertain, as threatening politics has been creeping into the burgeoning estate. Some residents of Addis who won lotteries for houses at Koye Feche, even at non-contested sites, are selling their houses illegally before they have possessed them for the minimum of five years.

Low-cost condos at Koye Feche area for evicted farmers from the surrounding area, Ethiopia Insight, March 2021.

This is confirmed by Kinde Amare, 35, a father-of-two and an interior decorator, working at new empty houses in the area. Kinde is originally from the Amhara region but has lived in Addis for over two decades, and as a tenant at Koye for the past three years. The rental fee of his one-bedroom house has doubled to 3,000 birr in just the last year.

Added to increasing rent is the price of instability, which Kinde and others pay for in different ways. Even though he has managed to get along with people in the area, working well with many local Oromo youths, Kinde noted that the place has not been at ease since the protests in March 2019.

“You don’t know what will happen and when in this area. Some people who have come here to buy and rent houses have returned after being beaten up. And there are a group of youths who sometimes come to disturb the area. The kebele officials here will never respond to your complaints, let alone investigate them,” he said.

Others tell you of notorious blocks and neighborhoods within the estate that are “dangerous to newcomers”. At the Koye Feche site II, for example, people have been found dead, but there has been no investigation. Now there are fears of politically motivated ethnic clashes, although there have not been many so far.

Winners but losers

The government, through the IHDP, aimed to build and transfer 400,000 houses nationally between 2006 and 2010. But that goal was comfortably missed, with under a half of the 175,000 targets for Addis completed.

The Ministry of Urban Development and Construction’s 10-year development plan, released this year and stretching to 2030, reveals that only 384,107 houses were built and transferred, meaning that more than a decade later they have still not hit their 2010 target. This includes houses that were transferred but are unfinished.

Out of these, 276,502 were transferred in Addis Ababa, but those were only for the lower- and lower-middle-income schemes. 18,000 people who registered under the lower schemes are still waiting to obtain houses. Nearly 17 years later, they are still not sure if they will get one.

If you add to these people another round of aspiring homeowners who registered for the 40/60 lottery in 2013, the total number can be estimated as more than 800,000, though some of those may have received houses in the 12th and 13th rounds, which ended last year.

The 40/60 scheme offered the promise of quality homes delivered to schedule. Only two rounds of transfers have been made so far, the latest of which was in the contested 13th round along with 20/80 owners. Out of over 160,000 people who saved up enough money to make the 40 percent down payment, only 20,200 (1,200 in the first round and 19,000 in the second) have so far ended up as property owners.

Thus, the more than 60,000 homes at Koye Feche are the tip of the iceberg, representing just one site where competing interests play out.

From reigniting the conflicting concerns about the infamous “Addis Abeba and Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Integrated Master Plan” to heating up the historically informed claims and counterclaims on ownership of the city; and from the mismatch between urban development and rural realities to the quest for social justice and more equitable distributions of resources, Koye Feche is a microcosm of Addis Abeba’s problems.

Above all, it shows the need for a sustainable overarching political settlement for a city troubled from all directions.

Bad borders make bad neighbors

Addis Abeba, a city that covers an area of 54,000 hectares, is a capital with volatile geography. As of now, the legal boundary between Addis Abeba and Oromia is unclear.

Despite the understanding that an agreement must be made, ambiguities and inaccuracies abound. Oftentimes, informal claims to places are accepted though unstated; other times, both sides lay claim to the same space, and disagreement leads to disputes.

It can be confusing trying to identify the signs that mark the end or beginning of the city’s jurisdiction on the fringes of the surrounding Finfinne Special Zone.

Take the ‘Welcome’ sign on the edge of a wereda in Kolfe Qeranyo coming into Sebeta, via Welete. You will be welcomed to the town in Oromia’s Finfinne Special Zone by an old and virtually unidentifiable billboard, hidden by foliage next to a ramshackle housing compound. Similarly, when you pass condominium units built by the city administration close to Welete there is no clearly marked end to Addis Abeba.

In recent years, landholdings registered by Addis Abeba city have been contested by town administrations in the Finfinne Special Zone. For instance, a sign showing a limit between Yeka Sub-City and Oromia, marking it as the region’s land, has been an issue recently.

Asked about it in a press conference early this year, Adanech Abebe, the deputy mayor of Addis Abeba and a key politician in the Oromia-Prosperity Party, only gave vague answers. Journalists who attended pointed out that Oromia is pushing into the capital. According to a journalist, Adanech responded, “It was Addis Abeba that is, on the contrary, pushing inside Oromia.”

Similarly, a senior advisor to Oromia’s president Shimelis Abdissa told Ethiopia Insight in April that the claim of the region’s expansion into Addis Abeba is unfounded; rather, it is Addis’ push into Oromia which should concern citizens, they claimed.

“A lot has been done to stop the capital city’s outward expansion inside Oromia for the sake of development. But land grabbing issues in the Finfinne surroundings should still be serious concerns as there are agents of this enterprise within the government circles,” the advisor said.

It’s useful to reconsider the Koye Feche case with this fuzzy boundary in mind. The verdict that 9,000 of the houses were built inside Oromia was an important recognition of where Addis ends and Oromia begins on that side of the city.

The issue of boundary demarcation also has a direct impact on planning and urban development.

Take again the case of Koye Feche. After the integrated master plan covering 1.1 million hectares was canceled after mass protests, the city administration still included Koye Feche as “a tertiary center of Addis anticipated for a large settlement south-east of Akaki-Kality,” according to a version of the 2017-2027 Addis Abeba structural plan seen by Ethiopia Insight.

“After the integrated master plan was canceled, Addis Abeba’s independent current plan has limited the scope of development to its known boundary. Housing plans at the now-contested area in Akaki considered [only] the rural kebeles that were part of the city administration,” said a senior urban planner, who worked with the Addis Abeba planning commission until recently and was heavily involved in crafting the integrated master plan.

“It should have been clear if there were arrangements on the boundary lines known by the government or officials from the two sides. Every dialogue held is politicized. And discussions held as such—to only maintain political interests—will impact any overhaul development effort,” the planner told Ethiopia Insight.

Regarding the issue of housing development and construction, city and regional administrators, as well as federal ministries, participate in a sectoral meeting held every six months with the Ministry of Urban Development and Construction.

A sign marking the start of Sebeta town in Oromia, Yared Tsegaye, May 2021.

Even though the ministry has no authority over defining boundary issues, its joint forum discusses, assesses, and follows up on housing development plans and other construction projects that touch upon one another, according to Sileshi Zegeye, communications head at the ministry.

“One of the factors that beget problems after plans start to be implemented is the frequent reshuffling of mayors, higher administrations, and turnover of important staff, who come to be part of the process to resolve critical issues but do not last in their position,” Sileshi says.

The senior urban planner believes that the necessity of joint development will increase as the dynamics of urban growth further integrate Oromia and Addis Abeba. As people sprawl across space, there comes a need to move beyond the boundary controversy.

“Discussing solutions to see a mutual growth beyond political influence and in a way that can mitigate the impact of a global pandemic and the traumas of eviction as urban people sprawl is of urgency now more than ever,” says the planner.

But, in spite of the planner’s optimism regarding the potential for joint urban development, the balance is way off. There is an unprecedented influx both from the inner city of Addis and other regions into these surrounding towns of Oromia, and most especially in Finfinne Special Zone.

Towns like Legetafo-Legedadi, Sebeta, Sululta, and Burayu are feeling the pressure. In recent years, people have flocked in to buy plots without title deeds, taking advantage of ubiquitous corruption. Many of these people came to escape skyrocketing house prices in Addis Abeba.

The anger at the infamous demolition at Legetafo-Legedadi was one relatively notorious incident among countless untold others. The event spurred the eviction of people who lived in the area for 15 years. The town administration did not recognize their longstanding claims to the land, opting to develop a recreation park rather than compensate residents.

Ballots and boundaries

During election season, Addis Abeba has been the focal point for campaign agendas and political parties. Today, election day, it is likely to be a relative flashpoint.

One party mobilizing in Addis Abeba and raising the issues is the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema), a pan-Ethiopian party. Last April, it unveiled a document with 138 goals promising a pre-election social contract with the residents of Addis Abeba. According to the goals, Ezema plans to legally demarcate the administrative and boundary lines of Addis Abeba and Oromia. The party’s document states the boundary rift “has caused serious security threats to the city”.

Amanyehun Reda, a policy coordinator at Ezema also running for the city council in Gulele Sub-city, believes dealing with the boundary issue will be an important step towards the eventual realization of effective city governance.

“The city’s boundary must be clearly known and demarcated. Having a responsible and functional city administration, which can respond to the needs of residents, starts from that.” Amanyihun said.

Balderas for True Democracy, an Addis-centric party largely perceived as Amhara-dominated and led by Eskinder Nega, the jailed politician who has recently been permitted to participate in the election, also presented hopes to exercise a city-state model if it wins in Addis Abeba.

The party argues that Oromo domination is a threat to the city and accuses the ruling party elites of allowing the expansion of Oromia and Oromo influence into Addis. The party vows to restore Addis Abeba’s area to 122,000 hectares, which it argues was its historical and legal geography.

Freedom and Equality Party, a new entity gaining some prominence recently, also stands against unclear boundaries, citing them as a source of fierce conflicts. It takes a more sympathetic stance to Oromo farmers.

“For the past many years, farmers surrounding Addis Ababa have been plucked from their homes and lost their properties in the name of development,” reads its manifesto. “Politicians and their rent-seeking clients have been prospering” while farmers are left poor. “This has become a source of national conflict beyond Addis Abeba,” it argues.

In spite of any confidence projected on the matter, efforts to resolve the boundary issues are undeniably complex.

Map of the Koye Feche area in Akaki; Google Earth.

Take the committee formed by the Prime Minister’s Office following the events at Koye Feche in 2019. It has brought suspicions of political interests and raised questions among legal experts, who argued that the case should have been dealt at the national level by the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission, founded in 2018. The committee of eight lacked independence, experts argued, as it was composed of ruling party figures.

Regardless, the boundary commission has not been seen to solve much, despite the many relevant issues troubling the country.

Addis Abeba’s governing law, the revised charter of 2018 that hasn’t amended the 2003 version regarding the city’s limits, states: “Without prejudice to the existing one, the boundary of the city shall be delimited by an agreement to be made between the city government and Oromia regional government or pursuant to the decision of the federal government.”

Many worry about a government dominated by a single party making decisions with such far-reaching impacts.

When it comes to defining the boundaries of Ethiopia’s contested capital, though, making any definitive decision single-handedly would likely have to be followed by heavy-handed enforcement measures, as disagreement seems inevitable.

Instead, the winning party should learn from lessons in the past, such as from Koye Feche, which demonstrated that unclear boundaries lead to unfortunate circumstances—and that livelihoods and lives are put at risk when mistakes are made.

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