Rival capital camps must face Finfinnee facts

Before addressing the highly charged issues surrounding the status of the capital of the federation and Oromia, there needs to be agreement on some fundamental aspects of the situation.

Since I published my piece, Let’s end Finfinnee saga, and shoot for the stars, I have received plenty of feedback, some positive, some negative, and some that disagreed with my analysis. But most importantly, following the early February publication of my suggestion that Oromia should build a new capital, there have been new crucial developments around the issue of Addis Ababa. The subject has become so divisive and is driving the country to the verge of a precipice. Hence, the need for this follow-up to clarify some points and to comment on the new developments.

First, to dispel any confusion, let me make two points very clear:

There is no question that according to the Ethiopian Constitution Addis Ababa is the capital city of Ethiopia. There is also no question that according to the Oromia constitution, Finfinnee is the capital city of Oromia. There is no constitutional or legal reason why Addis Ababa cannot continue to be a capital city of both entities. There is no issue there.

The question and disagreement is related to the legal status of Addis Ababa; whether it is a “federal district”, a “city in a state” or a “city-state”. This means, is Addis Ababa a city controlled by the federal government, Oromia, or a state in its own right? I think I have convincingly shown that Addis Ababa is a federal district city. Once I answered the constitutional question, I went further and asked the following pragmatic question: “if Oromia does not have jurisdictional right over Finfinnee, is it wise for it to retain its seat of government in Addis Ababa?” For me, the answer is an emphatic “No”, and it’s mainly for that reason that I proposed building a new capital city for Oromia.

We cannot let our emotions run amok

Second, because I said, “Addis Ababa is a federal district”, some concluded that this means Addis Ababa does not “belong” to Oromia. I have not said this, and there is no implication in my writing that this is so. Even if Oromia moves its capital city out of Addis Ababa, this will not mean Addis Ababa will cease to be geographically in Oromia. Let me make further clarification: I hate to use possessive terms like “belonging” or “ownership” in connection with Addis Ababa. Its equivalent in Afaan Oromo (Keennya) or Amharic (Yegna) sounds even more exclusionary and sectarian. When people use this term in the two languages, I am not sure whether they are using it in a property law sense of ownership, or possessiveness or in some other ways. That’s why I avoid it. Instead I express the relationship between Addis Ababa and Oromia and the federal government in terms of jurisdictional control or locational relationship.

Because Addis Ababa is a city built by displacing Oromo farmers, and because from birth to present it is an expanding city and symbol of occupation for Oromos, it evokes a strong emotional feeling among them. For some, the historic injustice this city perpetrated against Oromos could be rectified only by placing Finfinnee under the jurisdiction of Oromia. Therefore, I understand how emotive the issue is.

But we cannot let our emotions run amok when interpreting a sensitive constitutional question that could plunge the country into an intractable crisis. There are times that we need to set aside our emotions and use our mind to extract meaning from the text. Without being technical about interpretation of laws, there are many ways and theories of interpreting a constitution, but none of it means just going ahead and giving meaning you want to give to a text in a constitution based on your wishes and political expedience. It is based on this that I interpreted Article 49. Addis Ababa is a federal district city, meaning that it is a city under the jurisdictional control of the federal government.

Some have tried to argue against this by saying that because federal governments do not have territory, Addis Ababa could not be under the federal government. This is not strictly true. Federal district capitals, or capital territories and lands owned by the federal governments, are exceptional situations. I have tried to explain this under the subtitle, “It is a federal enclave”. Let me repeat again: when we talk about the federal government’s control of territory, we are mainly talking about jurisdictional control of a land or territory by the federal government. Yes, there are federal territories which are part of a federation, but not part of any federal unit or state.

Sululta, Oromia Special Zone Surrounding Finfinnee; Feb. 16, 2017; William Davison

Some have in fact gone to the extent of saying, “because only nine regional states are mentioned in the constitution, and Addis Ababa is not mentioned, it could not be under the federal government”. Using this logic, Washington D.C., could not be a federal district under the federal government, because it is not mentioned as one of the 52 states. The same could be said about Australia and other federal countries like Mexico (until 2016) that have federal district capital cities.

To be mentioned among the regional states, Addis Ababa needs to be incorporated as a city-state. No one is seriously arguing, at least not me, that Addis Ababa is a city-state in this constitution, and so it is not clear why they bring this argument. The fact that it is not recognized as one of the nine states in the constitution, or the fact that it is not a city-state, does not automatically categorize it as a city in Oromia. In addition to a “city in a state” and a “city-state” type of federal capitals, it should be remembered there is a third type of a federal capital: a federal district. Therefore, by proving that Addis Ababa is not a city-state, you are not proving that it is a city in Oromia.

And for a federal capital city to be a federal district type of a capital, the constitution does not have to use the specific term “federal district” in its designation. We look at the nature of the relationship between the capital city, the surrounding states, and the federal government, and other matters, and determine the legal status of the city. This is especially true when a previous capital city of a unitary government is adopted as a capital city of a newly formed federal state through the ‘holding together‘ variety of federation.

When the constitution declared, “Addis Ababa shall be the capital city of the Federal State”, and in the same article stated, “The Administration of Addis Ababa shall be responsible to the Federal Government”, it unequivocally reserved for the federal government exclusive jurisdictional right over the territory on which Addis Ababa is situated. In other words, it declared Addis Ababa to be a federal district city. There is no way that a federal capital city could be accountable to the Federal Government and at the same time be classified as a ‘city in a state’ type of capital. It defies logic.

It is the federal constitution that prevails

By the operation of this provision of the constitution, it could also be said, Oromia tacitly ceded jurisdictional control of Addis Ababa to the Federal Government. Oromia or Oromia’s representatives were at least formally part of the adoption of the constitution, and they voted and adopted the constitution even after some of them argued for Addis Ababa to be classified under Oromia. By doing this they have agreed to relinquish jurisdiction over Finfinnee to the Federal Government.

By the way, the provision in Oromia’s constitution that declares Addis Ababa as its capital city does not have any relevance to the legal status of the federal capital city. It is only the federal constitution that has the authority to determine the legal status of its capital. Oromia can only proclaim about its affairs and not about the federal government’s. Thus, there cannot be contradiction between the two constitutions on this point, but even if there is, it is the federal constitution that prevails over the regional state constitution.

If Oromia wants to have jurisdiction over Addis Ababa, the only legal way available to it is to go for an amendment of the constitution. I don’t think this is necessary, and I don’t think it has a chance of succeeding, but as an option it is the only one available to Oromia. If people make the argument that the Oromo interest is not properly represented in the making of the constitution and therefore the document does not adequately represent their interest on Addis Ababa issue, I understand. But when the contest simply becomes a denial of what the constitution pretty clearly states, then that is troubling.

Let us now go beyond the realm of the constitution and look at the significance of Addis Ababa. Oromo elites often overlook that Addis Ababa is not only a political capital. They forget that it is also an economic and social capital, where demographically the Oromo population is less than 20 percent of the population. Thus, even if it ceases to be a federal political capital, and Oromia somehow asserts jurisdictional power over Finfinnee, it does not mean the domination Finfinnee exerts on Oromia will end or alter that much.

Moreover, administering Addis Ababa as just another Oromo city is impossible, or at least is not going to be an easy feat. In fact, other than scoring some bragging right, there is not much tangible gain we get from making Finfinnee a city under Oromia. In reality we will get into more problems; we should be careful what we wish for. Sooner or later, the constitutional provision that gives self-administration rights to the resident of Addis Ababa will or should be implemented in full. With democracy on the horizon, this cannot be postponed indefinitely. With the implementation of this residents’ right, even if the status of the city is changed to a city in Oromia, the control Oromia will have over the city will be further limited.


The last few weeks have made it abundantly clear that there is a very strong negative feeling among the residents of Addis Ababa about the idea of being incorporated under Oromia. Even the slightest rumor that the control over Addis Ababa may be shifted to Oromia has put residents on edge. People are mobilized and politicized. Starting from the election of 2005, it is also very clear that Addis Ababa is a stronghold of the unitary forces. These are very clear indications that Oromia’s control of Addis Ababa will be resisted by its residents. For Oromia to have control over this hostile city, it may have to resort to considerable force and repression.

The question is, “is it worth it”? Once we resort to repression to control this city, no-one knows where it ends. Even if we succeed, it will leave a permanent mark on our political and sociological nature. What do we benefit if we ‘gain’ Addis Ababa and lose our soul? We, as people, who pride ourselves to be accommodative and understanding of others, will be severely damaged by such a negative experience. That is why this issue should be very carefully and wisely handled.

Formally placing Finfinnee under the jurisdiction of Oromia will not transform it overnight or even in the foreseeable future into a truly Oromo city; and by that, I mean culturally Oromo.  Addis Ababa will not speak Afaan Oromo just because it is put under Oromia, and the Oromo population will still be a minority for generations to come in its ‘own’ capital city. Most of the urbanization issues I raised in my previous article will not be resolved, but in fact will be hampered. They will be hampered for the simple reason that remaining in Addis Ababa means losing an opportunity to have a capital city that we truly control. It means lacking a pivotal center that could lead our urbanization efforts. It means squandering our time and effort on futile effort of changing the nature of the city of Addis Ababa. Thus, even if the control of Addis Ababa is given to Oromia on a platter, the advantage of having and remaining in Finfinnee as a capital city of Oromia is not clear. Beyond slogans, we should be clear about what we want.

What we can at most hope for Addis Ababa to become is a truly multiethnic cosmopolitan city that reflects the demography and culture of the country where its inhabitants democratically administer themselves through self-government. Once we set this ideal for the city, then it is clear that rather than the Oromia government, it is the federal government that is better situated to accomplish it. The advantage the federal regime has over Oromia is that it is a common government for all, and so in a better position to administer a common city. In a country as divided as Ethiopia, it is not even advisable to have a common capital city of the federal state placed solely under one particular state of the federation. It is instructive here to remember what James Madison wrote in Federalist 43, warning why a federal capital needs to have absolute authority over its own capital.

Country Club Developers estate; Legetafo, Oromia special zone; Feb. 5, 2016; William Davison

Some are uneasy about my proposal because they think this will imply that Oromia has surrendered the territory to the federal government. But this is incorrect. The moving of Oromia’s capital from Addis Ababa elsewhere will not have any other legal implication on the status of Addis Ababa, thus this uneasiness is groundless. Contrary to this fear, Finfinnee will still remain a territory in Oromia; still remain a federal enclave in Oromia. However, if further guarantee is needed, similar to Mexico City in the past, a provision could be added that clarifies that in the event that the federal government moves its capital city from Addis Ababa, the power over the city will revert to Oromia.

The attempt at incorporating Addis Ababa under the jurisdiction of Oromia is not only unsupported by the constitution, it is also unproductive to Oromia and Ethiopia. More importantly, given the strong reaction it is generating from the unitarist forces, it is also a sure recipe for disaster. It should also be absolutely clear that making Addis Ababa a federal district, or moving Oromia’s seat of government from Addis Ababa, does not mean ceding Oromia’s land to an entity totally detached from Oromia. As the biggest state in the federation, Oromia will still indirectly have a big say in the administration of Addis Ababa.

With federalism and democracy becoming a reality now, this point is significant more than any other time. Things are now changing, and hopefully Oromia’s say and influence in the federal administration will be commensurate with its population size. This I think should allay the federal control fear that many Oromos have. So instead of doggedly trying to assert our authority over Addis Ababa for historic and emotional-attachment reasons, we have to find a pragmatic solution that can move us forward—my suggestion is that Oromo people join hands and set about the momentous task of constructing their own capital city that is worthy of their nation.

This mentality of looking at things as a minority group at the mercy of the dominant group should be overcome. This thinking pattern is a legacy of our long history of living under oppression. As a nation under subjugation for more than a century we are used to fighting for our rights in every aspect on every turf. Even though time has changed, our mentality has to some extent understandably not evolved; we are still in a constant fighting mode. Rather than focusing on our biggest priorities and more distant goals, we focus on tit-for-tat tactics on every issue without considering the long-term effect of our acts. We are a force that should be accommodative to bring the country together, we should grow to be a power that is at peace with itself and everyone, a force that has pride in sharing its land for the common use as a federal capital for all.

Anger displacement

Given the emotional intensity, anger, and polarized claims over Finfinnee, unless we find a creative solution, there is a strong chance we will land in a civil war from which it will be extremely difficult to recover if at all. The provocations, the hate speech, the mutual recriminations, the conspiracy theories, etc., are frightening. And I don’t believe it is worth risking a civil war over Addis Ababa, and jeopardizing having a truly federated Oromia and the ongoing change. “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.”  Our thought and action should be geared mainly towards practical problem-solving by trying to find a middle ground.

This reminds me of a Chinese finger trap toy. This is a woven tube that just fits over your fingers. When you put fingers from both ends and try to pull them out, the tube closes down on your fingers. The immediate reflex is to pull harder. Following your reflex the harder you pull, the tighter it closes down on your fingers. The only way to get out your fingers is by acting opposite your reflex and push your fingers together. That means using your intellect and disobeying your reflex. The result is a loosening of the Chinese Finger Trap and then you can carefully pull your fingers out. Thus, I think it is only by loosening the tension and not by escalating by pushing each other that we can resolve this issue. We don’t have any choice but to find a middle ground at any cost.

What is more troubling is the push that is coming from the other side. By totally denying that Addis Ababa was created on Oromo land, they are invisibilizing and discounting the Oromo farmers that were evicted from their land over generations to give way to the growth and sprawl of Addis Ababa. This is adding insult to injury. Recognition of past historic wrongs goes a long way to healing and to bringing about reconciliation.

Both groups are caught in a negativity loop

However, for reasons that need their own analysis, the so-called unity forces are escalating the contradiction by raising preposterous claims. Rather than acknowledging the historic tie the Oromo people have to Finfinnee and rather than helping to define what the “special interest’ provided in the constitution should be in a meaningful and reasonable way, they are rather coming up with all sorts of fictions and demanding that the special interest clause should be taken out of the constitution and that Addis Ababa should be constituted as a city state by itself. This is not healthy for anyone.

When they do that the other side looks at this as a provocation, and raises its claim over Addis Ababa even further by demanding Oromia state to immediately incorporate Addis Ababa under its rule. When the Oromo group does that, this in turn creates an existential threat in the minds of the Ethiopian nationalists, and they also step up their game; and so continues the spiral of outrage feeding off from each other. As it stands today, both groups are caught in a negativity loop.

The scary part is that there is not much in the way of structural or institutional mechanisms available to resolve this. In fact the immediate reflex and all the incentives for the so-called leaders of both groups is to further heighten the rage and resentment. It is by escalating the anger that they think they can get more followers. What we apparently do not realize is that by doing this we are gamed by our feelings and ultimately acting against our long-term self-interest.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: Addis Ababa viewed from Yeka hillside; Feb. 2018;  Clementine de Montjoye

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Olaana Abbaaxiiqi

Olaana is a lawyer who writes on Ethiopian and Oromo issues. He lives in the U.S. and uses a pen name for work-related reasons.


  • Brilliant (except for your dislike of those who unionists with proposterous claims. Everyone does that as narrative forming process. After all we believed for 400 plus years that Columbus discovered America until revisionists now claim he was “lost” at sea and bumped upon a continent. All narrative accommodates a purpose, has nothing to do with truth, whatever that is)

  • Dear Olana, if you are an Oromo, please write using your real identity, and also in Afan Oromo, because you need to educate the people about what is possible and reasonable. Internal conversation and dialogue should be started.

  • Dear Olaana:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but Article 6 of the Amended Constitution of the Oromia Regional State Clearly states Adama as the capital city of Oromia.

  • The very reason Washington D.C was created and made a “federal district” instead of staying in the original capital city of Philadelphia (“city in a state” of Pennsylvania), was because the federal government couldn’t rely/trust on the state to provide its security (look up “Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783”).

    Oromia has a legitimate question. However, what guarantees does the federal government have if it doesn’t have jurisdiction over Addis Ababa? I agree with this article. Understandably, there are more emotional than logical arguments for changing the status of Addis Ababa.

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