The diversity of the city on the fringes of Oromia and Somali regions is also a recipe for turbulent politics.
Efrem Mulat describes 23 October 2019 as a “dark day” unlike any he had seen before. He was no stranger to protests and street violence—but he actually had not brushed with death. “It was crazy,” he said. “You never knew if a bullet or a piece of rock would land on you.”
His hometown Dire Dawa, often portrayed in popular culture as an embodiment of multicultural coexistence, witnessed multiple violent incidents in that year–many of which had ethnic and religious undertones.
In October 2019, security forces fired tear gas to control widespread clashes among youth from different faith groups. Roads to and from the city were closed while the city transportation was halted. Buildings—particularly in the vicinity called Kebele 5—were set ablaze. Ambulances rushed to Dil Chora Hospital carrying the injured. The incident was triggered by rocks thrown at churchgoers returning from an Epiphany celebration, observed with much festivity among Orthodox Christians.
In June 2019, at least two were killed when Dechatu and Amistegna neighborhoods were revisited by violence. Youths from the two areas rose up against each other; some residents said the hostility had an ethnic element to it. Properties were destroyed, stores were looted, and offices were closed. Help from the federal police and federal defense forces was needed to quell the fighting.
But in October, Efrem (name changed), a city administration employee, found himself among flying bullets—and death knocked at his door. And this time the episode was triggered hundreds of miles away, in the capital Addis Abeba, the only other chartered city in the country, which, much like Dire Dawa, is a point of contention among different communities.
When prominent Oromo political figure Jawar Mohammed announced to his massive social media followers that his government-appointed bodyguards were being suspiciously removed in the middle of the night from his home in one of Addis’ affluent neighborhoods, many of his supporters sensed a devious attempt to endanger his life. In the subsequent hours, hundreds flocked to his residence to offer protection and show solidarity. Simultaneously, in several towns and cities in Oromia and Harari regions—and in Dire Dawa—violence ensued.
Clashes among ethnic Oromos and non-Oromos, as well as security forces and protesters, claimed, by the government’s own admission, 84 lives across the country. Among them were two of Efrem’s close friends.
“We grew up together; we went to school together and we hung out a lot,” the 25-year-old told Ethiopia Insight in his office in Dire Dawa. “We were like brothers.”
One of them, Efrem says, was killed near him by shots from security forces who responded to youths throwing rocks at them by firing live bullets. Efrem denies his friend was among those throwing stones.
In the following days, Efrem had to hide for days in a relative’s house. He didn’t know how the mob violence would evolve and he was afraid security forces might come after him.
Looking back more than a year and a half later, he was confounded by the apparent futility of what happened: “There’s nothing we achieved by the violence; by discord,” he lamented. “We just lost people.”
It is perhaps not surprising that Dire Dawa, a multi-ethnic city contested by two neighboring regions—Oromia and Somali—is prone to clashes.
Territorial disputes and conflicts over resources, particularly among Oromo and Somali communities in and around the city, date decades back.
In the 2021 edition of his book, Governing Contested Cities in Federations, scholar and politician Milkessa Midega provides details of deadly clashes among these communities going back as far as the 1930s and 40s.
These intensified in the early 1990s when Ethiopia was on the cusp of political change with the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrowing the brutal Marxist Derg regime. In those days, armed confrontations between armed groups representing both communities– the Issa and Gurgura Liberation Front (ISGL) and Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia (ISLO) took place in Malka Jebdu, eight kilometers west of the city.
After a short stint under Oromia region, Dire Dawa was made accountable to the federal government in 1993. One of the key reasons offered was its geo-economic significance—as it’s connected to the Djibouti seaport which, for the newly Eritrea-less landlocked country, became a main import entry point. But more significantly, the measure was taken by the government as a means of management for claims and conflicts over it between Oromia and Somali regions.
While a great deal of the study of its history is dedicated to the time after the establishment of the Ethio-Djibouti railway in 1902, the conflicts are believed to predate the city’s founding. In effect, the railway itself begat urban Dire Dawa that led to the skirmishes—not only among the Somali and the Oromo, but also including the Issa and the Afar pastoralists in the area.
But recent claims between the Somali and Oromia regions “have not yet been finally solved in accordance with the constitution,” argues Milkessa. And, over a decade later, without a definitive resolution, the city was chartered, which means it became “part of” and “accountable to” the federal government.
Instead, a power-sharing arrangement between the EPRDF and the Somali People’s Democratic Party (SPDP), parties that governed Oromia and Somali states respectively, was introduced. Accordingly, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), one-quarter of EPRDF, and SPDP took 40 percent each of all government positions in the city. The remaining twenty were left to other EPRDF parties. This system is commonly referred to as 40:40:20.
As is often the case with contested cities, there are efforts to challenge governance arrangements by changing demographic composition.
Social anthropologist Dereje Feyissa argues that a notable demographic change has been observed in recent years as the Gurgura, a community of people sharing both Somali and Oromo identities, re-affiliate from an Oromo to a Somali ethnicity. This perhaps explains the increase by above 10 percent of the Somali population between the 1994 and 2007 censuses while there is a nearly two percent decline in the Oromo.
But, the series of violent incidents in 2019 indicate a different kind of tension—one that is not just a manifestation and extension of disputes between the two spacious regions.
Dire Dawa was founded as a trade and industrial city in the early 20th century following the building of the railway. This makes the city unique as many other Ethiopian urban centers were outgrowths of garrison towns. Old and new quarters in the city are divided by the Dechatu river, which in 2006 burst its banks leaving 200 dead and thousands displaced. The UN called Dire Dawa “an impressively planned city” that since the early 1960s witnessed a booming economy, largely thanks to the railway.
Documents prepared by the Dire Dawa City Administration put the city’s population above 460,000 in 2017. According to Ethiopia’s last census, held a decade earlier, the Oromo are the largest ethnic group in the city accounting for 46 percent of the population. Following them are the Somali (24 percent) and the Amhara (20 percent).
Recent years show friction among these ethnic groups making up the city’s population—especially among the Amhara, who mostly occupy some of the central residential areas, and the Oromo. The city has nine urban and 38 rural sub-districts, many of the latter populated by ethnic Oromos. Around one-third of the population lives in these rural sub-districts.
Skirmishes among the Oromo and the Amhara (who sometimes are joined by the Gurage minority in the city) are not novel. In the early 1990s, according to Milkessa, clashes between Oromo-dominated Legahar and Amhara-dominated Addis Ketema neighborhoods claimed dozens of lives on both sides.
But the recent Amhara-Oromo/urban-rural tensions were fuelled by a larger context of social change across the country.
The second half of the 2010s is marked by a robust dynamism of youth movements in Ethiopia, especially among the Oromo. Pushed by a feeling of political and economic disenfranchisement, the Oromo youth held multiple protests since 2014. Within three years, their protests contributed significantly to the resignation of the country’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018, and the coming of his successor, Abiy Ahmed.
Meanwhile, the presence of Somali regional government-affiliated youth militia was being felt in the city in 2018 and 2019.
Much like other cosmopolitan centers in Ethiopia, there has been a prevalence of suspicion towards ethnic mobilization in Dire Dawa. Helen Shigute, a 30-year-old civil servant, expresses this deep-running sentiment among the urbanite when she told Ethiopia Insight: “The main threat I see in Dire Dawa is ethnic politics.”
However, as an increasingly assertive Oromo youth began forcing change across the country, a sense of fear and of being encroached upon grew among the city dwellers. One expression of this fear was the sudden emergence of informal youth groups that seemed like attempts to counter the much-developed Oromo youth movement.
Almost inevitably, the presence of rival groups exacerbated clashes.
Satenaw, the main one of these emergent groups, made an unsuccessful attempt to register as a political party called Dire Dawa City Residents Unity Party for the 2021 elections. On top of the agenda for the urban Amhara flavored group, according to one of its founders, Sisay Ayele, is what it sees as an unfair political arrangement that favors the Oromo and the Somali over everyone else in the city: the 40:40:20.
“It’s known that there’s an apartheid in Dire Dawa—a system of governance and a power-sharing arrangement that excludes the residents, the people who are born here,” Sisay told Amhara Media Centre in November 2020 after spending more than three months in jail accused of spreading inciteful message on social media. “That’s why I started this movement,” he said.
In a way, urban Dire Dawa’s contestations with its rural environs mirror that of Addis Abeba. And Satenaw shares an ideological fraternity with Balderas for Genuine Democracy. Balderas is a social movement turned political party founded in 2020 by the now once more jailed opposition figure Eskinder Nega with a single-minded rejection of the ‘special interest’ provided for Oromia by the federal constitution over Addis Abeba.
Sometimes, Balderas is characterized as having an Amhara-Orthodox slant in its worldview—something raised by Satenaw’s critics like Ali Abdella, a resident of Dire Dawa who originally hailed from the Oromo dominated Biyo Awale rural kebele. “These people are enemies of diversity,” he told Ethiopia Insight. “They want the supremacy of one religion and one ethnic group.”
As an intra-coalition power-sharing formula, 40:40:20 aimed to avoid conflicts by providing elites from contesting Somali and Oromo groups a higher but fixed representation in power. Mayors were appointed for the city from the two parties, one succeeding the other every two years.
Critics say the arrangement has made it difficult for people who do not belong to the two ethnic groups to obtain positions of power and to get equal opportunities in housing and employment.
Ibrahim Ousman Farah, former mayor of the city, in a March 2019 interview, called the arrangement 40:60, with the EPRDF getting the larger share.
The SPDP and the EPRDF “agreed to lead the city in a rotating term since the major constituencies of the city are represented by these two parties,” Ibrahim reasoned. And the arrangement “served as the most remedial and effective way of sharing power between groups with as many different interests and claims as the diverse constituencies they represent.”
Ibrahim acknowledged there was discontent over the system, but said they were the result of incitement by those “with hidden political agenda” who were distorting facts.
One person who does not hide his discontent is Daniel Sisay, a man whose face lights up with pride when he says he has lived in Dire Dawa for four decades. He nonetheless sees it as a poorly managed city in decline. While other cities across the country welcome the promise or the reality of big projects that could accelerate their growth, he argues that Dire Dawa seems to be comfortable in its neglect.
“It’s a city. It’s small. Why isn’t it easier to manage it [than the much bigger regional states] and to find people who can properly run it?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with Ethiopia Insight. And for that, his fingers are pointed at the administrative arrangement in which political appointees are chosen in accordance with an ethnic quota system.
When the Prosperity Party (PP) was formed in late 2019 from the merger of eight mostly ethnic-based parties, Daniel hoped it would be an end to the 40:40:20 formula. After all, the SPDP and OPDO have officially ceased to exist. But the PP was forced to maintain the autonomy of its regional chapters, and Oromia-PP and Somali-PP have continued the legacies of their antecedents.
Daniel wants to remain hopeful. But he understands that the change he yearns to see needs to come from above. Maybe the government that will be formed after the election “might amend the constitution,” and reconfigure the political structure, he said. However, “I don’t expect much change on a city administration level.”
The view from rural Dire Dawa is diametrically opposite to the urbanite’s cosmopolitan tendencies. Speaking with Ethiopia Insight, Ali, the rural kebele resident, said the bargaining among the Oromo and Somali elites that has brought a settlement to run the city by rotation has helped avoid major confrontations among the groups in the city, even during the 2016 Oromia-Somali border clashes that claimed dozens of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. And besides, he argues, it helps develop cultural identities of both groups that, otherwise, would have been ignored.
Also, like Daniel, Ali doesn’t place much hope in any post-election change. And for him, the main issue in this regard is the lack of viable options.
Nine political parties and one independent candidate were registered to run against the incumbent Prosperity Party for federal parliamentary seats in Dire Dawa. The list was dominated by pan-Ethiopian parties like Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema), All Ethiopians Unity Organisation (AEUO), and Hiber Ethiopia Democratic Party (Hiber).
Among the overtly ethnic-based parties running in the city is the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). There were also parties that were perceived by some as having religious tendencies: Enat Party and Freedom and Equality Party represented, respectively, the Orthodox Christian and the Muslim electorate.
Absent were parties representing the Oromo and Somali ethnic groups. The two major Oromo-focused opposition groups, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), were missing from the 2021 election as they refused to register candidates citing constant harassment by the ruling party and the arrest of members including key figures. Similarly, a senior figure from the main Somali opposition the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Ahmed Mohammed, said in April that their efforts to register candidates were hampered by officials from the ruling party.
The reality was no different for the city council seats with 114 of the 189 council seats allocated for the rural sub-districts in which each sub-district chooses three representatives. This arrangement is seen by some as giving a lopsided say to the rural sub-districts with certain measures skewed in their favor. Legal scholar and political commentator Woubshet Mulat argued the arrangement could be seen as a form of gerrymandering.
Some of the parties that vied for the city’s votes describe a fairly favorable political atmosphere in the run-up to the election, which, according to Surafel Getahun, lecturer and researcher in political science at Dire Dawa University is “very different from what you would see [if you travel] 50 km outside the city,” referring to Oromia region where the main opposition actors routinely complained of persecution and intimidation.
Yared Alemayehu of Ezema told Ethiopia Insight that in the run-up to the election, besides the removal of few election posters by unknown people, his party had not encountered any significant hurdles.
“Our membership is growing in Dire Dawa,” Yared said. “The number of members is determined based on political documents you provide and how much your political thought has acceptance. In Dire Dawa, the number has been growing since we opened an office. There is progress.”
Kalkidan Adane is from Enat Party, which ran in eight of the city’s nine urban sub-districts. “We haven’t faced problems,” she said.
NaMA’s Nurlign Tsegaye, however, said there is a sense of fear among the party’s members and supporters that he said was a result of the party being described by some of its opponents, including local officials, as a toxic organization. “That brings pressures,” he told Ethiopia Insight, “which means it becomes difficult for members and supporters to express their views publicly.”
Still, he admitted, there was a much better space to operate in comparison to other regions, besides the party’s main base of Amhara region and Addis Abeba.
When results were announced on 10 July, however, all the city council seats and the one parliamentary seat released went to the Prosperity Party.
In the decades before preceding the Marxist revolution in the mid-70s, Dire Dawa had a well-established expatriate community unmatched, besides Addis Abeba, by any other Ethiopian city, giving it a true multicultural color. Kezira and Megala quarters, separated by the Dechatu, hosted European and largely native residents respectively in the first few decades of Dire Dawa’s history. While Amharic is the working language, the city, in reality, is trilingual with Afaan Oromo and Somali being used by many residents.
Wondossen Zeleke, a former head of the city’s Chamber of Commerce who now is leading the Diaspora Association of Dire Dawa calls it “a city of trade.” “From the beginning, it’s a city built around business,” he told Ethiopia Insight.
But it seems that Dire Dawa has now lost much of its historic economic importance as the significance of the railway-centered economy declined. Or at least that is what many residents feel.
Meanwhile, although Ethiopia has seen fast-growing cities in the past three decades in Hawassa, Mekelle, and Bahir Dar, Dire Dawa has remained a city of dispute. According to scholar Dereje Feyissa, these disputes created “political fragility” that has “undermined the city’s growth potential”—a view that seems to be shared by many residents.
Additional Reporting: Dagmawi Fekadu
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This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP), a series of in-depth reported pieces from across Ethiopia in our ‘Elections 2021’ section that analyzes issues related to this year’s polls.
Main photo: The Djibouti-Ethiopia railway in Dire Dawa.
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