New Zone in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region Triggers More Unrest

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Oromia region’s East and West Guji zones have been rocked by protests due to the government’s decision earlier this year to carve out a new administrative unit centered around Negelle town. 

The decision by the regional government cabinet to create East Borana Zone has raised concerns within the Guji community. Their discontent is rooted in historical disparities, identity dynamics, fear of marginalization, demographics, and the lack of a democratic process.

The Guji, a clan within the Oromo ethnic group, reside in southern Ethiopia, maintaining a rich cultural heritage blending semi-nomadic and agrarian lifestyles. They cherish the generation-based Gada system, an ancient Oromo tradition guiding social, political, and economic life. 

Marginalized People

The Guji have endured generations of marginalization and discrimination. Their struggle for autonomy and equal rights has persisted against assimilation, repression, and economic exploitation by successive Ethiopian regimes.

The resulting socio-economic disparities include inadequate access to education, healthcare, and infrastructure, land disputes, cultural stigmatization, and political underrepresentation. 

More recently, since late 2018, Guji has faced a severe security crisis characterized by conflict between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and government forces. Both sides seem to prioritize resource exploitation over the Guji community’s well-being, resulting in violence, destruction, and upheaval.

Alongside this instability, the continued exploitation of Guji’s mineral resources—notably by companies like MIDROC, which is owned by Saudi-Ethiopian billionaire Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi—has led to environmental damage and disparities. 

Local communities have seen minimal benefits from this resource extraction, exacerbating inequality and ecological concerns.

Mounting Discontent

East and West Guji zones experienced a surge of protests following the regional government’s decision on 27 February to establish the new zone with Negelle town, the former capital of East Guji Zone, as its capital. 

East Borana Zone emerged from the amalgamation of territories from three zones: Bale, East Guji, and Borana. Within the new zone, the Guji are the majority population.

It’s important to clarify that the decision to form a new zone was made by the regional cabinet, not the regional legislature—a point that has been inaccurately reported. 

The regional government claims the decision to reconfigure the zones is motivated by its aspiration to strengthen unity, enhance peace and security, and ensure the territorial integrity of Oromia. However, the result contradicts the stated reasons.

This decision was met with resistance from residents, leading to demonstrations in multiple cities and towns within the zone. 

The situation escalated when regional police reportedly used live ammunition, resulting in the death of three protesters and injuries to two others in Bore town of East Guji Zone on 28 February. 

Despite the government’s attempt to enforce its decision through force, protests continued in different towns in both East and West Guji zones. 

Extrajudicial killingsarbitrary detentions, and violations of court orders of dissenting voices who oppose the new zone have reached alarming levels in Guji. The government’s heavy-handed response undermines justice, rule of law, and individual rights.

Grievances Explained

One of the Guji people’s objections that triggered the ongoing protests relates to the decision to transfer the administrative seat—formerly the capital of East Guji zone—to the new zone. But the Guji people’s discontent has much deeper historical roots. 

Despite both the Guji and Borana being Oromo clans, their unique identities and historical experiences have fueled distinct grievances. Their differences include separate Gada administrations.

Over the centuries, the Borana have often enjoyed favor from successive regimes, while the Guji have faced neglect. The recent decision has amplified the Guji people’s sense of marginalization, reigniting historical tensions between the clans.

For them, establishing the new zone signifies a shift in administrative power that favors the Borana. As the Guji people see the zone slipping from their grasp, concerns arise over the potential loss of power and self-governance. There are also fears that the Guji majority in the zone will lose control of its rich natural resources.

The decision’s lack of democratic foundation and parliamentary endorsement raises further suspicions about the motives behind it.

So, the Guji people’s discontent is not merely about administrative changes. Rather, it’s the result of a complex interplay of historical disparities, identity formation, power dynamics, and governance decisions. 

Understanding the root causes of their frustration underscores the need to address historical grievances and ensure inclusive decision-making processes.

Constitution Violations

The decision to create the new zone was made by the regional executive, bypassing the legislative body. This decision therefore lacks a sound legal basis and infringes upon the regional constitution, raising questions about its legitimacy.

According to Article 49 of Oromia’s constitution, only the House of Representatives (called “the Caffee” in Afaan Oromo) has the authority to establish kebelewereda, or other government structures. 

Article 55 outlines the powers and functions of the regional council, which is led by the regional president. However, neither the constitution nor Proclamation 242/2014 grants the council power to establish any administrative structure. That power lies solely with the Caffee.

Oromia’s constitution is the highest law of the region, as stipulated in Article 9(1). Any law, customary practice, or decision of a state organ or public official that contradicts this constitution is considered null and void. 

As such, the decision to establish the new zone is invalid. 

Additionally, the process through which the decision was rendered arguably infringed upon Article 43(2) of the federal constitution, which grants the public the right to be consulted regarding administrative or development-related projects and structures.

These legal provisions and constitutional principles make evident that the decision to establish the new zone lacks the necessary legal basis, which has fueled public dissatisfaction and spurred the ongoing protests.

Naming Controversy

In addition to the legal issues, the zone’s name has incited controversy. 

Naming the new zone “Borana” has exacerbated tensions, as it neglects the identities of other clans, especially the majority Guji, and the Arsi. This misunderstanding must be addressed.

The Guji and Borana public’s misunderstanding of the situation may lead them to view it as a territorial claim or a question of land ownership over Negelle town and the surrounding kebeles and weredas. However, this perspective is flawed. 

According to an informant, an overwhelming majority, including educated individuals, might interpret the naming of an administrative zone after a specific clan as an approval of its ownership or power to administer that zone—an incorrect assumption.

Understanding this is crucial in moving toward a resolution and fostering better communication among the involved parties. Still, it’s essential to recognize that clans have their distinct identities and do not wish to be named under another clan’s name.

The concerns of the population also extend far beyond just the naming issue as the practical harm resulting from this decision is multi-faceted. 

Firstly, there is a genuine fear that it might escalate tensions and lead the communities into armed conflict.

Secondly, the naming could foster a sense of entitlement among officials belonging to the clan after which the zone is named, while others may feel disenfranchised. This could exacerbate existing inequalities and lead to violations of rights.

Identity Dynamics

While the federal constitution seeks uniformity within nations, nationalities, and peoples sharing the same language and culture, the Guji and Borana issue challenges this notion. 

Contrary to the constitution’s stance to disregard identities within an identity, such as clan identities within larger ethnic groups like the Oromo, this issue reveals the complexity of identity dynamics within broader ethnic frameworks.

The Guji and Borana situation raises questions about accommodating diverse identities within the broader framework of nationality. It’s important to recognize and respect the existence of sub-identities within larger groups.  

This dynamic isn’t exclusive to the Oromo. Similar sub-identities exist within other ethnicities like Amhara, Somali, and others. The Guji and Borana issue serves as a precursor for addressing these challenges across different ethnicities. 

As Ethiopians navigate their diverse demographic landscape, reconciling unity with the recognition of sub-identities presents a challenge. The Guji community’s struggle reflects not only their fight for justice and recognition but also the broader need to embrace diversity and promote social cohesion in Ethiopia. 

Addressing the Guji community’s grievances and socio-economic challenges is also crucial to foster unity and inclusivity within Oromia. It’s therefore imperative for the authorities to engage in constructive dialogue with the Guji people to find an acceptable way forward.

Source : Ethiopia Insight