Political Participation Along Ethnic Lines: The City of Dire Dawa

Zemelak A Ayele, CFGS – Centre for Federalism and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University

Relevance of the Practice

Dire Dawa, the second largest city in Ethiopia, is located in the south-eastern part of the country some 262 kilometers form Djibouti and 452 kilometers from Addis Ababa. It was established in 1902 along the Ethio-Djibouti railway and following its construction grew up to be a vibrant city and a melting pot for many coming from every part of the country. In the years preceding the establishment of the Ethiopian federal system, the residents of the city had developed their own distinct identity and the city was ‘often portrayed in popular culture as an embodiment of multicultural coexistence’.[1] After the establishment of the Ethiopian ethnic-based federal system, Dire Dawa has been a bone of contentions between the Oromia and the Somali state both of which claim ownership of the city which impacted the city negatively in economic, cultural, and political terms. This practice entry elaborates on why this is the case.

Description of the Practice

The Ethiopian federal system was established in the 1990s with the aim of territorially accommodating all ethnic communities of the country. The federal system was built on the assumption that each ethnic community lived in a territorial area with defined or definable boundaries. It also assumed some degree of ethnic homogeneity in every ethnic-based state or sub-state unit. This assumption completely ignored the existence of several urban areas which have multi-ethnic residents. Most of the cities were put under the political and economic control of one of the ten states which imposed a single working language and a political system that aimed at excluding those not belonging to the dominant ethnic group of the states. Some of the states, for instance, adopted laws specifically designed to restrict the political participation of urban residents not belonging to those which are considered as endogenous communities of the states. For instance, Oromia had adopted a law that reserves over 70 per cent of the seats in cities within the state for ethnic Oromos, even if the Oromos were in the minority in the cities. Similar laws have been adopted in SNNP, Benishangul-Gumuz and other states. The mismanagement of ethnic diversity in cities is one of the most serious shortcomings of the Ethiopian ethnic federal system.

As mentioned, Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa are federal cities which are not within the political jurisdiction of any ethnically organized states. Addis Ababa is constitutionally designated a federal city (Article 49 of the Constitution). Dire Dawa, on the other hand, was put under the federal jurisdiction, supposedly temporarily, until the claim of the Oromia and Somali states on the city was settled. Some three decades after the formation of the federal system, the ownership of the city remains unsettled and the city remains within the federal jurisdiction.

In order to settle the ethnic contestation in the city, a semi-consociational arrangement has been put in place in the city which is called the 40:40:20 arrangement and thus determines the chances of political participation for each community. This arrangement means that the Somalis and the Oromos (i.e. the parties representing these communities) each have a 40 per cent representation in the city council and executive structures of the city, with the remaining 20 per cent being controlled by those hailing from other communities. The office of the mayor rotates between an Oromo and a Somali within a single electoral term. It should be noted here that Dire Dawa has a population of close to half a million, and not one ethnic community is in the majority in the city. The Oromos, which account for 46 per cent of the city’s residents, constitute the largest ethnic group in the city, followed by the Somali (24 per cent), Amhara (20 per cent), Gurage (5 per cent), and others (5 per cent).[2]

Assessment of the Practice

Given the ethno-cultural diversity of the Ethiopian people, establishing a federal system which creates an inclusive political and cultural institutional structure was/is imperative. However, the one-size-fits-all approach that the federal system adopted has been a cause for numerous problems. This is especially visible in urban areas such as Dire Dawa. Cities in Ethiopia, as is the case almost everywhere, are often multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Yet, this is often not recognized, as several states adopted laws to reserve a majority of seats in city councils to residents belonging to the demographically and politically dominant group of that state, even if this group is sometimes in a minority position in some of the cities concerned. A political arrangement that fits the unique multi-ethnic and multi-cultural character of Ethiopian cities is thus a necessity. The arrangement in Dire Dawa that has been described above has been both praised and criticized. It is praised mainly because by ensuring the equal representation of the Somali and the Oromo communities in the executive structure of the city, the arrangement has quelled the political dispute between the two communities. Yet, the arrangement is criticized for being undemocratic and that it excludes non-Somalis and non-Oromos from adequate representation in the political structure of the city. Kefale has put this as follows:

‘First, the Oromo and Somali political elite in the city are unhappy that the charter did not provide recognition of their territorial claim. Second, there is a feeling that the ethnic power-sharing scheme which is practiced in the city promotes sectional interests and reifies ethnic identity (…) [A]s officials of the city feel that they are vanguards of the ethnic interests of their groups, they do not reach out to the other groups and work for the common good of the city. Third, the rotation of the mayoral office within a single electoral term is particularly unpopular to experts working in the city government and other informants. They underscore that the splitting of a single term of office into two undermines the development and implementation of medium and long-term plans.’[3]

Moreover, the ethnic politics and contestations have reduced Dire Dawa, once a peaceful and vibrant city, into a stage for ethnic-based violent conflicts in which close to 100 people lost their lives.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

Dire Dawa Government Charter Proclamation no 416/2004

Oromia State Proclamation no 116/2006

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

Ayele Z and de Visser J, ‘The (Mis)management of Ethnic Diversity in Ethiopian Cities’ (2017) 16 Ethnopolitics 1

Midega M, ‘Dire Dawa under Coalition Rule: Ethiopian Regional Ethnic Politics or Federal Geopolitics’ (2014) 1 Ethiopian Journal of Federal Studies 95

Sew M, ‘Dire Dawa’s Dilemma: Sharing Power in Ethiopia’s Eastern Melting Pot’ (Ethiopia Insight, 2 August 2021) <https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2021/08/02/dire-dawas-dilemma-sharing-power-in-ethiopias-eastern-melting-pot/>

[1] Mistir Sew, ‘Dire Dawa’s Dilemma: Sharing Power in Ethiopia’s Eastern Melting Pot’ (Ethiopia Insight, 9 August 2021) <https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2021/08/02/dire-dawas-dilemma-sharing-power-in-ethiopias-eastern-melting-pot/> accessed 16 October 2021.

[2] Data retrieved from the Federal Democratic Republic Ethiopia Central Statistics Agency (2007).

[3] Asnake Kefale, ‘Ethnic Decentralization and the Challenges of Inclusive Governance in Multiethnic Cities: The Case of Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’ (2014) 24 Regional & Federal Studies 589, 600.