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  • A Nation without a City [a Blind Person without a Cane]:The Oromo Struggle for Addis Ababa
  • Getahun Benti

Cities as Centers of Civilization

Scholars of various disciplines have underlined that the emergence of cities is one of the most important turning points in history1 and humankind's achievement that qualitatively changed human society.2 Throughout their long existence, cities have changed in form and scale. In the course of time, they have become centers for "control and coordination of the surrounding areas" by means of "specialized organization, extensive lines of communication, accumulation of wealth, diverse populations, change, and complexity—in short, civilization."3 Cities have played crucial roles in social, economic, political, and cultural transformations; they have served as centers of change and progress throughout history, a role that they are likely to continue in the future.4 Explaining the role of cities in history, Charles Tilly has affirmed that "Cities are special kinds of communities in which the coordination and control of widely dispersed activities take place."5 Raymond W. Mack and Dennis C. McElrath have also noted that "the city is the home of workers whose major functions involve coordinating and controlling wide-ranging economic, political, military, and religious activities."6 Likewise, Bert F. Hoselitz has pointed out that, without "an urban climate, it is difficult for commerce, financial institutions, industrial establishments, governmental bureaucracies, and advanced educational and intellectual infrastructures to develop and flourish."7 [End Page 115]

Cities improve the standard of life of the population, ensure continuous "modernization," and enhance spatial integration of societies through the creation of an urban-rural equilibrium or interdependence between the two communities.8 For cities to play their proper role in society, they must be controlled by the people in whose territory they are located and avoid highly bureaucratized power structure. Control of cities by outsiders, according to John Friedman, retards the "frequency of innovation," that "in a given locality is a function of its internal structure of social order."9 And tight control of cities by a "rigid, hierarchical system of power" is "detrimental for innovations."10 Within this framework, this article will examine how Addis Ababa, once the Oromo village of Finfinne, has fared since it fell under the control and tight management of Abyssinians11 more than a century ago.

At a glance, one observes that whatever innovation was achieved in Addis Ababa was geared to benefit the occupiers rather than the original inhabitants. The Oromo were excluded from integration into the urban economic, social, and politico-cultural developments in the city. They were marginalized and consequently lacked the power to develop within structures and to make a plan for what Michael Peter Smith and Thomas Bender call "a national project of modernization [that] is best represented by the city as a space of urban design."12 The Abyssinians introduced urban policies and structures that prevented Oromos from becoming residents in the city in groups. Put another way, the Oromos' lack of control over Addis Ababa impeded the development of their own institutional frameworks to promote changes and to adopt aspects of modern science and technology.13

My goal in this article is to argue that the policy of exclusion of Oromos from participating in the administration, economic activities, and cultural functions of Addis Ababa has had an adverse effect on Oromos and on Ethiopian politics as a whole. In Menelik's time, many Oromos were physically removed from the city and its environs. During the reign of Emperor Haile Sellassie (r. 1930-1974) and the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-1991), government education and language policies, aimed at Amharizing the Oromo in the name of forging a "national" culture, effectively purged the city of its Oromo components and made it impossible for Oromos to succeed both individually [End Page 116] and corporately. The current government has taken steps that follow the pattern set by its predecessors, but with the aim of replacing Amhara hegemony with a Tigrayan one. To demonstrate the detrimental effects of Oromo exclusion, I will first look at some aspects of the policies three Amhara-dominated governments pursued to establish and maintain Amhara cultural and economic hegemony in Addis...


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