The timing and manner of the recent demolition of houses built on 'illegally occupied land' in Addis Abeba, which led to deadly skirmishes, highlights the deeply vexed relationship of the society. In face of simmering tensions that are increasingly erupting into violent confrontations between squatters and law enforcement agencies, a small token of calmness and humility can achieve so much in defusing the tension.
At the southern tip of the capital, bordering the Oromia zone – in an area referred to as “Hanamariam” – a clash between security forces and law enforcement officers was reported by state media. What stood out in the news was the unusual visit paid to the bereaved families by officials and their envoys to pay tribute and mumble a few words of condolence.
The mainstream media failed to be explicit in reporting the background to the clash, which led to the loss of the dear lives of civil servants.
Other international sources, well reckoned by the Ethiopian government, revealed that over 30,000 settlers in the “Hanamariam” area were said to have been affected by the demolition squads sweeping the area with tractors and graders at short notice. The brutal action taken to turn the village into dust and ruins was carried out during the rainy days, when the poor squatters had nowhere to go and no office to appeal to. No action could ever be more inhumane.
From the victims’ perspective, the atrocious action is speculated to have infuriated many to breaking point. This might well have been the driver behind the retaliations. A few people could have fallen prey to the hands of the armed forces. But the state media did not have the guts to respect the ethics of journalism to be fair and provide balance.
Be that as it may be, our sympathy goes to the Lord Mayor Diraba Kumsa, who seems to have not yet blossomed during his stay in power as a career diplomat. He was present at the mourning not only to pay tribute and express condolences, but more importantly to perform his duties and express allegiance to the party officials who have appointed him.
To put the setting into perspective, Ato Dirba Kuma, like his predecessor, draws his threads of ancestry from the Oromo ethnicity. With the fast growing demands and exponentially increasing urban population, as well as the complexity of managing the critical problems piled up on his desk, people feel sad for him. They are well aware that, whether he is to listen to his conscience and principles in life or just fulfil his duties as directed from above, there are planted shadows spying on him.
At any rate, what is being done under his hierarchy, in the name of law enforcement does not by any account resonate with what an Oromo should do. If we pry deep enough into his background, we can safely assume that somewhere in his ancestral background people must have been engaged in cattle herding or land tilling. The Oromos are, if anything, distinctly known for passionately hosting guests, adopting orphans and humbly treating the offended.
Among other things, cheating, stealing or doing any harm to the environment are not known in the cultural history of the Oromos. As for their skill in fighting the enemy as horsemen, you may refer to the history of the Adwa Victory under the leadership of Emperor Menelik and his courtier.
In light of this background, it becomes incomprehensible to see families dispersed and being marginalised to the life on the streets. This takes us back to the housing problems we are facing in all the big urban areas and in Addis Ababa especially.
Humans are being subjected to street life. They stich old rags and plastic sheets together to protect themselves from nature’s hazards and spend their nights under inhumane conditions. Room rents have soared to a sky high level, forcing people to do whatever they can to put a roof over their heads.
In a diversified settlement, where land is being scrambled for by those with ample resources, the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening more than ever. The poor are forced to flee to the suburbs to erect temporary shelter, in the hope that they may eventually improve them to a habitable level. Their main concern, for the time being, is simply tending to their children.
Food is also a basic necessity, the price of which is becoming almost impossible to cover. Many are unable to have even one meal a day, let alone three. Some of these small houses, or squats, have been erected by earnings remitted through banks from abroad – mainly from the Middle East.
At a time when some altruistic or philanthropic organisations, such as Macedonia Homes, are striving to help, are we really going to lead these squatters back to the streets? Are we sweeping the poor aside, in order to achieve the objective of reducing our enemy, poverty, while at the same time cultivating many more impoverished families? Is that what is called development and double digit growth?
Squatters accumulate to create slums, which are not only an issue being faced by under developed countries, like Mexico and Columbia, but also globally. This feature is true even in cities like New York and Tokyo, where they have developed plastic gadgets that can be folded and rolled, with mattresses used like sleeping bags.
There are human souls taking refuge in these squats. Any development effort must have the objective of improving the living conditions in such slums – not simply to bury them under ruins.
If you trapped a pet dog in a closed room, at first it will cry and yell in agony. But, if you continue beating it, at some point it will turn beastly and fight back, biting you. An infuriated human being may also reach their limits of tolerance.
Having said all that, I would be betraying myself if I didn’t say anything about the rectification steps to be taken in the not too distant future. A caravan like, but modern type of shelter, which could include all the residential amenities, should be put on the table as part of the solution. That is a natural process of change. One cannot jump on to the bandwagon of change, just because a paper has been designed, or because you want to make up for the loss of one’s vendetta in the suburbs, as per the failed master plan.
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