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A tale of three cities

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A tale of three cities

Three cities, two in Africa, one in Europe, demonstrate the often wide gulf between urban cultures and priorities and those of the areas surrounding them. By Kalundi Serumaga

Where do cities come from, and what makes their residents hold an outlook different from the hinterland?

Three cities seem caught up in the start, the middle and the end of this riddle.

The Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is becoming the epicentre for a struggle over cultural identity. Founded between 1889 and 1890, by the Amhara Empress Taytu and her husband, Emperor Menelik II as he continued his conquest of the various ethnic Oromo clans to the south and west, it is now the capital of the nominally federated Ethiopian state.

The problem is that federation guarantees the Oromo regional state jurisdiction over the rest of the historically Oromo territory. This has left the great city of Addis as a stranded island within it.

The issues that flow from that are that following Menelik’s conquest and ever since, Addis has been culturally appropriated into Amhara culture, first as an extension of Menelik’s own ethnicity, and ever since, as Amhara then gradually became the default culture and language of official Ethiopia.

Oromo activists see things differently. “Finfinee”, as they call the capital, is located in the middle of Oromia and also a location of sites of holy and cultural significance to them. But its predominantly Amharic culture means it is as if isolated in an Oromian sea. This all came to a head in 2016 when the Ethiopian federal government decided to implement a ninth Master Plan, to build up the city.

This logically meant expanding it into 1.1m hectares of land, now formally under the control of the Oromo regional government. It would have also meant the displacement of large numbers of Oromos. In the mass Oromo-dominated protests that followed, Prime Minister Desalegn eventually resigned in 2018, and the youthful Abiy Ahmed took over as a new hope.

Moving swiftly to another continent, in Britain, the government, official opposition, media and wider society are all wrestling with the fallout of the unexpected referendum result, in which a majority voted for Britain to leave the European Union.

But this does not tell us the full story. The result was swayed really by England, by far the most populous region of Great Britain, voting strongly to leave, along with tiny Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted largely to remain in the union. 

But that too does not give the full picture. Greater London was the only part of England to vote to remain. In short, again, a city was speaking differently from the surrounding country.

Clashing viewpoints

In Uganda, this divergence is not as old as in Ethiopia, or as new as the one in Britain. Uganda’s capital Kampala is claimed by the Kingdom of Buganda, which founded it, completely surrounds it, and has several important sites within it. Uganda, the state, used to pay Buganda one shilling annually for the occupation of Kampala’s original seven hills. This arrangement lasted until the federal system was abolished in 1967.

As with Addis, the city is deemed the property of the state. This has similar implications. When the Oromo nationalists demand a recognition of their cultural claim, they are reminded of the “development” the state of Ethiopia has made to the city. Matters have reached the point where violent attacks are being carried out against Oromo-owned businesses in Addis, which are being seen as a sort of Trojan horse in the pursuit of this claim.

In Uganda, Kampala has consistently elected opposition figures as mayor, despite government interference. The current mayor, also a hugely popular opposition figure, has been subjected to multiple humiliations and intimidations by the central government.

The city and the government speak to different constituencies.

The London-England situation will increasingly demonstrate a similar conundrum. Should the whole of Great Britain be tied to a vote that essentially came from England alone? Conversely: what should England do about the fact that the residents of its principal city voted the opposite way?

Urban sensibilities

The veteran Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo has written about what is now called ‘Afropolitanism’. This is the situation where, continent-wide, urban Africans are living very similar lifestyles, and holding the same ‘modern’ cultural values in any African city, quite distinct from their surrounding countrysides.

Uganda is preparing to have 10 of its various urban centres reclassified as cities. And the Ethiopian ‘federal’ government remains committed to finding a way to implement its Master Plan for a greater Addis. Will a revised master plan be implemented over the wishes of the Oromo, or will concessions be made to recognise the original Oromo cultural stamp on the location now known as Addis?

As for England, once described by the late Victorian-era Anglo-Irish writer Oscar Wilde as “the first and the most deeply penetrated of all the British colonies”, London seems unable to decide on whether her destiny should be tied to the rest of England’s, or if she should strive to exist as just another of the great European cosmopolitans. Much as its greatness is owed in large part to the legacy of Empire, it seems to seek to transcend that and leave the rest of England stuck with it.

The question now is to determine: which perspective truly represents the real opinion of the nation, going forward. In all three cases, the state has determined to accept the urban view as the forward-looking, progressive one.

The general sense is that humanity is – or has – migrated to an urban way of living, and an attendant urban sensibility. That is seen as the inevitable future, where the old is confronted by what is supposed to be the new, if only the natives would accept it. NA 

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Written by Kalundi Serumaga

Kalundi Serumaga is a cultural activist agitating through theatre, journalism and creative writing. He lives in Kampala, Uganda. He has been engaged also in a long-standing case before the Ugandan courts, challenging a ban on his radio work placed on him by the Ugandan government.

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