By Damo Gotamo
It may surprise some people when they read the topic of this brief piece. But, for more than five hundred thousand residents of Awassa, who have experienced blatant discrimination in all sectors of the city’s life, the heading above isn’t surprising at all. Yes, there is an apartheid like system in Awassa where a few extremist politicians and their cliques do whatever they want without being accountable for their actions. There is discrimination in Tax payment, housing, Electric power distribution, Electric and water bill payments, and business and employment opportunities.
Residents of Awassa are frequently subjected to discrimination in tax payments. The majority of the tax payers in the city are forced to pay taxes more than their income and higher than the true value of their properties. But, on the other hand, Sidama politicians and Sidama residents in the city are either pay taxes below their income or are exempt from tax payments. The unwritten rule, which is carried out on a regular basis, states that one must be fluent in the Sidama language to dodge tax payments. Additionally, taxation is used as a tool to punish people of other tribes, particularly Wolitas who are considered as threats by Sidama extremists. I have met many non-Sidama business men who closed their business due to high taxation.
Lack of tax knowledge by employees in charge of taxation isn’t helping the cause of taxpayers. Tax employees are assigned based on nepotism. It merely takes a phone call from politicians in higher position to tell them how much to bill taxpayers. I have seen non-Sidamas paying three times as much as the Sidamas for comparable businesses and properties. If the tax payment history of the Sidama politicians in Awassa is investigated, we will unearth millions of birr in uncollected tax that would have entered the government coffers. The extremists must be accountable for overcharging citizens, dodging tax payments, and bankrupting the government.
Housing is a serious problem in Awassa. Many people can’t afford to pay a monthly rate let alone build their own house. As a result, more than half of the city’s population depends on government housing. To get a government house, a family has to wait for many years. However, government housing in Awassa is available only to Sidama officials and their relatives. People who have never lived in Awassa and don’t meet the income requirements would be given government houses bypassing the waiting list. Well paid officials particularly those who hail from Sidama tribe don’t need to wait to get a low income government housing. Corrupt lawyers, division heads, and police chiefs would easily get government housing. In many cases, it is common to see government houses converted to private houses illegally.
The discriminatory practices have often become a source of conflict between the people and officials in Awassa. On numerous occasions, I have witnessed confrontations between the city residents and officials; the residents demanding things be done according to the law and the officials who want to do things as they please. I hope those who used the government properties for personal use will be held accountable.
Many areas in Awassa don’t get electricity on a regular basis. Power interruption regularly occurs in many areas where the non-Sidama live and do businesses. In some cases, electric power is deliberately cut-off to ‘annoy’ the non-Sidamas. Many repeatedly ask why in areas where a single tribe and its politicians live power interruption is never a problem. While most of the residents suffer constant power blackouts, extremist Sidama politicians and their cronies enjoy power supply without interruption even if they don’t pay electric bills. Electric poles which are supposed to be evenly distributed in the city find their way to areas where the Sidama politicians live. It is common to see electric poles inside the fences of private homes of the Sidama politicians.
Awassa must be the only city in the world where politicians and their cronies don’t pay electric and water bills. The extremists are ‘special’ residents of the city who are treated differently from the rest of hardworking people. While thousands of city residents are forced to pay their bills higher than their actual usage, the Sidama politicians use electricity and water for free. Furthermore, electric and water bills aren’t charged to residents based on usage and on equal footing. Like taxation, the bills are tools to attack the ‘hated’ groups and benefits the ‘special’ ones.
It is almost impossible to get a job in federal institutions in Awassa unless the job seeker is a Sidmigna speaker. For example, out of twenty people in a small federal office, seventeen or more are Sidamigna speakers. Hiring practices are intended to help a single ethnic group. The non-Sidamas that work in government institutions leave their positions because of blatant discrimination and constant harassment. Challenging Sidama employees in any institution is a prerequisite for losing ones livelihood because it is seen as an attack on the Sidama tribe.
Nothing can be accomplished in Awassa without paying bribes to Sidama politicians. A bribe is one of the biggest sources of income to extremists. There seems a tacit understanding among the residents that ‘all must pay’ bribe in Awassa except the Sidama. For instance, getting new business permits and renewing the old ones is a big a challenge to non-Sidamas in the city. The non-Sidama must pay bribes to get a permit, or they will never receive one. A source ones told me that a client was told to pay a per dim to a government employee to come to his office (he was in other parts of the city having fun) to give a supporting letter to the client. Similar to the aforementioned discriminatory practices, the non-Sidamas are the only citizens of the city who must pay bribes to get things done. The extremists are like ticks who suck the blood of the residents of Awassa.
In addition to the above blatant discriminatory practices, many ‘favorite’ people in the city drive cars and motorbikes without a license. The people who woke at motor vehicle administration have no regard for human lives as long as they accept bribes and help people of their own tribe.
The city of Awassa needs a complete overhaul from the existing apartheid like system. After all, it is the second biggest city in the country and the pride of millions of Ethiopians. The government must take decisive action to remove the deeply entrenched extremist politicians and restore the city its former glory. The wish of the extremists is to make Awassa their amusement park. As of now, I and millions of others who love Awassa are deeply ashamed of what is happening in the city. We must not allow ethnic lords to further destroy the city. Their only wish is to live in the city without paying for anything.