Ethiopia’s unprecedented nationwide Oromo protests: who, what, why?

There are reports of dozens of deaths and thousands of arrests as protesters took to the streets today in unprecedented numbers and with unprecedented demands.

Large numbers gather in Holota as part of the Oromo protests. Credit: abenezer_a.

Large numbers gather in Holota as part of the Oromo protests. Credit: abenezer_a.

Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, have staged nationwide rallies today to protest their continued marginalisation and persecution by the government. These are a culmination of ongoing protests by the Oromo people since November 2015 and mark by far the most significant political development in the country since the death of the country’s long-time authoritarian leader, Meles Zenawi, in 2012.

At least hundreds of thousands of protestors reportedly took to the streets in more than 200 towns and cities across Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest regional state, to demonstrate against widespread and systematic persecution. According to local media reports, over 50 individuals have been killed and thousands arrested as police and security forces opened fire on peaceful protestors. These details are likely to change as more information comes in, though the government has severely restricted the Internet and social media making communication difficult.

What are now widely referred to as the #Oromoprotests began in November 2015 when the government introduced the Addis Ababa City Integrated Master Plan, effectively expanding the territorial limits of capital Addis Ababa into neighboring Oromo towns and villages. Oromo political leaders and activists argued that the plan, as designed, would displace millions of Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands and would threaten to eventually cleanse Oromo culture and identity from the area.

The protests were triggered by the announcement of the Master Plan and menacing land-grab policies that have already displaced more than 150, 000 Oromo farmers from the area, but they were also manifestations of a much deeper crisis of massive ethnic-based inequalities and discontentment that have been boiling underground, waiting to erupt.

Since the protests have begun, the government has arrested and jailed many of its vital and outspoken activists and organisers. A recent report by the Human Rights Watch puts the death toll from the first seven months of the protest at over 400 while the figure tallied by activists is significantly higher.

Historic grievances

The Oromo are the largest ethnic group both in Ethiopia and East Africa, consisting of more than a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million people. However, the group has been marginalised and discriminated against by subsequent Ethiopian governments. Oromo culture and identity have been stigmatised and pushed into the periphery of country’s national life, while Oromo history has been filtered out of public memory.

Since assuming state power in 1991, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) has sought to exploit historic disagreements between the Oromos and Amharas, the second largest ethnic group, to sustain the hegemony of ethnic Tigrayan elites. The TPLF framed longstanding Oromo demands for equality and justice as the greatest threat to Ethiopia’s unity and regional stability, and it used historic antagonisms between Oromo and Amhara as a political instrument to legitimise, justify, and consolidate its political and economic hegemony. The “Oromo question” became the quintessential Ethiopian problem.

Within this frame, Oromos are presented as narrow-minded, extremist, and exclusionary, while the Amharas are presented as chauvinist and violent. By producing crisis between the two groups, the current TPLF-led system presented itself both locally and internationally as the only moderate centrist force that can secure Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from the secessionist threat of the Oromos and the perceived far-right extremism of the Amharas.

The Oromo question and the War on Terror

In the decade since 9/11, Ethiopia refashioned itself as an anchor of stability in an increasingly restless region and began to build a reputation as a regional policing and intelligence powerhouse. As part of this West-facing strategy, it announced its 2006 invasion of Somalia as a war against terrorism, conning the US into sponsoring its proxy war with Eritrea. As the crisis in Somalia deepened, Ethiopia cemented its reputation further, emerging as America’s most reliable partner in the Horn of Africa.

This is not a partnership based on shared values of freedom, liberty, and commitment to democracy, but one based purely on security considerations. Ethiopia served as America’s local ally, and America, in turn, provided enormous financial, technical and diplomatic support. This brought in much-needed resources for the government to build the political and security infrastructure that has as its main aim the policing, control, and surveillance of internal dissent and opposition.

As the US began to define its foreign and human rights policy through the lens of fighting terror − entering a period of post-truth and post-moral politics in which sacrificing people in distant places in return for security became fair game − this emerged as the paradigmatic threat upon which the West’s fears and anxieties were projected. This made its ally Ethiopia completely impervious to criticism, even as the government used its grotesque anti-terrorism law to crush dissent, decimate the opposition, muzzle the media, and shrink civic space to extinction – all the while holding periodic elections.

Just as terrorism in the West is entangled with religion, terrorism in Ethiopia is entangled with ethnicity. And Oromos have been the primary victims of Ethiopia’s cynical appropriation of the cultural referents and resonances of the War on Terror.

Ethnic domination forms the hidden underside of the terrorism-politics nexus in the country. And its anti-terrorism law has provided the government with the most powerful political device to criminalise, police, and prosecute independent expressions and articulations of the Oromo question. Through the magic of this law, even the most basic of demands for human rights or expressions of opposition to government policy can be twisted into an existential threat.

Ethiopia’s persistent turn to its anti-terrorism law to purge critical opposition, activists, journalists, and community leaders is an unqualified disgrace to Ethiopia and its partners on the Global War on Terror.

The #Oromoprotests are a clear response to these and other forms of historic discrimination, and today’s nationwide protests mark a clear break from previous forms of protests in terms of its coordination and mobilisation. In a letter addressed to the government, protestors expressed their rejection of “the regime” and specifically asked the government to stop the violence against the Oromo, to free Oromo and other political prisoners, and to end military rule in Oromia and allow genuine self-rule, among others.

The government’s violent response to peaceful demands has led protestors to demand more radical and systemic change. The #Oromoprotests are no longer a single-issue movement. This is unchartered territory for the country and how the government reacts could go a long way to determining its fate. But today’s protest makes it clear that there can be no more business as usual for Ethiopia’s ruling elites.

Awol Allo is a Fellow in Human Rights at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, London School of Economics.

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13 thoughts on “Ethiopia’s unprecedented nationwide Oromo protests: who, what, why?

  1. Very well written. The author has captured the errors of the American administrations, especially the Obama, in its struggle with the pigs aka radical islamic terrorists. Through that erred strategy these so-called democratic friends in Africa (Ethiopia/Djibouti to name two) have been granted a free hand to do whatever they want to people that live within their borders. For Shame America

  2. The writer makes some convincing arguments except he is incredibly biased enough to take his “analysis” as an objective examination of the current situation in Ethiopia.

    Is African Arguments turning itself into a propaganda outlet for opposition activists masquerading as “academics”?

    This quote here is an example:

    “the current TPLF-led system presented itself both locally and internationally as the only moderate centrist force that can secure Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from the secessionist threat of the Oromos and the perceived far-right extremism of the Amharas.”

    The writer is fully aware that the far-right extremism of the Amhara opposition is very real unless he is intellectually dishonest.

    As someone who has closely studied Ethiopian politics, and has lived and worked in Ethiopia, I can certainly say that the writer is attempting to sell to Western readers the nonexistent solidarity between the Oromo nationalists and the Amhara nationalists. The Oromo nationalists, including himself, have been the ones calling the Amhara nationalists as “neo-naftagnas” – that simply means chauvinist and neo-fascist. This is a recorded fact. Just in case the writer is having an amnesia, he needs to revisit the Oromo websites that have published numerous articles disparaging the Amharas.

    As an Oromo nationalist himself, the writer is wishing that such a fictional framing of the TPLF as the enemy force of the Oromo will give him a political advantage. But the West knows that the TPLF rules the country alongside the SPDM, the OPDO and the ANDM. It is a known fact that some elements within OPDO (Oromo party) and the ANDM (Amhara party) are indirectly encouraging the ongoing protests to position themselves as the future kingmakers of the EPRDF.

    Scapegoating the TPLF may work for now as a strategy to win Western support. But it is a poor strategy.

    You may fool some naive observers of Ethiopia but lies won’t help your cause.

  3. The great Ethiopian experiment to forge a modern, integrated nation state from a scattered, multicultural empire has suffered a severe setback from the government’s reaction to protests in Oromia and elsewhere. For in addition to the 40 million aggrieved Oromos there are millions more from other groups – Afar, Somalis, Borana etc. – who feel they are “marginalised”. (Not surprisingly, Ethiopia has the world’s highest number of liberation movements.)

    In “Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers” political historian John Markakis says there are two major obstacles to overcome, two important frontiers to be crossed if the Ethiopian experiment is to succeed. One is the need for power sharing between the descendants of the empire builders, the highlanders of “Abyssinian” (Amhara and Tigre) origin, and the subjugated peoples of the periphery, including the Oromo. The second is the physical frontier of the arid lowlands on the margins of the former empire where the concept of nation state is furthest removed and where resistance to it is greatest.

    Late prime minister Meles Zenawi, architect of the ‘democratic phase’ of Ethiopia’s experiment, started well. In 1991, the liberation leader said, “If you don’t open the doors and windows of a house, those confined within will break the doors and walls and run out to get fresh air. So leave the doors and windows open for the people to feel free and relax inside the house.” True to his word, in 1995 he ended 2000 years of centralised control in Ethiopia by introducing a unique system of federal states based on ethnicity. Focussed on a more democratic, bottom-up development Ethiopia became a leader in a new vision for Africa.

    Unfortunately the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea followed by the 2002 drought and subsequent negative GDP recentralised power and conspired to throw Meles into the arms of China then beginning its big push into Africa. The top down planning Meles had rejected in 1991 was back as he introduced ‘China model’ mega projects – dams, farms, sugar enterprises – mostly in the lowland periphery. His Ethiopia of “people-led development” became a “developmental state”.

    The next, and critical, phase of the Ethiopian experiment will be a government rethink of development strategies in the lowlands so that those who know the land best have a say in how it should be developed. Until this frontier is crossed, as professor Markakis clearly demonstrates, Ethiopia “will not have the secure borders that a mature nation state requires”.

  4. This is to thank you for your actual report for the current situation we faced to day by this extremist minority group TPLF. The two ethnic groups are the sol for Ethiopia in history. How ever, these are the only being discriminated and exploited. You have another day to report , August 07/2016 in Bahirdar where 27 civilians were dead and many others are harmed for their peaceful demonstration to show their marginal service and ethnic cleansing activities that has been implemented for 25 years/quarter century. Once more thankyou great and I hope you will expose the same in Bahirdar “the city for Amhara Regional state”.

  5. Oromos want to claim power. This is the underlying factor behind all the oromo and government clashes. Oromos think because they have too many children then they should automatically be leaders of Ethiopia. For this reason, Oromos want to snatch political power by violence.

  6. Dear yahoo, please don’t allow lies about Ethiopia in the name of free speech. Yesterday there was no demonstration the whole day and your news shows as if there was a demonstration. Please be factual and be an instrument of peace!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. From my personal Saturday observation: The government police started brutally beating and killing even beside the train and in front of the peoples inside the train in Addis Ababa. Around stadium or Meskel square I lack of words to explain or describe what happens on our people. In short, this showed that the country is government less. Moreover, it is very difficult to know what is going on now in the country, no fb, viber… etc

  8. First my thanks goes to z writer. I hope any conscious reader will have his/her own interpretation. Why all these violence? A simple answer would be those butcher/evil/fascist/illiterate/terrorist EPRDF leaders who held power and benefited enormously economically along with their cronies/families sucking all z life from z poor people. Just visit addis ababa and ask who z owners of business located in Bole, 22, Tekele Haymanot, Merkato, kazanchis, Piassa, Saris and literally everywhere in Addis and u will get a same/familiar answer. Even Z once feared/visionary Hitler, Gadaffi and all z evil alikes ended their lives in sewerage ditch let alone these EPRDF low lives with their fat bellys. They try to find differences and turn people on one another. They claim that they won 100% of last year’s election but look what is happening now. The TRUTH will always prevail. But by no means I’m not pointing my fingers on the people of Tigray rather on those who r clinching on power and out of touch with reality. May God bless all z people of Ethiopia.

  9. Just come back from Ethiopia –the issue is simple not a reason to have international observer’s or witness. Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn can STOP this nonsense by ordering the ethnics who is claiming the other tribes land to go back to their prior 2000 territory. After over 1000 years land ownership to ask or tell people to give their piece of land is not only an Ethiopian its stupid POLITICS THERE IS NO NEED. The Prime Minister and his Government has done a remarkable job trying to bring Ethiopia to a country with a bright future , number 5 in Africa number 10 in the world in New economy development was not a small task and he and his party/government deserve credit. However all these hard work being slow down by unnecessary politics is mind- boggling to me .
    The prime minister should put the fire out with NO excuse the small land in the North should never be given to any one, well fine some hero want be divide this land without any referendum or vote ….rumor has it the people around the area didn’t know what happened ….well now they do- the right political decision is leave the place as it was for over 1000 years.. Tigre and Amhara lived together, fight together, die together and raise family together, asking them to fight or kill each other for NO reason is A BIG MISTAKE where everyone involved will regret years to come. There is one thing you don’t do an Ethiopian especially northern Ethiopian “ Don’t take their land or wife” the rest can be replaced and negotiated. Take in Charge Mr. Prime Minister you are a good leader with class don’t stop the progress you created. Those who is trying to see bloodshed STOP IT you don’t care about Ethiopia if you do it has been 40 years since the light goes off! Where were you!!!

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