Why is Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group also one of the most oppressed? As anti-government demonstrations spread across the Oromia region, and the death toll continues to rise, the Oromo people are asserting their long neglected struggle. Labelled as terrorists and extremists by the government, the diaspora are reaching to the international audience for support.
In Israel, Oromo asylum seekers marched upon the Ethiopian Embassy, asking the compelling question: “UN - where are you?” As part of a wave of similar protests around the world, the demonstration called for intervention in what has been described as Ethiopia’s worst civil conflict in a decade. The rally echoed a series of peaceful demonstrations that have spread throughout Ethiopia’s Oromia region. As the protests escalate, so too does the government’s use of excessive force to crush the dissent.
According to Human Rights Watch around 75 protesters have been killed by Ethiopian security forces since mid-November. Many others have been wounded. Meanwhile, the government reports a starkly contrasting five deaths. Peaceful protests began in schools and universities, but as the government responds with violence, outrage has spread throughout society.
The unrest was sparked by a draft Master Plan designed by the Tigrayan-led Ethiopian current government, which aims to expand the territorial scope of Addis Ababa, into 1.5 million hectares of Oromia land. Since the contentious national elections of 2005, Oromos have borne the harsh consequences of the country’s quest for economic growth. In order to meet the demands of Ethiopia’s rapid urbanisation, the government has failed to consult with the affected populations about its annexation of land and mass forced evictions.
Matat Admusu, standing outside the Embassy in Tel Aviv, fears the escalation of the current situation.
“The Oromo people are resisting by peaceful means. But the government is taking action with the military. As the protests continue they are bringing special military from the border into the region, who do not speak the language of our people. Because the government says we are terrorists, they kill us. But the more they kill our people, the angrier we get. The demonstrations are getting bigger. Now the region is full of the military.”
A HISTORY OF POLITICAL REPRESSION
Ethnic Oromos comprise more than 25 million people of the nearly 74 million that constitute the total population of Ethiopia. Despite their number, the ethnic majority are the subjects of state discrimination. Nearly all Oromo cultural organizations are banned, youth unemployment is severe, and the Oromo language, despite being widely spoken throughout the country, is not an official language of Ethiopia. Employment opportunities in the public sector tend to be highly politicised, as the only successful applicants are the ones with strong connections to the ruling elite.
These structural concerns were voiced by the protesters in Tel Aviv: “We are competing with those who speak the official language and we are not given the chance to work in the government or other institutions. There is no place for us in our country, even though we are the majority.”
While the recent uprising was sparked by the government's land-grab, it comes in the context of a long history of Oromo political repression. The ruling regime is led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition that has been in power since 1991 and that reflects the long-term domination of the Marxist Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The leading coalition consists of four political parties, including the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO).
However, as one of the protesters in Tel Aviv explained, the OPDO does not address the demands of the people they are supposed to stand for: “It is just symbolic, it is a fake party that is not working for the Oromo. They were born in Oromia but do not represent our plight, and every time there are demonstrations they do not hesitate to kill our people.”
Lacking genuine representation in government, many Oromos are dedicated supporters of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a nationalist political organization, founded in 1973, whose aim is ‘to exercise the Oromo peoples' inalienable right to national self-determination’. The OLF is labelled as a terrorist group in Ethiopia, which hinders the struggle of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
PEACEFUL PROTESTS OR TERRORISM?
On 16 December the Ethiopian state intelligence services issued a statement claiming that the Oromia protesters were planning to “destabilize the country” and that some of them have a “direct link with a group that has been collaborating with other proven terrorist parties.”
Human rights groups are concerned this anti-terror rhetoric will escalate the severe crackdown on the Oromo protesters. “Instead of condemning the unlawful killings by the security forces, […] this statement in effect authorizes the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters,” said Amnesty International.
The Ethiopian government’s disregard for human rights attracted international attention when, in July 2015, Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit the country. His visit, highly criticised by Ethiopian activists and international human rights organisations, focused on the country’s increasing strategic importance in the fight against terrorism in the region.
“Ethiopia and the United States share a long friendship,” Obama said. He described the nation as an “outstanding partner” for its contribution to the fight against Islamic extremism in East Africa. He went on to declare his support for the current government, elected in May 2015 with a contested landslide 100% of the vote: “We are opposed to any group that is promoting the violent overthrow of a government, including the government of Ethiopia that has been democratically elected.”
Obama’s lip-service to Ethiopia’s democracy was the subject of widespread criticism. Bekele Nega, general secretary of the Oromo Federalist Congress, voiced the popular outrage: “I don’t know if democracy means robbing people’s vote and robbing their election result? They have killed people and they have taken the ballot box with them in organised fraud. [...] Is this the meaning of democracy in America? We are very sorry that Mr Obama’s comment on our election is really supporting dictators. We know the US is always looking after its own interests”.
APPEAL FOR INTERVENTION
While appealing for external assistance, Matat, one of the protesters in Tel Aviv, conveyed that the known strategic value of the Ethiopian government to US interests dampens hopes for effective action.
“The international community only work for their own interests. They have an international military vision. In Somalia and in Sudan, they need the Ethiopian military to support them in the fight against terrorism. So they ignore the innocent people being killed. It is the same military who fights for Western interests on the border that are brought to kill the Oromo people. How can this not attract the international media?”
The resounding silence in the international press reflects the complete absence of independent coverage in Ethiopia.
“The protests in Ethiopia are not reported on national television. If you look at Ethiopian media they talk about development, about new hotels and train lines, not about the plight of the Oromo people”, says Matut.
In an effort to counteract the negative government rhetoric, the protesters across Oromia are reaching out to social media. The Twitter campaign, with the hashtag #OromoProtests, calls for international intervention against the state violence. Images and videos depicting the brutality across the region have successfully spread, prompting the authorities to cut mobile phone coverage in some of the key areas.
As the demonstrations continue across the region, it remains unclear if the incumbent regime’s violent crackdown on ethnic Oromos is prompted by deep-rooted sentiments of ethnic supremacy or rather by an attempt to utilise ethnic divisions to crush any perceived dissent. But there is a fear among the Oromo that the current status quo could develop into further violence, fuelled by ethnic divisions.
“It could lead to ethnic conflict. There is tension now. The government is not only suppressing Oromos but other ethnic groups [there are more than 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia]. The situation is increasing. As people continue to be killed, the protests continue to grow, and after time it could spark uncontrollably. We are afraid of that. Everyone should be afraid of that”, expressed Fikreselassie, a 28-year-old Oromo asylum seeker in Israel.
The characterisation of the Oromo struggle as a terrorist movement and the strategic importance of Ethiopia in the fight against regional Islamic extremism contribute to the deafening silence within the international community regarding the brutal oppression of the Oromo protesters. The UN and civil society institutions must call on the Ethiopian government to restrain from the use of excessive force against demonstrators, take measures to de-escalate the growing tensions, and address the root causes of Ethiopia’s ethnopolitical conflict.
About the writers:
Sorcha Amy Thomson is doing an internship in journalism at Amnesty International Israel.
Macarena Espinar López is carrying out an internship as a caseworker at the African Refugee Development Center. She is also completing her Master’s degree in Global Refugee Studies at Aalborg University, Denmark.