Tuesday December 8th 2015
By Zecharias Zelalem.
It’s been about a month or so now since reports have emerged of the resumption of last year’s Oromo protests against the Ethiopian government’s planned implementation of the Addis Ababa Master Plan. The flame which had been lit in Haramaya University has now engulfed the country, with daily protests being held at universities across the country. And despite a similar scenario playing out a year earlier, the EPRDF government appears to have failed to learn from the recent past and has taken no measures to prevent the sequence of events that led to the deaths of dozens of protesters in 2014, with reports from the country stating that state security forces are once again failing to react with proportionate force. While brutal police beatings have disrupted gatherings at universities, high schools and primary schools for the most part, live ammunition hasn’t been spared yet again, claiming the lives of an unspecified number of young Oromo activists.
Despite the ongoing mass protests everywhere from Addis Ababa University to Jimma University, the limited international coverage and no international media spotlight shining down on the government’s violent clampdown, suggests that this episode will end in the bloodshed of innocent protesters with the regime taking little or no flak for once again instigating this national tragedy.
Why are we constantly seeing Ethiopian citizens face police and military violence for simply raising legitimate concerns? Why is the uproar among Ethiopians somewhat muted than what it should be? Why is the backlash over the extremely controversial Addis Ababa Master Plan as intense as it is today? The answers to these questions highlight sickening aspects of Ethiopian culture.
The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, despite having been traditionally subjugated by regimes and left on the back burner when it comes to domination of power throughout Ethiopian history. But in today’s age of technology, a truth seeking populace of young justice seekers, have paved the way for increased self awareness, increased alertness, and an insatiable desire to take on the elite, the powerbrokers, those who benefit from the status quo at the expense of the masses. They are at the helm of every student movement, opposition manifestation and reform demanding gathering. They are unarmed, receive negligible backing from foreign powers, but have proven to be a force to reckon with. The Oromo movement is evidence of this.
Power struggles throughout Ethiopian history have always been settled by the top draw, the fastest gun. During the imperial era, former outlaws and chieftains would mass military forces enough to intimidate any potential rival for the throne. To further legitimize a claim to the throne, a potential king would present some evidence of his belonging to the Solomonic Dynasty, a lineage believed to be that of the Biblical King David. But above all, warfare was crucial in settling the score and establishing one’s rule. Only those with a smoking gun could have influence and wield political leverage.
This could partially explain why the EPRDF government today has had the most miserable time dealing with the Oromo movement of today. There are no weapons or armies protecting the political force that are young Oromo activists. There is no easy way to quash them or have them cease and desist. They are everywhere, all across the country and around the world. Thanks to social media, radio and television, they share information with ease, and have used this social media efficiency to rally themselves forward for various causes. Perhaps the most well known example of their success in this department would be the cancellation of Heineken’s sponsorship of a Teddy Afro concert tour after a popular social media uprising calling on all supporters of the Oromo movement to boycott Heineken products. They are educated, tech savvy and determined to pay the ultimate price for their cause. Hence the impossibility of wiping them out militarily, or silencing them by the gun. Countless students have been murdered or imprisoned, especially in the aftermath of last year’s violent confrontations, but there are still no signs of the movement’s waning or weakening, despite the lack of political or social advances for the Oromo people in recent times.
Had it been conventional or guerrilla warfare, the government could have easily put an end to what has been a throbbing headache especially in recent years. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), armed group which had at one time fought on the side of the ruling EPRDF coalition and later sought the complete independence of Oromia, is an example of Oromos attempting to use weapons to achieve their goals. Over the years, battleground defeats and a lack of recruitment saw the OLF flee the country to the safe haven of Eritrea and virtually be defeated as a fighting force in Ethiopia. Dealing with the armed incursion was a simple process. But dealing with the peaceful resistance has proven to be a totally different task altogether. Shooting at armed rebels will perhaps unearth a weapons cache or regain control of a strategic hill. But shooting at unarmed student protesters will further the belief that the system is against them and hell bent on seeing them quietly submit or join their comrades in coffins. Martyrs, especially young educated outspoken martyrs, inspire others to take up the cause. Families lying awake at night in mental anguish while their young sons and daughters languish in state prisons will most likely breed more emboldened, hardened resistance fighters. In the long term, the government’s current approach to the Oromo university protests is nothing short of lighting a fire under their own noses. A fire that will eventually burn everything in its path.
From what it looks like, the Ethiopian government has most probably agreed that despite no real political parties representing them and pursuing their interests, the Oromo youth are a powerful political entity capable of shaking mountains. This powerful political entity is hell bent on exposing the EPRDF government’s atrocious human rights record and all round discriminatory practices. The EPRDF’s own Oromo Peoples Democratic Organisation’s (OPDO) outspoken opposition to the Addis Ababa Master Plan was well noted last year, however the OPDO being perceived as nothing but a powerless Afaan Oromo speaking tool of the regime means that it doesn’t have the ability to influence and assemble the young Oromo masses as the government would have liked it to have. Because of this, the fear of a significant segment of the population going awry from the provided path of submission and turning on the oppressive regime appears to have Ethiopia’s leaders frantically wracking their brains trying to find a solution and upon failing to do so, resorting to a loyal tactic that has served them well throughout their over two decade rule, violent crackdowns. There are several factors that justify the government’s paranoia of the Oromo political movement. The regime has the luxury of labeling most opposition movements painted in Ethiopian colours as far right manifestations seeking to bring Ethiopia back to the days of narrow minded nationalism and a single ethnicity, single culture dominated country. Propagating this fear has served to diminish the support of uprisings and political parties. But the Oromo movement is born from the same leftist reform demanding platform that saw the birth of the TPLF among others. Attacking the foundations of the Oromo protest ideology would be attacking the roots of the EPRDF itself. Because of this, the government has had to rely on a long propagated traditional fear that the Oromo primary concern above all is dismantling Ethiopian unity. Oromo activism has already long been cloaked as nothing but a separatist movement, funded by the enemies of the motherland, a trigger for civil war. However after state media’s constantly reporting over the years that the impact separatist groups like the OLF have in Ethiopia has been rendered zero thanks to Ethiopian army operations, to turn their back on years of propaganda and state that these separatists pose a serious threat to national security and development would be undermining themselves. Something this government has already done enough of. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the EPRDF to hide the legitimacy of the Oromo movement or propagate it as a calamity in the making. Hence the unprecedented level of concern shown by the state which has reportedly led to the deployment of police and even army units to the hotbeds of protest activity.
Despite the popularity of the #Oromoprotests trend and the daily posting of new videos and photos of the commotion and clashes, there is still a significant segment of Ethiopia’s media and social media sphere that has refrained from giving the events the coverage they deserve. The above mentioned fear of Oromos seeking to secede from Ethiopia is a real one, and the growing numbers of young Ethiopian university students protesting while not drunk on Ethiopian nationalism as was the case in the 60ies and 70ies has many Ethiopians, especially adherents of right wing ideologies, uneasy to say the least. This is a sad reminder that our close-mindedness has reached the point that some of us are willing to remain indifferent or turn a blind eye towards the pain and suffering of our own countrymen, our own brethren due to political differences. There is even a widespread belief that the recent protests which have culminated in violent clashes are battles between a separatist population chasing political gains and unity preserving security forces. In this day and age, knowing how divided Ethiopians are when it comes to politics to even begin to fathom that young Oromos ranging from teenagers to men and women in their thirties, would abandon their high school, college and university studies to unite for a political cause is just swimming in delusion. Those who took the time to hear the grievances of those taking part in the Oromo movement would know that the current uprising is actually free of any political leanings. It is simply out of a desire to prevent real estate developers and investors profiting from the auction of land formerly belonging to poor Oromo farmers while they are left in limbo. It is nothing more than a question of equality, rights, democracy and social justice. Oromos may have lit the flame, but there are more than enough reasons for Ethiopians of every ethnicity to help carry the torch onwards. It is a question of humanity, not political gain. People should stop belittling the whole saga as nothing more than a gathering of barbaric flag burning hooligans.
If you as an Ethiopian, feel that you cannot fully support a righteous cause due to the prevalence of the “Oromo” tag, it’s your right as a citizen. Freedom of thought guarantees anyone the right to support or oppose anything. However, don’t expect anyone to rally to your call of “national unity” the next time you feel you have been upended by an oppressor. Someone else might see your appeals during your times of trial as nothing more than ungrateful whining. Unbeknownst to many self declared nationalists, their silence here is detrimental to national unity above anything else.
Meanwhile several Ethiopian opposition media outlets are reporting on the Oromo protests out of a desire to fire political potshots at the government and vilify “Woyane.” But the extreme precautions taken to not exemplify the Oromo movement as the manifestation of the common Ethiopian have not gone without being noticed. The message here is equally clear: political loyalties are given an utmost importance as a priority, but humanity comes in a close second.
Personally, I’m not informed enough to pass judgment on the Addis Ababa Master Plan as of yet. But I cannot blame its opponents for their mass hostility towards the project because the Ethiopian government doesn’t have the best record when it comes to dealing with displaced citizens as has been detailed in several reports by the likes of Amnesty International. Dislodged from their ancestral lands, the Anuak for example have suffered unbearably under the government’s “villagization” program, in order for fertile land to be leased out to Indian and Saudi investors in Gambella. Government declarations that the Addis Ababa Master Plan will encompass the needs of everyone including the displaced farmers are far from reassuring. It would make absolute sense for the common Oromo farmer affected to fear the worst for his/her livelihood. This is the reality.
During the height of last year’s anti Master Plan confrontations, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Dr. Teodros Adhanom appealed for calm, insisting that the violence wasn’t necessary and that roundtable discussions would be held between the government and the people to clarify the end result of the plan for Oromo farmers. However, in the year since those protests ended, the government simply indicated its willingness to proceed with the project without addressing the concerns of potentially hundreds of thousands of people affected and their millions of supporters in the country and around the world. Simply waiting for the people’s rage to cool down won’t be enough. No sincere effort was made to start a national dialogue and as has been customary over the past 24 years, the EPRDF appears seeks to push on with or without the approval of the people. This refusal to engage the public has backfired big time, because it gives credibility to fears that the Master Plan is far from being the “win-win” solution for all players involved as is being claimed by the regime.
By denying the people a chance to air their grievances surrounding the Addis Ababa Master Plan, the government is simply marching the country forward towards a mined trench. No, that isn’t an understatement because this will not go down easily; the protesting students have proven resolute and have taken the country’s universities by storm. Further setting us up for an explosive rendez vous is fear preventing Ethiopians from calling a spade a spade. Disproportionate use of state violence against citizens deserves nationwide condemnation, no matter what language the victims speak. It is almost 2016, and an 18th century fear has people restricting the application of their humanity. Support the Master Plan or not, the action being taken by baton swinging, gun toting security forces on the streets of Sululta and Ambo is a total abomination and a disgrace deserving a full scolding by anyone who hasn’t lost their common sense.
Remember, silence encourages the tormentor, not the tormented.
Knowing this, on whose side do you think your indifference would put you?
My name is Zecharias Zelalem.
(Note: One or several of the images in this article were found on social media with no credited photographer. If you see an image of yours here, please contact me to have you or your organisation’s name added to the image caption, or to have the image removed from this article altogether. Thanks for understanding!)