Wednesday December 16th 2015
By Zecharias Zelalem
The tidal wave of emotion which has swept the country since the start of the Oromo protests movement about a month or so ago shows no sign of slowing, with some activists claiming that the number of cities and towns engulfed by unhappy, frustrated, yet very vocal and determined masses of unarmed marchers has reached a staggering one hundred in the Oromia region alone, with dozens of other cities and universities outside of Oromia State also seeing their dwellers and students heed the call of the oppressed against the Addis Ababa Master Plan, a government plan whose blueprints include the uprooting of thousands of Oromo farmers in areas surrounding the capital Addis Ababa.
Despite the well known opposition to the project among Ethiopians of Oromo descent and the chaotic events of 2014 in which government forces and anti Master Plan protesters clashed resulting in the massacre of dozens of unarmed civilians, nobody could have foreseen the direction that the protests of 2015 would head in. The student gathering at Haramaya University near Dire Dawa, has now apparently galvanized a nation to the point of no return. Reports and images coming from the north of the country suggest that similar demonstrations of discontent are brewing in Gonder, in part inspired by the Oromo protests and principally out of a similar government refusal to respond to reasonable grievances. At this time, the movement has now entered the fray and dug trenches so deep that the EPRDF will most likely have to make a number of concessions besides totally scrapping the Addis Ababa Master Plan.
While the protest movement on the ground has students and now their courageous fellow countrymen of all ages facing down the barrels of every fire spewing machine at the disposal of state police forces and the Ethiopian army, the role played by those away from the scenes of carnage isn’t an insignificant one. Activists across the country and around the world are doing what they can to spread the word of what’s happening on a daily basis by flooding the web with photographs and videos and timely news updates. Diaspora communities around the world have demonstrated outside of Ethiopian embassies in condemnation of the regime once again resorting to state brutality in an attempt to quell the uprising. These coordinated efforts are out of a desire to turn the focus of international media towards the mayhem in Ethiopia.
After nearly three weeks of continuously protesting and being met with state sponsored force, the amount of attention given to the Oromo protest movement was minimal to nil. Despite the fact that activists, eye witnesses and citizen journalists were working non-stop around the clock to report the daily happenings in Amharic, Afaan Oromo and English languages, major international media outlets must have found their findings not worthy of air time, because the events in Ethiopia were hardly granted a murmur on anything other than local or diaspora community media. From the government’s point of view, things were going smoothly despite sometimes some bumps in the road. A couple more weeks of clamping down and they’ll have pulled of the “great escape,” i.e putting an end to the movement and escaping the ire of the scrutinous diplomatic world.
But this would soon be made impossible. On the 10th of December, the international media had a field day. The likes of Al Jazeera, BBC and many others made the Oromo movement headline news. The likes of OFC leader and former political prisoner Bekele Gerba were quoted giving statements incriminating the Ethiopian government and especially damning was the release of death toll figures, ranging from as low as ten to as high as forty.
Exactly a day later, an explosion within the compound of Addis Ababa’s Grand Anwar Mosque left a dozen people hurt. It’s unclear who is responsible but the timing had many on Ethiopia’s social media sphere openly declaring that the alleged grenade attack was far from coincidental. The hard fought and earned attention of the international media was once again lost to this alleged new threat of urban terrorism.
While the struggle to rekindle the international media’s interest in the nationwide Oromo protests is proving to be a difficult one, one international media correspondent’s assessment of the situation from the ground has left many questioning if some elements of western media are even fit to deliver news from the region.
On December 14th, British national William Davison, who is based in Addis Ababa reporter had an article he wrote on the crisis published on the website of American news portal Bloomberg. “Ethiopia Oromo Protests Spark Fatal Ethnic Clash, Group Says,” is the name of the Bloomberg piece. In his article, Davison makes a passing mention of what the source of the entire conflict is, veiling it enough that an outsider would have absolutely no idea what exactly has many people in such an uproar.
The body of the article focuses largely on reports of alleged ethnic clashes between Oromo and Amhara civilians, virtually reducing the entire nation wide month long peoples movement to nothing more than a Rwanda 1990ies style, hate fueled bloodshed among illiterate villagers. Davison goes on to tell his audience about several incidents of mob violence where two Dutch owned flower plantations were attacked by unruly crowds and burnt to the ground. “Real ethnic conflict broke out and is under way. Many houses burned, people killed and wounded,” Ethiopian Human Rights Council head Betsate Terefe is quoted as saying by Davison. You could almost see Ato Betsate trembling as he said this. Davison fails to depict the real picture of things, hundreds of demonstrations by thousands of peaceful justice seeking, activists and protesters which took place without a single incident of tribal violence. The article completely ignores this and instead over magnifies a couple of incidents of violence.
For Bloomberg’s international audience, the Oromo Protests have been presented as a dispute over land among ignorant, greedy, tribal Africans unable to reason if their lives depended on it. Perhaps out of an effort to ensure his article is in tandem with Ethiopia’s reputation as a world leader in international peace keeping operations, Davison portrays the government as attempting to create a buffer of peace among feuding Amharas and Oromos, despite the fact that there have been no reports whatsoever from all sides of anyone other than government forces using weapons to establish their presence during the Oromo Protests. Despite this, Davison’s article, which by now has been posted and re-posted all over the web thanks to Google News and Bloomberg’s internationally high standing, has left readers with the impression that the Oromo Protests were not initiated by the young, articulate, educated, pride and hope of the Ethiopian nation that are the students of Haramaya University, but by illiterate machete wielding desensitized ignoramuses of some rural tribal enclave.
This article is not only an incredibly poor piece of journalism and lazy reporting, it’s incredibly damaging to the cause and the image of who are actually unarmed peaceful protesters following in the ideologies of men who have shaken mountains with the non violent approach, such as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. As an Ethiopian, I was among countless many who were highly offended by the article. Vicious killings might be a trademark of the government ruling our country for two decades or so, but it isn’t that of the Ethiopian nation. Since the end of the civil war which killed hundreds of thousands and culminated in the downfall of the Derg regime in 1991, Ethiopians have resorted to various methods to sort out disagreements and complain, but despite several very high profile instances of government forces being deployed to crush unarmed protesters, very rarely, if not ever, have the Ethiopian people responded in kind. It has frustrated many, especially those who wish for the waging of armed struggle to topple the EPRDF.
The dissenting masses are unarmed, non violent and resilient. They are of the mold of protesters seen in Egypt, Ukraine and Burkina Faso which have brought change to their countries since the 21st century without the use of violence. But instead of referring to the movement as the coloured revolution, Davison has painted the Ethiopian unarmed calls for justice as a war cry from a gathering of vicious resource hungry mad dogs, breaking away from the clutches of a caring worrying government striving for peace and development. This picture couldn’t be further from the reality on the ground and Davison, a resident of Addis Ababa and well acquainted with the country for some time now, knows this all too well himself.
Foreign correspondents reporting on Ethiopian soil have long been seen as gateways to the outside world mainly because they are seen as having left their homelands out of a desire to chase the truth, only the truth and nothing but the truth. Frequently harassed by authoritarian governments for untimely releases that clash with state propaganda, Ethiopia has a list of foreign journalists declared persona non grata for their stories which may not necessarily portray the EPRDF in a positive light. However, in recent times there is a trend of foreign correspondents becoming a bit too comfortable with their surroundings. These excuses for journalists have found saying good bye a bit too much and not worthy of their profession’s integrity. To remain in Rome, they’ll resort to doing as the Romans do, despite the fact that the respected domain of journalism explicitly condemns this.
Perhaps the most famous example of these reporters gone rogue is American national Thomas C. Mountain. Mountain, a former editor for Indian publication the Ambedkar Journal, moved to Eritrea sometime around 2002 and has since based himself in the country permanently. Once an independent journalist, he has since become a discredited mouth piece of the dictatorial regime in Eritrea, appearing on the likes of Russia TV wearing clothing displaying the Eritrean flag, even once appearing via video link wearing a t shirt bearing the image of a young Eritrean President Issayas Afeworki. Despite Eritrea being one of the world’s worst violators of press freedom, Mountain still claims to be an independent analyst despite living in Asmara. He has stooped as low as mocking the “hero” status given to Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Issak. Dawit was an independent journalist imprisoned by the Eritrean regime in 2001 for criticizing the regime and allegedly killed in custody sometime around 2012. Mountain, who has married a local and still publishes articles glorifying the ruling government in Asmara, has long defiled the journalist’s code of ethics because of his infatuation with life in Asmara.
Another notable reporter who paved the way for distorted journalism out of Africa is Frenchman and former Le Monde writer Christian Baldensberger. Based in Kigali during the early nineties, he was France’s link to the region. Perhaps out of his sensing of the upcoming genocidal violence in retribution for the assassination of Rwanda’s ethnic Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, his reporting out of the Rwandan capital started to become increasingly biased in favour of the ethnic Hutus. Baldensberger wrote articles in an attempt to appease the Hutu armed gangs who were perpetrating the massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent Tutsi civilians across the country. His reporting of the killings of ethnic Tutsi civilians as “enemy combatants,” permanently tarnished his reputation, that in the aftermath of the genocide, Baldensberger would be forced to permanently leave Rwanda. About a decade later, this time reporting out of Abidjan during Cote d’Ivoire’s civil war, he would be killed by an Ivorian police sergeant after an altercation in a parking lot.
Although we’ve seen it only too many times before, it’s highly unlikely that William Davison is a regime apologist writing on behalf of Ethiopian government handlers. However, anyone who has followed his Ethiopia related work will notice a familiar trend in his pieces. He’ll dab at the surface of a story, hesitating to penetrate deep and ask the poignant questions on the minds of the public that could really intensify discussions. The questions left out are usually those which would normally have readers pointing accusatory fingers towards the direction of Arat Kilo. Leaving a casual observer satisfied and an Ethiopian reader with eyebrows raised, he’ll top off a bland serving of “news” with a quote from a Shimelis Kemal or a Dina Mufti, something in the realm of striving for development or fighting terrorism. It’s frustrating in part because these kinds of articles are similar in nature and style as those we have been long accustomed to having shoved in our faces via state media networks.
Being based in Addis Ababa, the hub of Africa, among the most diplomatically powerful cities on the continent, in a relatively safe country where foreigners can walk unaccompanied without the fear of being mugged or murdered, Davison’s current gig is a goldmine. And why not? Life is great in a city where one doesn’t have to restrict his/her movements to certain safe neighbourhoods and where women can dress as they like, free from the state drawn confines of the hijab and niqab as is the case in other countries.
Of course, it appears that this comfort has come at the cost of the reputation of the men, women and children of the Oromo protests. In press releases yesterday, representatives of the regional Oromia State administration said that the protesters were committing acts of “terrorism,” and that their movement is stunting the progress of the country. But even their depiction of the protesters pales in comparison to the Bloomberg’s portrayal of these unfortunate beings who were simply demanding that the rights of poor Oromo farmers in areas surrounding Addis Ababa be respected.
A week ago, I published an article in which I detailed the major failings of Ethiopians in response to the protests initiated by Oromo students. Among several things, I lamented the lack of mobility from Ethiopians of non Oromo ancestry in endorsing the cause. A week later, I’m proud to say that my article is now out of date. Ethiopians back home and abroad of various ethnicities have either joined the movement, as was the case at Haramaya University this week, or expressed solidarity with it, as has been seen among diaspora communities. Despite a total failure on the part of Ethiopian community leaders in the west with all their resources to assemble Ethiopians in the diaspora of different political ideologies and ethnicities, the Oromo Protests student movement in Ethiopia, with its meagre resources has managed to do exactly that. Despite a total failure on the part of Ethiopia’s major domestic political groups to compromise and unite a people for a common cause ahead of the 2015 Ethiopian elections, the recently acquainted students have somehow managed to unite a country in the name of humanity. Despite a total failure on the part of the Ethiopian government to assemble the Ethiopian youth without fear tactics and intimidation, the Oromo Protests movement has seen the populace willingly put their lives on the line, full of zeal and dedication.
It’s nearly unprecedented to see the Ethiopian nation rise up in defiance and in solidarity with a struggle that doesn’t involve repelling foreign invaders. We have seen this occur at the 11th hour of 2015. It most definitely shows evolution and maturing. With all the unanswered ethnic questions, to see Ethiopians of different backgrounds and political leanings hand in hand is a rarity that must be recorded for timekeeping! And this was done without the gun, the method of civil disobedience proving to be the most preferred of tactics.
“…there has been an explosion of rural violence in the southern part of Ethiopia. The fighting has taken a variety of forms and has spread through diverse regions. Some of the worst incidents of violence occurred when Oromo people attacked Amhara settlers in their vicinity…a legacy of communal antipathy remains. In December, cadres instigated repeated attacks on Amhara settlers. Villages were burned and civilians were killed.”
No, the above paragraph isn’t a segment taken out of the Bloomberg piece written by William Davison. But doesn’t it look eerily similar? It’s actually a Human Rights Watch report from 1992, detailing ethnic violence between the Amhara and Oromo peoples during the period of unrest and uncertainty just after the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg leadership. Despite Davison portraying the Ethiopia of 2015 as no different from that of 1992, Ethiopians can take pride in the fact that relations between the peoples have not soured and degenerated into inter ethnic warfare. Ethiopians have evolved. The reality on the ground is proof that we are not barbarians prepared to kill our kin at a drop of a gauntlet, no matter how juicy it would sound for western media consumption.
Meanwhile, the movement continues unperturbed. The legitimate demands of Oromo farmers and their millions of supporters around the world will not be belittled, demeaned, mocked or sullied. The William Davisons of the world may continue to bamboozle people into thinking otherwise for one reason or another. But as I mentioned above, the movement has now entered the fray and dug trenches deep. This is the 21st century, the age of social media. Believe it or not, those battle front stories will be heard, unadulterated, uncut and unedited.
In 2015’s Ethiopia, pen ink has proven to be powerful enough to shake the mountains of the Ethiopian highlands, without even a single sprinkling of gunpowder.
Perhaps a certain journalist should use that same pen ink to right what is wrong, at the risk of one day being obligated to do so in an attempt at saving his legacy.
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!)
(Correction: An image posted in the original version of this article showed what appeared to be large numbers of Ethiopian police being transported to protest locations. The image was in fact taken in August of this year and isn’t related to any of the recent events whatsoever. I apologize if this created any unnecessary confusion).