Ethiopia should stop killing, maiming and incarcerating its Oromo question

February 9,2016       ADDIS STANDARD

It is happening again, sadly. Hundreds and thousands of students and residents in more than 100 cities and towns in Oromiya Regional State (Oromiya for short), the largest and most populous state in Ethiopia, are in and out of the streets since early Nov. last year. The immediate trigger factor is the possible implementation of the infamous Addis Abeba and Surrounding Oromiya Special Zone Integrated Development Plan, popularly known as ‘the Addis Abeba Master Plan.’

The federal government claims it is a plan aimed at only creating a better infrastructure link between the capital Addis Abeba and eight towns located within the Oromiya Regional State Special Zone. But the reason why it is having a hard time to sell this otherwise fairy tale like development plan is the same reason why it is responding heavy handedly to any dissent against it: it is what it wants to do.


The Oromo people, who are the single largest ethnic majority in all the four corners of the Addis Abeba surrounding localities, are not convinced by the central government’s top-down plan because they are informed by a merciless history of eviction and dispossession. Several researches show that over the last 25 years alone about half a million Oromo farmers have unjustly lost their farm lands to give way to an expansion of a city that is xenophobic to their way of being.


The sons and daughters of these people, who have lost their means of livelihoods, are therefore the ones leading the protests against the ‘Master Plan’. The first protest erupted in April-May 2014. Oromo student protestors from universities in Ambo and Jimma in the west, Adama in the east and Medaa walabu in south east Ethiopia, among others, resorted to communicate their disapproval of the plan with authorities the only way they possibly can: take to the streets to protest. And authorities responded the only way they have so far responded to Oromo voices calling for justice: killing tens, maiming hundreds and incarcerating thousands.


Not the first time

Although the 2014 Oromo students protest marked the first of the largest protest against the central government, a not so distant memory of Oromo students’ protests and subsequent crackdowns reveal a disturbing history of state brutality gone with impunity. To mention just two, in late ‘90s Oromo Students at the Addis Abeba University (AAU) protested against a systematic expulsion of hundreds of Oromo students, who, authorities claimed, had links with the then rebel group, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). But many of those who protested against the dismissal of their dorm mates soon joined the growing list of expulsion; tens of them were also jailed; and today, mothers speak of their kids who have disappeared without a trace since then. And in early 2000 Oromo students have taken to the streets to protest against the federal government’s decision to relocate the capital of the Oromiya regional state from Addis Abeba to Adama. Many of them were killed when police opened fires in several of those protests, including the one here in Addis Abeba.


Although in 2005 the federal government decided to relocate the capital of Oromiya back to Addis Abeba, fifteen years later Ethiopian prisons are hosting a number of Oromo students who were jailed following their protest against the decision in the first place; hundreds of them have left the country via Kenya and have become homeless in foreign lands. Less mentioned are also the lives that have been altered forever; the hopes that were dashed; the students’ quest to study and change their lives that were cut short; a country that is deprived of its young and brightest; and family fabrics that were shattered.


State impunity and all that

Following the 2014 Oromo students’ protest and the killing spree by the federal and the regional state police, Abadula Gemeda, speaker of the house of people’s representatives and former president of the Oromiya regional state, promised to bring to justice those who were responsible for the killing.


But two outstanding experiences explain why Abadula’s words were mere rhetoric. And the government in Ethiopia should address both if it wants to remain a legitimate representative of the largest ethnic nation in the country.


First, so far no one who represents the government has been held accountable for the killings, maiming, disappearances and unjust incarceration for countless Oromo protestors over the past 25 years alone. No matter how excessive the use of force by its security agents against unarmed protesters are, the government knows (and act as such) it can simply get away with it, as it did several times in the past. This is wrong. A state that has no mechanism to hold its rogue agents accountable for their excesses is equally guilty.


Second, the central government’s first answer to the repeated cries of justice by the Oromos is to send its federal army. But this is an act that not only trespasses the country’s constitutionally guaranteed federal arrangement but also makes the horrific crimes committed by necrophiliac security agents against protesters go unpunished.


Oromo protests in the past and the manner by which the current government dealt with them should teach it a lesson or two. But the first and most urgent one is that the government in Ethiopia should stop killing, maiming and incarcerating its Oromo question.


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