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For the second time in less than six months, the Ethiopian ruling party EPRDF-dominated parliament has declared a three-day nationwide mourning. This time it is for the victims of a devastating collapse of a mountain of solid waste located 13 km southwest of the capital Addis Abeba on Saturday, March 9.
As late as Wednesday and Thursday more excavators were arriving
The story of the growing numbers of Ethiopians (115 as of yet) who died buried under a pile of Addis Abeba’s solid waste first broke nearly 12 hours after it struck. For such a story about Ethiopia’s “forsaken” [“we are the forsaken; why would anyone care, right?”], it was neither surprising nor unexpected.
In the shadow of death
Officially known as “Reppi” landfill (commonly called by its local name Qoshe in Amharic) the area is a mountain of an open dumpsite where millions of tons of solid waste collected from the sprawling capital, home to some four to five million inhabitants, has simply been disposed off for more than half a century.
Established 54 years ago, and occupying 37ha surface area, Qoshe is not your ideal landfill. For starters, its surroundings on all four sides is home to both plastic makeshift shelters and poorly constructed mud & wood houses that shelter hundreds of people, a figure by far bigger than what the government admits as ‘houses’ with registered title deeds; and unlike repeated media reports that followed the tragic incident, the residents of the plastic makeshift and mud & wood houses are not all rubbish scavengers. “I work at the Ethiopian electric power corporation,” said Alemayehu Teklu, a father of four who, as of this writing, is still looking for his three children and his wife. “Only my first born son survived because he was not at home the night the garbage mountain caved in.”
Alemayehu and his family resettled in the area ten years ago when several shanty towns were demolished in many parts of Addis Abeba city to give way to new high rising buildings. “We had a two bedroom old house near Kazanchis that belonged to the families of my wife. The Kebele administrators had told us we should evacuate in two months but our house was demolished within three weeks after we were served with the notice,” Alemayehu said, “we were paid 70,000 birr [roughly $2, 500 in today’s exchange rate] as value for our house and were told we would be given a plot in one of the outskirts of the city. No one ever responded to our repeated pleas afterward and I settled my family here after buying the plot for 10, 000 birr.” Struggling to contain his tears, Alemayehu said: “we are the forsaken; why would anyone care, right?”
The people living around Qoshe are not only waste pickers who come from the city
The massive scale of decades-old evictions of the poor from the center of the city, which is, by all measures, a corruption-infested practice by city administration officials, means there are countless stories similar to Alemayehu’s. None of the dozen interviewees approached by Addis Standard say they become residents of an area surrounding a mountain of waste by choice. These include Mintiwab Gushe, a mother of four who lived in the area for the last 35 years, gave birth to all her children in the same mud & wood house they now remain buried under. Mintiwab is unable to compose herself to talk. And others, such as Gurmu Kidane and his now missing family of two have come to Qoshe as recently as June 2016, when more than 200 special police task force units have started demolishing houses in Nefas Silk Lafto Kifle Ketema in western Addis Abeba, which city authorities claimed were built illegally since 2005. “My family and I came here after losing our house because my sister who got a new condominium unit and had rented her house here in Qoshe gave it to me so I can shelter my family,” said Gurmu. He owns a cement mixer and lives off renting it to construction sites. His 16 years old daughter and his wife are now among the missing.
But the area surrounding Qoshe is not just home to the 200 or so households known to the city Administration; there are at least “500 households most of which also rent additional quarters to tenants,” said a young man who wants to remain anonymous. Here is where the story of Hadya Hassan, 72, fits. She rented her house to 13 different people who came from different parts of the country in search of labor. They are unregistered anywhere hence unknown to city officials. “We have been submitting requests to be relocated to our respective Kebele officials for years. Today, they came to see us mourn,” Hadiya told Addis Standard.
A sign posted at a tent erected to mourn the victims show the presence of unregistered tenants
Hauntedby collect and dump
Until 2014, Qoshe has consolidated its notoriety as the only open dumpsite that outlived its original purpose. For 54 years, it served as a dumpsite while having no facilities such as fences, drainage systems, odor control, or recycling methods.
“The present method of disposal is crude open dumping: hauling the wastes by truck, spreading and leveling by bulldozer and compacting by compactor or bulldozer,” admitted a research overview paper commissioned by the Addis Abeba City Administration in 2010 and was delivered to the UN Habitat. It also estimated that about 200,000 tons of waste was annually produced in Addis Abeba alone, of which 76% is generated from domestic households.
The ten-years-old commissioned review is an early sign that city authorities have long been haunted by the black mountain of dumpsite they have created half a century ago and have subsequently failed to manage properly. Nor have they been short of policy recommendations from think-tank organizations funded by foreign governments. “Adequate planning of waste management is essential if communities and regions are to successfully address the challenge of a sustainable development, including resource conservation, climate protection, and pollution prevention,” reads one such action brief written in 2010 and was partially funded by the German government’s ministry of education.
The Addis Abeba City Government Cleaning Management Agency, an agency accountable to the city administration, began taking the ensuing disaster at Qoshe a little more seriously around 2009, according to an official in the agency who spoke to Addis Standard but wants to remain anonymous because “now is a sensitive time.”
“At that time, authorities have begun to discuss selecting alternative sites and the closure and eventual transformation into a public park of Qoshe. Project proposals were submitted to several donors to conduct feasibility studies to open a modern dumpsite, which would also be used to generate green energy,” he said. Several donors, including the US, have responded positively and have provided large amounts of grants to the city administration,” he said, without mentioning the exact amount of money. “It was a lot.”
This was followed by a binge of workshops, both by the city administration and donors, research works, study tours to foreign capitals for high-level city officials including the Mayor, Diriba Kuma, and proposals on alternative sites and type of a state-of-the-art dumpsite.
As the spree of talks and workshops began to take shape, in a process the details of which is shrouded in backdoor negotiations, in 2012 the Addis Abeba city administration decided to obtain 136ha land in Sendafa, some 30km northeast of Addis Abeba, and is home to hundreds of farmers. As of now, Addis Standard is not able to verify the availability of documents, if any, detailing the process and eventual decision by the city administration to acquire this plot of land in Sendafa.
Be that as it may, with a US$337 million grant secured from the French government, and a project office assigned to do the job – Addis Abeba Waste Recycling & Disposal Project Office – the city administration looked poised to turn Sendafa Sanitary Landfill become everything Qoshe was not in more than 50 years of its history.
Sendafa Sanitary Landfill had a US$27.6 million initial budget; it is supposedly guided by an elaborated Environmental and Social Impact Assessment report; it had a 40 million birr [roughly US$1.8 million] compensation scheme for the farmers to be displaced by the project; it was benefiting from the rich experience of VINCI Grands Projets, a French construction company (coincidence?); it was to be assisted by four separate waste transfer stations for preliminary treatment of waste; and city officials determined to change the city’s face defiled by the solid waste its residents keep on producing and dumping carelessly. Sendafa Sanitary Landfill had everything to become a modern-day landfill.
Simultaneously, city administration officials have assigned a US$158 million for a project to turn Qoshe into a 50mw waste-to-energy plant and have awarded the contract to the UK-based Cambridge Industries; this was to be followed by yet another ambitious work to turn Qoshe into a green public park. This plan to green Qoshe was receiving institutional guidance, including from the Addis Abeba University (AAU) and the Horn of Africa Regional Environmental Center and Network (HoARE&N).
If the French government came to the financial rescue of the Sendafa Sanitary Landfill, turning Qoshe into a waste-to-energy plant and a green park is enjoying a large sum of donors’ money Ethiopia is receiving in grants as part of its newly designed Climate–Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) planned to last for 20 years at cost of US$150 billion. One of the four pillars stated in this new lucrative project is the government’s wish to expand “electricity generation form renewable energy for domestic and regional markets.” Among the major contributors to this project are the United Nations Development Assistance Frameworks (UNDAFs) and OECD countries.
However, reminiscent of delays the Sendafa Sendafa Sanitary Landfill experienced, the Qoshe waste-to-energy project has already missed its opening deadline several times.
What really went wrong?
Delayed as it may, Sendafa Sanitary Landfill opened in February 2016; Qoshe took its first break in 53 years. But six months into its service, Sendafa Sanitary Landfill imploded, leaving Addis Abeba to explode with its waste.
At the heart of the matter is the US$27.6 worth landfill which looked nowhere close to its plans on paper. “VINCI Grands Projets was paid may be half of the initial amount it won the contract for and even that, it was done in bits and pieces with several delays. The company was also not able to receive the hard currency it needed to import some of the equipment it badly needed” said a project team member at the Addis Abeba Waste Recycling & Disposal Project Office, who also spoke to Addis Standard on conditions that he remains anonymous. “And yet authorities from the city administration have rushed the opening of the landfill before it was fully completed.”
in Less than six months, households in Sendafa were exposed to toxic fluid
Addis Standard is unable to hear from VINCI Grands Projets representatives because its office is nowhere to be found in the addresses it listed was its location: “Sendafa Subcity – Woreda 13 and Yeka Subcity – Woreda 13 (Ayat Village Zone 06) Legetafo road.” And there is no registered telephone line under the company, or at the very least, operators at the state owned telecom giant are not aware of it.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Sendafa Sanitary Landfill was not only incomplete when it started receiving the city’s solid waste, but also none of the four waste transfer stations incorporated in the plan were built. These were sites designed to serve as preliminary waste treatment sites and were planned to be built simultaneously in four separate sites including Akaki sub city and Reppi itself.
“And yet, in Oct. 2016, the Addis Ababa City Government Cleaning Management Agency spent close to US$5 million to purchase 25 compactors and ten road sweepers designed to be given to all sub-cities to boost the existing, old compactors in order to dispose off the city’s waste in an efficient manner at the designated waste transfer sites. This was the second time the agency made such huge investment to buy compactors. Already in 2012, it bought 19 compactors at a cost of US$3.9 million; almost all of them were sitting idle by the time Sendafa Sanitary Landfill was opened,” our source at the Agency said.
Having consumed millions of dollars, but being not much of use in a city that never knew how to sort its garbage, Sendafa was quickly becoming just another Qoshe and the farmers were a storm in wait.
A truck pushing the pile of trash in the new Sendafa Sanitary Landfill
Under-compensated (of the 40 million birr originally assigned as compensations package, an official from the Solid Waste Recycling and Disposal project Office admitted having disbursed only 25 million – but the actual payment is even less than five million birr); dispossessed of their land; lied to as they were told their land was needed for future construction of an airport; and forced to live near a landfill that already started to stink, the Sendafa farmers have refused to accept nothing less than the total closure of the landfill.
And as the yearlong anti-government protests that started in Nov. 2015 continued to gather momentum, questions also began popping up; questions that probe the tumultuous power the city of Addis Abeba exercises over its surrounding villages administratively belonging to the Oromia regional state. Authorities both from the city administration and the Oromia regional state were locked in last minute discussions to avoid the fallout, and find ways to re-open a US$27 million worth new landfill, to no avail.
A city threatned by trash
As the pile of solid waste threatened Addis Abeba in the middle of the summer rainy season, the city administration decided to quietly reopen Qoshe.
Not the old Qoshe anymore
But in the six months since Qoshe was going through its eventual closure, Reppi as an area has completely changed. The real estate market in its surroundings, hyper inflated by the promise of a future public park and the ever increasing land value in Addis Abeba, has boomed. Construction sites near Qoshe have mushroomed, and bulldozing excavators have begun working aggressively for several projects the poor residents of the area know nothing about. “One day before the collapse of the trash, several bulldozers were ploughing the earth for what one of the operators carelessly told us was an ‘important government project’,” said Gebresselasie Mekuria, a resident at the western end of Qoshe landfill. “The smell was getting worse and we have filled our complaints to the Kebele officials asking them to relocate us; they responded to us as if we were mad people; as if living in this hell on earth is our preordained destiny.”
Meanwhile, while the planned constriction of the 50mw waste-to-energy plant is still ongoing, the plan for earlier promises to turn Qoshe into a green public park has stalled. With the collapse of the black mountain, its residents are now left with nothing but unknown numbers of victims.
The new waste-to-energey plant from outside
For the hundreds of these people who lived in the shadow of death, death is a routine exercise; and every time it happens, it leaves in its devastating wake a trail of lives altered forever. That is what happened on Saturday night to Bethlehem Yared, 16, who feels the burden of not been able to save her six years old brother who “decided to hide under the sofa when I ran for my life and asked him to follow me; I had to leave him behind”. Another one, Ayalew Negussie, who survived with his family, is deeply disoriented because “I lost all of my neighbors and friends whom I knew longer than I knew my children”; and Bedria Jibril, who is unable to “think anymore” after losing everything she has in less than 25 minutes. “I only left the house to buy milk for my one-year-old son and when I came back, I couldn’t find where my house was; I lost my husband and my two children all in less than 25 minutes.”
The collapse of this mountain of waste also deprived a means of income to no less than 300 waste pickers who scour it every day. Some of these are residents of the area, but many come from the city in search of something valuable, including food.
Qoshe is not new to life-devouring accidents. In 2015, a flashflood had displaced more than 70 households, many of which are plastic makeshift; in 2014, shortly before the closure of the dumpsite, a small collapse triggered by waste pickers had killed about 13 of them.
But on Saturday March 9, the black mountain of dirt finally decided to end sheltering the people who have taken refuge in it from a city that loathes them but loves their labor. Sadly, their story is not only a story of a waste mountain that collapsed on them, but has a trail of corruption and criminal negligence that left survivors with nothing but counting the bodies of their loved ones. AS
Additional reseach by Selam Ayalew from Addis Abeba University (AAU)
Addis Abeba, Jan. 18/2017 – When Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn indicated last week that a draft law was prepared on the “special interest” of Oromia in Finfinnee (aka Addis Abeba), discussions have resurfaced on the issue of the status of the city and its relations with Oromia. Last week, I had the privilege of discussing the matter in a couple of radio interviews where, inter alia, I was asked what the content of the special interest is, what I anticipate the content of the draft law will be, and whether passing the law would address the concerns raised in the Oromo protests that has rocked the country for over two years now. What follows is a set of reflections on some of these issues.
This announcement about the draft being prepared on the ‘special interest’ comes at a time when the country is under a state of emergency the end of which is indefinite even according to the Prime Minister. The announcement comes at a time when, in the wake of the Oromo protests against the Master Plan, at least over 700 people are killed by the regime and thousands more are injured. In particular, it comes after key Oromo political leaders—such as Bekele Gerba and Dr Merera Gudina–and tens of thousands of protestors have been sent to jail and military detention centers, respectively, for demanding the right to ownership of their Oromo land including Addis Abeba. The announcement comes at a time when the Oromia and Amhara regions are chiefly being administered by the Command Post in charge of implementing the state of emergency law. The Master Plan, which was once said to be repealed, is reportedly being implemented within Addis Abeba. The boundary between the city and its Oromo suburbs that are still within the administrative jurisdiction of Oromia is not delimited. The repression of all forms of dissent continues. This immediate political context is not without a precedent. In fact, one can say that it is only the continuation of a long-drawn historical context.
Before the advent of Art 49(5)…
Historically, it is now a well-known fact that the notion of Oromia’s ‘Special Interest’ entered the Ethiopian legal universe in 1992 through the instrumentality of the Proclamation that established National/Regional Self Governments (Proclamation No. 7/ 1992). This is the proclamation that set the blue-print for what came later to be the constituent units of the Ethiopian Federation. Adopted to give effect to the decentralization that was envisaged in the Transitional Charter – and to valorize the right of ethno-national groups to self-determination – it established 14 self-governing national regions. Accordingly, Oromia became one of the 14 self-governing States. Addis Abeba, like the City of Harar, was also a region in its own right. Oromia’s ‘special interest’ over both cities was first recognized in this piece of legislation (1).In Article 3 (4), it is provided that:
“The special interest and political right of the Oromo over Region Thirteen [Harari] and Region Fourteen [Addis Abeba] are reserved. These Regions shall be accountable to the Central Transitional Government and the relations of these Self-Governments with the Central Transitional Government shall be prescribed in detail by a special law.”
Very much like the provision in Art 49 (5) of the Constitution that came later, it envisaged a ‘special law’ (meant to clarify the relation of accountability to the Central Government), but such a law was never promulgated. It is interesting to observe that, unlike in the constitution, in this transitional period law, the Oromo has not just a “special interest” but also a political right over the two self-government regions. It is also important to observe that there is no attempt to delimit the boundary of the city. As a result, it was not clear as to where exactly the jurisdiction of the government of Addis Abeba ends and that of Oromia commences.
While it looked like a city-state in a federation, Addis Abeba was also seen as a city within a larger state, i.e., Oromia. In other words, administratively, it was an enclave falling outside of Oromia while also housing the Government of Oromia as its capital. In a sense, Addis Abeba is in Oromia, but not of Oromia. Oromia was a State governing from Addis Abeba without, however, governing Addis Abeba itself. While the meaning of ‘special interest’ was understood to mean much more than having a seat for the Oromia government in the city, for the entire period of the transitional times, this remained to be the only ‘interest’ Oromia could obtain.
The concept of Oromia’s special interest was thus injected into the language of public law in the country accompanying the shift away from a formerly unitary state to what was subsequently to become a ‘multinational federation’. Acutely sensitive to the rights of sub-national groups (called ‘Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’) in Ethiopia, this ‘ethno-federalization’ was a reaction, and a push back, to the goings-on in history. We can thus see its immense historical import in its potency to speak both to the past and to the future. The ‘special’ in the ‘special interest’ phrase hails not only from the mere fact of geographic location of Addis Abeba in Oromia but also from the implicit recognition of the essentially Oromo identity of the city. Historians have routinely described the fact that, until it was violently raided and occupied by the forces of the Shoan Kingdom in the 19th century, the city was inhabited by the Oromo.
When it was ‘founded’ as the capital of the modern Ethiopian Empire in 1886, it was set as a launching pad for the campaigns of imperial conquest on the peoples of the Southern, South-Eastern, and South-Western peripheries. With a violent beginning marked by conquest and occupation of the land; raid, massacre, and displacement of the population; and transformation of the cultural and environmental terrain by the soldiers, it started as a garrison town. A cursory glance at writings by William Harris, Alexander Bulatovich, and even Evelyn Waugh, indicates that the State operated in Addis Abeba as an occupying force of settler colonialists bent on pushing out and displacing the indigenous Oromo peoples. Because the settlers generally spoke Amharic and confessed the Ethiopian Orthodox faith and because of the disproportionate concentration of modern urban facilities in Addis Abeba, it became increasingly different culturally from its surroundings.
Consequently, it projected a cultural life that is different from that of the Oromo. The culture, identity, and language of the Oromo became the constitutive outside of the cultural life in the city. In time, the Oromo were effectively marginalized and otherized. For most of the 20th century, the Oromo, although historically the host, was forced to live like the alien and the guest in what was their own homeland. Informed by this memory and propelled by years of national liberation struggles, the politicians that negotiated the Transitional Charter (Proc. 1/1991) and made the law (Proc. 7/1992) sought to emphasize the need to acknowledge the Oromo presence in the city’s affair through the ‘special interest’. The ‘special interest’ package was thus a way of making up for the artificial (created or intentionally produced) absence of the Oromo. In other words, it was a method of presenting the absent, a way of bringing back the Oromo to its own.
What does the Law Say about the Special Interest?: The Legal Context
When the constitution of FDRE was finally adopted in 1995, the ‘special interest’ clause was more or less carried over into art 49(5). To understand the full textual context of the special interest package in art 49 (5), it is important for us to reproduce the entirety of article 49 in full. Accordingly, the provision in art 49 reads as follows:
Addis Abeba shall be the capital city of the Federal State.
The residents of Addis Abeba shall have a full measure of self-government. Particulars shall be determined by law.
The Administration of Addis Abeba shall be responsible for the Federal Government.
Residents of Addis Abeba shall in accordance with the provisions of this constitution, be represented in the House of Peoples’ Representative.
The special interest of the state of Oromia in Addis Abeba regarding the provision of social services, or the utilization of natural resources and other similar matters, as well as joint administrative matters arising from the location of Addis Abeba within the State of Oromia, shall be respected. Particulars shall be determined by law.
Owing to the unclarity of the clause in art 49 (5), coupled with the lack, to date, of the law constitutionally envisaged to enunciate the content, it became imperative for people to ask “just what is the ‘special interest’?” And what is so special about it? In this section, we make a close reading of the provision to explore what could be in the package.
Developments: Toward Articulating the Content of the ‘Special Interest’
It is important at the outset to underscore that Addis Abeba is a Federal capital city within a State. In this, it is more like Berne (of Switzerland) or Ottawa (of Canada). It is not a city-state (in the style of Berlin or Brussels). Nor is it a federal capital territory or a federal district (in the style of Abuja, or Canberra, or Washington DC). Once that is recognized, i.e., that Addis Abeba is a city in Oromia, one should have an explicit discussion and mutual understanding about what it means to be a federal capital because that automatically indicates that the Federal Government does not have a ‘natural’ right to be in the city. Unfortunately, that discussion did not happen. That was a historical blunder about a city mired in several historical misdeeds and mistakes.
That it was made accountable solely to the Federal Government was the second big blunder committed at the time of adopting the constitution. Given the fact that the city is Oromia and that it is also a ‘natural’ capital of the government of Oromia, it should have been made accountable to Oromia. Or, at the very least, it should have dual accountability to both the Federal and Oromia Governments. That did not happen. Commanding exclusive say on the administration of the city (in the name of ultimate accountability), the federal government ‘banished’ the Oromia government at will in 2003 and allowed it back into the city in 2005. In this, the federal government expanded and re-enacted the original violence of dispossession and displacement of Oromos from the city thereby perpetrating a new wound before the historical wounds could heal. Had it not been for this contemporary constitutive mistake, this ‘original sin’ of constitutional drafting in 1995, there wouldn’t have been anything special about the special interest of Oromia. If there would be ‘special interest’, it would have been that of the Federal Government or the non-Oromo residents of the city. These twin mistakes of recent history led to events of dire consequence that continue to claim lives and limbs to date.
The Host made a Guest
Having made a guest out of the host through the legal fiction of excision, i.e., by excising the city out of the political and administrative jurisdiction of Oromia, it became necessary for Ethiopia, almost as an afterthought, to ‘concede’ a lame ‘special interest’ to Oromia in Art 49(5). Over the years, the government of Oromia and Oromos in general hung on this provision more as a symbolic rallying point to interrogate Ethiopia for what is actually beyond the specific content of the Oromo interest in the city.
To the Oromo public, the city became the metaphor for what Ethiopia has made of the Oromo in general: an invisible, non-speaking, non-acting other who inhabits the interior of the territory but the exterior of the polity. It became the concentrated expression of the ‘life’ and the agony of the Oromo in the Ethiopian polity: their present-absence and their absent presence at a time.
Today, the Federal State presided over the coalition of four parties that make up the EPRDF became the new empire in a federal form, and the leaders became the new emperors in a democratic-republican garb. This forced the quip from many commentators that in Ethiopia ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ (‘the more it changes, the more it remains the same’).
Hence, the wide Oromo discontent over the whole arrangement with regard to Addis Abeba. Taking advantage of the historic asymmetry in power, the city administration, mostly prompted by the federal government, has consistently acted in complete neglect or wilful defiance of the interests of Oromia and Oromos.
Legal Silence Exploited
Taking advantage of the undefined territorial boundary of the city, the administration continued to expand its competence over the suburbs surrounding Addis Abeba. Routinely, the Federal and the City Governments exploited the legal silence on the matter of special interest. Thus, the Addis Abeba Land Administration office often acted as the authority in charge of land administration in areas such as Labbuu, the Laga Xaafo-Marii continuum, Bole-Bulbula, Buraayyuu, Sabbata, Sululta, and districts beyond the Aqaqii-Qaallittii corridor (such as Galaan, Dukam, etc). The Federal Government continued to implement its industrialization policy by reserving Industrial Zones, Recreation Parks, and designated investment sites (much like Special Economic Zones). In doing all these things, the Federal Government and the city never took the trouble to consult with Oromia, much less the Oromo people. Evictions of farmers with little or no compensation became a routine practice.
Pollutions, Waste, Deforestation, Evictions
Pollutions from industrial emissions were sustained with no sense of accountability from the part of the city. Waste was dumped recklessly causing massive health risks. Deforestation and soil degradation was intensified in the neighboring districts, especially after the rise of investment in flower farms, dairy farms, and poultry farms. Homelessness of the evicted farmers and residents started to be felt among the people.
Oromia and Oromos Respond Resentfully: #Oromorprotests Emerges
The response from the Government of Oromia was late, but it did come in the form of a 2009 Caffee Oromia proclamation that established a Special Zone of 17 districts and 36 towns in the area. Its attempt at legislative articulation of the ‘Constitutional Special Interest of Oromia over Addis Ababa’ remained a draft to date. Its demand for enunciation of the content of the ‘special interest’ by the Constitutional Inquiry Council (CIC) was rejected on the ground that the CIC and the House of Federation do not give an advisory opinion in the absence of litigation.
Also, Oromo residents of the inner city resented the absence of Schools and cultural centers that operate in Afaan Oromo. The fact that the city has become anything but Oromo over the years made Oromo residents lament the complete cultural insensitivity to the needs of the Oromo in the city. Increasingly, the demand for schools in Afaan Oromo and cultural centers began to be vocally expressed in the last decade or two (resulting in efforts to construct an Oromo Cultural Centre and to open public schools that operate in Afaan Oromo).
While such demands were gaining momentum steadily over the years, the Integrated Regional Development Plan (alias the Master Plan) was announced to the public in 2014. Immediately, it provoked a resistance in all corners of the Oromia region.
The day-to-day encroachment of Oromia’s jurisdiction with the informal expansion of the city; the general spill over effects of the city; its becoming the dumping ground for Addis Abeba waste for no gain; the pollution of the rivers, the soil, and the general environment of the surrounding districts and towns; the evictions with ‘compensations’ whose lower limits are legally left unregulated; the insensitivity to the cultural and linguistic needs of Oromo residents; the temperamental behaviour the Federal Government showed vis-à-vis Oromia’s claim to Addis Abeba as its capital city; these and other resentments fed the anger that emerged in the wake of the revelation of the Master Plan.
Apart from its violation of the principles of federalism and a healthy intergovernmental relation that should exist in a working federation, one of the reasons given for resisting the Master Plan was that it liquidates the ‘special interest’ of Oromia. As was noted above, the particulars envisaged to ‘be determined by law’ were never determined.
Giving Content to the ‘Special Interest’
According to art 49 (5), the articulation of the content of the ‘special interest’ is hoped to revolve around the meaning of four broad phrases:
‘Provision of social services’
‘Utilization of natural resources’
‘Joint administrative matters’
‘Other matters’ similar to provision of social services or utilization of natural resources.
In the endeavor to give content to the special interest clause, one is expected to interpret these phrases in a judicious manner that can also satisfy the popular discontent that was ignited into full manifestation in the protest to the Master Plan.
In particular, we must identify the kind of social services that Addis Abeba should provide to Oromia. Normally, ‘social services’ connote services such as access to housing, education, health, water, transport, and other matters needed for achieving adequate living standards. From experience, we know that one of the unmet needs of Oromia in Addis Abeba is access to public buildings and properties for their offices and residential places for their officials and civil servants. And the need for designated plots of land on which to build houses for the employees of the state.
Organizing public schools that operate in Afaan Oromo is another kind of social service seen as a pressing need. Related but not often articulated is the need for building or making spaces for public libraries run in Afaan Oromo, exhibition centres, concert halls, theatres, museums, galleries, cinema halls, printing presses dedicated to the nurture and development of Oromo cultural lives, shows, performances, plays, memories, arts/paintings, movies, books, etc. This need to give attention to culture also requires the need for memorializing personalities and historical moments of the Oromo through naming streets, places, squares; and erecting statues. In addition, subsidizing Oromo arts and printing and publications as part of making the Oromo presence felt to anyone who comes to and inhabits the city is an important aspect of social service. In other words, the provision of social services also extends to the cultural representation of the Oromo in the life of the wider city.
Similarly, health facilities and other utilities such as public transport services that operate in Afaan Oromo should be considered part of the social services to be provided to Oromos. One way of addressing this could be making Afaan Oromo the co-equal working language of the City Government. The move to make Afaan Oromo and other languages to become working languages of the Federal Government will also help curb part of the problem of access to social services and facilities such as public transport, celebration and registration of vital events (birth, marriage, death, certification, authentication, licensing, etc).
The proposed law must also clarify the type of ‘natural resources’ Addis Abeba has, resources that Oromia uses, and identify the modes in which it continues to use them. The effort to give content to this phrase becomes confounding when we note the fact that there is hardly any natural resource that the city offers to Oromia. Anything ‘natural’ in the city is ipso facto that of Oromia because the city itself is of Oromia anyway. The city actually is dependent on the natural resources of Oromia. Water, forest products, hydroelectric supply, minerals, sand, cement products, precious stones, food products, and everything else that Ethiopia (beyond and above Addis Abeba) needs come from outside of the city, Oromia and the other regions.
In the course of articulating this interest, one needs to consider the benefits Oromia should get from the delivery of these resources. One way of doing this is to agree on the percentage of income that should go back to Oromia’s revenue based on what is often called the principle of derivation in federal countries. If the federalism was properly functioning, this would have been handled through a negotiated channel of financial intergovernmental relations.
The proposed law to be prepared must determine the scope and method of exercise of the envisaged ‘joint administration’. For this, we will first need to identify what tasks are matters for joint administration. Secondly, we need to decide who is responsible for what aspect of the administration. In the area of inter-jurisdictional roads (say maintenance); border management; managing trans-boundary forests, rivers, etc.; inter-jurisdictional legal cooperation (whose police takes responsibility for cross-border criminal activities); these and some such activities need to be spelt out.
One obvious area of joint administration is management of land. Because legislative power over land issues is a matter for the federal government and administration is for the States, issues such as town planning, mapping, cadastre, land redistribution among residents, designing construction regulations, etc should have been a matter for states, districts, and local/municipality governments. And in these areas, local governments of Oromia and the city administration (i.e., sub-cities and districts) could find some collaboration. Accordingly, the government of the state of Oromia and the government of the Addis Abeba City could coordinate their activities as they have overlapping jurisdictions (i.e., Oromia has a territorial jurisdiction while the city has a self-administrative jurisdiction) because the city is also the capital city of Oromia.
Ideally, ‘joint administration’ could have happened if the city was made accountable to the Government of Oromia rather than to the Federal Government. At the very least, joint administration could have been achieved through making the City government accountable to both the Federal and the Oromia governments. Settling on one of these options would mitigate the injustice of the original constitutional arrangement that: a) made Addis Abeba the capital city of the Federal government without the consent of Oromia and Oromos; and b) made the city’s self-government accountable exclusively to the Federal Government.
The meaning of the ‘other issues’ over which Oromia has a special interest is to be decided contextually on the basis of issues that rear their head in the course of day-to-day life experience. One cannot be definitive about the list of things to be included in this category.
However, twenty years of experience should have brought forth several such issues that may need to be specified while leaving others to the discretion of administrators subject to judicial review.
Who Takes Initiative?
Even assuming that the content of the ‘Special interest’ is clear, there is another issue left for us to determine: who comes up with the law that “determines” the “particulars”? Is it the Federal Government, the City Government, or the Government of Oromia? So far, the federal government had hesitated to legislate on the matter even in the face of a repeated demand by the government of the state of Oromia. That is of course because the federal government wants to exploit the ambiguity that remains because of the legal vacuum.
Legal silence is strategically deployed by the Federal and Addis Abeba Council to avoid their part of the obligation and to continue to enjoy what doesn’t rightfully belong to them in the absence of a law that proscribes it. Oromia’s attempt in the past (2006) to legislate on the matter could produce only a draft piece of legislation that couldn’t ultimately be presented to and passed by the Caffee Oromia.
Beyond the Content: Reconciled Relationship between the City, the Region, and the Country-Redemption via Relocation?
If there was an inclusive participatory constitutional moment that acknowledges the presence of the Oromo in the polis-to-be between 1992 and 1994, one or more of the following scenarios might have been negotiated:
a) Find a (new) site that is commonly agreed upon by all the constituent members of the Federation to be the Federal District Territory;
b) Designate another city in another State or in Oromia as the seat of the federal government accountable to that state;
c) Designate different cities that can serve as seats for the different branches of the Federal Government;
d) Agree to have a roving capital city for the federal government every decade or so;
e) Designate Addis Abeba as the capital city with a self-governing council ultimately accountable to Oromia—an essentially Oromo city in which the federal government may have some form of ‘special interest’
f) Designate Addis Abeba as a federal capital city whose self-governing council will be accountable to both the federal and the Oromia governments.
Towards a Redemptive Discourse
We all know that the constitution-making process was less ideal than one would hope for. It was marked by lack of legitimacy on procedural and substantive accounts. The work required now, while attending to the immediate needs of giving content to the ‘joint administrative issues’, is to identify potential areas of constitutional amendments that would overcome the problems caused by original flaws in the constitution. This will force us to engage in—and engage the public with–what I called, elsewhere, a ‘redemptive constitutional discourse,’ a discourse that overcomes the deficits in original legitimacy, a discourse that ‘corrects’ the imperfect beginnings of the constitution by also attending to the trauma caused by inaugural violence with which the city was incorporated into, and made the capital of, the modern imperial Ethiopian state.
Relocating the Capital
While that is being done, the search for a lasting solution to the violent Ethio-Oromia relations, especially regarding Addis Abeba needs to begin and continue. In particular, it is imperative that we consider the possibility of relocating the Federal Government elsewhere. Removing the Federal government will help undo the trauma of the violent occupation at the moment of ‘founding’ and subsequent displacement of the Oromo through the ‘settlement’ of others. Relocation has the advantage of:
Dissolving the altercation over ownership of the city;
Securing the socio-cultural interests of the Oromo in the city;
Restoring full jurisdiction of Oromia over its territory;
Rescinding the legal excision of the city from the administrative jurisdiction of Oromia through the provision of article 49;
Enhancing the Oromo’s right to exercise of ultimate political power in the city;
Restoring the host, the Oromo, to its rightful position and securing the rights of the guests, the non-Oromo inhabitants, in a context of mutual recognition;
Arresting the continued lawless expansion of the city and the concomitant land grab, eviction, and ethnocide thereof;
Responding to, and thereby dissolving, the question of the so-called ‘special interests’ within the context of Oromia and Oromia alone;
Comprehensively responding to the demands of the #Oromoprotests whose rallying cry has been “Finfinnee belongs to Oromo” (“Finfinneen kan Oromooti!”).
The legal relocation of the Federal capital has more transformative potential for the entire polity than the obvious advantages outlined above. It is a restoration of Oromo agency and authority over the decision on what matters to their life in their land and in the wider country. The issue of choosing a negotiated site for a federal capital city is an opportunity to help the wider country to agonize over its history, its state system, its capacity to deal with historical injustice, and its hope of re-building the state on a fairer, more just, and more plural foundation. In short, it allows for a redemptive constitutional discourse to emerge.
It has to be explicitly stated however that to remove the Federal Government is not synonymous with removing the inhabitants of the city. The inhabitants will be part of Oromia and like all other people living in the wider Oromia, their rights shall be respected. Yes, there may be some people who work for the federal government institutions that may have to commute to and from work if they choose to continue living in Addis Abeba after the relocation of the capital. Yes, there will also be people who might move to the new capital altogether. But they don’t have to. No one has to. It is important to remember, incidentally, that not all the inhabitants of the city are employees of the Federal Government as such. The federal Government is merely its institutions, agencies, and its workers. That is not the (entire) population of the city.
Pending Redemption…Shift Accountability
Until that is done through constitutional revision or amendment, it may be necessary to consider the shift of accountability of the city government from the Federal to the Oromia government. It may be imperative for the Federal Government to start paying rent to the Oromia government as a token of acknowledgement to their being hosted by Oromia.
The quest for a lasting solution should start with identifying unconstitutional laws and policies that violate Oromia’s rights and special interests. Laws such as the one that promulgated the Addis Abeba Charter of 2003 (Proc. 361/2003, especially its article 5), the Investment Amendment Proclamation of 2014 (Proc. 849/2014, especially its provisions regarding ‘Industrial Development Zones), and projects like the World Bank sponsored Industrial Zone Projects (such as the Resettlement Action Plan [of] the Qilinxo Industrial Zone (April 2015) should all be rescinded.
New laws may need to be issued. An example is a proclamation that governs the lowest threshold for rates and modes of compensation awarded to a farmer in the event of eviction from her/his land. To be sure, there was a 2005 Proclamation (Proc. 455/2005) that provides for expropriation of land holdings and compensation. However, this proclamation, apart from enhancing the dispossessive regulatory and police powers of the Ministry of Federal Affairs, federal and local governments, and of several other agencies, it says little about the substance of the compensation, especially for collective landholdings (about which it says nothing). Needless, to say, as the actual practice of expropriation has routinely demonstrated, even the normative gesture in the law of providing a replacement remains to be more a legal rhetoric than an actual reality, more a juridical promise than a political practice.
Not so Special
Recognition of special interest is exception-making. Through a ‘special interest’ package, a rightful entity extends some rights, as part of underserved acts of grace, to another that cannot lay claim to these rights. To Oromia and Oromos, there is hardly anything special about the ‘special interest’. The city is naturally and intrinsically part of Oromia. As such, Oromos and Oromia have pre-eminence over the city. They lay claim over the city as their own natural territory. Oromo interests are not supposed to be granted to them by others as some kind of favor. They have the more fundamental right of an owner. As such, they do not need others to make exception in their favor in order to guarantee the protection of the interest of the Oromo in the city. If anything, it is the Oromo that should make exception to the other inhabitants in granting them, for instance, the right of self-government at the municipal level. In other words, if anything was to be ‘special’, it was the ‘interest’ of other peoples who live in the city that should have been so designated as to constitute the ‘special interest’ of non-Oromos in this inherently and primarily Oromo city.
However, owing to the legacy of imperial conquest and violent occupation of the city and the consequent dispossession and displacement of the Oromo from the city, it is now the guests that are extending (and so far denying) the ‘special interest’ of the hosts. This is a testament to the total lack of self-awareness on the part of the Federal and City Governments about the land they stand on. It is a testament to their moral blindness and (and the consequent incapacity) to pay attention, to see the original owners of the land, and to recognize their natural rights thereof. The result is the failure to understand the pain of dispossession and relentless quest of the Oromo for restoration.
The more consequential result is that this moral blindness is blocking the redemption of the relationship between the city (Addis Abeba), the Region (Oromia), and the Country (Ethiopia). That is why it comes as no surprise that the contestation over the city is pivotal to the making or breaking of the Ethiopian state in our own time. AS
 Technically speaking, this government which needed a special—emergency–measures to secure peace and stability, does not have a legal mandate to enact a law before repealing the emergency declaration and calling the army back to its barracks. Nor does it command a moral authority to make a legislation for the people it killed, maimed, arrested, detained, and tortured unaccountably only because they protested.
William Harris, The Highlands of Ethiopia (1844).
 Alexander Bulatovic, Ethiopia through Russian Eyes: A Country in Transition, 1896-1898 (Richard Seltzer, Tr), (2000).
On Saturday Dec. 17, Siraj Fegessa, Ethiopia’s minister of defense and the secretariat of the command post tasked to implement the country’s sweeping six-month state of emergency (SOE), had news that should have come as a relief to tens of thousands of Ethiopians. Minister Siraj, a civilian, told journalists mostly drawn from state-controlled and state-affiliated media houses that some 9, 800 individuals who were detained under the SoE will be released by Wednesday Dec. 21 while 2, 449 others “will be brought to justice.”
But the mood among Ethiopians following the announcement is not that of a celebration; for many, the damage their loved ones have sustained while held at one of the half dozen detention facilities (referred to by many as ‘concentration camps’) is too deep to have been undone by the announcement of their release, and rightly so.
By the government’s account, a total of 24,799 individuals were arrested in two rounds under the SoE since October this year. However, this figure doesn’t mention whether those who were detained prior to the decreeing of the SoE on October 9 are accounted for. And, informed by previous brutalities of the security apparatus, Ethiopians are under no illusion that this figure is much higher than what’s being admitted by the government.
Even one is to take the government’s figures to account, it simply means that thousands of university students have missed this academic year’s attendance; thousands others who were the breadwinners of their families and extended family members have failed to deliver on their promises; and thousands have lost their jobs.
But for some, the cost is too personal to recover from. One such Ethiopian is Alemayehu Merga, (name changed upon request), a former clerk at a private Bank in Awash town some 91 km south east of the capital Addis Abeba.
In a letter sent to Addis Standard a few weeks ago, Alemayehu says when he was arrested from his hotel room (name of the hotel withheld) in Merkato, an open market hailed as the largest in Africa, he was preparing for his wedding scheduled to take place on Sunday September 16 in Adama, 100k south east of Addis Abeba.
The intense crackdown by the police that led to Alemayehu’s arrest followed a massive anti-government protest on August 06, 2016. The weekend protest was called by online activists of the #OromoProtest and was dubbed “Grand Oromo Rally”. It ended when regional and federal police have brutally suppressed the protesters, killing hundreds and detaining thousands. But instead of receding, thousands more of protesters raged through the Special Zone of the Oromia Regional State, eight neighboring towns mostly located within 25k radius from the capital Addis Abeba.
The bedrock of these protests was a 10 month persistent anti-government protest that began in Oromia regional state, the largest regional states in federated Ethiopia, in November 2015; it was followed, several months later, by another anti-government protest in Amhara regional state in the north.
The protests in these two regional states have quickly escalated into a large scale anti-government protest that posed the ultimate challenge to the hitherto unchallenged quarter century reign of the ruling TPLF-dominated EPRDF regime in Ethiopia.
A pre-wedding trip gone dreadful
Almayehu’s arrest happened at a time when, reeling from uncontrollable protest flare ups in most parts of the country, the federal and city police began conducting random stop and search and have arrested unknown numbers of individuals from the city. Low-cost hotels throughout Addis Abeba have also received letters from their respective Kebele administrations ordering them to declare the identities of their guests who come from the countryside.
“I came to Addis Abeba from Awash to buy some household materials and pick my wedding suit which was ready at a tailor’s shop in Piassa. But I was arrested on September 10,” his letter narrates.
Alemayehu was then held at a police station commonly known in Addis Abeba as “Sidistegna” Police station located in the heart of the city. He was kept there incommunicado for about a month. No one from his family knew what happened to him. And he missed his wedding.
“I kept telling the police officers that I was only in town to prepare for my wedding, but they kept telling me I was in town to organize young people to protest. I had a few invitation cards that I was planning to give out to my friends and relatives living in the city. I never managed to give them as I was arrested the very next day after I arrived in the city. And even if I kept showing my wedding invitation cards to the police officers, no one wanted to believe me.”
Alemayehu joined hundreds of others detained under similar circumstances. Most of them are young Ethiopians and all of them were held incommunicado at several police stations in the city.
On October 02, the unthinkable happened when police fired shots at a gathering of millions of Oromo who came to celebrate the annual Ireechaa festival in Bishoftu town, 40 km south of the capital.
For many, the death by stamped of yet unverified numbers of Ethiopians at this sacred, otherwise peaceful festival was the turning point of the almost year-long anti-government protests that gripped the nation. A ‘five-day rage’ was called by online activists of the Oromo protests following what was quickly hashtaged as “IreechaaMassacre. It resulted in protesters attacking foreign owned businesses in several parts of the country. It also led to the near collapse of the country’s tourism industry, forced the government to declare the current SoE and to reshuffle the Prime Minister’s cabinet only a year after it was sworn in to the office.
But for Alemayehu and thousands of others detained pre and post the SoE, the ordeal has just began.
Three days after the decreeing on Oct. 9 of the sweeping SoE, which practically suspended most parts of the constitution, Alemayehu and “roughly 2000 others” held in police stations in Addis Abeba were transported to Awash Abra Military camp, not far away from Alemayehu’s birth place in Awash.
The military camp is one of the dozen camps throughout the country where tens of thousands of Ethiopians detained under the SoE are currently held.
The 2013 country report by the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor describes these camps as “unofficial detention centers throughout the country, including in Dedessa, Bir Sheleko, Tolay, Hormat, Blate, Tatek, Jijiga, Holeta, and Senkele. Most were located at military camps.”
“None of my family members, including my bride-to-be, knew I was there,” Alemayehu’s 3-pages letter recounts. All of them were told they were arrested by the “orders of the command post”, after they were transported to the camp. By now, the government announced that the command post was led by defense minister Siraj and was comprised of other unnamed senior officials.
“Hell breaks loose”
“Once inside the military camp, we were told we would undergo an ideological training on the current federal arrangement and we will be taught about the illegalities of the protests.”
According to Alemayehu’s letter, in the beginning, there were about 3,000 detains who came from the Oromia regional state. “But after a week, and the weeks that followed our numbers grew, in my estimate, to about 6000. We were told we would only be there for two weeks’ training and be released afterwards.”
Describing the situation inside the military camp, Alemayehu wrote: “It was the moment I experienced how hell breaks loose.”
“The heat is unbearable during day time, and at night the temperature drops to a freezing cold. There was only one meal a day (often bread) and the temporary corrugated iron shacks we were held inside had no running water, no toilets no sleeping places. Sometime in mid-October what looked like a cholera outbreak spread. We have seen many dead bodies being transferred out of the camp at night times.”
“I never wanted to see tomorrow”
The said training didn’t begin during the first week, Alemayehu’s letter further said, “but every night dozens of us would be called for investigations. I was lucky to not have been called for the night time investigations, but many of those who did often come back limping after being tortured beyond words.”
When the training began, it involved hours-long lectures given mostly by military officials on the legacy the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the history of the party he co-founded, TPLF, and the 17 years sacrifices its members had paid to overthrow the military Derg in 1991. It also included the ruling party’s economic ideology of building a developmental state, the concept of federalism and multi-party democracy, according to the letter.
“But most of the time, we would just sit there in the blazing sun, hungry and thirsty, waiting for the officials to arrive. Sometimes, nobody shows up and we would be told to return to the barracks and come back tomorrow morning. But I never wanted to see tomorrow. All I wanted was to die and end my misery.”
Two weeks into his ordeal at the military camp, Almayehu was released after a “police officer who knew who I was and what I did for living in Awash spotted me there.” “After what I think was this police officer’s attempt to help me, I was called one morning and told to pack up and be ready. There will be a car ready to transport me to Adama. That was it; no one to ask for justice; no one to ask for a letter to my employees, nothing.”
Alemayehu is back in Awash, from where he e-mailed us his letter. He is unemployed after the bank he was working for refused to take him back on “administrative grounds. I am now looking for a job.”
And he has since learned the devastating news of the disappearance of his fiancé. “Like me, no one knows where she is at now. I was told that after my mysterious disappearance she was struggling to face the possibilities that I may have simply deserted her. The last time she was seen in the town, where she was living with family members, was on Oct. 13, after that she has simply vanished; it is like she never existed.”
Alemayehu’s story of families torn apart and the hopelessness that follows resonates with hundreds and thousands of others who have been detained and still remain in one of the seven temporary detention facilities throughout the country.
A brief report released yesterday by the Ethiopia Human Right Project sampled 24 individuals, mainly opposition party members, bloggers, and journalists, who are currently detained under the SoE.
The three salient circumstances all the 24 detainees share in common are, according to the report: almost all remained detained without due court process; some have been informed of the reasons for their arrests after they were taken to the detention facilities; and some have not even been informed of the reason for their detention.
By all accounts, it is a story of the human cost in a country under a sweeping State of Emergency; a country where the news of the release of thousands would come too little too late to restore the hopes that were dashed, for some, forever. AS
It is now more than a year since the Oromo Protest for justice and democracy began in Ethiopia. It reverberated throughout Oromia and exposed the regime’s use of brutality to suppress and silence dissenting voices. But instead of waning, the struggle gained momentum when the Amhara youth in Gondar and Bahir Dar came out not only to demand justice for themselves but also carrying slogans asking the regime to stop the killings, arbitrary imprisonments, the torture and forced disappearances of innocent Oromo civilians.
Such protest is not only the first of its kind to vehemently challenge the quarter century uncontested rule of the TPLF dominated EPRDF in Ethiopia, but also has significantly shifted the overall power balance, mindsets and political dynamics in the country. It also inspired other peoples of Ethiopia to rise up for their rights and engaged all Oromo from east to west and from south to north irrespective of age, gender or religion. (The streets in Oromia were overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of protesters including a 77-year-old grandmother who went out with her stick in a brave act of defiance against the regime’s brutality.)
Because the protest has, beyond its initial call against land dispossession, evolved into a struggle for freedom, a resistance against injustice, and a longing for a dignified life, no amount of force or of coercion was able to suppress it, let alone stop it. A year on, it is now safe to conclude that this nationwide protest has already planted itself in the hearts and minds of millions of oppressed people as the most significant event of the year.
The protests and the public debates that followed have also impacted others’ views on the long-standing plights of the Oromo and the Amhara, the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Prior to these protests hardly anyone understood, much less publicly recognized, the sacrifices paid by the Oromo and the Amhara to live a dignified life in their own country. Above all, it exposed how successive regimes in Ethiopia have marginalized, denied and robbed these two groups of their ability to develop and flourish as human beings in their own country.
What a demanding public exposed
Inspired by these protests, currently, Ethiopians all over the country are asking their government to protect and respect their economic, social and cultural rights as well as their civil and political rights. But at the same time, the government’s response is helping the people of Ethiopia to realize that it has almost no leadership capacity to respond to their demands. Ethiopians now see that their government is dysfunctional and its leadership in crisis; what exists and functions is a dissonant leadership that exacerbates conflict, driving the society into a downward spiral from frustration to resentment, and perpetuates antagonism and hostility.
Throughout the year, the ruling party has demonstrated no notable leadership capacity; not one political leader has spoken authentically to the hearts and the minds of the people in order to solve the common problem amicably. Instead of making an effort to lead through this crisis and face the challenge by creating an accommodating environment for all Ethiopians, the ruling party cliques have remained empty demagogues who keep on sending divisive messages and wielding their power by fear-mongering techniques.
Beyond the call for freedom and justice, the Oromo and Amhara protests, as well as the defiance in various parts of the country including from the people of Konso in the south and Tigray in the north, have exposed the truth about EPRDF’s leadership capacity, which was mystified by ‘*seventeen years of relentless struggle and tested leadership to defeat the largest military in Africa*’. It is now clear that it is nothing more than an empty ideological rhetoric and a means to frighten, belittle and silence people who ask difficult questions and challenge the system. But that doesn not mean than the rest of Ethiopians do not recognize and appreciate the sacrifices and the agony the Tigray people have paid for seventeen years to oust the military dictatorship. However, it is not hard to see that the TPLF, which was born out of this struggle and had led this protracted war to victory, and the regime it dominates, have turned out to be an authoritarian regime.
There for good or bad
Although the yearlong nationwide protests led by the Oromo and the Amhara, as well as others to various degrees, have exposed the regime’s inability to bring in meaningful political leadership, for good or bad, the TPLF dominated EPRDF is the government in power which, for now, will determine the course of actions to respond to the current struggle for justice and democracy.
There is a possibility that the TPLF dominated EPRDF might take one of the following two courses of actions. Both have a potential to direct or misdirect the current call for democracy and justice in two mutually exclusive directions.
First course of action: road to democratization and peace
The first direction and course of action the TPLF dominated EPRDF may consider is the road to democracy and sustainable peace. However, reversing the current dire political condition and responding to the needs of the people requires it to recognize and understand the need for change; it requires embracing the change and transformation the people want to realize through a democratic process.
Hard as it may be, the following course of actions should precede any other course of action to start the democratization process.
Restore the constitution – build trust and confidence of citizens around the constitution by making it a practical document. Arguably, this means the regime itself should begin respecting the constitution and lead by example.
Scrap laws and policies which are against the constitution and which prevent citizens from exercising their democratic rights enshrined in the constitution. These include, but not limited to, scrapping the Anti-Terrorism Law, which is so far mainly used to silence citizens and violate their rights than persecute suspected terrorists; amending the draconian press law, which is so far used to violate citizens’ right to freedom of expression and access to information; scrapping the Civil Society and Charities Law, which is prohibiting the growth of independent civil society organizations which are the pillars of non-state actors in the development of democracy and human rights in the country.
Release all political prisoners unconditionally. Obviously, once the laws and procedures, which often undermine the constitution, are lifted there is no reason to keep people in prison.
Reform, among others, the justice system, the police, security forces and prison administrations as well as the election board, the anti-corruption commission, the human rights commission, and the state-controlled media.
The ruling party would lose nothing for taking this revolutionary action. In fact, it would help it to breath; to objectively address its current leadership crisis and reemerge as a legitimate political force. It would also provide it with the opportunity to think strategically.
Change is a natural state, which we cannot completely control or make predictable. It is overwhelming and chaotic, but rewarding at the end. The most important step to start the process of change is by being bold, letting go of the old and rigid ways of thinking and governing. The regime in Ethiopia has to come out of its fear of change and see the bigger picture; it should relax its grips on old practices, which did not contribute to its own growth or to that of the rest of the country for the last 25 years.
There is no question that by taking such bold actions, the TPLF dominated EPRDF has a comparative advantage over other political groupings currently operating in the country. As it has shown in the past it can rehabilitate itself quicker than others and appear as a viable political organization in the years to come.
Above all, this action ensures the continuity of the democratization processes by engaging citizens to determine their own future and relieves the existing state-citizen tensions. If this is done, the healing process, as well as the peace and reconciliation process will be relatively easier. Ultimately, this approach also guarantees the existence and continuity of Ethiopia as a nation home to all its citizens.
Implications for a protesting nation
This peaceful democratization process can bring change and transformation to the people of Ethiopia in general and the Oromo in particular, who are the largest ethnic group in the country and have been the driving force of the nationwide protests. As a result, the Oromo struggle for democracy and justice might fall under one of the following two scenarios.
First is the scenario in which Oromo elites, by the virtue of being a middle class, by affiliation to any Oromo-related organization, or by their prior personal experience come together and create a consortium, a democratic front, or a party to lead a meaningful struggle. This may, in turn, render irrelevant disorganized struggles, which often hamper or even take hostage the Oromo struggle for freedom and justice.
The physical and emotional separation and distance of the Oromo elites from the struggle on the ground may at times prevent them from sensing and living the struggle itself. Unless the democratic process on the ground creates room to accommodate all dissenting voices both from within and abroad, those who have the leadership capacity and the necessary political know-how cannot provide adaptive leadership or have the empathetic capacity to connect to the mass, particularly with the young generation that is both leading and shouldering the brunt of the struggle.
The second is a scenario in which the need to phase out the old and replace it with the new thinking and political organization both within the country and abroad takes precedence. The Oromo Protest and the current awakening is a painful form of labor to give birth to a new dynamic and profound political organization fit for the 21st century.
For this new Oromo organization to be born and to become the vanguard of the struggle, all old Oromo organizations, which were and still are trying to contribute under different names and ideologies, have to die a natural death and give way to new thinking and new possibilities. The new will have the energy and capacity to unify and transform the Oromo to a higher level and lead the struggle to victory. Like the TPLF, all Oromo organizations which existed for decades and have tried to contribute, albeit less successfully, have reached their maximum limit and are in need of reform.
The struggle between the old and the new is natural – even our cells are continually dying and being reborn. The Safuvalue, which is unique to Oromo culture and psyche, reaffirms this natural process, which urges the old to peacefully pass the scepter to the new.
Qeerro, the emboldened youth (as the name implies) is currently filling the leadership gap and taking the responsibility of leading the resistance against the current government, even as they are met with brutal responses. The Qeerro is successful in amplifying the struggle to all corners of Oromia and beyond, as well as inspiring all Oromos irrespective of age, religion, gender, class and locality. It has also unified the Oromo under the motto of ‘Tokkummaa’ (oneness or unity) and the ‘Say No’ or ‘Diidnee’ slogan.
Above all, by flying the resistance flag (not the OLF flag) the Qeerro demonstrated that the flag is the sign of freedom for which all revolutionary Oromos sacrificed their lives even long before OLF was created. It has raised this flag because it embodies hope and reminds all Oromos about those beautiful young people who died flying it. Therefore, to lead the struggle to its final destination, the current Qeerro movement is in the stage of development to come out with the new leadership and organization from within its rank and file. Many think that Qeerro is just the network of youth from colleges, high schools, and elementary schools who are just driven by social media. But the fact is there are engineers, professors, medical doctors, businesspeople, and other professionals who are part of the rank and file of the Qeerro.
When the situation is ripe and there is a favorable political environment, the Qeerro can easily transform into a political organization. It is this organization and leadership of the Oromo which can navigate the ship towards freedom through the storm and onto its final destination. It is time this passion gets a new leadership it deserves.
Status quo: The second course of action for TPLF/EPRDF
The above scenario is in the event that the ruling party takes the course to democratize through reform. The second course of action is about maintaining the status quo. But it is a dangerous choice; a choice of war. It is about TPLF/EPRDF refusing to bring change from within itself and the country as a whole.
This is also a choice that looks for easy answers; but it is not the easy way out of the current quagmire. It is easy because it does not require critical thinking and having difficult conversations. This course of action is a decision to repress and silence the current cry for democracy and human rights through the barrel of the gun. It is about war and involving its armed force, intelligence, federal police and militia in the internal issues of the country to brutally suppress the uprising. By doing so, it will only intensify the conflict to a higher level and bring human and property losses to the level the country and the people of Ethiopia can no longer endure.
Unfortunately, this is what we are witnessing today; military forces killing, arresting and torturing citizens on behalf of a regime in power. The impending consequence is that they will never be regarded as a national army delegated to protect the constitution, and will be labeled only as the enemy of the people.
In addition to its military solution to the conflict, TPLF/EPRDF is getting into its age-old habit of manipulating and drawing other nations and nationalities into a civil war; perpetuate religious conflict in different places by pitting one religion against the other; and create conflicts between rural people/farmers and urban dwellers. But it should be known that this will benefit no one, including the ruling party itself.
What is next?
Inspired by the yearlong Oromo and Amhara protests the rest of Ethiopians have made it loud and clear that they need a fundamental change; they have been saying so for 25 years, too. Ethiopians have tried with all their might and used every means possible to make their voices heard and have time and again proclaimed a moment of reckoning for a paradigm shift. Alas, instead of objectively and purposefully responding to this popular demand, the government is stuck into its old tactics of blaming, accusing, and intimidating people.
Now in a frantic act to quell and pacify the protests and silence the voices of the oppressed, in October this year the government declared a state of emergency for six months. However, the state of emergency is doing more harm than good and its implementation is driving millions to the edge of bitterness. The sooner the ruling party realizes that such techniques are only good to temporarily pacify rising public demands, the better. The only road to bring lasting solution is the road that begins by protecting the constitution and striving to build a democratic country with respect for human rights and the rule of law. This is also true for opposition political organizations, which are operating both in the country and abroad.
The underlying cause for the current protest and uprising is the struggle between the old and the new. The old is trying to do everything in its capacity to extend its life while the new is striving to shape and realize the new world it is envisioning.
For the good of all, the old (self and system) has to be courageous enough to accept and let go of its old organization, thinking, and power; it has to accept the inevitable.
The people of Ethiopia in general and the Oromo youth in particular, are determined to leave the past behind and move forward. They don’t want to be chained to and distracted by the past, which contributes less for the wellbeing of today and humanity of tomorrow.
Only when the old gives way to the new do citizens develop trust and confidence in a political system and themselves to take the responsibility of contributing to a democratic society and prosperous nation.
P. 5 – #IrreechaMassacre: The day that changed the game (By Addis Standard staffs)
“I saw people who had fallen inside ditches and deeper pits. I saw people who had no one to pick them up. I saw people suffocated by the smoke of the tear gas”
P.8 – A survivor’s account (By Bekel Atoma Boruu)
“Those who ran to save their lives from the teargas bombs and the gun shots pulled themselves and one another to the nearby 6 meters long ditch in front of the podium. The tear gas bomb thrown at the mass increased the number of people running to the ditch not seeing what is in front of them; besides they were blinded by the heavy smoke from tear gas”
P.10 – Irreecha is sacred! We cannot let them take it away (By Ayantu Ayana)
“I keep asking myself how dare they kill on sacred grounds and on a sacred day. How dare they? All those people muddied and bloodied in their beautiful and colorful clothes. All those lives lost. Should mourning be all we do these days? “
P. 13 – Into the heart of Irreecha: Why is it so important to the Oromo? (Buli Edjeta Jobir, Guest Writer)
“An amazing part of the Irreecha ceremony is its absolute orderliness, the reigning of absolute peaceful aura, the showering of love and mutual respect, the sense of oneness and unity. In all the Irreecha ceremonies recorded over the last two decades, after its first rejuvenation, there has never been a single stampede or injury recorded.”
P. 17 – Irreecha: A defining moment in a hallowed land (By Prof. Ezekiel Gebissa, Special to Addis Standard)
“In 2016, it was clear that the largest gathering of Oromos from Oromia’s all corners would be a scene of expression of anger in the wake of the government’s brutal crackdown of Oromo protests during the preceding ten months.
One of Ethiopia’s few independent magazines has suspended its print edition after the government imposed a restrictive state of emergency in the country.
The editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard, Tsedale Lemma, told AFP that printers and vendors were afraid to be involved in producing the monthly publication in case the government interpreted it as dissent. “We have tried to convince them that the state of emergency only targets ‘inciteful material’ but they fear this can be interpreted and abused,” said Lemma.
Around half of the Standard’s 23 full-time staff are expected to lose their jobs. While the print edition is suspended indefinitely, Lemma said that the digital edition would continue and that new podcasts were in the pipeline. The English-language magazine had been in print continuously since February 2011.
Ethiopian people read newspapers a day before the country’s general election, Addis Ababa, May 22, 2015. Most of Ethiopia’s press is state-controlled.TIKSA NEGERI/REUTERS
Ethiopia’s press is largely controlled by the government. The country is ranked 142 out of 180 nations in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by international NGO Reporters Without Borders. Ethiopia arrested ten journalists in 2015, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn brought in the six-month state of emergency on October 9 following months of deadly clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters.
The clashes had intensified after at least 50 people died in a stampede during the Irreecha festival, an annual religious gathering held by members of the Oromo ethnic group. Protesters said that security forces provoked the stampede by firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd.
Under the state of emergency, Ethiopians are barred from using social media to contact so-called “outside forces” and are not allowed to watch certain television channels that are based outside the country. The government is also cracking down on gestures of dissent, including crossed arms above the head, which has become associated with the Oromo protests and was demonstrated at the Rio 2016 Olympics by Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa.
Protests begun among the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, in November 2015 against government plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa. The government abandoned the plans in January, but demonstrations have continued and spread to the Amhara, the country’s second-largest ethnicity.
Human Rights Watch said in June that 400 people had been killed in the course of the demonstrations, and there have been several incidents since—including the Irreecha stampede and clashes in the Amhara region in August, in which almost 100 people reportedly died. The Ethiopian government has denied that the death toll is as high as rights groups say.
“What is being seen right now is that people come out to protest, EPRDF kills. It is trying to govern by the force of arms, but the Ethiopian people are not going to accept that. If things continue this way, we are getting into a very dangerous road. Talking about development while refusing to protect the rights and freedoms of the people, who are the main instruments of development, is both insanity and an embarrassment. Any dictatorial regime can build infrastructure but development, in its essence, is intertwined with the rights and freedoms of the people who benefit from it. Unless EPRDF tries to seek its legitimacy from respecting these rights and freedoms, it is taking the country in a wrong way, to a very dangerous place where there might be carnages.”
(Addis Standard) — Born in Mekelle, the Capital of the Tigray regional state in the north, Gebru Asrat became one of the early members of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopia’s all too powerful member of the governing coalition, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). But Gebru left EPRDF in early 2000 following a major split within TPLF in the wake of the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Prior to that Gebru served as the president of the Tigray Regional State from 1991 – 2001 and was one of the top executive members of the TPLF’s politburo as well as the executive member of EPRDF. After leaving EPRDF, Gebru established the opposition Arena Tigray and became its chairman in 2007. Today Arena Tigray is one of the member parties of the larger opposition block, MEDREK. In 2014, Gebru has published an acclaimed book: “LualawinetEna Democracy Be Ethiopia” (Sovereignty and Democracy in Ethiopia). Addis Standard’s
Addis Standard – In your 2014 book “Democracy and Sovereignty in Ethiopia” you argued that TPLF’s culture of secrecy had helped its eventual triumph in overthrowing the militarist Derg and most of the party’s followers were indoctrinated with the propaganda of Stalinist determination. What’s the context of that culture, if you will, in light of the current situation in the TPLF-dominated-EPRDF led Ethiopia?
GebruAsrat – TPLF was initially formed to pursue a political struggle. In order to meet that political goal through military means, it had established an army. This is one of its features. In its early days TPLF was a Marxist Leninist party. An army needs prudence [and] caution; secrets are not needed to be passed to the opposing group or to the enemy. But there is also fierce centralism which comes from the Marxist Leninist ideology.
These two factors [contributed to TPLF’s culture of secrecy] and helped it for the success of the armed struggle. But later on, after the armed struggle came to an end [with victory] TPLF denounced the Marxist Leninist ideology, and its militarist approach was seemingly replaced by a political program. But what TPLF did was to remove the flesh from its Stalinism structure, not the bone and the skeleton. It kept the skeleton so that it would help it to rule the people of Ethiopia. It did so by using the fundamental principles of centralism; there is the rule of one party, which now they call the dominant party under the guise of revolution ary democracy. The party kept its culture of secrecy and its centralism principle because they are convenient to rule [with an iron first].All the talks about democracy, justice, equality and the rule of law were eventually abandoned. Although it somehow shifted the gear to Capitalism during the early days of its rule the transition was not clear either. The party didn’t completely abandon the old Marxist Leninist ways; it selected what it needed to rule, to maintain its power and sustained them. Transparency was lost and a highly centralized one party dominated system was established. This secretive nature of the dominant TPLF and its refusal to be open to the public has impacted the democratization process of the country. More than that the features it has brought from the Marxist Leninist ideology like centralism, the concept of a dominant party and revolutionary democracy has eventually hampered the road to democracy and gave way to our reality today in which one party does whatever it wants.
AS – There are people who argue that TPLF betrayed its initial noble goals, which were its foundations, after it assumed power. But judging from what you just said above (its culture of secrecy and its loyalty to an out-of-date ideology) one could say that the formation of TPLF was essentially flawed from the very beginning. And it seems that the problems we are witnessing today are the manifestations of those flaws. Am I correct?
GA – We have to clarify this in two ways: there are those who argue that TPLF’s noble goals could have only been attained through [the guiding principles of] Marxist Leninist ideology. I was one of those who believed in this. I used to fully believe that other ways of democratization were wrong; that it would not bring equality, liberty and justice. It was a mixture of belief, philosophy and ideology. So people who saw [the party’s last minute conversion to capitalism] felt they were betrayed. Many of the old guard (the old cadres), were carved in this way, so they clearly felt betrayed. On the other hand there were those even in that time who asked [if TPLF] shouldn’t have to be a democratic organization in which a marketplace of ideas were entertained. People who saw things from this perspective felt like the Marxist Leninist ideology, in its essence, could not have brought democracy. These were people who felt betrayed from the very beginning. At the end both of them have lost. There is no democracy; and there was no Marxist Leninist as it was envisioned in the beginning. Those ardent Marxist Leninist ideology supporters were betrayed because at the dawn of victory when the rebel soldiers entered into the capital the ideology was not even to be mentioned. And those who yearned for democracy were also betrayed because we ended up having a system of one dominant party rule.
AS – In chapter two of your book you explained the rocky relationship that often existed between TPLF and other armed groups that were operating in the country during the armed struggle. As someone who has been in the inner circles of the TPLF both during the armed struggle and afterwards, how do you characterize this nature of TPLF as a party vis a vis its relationship with the other sister parties within the governing coalition of EPRDF?
GA – Yes I have written that TPLF often ended its relationships with other armed groups, which did not identify with it, by force and war. That was during the time of the armed struggle. Now, these four parties that make up the EPRDF are sister parties. More than that they say they have the same program and objective. But even in that case, there is something that must be known: these parties are not unified and it is not clear why. If they do not have a program difference, if they have similar national visions, if they do not have a principle or ideology difference, as they claim, they should have been one national party [or] should have formed a unity. But this didn’t happen because there is this notion that EPRDF can keep the interests of each party, so it stayed this way for 25 years.
As it is known, of the four parties the one with the highest influence and the most veteran is TPLF. The amount of influence TPLF has, or we should rather say had, on other parties is not a minor one. This is not visible during eventless and peaceful times. But when there is a problem, things start to surface. For example in 2000, when EPRDF as a governing coalition was hit by a serious crisis, the value of these parties began to be measured by their loyalties to the late MelesZenawi, or TPLF. The leaders of some of these parties have even found themselves in dangerous positions. Senior party members who have a sense of independence were kicked out and were replaced by others. This is to say that during the times of peace, the parties appear to be equal. Gradually this led the umbrella party to become what we can call a one man tyranny. As a result every party or member, who is not loyal, has faced difficulties.
But now there appear to be changes following the death of MelesZenawi, which had a very big tactical implication to EPRDF. The late Meles was a leader who managed to control and rule all the parties as well as the army. After his death all the parties within EPRDF, or rather senior leaders within those parties, have nominated him/herself to be the next Meles, showing visible signs of an increasing distance between the four parties.
AS – In the past intra-party or intra-region conflicts which are common in federal states like Ethiopia were effectively managed by TPLF/EPDRF. This was attributed to the absence of the role of opposition parties in any of the regions. Since EPRDF governs all the regions, it has found it to be easier to manage potential intra-party or intra-region conflicts. But recent regional squabbles, for example between the Amhara and Tigray regions, seem to be on the rise. These are not simply expressions of discontent by the people of the two regions. They are rather conflicts between the two parties governing the two regions. What is at the bottom of this? These are two parties under the same umbrella. What does this say about the two parties which are seemingly loyal to the principles of the mother party EPRDF?
GA – We can call these parties one and at the same time four. They are one because they have a common program and a national vision. On the other hand they are parties formed to maintain the interests of their individual regional interests. So this problem, even if it was not as accentuated as now, was seen before, especially in border issues. There were problems about border demarcation between Tigray and Amhara in two particular places; one in Wolkait, specifically in the place called Dansha; the second around Agaw, in the area called Abergede. There were conflicts. At the end of the day what are these parties loyal to? Their own regions or the country in general? It is not clear. Even if we see them as members of one party, they are also four different entities. So they give precedence for their respective regions. This in itself creates conflicts; here it is expressed in the form of border conflict. It might as well be expressed in a different form. In benefits, in budget, for instance.So it can stem from the regional interest each party is trying to pursue. But essentially the Wolkait situation can be resolved by following the dictates of the Constitution. The same with Addis Abeba and Oromia. They can be solved following the Constitution. But the questions raised by the public go beyond that. They are questions of basic rights and liberties. They are questions of justice. They are questions of governorship. But in EPRDF’s Ethiopia whenever there is a problem, there is a tendency to externalize the sources. They point fingers at others. They are even saying that the public movement we are seeing now is the doing of the Eritrean government, the doings of our enemies from abroad. I think it is pure insanity to assume that millions are bought by the enemy; it is insane to assume that the Eritrean government has the power, in our country, to mobilize all these people. This externalization is also visible in other ways; whenever there is a problem in Oromia, the others see it as the fault line of OPDO. Whenever there is a problem in Amhara, the others point their fingers at ANDM and so on. They do not see it as a national problem. So when big problems, like we are witnessing now, occur, they tend to pull each other. We have seen it in 2000. It was triggered by the Eritrean question and how sovereignty was handled. There are problems within one party, let alone a front of four parties that are not unified.
AS – Ethiopia is experiencing frequent protests almost in every corner. With that in mind some prominent veterans say TPLF/EPRDF is at a crossroads and they are calling for a reform from within. What is your take on that? Do you agree that their prescription of reform within the TPLF/EPRDF is what a better Ethiopia needs now?
In my view TPLF was at the crossroads for a long time now. It’s been a long time but now it is very clear. It is failing to even manage the situation in its own backyard. There are demonstrations, for example the one in Embasenet. There is public discontent. There are questions of absence of good governance and democracy, and the presence of rampant corruption. These problems, through time, have penetrated into the party itself. Last year in August and September when the TPLF held its convention, the questions were raised from within the party. Party members were saying that the party was not in the right track. They criticized TPLF for being so weak that it can’t even manage its own region properly let alone impact the wider country. These questions are still alive. Now the situation is very critical. For an entire year, there have been public gatherings, public meetings by members of civil servants and the society at large. But as [Albert] Einstein said it well it’s insanity to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. They have tried it for more than twenty years without a change. And now we have reached at a tipping point. This problem cannot be solved in a similar way unless there is a fundamental change in the country. So these people, my older comrades, appear to be concerned by this reality. I agree with the analyses they give about the presence of a critical situation in the country. I see their initiation to do this as a much needed positive move. However, when we come to solutions they subscribed, I must say that, they have said what I have said personally and as a member of Arena Tigray Party, which is also a member of the larger Medrek. We, as a party, have long put what we saw as the solutions to the problems in Ethiopia on several occasions. Fundamental democratic change is needed, much different from what EPRDF is following right now. If there is no democratization in Ethiopia, the problems will keep on escalating and they will put the country in a very dangerous situation. So I agree with some of what they had to say personally. But there are also suggestions that revolutionary democracy is still right. I disagree with that. It is not right. It hasn’t been right. It never worked. It cannot be a means to cultivate democracy. In fact it chokes it to death. And those commentators are saying that they agree with the principles of the developmental state. This is a scheme to put the entire economy in the hands of the state; to put the land, the budget, the country’s wealth in the hands of the state to oppress the others more easily. So I don’t agree. I do not have any problem with the government putting its hand in the economy. But like the way it is now, when the government controls everything, it becomes wrong. But the main thing is they have seen it that the country is in a critical state. And there are some solutions they suggested, like mass public discussions. But I don’t have the naiveté to believe that EPRDF is capable of reforming itself. I don’t believe that. To be fair, these are not the only solutions they suggested. They also recommended the party to have a dialogue with other opposition parties and to open the political space, which I agree with. If EPRDF reforms itself it might be useful for it. However I, as an opposition, and as someone who is a member of a party representing an alternative way, I say, as long as democracy is not practiced in its entirety, I don’t see a way out of this quagmire for Ethiopia. There will not be justice. A fundamental change is what is needed; not a mending reform.
AS – But do you believe TPLF/EPRDF is capable of reforming itself? The language of reform has been applied for over 15 years. It’s been that long since the late MelesZenawi himself admitted EPRDF was ‘rotten’ inside out. Can TPLF/EPRDF reform itself or is the fear that if it does it might bring in its own demise takes precedence? Which one do you believe in: is it the unwillingness or the incapacity to reform that’s holding it back?
In my view reform can come in two ways; from the forces within or from the outside public. In TPLF/EPRDF when they talk about reform, it is all about keeping the status quobecause on many of the important questions the party falters. They believe any change must happen over the graves of the party. They say they are ready to debate but they are not open for debate because they are afraid; they work from the assumption that any change on the status quo will be dangerous for them. They tried it after the split in 2000 and during elections in 2005, but the results became overwhelming. So they used all means to close until they ended up taking a 100 per cent of the parliamentary seats. They have managed to have eight million members in an attempt to control every village. The recent statement by Prime Minister HailemariamDesalegn can be read in this light. For over a year, he has been saying they have problems of all sorts. But recently he resorted to force as a means to relinquish these pubic demands. All he said was they have the military power and they can control the situation forcefully. He didn’t solicit political legitimacy. He didn’t see democratization as a solution, unless nominally. So far the way TPLF/EPRDF follows is guided by the principle that it controls the army, the police and the intelligence to rule the country with an iron fist. So the pressures witnessed from within are not making TPLF/EPRDF to reform. Now we have to wait and see how the public demands are pressurizing them into having a reform.
AS – Perhaps getting into the bottom of the party’s way of governing the county may help us understand on whether or not applying the language of reform could yield any result. You have, for instance, served as the president of the Tigray Regional state for about ten years. And one of the long standing problems of TPLF/EPRDF is its failure to implement the federal system as stipulated in the constitution. You had a chance to see how exactly that was played out during your presidency. How do you evaluate, for example, the fault lines in the federal-regional nexus? And what’s its contribution to the current crisis?
GA – This is a good question. Constitutionally speaking Ethiopia is a federated country. There are authority levels and limitations between the Federal government and the Regional governments. But the Constitution is not functioning. EPRDF is not practicing the Constitution. The fundamental rights and freedoms stipulated in the constitution are not respected. They are being muzzled. Human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of organization, are to mention few. My opinion is that the government is not operating following the Constitution. It must be known that EPRDF is a highly centralized party which has and follows its own program outside of the Constitution. There is nothing like revolutionary democracy in the Constitution; it is a liberal constitution. There is no centralism in the Constitution. The Constitution is designed in such a fabulous manner only to appease the public and the wider world. But what is practiced is EPRDF’s party program. The party releases so many regulations and directives and that is what is used to govern the county. Almost all these papers are written to ensure the hegemony of one party. And all the cadres are guided by these papers. The ‘shared-rule’ and ‘self-rule principles of federalism cannot work in a highly centralized party. Let me make myself an example. [In 2000] the split within TPLF occurred. When the split occurred, I was the President of Tigray Regional government. I was elected by the Tigray people. But I was sacked by the central government. This means that the people have no right at all. The party ousts, sacks anybody that it wants to. The regional government, the regional entity has no power at all. This didn’t happen only to me. Abate Kisho, the president of the Southern regions was sacked in a similar manner. In Benishangul and Gambella and Somali regional states the leaders are changed frequently by the order from the EPRDF office. This flawed operation of the Federal system is just one example. But it works in all aspects. The justice system suffers from similar fate as is the military. EPRDF’s central hand is stretched in every aspect.
AS – Often time people talk about first 2000 and then 2005 being the turning points or the downward spiral in the country’s democratic experiment. The implications of these assertions are that all was well before 2000. You were the President of a Regional government before the first turning point in 2000. Do you believe that the country was on the right track before that?
GA– There are two things here: on the one hand I was the President of a regional state, on the other I was a member of EPRDF’s central committee as part of TPLF’s Executive Committee. Decisions were always made not by the regional parliament but by the party’s Executive committee. After that happened, the decision was taken to the public. In what I mentioned earlier as democratic centralism, it is not possible to refuse this. Even if it was wrong, you can’t refuse it. Of course there are possibilities to convince the committeeby raising arguments but it was up to the committee, not the public. One of the flaws of the system, I believe, is this. The party members are everywhere. They are in the Federal system. They are in the civil service structure. And they decide based on the instructions that they receive from above, from the party. Not according to what the public demand and need in every aspect. It must be known that the cause of public resentment, especially now, is this. What the people need is one thing, the party’s interest is another. There is a gap. When I look back at what was happening in the party then, there were arguments and dialogues but when it comes to the relationship between the Federal government and regional states, the dominance lies within the party. It makes the decisions.
AS – Despite these blatant failure of the ruling party to implement the federalism arrangement many people, including some opposition parties, point their fingers at the ethnic (some call it linguistic) federalism to be the main cause of the problem the country finds itself today. What is your opinion of that? Do you think the federalism arrangement is something that is worth protecting or something to blame for the country’s problems today?
GA – I don’t agree with such accusations. Federalism can be arranged in various ways. Now, what we have here in Ethiopia is an ethnic Federalism arrangement. There can also be a Federal arrangement based on geography. But the main thing is not this; the main thing is whether there is a condition for the pubic to choose these freely. Is there a condition to protect the people’s rights and freedoms? I believe that is the fundamental thing. As long as there is no democracy, there is going to be a problem. I mean, if there is a democratic system, those things can be debated upon. If the people don’t like them, the people can change them. But in the absence of democracy, there can’t even be a debate. So what I say is the source to all problems is lack of democratic practices, rights and freedoms by and for the public. As I said earlier the current federalism is not practiced rightly. It’s just nominal. Yes, people work in their own languages, they celebrate their cultures. But when it comes to essential decisions, the Federal arrangement is not functioning at all. As long as there is a dominance of one party, federalism, ethnic or geographical, cannot function. I don’t think the root of Ethiopian problems is this arrangement. Problems were there long before the system came in place. TPLF and OLF and others started armed struggle in the absence of this arrangement. It was the lack of democracy. In fact what I believe is that, the structuring of the current system has lessened ethnic resentments. What the Ethiopian people, including intellectuals should focus on is the absence or presence of democracy. Rights and freedoms must be respected. Without doing this all the attempts will be futile. What I am saying is that this is not the root cause of all problems the country is facing today. It is the dominance of one party and the lack of basic democratic practices.
AS – When you say the dominance of one party, are you saying EPRDF in general or TPLF’s dominance over EPRDF?
GA – To make it clear, I don’t think EPRDF is a non-existent entity. Their level of power might be different but OPDO is an existing party. ANDM is an existing party. I don’t think those parties are free from taking responsibilities from whatever is happening in the country. I don’t think they have no influence on what is going on. TPLF used to be the most influential one; I doubt if it is like this now. It’s not clear. When I see what is going on and ask if TPLF has the level of influence it used to have, I have [doubts]. But even if TPLF is the most influential party, the other three cannot be exempted from taking the blame.
AS – What do you mean when you say TPLF might not have the level of influence it once has? The protests in Oromia throughout the year and quite recently in Amhara have laid bare not only the level of public discontent, but also the deep seated dissatisfactions by the two parties representing the two regions, the OPDO and ANDM against the all too powerful TPLF. Do you agree with that?
GA – I find it difficult to answer this question with full certainty. However I tried to explain it earlier. Whenever there is a problem, pointing fingers is very common. In my opinion, for the lack of democracy in the country, for the muzzling of rights and freedoms, and for the rampant corruption all member parties of the EPRDF are blameworthy. They participated in the thievery; they have participated in the oppression so they can’t claim innocence. But as I said earlier pointing fingers is very common. TPLF points its fingers at others. It says it has been betrayed as the recent article on Aigaforum claims. It is nothing more than casting blame on others. And the fact is in a union that was not formed in a democratic way, this is inevitable. Because whenever individuals or groups become stronger the others develop a sentiment of antipathy. When I see TPLF and others, I don’t think the lower level party members think like the leadership. I don’t think the leadership has enough control, influence, on its own members, like it used to have. It’s weak now. Each party has more than a million members. Those members can’t even control what’s going on in oneKebele, or in one Woreda. So when this happens, instead of saying this happens because of us, because of the roads we follow, they say it’s all about failed implementation, even worse, they say it’s because some betrayed us. It’s an inevitable accusation.
AS – What do you think is the best way to address the country’s not only political and economic but also historical crisis without causing a regrettable outcome? What do you see as prescription for redemption, if you will?
GA– As I see Ethiopia is a country at the verge of crisis. In this regard I agree with what my previous comrades have written about. The crisis is created. In this reality, there are things not just politicians but also the general public must think about. The first one is that in Ethiopia there is lack of one strong guiding vision. So the main thing, I think, is to have a consensus of vision for the country. When I say this I am not denying the fact that each party has its own vision. But it has become a country without a vision which can gather people around. So in order to salvage the country out of this crisis, we must have more dialogues, more ideas. We need ideas, strong ideas that can gather the public together. But since ideas are not enough, strong institutions are needed. Strong parties are needed. By this I don’t mean dominant party.I think Ethiopia lacks strong national parties that can gather people of all spectrums together. Some of them incline too much to their region. Some others deny the questions of nations and ethnicity; they claim to be national but their influence doesn’t transcend from one region. So I don’t see alternatives in which strong parties with strong vision can be created. We evaluate EPRDF on many parameters and we understand that the party is finding it difficult to bring forth solutions to the problems the country is facing. Or we are saying the party is in crisis. But we must also ask does the alternative certainly has principles and organizations that can bring forth change? We can’t bring in change using the same ideas. What Ethiopia needs is a change of ideas. Besides that there is yet another question that must be raised. Before now, during the Derg and Imperial regimes, there were problems in the country such as lack of democracy, lack of justice, lack of equality. But the country somehow survived these problems and stayed as one. We should be careful that the current situation isn’t any different. What I see now dominantly, among the radical opposition and EPRDF alike, is the proliferation of racial or ethnic hatred. We can see that in the state owned and affiliated media there is a proliferation of mixing the ruling party with the people. This will lead us to irrevocable conflicts. There is no weak area in this regard, even if it is small. But sadly EPRDF is using it to its advantage. To put it bluntly, TPLF is doing a lot of mobilization saying to the [Tigray] people that chauvinists are going to invade them and they should gather around it. It is trying to make the [Tigray] people believe that all the critiques it is receiving are critiques not against the party but against the [Tigray] people. This is very dangerous. Similarly there are others who mix up the party and the people and spread rumors that the Tigayans are about to do this or that to this or that people. The opposition finds it easy to collect followers by telling people that what’s happening to them is done to them by Tigrayans. The ruling party is doing the same. They have been doing it for quite a long time actually. Every time an election approaches they tell the people in Tigray that chauvinist Amharas are going to engulf them. And they tell the Amhara that narrow Oromos are coming to destroy them. And for the Oromo they say the chauvinists are going to sabotage them. This is an age old way of the party. And I believe that it has contributed to what is going on now. If religious leaders in this country were not followers and executers of EPRDF’s program who never slide an inch from the party’s dictates, they would have been important in looking for solutions for the country’s problems. The intellectuals and religious leaders must be part of the solution. So what I see as a strategy to get out of this quagmire is there must be an organization with a strong vision which can be an alternative to the EPRDF and which can gather the people of Ethiopia around this vision.
AS – Owing to this monumental failure to uphold the rule of law, many people say the ruling party in Ethiopia has forced its relationship with the people of Ethiopia to become violent. Your own party Arena Tigray has been pushed left and right to a point where peaceful politicking has become virtually impossible. This is leading many people to say that the idea of armed struggle is now becoming the last resort to deal with EPRDF. As a party which is denied the means to a peaceful struggle, do you see Arena Tigray responding to EPRDF’s dominance in what many say is the only means EPRDF understands: armed struggle?
GA – Your question is right. EPRDF is pushing the people, especially the youth, to the extreme. It made me recall a Central Committee member we once had. He raised an argument that with EPRDF in power it’s impossible to have a peaceful struggle. But we said we have to use the political space that is available, as narrow as it can be, and conduct a peaceful struggle. Otherwise the other way is going to unleash calamity. He finally moved to Eritrea to join TIMIHT. This man represents a way of thinking among the youth. And the narrower the space gets, the more the youth are pushed to pick up armed struggle because they see what they see; they believe peaceful struggle is just getting to jail. But I don’t believe in that; I believe the current movements [the protests in various parts of the country] are essentially peaceful. I have a belief that it is possible to force the government to change. I also believe that it is possible to execute policy in a peaceful way.
Right after the election [in 2015] we have three of our members killed including a member of our central committee here in Addis Abeba. Another of our member was poisoned to death and we have about twenty members in jail. Incidents like this make peaceful struggle difficult. But paying the prices requires us to continue the peaceful struggle. And the protests we are seeing now, I count them as part and parcels of peaceful struggle. Other than that I don’t see anything but bloodshed from armed struggle.
AS – Where is EPRDF taking Ethiopia to?
GA – This is a very difficult question. A hard one. In its own book, it is taking the country to development, to wealth, to job creation, to the providing of health services and what have you. That’s what it says. Of course there are some changes in some regards. This is undeniable. Access to health and education is better than what it used to be. There are foreign and domestic investments. But this cannot be a source of legitimacy for a regime. The main thing is: is there democracy? Are the rights and freedoms of people protected? A person who owns a cart feeds the horse that pushes the cart but it doesn’t mean that he gives the horse freedom. And humans are different from horses, from animals. Freedom is the main foundation and element of development. What is being seen right now is that people come out to protest, EPRDF kills. It is trying to govern by the force of arms, but the Ethiopian people are not going to accept that. If things continue this way, we are getting into a very dangerous road. Talking about development while refusing to protect the rights and freedoms of the people, who are the main instruments of development, is both insanity and an embarrassment. Any dictatorial regime can build infrastructure but development, in its essence, is intertwined with the rights and freedoms of the people who benefit from it. Unless EPRDF tries to seek its legitimacy from respecting these rights and freedoms, it is taking the country in a wrong way, to a very dangerous place where there might be carnages.
The truth is that Ethiopians are revolting in the clearest of terms. One need not look beyond what has evolved in Oromia and Amhara regional states over the last ten months where simple, constitutional and even by the ruling party’s lexicon ‘legitimate’ requests by the people of Ethiopia was turned by the government into unimaginable horror.
For a government that deprived the people of Ethiopia any other means to either humble it or talk back to it, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is harvesting what it sowed and the least it can do is admit that its way of being a government is not working. If this means dissolving itself, so be it!
When news of a 100% victory by the ruling EPRDF came out shortly after the May 2015 general elections, everyone scorned the result; it was too stupid to be true. After all, democratic elections in a multinational state home to a near 100 million odd, which Ethiopia is one, were not supposed to be like this. So, the world was right to scorn the results because nowhere in it would similar experiences go down history books unchallenged.
Alas, the ruling party in Ethiopia was not only intoxicated by the victory to see what was in the offing, but it was so sure to get away with it, as it did get away with many lapses of political orders in the last quarter a century.
The reason why the world – not the government in Ethiopia – looked at the results of that fateful election with a sheer horror is because the latter is the author, director and main character of the tragic political drama which eventually dragged Ethiopia to the verge of crisis, yet again. And that election was the straw that broke the Camel’s back. From north to south and left and right Ethiopians are on the streets screaming their ultimate rejection of a government which claimed to have won a 100% of their votes.
Damage from within and outside
There is damage to be sustained when a rebel-turned-government spoils its political capital to become a bullying dictatorship. In all measures, that is what happened in Ethiopia since the advent of May 1991. A federated state tutored by party manifesto; alternative political parties decimated from inside out with their leading members often jailed, harassed and in some cases killed or simply made to disappear from the face of earth; independent media and civil society organizations persecuted in equal terms as terrorists; and academic institutions and religious establishments coerced to dance to the music of the ruling party. Regrettably, that is Ethiopia as we know it since it was declared the ‘democratic republic of Ethiopia,’ although some would discount the first 10 years as a semi-successful democratic experiment.
The result is that military violence has now become the new language in which the government is using to talk back to the people of Ethiopia. Judging by the look of events it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Ethiopians are betrayed by their own government which has no misgivings to turn into the military to answer their questions and control their dissenting voices.
But there is also damage to be sustained from outside when western allies of a dictatorship sugarcoat their terms of reference to declare a dictatorship “democratic” and continue to engage with it business as usual. (See story here).
Such blunders by the west are driven by several factors. Leaving aside the cliché, this magazine posits two of the often neglected factors.
The first is the burning ambition by Ethiopia’s western allies to showcase how the aid business turned a once poster child of famine into a successful budding state with a seemingly soaring economy. Calls by rights organizations, and most importantly, the people of Ethiopia for the west to use constructive diplomatic leverages to tame the government often fell on deaf ears. Ethiopia’s western allies repeatedly opted to hold their nose about the smelly human rights record and the government’s unbridled control of both the political and civic spaces in Ethiopia. But at the same time they continued pumping taxpayers’ money in the name of aid and lavish a repressive state with undeserved international legitimacy.
The second is the concept of not wanting to face the task of opening the Pandora’s Box during what’s often a constitutionally limited term in office practiced by most western governments. President Barak Obama is leaving office and he was under no illusion that speaking truth to the world that Ethiopia was going down the nasty way was going to do him more harm than good.
The result is that there remains no discourse and platform where Ethiopia’s western allies can use to discipline a government they themselves enabled to grow out of control.
True, Ethiopia is a sovereign state whose independence should not be tampered with but there are international laws, for example, that Ethiopia itself is a signatory to. Sadly no western ally is daring to speak out loud when Ethiopian officials use and abuse these laws the same way they use and abuse local laws. The recent flagrant dismissal by the government in Ethiopia of the kind reminder by the UN Human Rights Commission of the need to allow access to UN monitors to investigate recent killings and rights abuses in Ethiopia is one classic example.
This means it should now be up to the ruling party to stop playing illusory for the sake of PR consumption by the west and propaganda for Ethiopians and start facing the inevitable. That means the ruling EPRDF should admit that the country is really on the verge of crisis and that it and only it is responsible for it.
The truth is that Ethiopians are revolting in the clearest of terms. One need not look beyond what has evolved in Oromia and Amhara regional states over the last ten months where simple, constitutional and even by the ruling party’s lexicon ‘legitimate’ requests by the people of Ethiopia was turned by the government into unimaginable horror.
For a government that deprived the people of Ethiopia any other means to either humble it or talk back to it, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is harvesting what it sowed and the least it can do is admit that its way of being a government is not working. If this means dissolving itself, so be it!
In the first part of this series, I explored in historic perspectives (particularly with developments in Oromia regional state) the Ethiopian government’s road to becoming a counter-protest state and the systematic ways in which the regime further bolstered its role as a counter-protest state.
And in the second part I discussed about the surge of popular protests in Ethiopia focusing on the socio-political and party architecture in which the ongoing Oromo protests first took shape. In this third, and last, part I will take a close look at the decades-old simmering tensions between the Oromo nation and successive Ethiopian states, discovering what they reveal about the contemporary politics of the Ethiopian counter-protest state vis a vis its relations with the Oromo protests, which, by several measures, have reached a point of no return.
Decades of simmering tensions
Continuous confrontations and tensions between Oromo protesters and the ruling party manifested in Oromia-wide Oromo protests may not be understood fully unless we look back its history. In order to contextualize the on-going Oromo protests, we must consider decades of relationships between the two confronting parties – the Ethiopian state and the Oromo nation – discovering what they reveal to us about the politics of the Ethiopian counter-protest state, and what they suggest about the future prospects of Ethiopia’s political trajectory.
It is indisputable that this massive movement in Oromia is not simply a political phenomenon whose root is limited to the period between 2006-2015; it goes as far back as the 1960s when modern Oromo political activism was born, and even goes as far back as the formation of the Ethiopian state itself.
Yearning since the 1960s for three overarching questions – language, land, and self-rule – Oromo nationalism has been growing more than ever since the introduction in Ethiopia of the multi-national federalism in the early 1990s. While the Oromo question for land has two parts: the homestead (qee’ee) and the Oromo country (biyya-Oromoo), the issue of language became the foundation of identity question. The third, the Oromo question for self-rule in the course of their national struggle, seemed to have been conceived as an ultimate solution capable of addressing the other two.
These three overarching Oromo questions were aired in the 1960s by the Oromo members of the Ethiopian student movement and the Maccaa-Tuulama Self-help Association, and were later on articulated in the early 1970s in the political program of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). These questions have been dealt with piecemeal in the revolutions of 1974 and 1991.
The 1974 revolution succeeded in the promulgation and implementation of a proclamation answering the country’s pressing demand, which was coined through the famous slogan of the student movement – “land to the tiller”; it was able to return plots/homestead to individual peasant households. With the Oromo in view, the 1974 revolution answered the question of qee’ee (homestead) but it had never attempted to deal with the Oromo question of yearning for biyya-Oromoo (Oromo country). Instead it criminalized the demand presenting it as a treasonable crime. The revolution also addressed the Oromo identity claims by allowing some media outlet for Afaan-Oromoo (Oromo language) but the demand to use Latin alphabet (qubee) was made another treasonable crime.
The political change in 1991, however, went far beyond the offers of its predecessor and dealt with more fundamental issues. Demands of Oromo nationalism was legitimized and institutionalized within the state apparatus when the new regime – for the sake of its own legitimacy – decided to offer concessions to decades old national struggles.
Through the federalism arrangement, it created the long sought after Oromo country within Ethiopia in the form of the Oromia National Regional State with its own regional parliament, Caffee Oromiyaa. It also allowed Afaan Oromoo, which had long been criminalized and heavily suppressed under the imperial and socialist Ethiopia, to be recognized as the medium of instruction in schools throughout Oromia.
But as the rule of the TPLF/EPRF began to unfold the problems inherently linked to its system of rule started to unearth. When in 1991 a coalition of rebels overthrew the Derg, the victorious TPLF-led-EPRDF not only took control of the capital city, expanding daily at the expense of Oromo farmers, but also inherited one of Africa’s oldest authoritarian state form, effectively excluding from the country’s politics, economy and cultural manifestation most of the southern peoples (the Oromo included).
As soon as TPLF took control of the center, a dubious, rather feckless Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE), where various political groupings, including Oromo parties of which the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was prominent, was organized in 1992. Perhaps as part of its concerns to take the OLF on board, the TPLF recognized Addis Abeba as the capital of Oromia and promised that the interests of the Oromo people in the city would be accommodated.
The Transitional Charter that established the TGE (1991-1995) declared, “The special national and political interests of the Oromo are reserved over regions 13 [Harari State] and 14 [Addis Abeba].” In 1995, Oromia’s interest in Addis Abeba was once again recognized by the constitution that created the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE). Article 49, sub-article 5 of the constitution states that “The special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Abeba, regarding the provision of social services or the utilization of natural resources and other similar matters, as well as joint administrative matters arising from the location of Addis Abeba within the State of Oromia, shall be respected.”
However, the whole scheme boiled down into a political manipulation where the TGE gained the support of Oromo parties and the people’s support for the creation of a lasting TPLF-dominated authoritarian regime. When the TPLF dominated EPRDF ensured its control over Oromia, it went on to purge the OLF out of the TGE in June 1992.
In 1995, when the new constitution transformed TGE into the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), the TPLF dominated government began employing ambiguities in the constitution and walked in earnest to take full control of Addis Abeba.
In Article 49, where issues of Addis Abeba have been stipulated, three of its sub-articles (sub articles 2, 3 and 5) present contrary provisions, a state of affairs that made the gate wide open for the ruling party’s looming interests over the city. After appointing a TPLF veteran soldier as the mayor of Addis Abeba in 2000, the regime took a bold decision in 2003 to shift Oromia’s capital from Addis Abeba to Adama, 100km southeast of Addis Abeba. When the office of the Oromia regional parliament, Caffee Oromiyaa, was thrown to Adama it appeared that the hope of the Oromo to have their government in the city they believe is the center of Oromia was dashed.
Following the 2003 government decision to transfer Oromia’s seat to Adama the leadership of Maccaa-Tuulama Association (MTA) and Addis Abeba University students immediately organized a protest, which was met with brutal crackdown.
The organizers were imprisoned and MTA was outlawed and had its office looted and dismantled. The university itself dismissed nearly 400 students whom it believed had taken part in the protest. While it was clear that thousands of farmers were evicted between 1995 and 2003, it was, however, the decision to transfer Oromia’s capital from Addis Abeba to Adama that gave birth to the Oromo struggle for Addis Abeba.
The declaration of the proposed “Master Plan” a decade later would mean dashed hopes and broken promises; it breaks up into two what has been known in the narrative of modern Oromo political activism as biyya-Oromoo (Oromo country), a reference to Oromia. On one hand, it is a broken promise because it sustains the regime’s tradition of deciding on issues relevant to biyya-Oromoo without the consent of the Oromo nation. In fact, many believed the implementation of “the Master Plan” would come close to restoration of the former Shewa governorate-general, which in turn would mean a renewed wave of cultural invasion on the Oromo as much as a territorial break up of Oromia.
Addis Abeba’s expansion in historical times had scored the highest record in eviction of the surrounding farmers in its environs, namely, Tuulama Oromo, but the EPRDF regime took this to a new level previously unmatched in Ethiopia’s history. Most peasant households have been and still are poor in Ethiopia but they live on their land and depend on its produce for their livelihoods, whatever its sufficiency.
Tuulama Oromo in this regard appear the most unfortunate for encountering endless evictions since at least the 18th century. Left in isolation from the Oromia National Regional State, Ethiopians in all walks of life, and undoubtedly the TPLF/EPRDF regime, the Tuulama Oromo have been forced to bear unbearable projects accompanying the regime’s intent (whatever the name attached to it) of expanding the city of Addis Abeba with no regard to their way of being.
The Oromo population constitutes nearly 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s estimated population of 100 million. Some are adherents of Islam (being involved in more than one sect); others follow different sects of Christianity, and still others adhere to Waaqeffannaa, the Oromo indigenous belief system. In rural Oromia, their social organizations exhibit diverse historical experiences and regional patterns. These few remarks help us appreciate the internal diversity of Ethiopia’s largest ethno-nation.
So far, a number of scholars have made serious attempts to understand the contemporary political status of this diversity within the Oromo nation. While some treated them as a nation others seriously question that status. This diversity, for example, in the eyes of Gebru Tareke, an Ethiopian scholar, made the Oromo nation “a vastly dispersed people with no history of political unity since the sixteenth century.”
Another scholar, John Markakis, wrote, “From the beginning of their historic [population movement] the Oromo did not forge unity above the tribal level, nor did they ever coordinate their efforts for a common purpose. Each tribe pursued its own destiny entirely independent of the others, and inter-tribal warfare was the rule rather than the exception.” Historian Bahru Zewde on his part says “… the incorporation of the nineteenth century has resulted in the denigration of Oromo culture and identity,” but plainly denies the fact that an Oromo country has ever existed before the twentieth century; he argues against a map of Oromo country – Ormania – made by a German missionary J.L. Krapf based on primary historical data he collected ‘during an eighteen-years residence in eastern Africa’ in mid 19th century.
While Gebru Tareke and John Markakis have taken Oromo internal diversity far beyond limits, it is fairly recognizable that Oromo internal diversity led to considerable divisions that played key roles not only in their historical experiences with Ethiopian systems of rule but also in creating within themselves fissured political groupings.
But the fact that the ongoing Oromo protests engulfed the whole of Oromia in merely three weeks’ time threw some light on the perspectives of these scholars – Gebru and Markakis, for example – who consistently argued against the presence of the Oromo’s nationhood.
By claiming that Oromoness is counterfeit, that it never existed, that Oromo nation possess within itself lots of local and cultural diversity to develop any coherent consciousness and never possessed an overarching sense of “nationhood”, or that they are inseparably intermingled with various other peoples, “the opponents believe that they can divide, destroy, or, perhaps, wish away Oromo nationalism,” to use the words of Herbert Lewis, who wrote The Development of Oromo Political Consciousness from 1958 to 1994.
While this attitude has clear origins in politics and “interests,” it is facilitated by the general social science discourse that still tends to discount or decry ethno-nationalism. Yet this kind of internal diversity which some scholars employed to question the very existence of the Oromo as a nation is seriously called into question with the start of Oromo protests in November 2015.
Many scholars attempted to understand the challenges of the Oromo national struggle in isolation from the political developments in that tumultuous region of Ethiopia and the horn of Africa. But the on-going Oromo movement appears to have overcome lots of deterring factors long-lived in the Oromo national struggle. In less than four weeks what the Oromo people regarded as a serious threat to their national identity caused a union of massive popular movement that engulfed the whole of Oromia.
A case in point is how Oromo national identity, Oromummaa, has been built over decades and the significant impact it has in uniting a population of close to 40 million for a coherent cause. Oromoness is a reference to all those features that make up Oromo personality.
It is constituted by the entirety of the Oromo culture. It is worth noticing that Oromo activists, artists, political commentators, scholars and politicians appear to have successfully campaigned over the last two decades highlighting the fact that Oromummaa transcends differences in political opinions, religions, and all sorts of background, a concept well articulated in the works of Oromo scholars such as Assefa Jaleta.
Readjusting the narrative
Apparently placed at a precarious position, many scholarly works need to be revisited; there is a need to further investigate facts and collect empirical data to create effective analytical frameworks capable of capturing the whole, more nuanced scenario that would help us better understand the Oromo nation and its indisputable place in the Ethiopian state.
Only then can we appreciate and understand why and how various Oromo politicians chose to establish different political parties after the onset of the 1974 revolution; have decided to join rival political groupings not founded for separate Oromo cause; have even joined the dictatorial military regime – a clear indication that even those of similar social and religious backgrounds understood Oromo problems differently and likewise proposed disputing routes of political struggle.
Only then can we clearly comprehend why Oromia has in the last quarter a century exhibited spatial and temporal mismatch on concerns of opposition to the EPRDF regime. Without readjusting our existing narratives it will be hard to understand how and why the 2014 and the on-going Oromo protest movement overlap and deviate.
Our understanding of the cultural and socio-political stances that are being taken through the Oromo protests movement can also be appreciated when placed into context with issues related to the wider Horn of Africa.
A more accurate contextualizing of these stances can be viewed within the affairs of Ethiopia’s broader issues, and their complexities. The same understanding appeared to have been useful to inform narratives shaping the future of the Oromo national struggle. The days of hiding behind Oromo internal diversity as Ethiopia’s numerical majority with subaltern political constructs are gone, and will not come back again.
It is also incumbent upon us to understand that taking opportunities offered in the current multinational federal system, Oromo youth at secondary schools and junior colleges throughout Oromia, and the ever expanding universities have for the last two and half decades propagated their literature, folklore, music, songs, poetry, theatre, drama, and other forms of cultural revival and actions in these concepts of the Oromo cultural movement. Taking into account the growth of federal universities from less than five when TPLF/EPRDF took power in 1991 to over 30 in 2015, it becomes important to see the relationship between this considerable expansion in higher education and the growth in modern Oromo political activism.
While ‘economic solvency’ remains one of the fundamental points of the Oromo people’s opposition to ‘the Master Plan’, for the growing Oromo consciousness it is by no means comparable to the Ethiopian regime’s project of posing immeasurable challenges to the concept of Oromoness altogether, and all of what it means from the central parts of Oromia, the territory the Oromos believe is “handhuura-Oromia” (Oromia’s bellybutton).
Understanding this is at the same time one of the pillars in symbolization and conceptualization of Oromoness in the minds of the Oromo people. It is such understanding of Oromoness which seems to have brought the new generation of OPDO, discussed in part two of this series, to openly speak against “the Master Plan” in April 2014. There is little doubt that the Oromo nation conceived ‘the Master Plan’ as a threat to their national identity. Styled after popular Arsii tradition, “namni lafa hinqabne, nama lafee hinqabne,” (a person without land is a person without bones).
Hope for millions
After nearly five decades of struggle, the Oromo seem to have learnt from experience and history that an attack on one part is an attack on the whole. Collective memory helps a society to understand both its past, present, and by implication, to imagine its future. It is important to underline here that it is the memory of past injustices and the contemporary aims of the TPLF/EPRDF regime against the future of the Oromo nation that has served as one of the most important tools stirring the ongoing protest.
The Oromo protesters believed that “the Master Plan” violates the territorial integrity and identity of the Oromo and their aspiration to become a self ruling nation. In the perspectives of the protesters rallies across Oromia are rallies for self-defence. The progress of Oromo nationalism over decades appear to have succeeded to present the cause of the Oromo of the central region as the cause of all.
While the government employs the same old narrative of “we have made it possible for Ethiopia’s oppressed nations for the first time to use their own language and exercise their cultures,” public political consciousness seems to have navigated far ahead of this narrative.
As protesters have proved for themselves through their practical experiences that the regime has very little room for implementation of provisions in the same constitution drafted and promulgated under its own dominance, they took up constitutional provisions as weapons against it.
In short, the constitution has become for the Oromo protesters what James Scott theorized as “weapon of the weak.” As the protests set out to start the systematic use of provisions in the constitution by dissent voices within OPDO, the protesters and the opposition became united. It is mainly in this sense that the regime’s propaganda to present the protesters as “terrorists” and “anti-peace” failed to bear fruit.
The struggle for Addis Abeba and the adjacent territories presents the Oromo people with a choice between survival and annihilation as a cultural unit and as a nation. It is this understanding that managed to mobilize the entire Oromo nation throughout Oromia region and tested the limits of the counter protest state that Ethiopia is.
This popular perception has clearly succeeded in establishing in the minds of Ethiopia’s single largest nation that “the struggle for Addis Abeba is the struggle for Oromia.” EPRDF’s killing is far from threatening the Oromo people and all indication suggest that there is no turning back. The slogans have now changed from “No to the Master Plan,” “Oromia is not for sale,” and “Oromia needs autonomous self-government,” to “justice for our blood and lives.”
It is also a hope of millions of Oromo and many more that it is upon the Oromo national struggle to give birth to an efficient national political narrative that, while not compromising unanswered historical questions in Oromia, gives rise to a country-wide coalition of political parties that can realize the old democratic demands of the peoples of Ethiopia, a state of affairs Ethiopia had missed to realize at many historical trajectories.
Despite age-old terrains of relations among various groups of peoples in Ethiopia and the Horn, and where the Oromo people deeply and actively involved themselves for generations, Oromo struggle is a struggle for self-rule as well as one for democracy, struggle for both group and individual rights. Signs of overcoming disagreements and standing together for common cause are being observed at this point of the Oromo national struggle. Appreciable is unequivocal banners carried out by Amhara protesters in support of their Oromo brethren and statements made by some Oromo and Amhara political parties and dialogues initiated by their respective media outlets.
TPLF/EPRDF’s approach of facing popular protests with bloody crackdowns is no longer keeping Ethiopia as a state. The persistence of the Oromo people in the face of the counter protest state’s ruthlessness will also soon begin to reflect itself within the Horn of Africa’s fragile peace and stability position. Any concerned party, be it domestic or international, which takes seriously the Horn of Africa’s peace and stability, must not only understand the framework of today’s popular demands (that refuse to turn back in Ethiopia’s Oromia region), but must also become grounded in the particular historical contexts of this framework.
Ed’s Note: Etana Habte is a PhD Candidate at the Department of History, SOAS, University of London. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org
Several people are reported to have been killed in various parts of the Amhara regional state in Northern Ethiopia, where an ongoing protest by the people is intensifying. The VOA Amharic service quoted a resident in Debarq yesterday that four people were killed when security officers fired live bullets at protesting civilians.
Over the last few days several reports on social media indicated a rising death toll following security crackdown against a stay-at-home protests in Bahir Dar and Gonder, the region’s capital and a historic city visited by thousands of tourists respectively. Pictures coming from many cities and towns in the region also show protesting citizens, burning tyres and roadblocks. Reports also indicate that up to 50 civilians were killed in the past one week only.
Tensions are on the rise following a statement given to state owned media by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in which he announced that he has ordered the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) to intervene to control the situation in the region, home to the second largest ethnic group in the country. In his speech PM Hailemariam blamed Ethiopia’s “outside enemies” for being the instigators to disrupt the country by providing “radicals with sacks full of money.” He further stated that the government will use “its full forces to bring the rule of law” into the region.
A day prior to PM Hailemariam’s statement, Sheger FM, a private radio based in Addis Abeba, reported that the regional state has requested a military intervention by the Federal government. Talking to the station, Nigusu Tilahun, the regional government’s Chief spokesperson, conceded that lives were lost in the recent protests but declined to give numbers. As a result of intensifying protests, the regional government requested the intervention of the federal army, Sheger FM quoted the spokesperson.
Pictures circulating around social media show heavy artillery moving towards the state capital Bahir Dar, 550 North of Addis Abeba, and the nearby town of Gondar where the recent wave of #Amharaprotests originated late last month. Addis Standard could not independently verify the authenticity of those pictures. Internet is shut off in the whole region while locals fear government sanctioned phone call monitoring.
In the last few days tens of thousands of citizens in several cities and towns in Gojam and Gonder areas of the region have come out to the streets to protest the government. In what many see as the ultimate test of the ruling EPRDF protesters are also showing solidarity with the #Oromoprotests which began in Nov. 2015.
In the weekend of 6-7 August region wide protests both in Amhara and Oromia regions were met by violent crackdown by security forces. It’s reported that more than 100 civilians were killed in that weekend only, according to Amnesty International. In Bahir Dar only, more than 30 people were killed when a security guard opened fire at protesters. The government disputes that number. The stay-at-home protests in Bahir and Gonder followed the deadliest weekend, however in the last few days that too turned violent when security forces began breaking into houses in an attempt to force citizens and businesses to stop the stay-at-home protests.
Roadblock in Bahir Dar. Photo: Social Media
Some reports claim that attacks against government institutions and party owned and affiliated businesses were witnessed in some cities and towns. There are also reports that young men and women are being arrested en mass by security forces.
Why Lilesa’s simple act of making an “X” with his arms after winning an Olympic medal was a watershed moment for so many Ethiopian people.
After nabbing a silver medal in Olympic marathon, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa hoisted his arms inches above his head in the form of an “X.”
With a seemingly innocuous gesture, the 150-pound black man was actually displaying a symbol of solidarity with the Oromo people of Ethiopia, who have protested the government’s reallocation of their land. At least 400 local protesters were killed by Ethiopian security forces over the last year, according to Human Rights Watch. The “X” symbol that Lilesa showed came into widespread use in Ethiopia four and half years ago by protesters as a mark of unarmed, civil resistance.
Following his demonstration, which he repeated on the medal stand, Lilesa toldreporters in Rio De Janeiro, “If I go back to Ethiopia, the government will kill me.” That’s the cost of protesting a government in Ethiopia that controls its media and stifles those who speak out against its will.
After Lilesa’s protest, James Peterson, the Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University spoke to many Ethiopians in America who felt galvanized by the gesture despite the ongoing human rights violations in their homeland.
“There are a lot of complicated things folks don’t understand about continental African politics,” Peterson said. “Addis (Ababa) as a city is sort of engaged in this moment of neoliberal straw. The city is trying to expand at the expense of these rural and suburban settlements that have been in place for like thousands of years. For an Ethiopian athlete, on the largest stage of any Ethiopian of the world right now at the Olympics, to be in solidarity with them, I don’t think it’s too much to say this is the equivalent of some of the most courageous, solidarity protests that we’ve seen in athletics.”
Olympians have long used the games as a stage to draw attention to national causes.Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics during an American wave of Civil Rights. After Simone Manuel’s historic gold medal, she also spoke out about police brutality and black lives in America.
Such acts have caused the International Olympic Committee executive board to ban political or religious demonstrations in multiple ways in their Olympic Charter Rule 50and can result in the “disqualification or withdrawal of the accreditation of the person concerned.”
Yet for Lilesa’s protest, his defiance of the Ethiopian government didn’t open up a new wave of Oromo activism. But it did demonstrate their current struggle for the world’s purview.
“Ethiopia has been praised as a poster child for peace and stability in the last 25 years. Western governments that continued financing this government, including the U.S. Government, have turned their eyes away,” Tsedale Lemma, the editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard, a monthly magazine focusing on Ethiopian current affairs from the country’s capital Addis Ababa, told SB Nation.
“To be able to tell this to the world, where everyone can see, on this stage was monumental,” she said. “It was telling the world to its face that this country, this poster child of peace, isn’t that way. It’s killing its own people. When everyone kept silent in the wake of this excessive killing, this young man (protested) at the great cost that he might not be able to come back to his country afterwards.”
Lemma’s magazine shares the same views as Lilesa. In January, it published a widely shared cover. Employees were intimidated and threatened, and the publication’s subscription numbers in Ethiopia have drastically declined for questioning the government.
Since the Ethiopian government announced plans in 2014 to expand the territory of the capital Addis Ababa, the country has been racked with protests resulting in hundreds of deaths at the hands of the government. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn wanted to further Addis Ababa’s territory into Oromia, where Lilesa lives.
Doing so would displace many of the Oromo people in Ethiopia who work on farmlands. It’s similar to American eminent domain, the right of the government or its agents to expropriate private property for public use. Oromo people are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, accounting for nearly 40 percent of its population, according to a 2007 census.
Historically, the Oromo people have been marginalized by the government. Protests started in November; and though the government has dropped proposals to widen the capital in January, protests have continued, though, with citizens corralling for wider freedoms.
Local residents and Oromos between the United States and Ethiopia have claimed that thousands have also been jailed. Many incidents happened where the Oromo have gone to the streets and they almost always end in violence. They are killed. They are exiled or tried for treason. At best, the protestors just disappear from sight.
Within Ethiopia, Oromos mostly expressed their support for Lilesa on social media, Lemma said. Current government mandates do not tolerate people flooding the streets for celebration, particularly not for a man that flashed a symbol that is the nightmare for a regime in front of billions of people.
State-run media only showed a censored version of the marathon Lilesa won, and completely blocked his protest at the games. Some have refused to mention his name at all. But in the United States, where Ethiopians are the fifth–largest source of black immigrants, their ebullience was overflowing.
“Among his compatriots, including those in the diaspora, Lilesa’s protest was welcomed with tears of joy,” said Mohammed Ademo, the founder and editor of OPride.com that aggregates Oromo news. “A hero was born out of relative obscurity. A GoFundMe account was set up within hours. I have no doubt that it will be remembered as a watershed moment in the history of Oromo people.
“Kids will be named after him. Revolutionary songs and poems will be written in his honor. For a people who have been silenced for so long this is likely to embolden and generate more momentum for the budding movement in Ethiopia.”
The overwhelming thought is that the plight of the Oromo people, and Lilesa’s protest shedding light on it, are not what Ethiopia wants the world to know. It is an extremely censored country, where most newspapers and other outlets are either controlled or affiliated with the government.
One woman, who asked for anonymity to speak to SB Nation because she feared the consequences of speaking out against the Ethiopian regime for her and her family, said that when she last visited Ethiopia around the start of the protests, the government had blocked internet service and scrambled social media apps to stop people from collaborating by using them, a form of silencing dissent.
She said Lilesa’s feat exemplifies how fearful a lot of the Ethiopian diaspora is to speak out on this subject.
“(Lilesa) acknowledged the significance of this dialogue and that he may never walk the land he’s from or see his family again,” she said. “It was meaningful and it’s going to spur the type of international engagement that is necessary to challenge the Ethiopian government to recognize their faults and consider what a just government looks like.”
American media still largely ignores the African continent and most news organizations have dramatically cut their African bureaus or rely on one person to cover the entire continent. There’s more coverage generally on terrorism with direct implications for American national security, Ademo said.
There also hasn’t been much coverage of the Oromo protests. One reason is because Oromia has largely been off-limits to journalists since the protests began, and those who go to Ethiopia often face insurmountable hurdles for access, Ademo said.
Even Lilesa’s dominance as a marathoner is unique for Ethiopia. Ethnic Oromo athletes of all genders have often been erased from Ethiopian lore, yet they are the first black Africans to win Olympic gold, Ademo said. Abebe Bikila did so in the 1960s while running barefoot and Derartu Tulu followed in the 1992 and 2000 Olympics. Yet behind the scenes these same athletes faced implicit and explicit biases.
Few Oromo athletes spoke Amharic, a language of power in Ethiopia, and they were never sent with Oromo translators. They often had to operate by the doctrine of the country’s current rulers and the official Olympics body to compete, Ademo said.
Within Ethiopia, those who protest see these same issues at the micro level. Lemma described a phrase many have used to explain the discrimination and marginalization the Oromo face. Oromo have said “the prisons in Ethiopia speak Afaan Oromo,” the native language of the Oromo, which shows the disproportionate rate at which Oromo are jailed in Ethiopia.
Video this month, obtained by the Associated Press, showed Ethiopian security forces beating, kicking and dragging protestors during a demonstration in the capital as they cowered and fell to the ground.
This same fight to upend oppression in Ethiopia is one being done by current American black protestors at the height of a renewed wave of activism. Lilesa’s protest spoke to some on a bigger level. Because just like black lives, African lives also have value.
“Not even in just this particular incident, but the dominance of black athletes on the global stage is in a sense of protest, especially when you have representatives of countries under such oppression as Ethiopia and the black America,” said Kwame Rose, an activist from Baltimore most known for his stand-off with Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera after Freddie Grey’s death.
“What he did would get a lot of people killed in Ethiopia and could’ve gotten his medal stripped,” Rose continued. “This was the time to send a message, not only about competing as an athlete, but surviving as a human and trying to better humanity.”
The reality is that what Lilesa did might not change anything for the Oromo people, but his demonstration had much more validity than to be limited to just that notion.
Ademo said it provided a crucial show of inspiration for people being disproportionately jailed, that are unheard and have yearned for a change in their government.
“In the context of this long and tortuous history, Lilesa’s protest was revolutionary. Beyond the politics within the Ethiopian Olympics federation, his gesture brought much-needed attention to escalating human rights abuses in Ethiopia,” Ademo said.
Lilesa’s act was a moment to show the shackles of systemic oppression binding the Oromo people. He took their fight to the international stage.
The total death toll from 6 & 7 August 2016, Saturday protest and Sundays attacks on funerals have surpassed 150. These are in addition to over 500 Oromo national killed by the same fascist TPLF.- Oromian Economist admin sources
News: Carnage as Ethiopia Forces Conduct Massive Crackdown Against Anti-Government Protesters in Multiple Places
August 8, 2016
(Addis Standard) — Addis Standard has so far received reports of the death of more than 50 Ethiopians in Oromia and Amhara regions of the country following massive anti-government protests over the weekend, during which the government entirely shut down internet connections throughout the country.
According to several tips received by Addis Standard from individuals who want to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, death tolls were high in West Arsi (in Assasa, Adaba, Shashemene and Kofele cities), West Shewa in the city of Ambo and Ginchi town, east Hararge and east Wolega of the Oromia regional state. Accordingly more than 30 individuals were believed to have been shot dead by security forces on Saturday alone. Hundreds of protesters have also sustained gunshot wounds; hundreds detained by security forces while several people have disappeared without a trace.
A university student in Ambo who is originally from Dambi Dollo in Wolega called Addis Standard on Sundays with information that the police have abducted both his brother and his father “from their home on Saturday night. “
Further tips from northern Ethiopia also indicate that more than 20 individuals were killed on Friday and Saturday during protests in Gondar and Bahir Dar cities, ancient histories city home to thousands of tourists and the capital of the Amhara regional state respectively. It is believed that more than 20 individuals were killed by security forces. According to the government’s own account, seven people were killed in yesterday’s protest rally in Bahir Dar city, while five police officers were hospitalized. However, unconfirmed reports on social media claim the number to exceed 30.
The weekend protests in Bahir Dar followed a previous protest held between July 12th and 14th in which more than a dozen people were killed and a massive peaceful protest in the weekend of 30-31 July in Gonder city.
The protest in Amhara region followed a raid by heavily armed federal security forces, including the Anti-Terrorism special force, targeting members of the Wolkayit community who have been protesting against the federal government’s decision to incorporate the area where the community lives into the Tigray regional state. The Wolkayit community members also reject the idea of them being ethnically considered as Tigrayan and want to identify themselves as Amhara.
More causality feared
The death toll from both regions could reach as high as 80, according to online activists who post pictures of individuals who have died or have sustained severe wounds caused by gun shots.
The weekend region wide anti-government protests in Oromia regional state were called by online activists of the #OromoProtest, a persistent anti-government protest by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo that lasted for the last nine months.
Accordingly, protests have happened in almost all major cities and small towns across the Oromia regional state, the largest of the nine regional states in Ethiopia home to close to 40 million of Ethiopia’s more than 100 million populations. Here in the capital Addis Abeba, a city originally belonging to the Oromo, police have quickly, and brutally dispersed protesters and have sealed roads leading up to Mesqel Square where online activists called for the protests to happen.
According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), more than 400 Oromos were killed by security forces since the ongoing protest first flared up on November 12, 2015 in Ginchi, a small town some 80 Kms South West of the Capital Addis Abeba. In Addition to the report by the HRW, activists are also documenting the death, injuries and forced disappearances of individuals from areas where protests are taking place. Hundreds of University students have also been dismissed from several state universities located in the region.
Related News from other sources:
(Oromia Press, 7 August, 2016): Abduselam Ahmed businessman in Haramaya who was assassinated by TPLF fascist Ethiopia’s regime forces.
Abduselam Ahmed as known as Sheiko a renown businessman in Haramaya who was assassinated by TPLF gunmen. Sheiko a popular former soccer player and successful businessman with 9 kids and 2 grandkids. He was gunned down in his own home.
Africa: #oromoprotests – the “Oromo Street” and Africa’s Counter-Protest State – Part II
OPINION By Etana Habte, Special to Addis Standard
In the first part of this series, I explored in historic perspectives (particularly with developments in Oromia regional state) the Ethiopian government’s road to becoming a counter-protest state, and proceeded to discuss the systematic ways in which the regime further bolstered its role as a counter-protest state in Oromia. Taking the recent #OromoProtests as a point of departure, in this part of the series I discuss a more recent surge of popular protests, and the socio-political and party architecture in which #OromoProtests first took shape.
The EPRDF-led regime’s ‘decentralization of power’ down the hierarchical administrative structures of the regional states discussed in the first part was also the beginning of how the so called rural, previously isolated communities, experienced the heavy handedness of a central repressive government (the falsification of ‘nation’, and its clearly underlying failures). It is an expression of failures because this type of response is a mark of states that ignore an alternative to their texts of national dialogue and whose intents exemplify regional and ethnic primacies.
The “Oromo Street”: A force derailing Africa’s counter-protest state
By going beyond economic and development topics – which remain very important – this section explores concepts that better explain the roots and trends of these protests, it then outlines dimensions of confrontations between protesters and the Ethiopian counter-protest state.
The importance of looking inward at the course of modern Oromo political activism and its relations with the Ethiopian state cannot be underestimated: tounderstand the roots of Oromo protests we must focus on specific demands in the process and progress of modern Oromo political activism. There are society-state relations toreflectupon that reveal some of the underlying patterns that have made up and shapedthismovement.
Three closely associated features underlying Ethiopia’s society-state relations take form mainly during the incumbent’s rule of the last 25 years: growth of coherent consciousness,decades of simmering tensions,and ’emergence of the Oromo street,’. In an attempt to look inside the Oromo nation at various levels it is important to analyze salient factors in decades of ‘constructions’ that led up to the recent Oromia wide protests.
The modern shaping of ‘the Oromo Street’
Worldwide, the upsurge in popular protest became a powerful tool of global political movements. People throughout the world have been taking to the streets, giving new life to a form of political movement ‘often thought of as a historical relic in today’s era of expanding security states and the apparent triumph of global elites.’ Given recent global protest movements mentioned in the first part of this series, Ethiopia by any standard is not alone in encountering an upsurge in popular movement.
All the major waves of protests in Africa have been by and large limited to urban centers, and when they involve rural areas it has been termed as ‘isolated’ movements. The same is true with the 2005 post election protests in Ethiopia. Oromo protests however have created in Ethiopia a unique ‘street of protests,’ which I refer to as “the Oromo Street.”
The Oromo Street brought together rural and urban protests – those on the ground and online via social media. Areas previously believed to have been ‘isolated and disparate’ have found themselves at the centerof the protest because of the combination of the ground and online (new media technologies and platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram). (Daniel Miller’s, Tales From Facebook expands upon the concept of individuals as networking sites, and examines in detail how Facebook transforms the lives of particular individuals).
Merely seven months after Ethiopia’s ruling party declared a 100 per cent landslide victory in the national election, Oromia, the country’s largest federal state, was placed under full military ‘control’ as protesters swept through the streets in an unprecedented opposition against the ruling EPRDF.
Ignited on 12 November 2015 at Gincii Senior secondary School in central Oromia, the peaceful protests quickly spread as far west asOromia’s outer margins neighboring the Sudan. It then turned north and took the Tuulama Oromo on the train. Whilst continued unabated in the west and north, protests swiftly engulfed eastern Oromo provinces before they reached southern Oromia. Waves of protests quickly engulfed the whole region in merely three weeks between 12 November and 5 December. As rural Oromia and higher education institutions became the scene of Oromo protests, elementary school children and secondary school students also joined the protests – rare in Ethiopian history. In the following weeksthe movement captured, in a rather unusual fashion, federal universities beyond Oromia – Dilla and Hawassa Universities in Ethiopia’s south. Much like federal universities in Oromia, junior colleges, technical and agricultural colleges in Oromia also joined, forming the first and most important “Oromo Street.”
After taking all of Oromia student protests instead took the shape of a well-organized Oromo national movement. This illustrates a distinction from all of its precedents in another feature — it enjoyed a considerable size of support from the Oromo public. Peasants, merchants, unemployed urban youth and some government employees were seen rallying behind student protesters.
That the protests were triggered by a scheme that the Horn of African state called “the Addis Abeba Integrated Development Master Plan,” commonly known as ‘the Master Plan,’ is now exhausted and need not be repeated here. Rural Oromia, and of course urban centers become another productive dimension of the ‘Oromo Street.’
In less than four weeks what the Oromo people regarded as a serious threat to their national identity caused a massive popular movement that engulfed the whole of Oromia. On this occasion no political party made a call; no underground national leadership seem to exist either. The only Oromo opposition party, OFC, live under a constant threat from the state. All but two or three of its national leadership were imprisoned in the waves of arbitrary arrests the regime launched following the start of the movement. Almost all of its members, supporters and sympathizers throughout Oromia have also been jailed, exiled or at the worst killed.
In the course of this popular Oromo movement we heard of OFC’s voice only rarely for understandable reasons. There is no readily available institution to have caused such a regime shaking popular movement. This geographical spread suggests that Oromo protests, despite many precedents in Ethiopia, and Africa at large, are not limited to urban centers; it is at the same time a phenomenon in the rural areas. Even goingbeyond these locations Oromo protest movement gave birth to another productive dimension to its ‘Street’: supporters from the country and an Oromo diaspora connected on social media.
But there is another equally important “Oromo Street.” When modern Oromo political activism was denied a space and every element it possessed began to be systematically criminalized by the same state which legitimized and fostered its growth, it found another informal space as the ruling party opened its door widely for Oromo nationalists to join it as OPDO members.
Ignore at own peril
Between 2006 and 2010 in particular, stifling voices of dissent came to a systematic twist when OPDO invitedthe Oromo youth to become its party members and undertook appointments of middle level cadres from the so called new generation. Given such compelling circumstances however OPDO’s inflated membership turned out to be an instrument of economic, social and political mobility than agenuine political loyalty.
It is at this point that the architecture of repression the regime has built over the last decade under the name of ‘development’ unequivocally met its match: Oromo nationalism.Young nationalist Oromo civil servants, intellectuals and bureaucrats who, before 2006, were sought after, detained and persecuted on allegations of being “OLF members,” “anti-development,” or “anti-peace” were given an opportunity to join the rank and file of OPDO. In doing so, the ruling party believed that it could afford to use- within its structures and leadership – active and politically conscious Oromo nationalists to speak on its behalf and in the process restrain Oromo nationalism. Alas, as events gradually unfolded, this perception of the ruling party rather tended to be counterproductive.
When the EPRDF recently commended its national membership having reached seven million, it failed to realize that hundreds of thousands of Oromo nationalists who wished to work in earnest – and even openly through #OromoProtests – towards the interests and narratives of an Oromo national construct and against the regime, make up a significant portion of that number. When the regime took for granted that it had successfully silenced dissenting voices (particularly in Oromia), it felt safe and relaxed as an electoral authoritarian regime in declaring landslide victories in two consecutive national elections (2010 and 2015). In contrast, modern Oromo political activism was now brewing in its own turf than it has been among the opposition. When the protests broke out in November 2015 and engulfed the whole of Oromia in early December, there was little surprise that one of its immediate achievements was the dismantling of the sub-kebele institutions (gooxii and garee), the main vehicles of control and repression.
While the regime’s policy of claiming Oromo nationalists by recruiting theminto the rank and file as well as into middle level leadership of the OPDO went unabated, in practice it became a creation of formal forum where unconscious and semi-conscious Oromos meet politically conscious and articulate Oromo nationalists. The result was that the OPDO rank and file from kebele levels to the regional bureaus over the last ten years became heavily politicized and very much indoctrinated with the narratives of Oromo nationalism.
Although aware of what was going on within the OPDO, the TPLF dominated EPRDF and the state intelligence structure appear to have perceived it as insignificant; after all, all were de factomembers of the ruling party which had ‘their hands tied and their mouth muzzled’ with party rules and regulation. Besides, since party bylaws allow a process of free discussions, debates and arguments within party members at all levels there has not been any unified method with which the ruling EPRDF can tackle or even hinder these processes. A participant in the processes who was once an OPDO cell leader at one of Oromia’s regional bureaus tells me his experience:
Using the forums set aside for lower level political cadres, ideas raised by participating members, friction of thoughts as well as deficiencies and mistakes of EPRDF were widely reflected upon; the structure allowed for the members to [openly] argue that the overall objective of their party has been wrong. This gave them more opportunity to see internal deficiencies of the party more closely than when they had been outsiders. When they saw that the party has been unresponsive to the demands of their people and more importantly their suggestions many, in the years after 2005, seem to be convinced that the Oromo people need to look for alternative [forums]. I personally know the fact that many young party members became aware of the complex internal problems of the party- both horizontal and vertical (OPDO-TPLF) – has no solution at all. More importantly, participation in the party by the new generation of [politically conscious] Oromo youth called into question political opinions of senior politicians regarded as founders of the party. It is safe to say that most of pre-2005 OPDO members were people of very low education; many of them do not question legality and validity of existing principles and directives under which they serve. Those who joined the party after 2005 were the same students who had been in various schools and universities protesting against the government on behalf of their people and some of them were even leaders of such movements. Since the new members perceive themselves more as part of the society than the party itself, the political debate and arguments they injected into the party structures through the same forums of discussion the party offers at various levels made many members to squeeze their own regime with serious questions. This I believe contributed to the growth of political consciousness within the party and more broadly within the Oromo people, and can safely be stated as having contributed to the on-going Oromo protests.
These circumstances suggest that narratives of the Oromo national struggle centred on Oromummaa/Oromoness (Oromo national identity) have become nurtured through state resources. Clear evidence of this is how in April 2014, the OPDO party structure along with the Oromia regional state bureaucracy made the region’s TV to quickly televise a highly contested debate by OPDO officials openly rejecting, on behalf of Oromo national interests, the state proposed-turned-controversial “Master Plan.”
That Oromo nationalism has raised enough political consciousness not only within the masses of Oromo youth – especially college and university students – but also within the OPDO rank and file. This was demonstrated when an OPDO member who was the mayor of Sulultaa, north of the capital Addis Abeba, boldly aired his objection in a televised meeting allegedly convened to launch “training of trainers” on “the Master Plan.” He openly and eloquently spoke against the proposed “Master Plan” saying: “The question of [how to handle] Addis Abeba city and the surrounding towns [of Oromia] is not an issue of urban matter, it is a matter of identity. When we raise about identity we have to pursue a fundamentally necessary route in which the development of Addis Abeba and the surrounding towns can be addressed in a way that the rights of the Oromo nation can be protected and where the identity politics and history cannot be ignored… “
The way the mayor conceptualized issues surrounding “the Master Plan,” and expressed his fierce opposition to it, has exactly been the same way Oromo protesters spoke against it throughout Oromia. As thesemiddle level cadres strongly tied the subject to some looming danger on the Oromo identity in its entirety, the federalgovernment resorted to reject all concerns underlining that “the Master Plan” would be implemented regardless of what OPDO or the Oromo public may think. This proved the public discourse that “the Master Plan” is a deliberate attempt to dissect Oromia and was perceived throughout the region as a blunt offensive on Oromo identity by the regime. In fact, this time the protest against “the Master Plan” in its finest form began within the EPRDF, not among the Oromo students at various colleges and Universities. Indeed, the first round of the April-May 2014 Oromo protests against “the Master Plan” began in Ambo, 120kms west of the capital, and spread to other parts of Oromia immediately after this fierce debate between OPDO party members against the plan was first televised.
There is very little doubt that Oromo nationalist members of OPDO, now the larger part of its rank and file, were able to manipulate the inner circles of the party for that meeting to be quickly televised. This is so partly because the discipline and mechanisms of control required to advance this kind of argument and debate are very much linked to the interests of the de facto ruling party which will not allow such objections to last long; and partly becausethe act carries sizeable risk for few OPDO officials. Given the fact that the state intelligence, federal police and many other powerful state structures were and are under TPLF control, some of those who spoke against “the Master Plan” in public could have risked death and disappearance. To throw it to an Oromo pubic packed with grievances was, therefore, a safe political bet and a powerful instrument to fight againstthe ever growing manipulative political asymmetry within the EPRDF.
The Adama meeting of April 2014 was a typical manifestation of deep-seated tensions between the Oromo people and the regime in power. While OPDO officials who sided with demands of the Oromo people used the country’s constitution as “weapon of the weak,” only to ask for previously suspended right of Oromia’s self-rule, senior members of the central government used thinly veiled language to express their right of rule over the whole country. The course of the current #Oromoprotests movement to win over the proposed “Master Plan” became a manifestation of growth in coherent consciousness mobilized under the shade of Oromo national identity. By November 2015 there is little surprise that the situation throughout Oromia was ripe for a fully-fledged uprising.
In the third and final part of this series, I will take a close look at the decades old simmering tensions between parties, discovering what they reveal about the politics of the Ethiopian counter-protest state.
Ed’s Note: Etana Habte is a PhD Candidate at the Department of History, SOAS, University of London. He can be reached at:email@example.com