Oromo Protests – What and Why?

The youth protesting the appropriation of a soccer field in in Jeldu in November 2015

Oromos have been staging protest rallies across the vast Oromia regional state of Ethiopia since April of 2014. The protests are against the systematic marginalization and persecution of the Oromo people by the federal government of Ethiopia.

The immediate trigger of the protest was a development plan that sought to expand the territorial limits of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, into neighboring Oromo villages and towns. Oromos saw the proposed master plan as a land grab, a blueprint for annexation which would further accelerate the eviction of Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands.

The protests resumed in November of 2015 in Jeldu, a small town west of the Capital, when authorities tried to allocate a soccer field to private developers. The government, as usual, tried to dismiss the protesters as anti-peace elements and accused them of acting in unison with terrorist groups. This theme has been a common tactic used by the government to crackdown on dissent and opposition.

What is driving the protests?

Historically the Oromo people have been pushed to the margins of the country’s political and social life despite accounting for more than 35% of the population. The?Oromo culture and language have been banned and their identity stigmatized, becoming invisible and unnoticeable within mainstream perspectives.
When the current government led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)came into power in 1991, Oromos hoped that they would have a chance to have an equal say in the affairs of the country. Unfortunately the Tigrai People Libration Front (TPLF), which dominated the transitional government and EPRDF coalition, began pushing out all opposition parties including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) within the first year.
They continued to pursue a strategy of divide and rule in which the Oromos and Amharas, the two largest ethnic groups in the country, are presented as eternal adversaries. The government blamed Oromos as secessionists to justify the continued monitoring, control, and policing of their intellectuals, politicians, artists and activists.

By depicting Oromo demands for equal representation and autonomy as extremist and exclusionary, it tried to drive a wedge between them and other ethnic groups, particularly the Amharas. This allowed the ruling ERPDR and Tigrayan elites to present themselves as the only political movement in the country that could provide the stability and continuity sought by regional and global powers with vested interest in the region.

Although these protests are triggered by more recent events, they are microcosms [of] a more enduring and deeper crisis of political representation and systematic marginalization suffered by the Oromo people.

Response of Ethiopian Government

Right after the resumption of the second wave of the protests, the government jailed opposition leaders such as Bekele Gerba charging them for “collaborating with banned terrorist organizations” and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. Mr. Gerba, who was vice chair of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) was only released from jail less than a year when he was arrested for the second time.
The government used overwhelming force to crush the protest, killing hundreds of protesters and arresting thousands. In its recent report titled “Such a Brutal Crack Down”, Human Rights Watch criticized the “excessive and lethal force” used by security forces against “largely peaceful protesters” and puts the number of deaths at over 400. The figure from the activist group is considerably higher.
Gun totting security forces during the ill fated 2016 celebration which claimed the lives of more than 600

The worst of the atrocities perpetrated by the govt? security forces took place during the annual Irreecha (Oromo Thanksgiving) Celebration. On Sunday October 2 2016 a crowd of 2 million festival goers descended on Hora Harsadi, a lake outside Bishoftu, 30 kms south of the capital. The govt militarized the area to intimidate the spectators, but the celebrations and protests against the heavy handed policies of the govt continued.

Mourners grieving the death of a family member killed by security forces  

The govt security forced fired tear gas and live bullet to the crowd congregating on s tight plot of land encircled by a ditch on one side and a lake on the other.

According to various independent sources, more than 600 peaceful festival goers lost their lives, and thousands were injured. Even the government’s own media which claimed the cause of death as “stampede” put the death toll at 55.

What is in a symbol?

Olympic Silver Medalist Feyisa Lilesa crossing his arms at the finish line of Rio Olympics Marathon Event

Protesters cross their hands above their head forming an X mark to show their opposition to the way the federal government treats the Oromo. This gesture was brought to the attention of a worldwide audience when Olympic Silver medalist displayed the gesture at the finish line of a marathon event at Rio Olympics.

The government went as far as labeling this harmless gesture as a criminal act when it declared a 10 month long state of emergency in October 2016.



 A Police State

However, consistent reports by the US government itself and other human rights organizations depict an image of a police state whose apparatus of surveillance and control permeates the entire society down to household levels.
The US led ‘war on terror’, started by President George Bush, provided the government with a political and legal instrument with which the government justified severe restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, one of the most draconian pieces of anti-terrorism legislation in the world, enabled the government to stretch its power of prosecution and punishment beyond what is permissible under standard criminal and constitutional law rules.

In recent years, terrorism trials have become the most significant legal instrument frequently used by the authorities to secure and consolidate the prevailing relationship of power between the ruling ethnic Tigrayan elites and other ethnic groups in the country.

Under the pretext of ‘fighting terrorism’, the regime exiled, prosecuted and convicted several opposition leaders, community leaders, journalists, bloggers, and activists; paralyzing criticisms of any type.

In its 2015 report titled Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Law: A Tool to Stifle Dissent, the Oakland Institute details the ways in which Ethiopian authorities systematically appropriate the anti-terrorism law to annihilate dissent and opposition to the policies of the ruling party.


How widespread?

 Protests are organized by the activists in Oromia and in the diaspora mostly using Facebook as a means of communication. These protests have engulfed cities and town in every corner of Oromia. For example – the nationwide protest held on August 6 2016 was a clear evidence of a crisis that is threatening to degenerate into a full-scale social explosion.?The protests took place in more than 200 towns and villages across Oromia and Amhara region which later joined the protests. Millions attended these rallies on that Saturday morning, where security forces fired on protesters killing more than hundred.
Protesters crossing their arms at a rally to show their opposition to the government’s land grab policies and human rights abuses