Africa, Ethiopia, Opinion, Politics

The Oromo Protests: Ethiopia Four Decades after Haile Selassie

Ethiopia has had a tumultuous political scene for the last couple of years. Violent protests have been happening since November 2015 with the protesters agitating for social and political reforms. They have been accusing the government of Ethiopia with gross infringement of human rights, including marginalization of minority groups, police brutality, mass arrests, and land grabbing. More than 600 people have since died as a result of the Oromo Protests.

Oromo Protests: Marginalized Majority

The world’s attention to the Ethiopia protests came in 2016, when Feyisa Lilesa, an Olympic marathon silver medalist from Ethiopia, raised and crossed his hands above his head after finishing the race in Rio, Brazil. This is the anti-government hand gesture that protestors have been using in their protests.

The protests in Ethiopia began in the Oromia region and later spread to Amhara. These regions are home to the country’s largest ethnic groups – the Oromo and the Amhara – who make up 35% and 27% of the total population of Ethiopia respectively.

For the most time, the Oromo and the Amhara have felt marginalized by the government. They say they are treated as the minority despite constituting almost two-thirds of the country’s population. The protests have been seen to be an outburst of the long accumulated tension emitted from these groups.

Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front

The government of Ethiopia is dominated by members of the Tigray ethnic group. The Tigrayans are a minority group making up about 6.1% of the total population. Through the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), they have held onto power since 1991 after toppling the Colonel Mengitsu Haile Mariam regime in the Ethiopian Civil War.

The protests have been happening against a background of severe famine and drought. In 2014, Ethiopia experienced irregular rainfall. Then a devastating El Niño happened in 2015, causing floods and displacement of people and contributed to the destruction of crops and pastures. An acute drought followed the year after, further worsening the situation. This drought was described as the worst the country has experienced in 50 years. The same regions hit by the floods were also the hardest hit by the drought leaving their citizens very desperate and, coincidentally, happen to be the Oromia and Amhara regions.

Ethiopian Government Land-grabbing scheme

With the government yielding all the power, a plan to expand the capital, Addis Ababa, over to the Oromia region sparked the outburst of protests. The Oromo saw this as a land-grabbing scheme where farmers who were now trying to recover from drought would lose their land. Though the plan was later dropped, more than 150 protestors lost their lives at the hands of police and more than 5000 arrested before that came to pass.

Ethiopia: State of emergency

In October 2016, the government of Ethiopia declared a state of emergency. It further restricted the use of internet and social media, which was suspected to be used for communication by the ‘rebels’. A 6 pm to 6 am curfew was also placed to curtail movement. This move was largely condemned and seen as a move to silence all form of opposition. Maina Kiai, a UN rights rapporteur said the following concerning the situation:

“The scale of this violence and the shocking number of deaths make it clear that this is a calculated campaign to eliminate opposition movements and silence dissenting voices.”

Notably, the parliament of Ethiopia does not contain any member of the opposition. This has given the government even more power since it doesn’t face opposition in day-to-day governing.

Later on, in November, an opposition leader, Merera Gudina of the Oromo Federalist Congress was arrested shortly after arriving from Brussels by plane. He was charged with defying the state of emergency’s directive of not interacting with what the government termed as ‘terrorist and anti-peace groups’ while referring to protestors. While in Europe, Merera had criticized the Ethiopian government before a European parliament. He was arrested alongside thousands of other Oromo protestors and several high-profile Ethiopians including journalists and bloggers.

Recent Developments in Ethiopia

In January 2018, Merera was released together with 500 people previously arrested for protesting. Though activists have continued to call for the release of the other detained protestors, the Ethiopian government has said it will not free anyone who has been convicted of attempting to overthrow the government.

Since the state of emergency and mass arrests, the protests seem to have calmed down. It, however, seems to be just momentarily as the root of dissension still runs deep within the Oromo and Amhara. Whether the government will absorb some into leadership remains to be seen. The future, as it stands now, remains uncertain.