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10 Questions about #OromoProtests in Ethiopia

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Written by Mohammed A

(OPride) — Ethiopia is gripped by widespread student demonstrations, which has so far left at least 47 people dead, several injured and hundreds arrested, according to locals.

In a statement on April 30, the government put the death toll at 11. About 70 students were seriously wounded in a separate bomb blast at Haramaya University in eastern Oromia on April 29, the statement added.

The protests began last month after ethnic Oromo students voiced concerns over a plan by Addis Ababa’s municipal authorities, which aims to expand the city’s borders deep into Oromia state annexing a handful of surrounding towns and villages. Ethiopia’s brutal federal special forces, known as Liyyu police, responded to nonviolent protests harshly, including with live bullets fired at close range at unarmed students. The government’s brutal crackdown swelled the ranks of demonstrators as defiant students turned out around the country expressing their outrage.

Ethiopia maintains a tight grip on the free flow of information; journalists are often detained under flimsy charges. Given the difficulty of getting any information out of the country, it is very hard to fully grasp the extent, prevalence, and background of the latest standoff. Here are ten basic questions about the protests:

  • Who are the Oromo?

The Oromo are Ethiopia’s single largest ethnic group, constituting close to 40 percent of the country’s 94 million population. Despite their numerical majority, the Oromo have historically faced economic, social and political marginalization in Ethiopia. Theoretically, this changed in 1991, when Ethiopia’s ruling party deposed Mengistu Hailemariam’s communist regime. The transitional government set up by a coalition of rebel groups endorsed ethnic federalism as a compromise solution for the country’s traumatic history. The charter, which established the new government, divided the country into nine linguistic-based states, including Oromia — the Oromo homeland. Covering an area of almost 32 percent of the country, Oromia is Ethiopia’s largest state both in terms of landmass and population. Endowed with natural resources, it is sometimes dubbed as “Ethiopia’s breadbasket .” Want to know more? Here is a handy guide: http://www.gadaa.com/thepeople.html

  • What are the Oromo students protesting exactly?

In a nutshell, the protesters oppose the mass eviction of poor farmers that are bound to follow the territorial expansion of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Addis Ababa is a busy city that’s been rapidly expanding over the last decade — dispossessing and rendering many a poor farmer into beggars and daily laborers.

Last month, in an apparent effort to improve the city’s global competitiveness and accommodate its growing middle-class, city officials unveiled what they call an “Integrated Development Master Plan,” which would guide the city’s growth over the next 25 years. But Ethiopia’s constitution places Addis Ababa in a peculiar position where it is at once a federal city and a regional capital for Oromia. While the city’s horizontal growth has always been contentious, this is the first attempt to radically alter its territorial boundaries.

The actions by the authorities raise several disturbing questions. First, how does a jurisdiction annex another constitutionally created jurisdiction without any due process? What does this say about the sanctity of Ethiopia’s federalism? What arrangements were made to mitigate the mass eviction of poor farmers that accompanied previous expansions?

Oromo students say the “master plan” is meant to de-Oromonize the city and push Oromo people further into the margins. But there’s also a long history behind it.

The Oromo, original inhabitants of the land, have social, economic and historical ties to the city. Addis Ababa, which they call Finfinne, was conquered through invasion in 19th century. Since its founding, the city grew by leaps and bounds. But the expansion came at the expense of local farmers whose livelihoods and culture was uprooted in the process. At the time of its founding, the city grew “haphazardly ” around the imperial palace, residences of other government officials and churches. Later, population and economic growth invited uncontrolled development of high-income, residential areas — still almost without any formal planning.

While the encroaching forces of urbanization pushed out many Oromo farmers to surrounding towns and villages, those who remained behind were forced to learn a new language and embrace a city that did not value their existence. The city’s rulers then sought to erase the historical and cultural values of its indigenous people, including through the changing of original Oromo names.

Read more at Think Africa Press: http://thinkafricapress.com/ethiopia/addis-ababa-sleeping-beauty-no-longer-student-protests-police-response-oromo

  • Who are the protesters?

Ethnic Oromo students at various universities around the country sparked the protests. It has now spread to high school and middle schools in the Oromia region. A handful of those killed in the last few days have been identified. Media is a state monopoly in Ethiopia. There is not a single independent media organization — in any platform — covering the state of Oromia. For this and other reasons, we may never know the identity of many of these victims. But thanks to social media, gruesome photographs of some students who sustained severe wounds from beating and gunshots have been widely circulating around the social web. Here are few images (view these at your own discretion): http://gadaa.com/oduu/25751/2014/05/02/in-review-photos-from-the-oromoprotests-against-the-addis-ababa-master-plan-and-for-the-rights-of-oromiyaa-over-finfinne

  • Are the protests related to the recent arrest of bloggers and journalists?

Yes and no.

Yes, the struggle for justice and freedom in Ethiopia is intractably intertwined as our common humanity. So long as the ruling party maintains its tight grip on power, the destiny of Ethiopia’s poor — of all shades and political persuasions — is one and the same. Oromo students are being killed and harassed for voicing their concerns. Ethiopian bloggers and journalists are jailed for speaking out against an ever-deepening authoritarianism. As the Martin Luther King once said, regardless of our ethnic and political differences, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is much closer to home.

No, technically because the bloggers were not part of the protests opposing Addis Ababa’s expansion. But we would go on a limb to suggest that they would have been the first to show a moral support and chime in on social media. Their past conducts suggest as much.

  • But the government says the plan is still open to public consultations

Sure. This government says a lot of things, like there is free press and democratic governance in Ethiopia. From our reading, Oromo students are not opposed to genuine development. In fact, given their numerical majority, the Oromo stand to gain from any or all community-centered development. But Addis Ababa’s own history gives us reasons for serious doubt. In the last century, every time the city expanded horizontally, it sought to remake Oromo dwellers into “Ethiopia’s Other.”

Evictions and displacement has been the plight of the original dwellers of the area. Farmers were evicted or systematically pushed out time and again, without compensation, to make a way for lavish residential buildings, luxury hotels and shopping malls. If officials do mean what they say, there is still time to make amends.

However, a talk alone won’t do it. The plan has not been shared with the public to date. There are no details on how long the consultation period will be or what venues they will use to engage the public. In all, there are no precedents for such consultations in Ethiopia. There are no reasons to suggest Ethiopian officials are sincere about holding public hearings on the plan at this point.

In addition, the protesters are likely to demand end of impunity and accountability for the death of their brethren over the last few days. Again, when this would end depends on two things: the central government’s willingness to engage Oromo opposition in good faith and liberalize the political system.

  • I am really concerned about what is happening to #OromoProtests, how can I approach foreign journalists and media organizations

First, do your homework to get some facts and information in order. Once you know what the story is, identify journalists and media organizations that cover Ethiopia with some level of frequency. For example, a local newspaper in Minnesota is unlikely to be interested in protests so far removed from its audience base. Once you identify whom and which organizations to approach, sharpen your pitch (a journalism word for ‘what’s the story?”). Do not go about tweeting at journalists: “be a voice for the voiceless.” That is journalism’s long-held motto. Chances are the person you are targeting won’t even be a journalist if she/he did not believe his mission to be just that.

Also, remember that journalists are busy people. There are so many stories (and social media platforms) that compete for their attention every passing minute. Therefore, keep your pitch to 14o characters or less. Ask if you could email them more stories. If they show some interest, include links to reports in reputable media outlets in your email along with who they can contact if they need more information (typically more than one person).  

Most importantly, reach out to your local Oromo community and help organize solidarity rallies, vigils and letter writing campaigns. Fanning petty differences and hating one’s own who happen to disagree with one is not going to help those being killed for speaking at the risk of their lives. And last but not least, reach out to allies both inside and outside. Craft your messages carefully. Press your representatives to condemn the killing. For scheduled rallies see: http://gadaa.com/oduu/25768/2014/05/02/oromoprotests-worldwide-oromo-rallies-all-on-this-page-to-stop-the-addis-ababa-master-genocide-plan-and-to-demand-justice-for-the-ambo-massacre

  • I am a journalist, I want to report on this but I don’t have any contacts inside Ethiopia

No problem. Email us at editor@opride.com and we are happy to connect you to the right people on the ground. On Twitter and Facebook, follow #OromoProtests,  @DiasporicLife, @Gadaa, @Oromo_NT, @Leggesse, @AbiyAtomssa, @OPride and @HenokOromiyaa, among many others.

  • Okay, is this going to end anytime soon?

It depends.

If the “master plan” advances as planned and crackdown on protesters is unabated, opposition is likely to grow. And unfortunately, we will see even more heartbreaking images coming from Oromia. In their attempts to downplay the crisis, Ethiopian authorities have indicated the plan is still up for public consultations. While it is difficult to trust a regime that breaks promises as quickly as it makes them, involving all stakeholders, especially the farming and small business communities where Addis Ababa is expected to expand in good faith, can save the country from further mayhem. The regime might also want to wait it out, as it did with a sustained Muslim protest in the last two years. Under this scenario, the students will continue to protest — leaders would be arrested or threatened. But come 2015 when Ethiopians go into polls, the issue of Addis Ababa is likely to resurface. That would make the electoral fight murky and messy. Okay, we admit, for now that seems like a long shot.

  • I am a member of the Oromo diaspora feeling a little helpless. What can I do?

It turns out plenty. Bontu Itana has compiled a list of social media activities you can engage in right now and here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/notes/bontu-itana/how-you-can-support-the-oromoprotests-through-social-media/10152392338789100

The most important thing you can do on social media is use a consistent hashtag. This will make it easier to keep tabs on the issue for journalists and anyone interested in the protests. Tag all your posts under #OromoProtests and share only relevant, informative and verified information.

  • I still don’t understand this; could you please summarize it for me?

Students in the Oromia state took to the streets a week and half ago to protest a new Addis Ababa city development policy peacefully. They were unarmed but the government responded harshly killing at least 50 protesters in two days, according to eyewitnesses. By any national and international standards, let alone democratic principles, this is a gross violation of human rights, one that is taking place in a country considered the United States’ top African ally. It demands your attention and action now. Read over numbers 6-9 again on what you can do.

Bonus: It is important to respect the agency and voice of those who are protesting. Your role as a diaspora-based activist should only be to amplify their voices. Don't call for more protests unless you will be joining it yourself. The government has already suggested that the students are acting not out of their own volitions but being enticed by anti-peace forces in the diaspora. Therefore, speak out against injustice but do not try to take ownership or position yourself as the leader of the movement. This endangers the students and strengthens the government’s argument. This is a people's movement; it is not FDG run by shadowy political or activist groups. This is a struggle that shouldn't be brought under anyone group's control.

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Mohammed A

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