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Lessons and the future of the #OromoProtests

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(OPride) In his book The Dictator’s Learning Curve, journalist William Dobson writes, “revolutions, if they are to be successful, require planning, preparation, and an intelligent grasp of how to anticipate and outwit a repressive regime that thinks of little beyond preserving its own power.”

As activists around the world get more sophisticated with the use of technology and out-organize repressive states, governments have also learned to wait it out and sup momentum out of otherwise formidable movements.

In a sense, time seems to be the worst enemy for activists. Too often passion burns out and social movements falter as quickly as they begin. In the last five years, horizontal movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring used social media to mobilize a critical mass and proved more effective than states. However, they failed to overcome this test of time.

#OromoProtests

In one of the least connected corners of the world, students in Ethiopia’s Oromia region have also uncovered and harnessed this power of technology. Beginning in mid-April, Oromo students across various campuses in Oromia began to peacefully protest the expansion of that country’s capital quickly getting images, videos and firsthand accounts of government crackdown out on social media.

Ethiopia criminalizes all forms of dissent and heavily monitors independent reporting. As such, the world only got a glimpse of the government clampdown on protesters via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Oromo-centric websites and blogs. With ongoing global solidarity rallies and petitions, the growing Oromo diaspora was instrumental in amplifying the students’ voices. From Malta to Melbourne, South Dakota to Toronto and anywhere in between, silence was not an option. Activists used #OromoProtests and #FreeOromoStudents across various social media platforms to draw attention to the repression and demand mainstream media coverage.

But, as with other social movements, the passion seems to be burning out. The government continues to hunt and imprison anyone suspected of organizing these protests, as the students begin to lose control of their movement, #OromoProtests seems to be losing more steam. Amid major world news events such as the turmoil in Iraq and Brazil’s World Cup, the ongoing arrest and alleged torture of Oromo students is not receiving the attention it so deserves. Hundreds of students have gone underground to avoid arrest. The lack of access to prison records and difficulty of getting facts on the ground weakens diaspora’s efforts to generate awareness. On June 27, the International Oromo Youth Association launched a three-day social media campaign to draw attention to ongoing arrests and demanding justice for those who were killed in the crackdown. While the group’s creative use of various modes of communication including a short documentary in English is commendable, judging from the reception even among the Oromos, momentum is clearly running out.

Future of #Oromoprotests

The road for Oromo recognition has not been easy. Under the circumstances, Oromo students can take solace in the amount and quality of the media coverage their movement garnered. Ultimately, politics is a game of patience and activism is fueled by passion. Coordination and centralized leadership is key to sustaining the movement, especially in a country as repressive as Ethiopia.

All successful non-violent movements had one similar characteristic: strong leadership. When leaders effectively articulate the goals and hopes of the movement, it creates a central message and a sense of unity. Take the Ethiopian Muslims movement for example. In early 2012, the movement appeared on the cusp of winning major concessions from the government through disciplined nonviolent movement. The activists were trained in nonviolent ways of resistance and responded peaceful to government provocations. Unable to slow down the resistance, the government arrested the protesters representatives (the Committee) in July 2012. The silent protests and sit-ins continued for months. But, with the central leadership languishing in jails, once the most sustained nonviolent movement in Ethiopia’s recent history (if not ever), it is now all but dead.

Nevertheless, the experiences offer valuable lessons for Oromo students. First, the student movement needs to solidify the non-violent stance. Nonviolent resistance requires coordination, discipline and patience to respond peacefully to an act of aggression. As such, even if the government responds with violence, the movement must respond with more peace, for violent reaction would only exacerbate the situation.

Second, the Oromo diaspora must also do more than holding rallies, writing press releases, changing profile pictures on Facebook and sending out few Twitter updates a day. A peaceful movement feeds off of ideas and intellectual conversations. Besides, given the ubiquity of information on social media networks, in order to make journalists and the international community understand the students’ position, reliable information should be gathered, synthesized and organized into easily accessible formats. The OromoProtests.com website was a great stride in that direction. But more can be done.

There were also other encouraging efforts (in places such as Minnesota) to hold community forums to discuss the best way to respond to the crisis. But those sessions must not be for mere therapeutic purposes where we express our anguish. Protesting in our respective communities gets the story out, but without a unified message the story fades. The #hungerstrike and resolutions passed by Minnesota legislature because of the community’s efforts are worth noting. While efforts to organize global day of action was also commendable, there appeared very little communication and coordination between the organizers. It would have had more effect if all Oromo activists across the U.S. went on hunger strike at the same time, and more local resolutions were passed. This would have undoubtedly received more media coverage and better response from U.S. lawmakers.

Third, have a clear message. The message should highlight the lack of human rights and less of the factional politics. The focus should be on getting the story of innocent student massacres into the international news cycle.

There were also moments where different factions of Oromo leaders sought to own the narrative. This is wrong. The students had legitimate grievances and their call for the respect of the constitution was unambiguously clear. We must put away our political ambitions and differences and focus on getting the information out to a broader audience.

Finally, it is important to seek out and build solidarity across ethnic lines. The government propaganda equates the struggle for Oromo rights with Oromo attempts to takeover the government. While many in Ethiopia fear an impending Oromo domination, Oromo students raised legitimate, constitutional and fundamental questions of group rights. This message of peace needs to be stressed to ensure all freedom advocates and those who feel unfairly marginalized or unjustly treated by Ethiopian government can join in efforts to make Ethiopia into a democratic nation. The EPRDF regime thrives by making different ethnic groups to fear one another. Instead of playing into government hands and perpetuating tyranny, rights advocates in Ethiopia must build bridges on common principles of human rights, freedom and justice. Patience and passion channeled into rational actions can go a long way in bringing change to Ethiopia. Factionalized outbursts of heated reactions benefit only the regime. 

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