The great unraveling: a political endgame is underway in Ethiopia

Written by J. Bonsa

(OPride) – The finale of the Ethiopian regime’s tragic political drama is being played out on the streets of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest state. Oromo students have been ratcheting up tensions in ongoing protests that began in early November. The protesters oppose the encroaching of Addis Ababa, a federally administered city, into Oromia’s jurisdiction, which has already evicted hundreds of thousands of Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands.

 The dust has not yet settled to clearly predict what happens next, but the endgame appears imminent. It is important to start taking stock of what has been happening over the last two and a half decades.

This piece provides a broad overview of the Machiavellian political and economic policies of Ethiopia’s ruling party. The first of two-part analysis discusses the ongoing dramatic showdown between Oromo students and Ethiopian security forces, as well as the circumstances that triggered the standoff, including Addis Ababa’s deceitful experiment with federalism and democratization. 

The Oromo uprising

The dramatic events unfolding in numerous districts and townships across Oromia represent an unprecedented popular uprising in modern Ethiopian history.  The uprising began on Nov. 12,  in Ginci town, 81 kms southwest of the capital. This was set off by transfer in ownership of a school playground and stadium by local authorities and the clearing of pristine natural forest near the town to make way for investors.

Ginci is located 32 kms from Ambo, the site of Oromo resistance for many years and where security forces killed dozens of peaceful protesters in 2014.

The protests in Ginci were suppressed brutally, but the resistance spread to other parts of Oromia like a forest fire, galvanizing university, high school and even elementary school students.  As usual, security forces responded heavy-handedly, killing at least 50 people. The death toll is growing by the hours and is estimated to be higher. Hundreds of protesters have been injured and taken to hospitals and hundreds more are jailed in a heightened crackdown. 

The Oromo uprising has expanded to include the wider Oromo public who intervened to stop security forces from firing at young and unarmed students. In most cases, the public joined in because soldiers refused to heed their call for restraint and demands for proper burials of dead students.

Protesters are blocking roads in many localities to obstruct the movement of security forces, but the protests have remained largely peaceful.

A grand land grab scheme

The main trigger for the protesters the so-called “Addis Master Plan,” which they refer to as the “Master Killer.”

Addis Ababa is located in the Oromia state, but it was unjustly made an independent federal region, with a constitutional guarantee for Oromia’s “special interest” over the city. The rationales for this were that: Addis Ababa is located in the heart of Oromia, Oromo resources are used in its development and surrounding Oromo communities are exposed to severe urban pollution. 

The special privilege remained on paper, but Oromos continue to suffer from the city’s expansions.  For instance, most Oromia rivers passing through or near Addis Ababa have been poisoned to a catastrophic extent so much that fishing in them has become a thing of the past. The livelihoods of downstream Oromo farming communities are completely destroyed. Addis Ababa has aggressively encroached into Oromia almost unrestricted, forcibly evicting native Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands with paltry compensations far below the value at which the authorities resell the land to private developers.

The number of farming households evicted from and near Addis Ababa has not been properly documented, but it’s estimated that about 150,000 farming households were displaced in a single round of eviction campaign in the early 2000s. Since then, evictions has intensified as the city expanded horizontally in all directions, which means, at least, a million households have been dislocated over the last decade. This estimate does not include widespread evictions taking place elsewhere in Oromia, for instance, to make way for flower farms and other export-oriented investments in the vicinity of Addis Ababa. 

The convenience to foreign businessmen in accessing the Ethiopian Airlines services for exports was given a priority over the lives and welfare of millions of Oromo farmers. As a result, once thriving farming communities have become destitute, thrown onto the streets and now make a living by working as daily laborers or beggars on the streets of Addis Ababa.

The ill-fated master plan was an effort to further entrench the city’s expansion. Government technocrats without any public participation prepared it. If implemented, the plan will enlarge the city by 20 times its current size. Clearly, the master plan was a deliberate act to weaken Oromia’s status within Ethiopia’s federal structure. It will divide the state into two parts, rendering it a non-viable regional unit.

The government “spin doctors” are busy fabricating distorted stories to misrepresent the popular opposition as anti-development. However, as discussed elsewhere, the ploy to expand the city is nothing more than a grand scam aimed at grabbing Oromo land by government cronies, private developers, and corporations that aspire to maximize their own profits at any costs.

‘Illegitimate parliament’

The dramatic events of last month underscore the fact that the regime in Addis Ababa lacks legitimacy and popular mandate. In general elections last May, the EPRDF declared that it won 100 percent of parliamentary seats. By declaring a total victory, the regime shot itself in the foot – inadvertently exposing its abuses of the electoral system and process.

The gap between the rhetoric and the reality becomes apparent when we juxtapose this total victory against extraordinarily large turnouts at opposition rallies during the campaign period. EPRDF reluctantly “allowed” opposition parties to campaign for a few weeks, presumably to create a façade of a free and fair election in Ethiopia. 

On the campaign trail, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) galvanized the youth, attracting huge crowds in all corners of Oromia. It is a gross understatement to view EPRDF’s victory as “stolen election” even by the standards of its previous polls. The bald-faced announcement was a humiliating insult to voters. EPRDF cadres displayed an utter contempt for the very people they claim to govern.

The gap between EPRDF’s words and deeds has become ever wider. Steadfast Oromo resistance has frequently led to widespread killings and imprisonments. Human right groups have relentlessly documented some of the atrocities committed by EPRDF leaders. This includes the Amnesty International’s landmark “Because I am Oromo” report that provided compelling evidence that “being an Oromo is a good enough reason to be incriminated and put in jail under the EPRDF government.”

In part II of this piece, I will examine the unraveling of the EPRDF rule, focusing on the bogus claim around Ethiopia’s miraculous economic growth over the last decade.

*The writer, J. Bonsa, is a researcher based in Asia. 



About the author

J. Bonsa

J. Bonsa is a researcher based in Asia. He is a frequent analyst on Ethiopia's political economy.

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