By Zecharias Zelalem
We are now months into nationwide protests by ethnic Oromos with no end in sight. The protests initially began over demands that the government in Ethiopia halt the implementation of the Addis Ababa Master plan, which the Oromo people fear encroaches upon their land and will destroy their culture and livelihoods.
At one point, a genuine dialogue between the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) officials and representatives of the protesters may have calmed tensions. But the protests have now reached a point of no return after authorities ignored calls for dialogue and suppressed legitimate constitutional questions by a volley of bullets.
Nearly four months later, and with hundreds of dead, thousands of wounded and even more incarcerated without charge and unaccounted for, this is no time for dialogue. Government officials have suggested that terrorists and secessionists are behind the upsurge and that it is funded by foreign states harbouring ill intentions for Ethiopia. EPRDF has launched a campaign to pacify the region’s people whom its spokespeople have described as “terrorists,” even “demons” among other demeaning labels.
The problem with the wobbly official narrative is that the casualty figures include a large number of women and children, many who were reportedly killed within the confines of their school premises and even at wedding parties. In essence, the definition of a “terrorist” has been redrawn and rewritten to justify these attacks.
So far, the international community has barely lifted a scolding finger in Ethiopia’s direction. Because of this, the EPRDF regime hasn’t gone to the great lengths it did to defend the extreme measures it took during the post-election massacres in 2005 and 2006. Unlike 2005, Addis Ababa is not facing any hard questions from donor countries with considerable diplomatic leverage. A January resolution by the European Parliament condemned the killings of unarmed protesters but it has proven to be the roar of a paper tiger. Without any meaningful external pressure, the tragic deaths of Oromo protesters will become yet another sad statistic not worthy of explanation by Ethiopia’s outwardly accountable leaders.
But if all those affected by the violence across Oromia are linked to foreign groups or diaspora-based anti-peace forces as the government alleges, what about a legally registered political party dedicated to fighting for change within the bounds of the country’s constitution? One that has denounced armed violence and has repeatedly participated in Ethiopia’s extremely flawed political process. Is there a limit to how far a group of concerned citizens can go to fight for their dignity and basic rights?
The answer is a resounding yes.
On Feb. 21, security forces raided the Oromo Federal Congress (OFC) headquarters in Addis Ababa, abruptly disrupting a gathering of party members, conducting a search of the premises and arresting the attendees who have now joined the growing ranks of Oromo political prisoners. OFC, a legally registered political opposition, has already faced plenty of blows, mainly the arrests of its senior leadership, most notably that of their deputy chairman Bekele Gerba, who had already spent four years in prison for unfounded allegations that he was a member of a banned armed group.
The OFC office has been closed for now. This means that the last remaining political group belonging to the Oromo people is without a home. Decades of state repression on anyone who voices the long-silenced Oromo question is pushing all Oromo activists or opposition to organize underground. The OFC, despite adhering to strict legal demands to remain in the country, have been muzzled and may have to follow the paths of its predecessors to either operate from exile or take up an armed resistance to avoid folding altogether.
The raid on the OFC office sends a clear message to all opposition political parties in Ethiopia:
Stand with the Oromo and we will ensure that you fall.
Terrorists are violent extremists, one can argue. But in the past four months, Oromos from all walks of life have voiced their strong displeasure with the enduring and systematic abuse of Oromo people. And everyone — from elementary school students to farmers and a 70-year-old mother — had been clamped down on for simply voicing their opposition. People in the music industry, financial sector, teachers and even members of the regional Oromia police, have come out against the institutionalized violence the Oromo continue to face in Ethiopia.
And the EPRDF has shown no mercy. Artists, businessmen and teachers are among those arrested and beaten for refusing to stand by and allow a state-sponsored war against peaceful protesters. EPRDF continues to describe its actions as necessary to liberate the Oromia region from the grasp of anti-peace elements, which indirectly suggests that all those who’ve been arrested, killed and maimed are linked to terrorism. Even ideological support for the Oromo protest movement has been equated with supporting terrorism and thus making one fair game for the handcuffs, the blindfolds, the beatings and the hail of bullets being fired by the trigger-happy security forces.
But it has become increasingly obvious that most, if not all, members of the Oromo society support the movement. True, there maybe a few exceptions. But it would be difficult to find any conscious Oromo, who can simply ignore the ghastly reports that have galvanized the entire nation to protest. Even those who may have had initial reservations has been appalled by the extremely disproportionate use of force, the mounting casualties and death toll. The horror stories from former prisoners — mostly university and high school students — describing beatings, rape and torture in makeshift detention centres are enough to make anyone cringe. It’s unjustifiable and will go down as yet another black spot in Ethiopia’s history. It is abundantly clear that the vast majority of Oromos believe in the protest movement and strongly oppose the action being taken by the state. In fact, the EPRDF may have inadvertently opened a can of worms by declaring that the protesters are an amalgam of armed secessionists and narrow-minded chauvinists.
But knowing how resolute and determined the Oromo and Ethiopians, in general, are as people, most will gladly embrace their “terrorist” label and refuse to stand by while their brethren are kneeling and being prodded in the back with rifle butts. So to openly state that the ongoing violence and bloodshed is emanating from the government’s “war on terrorism” is like equating being an Oromo with being a terrorist. And, by extension, struggling for Oromo rights is akin to partaking in terrorism; revering the protesters is sympathising with terrorists.
Now that the miscomprehension of the terms Oromo and terrorist has been clarified, we can understand why a great deal of the current crackdowns involved putting the influential Oromo elites out of action. Earlier this year, authorities commenced a concerted effort to target Oromo businessmen perhaps because those wielding financial clout are seen as sponsors of terrorism. Artists, who released music singles rallying the students to fight for justice, are now considered catalysts in inspiring the uprisings. For example, the detention and torture of beloved Oromo singer and songwriter Hawi Tezera is linked to her releasing of such a single. A handful of Oromo singers have gone into exile over the few past months.
The EPRDF must realize that eliminating all those it considers terrorists across Oromia would equate to claiming the scalp of the entire Oromo nation. Reducing the notion of all that is Oromo, to dust. Such a villainous, deplorable war simply cannot and will not be won. And in the ongoing vain effort to win the battle against a determined and vibrant Qubee generation, the entire Ethiopian nation will continue to pay the cost in resources and most importantly, lives.
Yes, the war against the Oromo is a real one. The EPRDF regime is waging a violent war against all that the Oromo believe in and hold near and dear to themselves. Hence, no amount of appearances by government officials at Oromo cultural events or Gadaa traditional ceremonies can appease the rage of an entire generation that grew up under EPRDF’s repressive quarter-century rule. The Oromo have been watching their children drop like flies for months. These children are the hope of tomorrow, high school, college and university students who aspire to take the mantle onwards for the Oromo nation, the Ethiopian nation. EPRDF’s much-hyped economic development was supposed to benefit these children. But what good is it if they are dead? Who is the country being developed for? Who is the nation serving? Who are its leaders accountable to? Or have we stripped these students of their limbs, their lives AND their citizenship?
Insanity is defined as repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The Ethiopian government’s repeated chopping at the Odaa tree with an axe has seen many of the graceful tree’s leaves wilt and fall…but it is nowhere close to slicing the trunk. It is time to switch tactics and try something different. This path of madness will only lead Ethiopia into a furnace.
Even the shielded urban areas — Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa and a few others — will sooner or later be sprinkled by the sparks flying all around it. The campaign to muzzle Oromos from all walks of life would have to trespass the zones of tranquility, the major towns in Oromia. This is no longer a security operation in remote and rural areas. It is a full pledged war against the Oromo people.
This pointless, illegitimate war must be stopped.
My name is Zecharias Zelalem.