For over a year, Ethiopia teetered and tottered to contain protests roiling the Oromia state, home to the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group. The grim year not only tested the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF’s, quarter-century stranglehold over the country but also the limits of human perseverance against determined state action.
Although similar demonstrations have taken place in the Amhara state, Oromia remained the epicenter of the widespread and sustained anti-government protests throughout 2016. Few, if any, of Oromia’s 560 towns and 180 districts, escaped the growing anger and revolt of ordinary citizens against the central state.
From Ginchi to Ajje, Guliso to Nekemte, Awaday to Dallo Mana, and anywhere in between, students, parents and teachers, as well as townsfolk and farmers, fought side by side to challenge the social, economic and political marginalization of the Oromo people in Ethiopia. The Oromo constitute nearly half of Ethiopia’s 100 million people, but they remain marginalized.
For the first 10 months of 2016, millions across Oromia took to the streets, demanding an end to forceful dispossession of their ancestral land, the land grab, the release of political prisoners, and the rule of law as opposed to the rule by the gun and prison. Ethiopian security forces responded to peaceful protesters as they always do: Using an excessive and disproportionate force, including live bullets as a standard crowd-control tool. But the state’s extraordinary measures only engendered more anger and inspired more street protests.
In fact, both the protests and the official brutality were unprecedented, even by EPRDF’s checkered history of violence. Security forces killed more than 1,000 people in Oromia alone in 2016. Hundreds were wounded. And the besieged state saw record levels of arrests with legions disappearing in the maze of military training facilities acting as a concentration-like prisoner holding camps. Tens of thousands, including nearly all top leaders of the only “legal” Oromo opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress, remain incarcerated on dubious terrorism charges.
The protests began in November 2015, initially over opposition to an urban master plan that sought to expand the boundaries of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, gobbling up Oromo towns, farmlands, and villages.
The year’s biggest tragedy took place on the sacred grounds of Hora Arsadi, in Bishoftu, about 25 miles southeast of Addis Ababa. On Sunday, October 2, an estimated 2 million people made the annual pilgrimage to Bishoftu’s ancient crater lake to observe Irreechaa, a premier Oromo thanksgiving holiday that has become the symbol and celebration of Oromummaa (the Oromo identity) itself.
On the millennia-old Irreecha celebration, the Oromo give thanks to their creator (Waaqa) for the bountiful harvests of Birra (spring) and to renew their hopes and aspirations for future after a dark, rainy winter season.
But 2016 was not an ordinary year for the Oromo. The mood ahead of this year’s Irreechaa was predictably tense. Staying true to tradition, the youth arrived in Bishoftu from across Oromia fervently singing resistance songs and chanting anti-government slogans. The protesters’ impatience was palpable even the night before Irreechaa. While there were no major incidents for much of the morning, it was clear that the sea of youth came to Arsadi to make a stand — a statement. Early in the afternoon, as the chorus of protests grew louder, a standoff ensued near the main stage where officials give speeches and traditional leaders offer blessings.
What happened next was tragic beyond words: sheer horror ensued as security forces fired tear gas and live bullets into millions gathered in a confined space. The crowd was surrounded by heavily armed security forces, a lake, deep gorges and ditches. As shots began to ring out from above the crater, festival goers ran for their lives. But they had no way out, encircled as they were by gun-toting officers from the left and shrub-covered ditches on the right side, and a deep lake from below.
At least 678 people died in the ensuing stampede, according to OFC officials and hospital sources. It’s the darkest hour in contemporary Oromo history. Innocent lives were lost on a day they came to celebrate their culture and heritage. The day will forever be remembered as the “Irreechaa massacre,” an extraordinarily savage and horrific tragedy in which the Ethiopian security forces caused the death of hundreds of Oromos.
The bravest act at the Rio Olympic
Unsurprisingly, the turmoil in Ethiopia received marginal media coverage for much of the year. That changed in August. No other event — not even the Irreechaa massacre — had the effect of mainstreaming and raising global awareness about the repression of the Oromo people than Feyisa Lilesa’s defiantly heroic Olympic protest.
On Sunday, August 21, as he approached the finish line, winning a silver medal in the men’s marathon, Feyisa crossed his wrists over his head, forming an X, a popular gesture of protest used by the Oromo youth in Ethiopia. With that simple protest, dubbed “the bravest act at the 2016 Olympics,” which he repeated at the post-race press conference, Feyisa both inspired and implored the world to pay attention to the horrific tragedy taking place in Ethiopia.
Feyisa faced a potential loss of his medal and a grave danger to his life as well as family. But he gave no hoot. “I don’t want to look at my children any different from the children of other people in my country who are being killed,” he later told reporters. “They face the same fate and the same destiny like all other children in Ethiopia.”
Feyisa, 26, was born in West Shewa, Jaldu District in 1990, a year before the EPRDF regime took power in Ethiopia. Growing up in Jaldu about 120km west of Addis Ababa near the border of Macha and Tulama, Feyisa witnessed the injustices and indignities faced by Oromo people. As an elite athlete, he faced a significant dilemma. “I could not join my peers in the streets if I were going to have the chance to compete at all,” he told reporters in September. “I had to leave the country a lot in order to compete overseas, so I knew that if I protested with the ordinary citizens, I would be blocked from ever leaving the country again.”
But the country’s political troubles and blatant violations of human rights affected him deeply for a long time. He recalls visiting friends, former classmates, and acquaintances in prisons. In Addis Ababa, he helps young people from Jaldu and other places who run away from home to escape arrest and have become homeless. This is why his Olympic protest did not come as a spur of the moment decision. It was informed by his own lived experiences. He quietly but meticulously planned and prepared for it months in advance. “I made the decision to protest in Rio three months before the Olympics,” he said. “As soon as the Ethiopian Athletics Federation selected me for the marathon, I decided to work hard and make a stand if I won and got a good result.” The rest, as they say, is history.
The fact that the Oromo, a nation that gave birth to some of the finest long-distance runners in the world, including the great Abebe Bikila, Mammo Wolde, Darartu Tulu, Almaz Ayana and what not, had to wait until 2016 to savor such a demonstration by one of its sons speaks volumes that the current generation had it enough with the marginalization of the Oromo in the Ethiopian state.
Feyisa knew it would be the biggest moment of his life. He anticipated it to be one of the most-watched sporting events in the world. But, he admits, he did not expect the outpouring of the global support he received and the remarkable impact his gesture had in creating awareness. Feyisa’s protest in Rio and his subsequent press conference in Washington, DC, where he spoke to more than 30 journalists from 25 media organizations, generated far more press coverage than the year-long protests in which over 1,000 innocent lives were savagely cut short.
His name will forever be mentioned alongside two legendary African-American athletes —Tommie Smith and John Carlos — who made history by raising the black power salute during the U.S. national anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Other notable comparisons include Muhammad Ali, who famously denounced the Vietnam War, and Billie Jean King, who championed women’s equality long before it was in vogue.
Feyisa has already won international recognition for his defiant protest. Earlier this month, the Foreign Policy magazine named him among the 2016 top 100 global thinkers. He was recognized as a challenger, “for breaking the rules of the games in order to call attention to the brutal actions of his country’s security forces.” Feyisa was also included in the Huffington Post’s list of “athletes who inspired off the field in 2016.” Deutsche Welle featured him in its top ten stories that moved Africa in 2016.
Down, Down Wayane
Feyisa’s was not the only uncommon act of courage by an Oromo in 2016. The defiant protest at Irreechaa in October was the clearest evidence yet of a generation that’s determined to end the Oromo people’s marginalization. As if Feyisa’s wasn’t enough, the generation’s resolve and defiance of authoritarianism were illustrated in one courageous act by Gemeda Wario Wotiye.
Gemeda, 20, came to Bishoftu the morning of the Irreechaa festival with his friends from Shashamane. He was angry, like all of his peers, about the killings of peaceful protesters, the endless arrests of Oromo leaders, the hegemonic domination of ethnic Tigrayans over the country and EPRDF’s deepening authoritarianism. But Gemeda had no special plans other than being part of the Irreechaa festivity and the protests. It was his first time attending the annual event.
The native of Siinqillee town in the restive West Arsi zone grew up in Shashamane. He helped organize protests at his preparatory school. He was detained and held at Sanqallee military camp for more than a month. But until then he was still like any ordinary 11th-grader. Nothing, except his uncommon courage, could have prepared him for what transpired next. As the standoff between the protesters and the attending officialdom heated up that afternoon, Gemeda made a spur-of-the-moment decision and jumped onto the stage. Video footage from the scene shows Gemeda snatching a microphone from one of the emcees who was unsuccessfully pleading with the protesters for calm.
Microphone in hand, Gemeda stretched out his arms toward the sea of protesters gathered below, and started shouting, “down, down Woyane, down, down TPLF.” (Woyane is a moniker for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the kingmakers in the hodgepodge EPRDF coalition.) Gemeda’s neck veins bulged as he led the crowd in the now famous chant. The crowd went wild with jubilation responding to his chant with earth shattering chants of their own and by repeating it numerous times over, with wrists crossed above their head, and finally breaking out into a pandemonium of cheers and jeers.
Gemeda was quickly booted off the stage but his extraordinarily brave act boosted the protesters’ morale, much to the chagrin of the officials and security forces. This provoked the trigger-happy federal security forces to unleash their brutal massacre. Gemeda’s chant, which he blurted out almost accidentally, and the resounding response by the protesters made one thing unmistakably clear: that the only remaining source of legitimacy for the EPRDF government was its monopoly of the forces of violence.
Gemeda’s courageous act quickly gained attention on social media, becoming the most widely shared rallying cry of protesters in the aftermath of that tragic day. The regime simply stepped up its repression. In retaliation, protesters began torching government buildings and gutting foreign-owned business installations. Among the casualties was an American researcher.
The changes in the protesters’ tactics made the region virtually ungovernable, prompting EPRDF to declare a six-month state of emergency on October 9. Following a massive manhunt, Gemeda fled to Egypt after weeks of hiding. He crossed the Sahara desert on foot, retracing a treacherous route increasingly being used by hundreds of young Oromos looking for a safe haven and better opportunities. It is worth noting here that, for the Oromo, the calamity at home in the past year was compounded by the loss of more young lives at the high waters of the Mediterranean, where in one April boat tragedy alone some 180 Oromos perished.
Our rationale: #OromoProtests is a generational revolt
Without a doubt, both Feyisa and Gemeda qualify to be OPride’s Oromo Persons of the Year. They were disruptive to unjust power; they challenged both our assumptions and the status quo, and they became instant heroes to millions of young Ethiopians by defying the odds and gods. Praise songs have been written to extol their bravery and honor their courage.
All told, we initially set out to write an individual profile of Feyisa and honor his once-in-a-generation protest. But a common thread emerged as we researched our much-anticipated, year-end feature story. It was a difficult decision indeed, but in recent years we have also made a tradition of honoring those whose names and selfless deeds are known only unto God. 2016 gave us too many such unsung heroes. The list includes Mustefa Hussein, Adam Dima, Haji Guye Dula, and countless others. But, in the end, we settled on Qubee generation because the Oromo protest is, by and large, a generational revolt.
“If you suffocate people and they don’t have any other options but to protest, it breaks out,” Ambo University lecturer and now certified torture survivor, Seyoum Teshome, told the New York Times in August. “The whole youth is protesting. A generation is protesting.”
Seyoum was right. Gemeda’s defiant protest at Irreechaa 2016 and Feyisa’s brave act at the Rio Olympics epitomize the valor and gallantry of a generation revolting.
Who are the Qubee Generations?
There is no standardized age range to define this generation, but the term generally refers to those born in the early 1980s onward. In terms of age, the Qubee generation is what a millennial is in the United States. It takes the prefix Qubee from the Latin alphabet that’s adopted in the 1990s for writing in Afaan Oromo. In 1991, when Qubee was formally adopted and Afaan Oromo became the official language of Oromia, the 80s kids were entering middle school, becoming the first generation of Oromos to go to school and learn in their native language.
The Qubee generation now consists of college students, recent graduates, and students in high school and middle schools. Unlike their parent’s generation, the Qubee generation studied in their mother tongue, Afaan Oromo. They are keenly aware of Oromia’s boundaries. This is true in Oromia as it is elsewhere in Ethiopia’s nine linguistic-based pseudo-federal states. This generation grew up singing their respective region’s anthems as opposed to the national anthem. Few, if any, can actually recite Ethiopia’s national anthem by heart. In Oromia, informed by long-standing national grievances toward the central state, the Qubee generation exhibits a pure and unadulterated allegiance to the Oromo question, a demand for the end of Oromo people’s marginalization in the Ethiopian state.
An estimated 71 percent of the Ethiopian population is under the age of 30. In 2014, Ethiopia had a total of 19,382,000 pupils enrolled in primary and secondary education. In the 2013/14 school year, some 627,452 students were enrolled in Ethiopia’s higher education system. More than half a million students enroll in public secondary schools across Oromia every year. This means that the overwhelming majority of today’s protesters are members of the fierce and fearless Qubee generation.
This generation is also acutely aware of their basic rights, as enshrined in the country’s little-practiced constitution — rights that are so callously trampled upon by the EPRDF regime. This is in part because they were taught civic education at an early age. The Qubee generation is by far the most connected thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones.
The adoption of Qubee is one of the enduring legacies of the struggle and sacrifices of the preceding generations. They blazed the trail with blood, literally, so that the Qubee generation can, even with the absence of the full freedoms they fought for, can proudly and unapologetically proclaim, I am Oromo first and I am proud of it. The pioneer generation should also be celebrating as this is in away the fruits of their hard labor. Waqo Gutu, Tadesse Birru, Elemo Qilxu and their contemporaries must all be smiling, even from beyond the clouds.
The soundtrack of the revolution
Artists and singers have long been the vanguard of Oromo nationalism. However, the indomitable spirit of the Qubee generation is best gleaned from the plethora of music singles released over the past year. The incumbent regime has exiled more Oromo singers and artists than any other professional group, including journalists, for which it is often censured. Until recently, there were more professional Oromo singers in the diaspora than inside the country. Oromo singers are known for embracing the principle that, in the words of Toni Cade Bambara, “the role of the revolutionary artist is to make the revolution irresistible.”
It’s worth noting here that female singers had been at the forefront of this lyrical fight, bucking established norms that deem Geerarsa is the sole domain of male artists, which in and of itself is a form of protest. The list is long but it includes moving clips by Hawi Tezera, Seenaa Solomon, Mulu Bekele, and Keeyeroon Darajjee to mention only a few. These and many other artists, including Haacaalu Hundessa, Caalaa Bultume, Jafar Yusuf, Galaana Garoomsaa, Jireenya Shiferaw, Ittiqa Tafarii, Teferi Mokonnen and Jambo Jote, provided the soundtrack for the revolution.
Hawi, Seenaa, Jireenya, Teferi and many other artists, too many to list here, have been in and out of prison. Caalaa Bultume and a handful of other artists including Shukri Jamal, Kadir Martu, Zerihun Wodajo, Addisu Karrayyu and Yanet Dinku were forced into exile.
Again and again, a thread that binds these disparate protests — on the streets, at the Olympic stage, on social media, and through music — is their membership in the fierce and fearless Qubee Generation. They share a universal disdain and mistrust for authority, a desire to be free, respect for their basic rights and an acute ethnic self-awareness.
To be sure, as with young people all across Africa, the Qubee generation also has real and everyday economic grievances. Youth unemployment continues to run high. The lowest paying public service job requires party membership or deep connections to those in power. Even the lucky few who are employed lack avenues for upward mobility. The hundreds of thousands of yearly college graduates lack well-paying quality jobs. The gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening. The cost of living continues to soar amid persistent inflation. The youth loathe EPRDF’s suffocating Orwellian model of surveillance — known as one to five — which has made life unbearable, reaching down to the village level.
Endemic corruption, cronyism and a heightened focus on ramping up school enrollment to meet global millennial development goals, rather than improving instructional quality, has wrecked the educational system. This is evident in Ethiopia going from having only a handful of universities two decades ago to now boasting more than three dozen public universities. The effects of the plummeting quality of education may not be apparent just yet. But as Ethiopia looks to become a regional manufacturing hub and amid continental efforts toward more regional integration, Ethiopian students are likely to have difficulty competing for jobs and other opportunities. The signs are beginning to show already. Recent college graduates report growing stigma for having spent 16 years going through the school system to only end up working in road construction, breaking cobblestones for Chinese investors.
The way forward: ‘Organize, organize, organize’
Ethiopia’s main challenge today is not corruption or the lack of good governance as the regime often alleges, but its inability to meet the aspirations and grievances of an increasingly assertive generation and a new breed of youth, made up mostly of middle and secondary school students, who are determined to decide their fate and shape the destiny of their communities.
The Oromo protests have proved far more disruptive than anything done in the past to address longstanding Oromo grievances. Using social media as an outlet, in a nation where only 4 percent of the population is online, no less, Oromo activists forced the cancellation or postponement of Ethiopia’s secondary school exit exams by leaking test answers to diaspora-based agitators. Official meetings have been recorded and leaked to the media, creating mistrust at the highest levels of government to a point where authorities felt compelled to mandate government ministers, parliamentarians, and regional officials to turn off their cell phones during important meetings.
In spite of all these developments, the EPRDF regime continues to ignore the writing on the wall, instead choosing to play an embarrassing game of cat and mouse with an unpredictable and a horizontally organized movement. The cosmetic changes at the top of the pyramid, including the recent cabinet shuffle, and promises of “deep reform” continue to sidestep the very real issues that are pushing an entire generation toward the edge.
Every day that the EPRDF regime tries to explain away popular, grassroots revolt as machinations of few bad actors from abroad, the tide continues to turn against its brutal and repressive rule. For every athlete or activist that’s forced into exile, there are hundreds more determined to expose the regime’s excesses, promising to keep the story in the media limelight. It will only be a matter of time until rank and file Oromo bureaucrats, the Oromia police, merchants and Oromo members of the armed forces join the budding revolution — for they too belong to the gallant Qubee Generation. Ethiopia’s history suggests that that would herald the end of EPRDF and yet another bloody transition in a country that has never seen a single peaceful transfer of power.
Ethiopia continues to run headlong into the abyss at a fast pace. Its phony federalism, promises of self-governance, and claims of economic miracle have been exposed as a sham from beginning to end. The state of emergency may have temporarily quelled the street protests but the deeper discontents remain. The Qubee generation appears ready to fight on until, in the words of Oromo leader Bekele Gerba, either all Oromos are jailed, killed and exiled, or until everyone is free.
Global trends such as the shocking Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president suggest that the establishment in Addis Ababa will have a hard time prevailing against Oromo protesters. But in our view, much remains to be done to dislodge the entrenched EPRDF regime. The loose coalition appears shaky. It is badly wounded from within and without. But it is still the biggest and even formidable obstacle blocking the winds of change in Ethiopia.
One thing is for sure: Unlike previous generations of Oromo revolutionaries, the Qube Generation has outwitted the ruling party time after time. Thanks to its resourcefulness and resilience, the regime had to retool itself from time to time simply to catch up with the speed and creativity of the protesters. It is not doubted that Oromo activists are using the remaining months of the state of emergency to ponder next steps.
This holiday season, as we celebrate the visions and victories of Feyisa’s generation, both big and small, we must remain mindful of the incessant need for a broad-based and multi-prolonged campaign to create a durable peace in Ethiopia. Beyond individual acts of heroism, transformative change comes communally from the ground up. Diaspora activism has been key in echoing and amplifying the voices of the protests. But our storytelling — in words, songs and art — must continue to be grounded not in our grandiose political ambitions or positionings, but in the real, everyday grievances of those at home who are staring down the barrel of a gun.
In his keynote address at the 2016 Oromo Studies Association annual conference in August, imprisoned veteran Oromo leader, Merera Gudina, recalled a popular slogan from his student days. At the inauguration of the last leadership of the University Students Union of Addis Ababa, Eshetu Chole, veteran student activist and later professor of Economics there, now deceased, shouted out three slogans to the roaring sound of thousands of university staff and students:
In Merera’s words, “in this regard, there is a clear gap we (the Oromo) should fill.”
Will the Qubee Generation finally bridge this gap?
A luta continua, vitória é certa. Happy Holidays to all!