Opinion Oromia

Return of Oromo protests signals OPDO’s rhetoric and cosmetic changes not enough

Written by Bona Geshe

(OPride) — Ethiopia’s populous Oromia state is plagued by protests that refuse to go away. Regional officials say the latest protests are hijacked by ‘enemies’ of the Oromo people and those petrified by the new direction the Oromia state has taken.

Following a meeting with the prime minister, regional presidents and high-level military officials, Ethiopia’s National Security Council (NSC) on Nov. 10 called on regional state governments to address the security breakdown.

A leaked document from the meeting obtained by Addis Standard details multifaceted national security challenges in the country. While it mentions Eritrea and Egypt as sponsors and supporters of the deteriorating security, the document singles out unnamed regional leaders as responsible actors.

The key takeaway is perhaps the ruling party’s plan to impose direct federal military rule over states without any constitutional or legal mandate. The NSC document envisions various stringent rights restrictions including banning of all ‘illegal’ protests. To enforce these measures, it proposes the establishment of a Joint Command Post, made up of federal and state security offices, which reports directly to the prime minister.   

Oromia under Lamma’s administration

The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), which in theory represents the Oromo in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is undergoing a resurgence heretofore unknown in the party’s history. Founded in the early 1990s to divert support from its rival the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), OPDO has created a semblance of representation in the ethnic-based federalism. But in reality, it perpetrated and remained complicit as the oppressive EPRDF government pillaged the Oromo nation and its resources.

Following his appointment as president of the Oromia, the former Speaker of Caffee, Lamma Magarsaa has responded to the public’s demand for change and acknowledged the grievances of the protesters in a series of televised speeches.

In one notable speech he told the youth members of OPDO, over the past two decades, he watched helplessly as past-OPDO leaders failed to fight for the interests of the Oromo nation. He took responsibility for OPDO’s failure to address legitimate demands of the Oromo people and vowed to tackle questions about freedom and equality:

“… Amma ullee wal harkaa fuudhuu miti. Ulittiin waggaa tokkos haa ta’u, ji’a tokkos haa ta’u sa’aatii tokko nu harka yoo turte seennaa ittiin hojjechuu dha. … qabbeenyi nu harka jiru har’a. Yoon hojjedhe ani har’a. …”

which loosely translated means:

“… now is not just passing the whip (stick). Whether the whip stays on our hand for one year, one month or one hour we have to make a history with it. … we have the resources now. If I am going to deliver, the time is now. …”

Lamma and other top OPDO leaders have repeatedly reiterated their commitment to addressing the Oromo question through reforms and the genuine implementation of federalism as stipulated in the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution.

As part of OPDO’s new direction, Abadula Gamada, the Speaker of the House of Peoples Representative, has tendered his resignation, citing disrespect for his party and people, as well as failure to redress Oromo grievances.

Emboldened by resilient Oromo protests and pressure from the public to respond to popular demand, OPDO under Lamma is becoming more assertive, although largely rhetorical so far. Unsurprisingly, this bold assertion of OPDO and Oromia’s autonomy by Lamma’s administration did not go well with the dominant Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It also left OPDO members loyal to the later increasingly uneasy.

Federalism and OPDO’s autonomy  

The first provision of the 1995 constitution establishes a federal state structure. Article 50 stipulates the establishment of a federation composed of two autonomous tiers of government: federal and state. Both are empowered by their own legislative, executive and judicial powers. Under sub-article 8, this same provision requires both tiers of government to respect each other’s powers as defined by the constitution.

Notwithstanding the federal structure created by the 1995 Constitution, government power remains highly centralized in the hands of TPLF. Decisions made centrally by TPLF executive committee are executed by regional party leaders without question, restricting the autonomy of Nation, Nationalities and People’s (NNP) right to exercise self-rule as guaranteed under the federal constitution.

Lamma’s speeches and promises of reform, while welcome, remain symbolic and could undermine the Oromo struggle if major changes are not effected within the OPDO, as well as at the federal and state government levels.

For Lamma’s speeches to go beyond rhetoric, OPDO needs to cut TPLF’s two decades old tight leash and assert Oromo national interest by exercising their ‘shared rule’ at federal level and ‘self-rule’ at state level even if that meant being a competing (opposition) party. OPDO’s autonomy could only be asserted through genuine federalism. That entails ending the last two decades’ futile practice of pseudo federation. As ‘elected’ members of the supreme political organ in the state, Caffee, OPDO as Oromia state government has every constitutional power to challenge transgressions of federal government in state affairs.

TPLF activities to sabotage recent Oromo protests indicates the former will not relinquish its control over OPDO and Oromia without a fight. Reports by Oromia Broadcasting Network (OBN) show suspects apprehended by Oromia police, who carried out-of-state ID cards, while provoking protesters to use violence. Supporters of the regime has been calling for the reinstatement of the state of emergency.

Oromia is the most diverse state where members of nearly every ethnic and faith groups in Ethiopia have lived in peace for decades. By instigating violence against other ethnic groups, TPLF has a sinister agenda: creating a pretext that would justify federal intervention under Art 62(9) of the constitution on grounds of ‘deteriorating security situation, violation of human rights and endangerment of constitutional order.’ In case of deterioration of security, Art 51(14) requires the concerned constituent state to ‘request’ federal intervention if its security forces are ‘unable to control’ the situation.

In excessively broad provisions that usurp constitutionally guaranteed state powers and undermine the federal state structure, Proclamation No. 359/2003 grants the federal government extensive powers for federal intervention. Proclamation for federal intervention was in part designed to serve as a potent legislative weapon to unseat unruly state government challenging TPLF’s stranglehold on power.

When the federal government deems that there is a violation of human rights and the endangerment of the constitutional order, under the Proclamation, it has powers that  range from deploying federal police and defense force under the command of the concerned federal organ to suspending regional legislature and the executive organ of the State and setting up a provisional government for up to two years with a possible extension of six months by the House of Federation.  

Unconstitutional and discriminatory federal proclamations  

The federal legislative organ, the House of Peoples Representatives, have enacted various repressive and unconstitutional proclamations that disproportionately target the Oromo and its civil society organizations. The most notorious proclamation that had already resulted in mass incarceration and persecutions of Oromo dissidents is by far the Antiterrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 (ATP).

The House passed the draconian law with the help of OPDO delegates, which control the majority seats in parliament, despite warnings that the draft  proclamation would give the government a potent instrument to crackdown on dissent that is deemed supportive (even sympathetic) toward armed opposition groups.

Like many authoritarian states, Ethiopia’s adoption of the terrorism law was mainly motivated by the desire to crackdown on dissent than a legitimate concern to fight terrorism. After its adoption in 2009, Ethiopia did not take long to proscribe its archenemy the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as a terrorist organization in 2011. This gave TPLF the legal pretext to crackdown on peaceful Oromo dissent, including legally registered Oromo opposition leaders. Members of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and even critical members of the OPDO became fair game.

Unlike his predecessors, who often demonized Oromo nationalism as ‘dhiphummaa,’ meaning narrow nationalism, Lamma appealed to Oromo nationalism to end the relegation of OPDO and the Oromo people to  perpetual subjugation. He urged the youth to redeem themselves from mental slavery (sammuu gabroome) by strengthening Oromo nationalism (Sabboonummaa) and strengthening Oromo unity (gurmuu dhabbuu) to end the subjugation and marginalization of the Oromo nation in Ethiopia.

Lamma didn’t say whether he realizes the only crime of many Oromos currently languishing in Ethiopia’s torture chambers such as Kaliti and Maekelawi under trumped-up charges of terrorism is their Oromummaa and nothing more.

OPDO controls the majority of seats in the House which passed many unconstitutional proclamations that turned Ethiopian prisons into a Mecca for Oromo dissidents. The ATP is an affront to human rights and incompatible with Ethiopia’s own constitution and international human rights documents ratified by the country.

It’s time for the OPDO to use the seats it holds in parliament to advance the interest of the Oromo people at the federal level. Using its majority vote, OPDO could and should move to repeal or amend the ATP and other oppressive federal legislations. Being the ruling party in Oromia, OPDO should also decline to coöperate in the enforcement of unconstitutional and discriminatory federal proclamations against Oromo activists and leaders.

Defending Oromo citizens from TPLF armed forces and its affiliates

While their immediate causes vary, the atrocities committed by TPLF security forces against the Oromo dissent are not separate incidents. Thousands have been killed since the Oromo protests started in 2014 triggered by opposition to the so-called Addis Ababa master plan. With growing peaceful Oromo resistance, the incumbent is escalating its reliance on lethal force to quell any Oromo resistance against minority regime’s oppression.

Contrary to principles for national defense stipulated under Art 87 (5), which requires ‘armed forces to carry out their functions free of any partisanship to any political organizations,’ there is an alarming trend of increased use of lethal force by federal army, security forces loyal to TPLF and militias from other states against unarmed Oromo civilians, resulting in mass loss of life in a fraught effort to advance TPLF’s hegemonic agenda.

On October 24, a couple of days before OPDO’s 7th Organizational conference started, Ambo, a restive town in central Oromia, which has long been the center of Oromo resistance saw another round of TPLF’s brutality.  In a chilling audio video reported by BBC Afaan Oromo Agazi forces were heard receiving a series of heart wrenching orders to shoot to kill unarmed civilians “(በጥሰዉ (cut into him)፤ በለው (fire)፤ ድገመው (fire again)፤ ጨርሰው (finish him off)” which wounded over 20 people and killed at least 10 people including a thirteen-year-old child.

For years, TPLF deployed Agazi forces, who often don’t speak what locals understand, Afaan Oromo (and/or Amharic in urban areas), to brutally crack down and kill unarmed students without remorse. TPLF is now using paramilitary groups from neighboring states to terrorize the Oromo.

The ongoing inter-state aggression by the Somali Region Liyu police is one of such escalation of the use of armed forces against Oromo civilians living in Somali region and Oromia territories bordering the region. The Liyu police which was first created by Ethiopian authorities in 2007 under the leadership of the incumbent president of Somali State government Abdi Mohammed Omar (Abdi Illey) as a counter insurgency against ONLF has a series of human rights abuse records in Ogaden region including extrajudicial and summary executions.

The TPLF government is exporting the atrocities of the Somali Liyu Police against Oromia resulting in the extrajudicial killings and internal displacement of half a million Oromo citizens. These atrocities have continued even after the federal government held a face saving dialogue between Abdi Illey and Lammaa Magarsaa without any meaningful effort to halt the atrocity. The continuity of Somali Liyu Police violence along the border is consistent with TPLF’s strategy to resort to federal intervention by provoking Oromia’s administration to respond with proportional force creating a favorable condition under Art 12(2) of Proclamation 359/2003 that construes ‘resorting to non-peaceful means’ to resolve conflicts with another region or NNP’s of another region as endangering constitutional order warranting federal intervention.

The escalation of the use of armed forces against unarmed Oromo citizens by TPLF is a warning the Oromia state government should take seriously. Under both the Constitution (Art 52(2)(g)) and Revised State Constitution of Oromia Art 47(f) Lamma’s administration has the duty to keep the security of its citizens by maintaining public order and peace within the state.

Besides its obligation to maintain security of its citizens Oromia state also has a human rights obligation. Under Lamma’s leadership Oromia police has shown some restraint in its use of lethal forces against peaceful Oromo protesters. Being a governing party in the Oromia, OPDO assumes not only an obligation to respect human rights but also an obligation to protect and to fulfil. In a condition where the federal government is the perpetrator and complicit in human rights violations committed by notorious paramilitary groups like Somali Liyu Police Oromia State government has the duty to go beyond restraint and defend civilians using proportional force. Measures should also include enabling citizens in affected regions to defend their families and property from slaughter by such groups.

Guarantee Civil Liberties in Oromia

The Ethiopian constitution under its Art 13(1) imposes a duty to respect and enforce fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed under the constitution on all federal and state legislative, executive and judicial organs at all levels. Over two decades of OPDO administration has been the main tool of oppression and grave human rights violations against its own people.

To their credit the Oromia state police has recently shown restraint in dealing with Oromo protesters right to protest while apprehending individuals authorities regarded as federal agents agitating violence.

Although high profile politically motivated charges against Oromo opposition leaders including Merera Gudina, Bekele Gerba and Dejene Tafa are adjudicated by federal courts serving as instruments to crush dissent most Oromo dissidents fall under state ‘criminal’ jurisdiction. Oromia courts lack independence, due process of law and rule of law are largely absent, especially against individuals and opposition parties critical of OPDO. Freedom of assembly, expression, religion, media freedom and other civil liberties are highly restricted in Oromia where Lamma’s party controls the government.

Riding the newly found glimmer of hope on Lamma’s bold stances, OPDO officials are demanding Oromo protesters should get in line with official discourse. The resurgence of fresh round of Oromo protests seems to send a clear message to Lamma’s administration: rhetorics of Oromummaa don’t cut it. OPDO has a long way to go to gain the complete trust as a champion of Oromo national interest both at State and Federal government levels.

Rhetoric or not Lamma aptly noted in his speech addressing youth members of OPDO that the time to reckon with Oromo nation’s struggle is long overdue in a clear message to friends and foes of this great nation and stakeholders who are concerned for the stability of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in general:

“… Biyya kana keessatti jaalannes jibbines carraa biyya kannaa, carraa biyya Itiyoophiyaa jedhamtuu kan murteessu nu’i. Har’as biyyi kun biyya taattee itti fuffuudhaaf kan Oromoon qooda keessatti hin fudhanne, kan Oromoon gahee issaa keessatti hin arganne, biyyi kun biyya taattee guddachuu mittii itti fuffuu hin dandeessu. Amanuu qabna kana. …”

which translates to:

“… whether we like it or not the deciders of the fate of this country, the fate of this country called Ethiopia, is us. Today, for this country to continue as a stable country – a country where the Oromo have no say, where the Oromo do not get their fair share – this country won’t continue as a country let alone to develop. We must believe this …”



About the author

Bona Geshe

Bona Geshe is a former lecturer at the Law School of University of Gondar and researcher on areas of Constitutional Law and Human Rights. He can be reached at boniswrld@gmail.com

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