Ethiopians wearing traditional Oromo costume ride to the prime minister’s palace in Addis Ababa to pay their respects to the late prime minister Meles Zenawi in 2012.
Countrywide demonstrations by the Oromo in Ethiopia have flared up again. Ethiopia’s authorities reacted with heavy force, resulting in the death of 100 civilians. SAMANTHA SPOONER asked Professor Asafa Jalata, a leading scholar on the politics of Oromia, about the countrywide protests
Who are the Oromo people?
The Oromo are the single largest ethno-national group in northeast Africa. In Ethiopia alone they are estimated to be 50-million strong out of a total population of 100-million. There are also Oromo living in Kenya and Somalia.
Ethiopia is said to have about 80 ethno-national groups. The Oromo represent 34.4% and the Amhara 27%. The rest are all less than 7% each.
The Oromo call themselves a nation. They have named their homeland “Oromia”, an area covering 284 538 square kilometres. It is considered to be the richest area of northeast Africa because of its agricultural and natural resources. It is often referred to as the “breadbasket” of the region. Sixty percent of Ethiopian economic resources are generated from Oromia.
The capital city of Ethiopia is located in the heart of Oromia. What the world knows as Addis Ababa is known to the Oromo as Finfinnee. When the Abyssinian warlord Menelik colonised the Oromo during the last decades of the 19th century, he established his main garrison city in Oromia and called it Addis Ababa.
Despite being the largest ethno-national group in Ethiopia, the Oromo consider themselves to be colonial subjects. This is because they have been denied equal access to their country’s political, economic and cultural resources. It all started with their colonisation by, and incorporation into, Abyssinia (the former Ethiopian empire) during the Scramble for Africa.
Today, comprising just 6% of the population, Tigrayans dominate and control the political economy of Ethiopia with the help of the West, particularly the United States. This relationship is strategic to the US, which uses the Tigrayan-led government’s army as their proxy to fight terrorism in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
The Oromo have been demonstrating since November last year. What triggered the protests?
The Oromo demonstrations have been underway for over eight months, first surfacing in Ginchi (about 80km southwest of the capital city) in November last year. It began when elementary and secondary schoolchildren in the small town began protesting the privatisation and confiscation of a small football field and the sale of the nearby Chilimoo forest.
The sentiment quickly spread across Oromia. The entire Oromo community then joined the protests, highlighting other complaints such as the so-called Integrated Addis Ababa Master Plan and associated land grabbing. The master plan was intended to expand Addis Ababa by 1.5-million hectares on to surrounding Oromo land, evicting Oromo farmers.
Last year’s demonstrations were the product of over 25 years of accumulated grievances. These grievances arose as a result of the domination by the minority Tigrayan ethno-national group. Because of this dominance the Oromo people have lost ownership of their land and become both impoverished and aliens in their own country.
What was different about these demonstrations was that, for the first time, all Oromo branches came together in co-ordinated action to fight for their national self-determination and democracy.
Which part of the Oromo is organising the rallies?
It is believed that underground activist networks, known as Qeerroo, are organising the Oromo community. The Qeerroo, also called the Qubee generation, first emerged in 1991 with the participation of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the transitional government of Ethiopia.
In 1992 the Tigrayan-led minority regime pushed the OLF out of government and the activist networks of Qeerroo gradually blossomed as a form of Oromummaa or Oromo nationalism.
Today the Qeerroo is made up of Oromo youth. These are predominantly students, from elementary school to university, organising collective action through social media. It is not clear what kind of relationship exists between the group and the OLF. But the Qeerroo clearly articulate that the OLF should replace the Tigrayan-led regime and recognise the Front as the origin of Oromo nationalism.
What are their demands?
Their immediate demands are for the Ethiopian government to halt the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan, land grabbing, corruption and the violation of human rights.
Their extended demands are about achieving self-determination and sovereignty by replacing the Tigrayan-led regime with a multi-ethno-national democratic government. These demands gradually emerged to create solidarity with other ethno-national groups, such as the Amharas, who also have grievances with the regime.
How has the government reacted to the protests?
The government reaction has been violent and suppressive. Despite Oromia being the largest regional state in Ethiopia, it has been under martial law since the protests began. The government has been able to use this law to detain thousands of Oromos, holding them in prisons and concentration camps.
Security structures called tokkoo-shane (one-to-five), garee and gott have also been implemented. Their responsibilities include spying, identifying, exposing, imprisoning, torturing and killing Oromos who are not interested in serving the regime.
There have also been deaths and reports of thousands of Oromos who have been maimed as a result of torture, beatings or during the suppression of protests. For example, during the Oromia-wide day of peaceful protest on July 6, the regime army, known as Agazi, massacred nearly 100 Oromos. According to Amnesty International, 400 Oromos were killed before July 6. But in reality nobody knows exactly how many Oromos have been victims of violence.
What effect have these protests had on the country?
The Oromo protest movement has started to change the political landscape of Ethiopia and shaken the regime’s foundations. Erupting like “a social volcano”, it has sent ripples through the country, and several groups have changed their attitudes to stand in solidarity with the Oromo. The support of the Ahmaras has been particularly significant as they are the second-largest ethno-national group in Ethiopia.
For the first time in history, the plight of the Oromo people has also received worldwide attention. International media outlets have reported on the peaceful protests and subsequent government repression.
This has brought about diplomatic repercussions. In January the European Parliament condemned the Ethiopian government’s violent crackdown. It also called for the establishment of a credible, transparent and independent body to investigate the murdering and imprisonment of thousands of protesters. Similarly, the United Nations human rights experts demanded that Ethiopian authorities stop the violent crackdown.
Not all global actors are taking a strong stance. Some are concerned about maintaining good relations with the incumbent government. For example, the US State Department expressed vague concern about the violence associated with the protest movement. In sharp contrast, they signed a security partnership with the Ethiopian government.
Nevertheless, the momentum of the Oromo movement looks set to continue. The protests, and subsequent support, have seen the further development of activist networks and Oromo leadership, doubling their efforts to build their organisational capacity.
Is this the first time the Oromo have demonstrated their grievances?
No. The Oromo have engaged in scattered instances of resistance since the late 19th century when they were colonised.
In the 1970s the Oromo started to engage in a national movement under the leadership of the OLF. The Front was born out of the Macha-Tulama Self-Help Association, which was banned in the early 1960s, and other forms of resistance such as the Bale Oromo armed resistance of the 1960s. Successive Ethiopian regimes have killed or sent Oromo political and cultural leaders into exile.
How do you believe their grievances can be resolved?
Critics believe the Tigrayan-led minority regime is unlikely to resolve the Oromo grievances. Oromo activists believe that their national struggle for self-determination and egalitarian democracy must intensify.
I am sure that, sooner or later, the regime will be overthrown and replaced with a genuine egalitarian democratic system. This is because of the size of the Oromo population, abundant economic resources, oppression and repression by the Tigrayan-led government, the blossoming of Oromo political consciousness and willingness to pay the necessary sacrifices.